taking the words of Jesus seriously


More than a million Americans tuned in to watch Dance Moms Season 5 Episode 3 this week, just a few thousand more than came to church last week to hear my sermon …


So when the Lifetime reality show starring over-the-top teacher Abby Lee Miller decided to do a group dance about religion, complete with a nun costume as well as a dancer dressed as a Saudi Muslim woman (black head scarf, full black cloak, and black face veil), this Pastor took notice.


The song was Something to Believe In,  an instrumental piece by Robin Loxley and Oliver Jackson. The dance version adds spoken words:


Believe. Believe because you are free and you can.
Believe in your own god. Believe in yourself. Believe in your possibilities.
Believe in others who believe. Believe in our differences. Believe in our future.
Believe. Believe in something.

It was, I believe, a 38-word synopsis of American practical atheism–or, worse, self-worship.


In a world where religious extremists hate and kill in Paris, Syria, Jerusalem and even the United States, American popular religion has become so watered down that this 38-word synopsis sounds acceptable and even familiar to American ears.


We think it innocuous. Pleasant, even.


But for Christians, it is unacceptable.


Believe in your own god.

Wandering in the desert, just weeks after the Israelites received the 10 Commandments, they made their own gods. Their religious coach, Moses, had gone up the mountain to pray – and as their faith faded, they begged his assistant, Aaron, to make them gods.


He melted down their gold jewelry and produced a calf. They worshiped it.


God’s heart was broken, but after Moses prayed and begged God to be merciful, God did not destroy God’s people.


Thousands of years later, Americans make our own gods – and our pop culture heroes tell us to believe in our own gods!


We went to Steve Jobs and Apple and said: make us a god!

We went to the plastic surgeons and the Photoshop experts and the engineers and said: make us a god!

We went to the politicians and the teachers and architects and the personal trainers and said: make us gods.


They did what we asked. They made us beautiful, intelligent, almost perfect gods. And we worshiped them. Under the guise of tolerance, we’ve made ourselves our own gods.


Because you are free and you can … Believe in your own god.

But such freedom is an illusion, as we learn every time another family member dies, another friend falls into the swirling whirlpool of addiction, another doctor reads “cancer” off a chart …


We believe not because we are free; we believe so that we might be free.

“Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God, ” Galatians 4:6-7.


We have so domesticated God that the god of Dance Moms sounds almost like a pet. My own god. I take him out for a walk and I wear his name and put his picture on my wall so that everyone can see my own god. He was created for me. I made him.


But the God of the Bible cannot be constructed by human beings. God constructs us. He is not a bumper sticker or a catch phrase. God is God.


It is not ironic that the Dance Moms piece immediately moves from believing in God to believing in ourselves. The line has become so fragile – so thin – that to believe in God today is almost synonymous with believing in yourself.


But it all collapses in the alleyway, on the highway, in the hospital room, in the marriage counselor’s office. We have become gods, and yet when we realize our own mortality, the god we have constructed becomes mortal as well. Our own death brings about the death of god when god lives only within us.


Believe in others who believe. Believe in our differences. Believe in our future.
Believe. Believe in something.

What has become important in American popular religion is not the object of our belief but the action of our belief. We tell our children simply to believe – and we forget to witness what we might believe in.

In the absence of other options, we choose ourselves.


The fear of God has become unpopular, for we think that fearing God must look like the radical Muslims who burst into Charlie Hebdo in Paris this month and killed 12 people.


They too believed in themselves more than they believed in God.


Their God was so small – such a pet – that He must be avenged by human blood. Their God too was bound – by hatred, by fear, by sectarianism – rather than being free to exercise His power in forgiveness.


We tell ourselves that we are free to believe. But it is only our believing in a free God that sets us free.


We tell ourselves that it is the action of our belief that saves us. It is not. The object of our belief saves us: a God who became man, died, and rose again – a free God who chose to love us.


Believe in something? Dance Moms is wrong. What saves us is not that we believe in God but that God believes in us.


About The Author


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She's written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners. She is the author of "Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump" (Fortress Press).

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