I’ve been enjoying a good book with a strange name, Cat and Dog Theology, by Bob Sjogren. Sjogren’s basic premise is that people look at God in one of two ways: Like a cat, some people assume that God exists for them–to help them achieve their dreams, reach their destiny, and fulfill their hearts’ desires. Others, like dogs, recognize that they exist for the pleasure of their owner, not vice versa. Sjogren argues that American evangelicalism has been corrupted by “cat theology.” Of course, cat theology is no theology at all. It is merely the American values of achievement and self-fulfillment wrapped in a religious shell. Check out this brief clip from “wisdom” guy Mike Murdock, who explains that God is all about achievement, and that the biggest people in the Bible were the achievers. As Sjogren effectively asks in Cat and Dog Theology, what about the people in the Bible (and in church history) who weren’t necessarily models of achievement, but who appear to be grist in God’s mill, glorifying Him through their suffering, death and unfulfilled dreams?
When Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (book one of the His Dark Materials trilogy) hits the big screen on December 7, I will be interested to see if Hollywood neuters the book’s heretical elements for the sake of broadening the film’s audience and avoiding an all out war with the Vatican.
I’m guessing they will. Hollywood loves money more than it hates organized religion, and Pullman’s engrossing fantasy shares the basic formula of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, another subversive book-turned-movie that ended up extolling the virtue of personal faith–albeit only after demeaning it for two hours.
Like Da Vinci, Compass is a quick read, a well-oiled narrative with engaging characters and unexpected plot twists in a vivid landscape populated by armored bears and gypsies. Pullman doesn’t “waste” pages on dwarf songs or recipes for wild rabbit stew (a la Tolkien). You won’t find him delving into messianic allegory or extended expositions on “deep magic” (a la Lewis). The self-described atheist doesn’t open a can of heterodoxy until around page 270 (of 299). But when he does, he opens it wide, rewriting the Adam and Eve narrative, sanctifying original sin and casting the church as a virulent and dehumanizing force in the world. And, from what I’ve read in summaries of the next two books in the trilogy, this just the beginning.
Even if these elements are transferred to the movie (and I predict they won’t be), I don’t see the The Golden Compass emptying churches or creating a generation of skeptics and God haters. I said it about Da Vinci, and the same applies to The Golden Compass. “Movies like this can only gain traction in a nation where careful explorations of challenging concepts like the virgin birth and deity of Christ [or Adam and Eve and original sin] have been exchanged for motivational speeches [or books about "becoming a better you"].”
I met Joel Osteen in 2005, at the grand opening of the Lakewood Church’s new digs at the Compaq Center. I was fortunate enough to sit in the front row and enjoy a nice meal afterward for VIPs, journalists, friends of the family, etc. The facility is stunning, the staff friendlier than Asian flight attendants and the music pitch perfect. The sermon that muggy Houston morning was about how the Osteen family overcame great odds in building a great church … and (you guessed it) how you too can overcome great odds and be everything God wants you to be. Osteen was gracious, with his self-deprecating humor and “awe-shucks” persona. I have no reason to doubt that his integrity behind the scenes is beyond reproach.
The saddest part of the story, however, is to see a man with so much influence, so many people hanging on his every word, so many resources at his disposal for speaking the truth, squander the opportunity every time he steps behind the microphone or picks up a pen.
I read Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now, but have no intention of reading his latest tome, Become a Better You. Unless something dramatically has changed in Osteen’s life and theology (and this interview on CBS suggests it has not), this latest book is likely more of the same self-help-wrapped-in-Christian-lingo. For me, it has no discernible relation to the biblical gospel that I so desperately need on a daily basis.
I’m not interested in having a “better life”–my life is already better than that of most people in the world. I’m called to live a life that is effectively expended for the expansion of the gospel–whether by living or dying, poverty or riches, sickness or health, happiness or sadness.
I’m not interested in “becoming a better me”–and I would imagine that the prospect of me becoming a better version of myself is rather distasteful to God, as well. I’m called to self-sacrifice, not self-improvement. The improvement part’s easy–I hate sacrifice.
Perhaps Osteen’s message is not for people like me who have been raised in the church, are familiar with the gospel and whose personal and family lives are for the most part together. Maybe it’s for the down-and-out, the desperate, the lonely, the depressed, people on the verge of financial collapse. But why bait the hook with a message of earthly self-improvement, hiding from people the reality of a gospel the demands of which are so uncomfortable and the benefits of which cannot be measured with the standards of Western culture?