Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The kids are alright (Sunday Reflections for September 5, 2010)

 (Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

These lyrics (if you don’t recognize them) are from the hit musical Bye, Bye Birdie, which opened on Broadway fifty years ago in 1960. And it was fifty years before this that something called “adolescence” was discovered. For at least a century, adults—parents, educators, clergy, doctors, police, politicians—have been wondering and worrying about “kids:” those odd creatures, no longer children but not yet adults.

It’s easy to make a speech or a sermon (or a movie or a show) that gets people’s attention—and riles them up—if your subject is “the problems of American youth today.” And heaven knows adolescents have plenty of problems. Most of us remember our own vividly. The difficulty is that rarely does anyone really know what’s to be done about them. In the end, most kids muddle through and move on with their lives. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to worry.

This past week, via a couple of clergy colleagues, my attention was drawn to a piece on CNN.com provocatively titled “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians.” The inspiration for the story is a new book by Kenda Creasy Dean called Almost Christian. Dean is a United Methodist minister and “professor of youth and church culture” at Princeton Theological Seminary (which is not a part of Princeton University).

In her book, Dean warns that teenagers are adopting an anemic form of Christianity, “a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem.” According to CNN,

Dean drew her conclusions from what she calls one of the most depressing summers of her life. She interviewed teens about their faith after helping conduct research for a controversial study called the National Study of Youth and Religion. The study, which included in-depth interviews with at least 3,300 American teenagers between 13 and 17, found that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith.

The study included Christians of all stripes -- from Catholics to Protestants of both conservative and liberal denominations. Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can't talk coherently about their beliefs, the study found. Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good—what the study's researchers called "moralistic therapeutic deism."

Again, according to CNN, Dean’s book

argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity. She says this "imposter'' faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches."If this is the God they're seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust," Dean says. "Churches don't give them enough to be passionate about."

“What's the matter with kids today?” A lot according to Prof Dean’s hand-wringing analysis. Yet looking at her statistics, the problem with kids seems to be they’re acting just like grownups! “Three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can't talk coherently about their beliefs.” Uh, Prof Dean, have you talked to any adults lately?

Teen behavior and attitudes toward Christianity and religion generally is certainly at the low end of the age-scale. Yet they seem to be right where one would expect given the steady drop in religious interest most studies find as one moves from older to younger age groups. The lack of religious passion or theological coherence Dean reports among young people is actually just a somewhat more extreme case of church trends that have been ongoing for decades. The problem isn’t the kids; it’s modern day Christianity.

There is always a tendency for adults to try to live their lives through their kids. We want them to avoid the mistakes we made and often want them to be things we aren’t but wish we were. Religious “passion” went out of mainline Christianity long ago and seems to be leaking out of most evangelical churches, as well. And the expectation that average Christians should be able to coherently articulate their beliefs has probably always been a pipe dream. In his introduction, Luther says he wrote the Small Catechism as a kind of field manual because of the “wretchedness” he found hearing the ignorance of members of local parishes he visited. That was 500 years ago!

CNN goes on to quote another author with a different perspective.

Barbara A. Lewis, author of "The Teen Guide to Global Action," says Dean is right -- more teens are embracing a nebulous belief in God. Yet there's been an "explosion" in youth service since 1995 that Lewis attributes to more schools emphasizing community service. Teens that are less religious aren't automatically less compassionate, she says. "I see an increase in youth passion to make the world a better place," she says. "I see young people reaching out to solve problems. They're not waiting for adults."

Dean dismisses teens' belief “that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good.” While that sounds like something from an “everything important I learned in kindergarten” book, many people could certainly do worse than following such a philosophy. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the prophet Micah’s famous summation of Hebrew teaching:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

I think Prof Dean forgets something else: youth is a time for rebellion and that’s a good thing. Adolescence, as we all know, is the time when we begin to establish our own identity, independent of that of our parents and family. Yes it’s traumatic for everyone involved but it is a necessary part of becoming a full human being. It should be expected and even encouraged.

Often teens and young adults reject beliefs and practices which they come back to later. If that happens, though, it is because they have come to accept them on their own and are not just mimicking their parents or other adults. They also typically reshape them to fit their own lives, which are not the same as that of previous generations.

In that, I think, there is some hope. Dean is right in seeing a vague, passionless Christianity among the adults teens are learning from. What is the appeal of that for young people today? But Dean’s hope that they will somehow revert to the muscular Christianity of a romanticized past is a fantasy. No, Christianity’s only hope is that it can be re-invented for a world utterly changed from the one in which it began. Young people moving into adulthood, seeking to reshape the world in which they live, may well be the ones to bring about such a transformation. If Christianity has something of lasting value they, of all people, are the ones mostly likely to find it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Everybody loves a parade (Sunday Reflections for August 29, 2010)

There is a tradition that one starting point of the modern age is the Italian poet Petrach’s Ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. In his account of the event, Petrarch claims to be the first person since antiquity to climb a mountain simply for the view.

Whether true or not, the popularity of the story reflected the new attitude toward the world and toward life that swept Europe in the period known as the Renaissance. We know it best from the paintings of the time but Petrarch’s story shows that this new attitude also affected people’s behavior and state of mind. The world came to life in a new way and people looked at their own lives in a new way.

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at a lot of songs, searching for popular music for the “Word from Culture” portion of our summer worship services. Popular music is, of course, one of the legacies of the Renaissance. Especially since its explosion in the 20th century, it seems that nearly every aspect of life has had a song written about it.

Some would say this is just another example of human narcissism but I think that’s too harsh. Yes, we are fascinated with ourselves but then, why shouldn’t we be? Isn’t that what it means to be a human being? Isn’t that what self-consciousness is about? We are unique in the animal kingdom (as far as we know) in being able to reflect about our own lives. Sometimes it gets obsessive but more often it’s either curiosity about ourselves, reflection on our successes and failures leading to planning for a better future, or simply celebration of who we are and of the joys of life.

This “celebration of life” category is one I’ve become especially aware of as I’ve perused the popular music realm. In finding so much of it, I’ve realize that there isn’t so much of it in the church music realm. That’s due, it seems, because it just isn’t a big topic in either the Bible or Christian theology. And that, I think, is a problem.

No, Christianity as it has been traditionally presented just isn’t real big on celebrating life. Don’t get me wrong. It is there to be found, both in the Bible and in its theological tradition, but it is a bit of a minority report. Awareness of life’s joys often gets drowned out, frankly, by the stronger awareness of our propensity to do bad things to each other (sin, in other words) and of life’s inherent pain and suffering.

Here again, I think we need to be aware of Christianity’s cultural and historical origins. To put it simply, it developed among people for whom life was often really, really hard—and typically, pretty short. For that reason, Christianity has had a tendency to dismiss this world and human life as essentially a failure and put all its eggs in the basket of a future world to come. Hence, there have been regular appearances of Christian prophets of doom and destruction, especially in times of social distress (war, famine, natural disaster, etc.

Wedding at Cana, Giotto 14 c.
Modern biblical scholarship has shown, however, that such a dismissive view of earthly life was not central to Jesus’ teaching. Contrary to the popular view that Jesus’ mission was all about getting people to heaven, the bulk of his teaching was actually about very this-worldly matters. When confronted with human suffering, he tried to alleviate it on the spot and rarely consoled people with “well your next life will be better” bromides. And then there was his notorious reputation for all that “eating and drinking.” Jesus a party animal? Well, there was the business with all that wine in Cana.

To be honest, I think the Hebrew Bible—the Christian Old Testament—gives a fairer representation of the biblical tradition on this score. It, too, likes its wine and banquets, even if they are most often used as images of God’s kingdom to come. The images only work, of course, if it’s already assumed these are really good things which we aren’t getting enough of in the here-and-now.

But even more fundamentally for the whole biblical tradition are the texts I go back to so often, the creation stories in Genesis. We have too often undervalued these texts’ report of God’s verdict on the creation, and especially human beings, as being “very good.” Nor have we sufficiently appreciated the essentially positive view of human life in God’s charge to “till the garden and keep it.” In affect God says, “I’ve given you all this stuff. Now enjoy it.”

Yes, there is that misadventure with the serpent and the tree. In the Bible’s view, however, that doesn’t negate God’s previous overall judgment. Human life has its problems—big ones. But the overarching theme of the Bible’s story is that we have the ability to overcome them and the responsibility to help each other overcome them.

The reason? Because of that opening story declaring that this world and this life are so “very good.” Who would want to waste them? Though much of the church scowled and grumbled, this was the re-discovery that launched the Renaissance 500 years ago and which has been at the center of modern life every since. It’s long past time for Christianity to embrace that truth, to join in the celebration of the gift of creation and life, and to stop, as Fanny Brice would say, raining on the parade.

Don't tell me not to live, just sit and putter
Life's candy and the sun's a ball of butter
Don't bring around a cloud to rain on my parade

Don't tell me not to fly, I simply got to
If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you
Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade

Ooh, life is juicy, juicy and you see
I gotta have my bite, sir
Get ready for me love, 'cause I'm a "comer"
I simply gotta march, my heart's a drummer
Don't bring around the cloud to rain on my parade

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An economic and political debacle in the making

I haven’t posted anything on the economy in awhile because I know people get tired of hearing gloom and doom. This week’s housing report was so awful, however, that I feel a responsibility (ahem) to comment. Sales of both new and existing houses fell off a cliff in July. The numbers were beyond bad. Most MSM reports said the fall was unexpectedly large but the bloggers I read who actually look at real numbers saw this coming. This is yet another example of the mass media’s cooperation with the political and economic fantasy game being played in Washington these days.

The most likely cause of this drop-off happening now was the end of the first-time homebuyers’ tax credit in the spring. While costing the Treasury more billions it doesn’t have, the credit did nothing but pull housing demand forward. In other words, people who would have bought a house anyway did so earlier because of the tax credit. It actually generated little if any genuinely new sales. So this summer’s slump is the compensation for the artificial sales’ bump earlier in the year.

Yet the July home sales drop seems even too big for this explanation. The housing market is nearly collapsing. There is now more than a 12-month inventory of existing homes—nearly unprecedented. In the new McMansion market of homes over $750,000—once homebuilders’ gravy—there were too few sales nationwide in both June and July to statistically register.

What’s going on? Several things: people can’t sell their own homes and so are not buying new ones. People are underwater on their mortgage and can’t afford to move. People can’t get mortgages for new homes. Buyers realize that home prices are almost certain to start falling again, so why buy now? And, of course, tens of millions of people are unemployed, under-employed, or are otherwise economically distressed.

Typical predictions now are that house prices will fall another 10-15% in the coming year—and some are projecting declines of as high as 25%, at least in some areas. On multiple fronts this could be economically disastrous. It could push more people into foreclosure, it certainly means further shrinkage in the building industry, and it will put further stress on banks. This latter area is certainly one to watch. We have been assured that banks have turned the corner thanks to TARP and other government aids and bailouts but that is actually only true assuming the economy doesn’t get worse. Most banks are still heavily exposed to home mortgages and further deterioration in housing could threaten their stability yet again.

All this is leading to another area of deterioration: confidence in the Obama administration. Some months ago I read a blogger’s fear that Obama could become the Hoover of the Great Recession. That possibility seems to be growing steadily (and remember that Hoover was considered a very progressive politician when elected). The scale of this disaster for workers and their families just does not seem to be registering in the White House.

Example: the HAMP program was officially designed to assist distressed mortgage holders to renegotiate their loans to something affordable. The negotiating process was lengthy but people were able to stay in their homes and avoid foreclosure during this time. The program is nearing an end and it is now obvious relatively few of these loan modifications are actually occurring because people’s financial states are just too bad to make the numbers work. In conversations last week with economic journalists and bloggers, Treasury officials acknowledged that this result was actually what they expected. The real purpose of the program they now say was to prevent a flood of foreclosures at once which would drive down home prices and endanger the banks. In other words, HAMP’s real purpose was to spread the foreclosures out over a longer period, thus saving the banks but not the homeowners.

Again and again, administration programs have either been inadequate, poorly directed, or designed primarily to buy time for large tottering industries like banking and autos. The 2009 stimulus is coming to an end. It kept some people working but has done little to create long-term economic growth. I, for instance, have a re-paved street in front of my house thanks to the stimulus program. It’s nice but wasn’t really necessary. (There are worse streets nearby but in a ward whose alderman wasn’t as quick to grab the money as mine was.) And while it provided a few people with jobs at the time it is doing nothing right now in that regard.

In short, the economy is not growing. The stimulus stopped the free-fall but hasn’t reignited the country’s economic engines. Now it appears that the economy is again turning negative. People need to be put back to work. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate that will happen on its own, or as a result of anything the government is doing or even has proposed doing. In all likelihood unemployment will start to go up again soon, thus beginning a downward spiral.

Come November, the recession could well be back at full throttle. At that point, the finer points of political ideology will matter little to most people and a “throw the bums out” mentality will take hold. Democrats should then expect a shellacking. As President Clinton famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid” and that’s no less true today.

Note: The charts above are from Calculated Risk, perhaps the best site today for unvarnished economic information, especially regarding housing. I can't praise it enough. For another, more detailed, perspective on these recent housing reports and their implications, see today's post at The Automatic Earth. The first two parts are lengthy but especially good.

And an update: Paul Krugman's column in Thursday's New York Times also addresses the topic. One quote: "Why are people who know better sugar-coating economic reality? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that it’s all about evading responsibility." If you acknowledge there's a problem then you either have to do something about it or admit you don't know what to do.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sing a new song (Sunday Reflections for August 22, 2010)

This month we are using a pop song in our Sunday liturgy to provide another source of reflection, in addition to the regular scripture readings. Hearing this, a friend of mine commented on Facebook that she has come to appreciate secular music as much as religious songs as a source of spiritual support. “I'm enjoying the blurring of secular and sacred music,” she wrote. “If the message is inspirational, what does it matter who recorded it?”

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the difficulty of contemporary worship. Typically such efforts have involved taking traditional religious ideas (though expressed in modern language) and setting them to more contemporary sounding music. The fit, however, is rarely comfortable and often aesthetically mediocre.

Thus far, from comments and even attendance, this worship experiment has been well received. So while admittedly not quite knowing what I was doing, this experience has made me wonder more about why the church tries to add a contemporary veneer to its traditional spiritual life. Why do we try to create contemporary sounding church music rather than just use actual contemporary music instead?

Well, this question gets a bit complicated since you can approach it from several angles. For one thing, most pop music does not lend itself to sing-a-long. There are a few exceptions (Queen’s “We Will Rock You” comes to mind, as sports fans the world over know) but most of it is written as performance music, often by a solo voice. Fans may know a song’s lyrics but even when a musician encourages a concert audience to join in, the singing is usually rather pathetic even if enthusiastic.

Apart from this practical difficulty, I think the use of popular music in worship raises another more fundamental question. It’s a question that has been hanging over the church for several centuries, since the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. Namely, how does the church view and relate to secular culture? It’s a question the church has been alternately avoiding and wrestling with throughout this period but without any conclusion.

This is a long story, one that really starts all the way back with Jesus. It comes out of the differences of opinion within the church from the start about what Jesus was up to and what his followers should be doing after his death.

Modern New Testament scholarship is pretty well agreed that Jesus probably expected some dramatic apocalyptic event to occur in his life time—a “Day of the Lord,” if you will. Hence, Jesus talked about “the kingdom” being right around the corner and of the need to be ready at a moment’s notice for the “king’s” return. Of course, it didn’t happen. After his death, the early church then decided Jesus was referring to his own return and expected that at any moment, but that didn’t happen either.

It’s easy to see this shift in the later New Testament writings (both gospels and epistles). There is a growing concern with making the church organizationally sustainable for the long haul. The result is an accepted canon of scripture, worship practice, and ordained leadership. Yet this still begged the question of just what the church should be doing. Was it still in a hurry up and wait mode? If so, how long would the wait be? If not, then what was the church’s purpose?

The answer ended up being handed to it by none other than the Roman Emperor Constantine. For reasons that are still not entirely clear—and after years of on-again, off-again persecution—Constantine decided to make Christianity the new state religion of the empire. Suddenly the church had a dramatically different role to play, one for which it really was not prepared. Nor was it a role found in Jesus’ teachings. Regardless, the bishops jumped at the opportunity, concluding this must be what God wants and the church as we know it was born.

Ironically, the empire eventually collapsed but the church survived, carrying on many of the basic social functions the empire’s bureaucracy used to perform. The pope easily slid onto the emperor’s throne and Christendom replaced the empire as the organizational structure for much of Europe. For a thousand years church and society were virtually one and the same.

Then with the Renaissance and Reformation, Christendom began to crumble. The church split, of course, but the rise of commerce and the nation-state also carved out ever-larger portions of society independent of the church’s influence. That trend has continued to the present day. (An interesting physical representation of the decline of church power is seen in the shrinking of papal ruled territory from the Holy Roman Empire, to the Italian Papal States, to the Vatican acreage tucked inside the city of Rome.)

Christianity—whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox—has never figured out what to make of modern society and culture. At times it has acted as if it is all a disaster and we just need to get back to Christendom again. By now, however, that prospect seems preposterous to even the most die-hard traditionalist. One response is to resume the waiting game for Jesus’ return. Off and on, fundamentalists have liked predicting this, usually to be preceded by some catastrophic apocalypse. Most of Christianity, however, has kept going back and forth between wanting to fight modern culture or embrace it.

And the reason for this confusion, as I’ve said, is the church’s uncertainty from the start about its mission. Is the church supposed to be getting ready to abandon this world for a new and better one that God will somehow provide? Or is it working to transform this world into the new and better one envisioned by Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him?

Clearly, I am in the latter camp. The other, to me, is now pure fantasy and the longer the church clings to it the more bizarre it looks and acts and the more irrelevant it is to real life. This life and this world is what we have been given and what we have to work with. Hunkering down in the church like it’s a bomb shelter is just a waste.

Jan Wildens "Landscape with Christ and Disciples on the Road to Emmaus"
Coming to this conclusion, it seems to me that the church and Christians individually need to be fully engaged with the world in whatever way we can, doing all we can to make it a better place. We need to be recognizing and pointing out to everyone the world’s inherent sacredness and value, including that of all the people living in it. We need to be celebrating this world as the beautiful and glorious gift that it is. And we need to be partnering with anyone who shares this commitment, whatever their religious or philosophical label.

Jesus came announcing the coming of God’s kingdom—not the coming of the church. The church is one instrument for bringing that about but we have to admit it’s had a pretty spotty record in that regard over the years. To avoid simply becoming absurd and irrelevant, the church needs to recognize what has always been true, that the Spirit blows wherever it wills. God’s transforming power can and does work anywhere, through anyone, and God’s voice can be heard in anyplace—even, and perhaps especially today, in a song on the radio.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A response to Peter

I posted a link to my last Reflections post, “Bono-fied Christianity,” on the ELCA’s Facebook page and got this response from Peter (who I do not know):

This is exactly why we need the Reformation now more than ever. Christianity is NOT about church, it is NOT about ethics, it is NOT about justice. It is about the freedom from sin, slavery and death that is brought about by Christ's death and resurrection alone and only, and the real-world, tangible comfort that brings to those who trust this Good News.

It’s odd to see such enthusiasm for classic Lutheranism from a young and intelligent person like Peter (not a pastor, btw) while a middle-aged pastor like me is trying to stifle a yawn. No, that isn’t quite right. It’s not so much a yawn as shrug of the shoulders and perhaps a little sigh. Memories of too many seminary lectures come back, all met with another voice: “Well, no, not exactly.” All those solas (“grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone…”) have had too many unfortunate collisions with modern and post-modern realities over the years.

It’s the language, of course, that has become such problem. What do any of those words mean to ordinary people in 2010? One of the characteristics of a cult is that its members use a coded vocabulary which is truly understood only by them, and Christianity has been progressively sliding into that status.

Skipping for the moment the “NOTs” of the second sentence, consider the positive affirmations of the third: “freedom from sin, slavery and death.” The reality is that no one experiences freedom from any of those things—not Christians, not anyone. We all do bad things and have bad things done to us, throughout our life. We all experience bondages of one kind or another, many of which are simply functions of the circumstances of our birth. And as we all know, one of the two certainties of human existence is death.

To be somewhat more serious, consider this last one: death. I rarely encounter people who are overly concerned about the prospect of their being dead, and this is especially true among the elderly (who sometimes are looking forward to it). People are concerned about becoming sick and of the process of dying. People often are very concerned about someone else being dead, such as a spouse or other family member. People are generally not concerned about their own mortality, and this is true whether they are actively religious or not, or whether they believe in an after-life or not.

This is remarkable and I don’t think it has been recognized what a game-changer this has been for the church and Christian life. There are many explanations, of course. The dramatic increase in life expectancy is a big one and science’s influence on our worldview is another. Many no longer believe in any existence after this life, but even for those that do it has become such a blur or generically good thing that it has no real content.

Thus, the “freedom from sin, slavery and death” that Christian faith promises has lost its traditional content. It cannot be existentially true for people because these things are simply inescapable parts of the human condition. To postpone this freedom to some other future existence renders it practically meaningless for most people. If Jesus’ primary achievement is presented as having won this “freedom” it means his relevance will also be fading fast. It’s hard to see where “the real-world, tangible comfort” is to come from in this circumstance.

As for the “NOTs,” I think that in the case of the church it is simply untrue historically but it is becoming true now, which is what my post (and others previously) was all about. Christianity is de-coupling from the church and thus less and less about the church.

As for it not being about ethics or justice—well, this is the heart of the matter. I think this notion is fundamentally wrong, and as wrong as could be. I would agree that for centuries the church imagined itself being a salvation dispensary. As the marketing/evangelism department will attest, however, customer interest in this product has dropped off the cliff.

The only thing giving Christianity any creative life recently has been the recognition that Jesus, in fact, was little interested in the metaphysical “salvation” that came to be peddled by the church through its sacraments, evangelists and missionaries. No, what biblical scholarship has helped us recognize is that Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, was "all about" ethics, justice, and their correlate, compassion. Reading their biblical stories now it’s hard to imagine how this could have been missed—except for the fact that we often see what we want to see and that for a long time the church controlled what people could see.

I don’t expect what I have written to have at all persuaded Peter or anyone with his viewpoint (and I know there are many). Rather I simply wanted to set out the alternative and show the depth of the divide. What some view as “fluff” (the word of another commentator), I see as the meat of what Christianity is about and has to offer. More important that what I think, however, is that this is what Christianity is now becoming and thereby is continuing to spread the hope and expectation of the coming of the kingdom. Thus, reformation is happening but it is a reformation of Christianity (as Don Cupitt has written) which may or may not include a reformation of the church.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bono-fied Christianity (Sunday Reflections for August 15, 2010)

 (I mentioned to another pastor this week that we would be playing a U2 song in worship on Sunday. As a fan of theirs he said he has always been impressed how they could perform music with clearly Christian lyrics but not be pigeon-holed as a Christian band. “And yet they ARE a Christian band,” he added. As I thought about our conversation later, however, I wondered: “Are they?”

What does it mean today to be labeled “Christian”? In this country, that term now most often refers to something affiliated with evangelical Christianity. This is almost always true for Christian schools, books, radio, TV, music, businesses, organizations, values, and politics.

Recent surveys have shown that this equation of “Christian” with conservative evangelicalism is starting to take hold in the public mind, especially with young adults. Since many of them disagree with evangelical ideology and politics, there is a growing trend to avoid being identified as Christian even if they accept a more moderate or liberal interpretation of Christianity. This is giving mainline Protestants one more reason to be frustrated and confused about their identity.

Bono and Oprah launch RED charity brand
The Christian leanings of the members of U2, especially its front man Bono, are well known. Bono says the band has resisted the Christian label because it lays too high a standard on them. Perhaps. Yet it also seems that U2’s non-sectarian identity over the past 25+ years is part of a naturally emerging change in the nature of religion, and Christianity in particular, in the Western world.

I have been writing recently about music and the arts, and their relation with contemporary Christianity, in part because they are often the leading edge of cultural change. In that regard what I think is striking is how much Christian influence can be found in modern art, music, literature, drama, cinema, etc.—yet rarely are these works given the label “Christian.” In fact, like U2 and Bono, most of the creators of these works would avoid or reject such a label, even while acknowledging a Christian influence or inspiration.

So what’s going on? Paradoxically, even as institutional Christianity in the form of the church has been fading, over the past two centuries a Christian worldview has been gradually getting absorbed by Western culture and ridden along with it literally around the globe. Christian stories, myths, symbols, and values now pervade our common culture. They are recognized by people who have never set foot in a church or read a page of the Bible. They are recognized by people who don’t know their Christian origin.

This is not to say, of course, that society has been transformed into a Christian paradise. Far from it—but the church never achieved that status either! From its inception, the church was plagued by the whole range of human foibles. The gospel functioned within it, however, as the inspiration for its communal life as well as for the life of its individual members. It served as a constant critique of the church’s failures and guide for its reform.

Today the Christian story, ethic and world vision serve that same function for culture at large. At the broadest social and political level, it’s hard to think of a movement for justice or reform that hasn’t had its principle inspiration in the Bible’s vision of equality and compassion. The rise of democracy, the abolition of slavery and child labor, welfare for the poor, universal suffrage, promotion of health care and literacy, international disaster relief, the end of colonialism, and the various movements for civil rights have all explicitly or implicitly traced their inspiration and authority to the biblical tradition, especially Jesus and the prophets. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 seeks to hold the entire world to these standards.

It can be hard to recognize the presence of Christian symbols and values in our common culture simply because they have become so universally accepted. Literature, for example, routinely explores the full range of weakness and failure in human character and relationships in conjunction with themes of sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption. Again like U2, many authors are critically recognized for their use of Christian themes and images yet are never classified as Christian writers. And as I indicated a couple weeks ago, the same can be said for many contemporary artists.

So, I think I would disagree with my pastor friend. U2 is not a Christian band for one reason: while they are promoting a Christian-based message they are not promoting Christianity as a religion. For this is what the word Christian has come to designate: a person or organization which advocates belonging to the church and/or believing in Christian doctrine. For musicians and artists like U2, while they accept and use much of the Christian story in their approach to life, and even advocate for Christian ethical principles in public, they are generally indifferent, if not hostile, to church membership.

Anne Rice
Recently best-selling author Anne Rice created a stir by very publicly repudiating her membership in the Catholic Church. “I quit being a Christian,” she declared on her Facebook page, but “I remain committed to Christ as always.” Without going into her reasons for this, what is so telling is how easily she separates being “committed to Christ” from belonging to the church or even being identified as a Christian. In her view, in fact, the latter had become an obstacle to the former.

And such is the experience of countless millions of people today. I encounter few people who have explicitly rejected Christianity. I meet many people, however, who left the church after some bad experience (ala Anne Rice) or just drifted away because it was no longer serving any real purpose in their life. Naturally, churches have responded to this by trying to make church life “better,” but I think this misses the point. For the real message here is that Christianity is changing from a group identity to a personal commitment and approach to life.

Implicit in this is the fading away of what once was thought to be the church’s primary role: saving people’s souls. To most Western people, including many in the church, that notion is as antiquated as it sounds. Nothing epitomizes modern life better than our concern for life here and now. This is in sharp contrast with the ancient and medieval belief (just as much taken for granted at the time) that one’s primary concern was with a life after this one. Today we literally live in a different world.

Contemporary musicians, artists, and writers seek to connect with the questions and issues that people struggle with in their personal and corporate lives. They respond to the perceived needs of their audience and in doing so many have found the Christian tradition an important or even primary resource.

We all know those concerns: love, family, friendship, work, meaning and purpose, fairness, suffering, social justice, violence and war, peace and prosperity, aging and death. If Christianity survives in an institutional form it will be because it too discovers how to provide real support to people in their struggle with such questions.

Music and the arts have been free to naturally evolve in response to cultures’ needs and concerns. Institutional Christianity, however, has become stuck, tethered to the past, longing again to be able hold the fate of people’s lives in its hands. In its stubborn nostalgia, however, for most people it becomes more irrelevant by the day. In the meantime, real Christianity is leaking out of the church and into the culture at large becoming, as Jesus once said, the leaven in the lump.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The impossible dream of contemporary worship (Sunday Reflections for August 8, 2010)

 I must have been in 5th or 6th grade when our church had its first “folk service.” I remember using mimeographed copies of the then new Chicago Folk Service, developed by an avant-garde Lutheran congregation in the Lincoln Park. I don’t know if the adults actually liked it but, since they were happy to see “the kids” doing something in church, the service continued to be used a couple times annually through my high school years.

The 1960s began a journey of worship experimentation that continues to this day. It’s been a bumpy road. Churches of all kinds have seen a parade of new worship books, liturgies and worship styles, some denominationally sanctioned but many not. Conflicts over worship formats became so intense they were dubbed the “worship wars.” The friction has abated somewhat because churches feel more free to do their own thing. Even official worship resources now include considerable variety (e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s TEN settings of the communion liturgy). There is no one way to do worship anymore.

The elusive holy grail of worship reform during these decades has been to make worship contemporary. Much of the conflict during this time, however, has been due to the fact that no one can agree what contemporary worship means. Those wanting to keep the traditional liturgical format thought it was enough to update its language and musical style. Others have wanted to make more radical changes to the worship experience. Many congregations (perhaps most) have tried to find a middle ground and ended up with a schizophrenic blend of worship styles (with Emergent Christianity being the most recent example). Whatever their choices, few churches feel the matter is settled or that they’ve arrived at their liturgical destination. It’s all still very much up in the air.

I think the contemporary worship arguments have gone in circles because there are actually bigger issues underneath that never get fully identified, if they’re recognized at all. The vagueness of the term “contemporary” is one indication that we aren’t sure what the objective really is. The folk service movement, for example, began when churches were at the height of their popularity. They weren’t done to keep or attract members, as the motivation for worship change often is today. Rather they represented the impact popular culture was having on the church. They were also signs that even bigger changes were coming.

Since the 1960s, churches have basically been chasing after popular culture. It’s a race they never seem to win. In regards to music, for example, contemporary church liturgy or songs rarely rise above average in quality and often are mediocre or worse. The problem is not lack of talented composers or performers. Rather, it’s a misunderstanding of contemporary music.

Popular music, gathering steam in the 1920s and 30s, exploded after World War II. Radio, TV and the invention of the LP put music and musicians in front of everyone. With the arrival of rock and roll, music became one of the primary means for personal expression, especially for teens and young adults. Elvis, the Beetles, Michael Jackson, mega-concerts, the IPod and the internet have caused this relentless tidal wave to inundate everything.

Contemporary worship misunderstands pop music in thinking it is a style that can be laid as a veneer over traditional Christian theological content. The affect is not unlike how you feel when your favorite rock anthem gets used as the theme song of a TV commercial. There’s a nails-on-chalkboard disconnect and a sense some rule is being broken: “Nooooo! THAT’S not what that song is about!”

The reality is that pop music, like all of pop culture, is about a break with the past and with tradition. That includes, of course, Christianity and the church which dominated Western culture for well over a thousand years. The break began with artists, musicians and writers in the Enlightenment but they mostly related to the educated elite. It was 20th century “pop” culture that enabled the mass population to experience this creative and intellectual independence for themselves.

The church’s pursuit of “contemporary worship” has been a chase after a mirage—it evaporates whenever the church thinks it’s found it. For worship to be genuinely contemporary would mean not just changes in style but changes in substance, as well. What’s needed, in short, is the creation of “pop religion.” And that’s actually happening already.

What I said last week about contemporary art is also true of contemporary music. Musicians also explore questions of meaning, beauty, human relationships, community, and transcendence. This pursuit of spiritual meaning and values in the arts parallels the growing popularity of personal spiritualities. This “pop religion” then includes the whole array of options for personal spiritual expression, beliefs and practices—as well as the option for developing new ones.

The church’s problem with this, of course, is that none of it is church-centered. In fact, there is no institutional center. It’s “pop”—personal and individual. This is not to say the church can’t have a role or contribute something of value. It just can’t be in charge and that’s going to be hard to swallow. Can there be a Christianity that isn’t church-centered, where the church isn't in control? It’s an idea that may take some getting used to but we probably should because it seems to be happening anyway.

“Contemporary worship” then is a kind of oxymoron—a self-contradiction. The problem isn’t the contemporary part—it’s the worship. One of the primary insights of modern culture is that holiness, the sacred, is not something “out there” but is all around us, permeating life and the world. Thus you don’t need to set aside a special place and time to commune with it—any moment or place can be and is sacred.

And so, increasingly worship is nostalgic, a connection with the past. That isn’t bad or without value. But it does mean that as memory of that past recedes, fewer and fewer people will find it meaningful—which, of course, is already happening. All this can be distressing until we realize how ambivalent the Bible itself is about institutional religion. Some of its most biting words of condemnation are for temples and priests. And rather than theological symbols, Jesus seemed to draw more inspiration from everyday things like flowers, birds, widows and squabbling brothers—just the kind of things you might put into a song.