We rented a quaint apartment in Belfast, Ireland, in my recent UK tour, and I jogged in the morning under a temperature of about 5 degrees (with the occasional Irish chill). The view along the paved road was indeed chicken soup for the soul.
One morning, while jogging, I came upon a herd of cows grazing over what appeared to be little humps of dung. I then took pictures of them and something clicked in their bovine mind. They stared at me, transfixed. As I turned around and jogged back, they followed me. Literally, in a group, they abandoned their piles of shit and followed me. I only managed to shake them off when I ran behind a hedge of bushes and was hidden from their view. Out of sight, out of mind right?
When I told my family about that, Nat joked, "So they left the heap of shit for you? Isn't it the Platonic model of leaving the material (dung) for the ultimate non-material Ideal or Form (me)?" We had a good laugh over that.
However, at this juncture, a thought came to mind - more like a metaphor - "Cows congregating over dung?" Isn't this about the dastardly herd mentality where the bigger the crowd simply means the smaller the brain? And more relevantly, it is about people who would believe in anything and are therefore attracted in swarm to what - upon closer scrutiny - is nothing but a load of bull. Unavoidably, some religious teachings figure prominently in my cows-over-dung reflection (case in point is Joel Osteen's message that the apostles of old were mistaken that adulterers and idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God as forewarned in Galatians).
In fact Joel Osteen's inclusive universalism makes a mockery of Calvary and the call to repentance. But this is what some people want to hear and they will come in busloads to churches that preach it. If you preach it, they will come (in herds).
I guess if anyone steps forward and declares that he has found the ultimate answer to everything, regardless of how tenuous the claim, the cow-like following will be helplessly drawn to the cult-like personality.
We in fact live in a world of answers. Some people seem to know the answers to life. There seems to be no mystery anymore to them. Trust me, they know. They are asking less and answering more. Visit a bookshop and you will know how I know. In London, I visited bookshops galore and a lot of the books I come across are offering to answer your questions rather than to invite you to question your pre-canned answers. This is most glaring and daring in the religious department.
While there are many books that make you think critically, the shallow (or brazen) ones offer to do the thinking for you. They spoon-feed you with answers wrapped in saccharine goodness so that their one-size-fits-all nostrum goes down well with you.
You are in fact surrounded by self-styled celebrity authors who claim to know life more than all the dead philosophers and theologians put together. And these authors are getting younger and younger. In the past, it used to be those who are in their dying or in twilight years who impart wisdom to the younger generation. They have lived their life almost to its tail end and they are therefore ready to tell their enriching story.
But nowadays, it seems like experience is secondary to mid-life divine revelation of sorts. Here I often stumble upon religious authors in their late thirties or forties telling you that God had spoken to them intimately, personally and exclusively. Without fail, it is always a subjective divine encounter, and for some of them, a daily and as-and-when-they-need-it encounter.
Honestly I can only marvel at how they could be so lucky to have been shortlisted by the Creator of the Universe for an exclusive audience. It must have been a truly life-transforming experience (or a self-enriching one - depending on which side of the fence you are standing on).
I sometimes wonder whether they were given any forewarning of that divine appointment? Were they informed prior? I guess not. Because if that should be the case, I would expect the whole storm of the media and the curious public to converge at the divinely appointed hour. It would no doubt be a reality show of the most celebrated episode in the entire history of tele-media. Alas, the visit is strangely as surreptitious as a thief in the night. Their god must therefore be an intensely private sovereign or maybe just media-shy.
Then comes the so-called revelation. This is the part that I can only quietly marvel. And not surprisingly, it is often a series of divine revelation that can conveniently be captured and compressed into one or two books to be collectively sold for a tidy personal profit, of course.
And my marveling continues with how these comparatively young and photo-shopped authors with their beaming smiles on the front, side and back covers are able to tell you with certainty that God had told them the secret of living the life that God himself had planned for each and everyone on earth regardless of context. I guess this is Calvary mass manufacturing?
Maybe I am old fashion, but I for one always believe in the quaint saying that a picture paints a thousand words. And should their god happen to make a personal appearance before me, I trust that that experience would be worth reading a million of their books in tow.
But alas, I guess I am asking too much and the next best thing to that transforming divine encounter would thus be to fork out $29.90 or $34.50 to buy their book and to relive their experiences vicariously.
In any event, playing devil's advocate here (pun unintended), isn't hearsay evidence enough to make a convert out of me? Shouldn't I, a voracious reader myself, be content to just accept that these young know-it-all authors can be trusted and that the account of their divine encounter and revelation are equally authentic and unerring?
Am I then too skeptical for my own good? Should I then reexamine my own heart? Maybe it is an unfortunate case of divine estrangement between God and I and it is to my benefit that these authors are elected to stand in the gap on my behalf. Maybe they have something relevant in their encounter for me in my work, family and life. And for this reason, I should not be too quick to judge the book by its cover or them by their shored-up stage-appearances. In fact, maybe the reasonable thing to do is to give their prophesies, teaching and revelation a chance and the light of day in my heart.
And if I should gingerly flip the pages, and read their exhaustive message-in-a-bottle love note from God himself, I may just be duly convicted by their conviction that God desires of me to pray big, ask big, believe big, live fearlessly (even richly), bless me unending, favor me beyond my wildest imagination, forgive me unconditionally, make repentance irrelevant, love me until it seems like it is only me and no one else, bestow victory on me, grant me peace surpassing all understanding, be the head and not the tail, put thousands to flight, enjoy good health and everlasting bliss, be spared diseases and suffering, live in increasing wealth, and in everything, God is only concerned for and about my happiness and joy.
But then, what then? And for what end?
Here's my reservation. Wouldn't all that jolly-ness and goodness smacked in a $34.50 hardcover or preached over a Sunday pulpit make me feel singled-out, extremely special and almost invulnerable? Wouldn't all that puff me up to believe that nothing is indeed impossible for God especially when it comes to making all my wishes come true? Wouldn't a book or sermon like that make an addict out of me to want more, believe more, subscribe more, give more, and devote more because in return, it promises me so much more?
In fact, there is a rather clumsy name for this form of susceptibility and it is called moralistic therapeutic deism. One author describes it well this way: "It is the belief that God wants people to be good and nice, that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, that God does not need to be particularly involved in our lives except when he is needed to resolve a problem and that good people go to heaven when they die." (Jim Belcher, In Search of Deep Faith)
Alas, the most disconcerting part for me is that this is one system of belief where the object of my worship seems to exist just for me and not the other way round. And if truth be told, at the end of the day, I am afraid that there is nothing new under God's heaven. In fact, the only thing new about us is the unbelievable layers of our own gullibility. There seems to be nothing on earth that can match it.
And charisma and good looks aside, these authors/preachers will not be the first and they will not be the last to tout their moonshine gospel that essentially - and rather surreptitiously - put self first before all things. Their all-too-familiar formula is in fact repackaged in raggedy old wine skin. For if you promise them big, they will rush in herds. And if cows are attracted to dung, then I guess some crowds are no more discerning than our bovine friends. Cheerz.