In “What Churches Get Wrong” (Sept. 23), Ron Way is correct about the churches’ declining influence in our culture. But his road map for “repopulation” essentially strips away any reason why one would want to join in the first place.
Jesus? Basically a nice guy and a failed wandering Galilean revolutionary wannabe, according to Way. If comforting the poor, the meek, the persecuted and the hungry were all there was to it, we could get that list off the back of a box of Cheerios. The issue is not what’s morally the right stuff in life — the issue is why don’t we do it? And more, what is it that motivates and enables us to do it?
The Bible? Fairy tales, made-up parables to spiritualize things, etc., etc. So we can skip paying attention to that source for any insight, as it was just written by folks out of their selfish, self-interested agendas. In actuality, we have here a people who feel a call to ask the question “what is God doing?” as they live through the events of their lives, and who do so with remarkable candor.
We humans are people of stories — it is how we find our meaning, celebrate and reinforce the values of our lives. Which is why people of the faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have seen God’s hand and our own faces in these stories of a particular people in particular places. Not “Philosophy 101,” but truth within human experience.
What is remarkable is how clear these stories are about the corruptibility and weakness and failings of humanity, individually and collectively, and still they come out to be an essentially hope-filled, rather than cynical, text. It’s not the “heroes” of the Bible whom the book in fact points to — David and many others are enormously immoral in their actions, just like the leaders of our day. The hero of the Bible, if you will, is God, who, the message says, has good intentions for humanity and the creation, and who will not be defeated in helping us to get there, even despite ourselves.
The church’s message has always been unpopular for one reason or another. In the beginning it was Jesus himself. A messiah who gets killed? “That’s not the way I want this story to go. Yeah, yeah, resurrection, but hey, in this life my version is that good guys should win.” As Paul noted, the cross was a stumbling block to Jew and Gentile alike right from the beginning. Not the way the story was supposed to go.
Governments and powers have never been particular fans of the faith, either. Yes, the church has been co-opted by powers and authorities and political agendas over the ages — to the church’s shame. But when you read those biblical “fables,” it’s pretty clear, over and over again, to not put our trust in governments or the military or economic might as the ways forward in getting life right.
A lot of cultures, ours included, have found the faith inconvenient — and if it could not be co-opted, then as something to be dumped. Because people nudged by God to be voices against the culture are never popular.
We may not always have it right. Working out our understanding of God’s voice in what seem like new circumstances and situations is hard work. But that there is a source, that tries to think thoughtfully through such things, and bring moral/ethical tradition and insights to bear, is worth it. Because in the face of seemingly new “life-changing” kinds of cultural movements (it’s 2018!), it’s good to remember the statement that gets us in trouble in almost all other circumstances (think Wall Street bubbles) is: “It’s different this time!”
In terms of what it means to be a human, it is almost never “different.” The mechanics may change, but what gives hope, and what tears it down, what reaches across the divides, and what kills, comes back again and again to deep truths that are in fact true. “Truth is not truth” is not just the Freudian slip of a misguided current politician — rather, it is to some extent the mantra of our age. And it’s the real danger.
The church does indeed need to speak to, and address, the issues of our lives and days. On the other hand, many churches may not be popular precisely because of that. We live in a secular culture that has decided to dismiss the faith as “all written by men” and not a speaker of actual objective truth; and to downplay Jesus into just another nice guy who we’re all supposed to be like because, of course, we can all just do that, being the nice guys that we are.
The problem with the nice-guy wandering sage Jesus is that that version of Jesus has nothing new to say to us, and worse, isn’t really effective.
The Jesus the Bible and the faith talk about is a very different Jesus, who definitely has something to say to this culture.
I applaud Way for his caring. But the agenda he puts forth for repopulating the churches is in fact the one already prevalent in our culture, and it’s well on its way to depopulating them.
Leonard Freeman is the retired rector of St. Martin’s by-the-Lake, Minnetonka Beach, and the former director of communications at the Washington National Cathedral and Trinity Church, New York.