Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Notes toward a discussion of Modern Christianity

I like Chris Hayes (I liked his show better when it was on Saturday mornings; he works best in a long discussion format), but honestly he can be such an earnest little geek sometimes.

I have this excerpt from a review of Bonhoeffer's Letter and Papers from Prison on the back of my paperback copy:

Bonhoeffer is teaching a few Protestants what it means to say 'yes' to the 20th entry and still somehow stay recognizably Protestant.  A look at a few of his seminal ideas will make this clear.  The significant works are the ETHICS [sic]...and, most important of all, LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON [sic]....Three central ideas from this book are in the process of becoming part of the general intellectual equipment of a good many younger observers of the American scene, both those with and those without an interest in what is usually called theology.
It was a review written by William Hamilton, published in "The Nation"; the magazine in which Chris Hayes rose to prominence and obtained a TV show.

I don't know more about the review than that, except that the last copyright date on my copy of Letters is 1971, so the review is probably older than Chris Hayes.  It recalls a time when even the left in America could openly discuss the ideas of Christianity:  of Niebuhr (who made the cover of Time magazine) and Tillich, if not Bultmann and Feuerbach.  Maybe giants don't roam the earth anymore.  Or maybe, as the character Dana Scully said at the end of a memorable "X-Files" episode:  maybe God is speaking, and no one is listening.

I pick on Chris Hayes, not out of animus, but simply as an example.  He was shocked to learn that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a universally beloved spokesman for civil rights in his lifetime; that what he advocated was not immediately embraced and championed by all but the most entrenched white supremacists.  That, of course, is how we remember King now; but we only remember King for his "I have a dream" speech.  Nobody even notices that the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written to churches from a church leader, or that the entire civil rights movement was grounded in, and supported by, the black churches of America.  We have quite effectively pushed church and religion, if not out of the public square, then out of legitimate recognition.  And we have done it in one generation.

If ever there was an object lesson in the fragility of memory and the eradicability of history, this would be it.  I can't imagine Chris Hayes having an in-depth discussion of the impact of Christianity on public policy, because I can't imagine Chris Hayes knowing anything about Christianity or Christian theology.

True, Jerry Falwell rushed in to fill the gap created by the indifference to church of the Boomers, but even as the Moral Majority was claiming control of American politics (a control it never really had), it was clear that was a rearguard effort, the blush on the cheek of a dying age.  Even as "A Man Called Peter" symbolized the rush back to church that swelled the pews after World War II, Niebuhr and like-minded theologians were doing the work outlined by Barth, trying to reconcile the world and Christianity, recognizing that neither was in control of the other, or should be.

And then we just gave up on church.

I am familiar with the statistics about how "millenials" have all left church behind, and how much better the country is for it, and how it is a harbinger of what is to come.  Once again, the millenials (or their apologists) imagine the world new-born at the moment of their birth, and all history before them irrelevant or a mere burden of a generation that messed everything up (even that attitude is not original or unique to the "new" generation).  Everything millenials tell me now signals the death of the church, is what boomers were practicing when I was still in high school.  The more things change....

So I discard the idea that this abandonment of Christianity began at the turn of the century.  This movement away from cultural roots has been going on for over a century.  Eliot recognized it, and the tools of the dislocation and deconstruction were apparent in the 1920's.    The computer didn't invent this; television didn't invent this.  Its roots, in fact, are in 19th century Europe, the real century of revolution.

We are all still rattling from the earthquakes that happened then.

The truth is, we gave up on church in the 19th century, when the elites decided that fear of God was all well and good for the masses, and even necessary (and fear of God was the only relationship with God that mattered), but for thinking persons such notions were superstition and mythology.  We haven't even invented a new vocabulary for this, even as anthropology has taught us mythology is not the simplistic fantastical explanation of natural forces that we all think it is.  The effort, however, began then, not with the invention of the internet, or the Bomb, or the devastation of France in World War II (hello, Jean Paul!).  The masses are just now starting to catch up with the elites of 2 centuries ago, and, as they did so now we do, and throw out the baby with the bathwater.

So that a review of modern theology in "The Nation" is unthinkable; because the idea that church could matter, that Christianity could matter, except as an obstacle to the ideas promoted by "The Nation," is unthinkable.  Almost, dare I say, inconceivable.

As I said sometime back when I began this blog, this is more a publicly accessible notebook than it is a polished publication.  So consider these the thoughts I woke up with, the preliminaries to an appreciation and examination of a few ideas found in Bonhoeffer which I want to get around to discussing, or at least presenting.

We'll see where it leads....

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