We are smothering God. And our church. We’re engaged in an unholy combination of implicit theocide and communal suicide.
That is the conclusion I have reached in trying to understand the long, anguished, painful decline of mainline Christian denominations. I look around and realize that I can’t find among them a robust depiction of God’s immediacy in the world. It’s as though we offer only a view of an antique God of yore, rolled out and displayed like a museum piece on Sunday mornings, not a Mover and Shaker of today’s reality. When only the hate-filled pronouncements of “Christian” imposters like Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps presume to represent God’s current temperament, it makes me understand why the younger generations have not repopulated our denominations.
On balance, mainline denominations appear to be unwittingly denigrating the contemporary, immediate presence of God—and it’s proving lethal. The denigration takes three primary forms: disdaining contemporary epiphanies, misrepresenting myths and facts, and implying a half-baked resurrection.
As for contemporary epiphanies, we seem not to take them seriously. Our preaching consistently mines the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to the exclusion of contemporary epiphanies well articulated by contemporary Christians. We treat Scripture as though its authors had a greater capacity to perceive God’s activity in the world than we do in 2011.
But with the possible exception of those who personally experienced the companionship of Jesus, no other author of works considered “Scripture” enjoys any empirical relationship with God that is qualitatively different from that which is possible for any of us today. Do they?
The corollary implication of our reticence to discern and declare God’s contemporary action is that back in those days God was either more active in the world than now, or was more adept at making divine will understood. Can that be true?
But we somehow feel obligated to spend time explaining away Scripture texts that propound notions that have long-since become moot (e.g., dietary laws that protected desert tribes lacking refrigeration) or are truly repugnant (e.g., Paul’s views of women and slaves) at the expense of preaching vivid depictions of God’s will in action today. Can anyone doubt that God’s will is better expressed in The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech than in any of scores of pages of irrelevancies still regarded as Scripture simply because they were written during some presumed Golden Age of revelation and were bound into a Bible?
We compound our denigration of God with a persistent misrepresentation of both myths and facts. During the twice yearly surge of participation in worship at Christmas and Easter, worshippers listen in vain during these sermons and rituals and reenactments—in even the most theologically enlightened congregations—for any tiny hint that such notions as Jesus’ being born to a virgin are totally mythological, meant to signify his specialness and not to suggest that God somehow re-jiggered the processes of human reproduction for a few minutes in eternity just to make a point. And so both the faithful and the would-be seekers are left to feign belief, or to mentally cross their fingers, or to conclude that these people putting on this affair are not on the same wavelength that they are.
The tragedy is that myths can be such profound bearers of truth. Young people and old people alike willingly suspend disbelief in order to be moved to tears by a love story or to get an adrenaline rush from a thriller. These things touch us. But if the producer of that love story or that thriller suggested that we had to take everything as fact, to believe this tale as if it were non-fiction, all that power would simply evaporate as the audience’s respect was sadly but resolutely withdrawn.
Beyond misrepresenting myths as facts, our misrepresentation of actual facts makes the situation even worse for these new generations well taught to be critical thinkers. Preachers who know better routinely harken back to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt by crossing the “Red Sea”. Never mind the fact that the term “Red Sea” never appears in the Bible. But the term “Sea of Reeds” (or marshland) does appear repeatedly and offers a perfectly cogent depiction of how the fleeing Israelites might have slogged on foot through the reed-infested wetlands between Egypt and Sinai which would then function as a quicksand-like moat to slow and swallow the heavy horse-drawn chariots of their pursuers. Still a great story, but it doesn’t require accepting Cecil B. deMille’s indelible vision of Charlton Heston and companions marching into a deep canyon riven through quivering walls of water as an historically accurate demonstration of how God once again suspended the laws of physics to favor certain friends.
What’s up with us, anyhow? Do we underestimate people’s curiosity or intelligence? These are the same thoughtful adults who turn to the internet hundreds of millions of times a year to do medical research on their symptoms and conditions so they can be on equal (and oftentimes superior) footing when consulting with their doctor. But back in the sanctuary, once again they are implicitly being told by the church that they must embrace ancient fable as fact, leaving them little choice but to either play dumb or throw out the Christmas baby along with his bath of charming but fanciful trappings.
Finally, we unwittingly depict Jesus’ resurrection as ineffectual. How else to explain all the talk about Jesus’ presumed return in the future. Just listen to the verb tenses that are used in preachers’ sermons and prayers—they are all about “Jesus will come again” rather than “Jesus does come again.” Well, if he will come again, that means only one thing—he ain’t here now. Or, at least, not enough.
And so by futurizing Jesus’ definitive presence, once again we find a way to declare the present to be impoverished and impotent, devoid of qualitatively supreme engagement between creature and Creator. Thanks anyway, say the seekers, I think I’ll just keep looking.
So here is what I propose: let’s recover the spirit of the Oral Tradition. Until about 1,000 BCE the stories of God’s holy presence and action in this world were not written down and ossified, they were only spoken person to person. They were alive. Each re-teller of the stories “spun” the stories to reflect both the teller’s own experience of God and the listener’s best means of comprehending it. Most importantly, when some stories lost their relevance or were superseded by superior understanding of God’s will, people stopped passing them along. They mercifully disappeared. And when new perceptions of God were grasped, those new stories joined the caravan of revelation.
So, enough already with shying away from full engagement with God right here, right now. Let’s dare to believe that God still speaks today, and that we have it in us to hear and declare God’s word afresh.
Bring it on.