Rock Island, IL.
A dispassionate observer standing outside the Christian tradition might be capable of looking upon Catholicism and Orthodoxy—and maybe even upon that beautiful but much-beleaguered and now failing experiment that began with Henry VIII—and say, “here is something stately and demanding and maybe even useful.”
Such an observer, if he be at once philosophically astute, minimally versant in Church history, and not entirely hostile to religion, might be able to understand why people take sin and guilt seriously; he might say that the idea of theosis—perhaps even the fact of it—is really quite interesting, and that an apophatic or a sacramental disposition is, truth be told, reasonable enough.
He might, without any inclination to take on an obedience himself, allow that deference to a spiritual advisor opens onto a certain kind of liberty not available in any modern appropriations of the term. He might even go so far as to say that if only this religion could be a bit more vigilant about the dangers of wielding power and protecting revenue, and if only it could somehow manage to avoid the abuses of centralization and bigness, it could easily be regarded not only as a social boon but also as an intellectually rigorous system worthy of the men and women who embrace it—and commensurate with their dignity as human beings made in the image of something larger than themselves.
He might not be capable of all this, but then again he might be.
I limit these opening remarks to what our friends in Canterbury are quick (too quick, in my opinion) to call the “three branches” not because I dislike the Lutherans who employ me or the Dutch Calvinists who tried to educate me or the Methodists who taught my grandmother to regard likker as the devil’s tea. I’m simply predisposed, personally, to apostolic succession, to old rites, and to what I’m going to have to go ahead and call the traditions with the deepest historical roots. For once I’m not actually trying to piss anyone off, though I’m sure I already have.
But I have often wondered what this same dispassionate observer would make of those versions of the faith, if “versions” they may be called, that have sprung up either in contempt or in ignorance of tradition—or in contempt and ignorance both. I’m talking about those places, built on a kind of shopping-mall plan, that avail themselves of the word “church” without any regard for its meaning–rather like those who help themselves to connubial privileges without ever uttering the terrifying words “I do.” We know what the hostile observer makes of First Church of the Sprawl. But what would the amiable, if distant, observer make of it?
By “it” I have in mind, for example, a place called “Bible Harvest Chapel,” which is a kind of movie theater retrofitted to a former big box electronics store. I went in it once to see in what ways I might be oriented to something beyond myself. The first architectural feature I saw directing my thoughts heavenward was a Starbuck’s-style coffee shop.
Welcome to Bible Harvest Chapel; would you like to try our Lord’s Day Special?
Was I to dip my fingers in a double-skinny caramel latte and make the sign of the dollar? I didn’t know for sure. The place hardly resembled a chapel. And although there was once a harvest on that spot (for the big box store-cum-ecclesia was built on a cornfield), no one there rejoiced to bring in the sheaves, not even in that robust manner of your hearty Baptist congregation cycling through the hymns it agrees to sing. Even that kind of hymnody, which isn’t quite up to the standards of what Tradition hands down, had been replaced at the Church of the Electronic Jesus. Indeed, the hymnals were flat-screens on the walls of the “sanctuary,” and across these screens strolled the lyrics to songs the drummer kept time to as the guitar-players jammed. The singing was literally off the wall, and I wanted to gyrate my hips before the Lord, as King David had of old.
Recitation of the creed, incense, daily lessons, sacrament: no signs thereof.
And the parking lot, now desertified by asphalt, was full of Lincoln Navigators sporting, at about eye level, “W ’04” bumper stickers . American Christians shopping on Sunday morning. The last great synthesis. Full acculturation. Full interpenetration of marketplace and faith. Marketplace as object of faith, with Jesus and Jeep Liberties for all.
Or, rather, full absorption of the faith by the marketplace—and the obliteration of history.
For that, I think, is what our dispassionate observer must conclude. “I don’t feel the need for religion myself,” he would say, “but these people have taken a fairly good thing, as religious things go, and turned it into a cartoon.”
I suppose that for a while now I’ve had the urge to articulate—more fully than can be done here—something along these lines, but it wasn’t until a recent rising of the gorge that I felt the need to produce a full-blown and astringently sour gastric emesis: I heard a child of good and well-meaning mega-churchers announce that he would not be trick-or-treating because Halloween is Satan’s birthday.
I never thought it possible that Christians could ruin a holiday more completely than they’ve ruined Christmas—or misunderstand more fully the words “Halloween,” “holiday,” and “Christmas.”
But they can, and they’ve done it by checking out of history. Forget the long-standing practice of observing feast days and the fasts that precede them, about which even Keats, the author of “The Eve of St. Agnes” (a poem about rumpy-pumpy) knew. The eve of All Saints is now Satan’s birthday, and history, as Henry Ford said, is bunk.
If you find yourself in bars, as I sometimes rarely do, and if you find yourself in heated conversation therein with people hostile to religion, as I often do, you may have a strong desire, as I always do, to establish a widely agreed-on way of distinguishing between what you believe and what Colorado Springs believes. Well at long last I’ve done it:
If someone were to shorten the field by forty yards, widen it by twenty, give you thirteen downs to advance twelve yards for a first down, and award you six points for doing so, you’d rightly object to his calling this new game “football.” You’d say to him, “that one’s taken. Find another name.”
I think the same applies to that fairly old, solid, and stately religion known as “Christianity.” Those who have altered the faith beyond recognition should come up with a new name for what it is they’re practicing. I suggest “Krustianity.”
It has that sort of marketable ring to it that should appeal to Krustians. Breakfast cereals are certainly a possibility, as are Action Figures, such as Pastor Ted and the male hooker he’s trying to convert. The Family Krustian Book Store could make a killing, and each Sunday Krustians everywhere could confess, with gestures, how fun it is to stay at the YMKA.
Meanwhile, those of us attempting faithfulness to that thing organized around its bishop and committed to preserving both Word and Sacrament won’t have to put up with so much grief in our bar fights.