There are have been proclamations, rants, even celebrations by some that with the fall in church attendance across the mainline Christian denominations that the days of “going to church” are quickly coming to an end. By this I mean the days of packing the family up in the car and driving to a Sunday morning worship service, perhaps Sunday school and fellowship hall gatherings over burned coffee and cookies fresh out of a box. To this bit of Americana I would have to agree – the days of this picture are fading faster than a Polaroid on a bulletin board (note: given that Kodak is discontinuing the Polaroid line, this metaphor is ironically fading out as well).
Is this such a bad thing? Well, a number of post-church (aka ’emergent’) folks have been banging this drum for most of the late 1990’s and into the current century and have made quite a nice living on book deals and speaking gigs that have stirred the dismay and questioned the notion of “church” as a modernist construct to the point of people gathering around their books and conferences rather than as collectives of the Body of Christ. Those who attend many of these “we are different” and”embrace Otherness” and “not your father’s Christianity” and “meaning as Twitter feed” gatherings seem to keep coming and the folks who put them on are able to pay their mortgages so something is working, right? (btw – many so-called ’emergent’ folks will ‘hate on’ this alignment of “emergent” = “post-church”… but emergent folks hate on any label… kinda cute actually…)
That said, my worry goes deeper than the business models of the so-called ‘different without a Creed’ gatherings. My worry is that ultimately ‘the Church is Christ in the world’ (a phrase stated rather boldly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and as such has such a brutally fractured presence in the world that it resembles the torn apart corpse of the Levites concubine in Judges 19-22 (if you are interested in this troubling section of the Hebrew Bible that is never preached on and not found in any lectionary, my colleague Frank Spina provides a great lecture on iTunesU available here)
What is left of the presence of the church other than torn apart, sun-bleached and picked over chunks of flesh and bone fragments as Christians continue to passively participate in ever-shrinking circles of affinity that rarely engage a larger conversation that could mean the end of their perspective and the beginning of some new relationship?
This is the question that is driving my book project entitled “The Z factor” which is a meditation on the words of the Minor Prophets and in particular the book of Zechariah. It is something I have been musing over for a while and feel that it is time to kick start the project again. I will be posting thoughts on it over the coming weeks and look forward to your contributions and help in musing these questions over…
Los Angeles – arguably one of the most “American” cities you will ever visit. Flash and image swirl around you in the reflections of 100 foot video billboards, half the television shows in the past twenty years are shot in a 10 mile radius of Wilshire and Figueroa in downtown where I am currently writing this blog at the pool side of an old 50’s faux Moroccan hotel: everything feels like a canceled TV show on Nick at Nite down to the extras walking across the street.
I am in LA this time at the National Youth Workers Convention. This is the Superbowl of youth leader events if the Superbowl was only the halftime show and there was no game and held in a strip mall. And perhaps that is my worry as I watch over 1,000 youth workers running around with the latest messenger bag with hip flare pins on the strap: has youth ministry become only the halftime show and no game? The Big Room events capture this perfectly: huge expensive stage show with set musicians cranking out great covers of Stevie Wonder while the MC throws plastic frisbees probably made in a sweat shop in China to the cheering crowd who have spend the day grabbing as many free pens, T-Shirts, and funky USB drives from the booths as they could get their hands on… ‘consumerism sanctified’ to be sure.
Just outside the Convention Center where this is all taking place another gathering of the faithful has assembled: hundreds of Michael Jackson fans have gathered around the Staples Center awaiting the premiere of the posthumous concert film of their dead hero. For days they have been gathering, sitting in lawn chairs, dressed like MJ and iPod docking stations blasting out his back catalog for all on Figueroa to hear. Votive candles have been lit and flowers left under a huge wall of messages written in memorium.
Both groups have gathered because someone died. Both groups seek to honor their hero. Both are also driven and defined by the products and merchandise that is being sold to give form to their faithfulness: CDs, T-Shirts, concerts, DVDs, books, hats, etc.
Question: if we switched the groups, traded the faithful at each gathering and televised it to the world, would the masses be able to tell the difference? Could someone just watching behavior see which “King” is being lauded and worshiped?
I suppose like MJ I am wondering who IS the man in the mirror after all?
(Update five minutes later – Right after posting this, I walked into the Big Room session and caught the end of the talk. I was feeling like perhaps I had been too pointed in my reflections. Then the speaker handed the microphone to a singer who launched into “a song to have in our heads as we think about change…” The song? Yup… MJ’s “Man in the Mirror” Oh sigh… )
Some of you know that I have been working on a book project looking at the nature of “kenosis” in Christian identity formation. “Kenosis” is a Greek term taken from Phil. 2:7, where Christ is spoken of as having “emptied himself” (NRSV) as the true mark of what constitutes humanity. There has been much discussion about this entire crucial passage (2:6 – 11), and the scholarship surrounding the exegetical history of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2 is expansive. While I will be referring to a number of key works, this book primarily explores the philosophical and theological questions that arise from the Kenotic tradition as they inform theological anthropology or the question of ‘being human’. In addition to the many texts that will be cited throughout the book, recent texts that have particularly informed this study are C. Stephen Evans’ recent edited volume Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self Emptying of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), and Kevin Cronin Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service (London: Continuum, 2005). The chapters in the book offer readers new conversation partners from the breadth and width of human reflection on what it means to be human and with these conversations partners I will offer a theological method for kenotic identity formation – a means and discipline to remain aware and open hearted to what the Kenotic life can be reimagined as. The contours of this reimagined life will look at the re-framing of the deeply lived life by both internal (seen in the model of St. Augustine) and external (as seen in the work of Aristotle) concerns, radically decentered in location (as seen in the challenge of French theorist Jacques Derrida), found in the face of the other (seen in the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas), and ‘given’ rather than taken (as seen in the Catholic theologian Jean Luc Marion).
The challenge of writing a book is more than the research and putting proverbial pen to paper… it is knowing who you are writing for and speaking in a way that can be grabbed onto by the intended reader.
One of the things that has been difficult is finding this perfect pitch given the subject matter. I have called the book “The Kenotic Self” but have found from those who have looked at a draft of the proposal that the jargon may be off-putting.
My latest title:
k(no)w (you)r(self): The Missing Art of Being K(no)wn in Christianity
Recently I was poking around on wordpress.com (the new home for the blogsite) and checking out other blogs about religion. The introduction to the ‘blogs about’ section on wordpress.com for ‘religion’ has the following statement of purpose:
One of the many gods and goddesses the ancient Aztecs of Mexico worshipped was Cihuacoatl. Her temple was dedicated to soldiers and mothers who died in childbirth, which makes sense — both are warriors, in their own way. While the world’s most common religions tend to get most of the media’s attention (often for political or even violent reasons), the diversity and creativity of human spirituality is incredibly challenging to suppress. Our beliefs form our identities; therefore, we hang on tenaciously.
I like the emphasis on ‘identity formation’ as a core concern for what constitutes religious faith, but the emphasis on human beings is what I find increasingly troubling. I mean, is the only reason (even the primary reason) that people have a religious faith is to figure out who WE are?
I suppose this brings us back to Immanuel Kant and his grand reversal of the subject – object. Prior to Kant, human beings were the object of consideration of God what is the subject of all things – that which gives and sustains meaning. Kant argued (rather successfully) that this the roles are reversed: we as human beings are the subject that consider and ultimately sustain the reality of objects in the world of which God is one such ‘object’. In this way, as with the definition above, we ‘hang tenaciously to the objects such as ‘God’ only for the sake of our so-called identity. I just think there is more to it than that. Sure, I am as much an egotist as the new person, but I have been awakened to a world much larger than myself and certainly larged than I can adequately reason and ‘even imagine’.
In the Hindu scriptures, there is a wonderful story of the demon of egotism (Mamāsura) who had attacks Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja (the elephant headed God familiar to many). In order to defend and overcome the onslaught of Mamāsura, Gaṇeśa Vighnarāja throws his lotus blossom at him. Unable to bear the fragrance of the divine flower, the demon surrenders to Gaṇeśa.
Perhaps we need to ‘consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air’ (Matthew 6: 25-33) as Jesus suggested in the Sermon of the Mount. a bit more time outside of OUR heads and perhaps we can realize that who WE are isnt nearly as important nor foundational as we think.