To counter ABC’s reality dominance with American Idol, NBC has launched (and hyped) a new vocal competition show, called The Voice. NBC’s angle involves selecting the candidates purely based on vocal performance- not stage presence and sex appeal- by having contestants audition for celebrity voice coaches, who sit with their backs turned to the vocalist.
If the contestant measures up, coaches can press their buzzer at any time during the audition, whereby their chair will turn to face the singer and a sign lights up saying, “I WANT YOU” (all caps). If a performer cannot attract the attention of any of the four coaches, they finish the song with four celebrities with their back to them, signifying their elimination.
While the show elicits cruel abreaction from any child who strived to gain their parents’ attention through performance, the scheme resembles a theology many espouse. God has his back to you. Now, you must earn the notice of God through spectacular performance, and don’t you forget that if you don’t try hard enough, God will ignore you forever.
This theology parallels medieval theologian Gabriel Biel’s slogan, which encapsulated Christian justification of that period. Biel wrote, “Facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam” meaning, “to the one doing what is in himself God does not deny grace.” In other words, “try your best and God will do the rest.” Biel does not say that God will give grace to those who try their best, he uses litotes (a form of understatement through a double negative) to say that he “does not deny”grace. Thus, God gives grace conditionally and begrudgingly in response to adequate performance.
Sadly, this view of God represents the norm amongst most people and many ministries. One “successful” national youth ministry has a mission statement proclaiming their desire to produce students who “charge hard after Jesus.” This echoes the idea that God ignores us until we work to earn his attention. The statement creates a dynamic where God is running away from us, and we must “charge hard” in order to catch him. Borrowing from the aforementioned reality show, we start in a position where God has a sign saying, “I DON’T WANT YOU,” and man must work to change that condition.
Perhaps, the simplest yet most revolutionary idea Christ offers in his incarnation is the reality that God pursues us. He wants us. He comes to us. He charges hard after us. Maybe the better mission statement for a youth ministry would be that we desire to produce students who let the pursuing God catch them.