Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Ed Note: I may be pushing this out of the nest prematurely, but time to see if it can fly.

In England, what passes for "Megachurches" have way more committed membership than the Church of England.
There is still the burningly relevant question of commitment: what is it, and how do we measure it?

Surely, you say, that’s a simple question. Commitment is measured by one’s passion for a subject. But that’s a very recent definition, one that extends no further back in Western culture than the 19th century. It’s an invention of Romanticism, a yardstick of devotion created in reaction to the Enlightenment, indeed, to Western thought going back to Hellenistic times. When, for example, left rev. cites the experience of Wesley, she refers to a decline in passion, in emotional fervor, for the gospel:

When John Wesley was 83, he undertook his last, arduous circuit around all the Methodist societies and chapels in England, Ireland, and the Channel Isles. He discovered that the people had cooled off a bit. They had succumbed to what Max Weber refers to as a "routinization of the Spirit" and had lost that sense of being driven by grace and, indeed, were experiencing a crisis of grace. Why had this happened? That "grand poison of souls" had taken its toll-"the increase in goods," "the love of the world," "the taking pleasure in the praise of men," "laying up treasures on earth." (James C. Logan, "After Wesley: The Middle Period (1791-1849)." Grace Upon Grace: Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Langford.)

But this is simply what Christian monks long ago learned to call acedie; and the problem is spiritual, not just emotional. Indeed, it’s the reason the Desert Fathers retreated to the desert: to avoid the seductions of the world, because they knew whatever emotional commitment they made to Jesus would fade. For centuries, Christians understood that commitment to Christianity was a matter of discipline, not emotion; of diligence, not excitement. We can’t go on; we go on.

What mega-churches and “thriving” churches promise today, of course, is an emotional experience. But it’s the same thing Hollywood promises. In the entertainment industry they call it “high concept,” meaning the plot of the movie or TV show can be explained in a few words. What they really mean is, it’s already familiar, and we can emotionally respond to it because we know what to expect and when to expect it. Watch any sitcom and pay attention to the rhythm, not the story or the jokes, and you can quickly figure out when a new character will enter, who that character will be, and when the next joke is coming. It’s as regular as clockwork. Watch a familiar sitcom in re-runs and you’ll notice that the early shows are usually fresh and different and almost unique. And, if the show lasts very long at all, they stop being fresh and different and almost unique, and settle quickly into a familiar pattern. The characters all lapse into caricature and cliché. Is this because the writers are lazy and stupid? No, it’s usually why the show has any longevity at all: it lapses into the familiar, the better to appeal to the emotions of the audience, emotions which the audience wants stirred on a very simple, a very familiar, level. All the characters become familiar and settle comfortably into their roles, as we settle comfortably into our couches and put down the remotes.

It is no accident that "user friendly" "seeker services" are as much like TV shows as possible. After all, what is more "user friendly" than what we are already familiar with? And what better way to lure large crowds of people, than with an emotional stimulant?

Wesley is not guilty of some secret sin because he wanted Christians to be passionate and stirred in their faith. The best worship service I ever preached in was at a small African American church in southern Louisiana. The people shouted "Amen!" during the sermon (a strange response when you've finally gotten used to people listening very quietly to what you have to say) and sang and shouted and praised so vigorously even my daughter, on the way home (and much younger then) said: "And I didn't even get bored!" The only other African-American service in my memory is one I attended in seminary. At the end, the pastor had to appeal to people to leave, so the next service could start on time. Both churches clearly had their passion in the right place, and knew how to use it; so it isn't passion itself that is suspect.

It is the reason we've come to rely on passion. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a passionate preacher; but I defy anyone to read his letter scribbled on stolen scraps of paper and smuggled to the outside world, and deny he was also seriously rational in his fervor. No more was Wesley a man carried away by his emotions. But emotions have become the easy touchstone of our lives. Sure of our ability to detect hypocrisy in reasoned words even if (perhaps especially because) we can't analyze their logic, we trust in passion to reveal the truth we are certain reason obscures. This is part of the reason Americans distrust "eggheads" and prefer the truth revealed by emotions. All of our dramas hinge on it. Compare something like "Antigone" or "Othello" to, say, "The Death of a Salesman." All three are tragedies, and great ones. But Creon is undone by his passion and paranoia, not revelatory through them. Likewise Othello is undermined by his trust and his unreasonable jealousy, egged on by Iago and exacerbated by being alone in a foreign land unaided by the reasoned counsel of cooler and wiser heads. But Willie Loman's passion for success reveals his true nature, even as it reveals the weakness of the American Dream he so passionately believes in. Even Miller is more rational than emotional. Name a TV sitcom or drama, or even popular movie today, that doesn't turn on passion rather than reason for it's story. Even the scientists in "CSI" are passionate about their field (rather than dispassionate, like Sherlock Holmes). I haven't seen it yet, so I could be wrong (someone correct me if they know), but I expect the trajectory of the plot in The Queen is that Queen Elizabeth II "hides" behind an emotionless facade, and at the climax of the film she finally reveals, or (just as telling) refuses to reveal, her 'true' emotional self.

We are, after all, what we feel; not what we think. That we even think that is almost a truism is a legacy of Romanticism. So now we measure "commitment" by passionate involvement, or at least excitement. And we measure success by the ability to stir people to passion.

Which, of course, is one reason Hitler scares us so much, to this day: because he was reportedly such a fiery speaker, and so ably manipulated the emotions of the otherwise rational German people, a culture which gave us the intellectually passionate music of Bach and Brahms, the contained power of Beethoven, the erudite reasoning of Kant, Schopenauer, Heidegger, Bultmann, and the powerful schools of Scriptural exegesis which continue to affect Western culture today. It was the passion Hitler unleashed, we say, which fired the second World War and sparked the Holocaust. Because if any of that was reasonable, where is the hope in reason?

But if that was a nationwide emotional response, how can we trust emotion to reveal the truth about us that our intellect hides? And if we can't trust something else to reveal ourselves to us, how can we ever know the truth? Or is truth something beyond our individual experience?

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