With all this speculation flying around as to why our generation is abandoning church in larger numbers than our parents’, no one’s bothered to ask us why we’re leaving the church. – Kayla Rush, “Please Stop Telling Us Why We’re Leaving The Church”, Swinging From Grapevines
Someone on Facebook linked to the piece excerpted above, and it contained links to two other pieces that are the source of the frustration that produced the wonderful original post. I mean, nothing will get young people’s attention like telling them they aren’t really converted. Is it any wonder the author basically does this?
Is it any wonder that many, including me, picture Jesus looking like this after reading the two pieces that are the source of the frustration?
As I read Ms. Rush’s piece, I thought how similar her criticisms of the church are to mine. Not that I’m trying to steal her thunder, or somehow make this about me instead of her. It is less the specifics, which stem from a generational and denominational and theological set of experiences I cannot share, than the Spirit of the piece – a deep love for the church, a desire for the church to be the church, and the frustration that comes not only from not being heard, but from the fact that the churches refuse to place the reason for the Millennial’s exit squarely where it belongs: on the churches and their many faults and failures.
Yesterday, I spent a great deal of time on a particularly favorite theme of mine: fearful Christians (and others, too; fear in America is not only a religious matter). While I understand the roots of so much of our culture of fear, I cannot and will not sit idly by while the church not only succumbs to it, but stokes and spreads fear.
Last week, I responded to this piece by Rev. Drew McIntyre at United Methodist Insight, and had that response published as well. If you skip down to the comment section – which is yet another example of why I do not allow comments here – you will see that, rather than respond to the substantive criticisms I offered, he called what I wrote “nonsensical rantings”, insisted I had confused doctrine and theology, and engaged in, “I know you are but what am I?” What astounds me about the Drew McIntyre’s of the world (a point he simply refused to address, by the way; posting the same tired criticism of an invented “Other” then acting shocked when called out for lack of originality is such a tired game) is their ignorance masked by a constant demand to adhere to their ignorance. Specifically, his claim that I had somehow confused doctrine and theology because doctrine, the teachings of the church, do not change, while theology is what the church does to come to an understanding of our doctrines, is so grossly and unbelievably false on so many levels, it is almost a thing of beauty. Yet, this, too, is neither new nor exactly shocking. As far as doctrine never changing, I will just mention something called “The Protestant Reformation”. More specifically, while doctrines are indeed the teachings of the church, they are neither static nor universal. Even those that cross confessional and denominational lines are understood very differently; to believe for one moment that spanning two thousand years has not brought about changed understanding of what constitutes doctrine, and what those doctrines mean is an embarrassing claim to make for a person with a Master of Divinity degree. Somehow, however, the demand remains that the Church return to an adherence to doctrine, this thing that never changes, as a canon for proper Christian identity. Funny enough, it is usually liberals who understand how wrong this is, yet are accused of refusing to adhere to doctrine! While not surprising, the level of hubris – as well as a lack of any introspection at all – still astounds me. Like Christians who insist that neither proper science nor history be taught in schools, then wonder why so many of our young people are ignorant of science and history, there is a profound disconnect here that is obvious to everyone except those who have it.
Finally, there has always been and will continue to be an attitude as expressed in the title of this post. All churches have to do is build a building, create a program, offer a class or Bible Study, provide age-appropriate materials to children and youth, and like magic the people will flock to the churches and stay forever. What never seems to get addressed is the failure to be the church: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to offer the sacrament to build up the community of believers, to send the congregation forth to serve the world. We are so busy trying to figure things out, we have forgotten how simple it all really is. It is sad that we will lose so many for so many reasons. It is sad that the reasons, as Ms. Rush articulates them, are so clear even to a middle-aged observer like me. I still have hope, however, that the Holy Spirit will breathe life in to the churches so that we can continue to be about the work to which we are called. I wouldn’t continue being a Christian if I didn’t have that hope.
Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to decline inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its own manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever…. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves. When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to the faith and smother it. – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
Putting a bunch of things together in my head, trying to figure out if they connect at all, is an interesting thing. One thought leads to another, then something I read in one place connects to something I read in another place, which reminds me of something I read or saw a long time ago, and pretty soon I’m off and running, or in this case typing.
Yesterday, I was asked what is my favorite passage of Scripture. The answer to that question is simple: Romans 8:31-39
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The reason this is my favorite passage is simple enough: Paul is reminding the Church in Rome, and us today, that ours is not a faith rooted in death or fear, but life and hope. Where there is hope, no matter the cost of living in hope (“for your sake we are being killed all day long”), there is no fear. We do not fear because in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have Divine Testimony to Eternal Love and Care for us. God is willing to do, as the saying goes, in to the far country for this lost and broken creation. We should not fear because there is no reason to fear because even in the depths of the terrors imposed upon us, God is there with us.
Of all the things we western Christians have forgotten as we move through an age in which we are neither the default faith nor the default vocabulary of social and cultural intercourse is that these are not things to fear. They are, in fact, reasons for rejoicing. We have an opportunity now to present the Gospel of Divine Grace, that God is even now bringing about the Heavenly Kingdom and we get to be a part of that work. The long age of assumed Christianity, however, has left a strain of fear and confusion in its wake, particularly among the powerful for whom these assumptions helped form their worldview. Incapable of understanding the changes around us, they react instead of act, with the results usually horrifying for everybody.
The little cartoon above is from an article in Raw Story which got me laughing. Not because I think Satanism is a good thing (of course I don’t think it’s a bad thing, either; as a matter of fact, I tend not to think of it much at all except when I’m writing blog posts), but because what Moltmann calls pusillanimous faith has created a situation that while certainly predicted is the exact opposite of those who originally advocated it. In a secular nation, freedom of religion most certainly includes freedom for Satanists to proselytize. If that makes some folks unhappy, they should perhaps think before demanding public schools include religious instruction; you either let ‘em all in or you don’t let any in.
This is an example of pusillanimous faith, too. When we begin to look for people to blame; when we demand doctrinal rigidity without even understanding what it is we’re talking about; when we use words and phrases without thinking, without understanding, and refuse to learn – we are showing just how fearful we are. We fear the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day (Psalm 91:5). We seek to exclude instead of invite. We demand action to expel those who do not live and believe as we insist they should. This is a cowardly, fearful thing that is not the faith that knows nothing in all creation can separate us from the love we have from God in Jesus Christ.
I’m old enough to remember the hysteria over Satanism in the late 1980’s. It culminated in the video, embedded above, of a special Geraldo Rivera program on “America’s Satanic Underground”, as empty as Al Capone’s vault. The fear itself was groundless, rooted in changing patterns of adolescent behavior, changing tastes in youth musical styles, and a few well-publicized cases of violence committed by self-proclaimed Satanists. The period was analyzed in a marvelous book, Satanic Panic, a must-read for anyone interested in the phenomena not only of mass panic events but the promulgation of fear-based lies and urban legends that deepen fear.
Recent events in the Middle East, particularly the rise of The Islamic State Of Iraq And The Levant (ISIL) and their proclamation of war against the United States, along with publicized beheadings of several foreign journalists now has Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) insisting ISIL forces are preparing to mass along the Mexican border. This, in turn, has prompted a sheriff from Texas to go on national television and insist we arm our southern borders to protect ourselves from imminent invasion (the video is above). This combination of fears – of terrorism and immigrants entering the country illegally along our southern border – has created among some near-panic at the thought of what might be happening. That this fear, while certainly technically not irrational (as a scientist once said, everything is possible, even Santa Claus; the trick is figuring out if there’s evidence to support it), is as ridiculous as the rumor-panics surrounding Satanic mass killings. It takes so much time and effort to make clear how ridiculous it all is, however, and the lies and fear is spread so rapidly, playing on already-existing fears, it becomes nearly impossible to rid ourselves of them.
How does it become possible to proclaim the Gospel of freedom, including freedom from fear, precisely because the revelation of Divine Love and Grace in and through Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s eternal presence, when so many voices around us insist we must always and only fear? All we can do, I believe, is continue to bring the Good News that God is with us because God has always been with us; that fear is part of the brokenness Christ redeemed when he rose from the grave; that all that is meant to terrorize us, or is offered as something to terrorize us, cannot stand when the Person of Jesus Christ , for the sake of the Father, in the Power of the Holy Spirit, is invoked. Not only should we live without fear; we can and even must live without fear. It is one of the gifts offered us through faith. Live free and know that no matter what horrors you encounter, God is there.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? – Psalm 8:3-4
This video, which is featured at Upworthy, offers a new view rooted in years-long in-depth and detailed research on our understanding of our place in the Universe. Since Copernicus moved the Earth from the center of the solar system through Galileo’s discovery of far more objects in the night sky than had been known before to the theory of the closed, finite, but expanding universe, where our planet, and we as its inhabitants, “fit” in the whole scheme of things. Regardless of the human culture, the belief has always been that we in particular exist at the center not just of all that is, but of the unfolding drama of existence. Even those sets of beliefs that claim otherwise – Hinduism, for example, with its endless cycle of existence and destruction and recreation, or Buddhism with its negation of reality as the pinnacle of wisdom (and a moral imperative for service to those still trapped in ignorance of this reality) – still operate within a context that include human life as the major actors in the Universal Life.
Among all the creation myths, a few Christians insist the dual, conflicting stories of creation are the sole explanation for all that exists. At the same time, very often their reasons for doing so, while rooted in a claimed preference for a literal reading of the Biblical text (which would make “Biblical Creationism” nonsensical, since the two creation stories are contradictory on many points), actually are done to place humanity once again at the center of the Divine Drama of creation and salvation. This, of course, completely overturns the entire Biblical narrative of the Divine-human relationship, in which it is God who is not only the central actor, but the one through whom and for whom the Divine-human relationship exists in the first place. In many ways, a vision of our particular galaxy existing on the outer edges of a super-cluster of about 8,000 galaxies – containing what is for all practical purposes innumerable stars, planets, and possibly forms of life – is far more in keeping with the Biblical narrative than any nonsensical creationist claims about a six thousand year old universe, humans and dinosaurs existing at the same time, and a denial of evolution by natural selection. Precisely because we are not at the center, physically or otherwise, of the created order, the surprising fact that God has nevertheless freely chosen to be in relationship with us on this particular planet, in the particular way God has chosen to act, fits with all the other way God chooses those least likely to lead, like Moses; those least likely to build up a kingdom, like David; those least likely to speak truth to power, like the shepherd Amos; those least likely to be a light to the nations, like the despised, enslaved, and conquered Israelites; a person from a city from which no good had ever emerged, such as Jesus, the Carpenter from Nazareth.
Watching the video, I was filled with awe at the vastness of the Universe, the insignificance of our place within that Universe, and the humility that comes with realizing God has graciously chosen to be in relationship with us, here, in this time, place, and manner, despite our insistence that relationship is because of any merit we possess. Few things are as silly as creationists. Few things are more awe-inspiring and faith-upbuilding than seeing how our scientists are reimagining our place in the Universe. I am far happier being in that space than the tiny world of the Creationists.
The past few days I’ve been writing at my other site, and the article about which I wrote last night on mystagogy really struck a chord with me. The author, Michael Driscoll, is Roman Catholic. His emphasis, in an essay in a collection of essays on the role of music as serving the liturgical needs of the gathered congregation in worship, dealt specifically with how music can enhance our understanding that the mystery that lies at the heart of our collective faith. In Roman Catholic pedagogy, mystagogy is dealt with specifically during catechesis; Driscoll insists that we should be emphasizing mystagogy throughout the liturgy of the Church. For the Roman Church – and the Orthodox churches as well – because of the centrality of the sacrament to the worshiping life of the people, the place of mystagogy within a structured liturgy is far easier than it is in Protestant churches where the emphasis is upon the read and proclaimed Word. While the liturgical renewal in Protestant circles over the past couple decades have been welcome; while we have returned the sacrament to its role as the central act of the gathered worshiping community, the sign of the mystery of the Life of God for us, and our life for God; nevertheless the distance we have to travel to emphasize mystery as part of the theme of Christian worship is still long, indeed.
At one point, in remarks critical of some aspects of the liturgical reforms coming from the Second Vatican Council, Driscoll describes them as some of the worst aspects of Enlightenment rationalism. On its face, this might sound a bit over the top. At the same time, I believe he has a point. The fact that the modern era began with humanism/Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation is probably not a coincidence. The fact that most Protestant churches emphasize the Word, i.e., the Incarnation at the Living Embodiment of Divine Communication/Revelation, and see in the sacrament a nearly indecipherable experience in which we participate without ever clearly articulating why we do so or how it builds up the community is, I think, the essence of the critique Driscoll makes. That Roman churches not only began using the vernacular, but the Congregation on the Liturgy continues to emphasize proper translation of particular words and expressions at the expense of creating a larger liturgical environment in which those words, important as they are, are signs that point to the things signified, i.e., the sacramental mystery at the heart of the Christian experience of faith.
If any Church (or group of churches) realizes the proper balance between the need for the proclamation of the Word along with the centrality of the sacrament, which leaves space for mystery at the heart of the life of the Christian community, it is the Anglican Communion. Always considering itself occupying a via media between the extremes of ultra-montane Catholicism and the radical Reformation, Churches in the Communion deemphasize both the emotionalism of the radicals and the authoritarianism of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, seeking instead to express the life of the gathered community as one in which the ekklesia and the God who calls it out mutually interpenetrate one another, with room both for rational explication of what it is we believe while never believing it exhausts the Truth that is the revelation of the God in Jesus of Nazareth, a mystery expressed in the eucharist. We United Methodists could do worse than to work toward creating liturgical experiences in which both Word and Table, as the Book of Worship calls it, serve one another, make room for one another, and the whole service of worship can indeed surround the whole person – our rational need for understanding as well as remind us that, at its heart, the worship to which we are called is a mystery that cannot be explained, but only experienced, no more so than at the eucharistic table.
I realize all the above are popular entertainment and not religion or theology. At the same time, they use religious themes and tropes, usually from either Roman Catholic or Fundamentalist traditions to present a story of a person who is, in some way I can never quite fathom, “possessed” by an evil entity. The act of exorcism itself is very often presented as a physically and emotionally exhausting ordeal that can take hours, even days, with no results guaranteed.
This view of exorcism, by the way, is as old as the Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism, in which priests specially trained and assigned “help” those who find themselves in the grip of a demonic entity. Yet, if nothing else in Scripture is clear, the mere mention of the name of Jesus Christ causes evil spirits to flee. St. John’s Gospel begins with the words that the light has come in to the world and the darkness did not overcome it. Psalm 23 is a faithful realization that even in the valley of the shadow of death we are nevertheless in the presence of God. The testimony of Scripture is one of Divine Grace never abandoning those God loves; whether it is Cain saved and marked so no harm can come to him; Moses rescued from the Nile, nursed by his birth mother; the faithful remnant mentioned in Jeremiah who will return to the land and return the practice of the faith of God to the Temple; the breath of God blowing across the dry bones as witnessed by Ezekiel, bringing the dead to life.
It is the Risen Christ appearing in a locked room telling his Disciples not to fear.
Our modern age has stripped the Christian faith not only of its social and cultural significance; it has also stripped it of its power over the forces of darkness that seek to destroy God’s creation. While not a believer in “possession”, I am well aware, just by glancing around the world, that such a thing isn’t needed to convince me that evil works over time, all the time, seeking to destroy Divine Creation, turning brother against brother, parent against child, nation against nation. And, as always, we succumb to the temptation to fight because it is so easy to hate. It is easy to allow our anger to guide our hands and our words. Even the most faithful Christian isn’t immune to the temptation to strike out against others, for whatever reason.
Yet I cannot forget the promise of Scripture that even the most powerful forces of this world – the dominions and thrones, the powers and principalities, the things present and things to come – cannot stand at the mere mention of the name of Christ. They don’t puke in priests’s faces. They don’t twist and contort the bodies of young women in an effort to scare off the person called in to help rescue them. They don’t persist in hurting those who are there to help them. At the name of Christ, they would flee to whatever place they might originate, cower in fear. For no one believes and fears God in Christ more than those whose alleged task is the destruction of God’s creation and salvation and Church.
That’s why I don’t get these possession movies. The single invocation of the name of Christ; the naming of the Persons of the Trinity; these would be more than enough to send whatever these critters might be screeching back to their hidey-hole. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie, then would there.
Yet, I would again suggest that, having stripped Christianity of its social and cultural cache, it has also stripped it of any sense of the power it has; not just the power to rescue some poor child in whom some demonic entity might reside (although I doubt that happens), but the power to banish the darkness from this world, to transform it as we are commanded to do by Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit in the name of the Father. We Christians have the potential to do so much by doing so little – just name the name that is above all names, and get busy trusting in the faithful presence that is with us even as we wander in the shadow of death that the work we are about is God’s work. Our lives are now in God’s hands. Stop being afraid. Especially of puking children.
With the recent discussions I’ve had with Rev. Drew McIntyre, I got to thinking about the demands by some United Methodists that we engage in dialogue, leaving open all possibilities, keep all things on the table giving everyone the chance to air their feelings before we attempt to arrive at some consensus regarding the issues that confront us. Yet, isn’t that what we have been doing, and will continue to do, informally and formally? In small groups, in gatherings in narthex’s across the country after worship, in Administrative Council and SPRC meetings, and Annual, Jurisdictional, and General Conference? At what point are these various conversations offered the imprimatur of actual “dialogue” so sought after by so many?
My sense is that certain powers that be wish to construct particular forms of communication in order to control how the discussions are held, the boundaries and rules. so that one or another pre-determined outcome is reached. And here I am not pointing fingers at one or another faction or group. Whether it’s the Connectional Table or Good News or the Anonymous 80 or whoever. We all have our theological and ideological axes to grind; to pretend the two – ideology and theology – can be separated by some magical process is ridiculous. They interpenetrate and flow in and through one another; untangling them is not only impossible, but a fools game. Claiming to be able to do so is a lie. It’s best to be up front about that much. When we sit together or stand together and talk, whether about homosexuality in the church, women in the pulpit, how to interpret the Bible or whatever controversy lights a particular fire, faith and worldview go together like a horse and carriage, and trying to figure out which is the horse leading the carriage is impossible.
One thing about which everyone needs to be clear, however, is that the terms of these discussions have been set for a very long time. It is all well and good to go after, say, “progressive Christianity”, but to pretend to do so in some new way and without pointing a finger of blame is not only impossible. It’s a lie. Same thing with having a discussion about people from other faiths, say, or how we should approach those in our communities who attend no church. Before we can carry on any kind of honest conversation, we need to be honest with ourselves first. That means admitting that what we are doing is continuing a tradition of communication that may well stretch back thousands of years. We are trying, as best we can, to be faithful to our beliefs, our traditions, our experience, and most of all the Scriptures that guide our faithful living.
And we should also acknowledge, up front, the limits of any kind of dialogue. No minds have ever been changed by a really good argument, no matter how sound. No lives have ever been altered when an individual hears a point in a discussion and a light suddenly flashes and that persons says, “Aha! From now on I shall live this way!” Communication only ever sets the parameters for action, where the rubber meets the road. Far too often, we know the positions of those involved in a discussion long before the discussion takes place, making the discussion superfluous, while perhaps necessary at the same time.
The least productive place, usually, to have any kind of dialogue is the internet. Anonymity, distance, the lack of person-to-person contact give participants a freedom to communicate in ways they might not otherwise. There are exceptions, of course, including United Methodist Insight. By and large, however, the internet has become a sinkhole of insults, threats of violence, and expressions of bigotry and hatred that overwhelm any attempt at serious communication. That is one reason I do not allow comments here; I have no desire to police a bunch of crap, because for the most part that is what comments have become – crap.
So let us go about our business of discussions understanding the whole time what is really happening, setting aside any attempts at feigned innocence, cuteness, or trying to be roundabout in order to deny any direct accusation aimed at any individual or group in particular when in fact that is precisely what is intended. We all know the score; we should not pretend otherwise. It insults the intelligence of readers, already insulted by far too much garbage floating around in the form of seroes and ones.