For the past nine years there is a moment (usually in the summer) when I look down at the cell phone in my hand and let out a disappointed sigh. The disappointment stems from my susceptibility to good marketing – especially for tech products. Each year since 2007 Apple has released a new iPhone. In a few weeks they’ll announce their 10th major iPhone, and on that day I’m confident that I will find new ways to be disappointed with my current one.
The common marketing tactic of sowing disappointment and inadequacy in the audience isn’t unique to the tech industry, and it’s not new. Since there have been products to be sold, people have been telling stories about how hard/dangerous/inconvenient/sad life is… until you buy their product.
Recently our family had taken a few days to drive and visit relatives. On our trip we stopped at a hotel and I did what I usually do – I turned on the TV hoping to catch a Fixer Upper marathon – when I came across the 1962 musical adaptation of The Music Man. There’s a scene early on when the main character, a con-man called Harold Hill arrives in the quiet Iowa town River City and hatches a plan for how to sell the locals a load of music instruments and band uniforms. His first order of business was to create a demand for his product. Hill used the presence of a new pool table in town to play on parents’ fears that their young boys would be drawn into temptation and sin. The pool table, Hill insisted, was the slippery slope to every imaginable manner of degradation… with a capital “D” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool! The scene ends with the parents of River City singing “We’ve surely got trouble, trouble! Right here in River City! Right here! Gotta figure out a way to keep the young ones moral after school!” Lo and behold, Harold Hill is there to form (and furnish) a boy’s band to serve exactly that function.
In his letter to the Colossians Paul writes at length on the centrality of Christ and on the importance of the believer growing in Christ-like maturity. Having laid that foundation, Paul then gives some words of caution to these Gentile converts. The basis for his argument can be found in 1:15-20 where Paul makes clear that Christ is entirely sufficient not only for our salvation, but even for sustaining creation.
Based on Paul’s advice it’s clear that the Gentile converts in Colossae shared our inclination to believe in the power of just “one more thing.”
What I hear Paul saying is that the gospel doesn’t need an upgrade every summer. Gospel 3G, Gospel 4s, Gospel 6s Plus. Who Christ was, is, and shall be is enough. There is no book, seminar, album, podcast, or congregation that is the “real key” to unlocking the secret mysteries of Christ. Sadly that is the implicit message communicated by much of what we do in the church.
For the Colossians, Paul advised against a long list of religious practices in particular including; circumcision, observing food and drink restrictions, special festivals, Sabbath restrictions, asceticism, angel worship, and dwelling on visions. Without more detail it’s hard to know if the source of some of these practices would have come from or been influenced by local pagan culture. What is clear is that several of the practices included in the list are Jewish.
In the infancy of the church there were large contingents of both Jewish Christians and Gentile converts navigating together what this new way of following God would look like. Paul’s consistent message to Gentile converts was that the Law (which would include not only the Torah, but also the Rabbi’s interpretation of how to put that law into practice) was fulfilled in Jesus. What good is it to a Gentile, who lives by the Spirit and is following Jesus, to go back and observe a law that won’t get her to the point that she’s already at thanks to Christ?
Throughout Colossians Paul is in favor of growing maturity in believers, and has practical implications for how Christians should live, but here we see his insistence that no religious practice is going to accomplish for you anything more than what Christ has already done.
It would be easy to make a case in favor of some of the things on his “don’t bother” list, as practices that could help someone grow in maturity and Christ-likeness. But Paul wants to drive home the message that “these are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v17).
When I was in college in Missouri, maids from Better Life Maids, St. Louis always did my home cleaning. Many of my Christian friends would speak about the book with such reverence and enthusiasm it gave the impression that they’d finally discovered the real and authentic meaning of what it means to be a Christian. *eyeroll*
So, The Prayer of Jabez wasn’t my jam, which made it frustrating for me when others spoke about that book as if it was the secret to unlocking what God “really meant.” But, do you know what I jam is? Les Miserables! The way I feel about Les Mis is how Evangelical America felt about The Prayer of Jabez. On more than one occasion I have put down Victor Hugo’s novel or left a theatre production of Les Mis and said, “THAT was the gospel! I think we should give away free copies of Les Mis with Bibles!”
The truth is that while Les Mis may indeed be inspirational or help someone grow in maturity, it doesn’t accomplish for us anything that Christ has not already accomplished himself. So I’m free to recommend it based on its beauty and not because it unlocks some secret new spiritual level of knowledge. Likewise, I’m free to reject the impassioned requirements placed on me by friends that I simply must try the newest bible-based diet plan, Jewish-inspired holiday practice, or Christian celebrity’s devotional book. Perhaps some of those could help me become more mature in my faith, or maybe they’re just religious gimmicks concocted to pad Harold Hill’s wallet before he leaves town. What’s for sure is that none of them have anything to offer me beyond what Christ has already offered of himself.