Monday, January 25, 2016

What the "Law of the Lord" Might Look Like If We Saw Things Aright

Understandably, the human race has a love/hate relationship with rules. On the one hand, we like having law enforcement when we need protection from some form of injustice. On the other hand, we don't like being caught when we are the ones from whom another needs protection. We like it when the bad guys are nabbed by the authorities (for the most part), but we don't like it so much when the authorities use their power for evil ends.

Adam and Eve enjoyed paradise, but they didn't necessarily like the fact that their one prohibition was an essential element in the fabric of holding paradise together. They "loved the law of the Lord" when it delivered them from slavery and barbaric treatment- but they were not so much fans of it, when it came back to bite them (quite literally) in the form of seraph serpents.

I recall how frustrated football fans were a few years back when the "replacement refs" were standing in for the "real refs", who happened to be on strike. The truth is the replacements did their best, but they honestly lacked the skill that the professionals. When the professionals finally returned, the fans behaved much like the Israelites after receiving the Law of the Lord. Indeed, I've never seen so much enthusiasm concerning the rules being restored. Yet what this reveals to me beyond the old adage; "you don't know what you got 'til it's gone", is the fact that if we actually perceived just laws as we ought, we might find ourselves grumbling and murmuring quite a bit less. Below I present a few examples of what such positive (if humorous) laws might look like:

1. Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery = Thou shalt rather love thy wife with thy whole mind, heart, and imagination… for the alternative is truly exhausting to think about.  

Translation: It is indeed exhausting to have to imagine the work I would have to put in- pretending to be true to one person- while pretending to be in love with another. All that lying and plotting would be quite tiresome. Not to mention the perpetual awkwardness of pretending to be "all in" on a relationship in which I am "all out."   

2. Thou Shalt Not Run A Red Light  = Thou shalt rather live long and enjoy a pleasurable drive to thy destination.

Translation: Our problem is not with the law per se, our problem is with how it applies to ourselves. We are fine with justice for others, but as for ourselves… I think we would prefer far greater latitude. In these situations the common goods trumps our own personal desire to apply justice arbitrarily.  

3. Thou Shalt Not Kill Tom Brady with a Helmet to Helmet Hit = Thou shalt rather let him live, so that on the rare occasion in which thou beatest him, thou shalt enjoy watching him cry.

Translation: Even when we dislike somebody immensely (perhaps even with good reason), murder is never an option. To the contrary, true justice is served, not simply by killing the guilty man, but by watching him do hard time. 

4. Thou Shalt Wear No Unapproved Garb To School = Thou shalt rather wear holy attire, for as the band ZZ Top once said; "every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man".

Translation: Wearing a uniform may not initially seem liberating, but if perhaps we saw things as we ought, we might recognize that the most important people in the world tend to wear uniforms. Thus a uniform, at least in its most exalted form, suggests dignity of office. What it seeks to move away from is a superficial sense of what distinguishes us (i.e. like the latest trend). A man's vestment in the most noble sense is truly what "distinguishes" us.     

5. Thou Shalt Not Sully Thy Lips With any "Yo Momma Jokes" = Thou shalt rather celebrate "yo momma", and every other momma besides, for without "yo momma" you would have no life at all.

Translation: The holy name of God (as well as the holy name of your mother) are names that we dare not take in vain. In a sense by mocking these holy names, we have not really destroyed them (for they are indeed eternally holy names). However, what we do jeopardize is our own existence, for when we do profane them, we profane the very ground of our existence.

6. Keep Holy the Sabbath = Thou shalt thankest God whene'er it is Friday. 

Translation: Every time Friday rolls around we really should thank God for it. After all, without God's "imposition" of this commandment, who knows if this day would ever exist at all. Even as we speak there are those slave drivers out there looking for a way to obliterate it. The world always tends toward slavery (see above), but God gave us this command, not to imprison us on Sunday, but in the faint hope that we might actually take a break from the drudgery of endless work.

7. Thou Shalt Have No False Gods Before Me = Seeing as how God holdeth all the cards, it would seem most wise to grant him pride of place at the table of thy thoughts, for thy lucky T-Shirt can only take you so far.    

Translation: It is highly irrational to impute omnipotence to something which clearly lacks it (insert anything in the world here______________). On the other hand, if God does indeed exist, then what could be more rational than to say that he is "second to none"?

8. Thou Shalt Not Break Any of the Rules of the Game = If thou dost truly love the game as thou claimest, then thou shouldst keep the rules, for without the rules, there is neither a game, nor a player.

Translation: Though the referee penalizes a player for a violation of the rule, it is those same rules (and referees) which make victory and triumph possible.  

9. Thou Shalt Avoid Any Foul or Dissonant Notes On Thy Instrument = Thou shalt rather study thy instrument, practice it faithfully, and subsequently make beautiful music, and if thou doest this, even thy dissonant notes shall become melodious.

Translation: People tend to see art and music as intrinsically liberal and even anarchic. And while this may have some basis in truth, what they often fail to recognize is the profoundly dogmatic and mathematical side of the arts. On a certain level, it is true, the canvas invites the imagination to go wild. Indeed, your only limit is your imagination. On the other hand, this is only partially true, for the canvas does have its physical boundaries (even were you to call your entire house your canvas). The same goes for music. You can play whatever you like, but the liberality comes not in the fact that you have a million chords, but a million ears. The point is you can wear whatever outfit you want and present yourself in the most quirkily disheveled way, but if you are not a disciplined artist, your success will be fleeting at best.

10. Thou Shalt Not "Cry Wolf" = Thou shalt rather be a man of thy word, so that when thou dost cry wolf, thou wilt be believed.

Translation: If a man is not in touch with the truth, he is not living in reality, and if he is not living in reality, he may be teetering on the edge of delusion. In any case, a society functions or falls on whether or not we can trust one another. In a society of liars, tyrannical law enforcement is inevitable.

11. Thou Shalt Not Steal = Thou shalt rather be grateful for what thou hast, for in truth thou hast already won the lottery.

Translation: Generally speaking, we seek to steal from others when we no longer recognize the good in our own lives. Stealing isn't consigned to the poor alone. In fact, stealing (in the various forms it takes) actually transcends class. Why? Apart from cases of desperation, this behavior seems to arise out a lack of gratitude for what one already has. A simple litany of gratitude is a good way to avoid falling into this trap. If nothing else it offers a fine catalogue of all the things that we have already "stolen" from God, graces and gifts that have we have failed to recognize as such.

12. Thou Shalt Neither Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods Nor His Wife = Thou shalt rather knowest what thou hast before it is gone… quoth Joni Mitchell      

Translation: How many tragic love songs (or rather love-less songs) need to be penned for one to recognize the positive side of this command? Stop trying to possess something that doesn't belong to you. The problem isn't in what you have, the problem stems from the fact that when we do have something, we don't want it anymore, and thus fail to see its original beauty. If we want to be some sort   miserable ghost, repeating the same mistake for eternity, this would seem to be the perfect recipe for it (i.e coveting). Why not instead train your eye and imagination to see in your beloved (and all the rest that you have) a priceless commodity that could be lost at any moment. This is not only a possibility, but according to the history of pop music, a promise!  At least that's what bands like Cinderella (and a million others) seem to think.


Monday, January 18, 2016

What is the "Placebo Church"? And why is it such a problem?

When I was a child, I hated church. I would lie in bed on Sunday morning wrapped in my elven cloak blanket, as still and and as quiet as I could, in the faint hope that I would somehow be passed over. Occasionally my plan worked. Perhaps it had more to do with my bad attitude than my invisibility cloak, nevertheless on occasion my mother would "let sleeping dogs lie". However, in spite of my disaffection for organized religion, I did feel mildly guilty for missing church, and so in order to assuage my restless conscience, I would watch the televangelist Ernest Angely- as he effortlessly healed everything that came into his living presence. I don't remember much of what he said, but I do remember that he said "awwwwwww" quite a bit. Most importantly, I felt a little better about myself afterwards, and thus came to the important conclusion that I really didn't need to go to church in order to honor God. Whether or not my conclusion was accurate, I was satisfied with the fact that this kind of "church placebo" satisfied what in me demanded that I keep holy the Sabbath. It wasn't so important that I had actually "kept it", so long as I felt like I had kept it.


In a similar sense, post-denominational denominationalism (as I like to call it) serves a similar purpose. First of all, let me define terms: "post-denominational denominationalism" is the name I give a particular movement within Protestantism, particularly in the United States, that seeks to transcend various historical disputes among Christians by either ignoring history and/or concluding that those divisions no longer hold. Such individuals seek to overturn these traditional disputes among Christians by constructing a model of Christianity that is non-liturgical and trendy, Biblically conservative (at least in the south), and moralistic in character. It is a bit like Dr. Phil meets Billy Graham… with Starbucks thrown in.

It is a form of Protestant Christianity that is completely unmoored from any kind of real historical appreciation. So disconnected is it from the historical Faith, that even figures like Luther and Calvin seem to fade into obscurity and irrelevance. As a matter of fact, most of the individuals who attend these churches no longer read any of the original Protestant writings, though they do carry out their theology to its natural end (whether they realize it or not). Hence, in this new program of Christian understanding, even Christ starts to feel a little less Incarnate- and a little bit more like some sort of moralist life coach that exists primarily to inspire us.

Even the particular names of these new Christian communities bespeaks a kind of post-denominational mentality. In the past, denominations either derived their name from their founder, their theological motivation, and/or a particular concept from the Old or New Testament. Today most of the titles for these mega-churches (which most of them tend to be) are derived from some relatively beige, innocuous, and vaguely pastoral term... with an occasional hint of grandiosity thrown in.

Around here some of our most popular "post-denominational denominationalist" congregations go by such names as Brookwood, NewSpring, Grace Church, and World Redemption Outreach Center. On a  larger scale, one such congregation that has gained some national attention (particularly for catering to young celebrities) is called HillSong. Now it doesn't get much more inoffensive than that, does it (unless of course you hate either "hills" or "songs")?

Brookwood Church

My point is these names are practically impossible to associate with anything distinctly religious (with the mild exemption of Grace Church), and thus they cannot possibly "trigger" any negative feelings. Furthermore, their names tend to be utterly ahistorical, a feature which makes their name, for better or worse, fundamentally forgettable. In other words, if you don't associate us with anything personal or historical, then it is nearly impossible to be offended by us... at least initially.

There is a certain wisdom in this approach, and on a certain level it is more than a little understandable. History and religion tend to be top-heavy with negative memories (or at least that is the perception), so maybe if "we" can pull the old bait and switch on the populace, then we can at least get them in the door. And if we can get them in the door, then perhaps they will stay.

The problem is not so much in the idea of presenting the Faith in a manner that is appealing and relatable, the problem is that the Faith- in this sense- becomes so relatable, and individualistic, that it no longer resembles any kind of faith at all. To the contrary, the goal is simply to custom-fit your belief, like the latest fashion, to your personality. I call it The Placebo Church. It looks and smells and tastes a lot like chicken/communing with God, but in truth it is really the TOFU of religion. Interestingly enough, as the rise of this "new kind of Christian Church experience" has grown in popularity, others, who are not interested in Jesus at all, are starting to model themselves after it. Yes, even atheists are starting to create their own version of the mega-church, for apparently they too like to meet in community, sing songs, and hear profound readings.

Atheist "Church"

And that's just the point, we are made for "church," whether we acknowledge God or not. We cannot get away from this fact. Yet is the goal of worship simply the placebo effect? Is the goal of this "new kind of Christian denominationalism" simply a matter of making ourselves feel like we went to church, whether we really have or not? We certainly "felt spiritual" when were there, and perhaps even shed a tear or two at one of the songs. But is feeling emotional about a pop song the same as honoring or loving God? To put it another way, should worship never truly involve "a sacrifice of praise", as Scripture suggests, or should it always be like that feeling of first love, or the rush of driving down to the beach as we listen to that catchy summer song?

I do not deny the need to make connections between the sacred and the mundane, but I would argue that these congregations are making the sacred so mundane that one might wonder what beyond their own feelings and sensibilities they are worshiping. Simply put, yes to U2, and no to the U2charist. As a Catholic who happens to be a musician, this is insulting on both accounts. Not only are we making a counterfeit of church, but a counterfeit of the original music. Indeed, it reminds me a little too much of that school teacher that tries a little too hard to be relevant to the kids, or the needy adolescent that is willing to say bad words just to fit in. It was this mentality that made me scorn church for so long!

The solution in a certain sense is quite simple. We all bring our own personal piety and affinities to the table in every relationship. That's a given. Who says that we cannot praise God at any given moment, either by listening to a particularly meaningful song in the car, watching a powerful video at home, or going to some concert that artfully praised God? But in our quest to make everything in our lives like this (i.e. as painless and as entertaining as possible), we have- perhaps- not once considered that worshipping God might need to strike a slightly different tone than everything else in our lives. Indeed, is this not precisely the kind of self-centered narcissism that threatens the success and longevity of all the important relationships in our lives?

The first test of love is caring enough about your beloved to find out their heart's desire. And in the case of Jesus Christ, he makes his appeal quite plain. On his "death bed," he says nothing about hearing inspiring talks, watching cleverly packaged videos which make you "think." He mentions nothing of big lights and big drums, nothing about sipping a delicious Starbucks while feeling a sense of contentment, and certainly nothing about being a hipster, though none of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves. However, what he does say about his longing is unmistakable, namely that his disciples must celebrate a memorial in his honor, an expression of worship and love that looks suspiciously like the words of institution at every Catholic Mass; "On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his apostles, and said: 'Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you… Do this in memory of me.'"