Golden Corral Religion: When Belief Becomes a Buffet

“Am I really having this conversation?” This thought went through my mind as I listened to the middle-aged woman in front of me explain that, while she was a committed Christian who attended a local Presbyterian church, she believed strongly in reincarnation. When I asked her how that could be squared with passages such as Hebrews 9:27, “…it is appointed for a man to die once,” she informed me the “reincarnation parts” had been taken out of the Bible. I guess her Bible reads, “it is appointed for a man to die once unless he has karmic debt to work off, in which case Christ will send him back as a bovine.” That must be somewhere in 2nd Opinions, chapter 3.

For more fun try Bruce Leininger, a professing Christian who authored a book entitled Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot last year. He recounts how several vivid dreams his nine year old son had led him to believe his boy was reincarnated WWII pilot James M. Huston, Jr. Despite raising a pre-pubescent war hero, Leininger reports his Christian faith remains intact and his wife says the situation has ‘enhanced’ her belief system. Neither of them is alone. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in December 2009 that 22% of Christians believe in reincarnation, 29% believe they have been in touch with the dead, 23% believe there is spiritual energy in trees and other natural objects, and another 23% believe in astrology.

This confirms even Christians are participators in America’s favorite religion which I have nicknamed “Golden Corral Religion”. If you’re not familiar with Golden Corral, it is America’s number one buffet restaurant with 481 locations in 41 different states. It is a food-tastic experience to walk down the buffet and see salad, fruit, mac & cheese, steak, roast beef, tacos, pizza, fried chicken, buttery rolls, green bean casserole, cheesecake, and banana pudding stretching as far as the eye can see. The exciting thing about a buffet is that I can pick and choose what I want and leave what I don’t. I can load my plate with pizza, cheese fries, and a brownie while passing over peas, spinach, and liver. This is the way America views religion: “I can either choose among the beliefs of a variety of religions or I can choose one religion and shape it into something I prefer.” Thus, I walk away from the buffet of religion with an easily digestible plate of my own religion.

This was seen recently when Al Mohler (President of Southern Seminary) wrote an article about Christians and Yoga that was picked up by the Associated Press. In the article, Mohler points out that Yoga – an eastern form of physical and spiritual meditation that connects one with the divine – is contrary to the Christian faith. Mohler received hundreds of emails and comments from angry Christians who insisted Yoga enhanced their ‘spirituality’ without a single biblical or theological argument. One Baptist church member wrote: “I get much more out of yoga and meditation than I ever get out of a sermon in church. “ A Christian who ‘goes to church every service’ wrote:

My favorite image I use in yoga is that of Jesus assuming a perfect yoga position in the garden of Gethsemane as he prays. How do we know that the apostles and early Christian guys did not use yoga to commune with Jesus after he left?

Some have no problem eating from a buffet including faiths opposed to Christ as long as they have a spirituality that works for them.

Christians even turn their own faith into a buffet even if they don’t mix it with others. They choose God’s love but leave off His wrath. They practice what Jesus teaches about moral purity but not justice, or vice-versa. They believe Jesus died for their sins and gives eternal life but everyone doesn’t need him; other faiths will do. They adopt what Paul says about salvation but what he says about gender roles has to go. They celebrate the reality of heaven but deny the reality of hell – even though Jesus talked more about the latter. They teach homosexuality as acceptable but dismiss celibacy outside of marriage as quaint. While their plate comes from Christianity they see the faith as a buffet and will consume only what they deem palatable.

There are two errors that lead Christians into Golden Corral religion. First is a misplaced authority. In buffet religion the authority is the self. If I don’t like a particular teaching then I don’t have to believe it; if something works for me then I can accept it. I am the decider of what is true and what is not. I am my own little god. No authority outside of me like a book, church, or savior is going to tell me what to eat. Second is a lack of consistency; I don’t have to think through or act in accordance with my faith. I haven’t taken the time to learn and understand what I believe so I say and do things that contradict the very faith I profess. It’s like being on a strict low-carb diet and taking fourteen buttery rolls from the buffet. I still believe strongly in my need for a low-carb diet, I just don’t know what it involves or am unwilling to change my life for it.

The problem with Golden Corral religion is that it’s a lie. Since we are not gods, our declarations of what is true and what is false are meaningless. Our spirituality may work for us and we may gather a large following (see Oprah) but we’ve still constructed a fairy tale of our own making. Let us humble ourselves under the authority of God and His word and strive to think and live consistently with the faith once and for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3). The alternative could be raising dead World War II pilots while attending yoga classes more faithfully than church. Yikes.


Al Mohler’s article on Yoga

The response to Mohler’s article on Yoga

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Harry Potter & Jesus: How Escapism Steals the Christian Life

When I encountered Harry Potter my first thought was this: silly children’s story. If you had told me then I would read all seven books and, unless I die first, see all seven movies I would have laughed. But the truth is the books are good writing with compelling story lines that feature likable protagonists engaged in a struggle against evil in the midst of a wildly imaginative and coherent world. When the final book in the series was released in July 2007, a record 8.3 million copies were sold in the U.S. in one day. All seven books combined have sold over 400 million copies worldwide. Each Harry Potter film has grossed between $249 and $318 million in the U.S. with “Deathly Hallows” poised to repeat the feat as countless muggles have already purchased their tickets in advance. For me, Harry Potter was an enjoyable read brought to life in entertaining films that allowed me to lose myself in a world of wizards, witches, wands, and whomping willows.

For some however, Harry Potter is much more – it is an escape. It is a story and a world so compelling that it overtakes real life and demands devotion. This is evident in the 400 colleges and 300 high schools where ‘Quidditch’ (the game played by Harry Potter) has become a competitive sport. Quidditch involves wizards and witches flying on broomsticks scoring points with a ball called a ‘quaffle’ while avoiding enchanted balls called ‘bludgers’ hit at them by ‘beaters’ all while two players chase an elusive enchanted ball called a ‘snitch’. When the ‘snitch’ is caught, the game is over and the team with the most points wins. You might be asking – how on earth can this game be played by the non-magical? On these school campuses players compete while holding a broom between their legs using a partially deflated volleyball as a ‘quaffle’. The beaters throw dodgeballs (standing in for ‘bludgers’) at the opposing team. The part of the ‘snitch’ is played by a player dressed in yellow with a tennis ball in a sock sticking out of his shorts and he runs around the field until caught.

Why is this highly impractical game flourishing among normal humans? Because it reinforces the escape offered by the world J.K. Rowling created.  While it is easy to label those who play Quidditch, show up at theaters dressed as Dumbledore, and discuss the books endlessly in online forums as ridiculous, they are merely escaping into a reality not their own. While more respectable than Quidditch matches and Star Trek conventions, the man who meticulously follows his fantasy sports league is attempting the same thing. So is the gamer that spends hours each day on Xbox Live. So is the movie lover who goes to the theater even when there is nothing they want to see. So is the teen girl reading Twilight, the man drinking away his problems, the mother living for ‘Dancing with the Stars’, and the college boy viewing porn online. They are all attempting to escape and immerse themselves in a reality not their own.

We live in a culture obsessed with escapism. Many people move from one escape to the next while avoiding real life which is that annoying thing that happens between games, books, movies, YouTube videos, and Quidditch matches. Is there anything wrong with a little escape? Assuming it is not done in a sinful way, no. The problem is a little escape can quickly become a life of escape. Escapism is essentially idolatry. We turn to a savior other than Christ to rescue us from our painful or painfully dull life. We then give that savior our entire devotion – sacrificing countless hours, innumerable dollars, and endless passions on the altar of our little god. That god then blesses us by providing the escape we desire.

This is tragic among Christians, many of whom invest more time, money, and energy into their escapes than they do into Christ. The abundant life that was supposed to be lived to the glory of God is now being whittled away in empty pursuits.

Psalm 1:1-2 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked… but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Escapism says blessed is the man who meditates on his favorite basketball team day and night while the Bible gathers dust.

Matthew 9:36-37 says, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.’” Escapism says forget about God’s world, the people in it, and God’s mission and drown them out in variety of entertainment options on your television or computer screen.

Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” Escapism says the story of Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Wars, etc. is more compelling than the gospel and deserves our devotion.

If we have more time to study fantasy sports than God’s Word, if we have more passion engaging Halo: Reach than God’s mission, if we are more inspired by Harry Potter rescuing Hogwarts than Jesus Christ rescuing sinners then escapism is destroying our lives. Worse than that, we have given something other than God the position of glory and have committed idolatry.

So go see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and even better, read the book. Enjoy movies and video games. Cheer for your favorite team, real or fantasy. Pick up a hobby you enjoy. Visit Walt Disney World. Play Quidditch… well, only if you’re really a wizard. But be careful, lest escapism begin to capture your life and become your god. There is no better way to waste your existence than to hand it over to meaningless activities in an effort to escape your reality.


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The Gospel Is Not About Doing

Why did Jesus die on the cross? For years I thought it was so I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. Or so I wouldn’t say certain four letter words the culture had deemed inappropriate. Or so I wouldn’t listen to Metallica or the Beastie Boys. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but my impression was that Jesus died to make up for my shortcomings in the things I was supposed to be doing for him. God was displeased with us but, because of Jesus, would forgive so we could try and do better the next time. We were good people trying to do what God wanted and who rejoiced in the cross inasmuch as it made up for the few (or many) failings we had.

This impression of the gospel was encouraged and continues to be encouraged. You’ll find it in youth groups designed to entertain students so they won’t go out sinning on the weekends. You’ll find it in sermons insinuating guilt for those who fail to live up to the right standard while listing behaviors good Christians are supposed to be doing. You’ll find it in churches where the outwardly righteous gather and ‘sinners’ feel uncomfortable because they don’t have it all together. Those who preach this version of the gospel usually do so out of a sincere desire to steer people away from sin and towards a more godly life. God likes good people so be a good person but since we’re all sinners God sent his Son to make up the difference. The essence of the message – God wants our good behavior. This is not the gospel.

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was it so his followers would work to eradicate poverty? Was it so they could join arms as part of the kingdom that would bring justice to the earth? Was it so humanity could abandon violence and love their neighbor as themselves? This version of the gospel has become popular in a culture that increasingly sees the life and ethic of Jesus as more acceptable than the person and death of Jesus. Jesus died to set an example and unleash his followers to bring peace and justice to the earth and create the kingdom of God in their wake. God is displeased with those who neglect the poor and don’t recycle while living selfish American lives.

This can be seen in places like the United Methodist Church which recently released a “Rethink Church” ad campaign that asked, ‘if church was a literacy program for homeless children, would you come?’ and ‘what if church considered ecology part of theology, would you come?’ It can be seen in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments at the progressive Catholic forum where she said, “some (who) oppose immigration reform, are sitting in those pews, and you have to tell them that this is a manifestation of our living the gospels.” It can be seen in churches that cancel the worship of the risen Savior to serve the community. In other words, Jesus died so homeless children could read, the planet could be saved, the borders could be opened to immigrants, and the lady down the street’s yard could be mowed.  Those who preach this version of the gospel do so out of a sincere desire to be a force for good in the world and follow the example of Christ. God likes those who care for the planet and the people on it and his cross is our ultimate inspiration to offer our lives on behalf of others. This is also not the gospel.

While it is true that the gospel should lead believers to godly behavior and that Christ’s followers should strive to make a difference in the world – neither of these is the gospel. The clearest definition of the gospel in the Bible is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

To sum up, the gospel is not about what we do but about what He has done. Christ died for our sins. We are all sinners and all have no hope whatsoever of pleasing a holy God. It doesn’t matter if we save sex until marriage, use clean language, and avoid the Beastie Boys. It doesn’t matter if we feed the hungry, bring justice, negotiate peace treaties, or serve our neighbors. All have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10), and we are dead in our sin (Eph. 2:1) and enemies of God (Rom. 5:10).

This means we had no hope. The nice church lady who spends her time baking cookies and visiting sick people has no more hope than the prostitute addicted to cocaine. Both are sinners who can do nothing to fix their situation. That is why Christ’s death and resurrection is the gospel. It is through His death and resurrection that the price for our sins – past, present, and future – is paid and we have life. Without His death and resurrection, our sins condemn us to eternal death.

Therefore, Jesus didn’t die to promote abstinence, clean up our language, filter our entertainment choices, give teens a healthy alternative on the weekend, give me a new to-do list every sermon, or fill a church with ‘good’ people. Some of these may be good, but when we focus on them we preach the wrong gospel. Jesus also didn’t die to eradicate poverty, spread social justice, end violence, teach English to children, save the planet, promote immigration reform, or have a good reputation in the neighborhood. Some of these may be good, but when we focus on them we preach the wrong gospel. Jesus died to save sinners from their sins and give them life to the glory of God. It’s all about what He has done and not what we do. Until we understand that, we will never live godly lives or change the world for His glory.


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