Monday, December 24, 2012

Dreaming of a PG Christmas

The December 7 issue of Harper’s has a delightfully quirky essay about Handel’s Messiah. In it, the author describes attending a Christmas Eve mass in Dublin (where this Messiah was born), during which excerpts from the oratorio are performed. In his homily, the priest assures the congregation that Jesus was a real person living in a real time. Caesar ruled much of the world and ordered the census that got Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in order to increase tax revenue. Some things never change.

Countless sermons this Christmas will emphasize or assume the historical accuracy of most or all of the elements of the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth. This might be expected in fundamentalist and evangelical churches but in more liberal mainline churches there will be little difference. What is remarkable is that many of these preachers will know and even agree with modern scholarship that the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ birth are largely, if not entirely, fiction. (And the Lukan census story is one that has been long recognized as a preposterous howler.)

Following this past November’s electoral debacle, Republican Louisiana governor Bobby Jindahl said his party needed to stop being the “party of stupid.” Unfortunately few church leaders have had similar awakenings. At Christmas services across denominational lines, Christianity will continue to behave like the religion of stupid.

Christianity in the United States, following by about a century the experience of our European cousins, is now in full retreat. Recently, the Sunday New York Times has been documenting this development. An op-ed piece by a prominent Evangelical pastor acknowledged that the ascendance of their version of Christianity has now plateaued if not reversed. Mainline churches have accepted this reality for a couple decades, at least. Another story highlighted growth of the “nones”—those who have no religious affiliation, especially common among people under 40, and who provided a significant vote for President Obama. With few exceptions, churches and denominations are rapidly becoming older and smaller. Congregations by the thousands have closed their doors. Finally, the feature article of the latest book review section was an essay on the disappearance of themes of faith from contemporary literature.

In the years since critical biblical scholarship became accepted in mainline seminaries, future pastors have been given a confusing message. While it is important you learn this, they’ve been told, keep it mostly to yourself. It’s too difficult for most people in the pews to understand and they will just become upset—and you might lose your job. As a result lots of preaching is grounded more in ideas and images pastors obtained during Sunday school than seminary.

The result is that theologically moderate and liberal churches have become increasingly dull, irrelevant, and yes, stupid. While global culture changes at an accelerating pace, the church has essentially shelved the tools that would enable it to engage this dynamic world. It tells itself it is being counter-cultural and prophetic yet most people now experience it as timid and often more than a little odd.

In reality, critical biblical scholarship and theology have never been genuinely welcomed because church leaders always suspected that doing so would lead to much more upheaval than they wanted. And they’re right. But that upheaval is what the church needs if it is going to play a serious role in the life of the emerging world of ubiquitous technology and a global culture.

The truth is that the conceptual foundation of ancient biblical religion has dissolved away. It is simply impossible to live and function as an aware modern person and have coherent, logical thoughts about the biblical God, heaven, hell, angels, and the after-life. This is why systematic theology has ceased to exist in mainline churches: there is nothing intelligible left to be said about these previously bedrock subjects.

The last prominent systematic theologian was the German-American Paul Tillich. He came to the conclusion that Christianity’s essential concepts could now only be understood as metaphors, correlated with ideas and categories of the modern secular world. 1965, the year of Tillich’s death in Chicago, could well be considered the end date of Christianity’s serious intellectual engagement with the world. The popular recognition of this came the following year with TIME magazine’s landmark cover story on the “death of God” theologians. For orthodox Christianity, the game was up. It was all over but the shouting.

Horrified at the conclusions of liberal theology, leaders of mainline churches have tried to do damage control ever since. Yet their efforts have only served to further drive home the point: the God of the ancient world can have no serious place in the modern world. Which raises the question: why have they bothered? Why all the fuss? What is it about this God that they have so desperately wanted to hang on to?

Critical biblical scholars agree on the great difficulty of creating a genuine biography of Jesus’ adult life. The stories of his birth and childhood meanwhile are almost universally viewed as creations of the early church. Yet this Christmas preachers in mainline churches will treat willy-nilly various points of the birth narratives as real events involving real people. If confronted with this inconsistency, they will stammer various explanations: it’s what people expect, it allows people to interpret the story literally or metaphorically as they choose, it really can’t be preached any other way, or it’s just easier.

The last answer is the most honest. For to acknowledge the church’s traditions about Jesus’ birth as fiction, inevitably leads to a recasting of the meaning of his whole life. The story of a wise and compassionate rabbi from Nazareth is very different from the story of the Lord and Savior of the world miraculously born to a virgin in the City of David. If nothing else the modern world has learned that the coming of a “lord and savior” is rarely, if ever, good news. Historically such claimants simply became the next oppressors, with more than a few doing so in the names of God and Christ.

Ironically the long-recognized “message” of Christmas is entirely compatible with modern theology: “God” is no longer in heaven but has “come to earth” and now is manifest in the sacrificial love of human beings for each other. And such themes often appear in homilies at Christmas and throughout the year. But modern listeners find it more and more difficult to get past the accompanying baroque narratives, images, and doctrines to find a message with relevance and meaning.

People often say “Christmas is for children” as a way to keep adult behavior in this season in perspective, and in check. Churches also have increasingly adopted this attitude. That's fine, except that it has often meant treating everyone as children. There are adults in the room. Adults can enjoy Santa and his reindeer without entering a child's fantasy world. To do otherwise would be a kind of craziness. In the same way stories of angels, wise men, and virgin births can be appreciated while recognizing their fabulous origins.

In our natural development we give up “childish ways,” however tempting as it may be to hang on to them. The church, however, has been channeling its inner Peter Pan and giving in to that temptation far too long. It’s time for the church to grow up so that it can help others grow up. Only then can it be a genuine catalyst of maturity, pushing back darkness and ignorance, and helping people fulfill their potential by becoming fully alive, aware, and compassionate human beings.


Doug said...

From Greg on Facebook: "Thanks for this. It's a much more eloquent and more fully elaborated version of the interior monologue going through my head when I went to Christmas Eve church service with my parents yesterday."

Michael_SC said...

Just today (Dec 30) I attended a PCUSA worship service where the pastor presented the boy-Jesus-at-Temple (Luke 2) story as a straight account, not a hint that it was probably some or all literary creation. It worked to serve her point of the sermon. But it does illustrate your point that mainline churches join the evangelical/fundamental churches in presenting the text more or less at face value.