Monday, December 16, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Carrie?

A little over a week ago NBC provided the country with a source of extended water cooler and dinner table conversation. For reasons not entirely clear, it revived the venerable Broadway classic "The Sound of Music" in a live, 3-hour broadcast. The reviews were mixed, at best, yet clearly NBC hopes this will become a "holiday classic" (it's already been repeated once).

Most of the controversy swirled around the show's star, Carrie Underwood, who played Maria. Nearly everyone agreed, whether they thought the event a success or not, that while Underwood's singing was more than adequate her dramatic performance fell short. In fact, many of those at the negative end of the critical spectrum thought her acting was simply awful, and said so.

Well, performers get used to taking their critical lumps and move one--or they get out of performing. Except apparently for Ms Underwood. For her the issue wasn't one of dramatics and critical interpretation but theology and spirituality. After becoming aware of the harsh judgment many critics rendered on her performance, she responded on Twitter in a remarkably un-Hollywood fashion: "Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight... 1 Peter 2:1-25." Arts critics rarely get their positions by being nice and being called "mean" must certainly be one the the gentler words they hear. But Underwood's telling her critical detractors that they need to find Jesus is probably a first for most of them.

I hope that Underwood knows at some level how disingenuous such a response is. But whether she does or not, it remains yet another sad example of how conservative Christians now turn everything in their lives into theological platforms, if not battlegrounds. Her acting was mediocre at best and most critics called her out for it. As critics do, especially to keep an audience for their material, many used over-the-top language in saying so. Thus it has always been and thus it will always be.

In the piously distorted, self-important worldview of a Carrie Underwood, however, such an "attack" becomes another skirmish in her lifelong participation in the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. Sadly, this has become one of the primary appeals of evangelical Christianity. People's lives are not important or valued in and of themselves. It is not their relationships, their experiences, their talents, their accomplishments, their loves found and lost, their joys and sorrows, their lessons learned and taught that are to be valued and cherished. No, it is their role in the cosmic battle of the forces of God against the forces of Evil. Their own individual identity is of little or no account. It is only their identity as a soldier of Christ that truly matters.

I don't know which is the more significant factor here: Is this about a declining culture providing fewer and fewer people with a sense of personal significance and worth, or a declining religion desperately playing on people's inherent insecurities to attract and hold members? Whichever is greater, no doubt both realities are at play. However, the church is not yet so immobilized that it cannot call-out distortions of its message when they arise. 

Traditional, conservative Christianity is on the ropes and for good reason. But rather than confront its challengers honestly it has become brittle, defensive and paranoid, filling its adherents with that same spirit. This is not the joyful, liberating voice of the gospel but rather the fearful shrieks and shouts of an institution in decline and under siege.

So rather than being coddled, Ms Underwood needs to hear more bracing yet honest words: Your critics did not attack you because of your godliness and piety. They attacked you because it is their job to tell you that your acting sucked. Now quit complaining and get some acting lessons, or get back on the stage and just sing. And there is no shame in choosing the latter because then you doing what we are all called to do as human beings: utilize our marvelous, God-given talents for the benefit of our neighbor. It is all that God asks.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Are you a king?"

Way past time to post again. I'm leading worship and preaching next week for the first time in a year-and-a-half, so maybe that's what is motivating me to do this now.

It is probably appropriate that I missed worship today (because of snow) since today is a festival that simply makes no sense to me. In most liturgical churches today was "Christ the King" (or some variation on that title). It is a recent invention. First introduced as a fall festival in Roman Catholic churches in the 1920s, it was intended to be a statement against encroaching secularism and  support for the Vatican's ongoing struggle with the Italian government for its sovereignty.

During Vatican II its emphasis was somewhat revised and moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year. A little later many Protestant churches adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, which included Christ the King Sunday. It was appealing both in providing a more formal end to the church year and, at after a string of doom and judgment texts, doing so on a high note: "Jesus will reign" in the end.

The most immediate problem, which should have been obvious at least to Protestant churches c. 1970, is with its central symbol of king. Today, the few remaining kings and queens are political figure heads. In the counties that still have them, they are cultural symbols of national unity and pride. No one today has first-hand experience of a king as a ruler. Royal imagery for most people is from tourist pageants, gossipy scandals, or Disney tales. Christ the King?

Okay, so let's acknowledge that royalty has fallen on hard times in the last few centuries. "That's not what we mean by king," ecclesiologists may say. But then what do we mean by "king" in this context? Is there some better or ideal regal image we should be conjuring up? It's hard not think that the church is trying to refashion some version of the "benevolent dictator" with this icon of Christ the King.

Taking this one feast day apart quickly becomes a "pealing an onion"-like task. There's a lot more here than one first realizes. Obviously this is another example of the how much of the church's imagery and theology is rooted in an ancient world long gone and therefore essentially meaningless to modern people. Yet it goes deeper than this. The medieval church supported monarchs as ruling in God's stead; human kings were surrogates for "Christ the King." Originating in the Enlightenment, the democratic movement, however, rejected monarchy as fundamentally evil and oppressive.

Can God or Christ as a king work as a meaningful symbol today? I don't see how, nor do I see why we want it to, except for cultural and political reactionary purposes. This is, after all, what the Vatican intended in creating the feast nearly a century ago. The notion that God is king in the Hebrew Bible is a complex and ambiguous one. And the title almost seems antithetical to the person we know as the historical Jesus. Many of the texts for this feast day reflect that ambivalence (Jesus "reigns" from the cross) but in doing so only draws attention to the day's internal contradictions and even to contradictions at the heart of Christianity.

Is God or Christ as cosmic ruler really our best-case vision for the culmination of history? Or was Jesus actually trying to get us to envision history as well as ourselves in radically different terms? Wasn't he actually trying to end our dependence on supernatural, let alone earthly, parental figures, challenging us instead to take on the responsibility of "ruling" ourselves? If so, then a festival celebrating "Christ the King" seems confusing at best, and more likely a contradiction of the heart of Jesus' own message.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A state of the church report

I recently completed the forms required to seek a new call in my denomination. I included this statement, giving my overview of the church after nearly 30 years of parish ministry. I haven't posted in awhile so I thought I would share this as a brief summary of my current thinking.

When I was ordained, American Lutheranism had endured a decade of membership loss. At the seminary and around the church, there was much talk about mission and outreach. As a parish pastor, my in-box received a steady stream of congregational renewal programs. Fast-forward to today and that decline has now lasted a generation.

The specifics of the crisis in the ELCA are well known and repeated to varying degrees in all American denominations. Congregational membership is getting older and smaller. Each year more churches close than new ones are started. Denominational income has been dropping steadily, resulting in repeated cycles of program cuts, reorganizations, and staff layoffs. 

All social institutions today are being rocked by unprecedented social upheaval. And like many of them, in response the church has often been its own worst enemy. For well over a century, theologians and biblical scholars have been attempting to cast a modern critical eye on church tradition. Where not rejected outright, their work has mostly languished in academic circles and little-read books. The church has not wanted to hear or face the fact that the ancient world of Christianity’s origins no longer exists and is not coming back. 

Formed in the ancient world, church language has become largely meaningless to modern ears; its doctrines, theology, and liturgy are an esoteric conversation incomprehensible to outsiders. Basic concepts like sin and salvation, heaven and hell, while still familiar words, have little or no modern content. Even such bedrock ideas as eternal life and God flounder in foggy vagueness within today’s science based worldview. There is no place for them in the modern universe: heaven has become homeless and God unemployed.

Ironically, it was Luther’s Reformation which launched the modern revolution. Luther had breathed in the Renaissance spirit. Its human-centric viewpoint made the church’s institutional corruption and its distortion of Christian teaching evident to all but it was Luther who sounded the alarm. His Bible study led him to rediscover Jesus’ belief in God’s love for all people and in the value of the individual. Yet Luther was a transition figure; his consciousness was still primarily medieval. He was unprepared for the social explosion that followed his words and vehemently repudiated it.

In the following centuries the world has moved from a theo-centric to a human-centric viewpoint in virtually every arena of life. During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and then the scientific and industrial revolutions, God and religion became increasingly marginalized, their influence confined to ever shrinking domains. So for example, while the Bible and devotional tracts had been the primary popular reading material, suddenly in the late 18th century they were displaced by a new form of literature, the novel. People’s reading interest shifted from the lives of saints to lives of ordinary people: Abraham and Sarah gave way to Elizabeth and Darcy, Peter and Paul to Tom and Huck.The secular culture of the modern world came to be guided and inspired by stories and images from novels, theater, movies, radio, TV--and now video games. Today, people’s world views are not shaped by ancient myths and stories like those in the Bible, but by meta-stories of the sciences like natural history, astronomy, physics, and psychology.

Modernity has now penetrated every continent, creating at least the framework of a single global culture. High-speed transportation and communication really have shrunk the planet. Movies, TV shows, and music may have specific countries of origin, yet they can be found and enjoyed everywhere. Popular musicians regularly have global concert tours. All major corporations create products and services with international appeal. Cities and urban life especially have become much the same the world-over. Young people everywhere wear a uniform of t-shirts, jeans, and athletic shoes. They listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows and movies, use the same electronic devices, and engage each other via the same social media.

Given all this, the decline of religion can hardly be surprising. Around the world, urban young adults especially are increasingly absent from organized religion of any kind. In the US, recent surveys document the dramatic growth of “the nones,” people claiming no religious affiliation, especially among those under 40. A grim picture? Yes, for religion and Christianity as they are now. Yet the great religions, including Christianity, have all been able to adapt themselves to changing times and places. 

What then is the value of ancient religious traditions for people today? The greatest obstacle to answering that question is our difficulty in accepting that the world of the Bible and the medieval church is gone. As attached as we are to its romantic simplicity, the Bible’s pre-modern worldview simply must be given up. It is the primary obstacle preventing the church from playing a vital role in modern people’s lives.

For even in the modern world, religious and spiritual needs remain. Addressing those needs and the fundamental questions of life is central to what it means to be human. Modern biblical study has revealed a Jesus whose view of the intrinsic value of human life here and now, and of the centrality of compassion in human relationship, makes his voice still relevant and still radical. Making that voice heard again is the starting point for the church’s new life.

For that to happen, congregations must be open to a critical exploration of the Bible and of church history, engaging in a serious conversation about the meaning and relevance of Christian traditions for contemporary life. They must be willing to cast a wide net, welcoming and partnering with anyone willing to join in making the world a better place: promoting compassion, equality, and understanding among all people, and developing a deep appreciation for this life and this world as our greatest gifts, and their stewardship as our greatest responsibility.