When I was in high school I was privileged to watch a true revival among the students of Henrico High, on the outskirts of Richmond, Va. A number of members of my class came to know the Lord, and interest in spiritual matters was greatly heightened even for many nonbelievers. At that time, I can remember these young believers engaged in a search for Christian heroes. Anyone who was famous and a believer was someone to be looked up to. One likely candidate at the time seemed to be John Denver. There were many rumors regarding his interest in spiritual matters. Of what type of spirituality this consisted we had no certain knowledge. Some were positive that he was a born-again Christian.
Some serious students began to investigate the matter. One guy, more spiritually seasoned than most, took the lead. He was somewhat of musician himself, and used to sing some of Denver’s songs in our impromptu gatherings of teen believers. I well remember the day that he found some solid information about John Denver’s perspectives on religion. We were crestfallen when he informed us that Denver was not a Christian. Instead, he was deeply committed to an Eastern/Occult belief system. Reincarnation, astral projection, psychic powers and pantheism were more his tune.
I want to use this incident to illustrate an important point: Everyone we think of as “spiritual” is not necessarily godly or right. This is so vital to realize. We now live in a society that has lost it Christian moorings and has been set adrift on a sea of spiritual ignorance. Most people, Christians included, don’t have a clue about how to discern between error and truth. By and large, we are doctrinally illiterate. I think if one were to quiz the average American, we would find that not only do we score low on math and science skills, but we also would bottom out on the “truth test.” When it comes to telling the difference between what is false and what is true, we are generally naïve, if not downright ignorant.
Let me give you a few examples. (Sad to say, I could list dozens.)
A few years ago I was in a Christian book store, part of a well known chain of stores. Prominently displayed was an entire series of books on famous Christians. It was called “Champions of the Faith,” or something like that. One of these books was about John Chapman, more popularly known as Johnny Appleseed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Johnny Appleseed. I can still remember enjoying the Disney cartoon version of his life’s story when I was a child. I think that he was a man of character, discipline, vision and compassion. He did a noble and laudable work. But he was not, and I say this emphatically, he was not a Christian. Chapman was a follower of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg founded a movement that mimics Christianity in many ways, but rejects the essentials of the faith. Swedenborg repudiated belief in the Trinity. He denied that Christ’s death atoned for our sins. His religion is both mystical and works oriented, denying the doctrine of salvation through grace. Though a brilliant man himself, his spiritual experiences were nothing short of wacky. He claimed to have taken repeated jaunts through heaven and hell, describing their workings in great detail. His visions were often necromantic—replete with intimate conversations with Jesus, Paul, Moses, Luther, Augustine and other dead saints. This is not the stuff of the true faith of Christ. So you see, as a believer in Swedenborgianism, Johnny Appleseed may have been religious, he may have been a person of noble and distinguished character, but he was not an exemplar of Christian truth. And he was definitely not a “champion of the faith.”
By the way, Chapman is not the only famous “Christian” who was actually a Swedenborgian. So was Helen Keller. Again, Ms. Keller serves as a remarkable example of courage, determination and the power of the human spirit to overcome the adversities of life. But her life does not model true godliness and genuine faith. She was a member of a cult. And (it is truly tragic to say) she died believing a pack of lies and truckload of nonsense.
Another more contemporary illustration of my point is to be found in Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Now, I know I am treading in dangerous territory here, for Mother Teresa is held in such high esteem the world over. She was a person of such compassion, such kindness, such nobility of spirit, that to venture to criticize her at all seems mean-spirited. But she illustrates my point so well. For in accepting the genuine goodness of the woman, most people would be open to also accepting almost anything she said or did, or believed for that matter. As with many good people, her human virtues would seem to validate her theology. But this is a false premise. “Good people” can believe lies and promote error. And this she did.
You see, Mother Teresa was in the forefront of a popular move in the Catholic Church to have Mary, the mother of Jesus, to be officially declared as the Mediatrix of all graces. She was one of those who petitioned the Pope to define this teaching as a dogma of the church. What does this teaching mean? Mediatrix of all graces? What is that? Simply put, this teaching asserts that Mary acts as the agent for all grace which God dispenses to man. No work of grace, including salvation itself, comes to mankind without first coming through Mary. In essence, this would elevate her status to the same level as that of Christ Himself, making her a Co-Savior and Co-Redemptress with the Son of God.
Now I understand that many, if not most, Catholic theologians, clergy, prelates and scholars already teach this error. But it has never been defined as a dogma of the church, which is what Mother Teresa desired. And in this matter, this dear woman was wrong—drastically wrong. This doctrine about Mary is nothing less than heresy. It demeans the mediatorial office and redemptive accomplishments of Christ (see 2 Timothy 2:5, Acts 4:12, etc.). It asserts that His atoning work on the Cross was insufficient without the subsequent work of His mother. To affirm that Mary is the dispenser of all grace is to raise her to actual divinity, while at the same time denigrating the uniqueness and preeminence of her divine Son. Yet… Mother Teresa lobbied the Vatican for Mary to be declared “Mediatrix of All Graces.” This is nothing short of blasphemy!
Do you start to see the point? Good people—men and women who do admirable works and great deeds of charity, persons of indisputable integrity and laudable character, people admired by sinner and saint alike—may still be totally deceived when it comes to spiritual truth. This does not mean that we do not esteem them for their good work. Nor that we should despise their legacies and their influence. But let us be influenced by what is truly exemplary in their lives—their deeds, not their beliefs.
Am I only riding a hobby horse here? Am I majoring in a minor point? Most assuredly not. Indeed, the truth of the matter is that we are bombarded with the potential harm of deceitful influences through good people. I see it all the time. I hear Christians quoting from Robert Fulghum’s work, e.g., Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Good stuff? Yes, to a certain extent. Much of it is practical and serviceable in every day life. But Fulghum is a Unitarian minister. Do you honestly think that the doctrines of his heretical church background do not sometimes creep into his writing? Of course they do.
I see Christians reading and quoting the Chicken Soup books like they were new gospels. You know what I’m talking about, that whole series that started with Chicken Soup for the Soul and has now multiplied into an entire library for teachers, women, men, and mothers, and who knows who else. It’s become like a fast food chain. Chicken Soup is being distributed to hungry consumers like Big Macs. But pick up one of these books and you’ll see the Buddha quoted as authoritatively as the Christ. There’s no distinction. All sources of “truth” are treated equally. What “works” in life is promoted as necessarily good and true. This is a commonly held error.
(Need I remind my Christian brethren that there are no “First Amendment” rights in the law of God? All religions do not stand on equal footing in God’s courtroom! All beliefs are not true and acceptable in the sight of the Great Judge of all the earth!)
Turn on your TV and you will see many disturbing examples of what I am talking about. Oprah is a case in point. Oprah Winfrey is considered a “deeply spiritual” person. Sure. That’s why in her motivational seminars she can quote Deepak Chopra as easily as Jesus, and declare emphatically, “When you hear me, you are hearing the voice of God speak to you.” Wow! And did you know that when Ms. Winfrey was filming the movie “Beloved” that she actually prayed to her ancestors and sought to channel their spirits? Is Oprah spiritual? Yes, in one sense. Does she do good works? Decidedly so. Is she a Christian? Definitely not. But many Christians look to her for spiritual guidance and practice.
So what I am saying? We must all learn to be aware, to be discerning. We must really know what the Christian faith teaches, accept it with our whole hearts, cling to it—and willfully reject what is not consistent with it. We can learn much from people such as Johnny Appleseed, Helen Keller, Mother Teresa, even Robert Fulghum and Oprah Winfrey. But we must not look to these individuals when forming our own belief system. When it comes to spiritual truth, such people are often wolves in sheep clothing—or to use another image, angels of light, both deceived and deceiving (see 2 Corinthians 11:14-15).