“Jesus Died for Somebody’s Sin, But Not Mine”

horses-cover_custom-95bd29494bd12ecab828302378aa305f62fb5ccf-s6-c10They say that if you’ve ever tried to learn to play the guitar, you’ve probably tried your hand at Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” a three-chord tribute to the power of teenage lust. [1]   But as I personally lack anything that can even charitably be described as a sense of rhythm, I don’t play the guitar and thus I can’t really speak to the truthfulness of this claim.  Nevertheless, I am familiar with Van Morrison’s tune, primarily because at one time in my life, I was a fan of Patti Smith, who re-appropriated and re-interpreted the original work as her own crass middle finger defiantly extended towards the heavens.

For those that may not be familiar with the interplay between the original and the remake, allow me to briefly explain.  In Van Morrison’s version of the song, he sang about the wonders of a girl named Gloria – a girl that ultimately made her way into his bedroom.  Eleven years later, on her debut album Horses, Patti Smith took the lyrical core of the well-known tune and turned it on its ear. Whereas Van Morrison had been singing about heterosexual desire, Smith elected to make the object of Van Morrison’s lust the object of her own homosexual fantasies. What’s more, to make the song even more controversial, she elected to play on the name “Gloria,” by resting her narrative of the song within the church’s announcement of gloria as an exaltation of Christ.  Feeling a little confused?  Take a look at Smith’s opening salvo:

Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine
Meltin’ in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, to me!

People say ‘beware!’
But I don’t care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, to me! [2]

At this point, Smith turns her attention to singing about the young girl in the red dress, pulling on the same sensual imagery that Van Morrison utilized in his original.  But near the end, having taken “Gloria” and having “made her mine,” Smith returns to the subject of the church.

And I heard those bells chimin’ in my heart
Going ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong …

And the tower bells chime, ‘ding dong’ they chime
They’re singing, ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.

As we continue our series on theological anthropology, I want to spend some time honing in on the question that I asked in two previous posts on Hauerwas and the Apostle Paul:

Do you think most modern Evangelicals agree that the claim of Jesus as Lord necessarily reduces everything else to “bullshit?”

In other words, do Christians see their own efforts to achieve some form of righteous or holiness as the “filthy rags” that Isaiah talks about, [3] or do they see themselves as being essentially “good” people with a few minor flaws that just need to be tweaked?  Do they see themselves as being in desperate need of Savior, or has Jesus died primarily for others who have far more egregious sins than our own?

In their relatively recent book entitled UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons offer some disturbing insights on this subject that is based upon extensive research that they conducted from 2004 to 2007.

“[You must] realize that most Americans believe you can earn a place in heaven if you do enough good things for others or if you are a decent person. One-third of the people who qualify as born-again Christians embrace this idea as well.  That is, even among people who believe they are personally being saved by faith in Jesus, they think of salvation as a multiple-choice test, with many reasonable possibilities.  While they believe their own spiritual destiny is secure through faith in Christ, they also believe that others could be saved through being a good person or because of God’s benevolence.” [4]

Perhaps even more troubling, Kinnaman and Lyons go on to reveal that “four out of every five [regular church attenders] agreed that the Christian life is well-described as “trying hard to do what God commands.” [5]

Now if this hasn’t convinced you that many evangelicals have a fundamentally broken conception of what it means to be human in light of the divine and holy YHWH, perhaps you’re not fully tracking with what Kinnaman and Lyons are truly saying.  This is not simply a question of evangelicals wanting to live a Spirit-led life that could empower them to live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.  This study reveals that many understand themselves as fundamentally “good” people who are earning their way into eternity.  Still not convinced?  Consider what Kinnaman and Lyons have to say next:

“Our research shows that Christians believe the primary reason outsiders [or non-Christians] have rejected Christ is that they cannot handle the rigorous standards of following Christ.  There is a nuance here that allows Christians to feel like they’re better than other people, more capable of being holy and sinless.  We rationalize that outsiders don’t want to become Christ followers because they can’t really cut it.” [6]

Sadly, this is not simply a case of statistics being used to support contentions that are ill founded or ungrounded.  As someone who has worked in a variety of settings dealing with young adults in the evangelical church today, I can honestly say that I have encountered this phenomenon myself on many different occasions.  In fact, in one class that I taught with both high-schoolers and their parents present, everyone was shocked to discover that not one single high-schooler in the group could answer the question: “What is the gospel?”  Bare in mind, I was not looking for a complex theological formulation supported by the appropriate verses and theological language.  I simply wanted to know whether anyone could articulate that they were a sinner in need of a Savior because they were incapable of earning their way into a relationship with God. [7]

But whereas Scripture is clear that the heart of man is desperately wicked, I have come to believe that the majority of young evangelicals – indeed the vast majority! – no longer see themselves in this light.  Having grown up in a church culture that has fed them a steady diet of the “Morality Gospel,” many of these kids now see themselves much in the same way that Al Franken once brilliantly parodied on Saturday Night Live:

“I deserve good things, I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am an attractive person. I am fun to be with … and I deserve it.  Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, people like me!”

Returning then to Patti Smith’s grotesque contention that “Jesus died to save somebody’s sin, but not mine,” I wonder if we haven’t tragically absorbed that message into our churches today.  I wonder if 40-odd years of the self-esteem movement based upon Enlightenment ideology hasn’t tragically warped the younger generations – including my own – until we are no longer capable of recognizing our own brokenness and shattered humanity.  And that is why I wonder whether we are longer willing to stand with Hauerwas and the Apostle Paul when they argue: “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”


[1] Famed essayist Dave Berry once commented, “You can throw a guitar off a cliff, and as it bounces off rocks on the way down, it will, all by itself, play Gloria.”  http://www.rockbottomremainders.com/images/Article-Glory_Days.pdf

[3] Isaiah 64:6.

[4] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why it Matters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), 50.

[5] Ibid., 51

[6] Ibid., 51.

[7] Note also the fact that I was looking only for an understanding of the gospel based upon the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.  I wasn’t looking for a more fully rounded theology that included the Christus Victor model, the recapitulation model, the moral influence model, or any other such theology.  This was nothing more than a bare bones question to see if they understood personal sin in a biblical light.

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