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By Dr. James C. Denison
President, the Center for Informed Faith, Dallas, Texas

Topic: making God your King

A battleship and a rag

If only stopping the oil leak in the Gulf were this easy. All that stood between the battleship USS Texas and sinking in the Houston Ship Channel was a rag and a backup pump. Local news in Dallas is reporting this morning that an employee noticed the 1914-vintage ship, the last of its kind in the world, appeared to be sitting lower in the water than usual. He found the leak and stuffed it with a rag. Backup pumps replaced the one which had burnt out, removed 105,000 gallons of water, and saved the ship.

President Obama spoke to the nation last night about the BP oil spill as frustrations continue to mount. Time reports this morning that rising deficits are polarizing Washington. Today’s Wall Street Journal documents the Senate’s “blistering bipartisan attack” on the war effort in Afghanistan. In the midst of such struggles, many are asking, Are we Rome? We’ve considered social and political similarities and distinct differences; now let’s think about spiritual answers to the question.

Roman religion was transactional: place your offering on the altars of the gods so they will bless your crops and give you victory in battle. They adopted the Greek division between the soul and body, the “spiritual” and the “secular,” “religion” and the “real world.”

The Greeks said that the gods lived atop Mt. Olympus, far removed from life below. The Romans adopted their gods, renaming Zeus as Jupiter, Hera as Juno, Ares as Mars, and so forth. But they preserved this division between the gods and us.

They added emperor worship to their pantheon, but not out of any desire to foster an intimate, personal relationship with Caesar. This was a loyalty oath, another transaction. Burn a pinch of incense on the altar of Caesar and say “Caesar is lord,” and you were given a certificate which made you a legal Roman citizen for another year. Religion was like renewing your license or car registration, something you had to do.

When Christianity spread into this Roman world, it eventually adopted this transactional religion with its spiritual schizophrenia between the “spiritual” and the “secular.” By AD 250 we separated the “clergy” from the “laity,” the “spiritual” people from the “secular,” making priests like those in Roman religion who could help us make our transactions with God. Then Constantine legalized the Church in AD 313 and we began constructing buildings like Roman temples where people could come to make their sacrifices and be blessed.

In the Modern Era we began measuring success by the size of our temples—our buildings and budgets and baptisms. In the Postmodern World we say that all truth is personal and subjective—it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re tolerant of my beliefs and sincere in yours. You can worship Zeus while I worship Apollo or Athena or the emperor. Pay your dues for services received. This is a transactional religion, not a transforming relationship.

Unfortunately, many Americans have a Roman, transactional faith. Some of us go to church on Sunday so God will bless us on Monday. If we pay our spiritual dues, we’ll receive the result of our investment. We have compartments in our lives, with God here and the rest of life there.

What does God say to our consumeristic spiritual culture? He is calling us make him our King, not our hobby. To submit every part of every day to his Lordship. He can bless only what he can touch and lead only those who will follow. When we confine him to a day and a building we miss so much of what Jesus died to give us.

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