For a while, my parents were getting Reader’s Digest every month while I was growing up. Because they were stored in the bathrooms, they were widely read. In each and every issue there was an interview with some celebrity, usually an actor or an athlete. Reader’s Digest’s favorite kind of celebrity was the “self-made” variety: someone who had come from nothing, preferably a broken home in which the single mother had to work multiple jobs to afford the windows that protected the family from the ceaseless gunfire outside. The interviewers inevitably ended their pieces by asking the celebrity something like, “If you could offer one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?” (In fact, this makes up the bulk of Reader’s Digest…the part that isn’t ads. It’s full of pithy little pieces of advice for an improved life: “For a fun afternoon with the kids, try making caramel apples! To sleep better, try eating more blueberries! For a more fulfilling marriage, try going camping together!”) The celebrity would always say something like, “The one thing I would like to tell your readers is that you can’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish your dreams. I’m walking evidence of that. If you want something badly enough, and work at it hard enough, you can accomplish anything at all.”
So much Christianity has become Reader’s Digest Christianity: “Jesus can help you achieve your dreams. He’ll go ninety-nine yards if you just go one. Do a little and he’ll do a lot. God helps those who help themselves.”
The Kingston Trio has a great song called “Desert Pete” about a man crawling through the desert, dying of thirst, who comes upon a decrepit old water pump. Next to the pump he finds a bottle of water. There’s a note, too. The note next to the bottle says that he has to use the water to prime the pump before he can drink any. Here’s part of the chorus:
You’ve got to prime the pump. You must have faith and believe.
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive.
You’ve got to give before you get.
That sounds like a lot of preaching these days. “Do for God and then he’ll do for you”, “Do your best and then God will do the rest.” It’s Reader’s Digest Christianity.
I’ve said before that for every good story in the Old Testament, there is a bad children’s song. Perhaps one of the most well-known is “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” You know the one:
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho;
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, And the walls came tumbling down!
You may talk about your men of Gideon,
You may talk about your men of Saul;
But there’s none like good old Joshua and the battle of Jericho.
But it’s not only the children’s song that leaves out the most important part of the story. More concerning to me is the fact that most sermons and Sunday School lessons do too.
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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition