Truman Show

Still trying to make sense of my experience of belonging to a big church for the last 9 years, only to find myself now searching for something very, very different.

There’s something about belonging to a mega-church that’s like being Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. When things don’t add up, no one seems to notice. Maybe it’s that there’s something appealing to people about being identified with a big, slick organization, and we respond the same way we respond to a commercial: “I want it.” We don’t ask the hard questions, and we don’t stop to figure out whether the product delivers on its rhetoric. That’s the choice we make (once again a choice reflecting the “having” orientation in life), and it ends up shaping us into the strange, giddy, sloganized people smiling brightly and surrounding Truman in his artificial world.

So I’m not that. I’ve chosen to belong to the true Kingdom, and a recent assertion of that choice was to follow God out of a place that had begun to seem more image than substance. While I’m certain God is guiding, I’m not sure I can claim to be the princess in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin–following the protective, guiding thread given her by a grandmother no one else can see, and perceptible only to her own fingertips. And though I hope God’s plan in this chapter includes others (like my children), I’m not sure I can claim to be valiant like she is, led along through dark caverns and saving other heroes.

At the opposite extreme, I’m aware of the danger of becoming a goblin like the ones in the story–driven underground, bitter, disfigured, proud, disconnected from the daylight world and the reality of others.

I’m somewhere in between.

Slick advertising

As long as I’m trying to unravel all the strands of my disillusionment with church (not to be confused with disillusionment with God, who is anything but disappointing), I’m going to use writing here to try and get something else clear in my mind. If a church is trying to make itself “culturally relevant,” it’s going to have to buy into some values other than those embedded in the postmodernist mindset, but equally at odds with the gospel.  The values of slick advertising are an example.

We’re in a capitalistic, media-drenched culture. The buying and selling mindset is more deeply ingrained in us than we can measure or be completely aware of. But when we do uncover evidence of it, we need to face it with the knowledge that it’s “counter-kingdom”–at least, this is the case if we are going to take seriously passages like Jesus’s cleansing of the temple, or God’s invitation in Isaiah 55 to “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Although Jesus was not anti-money (many of his parables used material wealth as evidence of wisdom), it’s clear throughout scripture that redemption is “extra-monetary.” When a spirit of buying and selling enters into our thinking about salvation, it’s evidence of confusion at least (the rich young ruler), wickedness at worst (Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8).

Yet in our culture we’re so steeped in buying and selling we don’t even recognize it half the time. We think of “having” material things, “having” friends, “having” a livelihood or health or even salvation–rather than simply “being” amongst all these aspects of experience.

The American church in my opinion is as steeped in consumer culture as the people it seeks to reach. Recently I left my church of 9 years because it had become rather a crass place. The worship pastor I served under left for another position, and at the first subsequent leadership meeting for the worship ministry, the discussion centered around how to “hook” new church members through worship on Sundays. What type of songs should be played in order to target a certain younger demographic and thereby ensure that the church membership wouldn’t age and dwindle? What should the team look like on the stage? What are other “successful” churches doing? It wasn’t only the youthful interim worship pastor who generated such a discussion, but rather the elders of the church.

Question: shouldn’t worship be determined by the God we’re worshipping? Why consider how to offer adoration to God in such a way as to guarantee the life of a particular institution? It was a toxic mixing of consumer culture with spiritual life.

Other evidence sometimes presents itself in the leadership structure of a church. An “executive administrator” isn’t all that uncommon, and the position doesn’t involve shepherding but rather “strategy.”

What does strategy have to do with “preaching Jesus Christ”? Paul is painstakingly clear about how unreliable he considers his own education or qualifications as a representative of Christ. Once you’ve obeyed in the usually humble areas of service God sets before you, the more hands-off you can be about what God is trying to do, the better. Strategy is a human phenomenon. I remember attending a church where I lived previously that was embarking on a “strategic prayer” program. Can God be “strategized” into doing anything? It’s not exactly a term that smacks of humility. Rather, it smacks of control and manipulation.

A church governed by the laws of the marketplace is not a safe place for any true seeker, or speaker, of truth. Appearances can be deceiving, and ultimately the veneer is a fragile thing, easily shattered by a single independent thinker. An advertising illusion isn’t meant to be questioned too closely.

Implicit in the advertising culture is the reality that we want to be deceived. But only the truth satisfies, and it rarely looks like the smoothly spun and orchestrated campaign people can create. Sooner or later the essential emptiness of the slick church’s attractive husk becomes palpable, and when it happens, there’s only one place I know of to go: out. And pray like mad that God will guide me to the place He’s got in mind for me.

To read or not to read

Helen Keller’s autobiography has given me much food for thought as a Christian homeschooling parent. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, writes: “Great care has been taken not to lead her (Helen’s) thoughts prematurely to the consideration of subjects which perplex and confuse all minds. Children ask profound questions, but they often receive shallow answers, or, to speak more correctly, they are quieted by such answers. . . . She has not yet been allowed to read the Bible, because I do not see how she can do so at present without getting a very erroneous conception of the attributes of God.”

My reflex is a legalistic flail in defense of Bible-reading to the young. I’ve been reading a children’s Bible storybook to my two young children, a little each day, for the last 6 months or so. I want to model a devotional life in which scripture is the basis of our interaction with God and our perspective on life.

Even though I believe God will honor this, and will negotiate the misconceptions that are sure to come…what if I had waited? Is Anne Sullivan right that their curiosity would have opened the door later, when they’re better able to comprehend “the great mysteries”? Would a time come when I wouldn’t worry that the God of love is all talk to them, while the God that loses His temper and punishes steals the show?

Or is it just arrogance that believes such a time would ever come? Is spiritual understanding dependent on intellectual maturity? Does it do children a disservice to assume that these matters are beyond them?

This approach certainly had favorable results with Helen, who writes later, “But how shall I speak of the glories I have since discovered in the Bible? For years I have read it with an ever-broadening sense of joy and inspiration; and I love it as I love no other book.” She’s not brainwashed either, for she writes, “Still there is much in the Bible against which every instinct of my being rebels, so much that I regret the necessity which has compelled me to read it from beginning to end. I do not think that the knowledge which I have gained of its history and sources compensates me for the unpleasant details it has forced upon my attention. For my part, I wish, with Mr. Howells, that the literature of the past might be purged of all that is ugly and barbarous in it, although I should object as much as anyone to having these great works falsified.”

In the end I recall Jesus’ words: “Let the little children come unto Me.” They already live in a world and a human nature that are beyond their ability to process or manage. Even if we could censor their outer world, we can’t censor their inner world. They’re as wonderful and as fallen as adult human beings. Maybe it’s best to introduce them to the grandest, highest, most challenging vision of all now, before their minds are saturated with either their own nature, or the spirit of the age.

Cultural relevance — or cultural impoverishment?

Many churches today seem to be trying to be “culturally relevant.” This is evident in their dress-down casualness, their attempt at contemporary music and maybe even contemporary art, and their general lingo and (rather forced) attempt to disassociate themselves from tradition.

Question: who wants to be culturally relevant in a postmodern age?

Here’s what my trusty Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia defines as postmodernism:

“A much-debated term first used to describe a style in architecture which ostensibly rejected modernism’s lack of individuality and integration with past historical contexts.” It’s characterized by “irony and self-reflexivity.” It “tends to discover itself in the cultures of other times and places, for example, claiming Milton as a postmodernist avant la lettre, or rap music as an unwitting echo of postmodern style.”

It goes on: “Postmodernism, or ‘postmodernity,’ also denotes a historical shift in political economy…. Supporters of postmodernist style tend to value heterogeneity, contingency, irony and self-reflexivity over homogeneity, ‘totalization’ (the attempt to produce a generally valid statement), truth, and nonreflexiveness.”

Could we get any further from the gospel than this? What resemblance does this ideological framework bear to the teachings of Jesus? How much more self-centered, relativistic, and hopeless could it get?

Why would we try to slip the gospel into such an inadequate and ill-fitting package? To me it makes more sense to offer an alternative culture within the walls of the church–one as unexpectedly large and life-giving as what lay behind the stable door in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. That would be a truer presentation of the gospel in its original and fresh power. Why on earth (or perhaps more accurately, why in the hell) would we want to reproduce the stench and imprisonment and dread of the stable itself?

About Moses

Messengers of God is giving me much food for thought in its chapter about Moses. Wiesel draws from other texts besides our Bible, texts like the Midrash and the Talmud that I’m unsure how to evaluate. But the resulting insight into Moses squares with such scripture as I have read–and been puzzled by.

Moses’s anger has bugged me. This is something I’ve noticed lately in some supposedly anointed church leaders: they (seem to) get mad at their sheep, instead of tending and feeding them gently. As I try to understand and work through my own–paralysis? lack of desire to do anything more than sit in a pew?–in my search for a church, this “Mosaic anger” is something I’m trying to understand. Moses lost his temper early on, when he killed the Egyptian. Then he threw a fit when he came down from the mountain, and broke the Ten Commandments. Then he hit the rock with his staff, and God finally disciplined him. When it came, the discipline was severe: “You shall not see the Promised Land.” That’s not a slap on the hand. It’s almost the equivalent of stripping Moses of his leadership role. Moses had hung onto anger as a lens for seeing life, and as a way of making others do what he wanted (via theatrical displays), for too long. He’d unfit himself as the leader into a new phase.

But… why was this root allowed in Moses for so long? I’m not throwing stones; I understand it takes a long time to work through our fleshly “nervous system.” But there is a side of me (a big side) that thinks a leader, especially one as significant as Moses, should be called to a higher standard, a steeper learning curve, something. What about the sheep? While the shepherd is working his way through his issues, the effect can be severe.

Anyway, in Messengers of God Wiesel looks squarely at this anger in Moses and helps me to flesh him out as a human being. He points out that after Moses risks everything to identify with his Jewishness as a young man, he (schizophrenically) leaves Egypt and is quite content to forget the Jews as he marries and raises a family. He totally leaves behind his inner social avenger. He sheds his concern with the Jews’ enslavement, marries the daughter of a pagan minister, and enters a totally separate life…. till God calls him (at which point he resists strenuously, not wanting to go back).

Wiesel suggests that this is because

Moses was disappointed in his Jews, and on several levels. They had not resisted, nor had they agreed to rebel… He may have resented their inability to overcome their internal differences and unite against a common enemy; there was too much pettiness, too much envy, too much selfishness. And then, too, they had betrayed him, their benefactor; for that there had been a betrayal, he had no doubt. But who had been the informer? Well, let us see. When Moses had killed the Egyptian overseer, who else had been present? Only one man: the very Jew whom Moses had saved.

I can relate to this. He had thrown his whole heart into something unselfish, and it hadn’t even registered with the people he was trying to help. They’d even betrayed him. Ouch.

So now I can understand better how that anger in Moses fits into the texture of his relationship with God and his calling as a leader. But lest I sound too hard on the Jews, I have to say that I understand how they feel too. I’m sure there was damage done to them by Moses’s character, and that injury is part of what made God yearn for Moses to change for so long. Speaking as a “sheep” myself, I’ve recently had the experience of trying to survive and grow in a church where I felt I had to protect myself from leadership, and the effect was that I grew a tough protective crust that had nearly cut off my supply of spiritual light and air by the time I got out of there. So how do I “marry” the two viewpoints–Moses’s and the Jews’? Where do I carve a path between both sides’ justifiable sense of injury?