This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The New York Times Op-Ed page last Sunday (8/8/10) had a piece by a Pastor named G. Jeffrey MacDonald. 
He bemoans the devastating consequences on clergy health of the fact that what most congregations seem to want from their Pastor is comfort and entertainment.

In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.”

In the recent issue of The Christian Century, Kenda Dean talks about the failures of most church youth ministries to cultivate actual Christianity. ( 
Instead, what our young people tend to learn in church is something called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  She says that the creed of MTD would include the following:

• “A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.”
 • “God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
 • “The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.”
 • “God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.”
 • “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Both of these timely articles identify a proverbial elephant in the room of American Christianity.  It is not clergy health, as much as that seems to be the angle important to MacDonald.  It is that many, many church members come to church for reasons other than seeking to be disciples of Jesus Christ.  The Christendom mentality, in which the church was merely the quasi-spiritual sidekick of American culture, is still alive and well in our churches.

Even Mac Donald’s complaint about what Pastors really feel called to do, has almost no theological content:

Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult.  When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion.  They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need.  At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.”

That he could articulate all that without mentioning Jesus Christ is remarkable.  (Maybe his editor watered it down?  I know how that goes….)  But most of the spirit of that paragraph could be said of athletic coaches, therapists, and social workers. 

The point of ministry is not that we ministers get to “shape lives for the better,” or these other things, as good as they may be.  It is to cultivate disciples of Jesus Christ, people who live by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We don’t “share in the suffering of others” out of civic duty; we do it because we are following Jesus’ example of love.  

MTD is what the Powers-That-Be have always wanted churches to give people.  MTD does not threaten to upset comfortable economic arrangements or transform people’s lives.  Unlike Jesus or the Holy Spirit, MTD is very domesticated, diluted, saccharine propaganda, the kind of thing the managers of an asylum might want the inmates to live by.  MTD is, and has always been, “the opium of the people.”

I doubt that whining about “clergy health” is going to change any behaviors in this regard.  (Most denominational health plans will cover anti-depressants.)  We need to either cave in and give people the MTD they want, or have the courage to get out from under having to depend upon MTD enthusiasts for our livelihood.

I know there are still people out there who seek to follow Jesus Christ.  Many of them are even in churches!  Many are not.  But those are the people God wants us to find and gather together.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Anne Rice.

“As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

“For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Anne Rice is a well-known author.  She had written several popular novels about vampires, and erotica, before her conversion to Catholicism.  Since then she has published two novels about the life of Jesus.

The two paragraphs above are her recent Facebook posts announcing her quitting of Christianity… but not Christ.  These words have become fairly viral on the internet, and have been widely responded to.

On the one hand, the Christianity she describes is not exactly the Christianity of my personal experience.  I grew up in the church.  My dad was a Pastor on the liberal side of things.  While I knew where were plenty of people in the church who were “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” “anti-artificial birth-control,” “anti-Democrat,” “anti-secular humanism,” “anti-science,” and “anti-life,” some of whom I knew personally, I also knew and participated in the other side of the church, which was pretty much “pro” all those things.  My dad was involved in the civil-rights movement, and the anti-war movement, and the anti-nuclear weapons movement.  That is the side of the church I knew.

Surely someone as smart as Anne Rice doesn’t think that all those "anti" statements characterize all of Christianity.  There is a significant and very active minority that agrees with her.  And there always has been in the church a remnant who have actually sought to follow the love and justice seen in Jesus.

At the same time, I also am very well aware of the “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious” side.  May dad received a lot of grief for some of his stances.  In my own career as a Pastor and as Stated Clerk of a presbytery, this aspect of the church’s character has become glaringly visible.

Churches contain, and seem to attract, many small-minded, fearful, angry, self-righteous, smug, anal, hypocritical, and downright nasty people.      

And I know the history: I know about the Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, Apartheid, witch-hunts, religious wars, and so forth.  Christians were instrumental in the slave trade, in the genocide of indigenous peoples, in the worst excesses of capitalism, horrendous crimes against women, and in the many manifestations of ecocide. I am reminded of Christian chaplains having to convince reluctant fliers that it was okay to bomb defenseless Japanese civilians.  Most of the people who perpetrated and facilitated the Holocaust were Christians.  Christians participated enthusiastically in the slaughter in Rwanda.  

Christianity has been still further denigrated more recently by the hatred spewed by the religious right and the sexual abuse scandals.  And so on.

Seen only in this glaring negative light, Christianity is not something I would want to join or be identified with either.  On bad days, I have had thoughts similar to those of Anne Rice. 

I truly embraced the faith when I encountered the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  In his later writings, mainly from a Nazi prison, he speaks mysteriously about “religionless Christianity.”  My other theological mentor, Karl Barth, talked about a distinction between religion and faith, saying that Christianity was supposed to be the latter and not the former.  So when Rice writes: “In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity,” and “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity,” it is not unintelligible to me.  I can relate.

My wife’s little church, which had been losing members, had an epiphany when one of the long-time members said, “I’m just going to call it: we’re not going to be the institution we once were.  What if we just decided to be a small group of people trying to follow Jesus?”

Christianity-as-we-know-it is in trouble. The institutional edifice is slowly crumbling like so many of our church buildings that no longer have the congregations to keep them up.

But people wanting to try and follow Jesus Christ… that is a group that I hope is growing.  That is a group we could cultivate, a spark we could blow on and feed fuel to.  It may not, and almost certainly won’t, be completely recognizable.  But perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling for a new manifestation of the Way of Jesus in our own time.  Maybe it will have less to do with doctrines and institutions, buildings and clergy, and more to do with small groups of people seeking to follow Jesus. 

Anne Rice is certainly not alone in giving up on a lot of things taking the name of “Christianity.”  But she hasn’t given up on Jesus Christ, and neither should we.  Because he hasn’t given up on us.  And his Holy Spirit is still working within, among, and around is, in all things.      

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Eco-Theology: Obadiah 15

"For the day of the Lord is near against all the nations.  As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head."

Obadiah is angry with the Edomites, Israel's kin, who turned against them, aiding and abetting the horrors of the Babylonian conquest.  (See Psalm 137:7-9 for an even more infamously graphic and angry outburst in the same context.)

In the course of this frustrated and heartbroken rant, Obadiah makes this karmic declamation.  Jesus says the same thing about reaping what we sow and dying by the sword we live by.  As does John in Revelation 13:10.

But it should give us pause, at least, if we think we have done such wonderful good around the world, to imagine all these "benefits" of empire imposed upon us.