So, I'm driving through parts of town I don't normally drive through, seeing lots of signs in rapidly developing "exurbs" (except everything around here is exurb to someplace; it's all one giant exurb) about churches.
Now, I'm used to the mega-churches putting up very expensive billboards (price those things sometime; they run into the high five figures, last I checked). At least, I got used to it. These were more modest productions, signs tacked up between two posts; still large enough to read from a car, but not looming several stories overhead. And they advised that this church was not my Momma's church; as if that is an inducement to come to church.
And, well, maybe it is, come to think of it.
That prompted me to think of a story I heard recently on some NPR program, listening in the evening, about a woman who grew up among the Pentecostals and the fundamentalists and also tried to make a living selling Mary Kay Cosmetics, and her epiphany talking to her pastor about how his discussion of evangelism (i.e., increasing church membership) sounded exactly like the marketing discussions she had with her Mary Kay supervisors. Not kind of like; exactly like.
And I was back to wondering what church is for, and how much of the future this portends, where church is just another consumer item, another competitor for attention and time, another service offering you something you need (a place to be on Sunday morning; a place for lectures about family life or happiness or how much stuff is enough; a place to be entertained. Funny, even old fashioned salvation isn't emphasized in the ads I see on signs or even on TeeVee). And this linked in to hearing, once again, about the Pentecostal preacher who became an atheist when he realized the KJV of the Bible couldn't possibly be inerrant, or even a very good translation (or, maybe more accurately, to hear him tell it, he realized it WAS a translation). His story was interesting, but it also sounded very familiar. Familiar enough I don't need to retread the ground, except to point out this ex-pastor's particular story came from equal mixtures of ignorance and nonsense. He had been preaching since he was 17, and while I've known and admired pastor's without seminary training, the ones I've known also had a fair share of common sense about their theology. From this pastor's story, I think he rather lacked that. I mention that because this pastor spoke of his Pietism (he didn't call it that; he probably didn't know the term), and how his emotions were proof of his faith; or so he was taught and believed.
A brief word in defense of Pietism: it began in Germany, not among the holy rollers of the American South or West, and it began in reaction to the overweening scholasticism of German theology and the pastors their seminaries churned out (I mean, have you read Kant? Now imagine that as German theology!). It was an attempt, following the Romantic movement, to establish the validity of the faith of non-scholarly individuals, people who wanted to feel the presence of God more than understand the metaphysical arguments for God's sein. Just as the excesses of scholastic thought can become as dessicated as a mummy, of course, pietistic thought can lead to excesses, too. This, this unfortunate pastor found out.
Interestingly, the crucial problem for him was the doctrine of salvation. As he put it, he was preaching against people doing things ordinary people do all the time (he was no more specific), and was supposed to condemn them to hell for such behavior. He did that without reconciling it with his heart for a long time; and when he finally couldn't do that anymore, he abandoned the God of the theists, and took up with the god of the atheists.
There really is no other way to put it. I've seen extremists do this all my life. They don't stop being extremists (and simplistic, to boot), they just change their allegiance midstream. Texas, for example, has been a one-party state since Reconstruction. It just shifted allegiance from Democrats (who were conservative) to Republicans (who were conservative), and never missed a beat. So, it sounded to me like, did this former preacher, who abandoned one enthusiasm, taken up without much critical examination, for another, also taken up without any critical examination. And did he stop being religious? No, I don't think so. He just took up with a new religion, and a new god.
Which brings me back to churches which advertise for members and think of evangelism the way a Mary Kay salesperson thinks of marketing cosmetics. What happens when this well runs dry? That pastor I described didn't really have a crisis of faith; he had a crisis of understanding. He understood faith to be "believin' what you know ain't so," until he finally accepted that as the true definition of faith, and so he confessed his trust in atheism. Which is to say, he confessed his faith in atheism. Now, of course, he believes in something he thinks is so; which is really no different from the belief he had that the KJV was not only not a translation but the inerrant word of God, but that the KJV was also the literal word of God, without contradiction or conflict in all its parts. Once he decided it wasn't, his faith world fell apart; sadly, it could well happen to him again.
Of course what he believed before is just as much nonsense as anything Richard Dawkins ever had to say on the subject of religion (I mention Dawkins because the pastor attributed his decision to embrace atheism to his attendance at a conference in Houston where Dawkins and Hitchens both spoke about Christianity and religion in general.) From what I could tell, this man had basically shifted his faith to the ignorant and poorly reasoned arguments of Dawkins and the late Mr. Hitchens from the ignorant and poorly reasoned arguments of his former church. Sic transit gloria. And yet he made me realize atheism is as much a faith as any religious confession.
The truly committed religious among us are not concerned with justifying their faith or defending particular precepts of their doctrine. Monks and nuns and the just quietly faithful who live Christian lives to the best of their abilities, don't talk much about salvation or ecclesiology or even Christology: they are too busy living what they believe, they have too much of the world to engage in to spend time speculating on how it should be properly engaged. The truly disinterested in religion reflect the same indifference to doctrine and religious debate as the religious do. It's the middle ground where the squabble breaks out: those so concerned about their own identities they can only identify themselves against their counterpart: and so fundamentalists and evangelicals in America, especially those who get engaged in politics, tend to see the world as a struggle with evil, evil being those who don't agree with them on every issue (or who don't belong to their church AND behave as they approve of). Or atheists see all "believers" as people believing what they can't possible accept as true, and making claims for the ultimate so ridiculous a child wouldn't countenance them. The two factions not only need each other; they are each other.
The former Pentecostal preacher had invented, or accepted, a very thin version of Christianity: one based on a constantly charged emotional state (proof one was in the presence of the Holy Spirit) and an unthinking acceptance of the prevailing interpretation of what the KJV version of the Scriptures said (even the act of reading is an act of interpretation, but don't tell that to most people). Atheists, on the other hand, by and large profess all believers to be emotionally charged people unthinkingly accepting a doctrine of foolish statements which can't withstand any scrutiny (or alternate interpretation) at all. One statement of faith is the mirror image of the other. Atheists don't refuse to believe in God; they refuse to accept the God they imagine some Christians believe in; and that refusal is, for them, an article of faith. It is their raison d'etre, their proof of their existence, their standard of identity. It is as important to them as to the person who believes the KJV is the inerrant word of God and is the only acceptable version of the word of God. For both groups, that kind of absolute fealty to an idea is what they think religion means.
And religion also means forming groups of like-minded people in order to reassure themselves that they are right, and the other, opposed group, is wrong. Lack of belief should lead you to simply do what you want with your life, and most people who consider themselves Christians are as uninterested in how they live or what others think, as are most non-believers in any religion. Atheists, however, proclaim their antipathy to belief so loudly and firmly, it is so much a part of their public (and apparently personal) identity, that it is an article of faith for them. They are a religion, as much as any group of fundamentalist Christians who band together insisting their absolute doctrines (inerrancy of scripture, literalism of scripture, damnation of unbelievers and sinners, etc.) are absolute truth. Atheists band together to publicly insist what they believe (and their opinions about religion are just as much based on believing what ain't so as any Christian doctrine they denounce) is true. If that isn't a description of religion as at least atheists define it, what is?
Which is kind of sad, really.
So far this has been a very harsh assessment of one man; but I don't apologize for it. I don't even remember the man's name; his story sounded so familiar I thought I'd heard it all years before; on that, I could well be wrong. That he lost his faith in his simplistic religion didn't surprise me; he's Marjoe without the desire to keep fleecing the suckers, so his story is not at all new and unknown in the world. I have nothing against him. I just use him as an object lesson for all the churches springing up desperately advertising their services so lots of people will flock to them and their pastors will likewise become famous and powerful (whatever happened to Joel Osteen, after all? Or John Hagee, for that matter?), or at least keep their huge church happy that they hired the right cheerleader for their congregation. The latter example at least have the culture on their side. Large quasi-independent churches (i.e., Baptist congregations) have a special place in certain parts of American culture. But large wholly independent (i.e., non-denominational, or nearly so) churches (or those which reflect very little connection to their denomination, which amounts to the same thing), have to find a reason to go on being a church, or their only purpose is to constantly increase membership.
And sooner or later that stops working, and life slaps you in the face, and slaps you hard, and you need some resources to fall back on. A friend of mine, a pastor of longstanding and venerable worth, tells the story of a man who came to him once, complaining that this person could get all he needed of God and worship from TeeVee Preachers. Fine, my friend replied; call one of them when you need a funeral. It is, of course, easier to summarize what those resources are not, than what they are. One thing they cannot be, is simplistic.
And why the worship of the KJV? Well, we never escape culture. The vocabulary of the KJV is no longer relevant to our lives, yet we still consider that language the appropriate language of religion, where "religion" = "Christianity." Try, for example, to get a group of Christians to recite Psalm 23 without saying "He leadeth me beside the still waters...He restoreth my soul." Who says "leadeth" and "restoreth" anymore? Or try reciting the Pater Noster without saying "Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." What does "Hallow" mean anymore? Do we even know? And "hallowed be"? If it weren't so familiar, we'd swear that was street slang or the language of the uneducated; our syntax doesn't work that way anymore. And the old joke about "Art" being God's name when God is in heaven underlines the archaic form of the to be verb that no one even understands today; but it sounds right and proper to use that language. We can't seem to shake it. Are we really that removed from the churches that all but worship the KJV? It seems to be by degree, more than by true distinction.
The odd thing is, of course, that Christianity started out as being radically counter-cultural. What's more, that it was is not a new idea; it's now well over 100 years old. But the weight of the millenia since Constantine is upon us, and that's a dead weight of history indeed. In the beginning Paul, like Jesus, was an itinerant. He gave up the security of a job and a steady income. He wandered the Mediterranean world, picking up work stitching canvas and nets together, the better to have time to talk to people. And what he told them was explicitly meant to challenge the status quo:
... Paul believes absolutely that "Jesus" or the "Messiah/Christ" or the "Lord" all refer to the same person. Paul can speak of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the Lord Jesus or, most simply, of the Lord. On the one hand, "lord" was a polite term usable by slave to master or disciple to teacher. On the other, "the Lord" meant the emperor himself. What we see here is what Gustav Adolf Deissmann described, almost a hundred years ago, as "the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, 'lord.'" Or, if you prefer, polemical parallelism as high treason.
(In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. 166.).
You don't really challenge the status quo if you are looking to establish a church.
Now, "Lord" is a term you will find in the KJV; but it is today almost exclusively a religious term. American culture especially has almost no other use for the word "Lord." But even that usage, straight from the Early Modern English of the KJV (which is, in fact, another language from the Modern English we speak), is an interpretation of the Greek kyrios. And, especially as we simply consider it another word for "God," it's an incorrect interpretation. But the key here is that what Paul set up was in no way meant to resemble the churches we know today. So if you want to gimme that "ol' time religion," we first have to decide how many millenia back we have to go before we get beyond "ol' time."
I will tell you, even as I describe this, that I don't think it's all that important. It is important to understand; but it not important to act directly on it. I'm not advocating a "house church" like Paul established. Our society is not Paul's Roman one, "house" itself means something radically different to us than it did to him, just as "family" means something very different now. No, we aren't going to go backwards, even if I think going forward as some trends carry on is not the way to go, either. I'm also not wild about these churches advertising how hip and aware they are, how they aren't "your momma's church," or aren't even a "church" at all. Such places are selling something, and I'm not even sure what they are selling. Salvation? Membership? Free Wednesdays? Potluck suppers?
No, can't be that last one; that's my momma's church.
So, I dunno. Could be they are selling community, but seems to me they are selling it awful cheap. The disruption in modern life that Eliot identified almost a century ago goes on, and nothing seems inclined to check it. The awful rumbling of the Industrial Revolution that uprooted whole human communities and scattered them to the four winds is still trembling the ground around us; we are still living in the middle of the revolution the Romantics feared would destroy all that makes us human. And while I don't think they were right, I think they were closer to right than we are today.
And that worries me.