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Friday, January 23, 2004


London's Daily Telegraph publishes an article about the latest spiritual fad sweeping the US -- the megachurch:

An advertisement for the Saddleback Church invites congregants to attend "God's Extreme Makeover" - a revival of Christ in their hearts named after the latest television fad, in which volunteers undergo plastic surgery.

Leaflets at the door to the main hall proclaim "You Can Bring Your Coffee Into Any Venue". Children run around in baseball shirts proclaiming that they are part of God's own squad. The thousands inside are able to sing along to spiritual songs - not traditional hymns - from the words on giant karaoke screens suspended above a light rock band.

This is the United States' latest religious phenomenon. As Americans like going to shopping malls for all their consumer needs in one spot, so self-styled "megachurches" are the fastest growing form of service in the country.

Ah, yes, we Americans love everything when it's bigger and glitzier, even our places of worship. Why have one church with one altar and one celebrant when you could have four major worship groups and 18 minor ones going on simultaneously? Who needs hymnals or songbooks when we can have giant-screen plasma televisions hanging from the rafters? Of course, in our society, you may find it difficult to determine exactly what is being worshiped when televisions are present.

I suppose it's too much to expect that the mass-market, one-stop approach that we love in the retail world would not apply itself to our spiritual life, but it seems we've Wal-Marted Jesus. Smaller churches are just so much less efficient at getting butts into the pews. It's not enough to share the Gospel and enrich ourselves spiritually; we need to be entertained as well, and God forbid (pun intended) we should have to skip our cup of coffee! Nor does the Wal-Mart/Costco analogy stop at just efficiency but also with the "product" itself:

But what their events lack, and what makes them controversial among America's traditionalist Christians, is a clearly defined doctrine. ... They are taught that through God they are victors not victims, and no one is called a sinner. Aping the popular self-help books popular in the modern age the approach adopted is "Jesus meets the power of positive thinking".

Eddie Gibbs, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary, has described it as a conscious process to "remove every obstacle that keeps people from coming into the Christian Church".

In other words, they've discounted sin, overstocked forgiveness and discontinued consequences at the Jesus Depot. Look, I'm the first person to recognize that traditional denominations sometimes overdo the fire and brimstone, maybe old-line Baptist and Evangelical denominations more so than others. But there is a difference between striking a balance and simply deleting all of the "negative" parts of the faith, at least if you're serious about teaching and celebrating Christianity. Jesus preached love and forgiveness, but he also taught that actions had consequences, some of them severe, if one did not repent of sin.

The description given in this article (which may or may not be accurate, of course) isn't "Jesus meets positive thinking"; it's New Age self-esteem worship with enough of a Christian theme to bring in the multitudes. Hearing this from the pastor doesn't create a great deal of confidence that the Telegraph is mistaken, however:

"Don't forget Christ used user-friendly language. He spoke to his followers in parables."

Unfortunately for Pastor Rick, this statement betrays his ignorance of at least the historical and rhetorical context of the Gospels. Jesus didn't speak in parables because they were "user-friendly," a ridiculous term for this context anyway. He used parables to illustrate points, but the meaning of these parables often escaped Jesus' audiences and even His disciples. Jesus Himself states that their meaning is not meant to be understood at the moment on at least one occasion. And Jesus did not limit His teaching to a Roman-era version of "I'm OK, You're OK." When Jesus entered the temple, He charged the money-changers, forcibly ejecting them from the temple. One wonders what Jesus would do when faced with the Saddleback Church Cafe.

UPDATE: A couple of alert readers (pretty darned smart, they are!) have posted comments that the Pastor Rick mentioned in the Telegraph article is Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, a well-received book on Christian faith. Its description from Publishers Weekly indicates that Pastor Warren is no lightweight:

Warren certainly knows his Bible. Of 800-plus footnotes, only 18 don't refer to Christian Scripture. He deliberately works with 15 different Bible translations, leaning heavily on contemporary translations and paraphrases, as an interesting way of plumbing biblical text. The almost exclusively biblical frame of reference stakes out the audience niche for this manual for Christian living.

Warren's book has some flaws, at least in the view of some readers who have commented on it at Amazon. I still mistrust the mass-market approach to Christianity that inevitably makes it into an encounter group rather than a celebration of Christ's teachings, but hopefully Saddleback can avoid these pitfalls. Just stop selling coffee and make people focus on the message, not the customer service.

10:53 PM in Religion | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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Friday, January 09, 2004

Clues For The Clueless

The AP and the Star-Tribune provides another example of the mass media's cluelessness in dealing with matters of religion. Today's entry involves a study of sexual practices in urban areas from the University of Chicago. For the most part, the story remains mildly interesting, as much as it can be when it's mostly telling us what we already know about sexual relations these days -- people wait longer to get married and have more sexual partners than they did before, men have more partners than women, women want "relational" sex and men want "transactional" sex regardless of sexual orientation. (In fact, it sounds to me like they haven't changed much in 20 years.)

Towards the end, reporter Martha Irvine makes the following statement:

Still, Laumann and his staff found that social services, the church and law enforcement have been slow to address this latest sexual revolution. ... And most churches they examined were not good at "giving guidance about how you manage a stable, but non-married relationship,'' Laumann says.

Here's a clue for both Laumann and Irvine, who felt it necessary to print this revelation -- churches that prohibit extramarital sex do not exist to give "guidance" about how to maintain sexual relationships outside of marriage. Singletons who show up with their significant others at a Catholic or Protestant church requesting relationship counseling while sharing a bed will be told to stop doing either the former or the latter. Churches believe it to be a sin, and assisting people in perpetuating the sin makes them a party to it.

No one has to join a church, or follow it once they've joined; each person has a free-will choice to make. What Laumann and Irvine suggest is that churches must be co-opted to the relativist values of the day instead of devoting themselves to eternal truths (or their belief about eternal truths). Religions that preach moral relativism cease being religions at all and start becoming new-age encounter groups. The attitude expressed in this article betrays the condescension and disdain the media and academics hold for religious values and organizations. To scold them for not supporting practices that they find not only destructive but in opposition to the core values they cherish is to belittle them. The Strib's editors need to look at these pieces a little more carefully in the future.

UPDATE: A big welcome to readers of Evangelical Outpost, one of my favorite blogs!

11:39 AM in Media Watch, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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Saturday, November 01, 2003

Confess, Heretic

As I've posted before, I'm a practicing Catholic, which is one who hopes to improve through repetition. (ba-dum-ting! Thank you, and don't forget to tip the waitress.) This morning, the First Mate informs me that it's that time again .... confession time.

Belonging to any religion requires sacrifice of one kind or another. For Catholics, we have an obligation to go to confession -- now called Reconciliation, sort of how "problems" started to become "opportunities" at the office -- at least once a year, or whenever we have a mortal sin that has not been confessed. (Please note that I am no expert on Catholicism, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.) You are not supposed to receive the Holy Eucharist until you've confessed your sins and receive absolution. However, a large number of Catholics are uncomfortable with confession, myself included, and resist engaging in this particular sacrament. I've expressed this before to the First Mate, but she simply orders me to go. In my house, the First Mate outranks the Captain. Maybe it's different at your house.

Why the hesitancy? Sin is shameful, and one does not bare shame easily in front of anyone, least of all the parish priest -- though why that's more difficult than calling a talk-radio host or appearing on Jerry Springer, I'm not quite sure. Other Christian denominations eliminated confession as a public act of contrition, believing that the status of one's soul was between the penitent and God, and I admit that this view is attractive. However, sin by its nature is public, whether practiced as such or not. Sin pushes us away from God and his children. Indeed, separation is the nature of sin, and separation cannot be addressed by further separation. Atoning for sin should therefore involve an acknowledgement of the harm done to the entire Body of Christ, not just your own soul.

All of that ran through my mind today while waiting for my turn with the priest. Once I was inside the room -- this church doesn't have confessionals and so uses a curtain for privacy -- the priest made me feel comfortable, warmly greeting me and waiting for me to start. I went through my sins and discussed how they made me feel and how they affected my life, and it occurred to me that Catholics were about 1800 years ahead of Sigmund Freud. The only differences are that it doesn't take an hour (usually), there's no charge, and you're cured at the end of one session, at least theoretically.

Once I was done, I felt much better, as I always do. I wondered why I make such a big deal about this every time, and I think it's not because I have to sit in a room and discuss my shortcomings with a priest, or a therapist, or Jerry Springer on national TV. It's because I have to face my shortcomings at all, and without the mechanism of Reconciliation, I might never do it. Saying "I'm sorry and God forgives me" is just too easy to do without overt action showing a commitment to my own forgiveness.

But don't tell the First Mate, because then she'll start lording it over me, and I don't want to be responsible for her soul being imperiled by excess pride and vanity. (I'm such a giver.)

03:56 PM in Religion | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack