Christopher Hitchens is an erudite and witty writer. I am usually challenged by his insights and I suspect that his brain is much larger than mine. So it is with a bit of reticence that I address his new book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Regular readers of these humble ramblings know that I totally disagree with Hitchen’s premise that God is not great. But I did tease in the title of this piece that Hitchen’s has a most unlikely supporter for his claim that religion poisons everything. That supporters name is Jesus.
Jesus made more than a few enemies by pointing out that religion does poison the true message of God. Religion binds people in hopeless legalism. Religion controls with shock collars of fear and guilt. Jesus hated religion. Exhibit A comes from the Gospel of Matthew.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’
Later in the chapter Jesus made these incredibly bold statements.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!
At the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial…wait…there’s more!
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!”
I don’t that even Mr.Hitchens is much tougher than Jesus the Christ as He continue to excoriate the religious leaders of His day.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. (All texts from NLT)
Is it any wonder that Jesus was so reviled by the religious establishment?
I have not had a chance to read all of Mr.Hitchen’s book as of yet. I suspect that we will ultimately agree on a few points but disagree on the main point. I do believe that God is great. I also believe that religion can poison everything. Jesus came to fulfill the law and provide a way for me (and you) to be reconciled to God. Jesus provides the opportunity for a relationship with God through faith and grace. The Pharisees, like many of the religious leaders that Hitchen’s criticizes, control by demanding legalistic works and by fear of punishment.
So why don’t the followers of Jesus communicate the grace of God more effectively? That is too often the heartbreaking shortcoming of the church. We have allowed pride and lack of understanding of the grace of God to short circuit our message. And we, like the religious leaders of Jesus day, often don’t practice what we teach. G.K.Chesterton wisely made this observation. “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
One of Christopher Hitchen’s desires is that we (the religious folks) leave him alone. Fair enough. One of the other things that Jesus made clear is that following Him is a choice that cannot be coerced. So I will not attempt to force my beliefs on Mr.Hitchens or anyone else. In fact, I cannot.
Hitchens certainly has the right to articulate his beliefs in this great nation of ours that allows such expressions. I will attack neither his beliefs nor him. I wish Hitchens could have been a bit less vitriolic in his arguments. It will not surprise Mr.Hitchens that his polemic does not change my view. It might surprise him that we do share one thing in common. Religion does poison everything. Our huge disagreement is that my relationship with Jesus has changed my life in ways that I cannot ascribe to my own efforts. So I shall choose to disagree gracefully with Hitchens on the big point. I still believe God is great. I believe it more today than ever.