In This Place, In This Time

by Buzz on 19/01/2012

He’s going off on another rant, folks.
Those of you who want to learn why & how The Church
is finally entering the 21st century, read on.
For the rest, this cute kitty picture is for you.

I

I’ve been assembling notes on a variety of topics to blog on for the upcoming year.  All of them seemed to be interlinked in some way, but this particular article made the background issue all snap together.

The author makes some pertinent observations, and there’s a lot to be said (and trust me, I’m about to) about the manner The Church has lost its way by running its operations on a business model.

But he’s off the mark if he thinks the problem is based on nomenclature.

Quite the contrary, it’s the nomenclature that’s making the problem jump out in sharp contrast.

II

Back in the 1990s I told people through an e-mail I sent out that I expected a great sea change in our culture, that the year 2000 would mark a line of demarcation, and that we would soon discard things of the 20th century and move into new territory.

Other people felt this, too; Peggy Noonan famously wrote
of this feeling on the cusp of some epoch shaking event.

Then 9/11 occurred and for a while people thought that was the great cultural sea change.

But it wasn’t, at least not the way we thought it would be.  Instead we unleashed a genii from its bottle and only now are we beginning to comprehend where he is taking us.

Case in point:
In 1900 the Austrian-Hungarian and Czarist Russian empires were two of the largest, longest lived, most stable empires in the world; by 1920 both had ceased to exist.

Anyone who believes either American Exceptionalism or God will prevent such a thing from happening to the U.S. of A. is delusional:  God is no respecter of persons, much less empires, and smarter, better run countries than ours have collapsed with even less pressure.

And why should God spare us / U.S. if He has something even better in store after we’re done?

III

The aftermath of 9/11 was not the great sea change; rather it was the sound and fury that disguised the change occurring.

And even then it was not 9/11 itself that spawned that sound and fury, but rather allowed it to rise to full throated volume.

I try to avoid politics on this blog and so I will not examine fiscal policy, etc.  But I will examine how certain people who have identified themselves as “Christians” have contributed to that sound and fury, although truth be told, the blogger Andrew Sullivan is much more correct when he calls them “Christianists”.

Americans have always been a bunch of materialistic money grubbing b/tards business oriented.  Our national mythos — and every country / culture needs such a mythos — is of pilgrims and poverty stricken refugees yearning to breathe free (read:  Prosper financially).

There is much truth to that, but that is not all the truth, and to omit the rest of the truth is to bear false witness by lying through omission; lying to the world, lying to our children, lying to ourselves.

The history of the Western Hemisphere may be summed up in just eight words:
White people don’t want to pay for anything.

There were two crowded continents here.  Europeans took their land, their wealth, their resources, their lives.

True, much of the tragedy was unintentional:  Disease spread by chance encounter.

But Europeans — particularly the British, our direct cultural ancestors — were never shy to use guile and force to acquire what they wanted and did the same in Africa, Arabia, Asia.

For all the yellow press and purple pulp prose re “savages” and “heathens” and “insidious warlords” and “bloodthirsty natives”, they have suffered far worse at our hands than we have at theirs.

And anyone who says they would have done the same to us
if they had the chance is not echoing the words of Christ.

There is much good and much evil in the origin of the United States, the same with any empire.  We treated the conquered natives and acquired Hispanics and enslaved Africans shabbily, yet we carefully crafted a document and laws that would eventually force us to recognize we had denied them their rights, force us to take some steps, however inadequate, to remedy those wrongs.

Again, this is not about politics, this is about The Church and what is about to happen to us.

The Church still acts like it’s 1800.

IV

We have not changed our ways in over six centuries.  Our services are still a form of theater, theater with a noble, holy purpose, but theater nonetheless.

We enter in the back of the theater and find seats facing the stage.  An MC welcomes us, introduces the various warm up acts, leads us in a sing-a-long, then the main event, usually a one person show, followed by another sing-a-long.

Sometimes refreshments are served — and, hey, don’t forget to tip your wait staff.

Running time can be 45-90 minutes for a full show, depending on the venue, patience of the audience, and skill of the principle performer.

Truth be told, this format goes back a long ways — the ancient Greeks were the first to notice the link between theater and theology — but it became ossified around the time of Martin Luther and Johannes Gutenberg.

See, that kind of worship service made sense when nobody — often times not even the parish priest! — could read.  Then you needed a live performance and lotsa visual cues to pass The Word along.  (Take a look at the art that went into traditional churches and you’ll see what I mean; it’s not unusual for a European church to have the entire Bible carved or painted or cast in stain glass inside and out of the structure.)

Building and maintaining those churches was a community project that could take centuries; it was far from atypical for generations to be born, mature, reproduce, and die without seeing either the beginning or end up of the project.

Not to make more out of it than there was — for these Samsonian labors did not produce Isaiahs of faith (just simple, ordinary, venal, easily corruptible, subject to sin human beings) — but The Church adequately served the culture of that time.

But with Gutenberg the culture changed.  Reading became near universal, and there was a flurry of printed outreaches, but the traditional theology-as-theater approach not only didn’t change but became even more rigid.

There were occasional experiments with form, but for the most part religion became a spectacle one attended, not a way of life one lived.  The theater-like format only encouraged this, and the masters of ceremony not only felt more and more comfortable when everybody — onstage and off — knew their part and played it well, but also gained their power and authority from the rigidity of the roles.

V

Compare the way adults and little children respond to a movie.  Both sit passively and absorb the spectacle, but afterwards the adults remain passive about what they’ve seen, perhaps discussing the finer points of the performance among themselves.

Meanwhile the children are tearing around like maniacs, re-enacting what they’ve experienced, living the story, changing it, adapting it, fleshing it out.  It ceases being something apart from them that they have observed but instead becomes something they both inhabit and infuses them.

They are, in short, inspired.

By the time of the English colonization of North America, the theology-as-theater form had become as rigid as a noh drama in medieval Japan.  There were occasional superficial changes in presentational styles, but no significant change to the underlying structure.

Improvisation was frowned upon, discouraged.  The culture around The Church changed, but other than to pick up an occasional technological trick or two — a broadcast here, a recorded message there — The Church itself did not.

Here’s the difference between adults who see a movie and little kids who see the same thing:  The adults may tell other adults about what they have seen, perhaps encourage a few to make the effort to see it themselves, but that’s about the extent of it.

The irony is that for the theater to stay in business — and running a theater is a costly endeavor — the theater managers must lure the same audience back in week after week.  They need their audience to feel the theater provides something they can’t acquire on their own.

(And ironically, they need to offer them something familiar
to what the audience has seen before; anything too novel or
really outre’ will be a box office flop no matter how good it is.)

But when children like what they see — ‘scuse me, experience — then they will re-enact it again and again in their play.  They will excitedly draw others in on their game, and those children will spread it to others, until eventually tens of thousands of kids are enacting something they haven’t seen but have been exposed to through reckless enthusiasm.

And, yeah, I know this is not the model that works today with
the Internet and TV broadcasting and toy companies:
Stick around, I’m getting to that.

The point is that when thousands of kids play on their own based on a movie they haven’t seen, the theater managers get bupkis.  Unrestricted improvisational play is a threat to them — there’s always the danger that the improvisation may prove more interesting than the formal staging, and then where will they be?

So there’s a great deal of pressure to encourage such play only under controlled protocols:
Buy the official toys, play the licensed game, wear only the official T-shirt.

Above all, do it only in the manner approved by the theater managers, do not go off and create your own mash-ups or improvise your variation or share it with others for free.

The theater has ceased to be a place where stories are told and instead becomes part of a power structure attempting to maintain itself regardless of whether its audience benefits from it or not.

VI

It’s been observed that the current economic situation occurred during the same period of time when businesses began moving away from an outward “find & service customer” business model to an inward “increase shareholder value” model.

This is not the sole reason for the economic collapse, of course, but it certainly acerbated the problem.  A clearer example of the essential morality of Christian selflessness vs. Randian selfishness could not be hoped for (or desired).

A company that looks outward to customers first, relying on their satisfaction to stay in business, will always have customers.  There are any number of ways of tweaking a business model (ratcheting up or down service, cost, quality, variety, etc.) but in the end the business knows the customer is their reason for existence.

The inward facing company isn’t squeamish with how it gets its money so long as it gets its money right fncking now.  Tell an inward facing shareholder he will have to experience lower quarter gains this year to be profitable next year & he’ll yank his stake so fast your head will spin.

Unfortunately, the latter is the organizational model most North American churches either consciously or unconsciously pattern themselves after.

Oh, sure, the mission statement is always about the churchgoer, reaching the lost, providing community, yada, yada, yada.  Don’t read what they say, look at what they do.

No pulpit committee is going to hire a preacher who says, “Well, my vision for your church is discouraging your wealthiest members from attending, getting rid of the property, meeting in people’s home’s for ten or twelve years, but then have a really rock solid group of families who will really be leading Christ-based lives.”

They’ll look for someone who will vow to increase church rolls, expand
the sanctuary, get a Christian academy going, yada, yada, yada.

(I know several pastors & ministers & the above ain’t aimed at you.  Well, not personally.  Rather it’s an observation of church culture.  You poor b/tards have got a tough row to hoe and you are striving heroically to meet the divergent needs of dozens if not hundreds of congregants.  Me, I’m a little gadfly flitting about merrily like a bee from flower to flower.  Only I’m doing it atop a big mammy-jammin’ loose cannon that’s careening madly across our decks.  Welcome to my world.)

VII

I draw a distinction between The Church and the church.  The Church is the body of all believers, and as such it is the Occupy Wall Street of the theological realm.  It has no earthly hierarchy (I don’t care how funny your hat is).  All members are equal brothers and sisters to Christ.

On the other hand, the church is an organization like any other, and like any other organization is has to deal with real world practicalities.  This automatically requires some sort of authority structure, some chain of responsibility / command.  A hierarchy.  The instinct of a hierarchy is to protect itself, which is contrary to Christ’s message of loving sacrifice for others.

You see where the tension lies.

VIII

Nobody reads anymore, at least not the important books.  Babbitt should be in every high school English curriculum and it should be taught in conjunction with history, sociology, and political science classes, but if this book were to appear in a high school library today you’d have some Christianist screaming it’s an attack on religion.

No, it’s not.  It’s a mirror held up to hypocrisy.

Big difference.

While the theology-as-theater style has been going on for at least a couple of millenia, theater has begun changing, at least in the sense that technical breakthroughs have produced seismic cultural shifts.

The law of unintended consequences (i.e., the aforementioned genii in aforementioned bottle) has picked up steam since the industrial revolution.  The sexual revolution is not a result of the birth control pill or women’s liberation but of Henry Ford’s Model T:  Your horse and buggy can’t carry you out of your local community in a single night, but a flivver could take you to another state & back before midnight.  With no neighbors watching there was no telling what you would do.

Theology-as-theater (with a touch of psychodrama thrown in) had flourished in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century protestant movements, but in the 20th century mass communication and transportation began eating away at the societal hold religion enjoyed.  A few gallant souls responded by doubling down and / or embracing new media as best they could (Billies Sunday & Graham).

And there’s an argument to be made for the example-by-bad-example
style of Aimee Semple McPherson & Jimmy Swaggart.

But two world wars did a lot to undermine the
husckterism / boosterism of American style evangelism,
and by the early 1960s God and religion were
rapidly slipping out of the public sphere.

IX

I spent a summer a few years back haunting the stacks at UCLA’s College Library, reading bound issues of Life magazine.  It was interesting to see how easily and unaffectedly God was mentioned in public discourse in the 1940s and 50s, but by the beginning of the 1960s He virtually vanished from the lips of public figures.

I’ve wondered long and hard as to why that came about, but I think now it is simply an example of an old institution — theology-as-theater — finally getting dragged offstage even though its proponents frantically try to keep its decaying corpse alive.

That is not an attack on Christianity.  It is not an attack on The Church.

But it is an attack on what the church had let itself become.

The problem is that the church remained stuck in a 16th century model when the world and culture around it had changed.  There is much beauty and much to be recommended in the old style church, but everything has its day and that day passed nearly a century ago.

The change — the evolution, as it were — should have occurred then.

But it didn’t.

But it is now.

And that’s why it’s such a painful, ugly process.

X

In 2005 George Barna published a book called Revolution,
a wake-up-and-smell-the-mattress-burning alarm
for mainstream evangelical protestants.

Barna, a public opinion researcher who specializes in Christian issues, is brutally straight forward:  Between now and 2050 the bulk of America’s Christians will migrate to either small home-based churches or giant mega-churches; the future is bleak indeed for the bulk of America’s mid-sized churches.

The church — not the real Church w/a capital “C” but the power hierarchy — already sees this happening and is shicking brits about it.  What’s happening right now in the Christianist community is a fierce struggle to suck in as many Babbitts as possible.

This process has actually been going on since the 1960s, since the roots of what became the Christianist movement began noticing they were on the fast track to being marginalized culturally.

It began with a strike back against the hippie movement, against liberalism, against the modern then post-modern world.

This is not to say that it was cynical or insincere.  But it wasn’t well thought out, it wasn’t reasoned through.  It saw the change around it and, instead of understanding and embracing it, chose to fight against it.

It is a popular trope among Christians (not just Christianists) that we are taking a stand against the encroaching evils of the world.

Well, perhaps we are.

And perhaps not.

XI

I’ve written elsewhere that faith is hope reasonably based on experience.

We have faith the other guy will stop at the light when we approach an intersection.  We base that faith on our experience that people normally do stop at intersections when the lights are against them.

We approach the intersection with the faith he will stop because we know we will stop if the light changes.

But suppose we approach the intersection with a different set of presumptions?

Not that he will stop if the light is against him but that he will stop because he will recognize we are entitled to go through the intersection regardless of other traffic?

Sometimes we may have that right — if we’re driving an ambulance, f’r instance — but other times all we’re doing is making a siren sound to ourselves so we can pretend we’re driving an ambulance on a life-or-death call.

And then we run through a red light.

And we crash into somebody else.

And we blame them because they clearly are at fault!

XII

It is easy to stay in our comfort zone if we’re convinced any effort to move out of it is the work of Satan.

And it becomes easier and easier to demonize the marginalized, the hurting, the lost, the suffering.

Y’know, those very people Jesus came to save.

Since they’re so far out of our comfort zone, there must be something wrong with them.

With that attitude, the biggest thing that’s wrong is not them but us.

We’re selfish b/tards.

We want the world to make us comfortable, not provide comfort to it.

For generations we have built churches that have operated like they were in the theater business.

We are comfortable with that way of doing things because that’s all we’ve known.

That’s not what The Church started out as.

That’s not where The Church is heading.

We are quick to attack / denigrate / downplay / demonize / ridicule anything that might suggest we’ve spent a lifetime chasing our theological tails, squandered it on fruitless pursuits that any social club or tavern could have duplicated when there was So Much More to be done.

How much harder it is to be honest, unblinking, insightful.

Mega-churches have much appeal:  Lotsa programs and outreaches; lotsa areas where you can become involved…

…if by “involved” you mean sitting & nodding & letting somebody else do it.

Oh, to be sure, there’s a lot of real world objective good these mega-churches do, and there are times when their members actually get up and do some small service for others in the name of Christ.

But that’s not why they flourish.

They flourish because there’s an appeal to getting lost in a crowd, an appeal to chipping in a few bucks each week & thinking, “Well, I’ve done my part” instead of actually living the way Christ taught.

Very, very, very few of us are living the way Christ taught.  I know I’m not.

And we know this — and we don’t want to know this, because to know this means we have to do something about it, either change or deny Him.

So churches in general and mega-churches in particular provide a comfort zone to those afraid of real change.

Heyyyyyyy, Babbitt!

XIII

Here is the damage inflicted on The Church by the church:

The small “c” church became a social club that everybody in America had to either become a member of or say flattering things about if they wanted to be popular / make money / do business / get elected.

Insofar as the small “c” church mimicked the big “C” Church by opening & operating charities & hospitals & helping those in need, this was a good thing.

But the Babbitts really weren’t all that interested in really living the Christian life, they were interesting in acquiring wealth / power / prestige / comfort.  (They just viewed Christian works as the cost of belonging to the big club where they could schmooze & kibbitz & network & do business.)

This worked before the Industrial & Information Ages gave individuals real physical freedom, real access to others, real alternative options to so many things the culture had ordained were Just So.

The moment individuals realize there is nothing for them in the small “c” church,
they abandon it.

Some just live for their own pleasure.

Others go in search of the real Church.

These are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

XIV

Cynical exploiters and / or sociopaths (the difference is moot at some point) see the small “c” church as a pool of willing victims, suckers eager to be taken so long as they are reassured they have not been wasting their time.

Those who stay in the small “c” church see the exodus around them and wonder what’s going on.

It’s easier to blame the ever available evil Other than to admit to failings of one’s own.

The cynical exploiters encourage slavish, unthinking devotion to the small “c” church.  They encourage a rigid hierarchy (so long as they are on top).

They want an unthinking army, not people who will follow their own hearts and minds in service of God.

This is not to say — never to say — that all the people who stay in the small “c” church are only doing so out of inertia and ignorance.

Just that far too many of them are.

There are genuine Christians in the small “c” church, people who truly try to live the way Christ taught.

And they are dismayed, sometimes horrified by what the small “c” church does.

And to their credit many of them try to stand up to it.

But it’s hard, especially when all the elements of the small “c” church are aligned to force conformity.

Oh, there’s the occasional “special worship service” or the “special offering” or the “special outreach program” but those are temporary sops, not genuine changes.

Just enough hand-waving to distract the ill-at-ease, and then the moment those parishioners fall asleep it’s Business As Usual on the hell-bound train.

This will continue until such time as the power hierarchy as a whole realizes there’s no profit in it for themselves not merely as individuals but as a power hierarchy, and then they will abandon the small “c” church as well.

That, of course, will be the best thing possible for The Church.

XV

In the mean time, the Sea Change is occurring.  It has happened before, in other times, on other places, among other cultures, and it is never pretty.

I can foresee a lot of turmoil, a lot of anger, a lot of anguish.

I can foresee bloodletting on both sides.

I can foresee the ultimate end, and it is never a pretty one for power hierarchies (though there will be individuals among them who will see the handwriting on the wall — or in today’s terms, the tweets on the InterWebs — and abandon their colleagues to join the other side & establish a new power hierarchy:  ‘Twas Ever Thus).

How long it will take, what it will entail, that I cannot fathom.

But I do know our task as Christians, as members of the big “C” Church will be to not get involved as combatants, literal or figurative.

Instead, we are to be the peacemakers.

The comforters.

The ones seeking to bridge gaps and tensions.

We must prepare to be misunderstood and ridiculed and persecuted, perhaps unto death.

This is what we are here for.

In this place.

In this time.

buzz@buzzdixon.com

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