Sunday, September 5, 2010
The Quest for a Compelling Christianity
More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all...The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.
The 2010 Pew Forum on Religious Life
...even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.
James McClendon and James Smith on "the principle of fallibility"
The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That’s how I feel about being a “Christian” in 2010 America. With 75% of the population claiming the faith, it is still a “Christian Nation,” and that’s part of the problem. In surveys and studies, Christianity is being pelted by those outside and inside the faith for its judgmental, intolerant and hypocritical leanings (some reality and some perception):
But even with significant numbers leaving the Body of Christ altogether (for various reasons), many of these megachurches just keep getting bigger and bigger.
Why? Much of it has to do with genius marketing. Pastors like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren have taken the science of business and applied it to their suburban church communities which have exploded with attendees and members over the past three decades. At the origins of their church establishments in the early 80s, they both (Hybels in suburban Chicago and Warren in southern Orange County) took surveys to outlying neighborhoods to ask what folks were looking for in a faith community. They responded by shifting the way they worship, serve and tell the basic message of Christ, catering to the “felt needs” of their cultural context. People came to church and felt comfortable, entertained and feeling good about their lives.
Both Hybels and Warren were reacting to the Christian fundamentalism of their own upbringings. They became the anti-Falwells. Warren even received praise from Bill Maher of all people. They transitioned their churches from a coercive form of faith to a more seeker-sensitive approach, motivating their congregations to bring their non-Christian friends to church to experience a kinder, gentler brand of Jesus. Gone were the days of preaching hell-and-damnation and Moral Majority church-based political action. Warren’s witty apolitical phrase says it all: “I’m not right-wing, I’m not left-wing, I’m for the whole bird.” Falwell blames 9/11 on the gays and lesbians and Pastor Rick wants to just give everyone a hug.
The centuries of Christian coercion that basically forced people to claim the Christian label through top-down government declaration, social ostracism and fear/manipulation was a pretty bogus form of faith officially launched with Emperor Constantine in the 4th century Roman Empire. The very American Evangelical transition into Christian marketing over the past few decades has been an improvement (persuasion is far better than forms of Christian sharia!), but still problematic on several fronts. First of all, and most importantly in my opinion, at the very heart of beliefs and lifestyle, the difference between coercive Christians and marketing Christians is a matter of style, not substance. Marketing Christians believe the exact same things as Coercive Christians, but they just adjust the tone and volume dials to a little less abrasive level. If pressed, they will admit that they still believe the Bible is the error-free Word of God (self-evidently interpreted), that people who do not confess that Jesus is Lord will go to hell when they die and that gays and lesbians are “living in sin” unless they choose a life of celibacy. This was exemplified nicely in a recent conversation with a Marketing Christian who claimed that he wanted to “love on” Muslims in order to “win them to Christ.” The point was not Jesus’ call for his followers to love their neighbors and enemies, it was the dire need to convert the non-Christian…or else.
This leads to my second point: Marketing Christians, inherently, live out an agenda that many folks, more and more obviously, can sniff out a mile away. Because I work with teenagers and young adults everyday, I am consistently struck by their ability to sense when people (including myself) are not being authentic (if you don't believe me, check out this short-but-sweet interview with Adbusters' Micah White). This is exactly what Neil Postman described as the goal of American education more than 40 years ago: to train up experts in “crap-detecting.” I am convinced that young people have become experts at crap-detecting, not because schools have trained them this way, but because the media has intensified its own advertising onslaught. Young people are sick and tired of being sold stuff with empty promises and many are simply refusing any sort of spirituality/religion that tries to use the same techniques onthem.
Third, Marketing Christianity is rooted in what philosophers call “a foundationalist epistemology,” which basically refers to the manner in which they build up their certainty and security through what they call “Absolute Truth.” Like a game of Jenga, their belief-system is carefully constructed with spiritual principles and timeless truths that they “prove” by quoting inerrant Bible verses. There is very little understanding (or need) of nuance or complexity. They are sure that they have the corner on Truth (with a capital T) because their favorite pastor or author said so. All others are wrong by implication. It is unfortunate that Joe and Jill Marketing Christian have very little understanding that there is a whole world of knowledge and intellect both within American and world-wide Christianity, but also “outside the fold” of Christianity itself. These beliefs and principles that are foundational to Marketing Christians are “claims” just like those of everyone else.
My fourth and final point is connected to the third: Marketing Christians consistently fail to understand that their brand of Christian faith is contested. They use language like “The Bible clearly says” or “Christians believe.” These are uber-generalized statements that claim the monopoly on Truth, but do not match up with reality. Critical and careful readers of Scripture know that there is very little that the Bible says “clearly.” It must be interpreted within the historical context with a humble acknowledgment that the perspective of the interpreter plays into the interpretation. And there is very little that all Christians actually agree upon when it comes to “belief.”
Because EasyYolk is so obsessively committed to being visionary, we propose a way forward. Authentic Christian faith is neither coercive nor market-driven. It is compelling: a life of self-donating love, humble service and forgiveness has the ring of truth is holistically appealing to those committed to making our world better with their lives. Faith, after all, entails trusting a higher power through a risky lifestyle of compassion and sacrifice for the sake of others: family, friends, neighbors, strangers, foreigners and enemies. It is an odd-yet-demanding commitment to living for others instead of self-fulfillment, pleasure and success based on competitive scarcity models that prevails in our culture. Salvation, for the Compelling Christian, is to pledge allegiance to the redemption of the world, strategically working for healing, peace, justice and reconciliation for everyone. When one’s primary identification is not with family, ethnicity, social class or favored-nation-status, then the entire cosmos becomes our brotherhood (and sisterhood) of solidarity. Disease and famine in Africa and war in Iraq/Afghanistan/Yemen/Pakistan, as well as abortion, official torture, below-living-wages, sexual and substance addiction, social security and health care in America, are painful problems that greatly affect millions and Christians join their brothers and sisters of other faith traditions (and those without faith traditions) in their rugged determination to eradicate the misery and suffering of all God’s Creatures. Too many American Christians embrace a lifestyle that is either indifferent or presently contributing to these problems (and more). More and more, unfortunately, folks are promoting a brand of Christianity (through word and deed) that is not compelling because it does not intentionally live the radical way of Jesus who attacked the systems and structures that lead to injustice.
Of course, the transition towards a more Compelling Christian faith requires theological and philosophical paradigm shifts that inevitably threaten church growth models because they place obedience over effectiveness. The Compelling Christian is not interested in who is going to heaven and hell because the gospel, according to the New Testament, is not interested in that subject. The gospel according to the New Testament is surely interested in a God Who bestows hope in a future redemption of the world and a People who are committed to joining God in this vocation Right Now No Matter What. Compelling Christians live as a sign and foretaste of what world peace and justice will embody when God is finished.
Likewise, Compelling Christians take the Bible very seriously, so seriously that it needs to be interpreted carefully, critically and communally. This juxtaposes the biblical reading strategy of Coercive and Marketing Christians who promote an individualistic, self-evident experience where the Spirit of God speaks to the lone ranger “believer” during self-designated “quiet times.” Complexity and nuance are a part of every aspect of life and when we come to the Bible (and by “we” I mean everyone, including theologians with PhDs and professional pastors and popular Christian authors), we are driven by powerful vested interests, deep fears, deep unresolved hurts, family expectations, peer pressure, economic opportunity and social ideology. These need to be controlled by, first, acknowledging the possibility that we might be wrongfully reading the text. This is what the Christian theologian James McClendon and atheist philosopher James Smith called “the principle of fallibility” in their book on religious convictions written 35 years ago. To admit the possibility that we might be wrong about some of the convictions we have about God and the world is not weakness, but a highly underrated humility that defines what faith actually is.
The Compelling Christian, thus, believes in Absolute Truth, insofar that it will only be “fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12) at some undisclosed Time in the future when God will either show up or not. Sure Absolute Truth exists, but that's not the point. The point is that there simply is no answer in the back of the book at this time. We cannot prove our convictions, but we can weigh arguments prayerfully and patiently and intensely with our fellow truth seekers. This process is not relativism, but instead a highly complex process that takes seriously and respectfully the diverse perspectives of our conversation partners. In the end, we sink our teeth into convictions that guide our lives into a vibrant spirituality that seeks to pour all of our energy into making this world a more loving and compassionate and tender and prophetically accountable place to live.
This philosophy is what is known as post-foundationalism, critiquing the post-Enlightenment project of placing the supposedly glorified “objectivity” of logic and reason on the throne of all of our political, economic and religious conversations. A Compelling Christianity is more at home in a postmodern understanding of the world (“postmodern” is often a bogeyman of Coercive and Marketing Christians because they, unfortunately, equate it with relativism) that takes someone’s regional/theological/ethnic/national perspective seriously (this is also referred to as “the myth of objectivity”) and proclaims this moment in time as “The Era of Full Disclosure” humbly admitting that these perspectival differences inevitably shade how we might see “the Truth.” This postmodernity leads to a focus on living Christian practices faithfully instead of getting doctrines and beliefs perfectly in order. In this way Batman was correct: “it’s not what’s inside of you but what you do that defines you” (in fact, Rick Warren recently proclaimed that the next Reformation will be about deeds, not creeds). And lastly, postmodernity takes the focus away from discovering truth from the lips of those in power and eagerly listens to those folks who are marginalized on the periphery of the world (this is what liberation theologians call “the epistemological privilege of the poor). This doesn’t mean that “the experts” in the West don’t get to have a voice, but instead means that those who don’t have a voice should have an equal voice.
Because this is an Era of Full Disclosure, we'd like to note that EasyYolk is at home in a theological tradition that takes the prophetic vocation of Jesus seriously. He criticized the Powers and energized the powerless...and got killed for his ruthless confrontation with those who deceitfully and craftily monopolized the Truth. This kind of interpretation of Jesus has been around from the very beginning of Christianity and has been fleshed out notably in African American and Anabaptist strands of faith in the United States since its inception. The Christianity we subscribe to finds resonance in Roger Williams (the ultimate seeker), John & Charles Wesley, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Cornel West today. We call it a "minority strand" for obvious reasons: it has always existed outside of the established mainstream. Hopefully and prayerfully, the world finds it compelling.