Gospel vs. Religion

Repost Sept 25, 2006

A good illustration of what Keller means by “religion” is Earl Hickey in the TV sitcom “My Name is Earl”. Earl presents a very practical reduction of the notion of karma: “Do good things, good things happen. Do bad things, bad things happen.” Earl came to this conclusion after facing the face that his life “sucked” (in his words) and he came to the understanding that if he wanted better things for his life he needed to straighten up his act. As he is recuperating in the hospital bed after losing a winning lottery ticket getting hit by a car he starts a list of all the bad things he’s done. “I’m just trying to be a better person.”

I first used Earl as a works-righteousness illustration when I was preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism. The response from some in the congregation was surprising and enlightening for me. A number of people thought that I was being rough on Earl. Earl is the hero of the show and many articulated that Earl’s ambitions were good and right. Who could criticize someone just trying to be a better person? The show is about Earl’s attempts at reformation. He’s stopped stealing, cut down on his lying, he goes out of his way to do helpful things for others. Many see Earl as a positive role model. “If more people could be like Earl Hickey then the world would be a better place…” This is precisely why he’s such a perfect illustration of what Keller says is the difference between “religion” and “gospel”. Religion says, “if I do good things, good things will happen to me/for me.” In fact if you watch the show long enough you’ll see that for Earl Hickey karma really isn’t very much like karma in the sense of Eastern religions, karma really is God. Earl talks to karma, has a sort of relationship with karma. It is really a good personalization of Christian Smith’s moralistic, therapeutic deism.

Earl nicely illustrates one of humanity’s chief ambitions for human improvement and how popular this project is for all of us inside and outside the church. Many church going folks will quickly identify and applaud Earl Hickey and point to him as a good example. What Keller points out, following the Protestant reformers, is that “karma” is a cruel taskmaster. Earl’s list is unrelenting, in fact he often has to add to it. The show is very open about this to its credit. In one episode Earl returns a stolen laptop computer to an attractive college professor with whom he falls in love. He forgets/ignores the fact that on the way he knocked down a bus stop sign leaving riders stranded without transportation and having promised to fix it. Karma goes to work through darts and bees punishing Earl for his transgression of forgetting the plight of the bus riders. Earl then starts complaining to karma and declaring his independence saying “I will not be karma’s bitch!” He eventually has to relent, give up on the girl and fix the bus stop. In another episode he punches out an evil fast-food manager only to realize at the end of the episode that “karma doesn’t have fists” so he had to be karma’s fist. Karma used him. Tons of Christian metaphor and imagery throughout the shows. It is, however, a Christianity of works-righteousness and Earl is a slave to his idea of a good life and he is in fact “karma’s bitch”.

For Keller gospel is freedom, religion is slavery. Gospel is God saving us, religion is us trying to save ourselves through moral effort. Keller’s articulation of this is essentially the same as the Heidelberg Catechism. In fact, I started figuring Keller out as I was working on my series through the Catechism because I began to notice that the dissonance I was sensing in reading the catechism was do to my own harboring of works-righteousness and “religion” in my own heart. The catechism is written from a radical assumption of misery, deliverance and gratitude which leads it to make all kinds of statements like the Q/A on Providence. If you read that with an Earl perspective the Q/A comes of completely unfair and unappealing. Why would God allow illness, lean years, drought into my life. I’m trying to be a better person and God isn’t keeping up his end of the deal. (Keller deals with this issue again and again in his preaching.) Deep in our hearts we have figured out from a natural law observation that bad brings bad and good brings good and we’ve concocted the idea of how to capitalize on this. It is basic paganism.

Gospel is seen amazingly in the parable of the lost son. Ken Bailey I think is best on this story. In the parable both sons are practicing self-salvation/religion. Both sons are saying by their behavior that they want what the father can give them more than they want the father. They just have two different ways of pursuing this agenda. The younger son is the irreligious son and takes the less sophisticated, clumsy approach. “Cash me out I’m making my own life.” It is a disaster. Bailey I think is incredibly insightful in seeing that out on the field of the far off country with the pigs the younger son fashions for himself a Pharaoh like way of not being karma’s bitch. He decides to go back and try his older brother’s approach. He (according to Bailey) has not repented and not converted, he’s working a new plan of self-salvation. What happens? His father, protecting him from the impending “cutting off” ceremony anticipated by the village elders, rushed out to meet the son and embraces him. The son doesn’t even have time to hatch his plan. He like the lost coin and the lost sheep has to simply receive the father’s grace and he is saved.

The older son, however, now receives the word of the younger son’s return when he is also “out in the field”. This is the moment of crisis for his own brand of self-salvation. The older brother is now also on the road back to the house, hearing the party already beginning. The father goes out to him too wanting to embrace him, in his case not needing to protect him from the cutting off ceremony, but the older son is not ready to receive the father’s embrace. He is angry. He has been working religion all his life and done it flawlessly and his main complaint against the father is that he is unfair. He HAS been karma’s bitch, doing his duty, keeping the commandments of the father and what has he gotten out of it? The other brother got the worldly joy ride and all he got was callouses on his hands from hard work. The parable ends with the cliff hanger. Will he receive the father’s gracious embrace?

Gospel vs. religion. You can’t earn an inheritance it is yours because of your father, but you can reject it. What is the danger of religion? Religion is dangerous because it is the reinforcing of probably the most vigorous defense that we have against God’s love, our own righteousness. It is of course a sham, because we’re not as righteous as we think. We imagine that God grades on a curve and if we stand next to pedophiles and genocidal dictators we’ll look pretty good. Religion is more deadly and devious than worldliness which is a point that Jesus drives home again and again with is accusers. See the other parable of the two sons. Tax collectors sell their ethnic allegiance and insider information to the oppressor for money and power. Prostitutes sell their bodies for money. The chief priests have been selling their God and the symbols of God’s redemption for money and power. Tax collectors and prostitutes (like the younger son) have allowed the father to embrace them and then enter the kingdom before the chief priests and the elders.

Gospel makes you free. Religion makes you karma’s bitch. Gospel makes you grateful, religion makes you demanding after your rights and weary trying to protect and assert them. Gospel makes you able to love your enemy, religion makes you defensive. Gospel makes you free to confess your sins and short comings, religion makes you deceive and pretend. Gospel can make you truly good, religion can only make you comply and behave for the religious show you need to maintain.

About Paul VanderKlay

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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One Response to Gospel vs. Religion

  1. Jon S says:

    “Gospel makes you free. Religion makes you karma’s bitch.”

    ok, you made me smile. :-).

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