ThESE ENTRIES exist to question particular aspects of religious culture.
...And in a particular way.
They are based on common Christian sayings and quotations, which are unpacked in an effort to bring them to light.
Jesus had a way of drawing attention to common religious sayings to both examine and challenge them. He would even do this with popular, quoted scriptures if he felt that the general usage of them robbed them of their true meaning, intent, or context. The device Jesus would use was a simple phrase, “You have heard it said…”
Here - some 2000 years later - it seems to me
that it has become necessary, even essential,
for us to revive this phrase.
The idea for writing and speaking on this this theme began with a nagging suspicion I frequently found myself having – a lingering notion I am reminded of by pretty much anything concerning “the church” and “Christianity” in our present day… It’s this: I have not been able to shake the pressing awareness that we live in extremely similar times to those who surrounded Jesus two thousand years ago.
It strikes me that we have heard it said concerning so many different things, time and again. Like many of the Jewish people in the first century, we have been around long enough for many of us to lose our way - to forget who we are, or WHY we are. The extent of this is evident in every infrastructure we have built – socially, culturally, politically, ethically, morally (and in a lot of other words ending in “-ally” you might think of)... And the danger that arises in this reality is that our very familiarity with any given cliché typically fosters thoughtlessness or carelessness in us over time. We can hear something (or read something) so regularly that we stop examining it, stop unraveling it, and stop seeing what it’s made of and where it came from. We have lost our love for healthy tensions. We have stopped wrestling with the things that matter. We have allowed authorities to grant themselves power and control the dialog, and we have entrusted our thought processes to them.
And so we find ourselves here. Now.
At this place and time.
The exact place we have been heading for.
The only place our aim could possibly taken us.
Precisely the course we have set.
Here we are.
We have Christian catchphrases and positions, ideologies and dogmas which have become ingrained in our understanding and are seldom challenged. We find ourselves now at the same crossroads that many people of the first century confronted. At this crossroads, just as in the time of the early church’s birth within Judaism and beyond - many of those who recognize themselves as followers of God have built up around themselves an insular religious culture. Like a bubble, it protects those mostly concerned with determining who’s “in” and who’s “out” – who is to be thought of as okay, and who is to be mistrusted, even feared. Who's “us,” and who's “them.” Those who have claimed to believe the same bullet points of theology that we've claimed to believe, and who have the same affiliations as we do... and those who we call “the world.” Those correct… and those not.
Our religious culture has forced us into compartments...
From guiding us toward default political parties, to feeding us simplistic formulas regarding spirituality and salvation, to the cheap "wisdom" of t-shirts and bumper stickers which leaves us complacent as we rest in clichés disguised as "truth", to the treatment of "church" as some sort of consumerist country club - where religious goods and services are dispensed to paying customers, to careless attitudes regarding social justice, to forcing a divide between the sacred and the "secular" - which leads to the blanket dismissal of what popular culture and art have to say, to apathetic (even destructive) perspectives toward environmental preservation, to overzealous, reckless and unquestioning patriotism and nationalism - the great delusion which takes place when we saddle Jesus' kingdom to American Empire...
All of this means that we - just like the people of God 2000 years ago - have oversimplified many complex issues, and under-simplified many straightforward ones. Our sacred traditions have many times put us in the same place as the religious people of that time, as we too desperately need to hear Jesus out when he says,
“You have a practiced and calculated way of setting aside the command of God in order to observe your own traditions.”
we seem to have lost our way.
I do not say this merely to be sensationalistic or dramatic. I believe it to be (very unfortunately) true. Christianity itself - at least in the West - is not just kinda broken. It is fundamentally, systemically flawed. The structure that has been built proves the foundation is something markedly different than Jesus. The "church" is unlike the Church Jesus described... And yet it continues to persist. Continues to perpetuate itself. With great passion and conviction, it continues to promote hunger and thirst without ever quenching it.
In our confusion, the whole cycle plays out like this:
1) We are taught that “A Christian is _______ ,” and whatever we fill in that blank with is typically more a reflection of our own superficial culture than it is the heart of God.
And when it comes to religious culture versus the simple nature and character of God, we are not even taught to distinguish or recognize the great difference between the two. Our comfortable familiarity with the way of things leaves us accepting them and feeling wrong to question the status quo. We also know it is very risky to speak up or express doubt, and so we fear being demonized or marginalized as a result of our doing so. All of this becomes a lens - a filter through which we approach the world, and the perspective taken toward how we view ourselves, one another, everyone else, etc. This lens even shapes how we interpret the scriptures, as it provides us with the presuppositions we approach them with (though many of us won't even admit we have those)... And, if we're not careful to do the earnest work of challenging our religious trappings, we are soon left with a fractured mutant of a "gospel" - one that is more interested in converting people to our culture than it is making disciples in the revolutionary way of Jesus Christ.
But when we recognize this is the case and cannot reconcile it, we feel overwhelmed and terrified. And so...
2) We trust ourselves to “authorities” who have not asked the very same questions that we ourselves are avoiding.
We sit under the teaching and instruction of those who are the most likely to champion the unnecessary dogmas and clichés of our time. We repeat the mantras of those who are too afraid to deal with the implications of honest questioning. Many of the very people to whom the "pulpit" is entrusted are the most spiritually-paralyzed people we'll find. Many are the most likely to be operating from a center of insecurity and fear, made obvious in their manipulative tactics which encourage the same in us. And as this continues all around us, the cycle repeats as many of us entrust ourselves to just going along with things, because we do not to get too "out there" in our thinking...
Because, after all, “A Christian is _______ .” [repeat Step 1]
All the same - and however unspoken it remains - many of us do feel the same unsettled ugliness in our core:
SOMETHING IS WRONG.
...And not just with individuals, but on a much larger, more collective scale. Something huge.
...And yet many of us do nothing about it.
In Christian services and gatherings, we continue to listen solely to the common voices - the voices of people who will not even entertain the discussion we know we need to have. Becoming ever more marked by their complacency, we continue to forsake our own spiritual formation. Without the humble progression and development of transformation, we have to settle for conformity, and - if we continue on this path unchecked - we ultimately take pride in whatever we've been handed... and it comes to define us. We become marked by the same apathy and arrogance that says, "Well, someone else (who seemed important) already figured all this out, and I agreed with them, so I've chosen my team and I'm good to go." We're afraid that if we move in conscience and let go of the things we've always considered so important, we might have nothing left. Without our culture wars and moral majorities and nationalism and whatever else... We wonder, "What else is there?" And so we refuse to ask important questions because of the conclusions they might lead us to draw.
...Maybe we’re afraid that we might be the only ones.
Afraid that if we question what seems to be working for so many other people, we’ll be left exposed and isolated. But tragically, as so much goes unspoken over time, we encourage this sickness in one another when we don't commit ourselves to transparency. Rather than being real and vulnerable, we ourselves settle in to a view of spirituality which is not only dominated by cliché, but is driven by fear and insecurity – and it is difficult to think of two motivations that could be worse.
...Or maybe we assume someone else will take care of the problem,
and that we think we can just passively wait for that to happen.
In considering all these things, I am reminded immediately of two psychological phenomena which are associated with victims and villains. It reminds me that - however grim and sad it is to admit - the implications of all of this are very real. The casualties of this system are real. The culture we are in is real, and has a real affect on the world. So I'm not just quibbling over details or arguing for my own version of orthodoxy in a consequence-free bubble for the sake of being "correct".
But I look around me, and I see precious human beings who are exhibiting the symptoms of what you'll find below. I will not unwrap these concepts beyond the simple definitions given here, but you can follow the links to more information if you want. Regardless, you will either find resonance and see the parallels to Christianity... Or you won't.
This occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. There are so many witnesses to a tragic event that no one acts on behalf of its victims. The larger the crowd, the less likely it is that anyone will feel responsible to help.
This is the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.
I have known what it is to live in these sicknesses. I have known it all too well. In some ways, I am still recovering... But part of that process of recovery has been to stand up and speak the truth to power, which is - as I already said - a risky thing to do. You can feel very much alone when even bringing up these things makes you a "threat" in many circles.
But they need to be brought up anyway...
Because our cultural trappings have often become thoughtless (or careless) replacements for actually living by the Spirit in liberty.
And, perhaps worst of all, these default positions inherited from religiosity ultimately blur the truth, as they become ideas that we adopt and maintain as surely as we do the actual principles of scripture. We can listen to them so much that their noise drowns out the testimony of conscience itself, robbing us of our most basic sense of what is of God and what is not - what is true, and beautiful and decent... and what is ugly. Some of us lose the path entirely, forsaking the Way of Jesus to stand instead amidst a cacophony of religious clichés.
One reason for this this is best summarized in (of all things) a popular cliché: We don't properly understand or even recognize our history, and thus, we doom ourselves to repeat it... Many of us tend to see ourselves as detached or removed from our ancient brothers and sisters of faith. We entertain the illusion that we're somehow separate from them, even at times when we’re exhibiting the very same traits and hang-ups that Jesus continually took issue with in them. You can tell things have gotten bad when so many pastors can preach through the gospel accounts and scarcely implicate themselves or the church at all, instead applying Jesus’ more stern rebukes and warnings only to the Jews then and the world today... It doesn't get more convenient than that.
I believe that if Jesus were to enter our “Christianity” right now...
We would find him saying a lot of the very same things he said to the religious then, and most certainly saying them to us.
I don’t say this to point a damning finger.
I do not consider myself above the things I have set out to criticize in this blog, in fact, I wouldn’t understand any of this the way I do if I had not once harbored in my own heart the same things I now find to be at odds with the person of Jesus. So, should you choose to join in these discussions, please remember that these words are not born of pretense or an attempt to be clever. They are born of brokenness.
I am often called a cynic, but I disagree with that assessment. To me, a true cynic is the person who accepts things as they are - who doesn't see the point in even entertaining the idea of revolutionary thought or change... Because a true cynic doesn't believe those things are possible. A true cynic "keeps the peace" with the establishment rather than taking the more difficult and messy route of peacemaking - forging a way forward rather than resting in the decaying monuments of the Old. A true cynic embraces a false peace - a peace without reckoning. This "peace" is no peace at all, but rather, a glorified, mythologized armistice.
This site is not about gathering the cynical to relish in their cynicism.
If anything, this site is, at its heart, a PLEA to the cynical: Release it. Let it go. See the "greater things" Jesus spoke of. The kingdom is still moving. Still spreading. Still calling us forward. Still calling us to reach higher, to bask in the brighter light.
I am a lot of things, but cynical is not one of them. I am very much an idealist, really. If I wasn't, I wouldn't see major change as possible or even necessary. But I know it seems dangerous and reckless to some people to say the things I am saying. And this reminds me of a quote by Stephanie Drury:
"Christian culture has no category for anger at harm done in God's name.
They label it all as cynicism rather than the first step to healing."
See, as much as this site exists to question particular aspects of religious culture... it's the healing part I'm interested in most of all.
For many of us, that process will not begin until we are willing to pull the proverbial Band-Aid off. But when we do, we might be surprised by the freedom which comes when we live more truthfully... Not that we should be...