Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What does Advent get us ready for?

So, I got into this church discussion with Mahanoy at Street Prophets; none of it really new, I suppose, but interesting enough I wanted to bring it over here. His original post is here. This is my comment, Mahanoy's response, and my answer:

I haven't read this from Tillich, so I'm grateful for the reference. I'll have to look it up.

I'd come to much the same conclusion myself, on separate grounds: ecclesiological grounds, actually. In brief, the culture once supported Protestantism (think Calvin running a city in Switzerland, or Milton working for Cromwell's government, or even the Puritans running New England and banning Christmas, among other things).

I don't quite agree with you that 'evangelical Christianity' is the third way, btw. That's just Protestantism wed to the enterpreunerial culture of late 20th century America. It's already starting to come apart as it doesn't meet the needs either of parishioners or of the changing world.

But back to the point (if I can): all of what you quote there I would say is simply sociology (and I've discussed it at length elsewhere, though I'm too busy to look up the links just now). The real issue is the identity of the church: having once identified itself with the "public square," and now being pushed out of that square (just as RC was by the Reformation), the church naturally either acquiesces, or fights futilely, the rising wall of separation that began to be built in earnest by Justice Douglas only 40 years ago.

Now church has no "place" except as yet another option among options in our culture. The "growing churches" more and more resemble TV shows or dinner theater, which is no accident: Protestantism knows nothing so well as how to ape the culture. But it is no longer a pillar of the culture, just an appendage.

The real question is not: "Is there a third way?", but: where to now? I think the only alternative is to go "counter-cultural" (how sixties of me!) which means abandoning the Constantinian model like the fossil it is, and moving (spiritually, if not phyiscally) back to the desert with the 4th century monks.

That time, IMHO, has come 'round again.

Post-Constantian [sic] Era

We're there - we've been there for about 30 years, if not more. I completely agree with you there. But I disagree about the need to "return to the desert." Completely disagree, in fact. If anything, the church needs to be more involved in the world in all its ugliness and brokenness and suffering. The church still has a word to proclaim. I agree with Melanchthon that the church is constituted by its proclamation and its celebration of the sacraments. The church exists, not for itself, but for others. It is called to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, and that means involvement in the public square. There are many ways of proclaiming the gospel, of course, and I'm not advocating a militant evangelism (far from it - that's the very last thing the church should be doing, in my opinion). And the church shouldn't give a damn if it's growing or not - that's not the point. The point is proclaiming the gospel. If the church grows, that's great. If not, that's fine too. We made a fundamental and perhaps fatal mistake when we started equating faithful ministry with more people in the pews. But the church has to proclaim the gospel to the world and be the body of Christ in the world - otherwise its just another civic organization.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. - Galileo

by Mahanoy

I would have disagreed with myself only a few years ago. Took me a long time to recognize the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, because retreat to the desert is not retreat from the world, although it's hard to see that without first accepting that it isn't.

Full immersion in the world can end up with Ted Haggard and James Dobson and Pat Robertson preaching on TV while operating a diamond mine. That's one extreme which a retreat to the desert corrects.

I don't advocate this as an absolute stance, in other words. I don't mean the only place for the church is in the wilderness. But John went there because people needed to leave the city to hear God's word. Jesus went there because John was of God. Jesus went back to the cities, but was never part of them. He walked where he wanted to, ate what he wanted to (his disciples gleaning the wheat), ate with whom he wanted to ("Do you see this woman?"), and generally taught in ways that turned all our expectations upside down. And there is a strong case to be made that Jesus' preparation for that ministry, a ministry in the world but not of the world, began in the desert.

The usual translation is 'wilderness.'

So when I say withdraw, I don't mean as a permanent condition, world without end, amen. I mean as a recognition that Protestantism is dead, that it was part of the culture of the world but is so no longer, and God is doing a new thing, and we need to go out to the wilderness where God is making straight paths, so we can see it coming.

When we are ready, we can return to the city. When we are ready, we can bring back what we have found in the wilderness. There is a pattern here, dare I say a tradition?

by Rmj
On that business of Christianity and culture, a few more notes. first, the "War on Christmas, which makes Mr. Eskow particularly eloquent this morning:

Here's your idea of martyrdom: Some business people asked their staff to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." You heard about it. And that made you feel bad.

As trials and tribulations go, it beats getting stoned to death like St. Stephen. These businesses are only trying to be considerate toward the feelings of others, but the airwaves are ringing with your howls of anguish.

The truth is you cynical hacks (yeah, you, O'Reilly and Gibson) are exploiting faith, getting political and financial mileage out of a faith you claim to follow. Yet I must admit you guys look genuinely aggrieved - even as your checks keep clearing the bank.

Even rich ministers like Jerry Falwell , the kind who like to bellyache about secular self-indulgence, want the whole country to be organized around their emotional needs.

Tell me: How is this "Happy Holidays" business making you suffer, exactly? Do you depend on the greeters at Wal-Mart for your theological guidance? Does the absence of the Savior's name in the Sears catalog leave you spiritually adrift in a hostile cosmos?

Nah. You're just falling back on the worst kind of Me-Generation, touchy-feely, self-pitying behavior. You're complaining because it makes you uncomfortable. It's Christian Dominionism for the "feel good" crowd.

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned stoicism?

And let's see - what else has got you o'riled? What's the latest tragedy? Did some Town Council in Connecticut take the Nativity scene out of that folksy little gazebo in the plaza?

Let's all sing together: "Feelings/nothing more than feelings ..."

St. Peter was crucified upside down, and Polycarp was stabbed to death. You didn't hear them complaining. But you guys live in wealth and privilege under the most powerful nation in history, and yet with all your political influence you can't stop mewling like kittens.
And if it isn't about my feelings, it's about my need for power. Then, the latest in "Christian video-gaming," introduced by Hecate, in comments at Eschaton:

I predict the Left Behind Game will be a huge seller. Kill a non-believer and then say a prayer. Yeah! God gives you more points! It's as if everything that's wrong with our culture has been distilled down into one video game. And it will make its creators rich. But then, I repeat myself.
Hecate, Runnymeade Conspirator
That was in reference to this game:

In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."

Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.

When asked about the Arab and Muslim-sounding names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice. But "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ" -- and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game.

"That is so obvious," he said.

Left Behind is a real-time strategy and adventure game. Players don't role-play like in Grand Theft Auto -- it's more like the board game Risk than Clue.
Part of the "action" of the game requires the player to convert non-Christians, or to kill them. But it's okay, because it's actually a non-violent game, and if it is violent, it's all for a good cause:

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.

"You are fighting a defensive battle in the game," Frichner, whose previous company produced Bible software, said of combatting the Antichrist. "You are a sort of a freedom fighter."
Frankly, if these two examples don't represent the end of Protestantism, its eschaton, that is, certainly not its telos, they should. The only valid response to this kind of "Christianity" is a retreat to the desert, because a Christianity that produces this vision of the world is so co-opted by the world it needs a fresh slate to start over with, and a spiritual examination the likes of which would make even Ted Haggard blanch.

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