True Christianity vs. the 'I'm OK, You're OK' belief

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9/NIV) This morsel of truth from one of the Bible's classic books of wisdom literature is endlessly evident. Ideas are continually repackaged, given a new coat of paint and trotted out as new and innovative. After 20 years of ordained ministry, it seems to me as if I read the same things over and over. New author, flashy book cover, but no new ground. The prevalence of "same old, same old" jades the reader, the listener, the viewer. But once in a while, you hear something that to your ears sounds fresh. Such an epiphany occurred for yours truly earlier this month. While attending a conference in Springfield, Mo., a speaker talked about what she believes is the true religion of the United States.

Kenda Creasy Dean teaches at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey and wrote a book called "Almost Christian." The freshness of her book comes in an acronym she introduces: MTD. Dean claims the actual religion of many American churches today is not Christianity but MTD, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I think Dean is onto something.

MTD, the true religion of America, the professor believes, is explained this way: "M" (Moralistic): God helps us to be good. "T" (Therapeutic): God helps us feel better about ourselves. "D" (Deism): God stays out of our way. Dean calls MTD a sort of "pasteurized" Christianity, with all the transformative elements cooked out. This high-temperature scrub of the faith leaves Christians with a safe, good-tasting but ultimately nonnutritious faith.

When I was a boy, a psychiatrist named Thomas Harris published a book titled "I'm OK, You're OK." The book, the very embodiment of the "T" in MTD, became a best-seller in the late '60s and early '70s. The pastor of my long-ago Pennsylvania church was enthralled with the so-called "transactional analysis" theory that undergirds "I'm OK, You're OK," and made the book the centerpiece of an extended sermon series.

So what's wrong with MTD and coming to grips with accepting others and yourself, which is the essence of "I'm OK, You're OK"? Nothing, as far as it goes. It's just not the Christian faith. At least, it's not the faith handed down to the church by the original apostles. Being moral is the exercise human beings get from a source such as a service club. I've been in a service club, and it does demonstrable good in the community. Being the subject of therapy is the work done, often professionally, to understand yourself in relation to others. I've been in therapy, and it's been helpful. But the core of the classic Christian faith is not to aid us in being more moral or in feeling better about ourselves.

Christianity is about the redemptive value of suffering. Christ suffered and died. Jesus warned that those who truly follow him will certainly know pain. And scorn and hatred. Christianity is about loving those who despise you. Christianity is about being transformed, bit by bit, hour by hour, day by day, into a person that more closely resembles Jesus -- and inviting others to follow the same Master. Being moral and feeling better about yourself, while desired byproducts of faith, are not the goal.

Check your local church. If suffering never gets mentioned, if being transformed into a person more closely resembling Jesus isn't part of the pastor's Sunday rhetoric, if inviting others to follow the way of suffering modeled by Christ doesn't get a hearing -- well, you may well be part of a MTD church.

If so, get out of it -- fast.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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