Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lookin' for love in all the wrong places...

What's interesting here is not only, as Pastor Dan says, that these guys are nuts, but that they think this "ritual" they have invented, will have power.

It seems that Rob Schenck of Faith and Action and Patrick J. Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition took it upon themselves last week to bless the Capitol passageway through which Barack Obama will make his way to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. Turned back by Capitol police, they happened upon Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who shepherded them to the place. There, as you can see, amidst the praying for the president-to-be and his family, Schenck anoints the door posts with holy oil from the Holy Land, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

What's up with this? In the video, Schenck declares that he is consecrating the passageway "as they did the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the Temple to the use of God and to His will and to His Word."
This reminds me of "Crisco" John Ashcroft anointing himself when he was Missouri's governor and Senator, as if that practice had any purpose other than to make him feel special. This is a curious impulse among evangelicals, one as far removed from the roots of Reformed (read "Calvin's Institutes") theology as one can go. It was the Reformers, after all, who removed the figure from the crucifix, concerned, in line with the Hebrew prophets, that any representation of God would lead to idolatry. Evangelical practice was once tied closely to Reformed theology, and where the Roman Catholic church provided the individual believer with the necessary anchor to avoid selfishness and self-reflection ("navel gazing," as we used to say in my feckless youth), Reformed theology replaced that church centered sense of salvation with a personal relationship to God directly. But to avoid the obvious abuses such a self centered theology could have, the theology didn't allow any focus on the self because you were part of, and responsible to, a believing community. Thus do you have such a splintering of Protestantism over the centuries, with each community zealously proclaiming its message and creating identities for its adherents.

Where ritual and liturgical practices created such identities for Roman Catholics and Anglicans, doctrinal distinctions created the identities for other Protestants. So Presbyterians could distinquish themselves from Baptists, who could distinguish themselves from Methodists, who could distinguish themselves from Congregationalists, and so on. Mostly the distinction was on issues of polity, less so on issues of doctrine, although the smallest distinctions in theology would be used to create the largest possible divisions. Still, one thing all Reformed theologies agreed on, and this is what kept them clearly demarcated from the Lutheran branch of Protestantism, was that most ritual practices were unnecessary at best, heathenish superstition at worst. *

And so now evangelicals are mining the Hebrew scriptures for anointing rituals in their homes, and blessing rituals in public places. How do we know they are still evangelicals? Because they don't acknowledge the authority, or the necessity of authority from, a larger ecclesial body. The determination by the individual of the correctness of the act is sufficient unto the task. Which is where things get really weird.

Evangelicals seem to be turning proto-Catholic, seeking meaning and purpose (and power!) in rituals their spiritual ancestors abandoned as the spawn of the Whore of Babylon. But this isn't the triumph of Rome; rather, we seem to be in Gramsci's interregnum, in which a great variety of morbid symptoms appear; and this is one of them. The culture at large having abandoned all but the forms of religious belief (see, e.g., Joel Osteen; and this abandonment and fractioning itself is an inevitable result of Protestantism, although Osteen isn't; well, not necessarily), Protestants are more and more left with either creating their own cultures, or trying desperately to claim control of the culture at large. The latter came a cropper with the descent of George Bush (who never had any interest in the religious except as a voting bloc he could manipulate). The power broker pastors, like Ted Haggard, are done. James Dobson is relegated to his radio show again. Obama is friendly with Rick Warren but also +Gene Robinson and Sharon Watkins. But those are only surface indications; this issue goes much deeper than who is the favored pastor of the power elite today.

The issue is a point I've made before: Protestantism relied on the culture to give it meaning and purpose, and now that the culture no longer does that (perhaps Protestantism succeeded too well, instilling the work ethic and leading to industrialization, which brings us to the market worship of today?), Protestantism is beginning to lose its form, and very possibly, its way. One reason I'm marginally sympathetic to the aims of a Marc Driscoll is that I understand where his critique of at least one strain of Protestantism comes from (though I disagree completely with his solution). There is a serious cultural clash between the people Driscoll knows and appeals to, and the Protestantism presented by most mainline churches or even non-denominational mega-churches (quick: name another "mega-church" that intentionally and relentlessly reaches out to the economically or socially marginalized people Driscoll appeals to.) The serious cultural desire to differentiate Reformed practice from Roman Catholic practice is almost entirely vestigial now (and very likely largely American, to boot). Without that opposition, it's not really surprising to see evangelicals turning to ritual to try to give their teachings meaning. Again, Driscoll picks up on the importance of opposition inherent even in the title "Protestant", though methinks he doth protest against the wrong group. But "Protestant" originally meant "in protest" against the dominant Roman Catholic church. Q: "What are you protesting?" A: "Whaddya got?" When you can't keep that up, you gotta find some other reason to believe. Without Roman Catholics to protest against, and without a culture that clearly supports the benefits of Protestantism, that in fact seems to be suffering from a surfeit of cultural Protestantism, the interregnum interposes, and the question arises: "Whither Protestantism?"

The mega-churches haven't really brought the Second Reformation some might have expected, or even the third "Great Awakening." What went wrong? Well, perhaps mega-churches aped too much the culture that created it. Which is to say, perhaps it simply didn't create enough of an alternative vision for the people; perhaps it didn't translate abstract Christian doctrines into concrete terms. "Blessing," for example, is a common idea among evangelicals. Outside the "prosperity gospel" that teaches a new house and new care are "blessings," however, the idea of "blessing" is rather unclear. The word is most commonly used in the phrase "God Bless America," but what do we really mean when we say that? Is it a command aimed at God, an imperative invoking a benison? Is it a statement of our national nature? A claim of privilege? A wish for justification? Trying to give these abstractions meaning, evangelicals, like so many before them, have to turn to physical actions. It's a practice as old as humanity. But it's not very Protestant.

Which doesn't make me think religion, or Protestantism, is leaving the culture anytime soon. But I do wonder if Protestantism isn't about to undergo a sea change, in a direction heralded neither by James Dobson nor Marc Driscoll, nor even the mainline denominations.

*It was 500 years before Reformed and Lutheran branches settled the issue of the doctrine of the eucharistic host. Luther was a bit too close to the Roman teachings for the Reformed theologians, and the Reformed theologians were a bit to dismissive of the presence of the Presence for Lutherans. These tiny and almost meaningless distinctions matter. Or, they used to.

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