“Fire & Forget” Theology
About a month ago I posted the following link on a Facebook page administrated by mi amigo Art Greenhaw. Art liked this clip of Ron Austin, a retired screenwriter and TV director, speaking to a Dominican gathering earlier this summer and asked my opinion on it in the context of his Facebook page’s theme, Methodist Renewal: Reversing the Decline.
Well, I tried.
I put a lot of serious thought into it, and since I couldn’t see how to fix current problems without addressing some systemic issues going waaaaaaaaay back, I decided to include a brief overview of how we got to where we are today, and by that point I was at the 1,400+ word mark and I still hadn’t addressed the main issue that Art wanted to me address.
But in the meantime, reality happened.
Reality in the form of Roy Moore and far too many evangelicals normalizing his behavior and in celebrities and politicians on both sides of the aisle being revealed as amoral sexual predators and other politicians being willing to lie and various religious leaders overlooking the sins of their own and pundits defending the indefensible bad behavior of those who benefited their ideological POV, and I realized my previous lengthy response was now rendered null and void by a rapidly changing cultural environment so I’m going to cut through all the BS and get straight to the core issue of what Christian churches and denominations should do right now, today, this instant:
Shut it down.
Mind you, this is a far more optimistic and restrained improvement over my original version: Burn it down.
But the frank, ugly, brutal yet irrefutable truth is this: American Christianity as a movement is over, and whatever Christian movement replaces it, it’s not going to be church as usual.
Now, I know this will dismay a lot of people who love their local churches and their denominations, but I am not the sort of person to offer a criticism without offering a solution as well.
So bear with me, we’ll get to the religious / spiritual / theological issues in a moment, right now let’s discuss what to do with the organizations that exist today under the Christian banner.
Turn them into chautauquas.
No, seriously -- bear me out!
Chautauquas would satisfy almost all the needs and functions offered by churches today.
For those unfamiliar with the term “chautauqua”, they were old fashioned tent shows that traveled the US, offering cultural / educational / inspirational lectures and entertainment to folks in the hinterlands. Elvis made a movie about them -- The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get Into It) -- and while it isn’t very good movie even for Elvis, it does paint a vivid and mostly accurate picture of what the chautauqua experience was like. (And how many Elvis movies have Vincent Price and John Carradine in them, hmm?)
By turning churches into chautauquas, the local / neighborhood congregation would become a social magnet for the community, offering inspirational lectures and classes and scouting and public service events, but stripped of all specific American Christian content. The larger denominations would turn into networks of speakers and performers to supply programing for the local meeting halls, providing administrative and logistical support.
Denominational institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, etc., would continue as tax exempt secular charities.
The local chautauqua would operate seven days a week, with numerous classes and lectures for all ages and interests, some supplied by local staff, some by local volunteers, some by the various former denominational networks, some by itinerant freelancers.
All lectures and performances and presentations and events would be dedicated to uplifting their audiences, encouraging integrity, tolerance, compassion, honesty, and charity.
Jesus would not be banned from the chautauquas -- a lecture on the Beatitudes would be a fine thing for all audiences, believers or not -- but other philosophical and spiritual leaders would be taught as well.
There could even be Bible classes…for adults only.
Because you see, the way in which American Christianity has presented the Bible is a YUGE hunk of the problem we’re having today, and arguably the number one contributing factor into the implosion of American Christianity.
I do not believe we should be teaching the Bible to little children, certainly not to anyone under the age of 12, and we should only teach the Bible to those who want to understand it fully.
We cram little kids into a Sunday school class, tell them fairy tales -- and that’s how they’re processing the dumbed down Bible stories we’re feeding them -- and end up creating false impressions in their minds of what those stories mean in proper context.
We give them crayons to color in a big bright rainbow over the ark, let them glue cotton bolls over the sheep gamboling down the plank, put glitter on Noah standing there with a big smile plastered over his face that God spared him and his family…
And we never really take them past that point, do we?
Our entire approach to the Bible is kept at that dumbed-down-and-not-at-all-accurate first depiction. When they become adults, the lesson plans and sermons don’t deviate much from that initial image that completely belies the meaning of the flood story, that completely ignores the complexity and the contradictions of Noah and his behavior.
We argue we do that out of deference to visitors who may not be familiar with the Bible, or to keep from confusing young kids in church with a more thorough study, but a story told badly should not be told at all, and the messages we should derive from Bible study have to first fight their way past a morass of misconceptions that have been carefully hammered down on us for years.
So, no, no Bible stories for anybody under the age of 12. Teach ‘em Christ’s parables, those are okay: Little bite size tales that vividly illustrate and illuminate a specific moral or spiritual point, but please stop trying to hammer the Bible into their heads.
It only warps and distorts them.
(The Bible stories, that is; not their heads.)
I recognize that due to varying methods of organization it will be more difficult for some churches and denominations to reorganize into chautauquas -- the process will be more than simply changing letterheads and signage -- but it can be done.
Because the alternative is that they go out of business.
I want to focus on that word: Business.
Let’s not mince words: American Christianity is a business. It provides a living for tens of thousands of people. It has income, it has expenses. It has a house nut to meet. There are gas and electric and water bills to pay, insurance to cover, salaries to be met, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
Whatever the ostensible purpose of this business, it’s a business.
Americans like business, and while it’s absolutely true that the business model of Christianity originated thousands of years ago in Europe (and to be fair, all the major religions are run like businesses, going back to the paganism of ancient Greece and the polytheism of ancient Egypt), this business model has distorted, diminished, then discarded the gospel of Christ.
Christ’s message was not how to make a buck. (Yeah, prosperity gospel shills are quick to point to the parable of the talents, etc., but tap dance around the far more numerous admonitions that rich people will go to hell.)
Christ’s message was not about how to achieve and maintain power. (Christ did not care about specific institutions and governments; he wanted his followers to live and act justly no matter what system they were in or under.)
Christ’s message was about how to live righteously in an unrighteous world.
There’s an old Jewish legend of the Tzadikim Nistarim, the 36 righteous people who stave off the day of judgment simply by being in the world.
The legend is emphatic that these righteous people need not be Jews, or for that matter even particularly devout or religious.
They just have to be righteous, and by their mere presence in the world, the world is saved.
Metaphorically, that is what Christ was teaching us to be.
Yeah, he had a lot of teachings on heaven and hell, but he crafted his message for his audience so that they would grasp his teachings at their level of understanding.
They were anxious about their future; Christ taught, “Don’t be anxious. Your Father in heaven loves you. Love one another as He loves you.”
American Christianity teaches: “Be anxious. God doesn’t love you unless you do what we say. Obey our rules and you’ll go to heaven.”
That’s the business of American Christianity speaking. A business that needs repeat customers to keep the coffers filled.
You cannot serve God and Mammon.
Becoming a Christian is like learning to ride a bicycle.
Once you learn, you just ride the bicycle.
You don’t keep coming back to take the same lessons over and over and over and over again.
Christ taught a “fire & forget” theology.
“Fire & forget” is a military term for self-guided weapons that, once locked in on a target, can be fired and trusted to find and destroy the target on their own, without direct control from the person who launched it.
The lone wolf terrorists of various ideologies operate on the same principle. The ideologies radicalize them, encourage them, spur them on, but don’t actually provide logistical support or tell them what to attack.
Having absorbed the message, they go and act on their own.
Followers of Christ should operate on the same principle -- though obviously for the sake of righteousness, not hate and terror.
Once we have the gospel of Christ -- the good news -- we don’t need any organization to guide us.
We will not act unrighteously.
We will not willfully harm others.
We will not let others suffer if we can help.
We will not worry about the day, but have faith.
We will be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.