Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Jesus said, "A new commandment I give you..."

I'm going to ramble on a bit, finding my topic as I go (as is my wont). I know this would be more effective if I cut it into pieces, put the "punchiest" stuff into separate posts, but I don't really want to do that. It may dilute some parts of the message to do this all at once, but I think the issue needs to be seen as a whole as much as possible. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, and while I don't agree with everything Pastor Dan says, he makes some good points. I'm not comfortable saying Ted Haggard "got what he had coming to him," but I don't doubt for a minute that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and it was a very short trip before Ted Haggard met up with that truth. Pastor Dan's analysis of the "alpha-male" in charge of the mega-church is particularly good. They do exist simply as cults of personality, different even from the huge Baptist church here in town, a church which understands it will go on after it's latest pastor retires, a church which will go seeking another leader like him, as they sought him, for purposes that other churches and members of other churches may or may not approve of, but which many, one way or another, try to emulate. Mega-churches are wholly in "the business of ministry." They are a breed apart.

But what intrigues me about the Ted Haggard story is in this Harper's article. Reading through it (and you should before you read on), I think first of the Community Church of Joy in Phoenix, Arizona. I encountered that one in seminary: a very mainstream mainline Protestant seminary which wore its theological "liberalness" proudly. Yet some of the older professors, the most mainstream and Old School, saw places like Community Church as a "new Reformation," the "wave of the future." That was in the 1990's. Heard of it lately?

It was a "mega-church" that started as a Lutheran congregation. The pastor had a vision, though not necessarily a mystical one. As I recall the story, he decided he would take the moribund congregation and make it grow, growth being the only measure of success recognized in American culture. He rallied some congregation members to his side, chased the rest off (I'm going from memory here, and not trying to exaggerate), and started his program of "seeker services," much as Willow Creek had done in Barrington, Illinois. I remember this from a presentation put on in a class my last year in seminary. I also remember what I've mentioned before, from Community Church of Joy: they sold videotapes of their services, the better to advertise themselves and evangelize their idea of mission. The service we watched was a TV show, not a worship service. It was the "seeker service," and rather than a Scripture reading or the recital of a Psalm, a "skit" was performed with an overweight woman clearly dressed and acting like a poor white woman, and telling her "life story" for laughs. The "preacher" then used her story to teach a "life lesson." This was meant, according to the church's own literature, to bring people into a more traditional worship of God, or at least a more spiritual one. There were supposed to be 4 steps in this process, from entry in the seeker service to full-fledged committed discipleship. Problem is, as I've pointed out before, it didn't work. People liked the ease and comfort of the seeker service, and never saw a reason to be more disciplined about church than to attend that. Community Church of Joy is probably still thriving; but it is no longer the "hot new thing."

As the Harper's article indicates, the center of power, of gravity in evangelical circles, just keeps shifting. It was in Wheaton. Then Colorado Springs claimed the mantle. At least in Houston (and, IIRC, Texas Monthly), Joel Osteen was proclaimed "the greatest preacher in the world" for awhile, mostly coincidental with his book being on the best-sellers list at the time. (He was very hot in August, 2005. Guess he needs to release another best-seller.) Ted Haggard lead the NAE, well, until recently. Power always seeks its own ends, and laughs at anyone who thinks it controls power. And lest you doubt it is about power:

In the chapel are several computer terminals, where one can sign on to the World Prayer Team and enter a prayer. Eventually one's words will scroll across the large flat screens, as well as across the screens around the world, which as many as 70,000 other Prayer Team members are watching at any point in time. Prayers range from the mundane (real-estate deals and job situations demand frequent attention) to the urgent, such as this prayer request from “Rachel” of Colorado: Danielle. 15 months old. Temperature just shy of 105 degrees. Lethargic. Won't eat.

Or this one from “Lauralee” of Vermont: If you never pray for anyone else, please choose this one! I'm in such pain I think I'm going to die; pray a healing MIRACLE for me for kidney problems (disease? failure?); I'm so alone; no insurance!

One might be tempted to see an implicit class politics in that last point, but to join the Prayer Team one must promise to refrain from explicitly political prayer. That is reserved for the professionals. The Prayer Team screen, whether viewed at the center or on a monitor at home, is split between “Individual Focus Requests,” such as the above, and “Worldwide Focus” requests, which are composed by the staff of the World Prayer Center. Sometimes these are domestic—USA: Pray for the Arlington Group, pastors working with Whitehouse to renew Marriage Amendm. Pray for appts. of new justices. Pray for Pastor meetings with Amb. of Israel, and President Bush. Lord, let them speak only your words, represent YOU! Bless! But more often they are international— N. KOREA: Pray God will crush demonic stronghold and communist regime of Kim Jung Il.
Prayers for the sick are an ancient part of Christian tradition. Care for the sick is also a part of that tradition. Indeed, the common criticism of the Roman Catholic church by Protestantism is that the "princes of the church" became too worldly, too concerned with their competition with the princes of the world. That which you most oppose, you most come to resemble.

It's also an institutional weakness. Institutions think in terms of instituitonal worries. Nations and government policy and foreign policy are much easier abstractions to deal with than "Lauralee" of Vermont. Which is, again, the sad, the soul-devouring horror, of the contemporary church, especially the "mega-church."

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: if this is tne "New Reformation," I want no part of it.

In fact, that post turns me in the direction I keep trying to go: it is the soul-destroying isolationism of American culture that produces mega-churches and pastors like Ted Haggard. And these institutions arise, not as an antidote to that problem, but as its cruelest symptom. It's also a very heady mixture:

“Behind the piano player, the front range of the Rocky Mountains stretched across a floor-to-ceiling, semicircular window with a 270-degree view. Above him, a globe fifteen feet in diameter rotated on a metal spindle. When he took a break, I sat with him in the front row. His name was Jayson Tice, he was twenty-five, and he worked at Red Lobster. He'd grown up in San Diego and once, he said, he'd been good enough to play Division I college basketball. But he broke his ankle, and because the Marines promised him court time, he joined. There didn't turn out to be much basketball for him in the Marines, just what he described as “making bombs and missiles,” so he didn't recommit, and decided to start over in a new city. His mother had moved to Colorado Springs, so Jayson and his girlfriend did, too; his mother left after three months, but Jayson had already decided that God, not his mother, had called him to the mountains. He discovered that a lot of the people he knew, working as waiters or store clerks or at one of the Air Force bases, felt the same way.

Colorado Springs,” Jayson told me, “this particular city, this one city, is a battleground”—he paused—“between good and evil. This is spiritual Gettysburg.” Why here? I asked. He thought about it and rephrased his answer. “This place is just a watering hole for Christians. For God's people. Something extra powerful's about to pour out of this city. I hope not to stay in Colorado Springs, because I want to spread what's going on here. I'm a warrior, dude. I'm a warrior for God. Colorado Springs is my training ground.”
This mixture gives purpose, meaning, warrant to life. The very thing Romanticism professed to do in the face of the Industrial Revolution. Wordsworth took us back to childhood, redeemed our experiences in the idea it was our youth, not our families or our place of birth or even our choices as adults, which made us what we are. By now we have gleefully chucked the responsibility quotient of adulthood, preferring to present a perpetual adolescence as the normative ideal, one in which everyone is always free from parental restraints, eternally young, perfect in physique, and endlessly fascinating to everyone else. Romanticism taught us to be warriors for our ideals, for our personal integrity. Theology even tried to weld that onto Kierkegaard and make Christianity be all about "self-actualization." But the self-actualization now, is to be a soldier for Christ, a warrior in the battle of good against evil. It's the ultimate struggle, of course, which is what makes it so alluring.

And which leads directly to such catastrophic failures of Ted Haggard has just suffered.

But its the loneliness that is the wellspring. "If you never pray for anyone else, please choose this one! I'm in such pain I think I'm going to die; pray a healing MIRACLE for me for kidney problems (disease? failure?); I'm so alone; no insurance!" That is a plea of desperation, of someone casting out into the dark, hoping for a reply. Jesus told us that whatever we do for the least of these, not for world peace, or foreign policy, or social issues, we did for him. What is the Christianity of "New Life" doing for "Lauralee"?* Or for Jayson Tice, 25 and working at Red Lobster? He can't play professional basketball, he was misled by the Marines, it's safe to assume a divorce in his past, and a rootless existence that made "starting over" seem reasonable. "What life have you if you have not life together?" But what kind of life together can we make in this culture, in this land? Jayson is the true Romantic warrior, the disciple of Byron who imagines his feats will lead to as much glory as the famous poet who loved women and swam the Hellespont. Unless they don't, of course; unless working in Red Lobster is the most the world has to offer Mr. Tice. What else can a mega-church offer him, except a fictional apocalyptic vision in which nothing really, radically, happens, except that somehow, rather like the war in Iraq now, if he says faithful, "we win"?

Did Ted Haggard get what was coming to him? Not quite yet, I don't think. Because his real sin, his fundamental sin, was not hypocrisy. It was simony:

According to Ted, it was this army of Christian capitalists that took to the streets [of Ukraine]. “They're pro-free markets, they're pro-private property,” he said. “That's what evangelical stands for.”

In Pastor Ted's book Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the 21st Century, he describes the church he thinks good Christians want. “I want my finances in order, my kids trained, and my wife to love life. I want good friends who are a delight and who provide protection for my family and me should life become difficult someday . . . I don't want surprises, scandals, or secrets . . . I want stability and, at the same time, steady, forward movement. I want the church to help me live life well, not exhaust me with endless ‘worthwhile’ projects.” By “worthwhile projects” Ted means building funds and soup kitchens alike. It's not that he opposes these; it's just that he is sick of hearing about them and believes that other Christians are, too. He knows that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than “moral values”—it needs customer value.
It's such an old ecclesial sin, and one so associated, by most Protestants, with the Roman Catholic church, that we don't really think of it anymore. But running the church as a business, is simply selling spiritual offices. It's a concept usually relegated to the Roman Catholics because they alone in Western culture, anyway, have the polity and the hierarchy to claim ownership of those offices, and so to judge those who misuse the Church's authority. The root of Protestantism is the relationship of the individual directly to God, which all but makes simony impossible; or it would seem to. It's a concept worth resurrecting, though, because that is the real sin of Ted Haggard and James Dobson and the NAE: the sin of selling spirituality to people, of peddling the gospel to the highest bidder, and for the best rate of return to the salesman. Let us at least be plain about that. It may not be the old sin of the Church; but it is certainly the new sin of the mega-church.

The Harper's article points out, with some excusable exaggeration, that many mainline churches today are "now evangelical in all but name." I think that is certainly true of the largest denominational churches (Community Church of Joy is still an ELCA church), and I also think many a smaller church would happily be more evangelical, if only because people like to go along to get along. But, in America, is this really new?

In one sense, yes; in another, no. Most Christian churches in America have a fevered beginning which settled into a more complacent institutionalized present: the Methodists, the Cumberland Presbyterians, the Campbellite Movement, even the churches of the First Great Awakening. Apparently, in fact, that's precisely the problem, in a way I'd never imagined:

The idea of applying market economics to religion originated not within evangelicalism, nor even in the petri dishes of the laissez-faire think tanks in D.C., but with a sociologist from the University of Washington named Rodney Stark, whose work has won a broad readership beyond his discipline. Stark (who now teaches at Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas) and various collaborators began interpreting religious-affiliation data through the lens of neoliberal market theory in the 1980s. The very best sort of religious economy, insists Stark, is one unregulated by either the state or large denominations. Left to form, change, and die organically, Stark believes, churches will naturally come to meet the populace's diverse spiritual needs, which he divides into a spectrum of six “niches” akin to a left/right political scheme. He argues that the law of the market spurs new religious movements, which start out small, in “high tension” with the society around them, at the “ultra-conservative” end of the spectrum. As these sects grow, their tension usually decreases—that is, writes Stark, they dilute the “seriousness” of their faith—until they eventually drift to the “ultra-liberal” end. Implicit is that there is a natural and fairly steady demand for religion that needs only to find expression in a properly varied supply.
It isn't, in other words, about the changeless and unchanging word of God in an ephemeral world, but about the ephemeral world and how best to sell the product to it. As Judas asked in "Jesus Christ Superstar":

Now why'd you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?

If you'd come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
But the product is the Gospel; the product is spirituality; it is acess to the Creator of the Universe. If that isn't simony, what is?

And, of course, the irony is, Stark is describing precisely what happens (Methodism, the Campbellites, even the Southern Baptists), while the mega-churches are planning on containing that historical force (if I can risk being so Hegelian) and channeling it to the purposes of the corporation. Haggard, in other words, as a representative case here, hopes to be this church, in the mainline of Reformed tradition:

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.

But a church aimed not at serving God, but serving an ideology. There's a name for that in Christian tradition, too: idolatry.

And, of course, the irony runs even deeper. The members of New Life are rewarded for their fealty to the ideology of Pastor Haggard. But he gives them something else, too: "...what Pastor Ted has given his flock are lifestyle choices." Remember: that sentence was written 2 years ago. And, interestingly and coincidentally, the article follows that statement with a story about "Commander Tom" and his vision of America. Commander Tom, it seems, is an aficionado of The Lord of the Rings, and uses it for his metaphors. So he sees a vision of America succmbing to darkness, a la the hand of Sauron spreading over Middle Earth, and Pastor Haggard, says Commander Ted, "is Gandalf." And the Balrog?

...the Balrog, he said, is inside Pastor Ted, and inside every Christian. Before the church can condemn the world, it must cleanse itself, thought Tom; he believed that American evangelicals were filthy with pride.

“Pride's dangerous,” he said.
Be very careful in calling these people foolish. They may sound like fools, but they have some insight, nonetheless. It would be interesting to talk to Commander Tom now. I suspect he'd say Pastor Haggard had found his Balrog, delving too deep into the mines of Moria. It's worth nothing the Balrog is "Durin's Bane," too; the result of dwarvish pride and digging for jewels and gold in places they were not meant to go, but were not content to leave alone. Pride is dangerous, indeed.

On the other hand, one wonders if Pastor Haggard ever preached on Luke 12:49-53 or 14:26:

James, an aspiring film critic with oval glasses and a red goatee, spoke up from the floor, where he'd been sitting cross-legged. “You know that Bruce Springsteen song on Nebraska, about the highway cop?” he asked. He was referring to a song called “Highway Patrolman,” in which the patrolman's brother has left “a kid lyin' on the floor, lookin' bad” and the patrolman sets out to chase him down. Instead, he pulls over and watches his brother's “taillights disappear,” thinking of “how nothin' feels better than blood on blood.”

“He can't arrest his brother,” James said, and quoted the song: “a man turns his back on family, well, he just ain't no good.”

“I think that's how it is,” James continued. “That's how I feel about Dobson, or Haggard. They're family. We have loyalties, even if we disagree.”
This conclusion in the article is, I think, absolutely right:

The language of the Christian right was, I realized, hardening, collapsing. “Spiritual war,” a metaphor as old as the Gospels, has been invoked for the sake of power before—the Crusades, the conquest of the Americas—but for most of Christian history it has been no more bellicose than “jihad,” a term that once referred primarily to internal struggle. But the imagination of the Christian right has failed, and its language has become all-encompassing, mapped across not just theology but also emotions; across not just the Church but the entire world
Faced with the need to maintain power, the evangelical church is becoming more and more like the Roman Catholic church it once so vigorously opposed (many old-style evangelicals grew up on American anti-papist sentiments as surely as they grew up on the inerrancy of the Bible). But the real ending of the article, appropriately, is here. That revelation comes from a wedding service presided over by Pastor Haggard. This is how that service ended for the happy couple:

The sliding doors of the main entrance whispered open, and Marcus and Sarah walked through. It was a brisk day, blue skies fading to white on the horizon, too cold to be crossing New Life's vast parking lot in a sleeveless wedding gown, but what could they do? Marcus hadn't arrived early enough to get a prime parking spot. It was too cold for me: I watched from inside. Sarah's veil snapped behind her like a white flag. At an SUV—no tin cans, no decorations—about a hundred yards off, Marcus fumbled in his pockets. It seemed like he might have forgotten his keys or, worse, locked them in the car. The pair looked helpless, peering in the SUV's windows; for a moment, I thought I was going to have to call for someone to jimmy the newlyweds' door. But they figured it out. Then they got into their SUV and drove away. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who took any pictures.
It's enough to break your heart, to think about what we are doing to each other, in the name of the one who told us his new commandment, was that we love one another.

*amended on the very wise advice of my blog grandmere.

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