Monthly Archives: September 2016

Disappearing Church

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The church is evaporating: Christianity is not overcome by siege, rather the end comes from within. The church is not destroyed; it is emptied of its essential truths, becomes a mere shadow and eventually disappears. Kind of like the fall of the Roman empire.

 This kind of thing has happened before: In the early 20th century, in the face of pervasive modernism, the church was faced with the choice, do they maintain their core beliefs which embraced the miracle stories or do they nuance them? Modernism and miracles simply could not coexist peaceably. So if the church wanted to remain culturally relevant, if it wanted to remain a respected institution in society. Then what was previously thought to be historical fact, would now need to become myth literature. The archaic beliefs of resurrection, walking on water, and the virgin birth became a smile and wink kind of affair. “We all know the stories are not true, but the enduring principles remain.” This effort at cultural respectability resulted in the emptying of liberal churches, it didn’t take people long to realize that if the stories were false, there was no point in keeping up with all the traditions and commitments. The principles (which amount to “be nice”) you could take with you to the beach on the weekends. Secularism owes a great debt to liberal theology.

The church is the bad guy: Orthodox churches remained strong as Liberal churches haemorrhaged. But now according to Sayers, even orthodox churches are disappearing at alarming rates. Why? Churches today are imbibing a system of belief built upon post Christianity’s four fundamental truths:  individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism. The basic pre-suppositions of the post Christian world are as follows:

  1. The highest good is individual freedom, personal happiness, & self definition.
  2. Any system of belief that restricts point one, needs to be reshaped or destroyed.
  3. Affirm all forms of self expression, intolerance is justified for any who don’t.
  4. Deconstruct existing institutions, traditions, morals and beliefs, accepting only those that fit you.

Those who once guarded the moral commands are the new enemy to be demonized and defined against; in their place the maverick, the rebel, and the releaser are the new elite.

Groups who continue to operate from a moral code during a revolution of release are tarred with the brush of being controllers. In these eras, including our contemporary revolution of release, anyone who holds to external religious truths, who submits to moral commands and traditions, will be automatically tarred as controllers, repressive and oppressive.

No church likes to “be the bad guy” but that’s what’s happened. Christianity is the “cultural straightjacket”, the impediment to freedom, pleasure and progress. Churches are desperately trying avoid falling under the disapproving glare of the broader culture. But is it possible to remain “cool” to thrive as a church working within the new system which is defined by individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism? — In short, Sayers says no, but the problem is, countless churches are willing to try, not just because of external pressure but, because they have employed  individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism into their practices and belief.

The church growth movement as well as the health and wealth gospel are built upon these very frameworks. “Its all about you church” is the mainstream regardless of theology. Church is almost exclusively a consumeristic enterprise now. Sales pitches to get crowds, slick marketing campaigns, and the embrace of “on to the next shiny thing” mentality within our churches betray what we are really believing. In addition legions of churches are quietly tweaking their views on sexuality to be more embracing of today’s mood. They are moving from a particularist view of Jesus to a universalist one with soft quiet steps. Whatever the public doesn’t want to talk about, the church is silent on. The authority of Scripture is a very nuanced conversation now. The church has become just another fragrance of selfishness in a culture of selfishness. The church as yet has not embraced full throated hedonism, but certainly half hearted-hedonism, we gently and regularly caress the sins of the mind, taking comfort in their promise to protect us from the palpable sting of consequence.

These efforts to keep the church relevant, says Sayers, will ultimately result in the church being swallowed up and digested into the broader culture.

The world in which we live: I’ve inserted an extended quote into this review as I think it gives us a very good glimpse of the western world of which we are at part.

Rorty felt that many philosophers, in particular the Europeans, got too worked up over the fact that there was no meaning in the world. Instead of mourning the loss of meaning and heroically staring down nothingness, Rorty advocated, in the words of Peter Augustine Lawler, an “easygoing, sentimental, ‘nice’ culture.” Instead of religion, instead of philosophy, instead of trying to work it all out, Rorty advocates pragmatism, that we should simply accept our mortality and go about the business of creating a pleasant life for ourselves.

This was what Allan Bloom called “Nihilism without the abyss.” The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote that Rorty’s secularist thought essentially stated, “Make it up as you go along; take ironic delight in the truth that there is no truth; there is no home that answers to our homelessness; definitely (but light-heartedly!) throw the final vocabulary that is your life in the face of nothingness. And if your neighbour or some inner curiosity persists in asking about the meaning of it all, simply change the subject.”

This is a culture in which we believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip. But what of those who still cling to desires for something more, a yearning for a transcendent belief, centred on more than just a tolerant society?

Rorty does not advocate that those who believe should be expunged from society altogether, rather such people need to keep their spiritual and metaphysical longings to themselves, or be joshed out of their beliefs. See them as nuts, roll your eyes at them, and if they continue in their belief, walk away. Let government, education, and corporations, led by educated, nice, sophisticated individuals, reeducate them or at least their children into the “easygoing atheism” of the beautiful world. The hope of our culture is that dissenting believers will eventually be reeducated as all minorities and distinctions dissolve into a sea of Western, materialist sophisticates. The beautiful, public sphere of our culture is the architecture of our disbelief. It soothes us, gives us vain hope, and distracts us, all while our private world becomes more fragile.

What’s the church to do? Sayers suggestions were loosely scattered over the book, and I am not sure how helpful they are. “Become a creative minority”, he says, become a “extremophile” or “retreat and return”(?). He calls us to “revisit the ancient paths”, he warns that “crowds are overrated”,  and encourages us to “view church involvement as a spiritual discipline not a commodity”. He laments that “too much choice hasn’t been helpful for Christianity”. All valid point’s but these conclusions lacked depth and direction. However, one of the greatest nuggets in this book is Sayers observation that freedom comes at the expense of community. The more free a person becomes the more disconnected he also becomes. This trade off has led to the collapse of marriage, the fracturing of the family, the fraying of the social bond, the partisanship of politics at a time when national interest demands something larger, the loss of trust in public institutions, the buildup of debt whose burden will fall on future generations, and the epidemic spread of loneliness. In short the western world is beautiful but it is also a mess!

This presents an opportunity for the Christian. People who are shorn of collective responsibility, traditional moral guidance, and binding relationships, are finding freedom a scary minefield of risk. The more freely and intensely people live the more they lament at how difficult life is. Our culture is a beautiful apocalypse. Everything falls apart while looking beautiful. We as a culture know these things, yet we seem collectively powerless to move beyond them. I think, that it is in these moments of longing and vulnerability that a Christian can speak. Freedom is not so free after all, it’s very expensive, and the return on investment is not so great, maybe there is a better way, a completely counter cultural way that involves total disobedience to the overriding principle of our day. The highest good is actually not individual freedom, personal happiness, & self definition it is something else entirely.

Thin Places a memoir

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How do you manage to have a thriving life after experiencing your dads death, neglect from your mother & grandparents,  multiple raping episodes from the teenage boys next-door at age 5, uncaring grade school teachers, multiple stepdads, addictions, and the pain, confusion, shame, guilt, and self-worth issues that naturally accompany all such trauma? Mary E. DeMuth answers this question in one word: Jesus. Given her struggles, I figure she has more than earned the right to tell us what has made all the difference for her.

She calls all of her difficulties, “thin spaces”.  Spaces where the natural division between humanity and the divine draws close, close enough sometimes that you can feel God. It’s through the trauma that Mary was able to understand and take deep into her heart the liberating power of forgiveness that comes through Jesus. Through Jesus she was able to see herself  as a “dearly loved child of God” Her previous identities as rape victim, unwanted child, guilty person, shameful person, unworthy person and grim survivor all melted away into the warm embrace of God’s love for her. Of course the transformation of identity didn’t happen over night, it’s an on going process to be sure, but over time, Mary’s identity as a beloved child of God is permeating with light all the dark places of her life.

For example, in the early days real relationships with men where not possible, from age 5 Mary knew all to well what men were about. The feelings of self preservation, rage, distrust and shame were too strong to let anyone in, much less a man. Not so any more, one by one, the love of Christ, squeezed out these relational deterrents so she can love freely her husband, her children, and all people with whom she relates.

Her message in a nut shell? There is freedom, love, and hope in Christ. It’s one thing to overcome trauma by attempting to love yourself more as self help guru’s preach, it’s entirely another thing to know that you are loved supremely in spite of yourself and your circumstances. Mary would lead us to believe that the second option is the better option for long term help from trauma. I’m certainly not going to argue with her, her life is a living testimony to the healing power of divine love.

re-story from Mary DeMuth on Vimeo.

The Great Divorce

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Several people from hell climb aboard a bus destined for the valley of the shadow of life. It is the land on the fringes of heaven. All who want to stay and go further up into heaven can. The solid people of heaven (mostly relatives and former friends of the travellers) come down from the mountains to invite them in. The shock of the book, is that in the end, very few choose to stay. These travellers view the fringes of heaven, as a damnable place. Their ever shrinking, translucent, slowly disappearing bodies don’t like the light and the grass is much to hard to walk on, heaven can only be worse they think.

Make no mistake, the inhabitants of hell are absolutely miserable and getting more so every day. There is no peace in hell, only fights and separation, darkness and loneliness, but they cling on to their misery. You see, all the inhabitants of hell are self absorbed. They are the centre of their own ever shrinking, ever disappearing, ever solitary universe — but in the end, they want themselves more than joy itself. When confronted, they lash out, blaming others for the fix they are in. Some are interested in God, but only as a means to an end, God is a useful tool to better ones on reputation, or to gain someone or something. For others heaven is seen as a place to become a shining star, in every case, when the people of hell realize that they can’t get what they want out of God and heaven, they become disgusted with it. Disgust for the heavenly spirits grows even more when the ghosts of hell realize the earthly failings of some of the heavenly people they get re-aquainted with. Self righteous hatred tries to spew itself on the people of heaven, but darkness cannot over take the light of heaven, not even on it’s fringes, so instead there is only laughter, light, joy, and the call for the ghosts to repent and start up the mountain where they will experience painful but purifying cleansing. They won’t have it, back to the bus they go.

Many religious people find themselves in the town called hell in this book. Lewis offers a poignant warning:

“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself…There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ… it is the subtlest of all the snares'”

When self-exaltation is the driving force of ones life, when “me” is at the centre, it doesn’t matter whether the life pursuit is noble or not, heaven and eternal joy itself will actually become inhospitable and undesirable.

Lewis’ ability to capture the true darkness of a human heart, is quite unsettling. The hell in all of us is revealed with convicting accuracy. The foolish choices we make in order to hang on to ourselves, at the expense of true joy hit really close to home for the honest reader.