Spiritual food, Instagram, and a culture of “Likes” (Hebrews 6)

A funny thing’s happened in recent years.  It seems as if people have shifted away from eating their food in favor of taking pictures of it.  Through the magic of the “smart phone,” we can take a snapshot of our meal and upload it to the social media platform of our choice.

Why?  Good question.  Among the reasons for the trend is the promise of receiving “likes” on your pictures—confirmation that your meal (or at least its digital likeness) caught the attention and envy of all your followers.

Technology isn’t a bad thing.  But some forms of it—or some uses of it—cater towards a form of expression without reflection.  And without reflection we stunt our ability to grow.  We’re left instead to find new and better forms of self-expression: How can I “edit” myself to fit in with others?  How can I manipulate you into liking me?  Psychologists tell us that “emotional maturity” is defined by the ability to give and receive love.  But in a culture of “likes,” our penchant for self-expression not only halts our forward progress; it shoves us back into emotional immaturity.  In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Jonathan Franzen tells us that such forms of self-interest are ultimately counter-productive:

“…liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving….But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center….If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are….The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.” (Jonathan Franzen, “Liking is for Cowards; Go for What Hurts,” in The New York Times, May 28, 2011)


In our series we’ve been emphasizing the ongoing need to “endure,” to hold fast to the gospel in a world that is open to spirituality in general yet hostile to Christianity in particular.  If you were with us last Sunday, we looked at two passages (4:14-5:10; 7:1-28) that illustrated Jesus’ superior ability to unite us with God—something no human priest could ever do.  Yet sandwiched between those two passages is another “warning” section.  At first it seems out of place—why interrupt his flow of thought like this?  But remember the genre: yes; Hebrews is a letter, but the letter contains content from a sermon or perhaps a collection of sermons.  Those who study ancient speeches note that many times speakers would vary their content like this just to keep their listeners’ attention (I guess this was before Power Point was invented).  By inserting this warning passage here, the author is reinforcing the need to keep going in a culture that mocked their beliefs.  So now the author of Hebrews turns his attention to the concern for spiritual growth:

 11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is fa child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)

What was happening?  Apparently the readers of Hebrews were guilty of measuring their growth by the surrounding culture—the ancient equivalent of finding their worth through Facebook “likes.”  Notice the metaphor he uses here: of milk and solid food.  The author is saying that spiritual development—like all human development—is about improvement and transformation.  Yet how is spirituality anything like food?  It’s simple, really.  With food we have only two real possibilities: we are nourished, or we starve.  There’s nothing in between.   Likewise, we either grow in Christian maturity, or the soul shrivels.  Our ability to love God and neighbor shrinks.  We slide backward into immaturity.

Yet I’m sad to report just how much contemporary Christian culture can serve as an enemy to this process.  In the late 90’s, Gary Burge wrote an article for Christianity Today called “The Greatest Story Never Read.”  He laments the loss of Biblical literacy across all age groups—particularly our nation’s youth.

“I have asked youth leaders whether their students were learning the content of the faith (solid theological categories) or the stories of the Bible (the chronology, the history, the characters, the lessons).  One remarked, “It is hard to find time.  But I can say that these kids are truly learning to love God.”  That is it in a nutshell.  Christian faith is not being built on the firm foundation of hard-won thoughts, ideas, history, or theology.  Spirituality is being built on private emotional attachment.” (Gary M. Burge, “The Greatest Story Never Read: Recovering Biblical Literacy in the Church, Christianity Today, August 9, 1999). 

The last line says it all: “private emotional attachment.”  Only a few years later social analysts would give this a slightly more descriptive (though elaborate) name: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  That’s kind of a mouthful, but it’s really as simple as this: it means that I believe God exists, but he’s not terribly involved in my life other than to make me feel better when I’m down, teach me right from wrong and—if I obey well enough—make my dreams come true.

If this attitude truly characterizes today’s young Christians, it should come as no surprise that they would abandon their faith.  For some, it’s because Christianity failed to provide them with personal fulfillment.  For others, if God is here to make my dreams come true, then why not find some other way of making that happen?

So how do we respond to the warning here in Hebrews—or in our own backyards?  We could tighten our grip.  We could become more disciplined.  In many cases, a renewed focus on the text of Scripture could be a welcome remedy.  But we must be careful that we don’t replace a faulty view of God (he offers me fulfillment) with another (we must live up to his standards).

The writer of Hebrews writes this:

“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.”  (Hebrews 6:1-3)

I’m sad to say I could find extremely few English translations that reflect the Greek grammar here.  A better translation would be to say: “let us…be carried on to maturity…”  Do you see the difference?  In the first translation (“…go on…”) it implies personal effort.  In the second translation, it implies something that happens.  Spiritual growth is something that happens not by me, but in me.  Growth isn’t a product of good works and sweat equity—it’s an incredible work of grace.

Yet let’s not take that to mean that you and I are wholly passive—just passengers along for the ride.  On the contrary; the writer emphasizes that as we grow in faith, God “permits” us to apply the gospel to every aspect of our lives.  It might not be too far a stretch to say that God does all the work, but we reap the results by responding in faith.

Getting “likes” on tonight’s dinner is no substitute for love.  Nourishing yourself with the feast of God’s word provides far greater satisfaction.  Personal expression is an unending quest for acceptance.  But personal transformation is an unfolding life of joy.

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