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Archive for August, 2010

For the past week, Internet Monk has had a series on what they call the “Ancient-Future” movement: basically, evangelicals who have abandoned the evangelical way of doing things, and are looking to older paths to find a way forward. It’s been nothing short of excellent. Some of the posts are like reading my thoughts, only without the blundering incoherence. Here have been my favorites:

“Things New and Old”–Fr. Ernesto’s Testimony

John Armstrong on “Tradition”

A Journey…to Wonder

Don’t Misunderstand the Ancient-Future Path

In exploring the archives at Internet Monk, I also discovered this old article by the site’s late founder, Michael Spencer. It’s about the pull of Roman Catholicism on him. I wish I could say that I had written the first 2/3rds of the piece (although we diverge in the end), because it states so eloquently what I have thought.

Anyways, the links I’ve posted, and most things that come up at Internet Monk, are great reads, and I highly recommend them to anyone who likes thinking about Christianity.

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I read this article last Saturday in my local paper, the Charlotte Observer, about this website, ChurchRater. It does exactly what you think it does: allows people to rate churches, much like Rate My Professor, or like you would review a restaurant. It’s symptomatic of one of the great flaws of our age.

I have to admit, the first thing that happened when I read the article was get extremely angry and start to prepare a rant of a post with which I could bless the Internet. Fortunately, I didn’t have time to get very far with it that day, and so I had time to cool off and become slightly more reasonable about things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an idea that is fundamentally flawed, and very wrong at its core. But it’s simply a product of its time. All periods of history have, shall we say, intellectual climates or flavors which permeate everything about that time: thoughts, writings, actions. ChurchRater, to me, seems to be a product of the age we live in, so I shouldn’t get mad at it.

Unlike what I was first inclined to believe, the website’s founders have the best intentions. All over, it urges for moderation, restraint, grace, and understanding. They genuinely just want people to be educated about churches, to have an idea of what they’re getting themselves into; they don’t want people writing reviews like “This church effing sucks” or “Pastor was a stupid dick” or any other reviews that read like Youtube comments. 

But that’s not the problem. It can be summed up in two words: church shopping. It makes it way too easy for people to become consumers of church. And this can be done without devolving into typical Internet nastiness. How would you like your church cooked: contemporary, emergent, traditional? What was the pastor like: bombastic (because some people like that), accessible, gregarious, storyteller, funny? How good was the music? Did you “connect” with the service? They all ask the same basic question: how was your experience?

And that is the problem. Church does not become about God, but the individual. The content of the service may be God. But the focus is the individual. I’m not sure how exactly I can quantify this. It isn’t something definite that I can pick out, like a propositional statement that I can refute: it’s an attitude, which is far more general and nebulous. Here’s an example: there are lots of worship songs whose lines basically go something like, God I love you more than I can say, God I can never be grateful enough, etc. Is the focus God, or the way I feel about Him? Am I singing about something external or internal? There is a difference. Some would say it doesn’t matter, but I think it does, at least more than it’s given credit for.

But it seems to me that this attitude permeates church today. And it’s dangerous. How can we submit our lives and souls to God if we can’t even submit ourselves to a church service that is different than what we want? Of course, it goes both ways. Do we think a church service is appropriate because it’s what we want, or is it what we want because we’ve decided that’s what’s appropriate? Therein lies the rub. But for now, let’s leave it at this: Christians are supposed to submit to the church, NOT vice versa.

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There is so much evil in the world today that comes from Christianity. Allegations of pedophilia and molestation continue to ooze from the cracks of the Vatican walls. Prominent pastors and televangelists are deposed for scandals ranging from financial to sexual. Abortion doctors walk the streets in fear of their lives. Soldiers’ funerals are disrupted by protestors calling for God’s judgment on immorality.

Some have said that Christianity is a religion of peace. They point to the Sermon on the Mount, calls for justice, for forgiveness. But the PCers, and their calls for religious tolerance, are only afraid of condemnation and reprisals, and everyone knows it. Their claims of a religion of peace ring hollow when you examine the truth.

Let’s start with Christianity’s founder, Jesus. He was the bastard child of 13-15 year old girl, and a man at least twice her age. His followers attempted to clean this up with ridiculous claims of a miraculous virgin birth (which, shockingly, billions have gobbled up). The son of a middle schooler and a pedophile: tell me, is the solid foundation you would expect a great, moral religion to come out of? Pedophilia, judging from the activity of many priests, would seem extend forth into Christianity from the founder’s own family. While there is no evidence that Jesus himself engaged in this activity, it is worth stating that abusive sexual activity often starts with the parents; and we have established just now that Jesus’ own father was a pedophile, and that his disciples display a certain willingness to cover up damning personal details. But even if Jesus wasn’t a pedophile, the accounts of his own followers indicate that he was constantly surrounded by whores and swindlers, such that religious authorities, and even one of his own followers, chided him for the company he kept. He died in disgrace, naked, between a pair of thieves.

Next, let’s look at Christianity’s holy book, the Bible. Jesus himself said, in Matthew 10:34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The book of Joshua is an account of how the Jews engaged in a genocide against the people of Canaan. The atrocities are justified for two reasons: first, because God apparently promised the land to a long dead ancestor, Abraham (whose existence has yet to appear in the archaeological record), and second, because the people were infidels who worshipped different gods that they judged to be evil.

This proclivity for religious genocide over a patch of sand came out once again during the Crusades. Over the course of several hundred years, countless thousands (including one army comprised entirely of children!) were sent to liberate the Holy Land from the evildoers, whose crime was the practice of a different religion. The streets ran red with the blood of civilians.

With the Protestant Reformation, Christianity’s bloodlust became cannabalistic. The Spanish Inquisition burned countless heretics who worshipped the same Jesus, but in a slightly different way. The intra-religious violence has continued throughout Christianity’s history, most recently in the United Kingdom, courtesy of IRA terrorists.

Religion of peace, my ass. If there are Christians who live peaceful lives, it is only because they have purposefully divorced themselves from the historical reality of their faith. True practitioners are as bloody, and sexually deviant as ever. They are a threat to our country’s national security. And I and my party promise to fight that terrorist religion, regardless of how politically incorrect it may be. Have they forgotten May 31, 2009, when they struck in Wichita, the very heartland of our country? The American people haven’t forgotten, and neither have I. Vote for me in 2010, and I will do everything to protect this country!

……

Now let me be clear. I am not saying that there aren’t a lot of terrorists, or even noncombatants, who claim a psychotic, evil version of Islam. Certainly there are, and I think it is also fair to say that it is more organized and widespread than any Christian terrorism/militia. All it takes is an angry person with a pipe bomb, and there are a lot of angry people. What I am criticizing is the intellectual dishonesty of the “Islam is evil” people. They are not approaching it with an attitude of what you might call thoughtful criticism–seeking to understand something on its own terms, but not taking anything for granted–but skeptical criticism–seeking to punch holes in an argument. They have decided that Islam is evil. The arguments are picked and chosen because they fit the narrative. My point is that, if someone wanted to take a similar, antagonistic tack to scare and insinuate people into believing Christianity is evil, they could easily do so. In fact, many have attempted to do so, such as the New Atheists. My skepticism is also aroused by the fact that the “evil Islam” narrative also seems to correspond pretty closely with a particular political outlook; and religion and politics rarely mix well. But Christians should be careful in employing this tactic of skeptical criticism, of seeking to punch holes where they may be found. It seems to me that the end result of this tactic, evenly applied across the board, is not just the exposure of Islam as evil, but all religions, all organized forms of theism, as evil.

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This past Wednesday evening I attended a Mass for the first time ever. Probably a good thing to try out, seeing as I’m probably going to convert to Catholicism. It was so extremely different from any church service that I’ve ever been to, so I think it’ll be helpful for me to get some thoughts on…well not paper. It wasn’t a full Mass, since it was just a weekday afternoon, but it still counts, I think.

The most traditional service I’ve ever been to was a wedding officiated by an Anglican priest, and it was nothing compared to this. When I walked in, everyone was doing–I don’t remember exactly what it was called. Eucharistic Benediction, I think? Basically, as I walked in, everyone was on the kneelers, chanting a prayer in unison. I thought that I was late, and felt painfully out of place. Apparently, though, it was a sort of prologue to the actual Mass. I wasn’t late. But it was definitely a “We’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” moment, and it set the tone for the first half of the service.

The Mass, for those who have never been, is highly liturgical. Everything–prayer, responsive reading, whatever–is written out beforehand. Being raised as an evangelical Protestant, I’ve had it hammered in my head that the non-spontaneous nature of liturgy lends itself to zoning out. You sit, read, kneel, mumble, stand, chant, and then you wake up and leave. You disengage. And there is nothing that evangelicals hate more than when congregants just zombie their way through a service. To them, it is fake, disengenuous, and the opposite of what Christianity should be.

I must confess–the first few minutes of the actual service, I was zoned out a bit. Of course, it’s difficult to engage with a service when everyone else knows it by heart, and you’re trying to find your place in the book. And I felt very self-conscious, very afraid of doing something wrong. Clearly, I was the only non-Catholic in the service; everyone else had genuflected, and of course everyone but me (being, for the moment, non-Catholic) went up to receive Communion. I felt singled out, alone, and I was afraid of doing something wrong and being judged. In other words, I felt, very strongly, what many evangelicals hate about liturgical services in general, and Catholicism in particular: the ease of disengaging and going through the motions without ever involving the heart, and the oppressive fear of screwing up and being judged for it, which might be called legalism.

As I had these thoughts, we sang a couple of a capella Hallelujahs in Gregorian chant. I could sort of sing along, though I had never heard the melody before. The key, I suppose, was minor (Gregorian chants often predate an idea of keys, or traditional musical notation, so it might be incorrect to refer to it being in a key at all), and very grave. Feeling the need to fit in, I tried my best to feel somber and austere. As I sang the Hallelujah, I tried to think about how high and holy God is, and how that should necessitate reverence and solemnity in His people.

And I after had this thought, I realized that my attitude and approach to this were all wrong, and quite stupid, and self-centered. The oppressive fear of being judged was not a product of the service, or any of the people in it. No one had looked at me at all, much less with a condescendingly judging look. Their judging me for not knowing the motions of the service was entirely in my head. This revealed less about the service than just my own insecurity. I took a basic issue of self-worth/self-esteem (“Gosh, I hope that I don’t embarrass myself and that everyone approves of me”), and gave it spiritual dimensions. (Which is something that, I think, a lot of evangelicals do, but that’s another post entirely.) And even if everyone in there did look at me and judge me, or if I embarrassed myself, so what? It wouldn’t change anything about myself.

So I thought to myself, “Stop it. Let go. It doesn’t matter what judging people (who so far only exist in your head) think. Don’t act in accordance with imaginary expectations; just stop, rest in Christ, and have joy.” And that seemingly austere Hallelujah was transformed in an instant. I looked for joy, and was surprised to discover that the melody was filled with it. (That’s the thing about old styles of music; because they are older, they don’t necessarily immediately move us the way a musical style we are accustomed to would move us. But the substance, the feeling, the meaning behind the music remains where it always has; we just don’t know where to look.) The whole service, in fact, was filled with it. Yes, on the surface, the Mass is somber and liturgical. But when you approach it with the knowledge that Christ’s loving sacrifice has made our way to God, and that He has forgiven us, you realize that, contrary to all appearances, joy is interwoven into every part of the Mass. The service had seemed cold, judgmental, and grave. But I had forgotten the essential point: Christ’s love, forgiveness and grace. And without that, how else would a holy God (or his church services) appear?

And as for being disengaged and mumbling my way through responses–well, in light of my revelation during the Hallelujah, how could I not perk up and give it the utmost attention of my mind and spirit? It still was tricky to follow, since I was unfamiliar with the format, but I did my best. I still paid close attention to what everyone else was doing to pick up cues on what to do, but instead of fearing a mistake, I found myself (internally) laughing at my own noobish awkwardness. And I didn’t see anyone giving me a dirty look.

To sum up: I enjoyed Mass immensely. It was such a beautiful, good experience. I look forward to going back.

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I have the utmost sympathy for Derek Webb. He’s (judging by what he’s written) an evangelical Christian who recognizes that there are major problems within the evangelical movement. That alone makes me sympathetic. Then on top of that, his music is extremely antagonistic to Christian radio (which is one of the most godforsaken, artistically barren media outlet ever conceived). Here’s a couple of examples of his work:

For one, it’s good, rather than the cookie cutter shallow-worship-songs-w/-U2-style-guitar-riffs style that Chris Tomlin has–well, I won’t say perfected, but you know. It’s not a product; it seeks to be art. Moreover, his music is important. It says things that no one else is saying in Christian music. In an industry where every song is simply about how Jesus makes me feel, Derek Webb says, “Stop hating gay people.” And to a community that has sold its political soul to the right wing of the Republican party, Derek Webb reminds us that “you can always trust the devil or a politician to be the devil or a politician.”

In some ways, I’m pushing Derek Webb not just for his music (although it is quite good), but for what he represents. He is a white American evangelical, but reminds us that Christ is neither white, nor American, nor evangelical. Christ has called us to a mission, and it is a mission that takes no notice of the agendas of tiny men.

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Punch Brothers are headed up by Chris Thile, the mandolin player from the now-defunct Nickel Creek (also a great band). They’ve got a very interesting sound. Their roots and instrumentation are definitely bluegrass, but few of their songs follow the bluegrass format. More like experimental rock. Here’s their show from Bonnaroo.

Their first instrumental number is one hell of an introduction to them: clearly very talented instrumentalists, and intricate, unpredictable numbers. The instruments quietly meander through thoughtful melodies that suddenly burst into energetic choruses: see You Are, at about 9:30. Another highlight is their cover of Reptilia by The Strokes (at about 25 minutes). Personally, I enjoy their cover more than the original; the organic quality of bluegrass instruments seems to give the song much more energy. Alex (at about 36) is also a treat: it sounds like a picnic on a sunny hillside with a pretty girl; but the singer has, shall we say, less than pure intentions. (If that makes sense. Probably, I’m just trying to sound like a good writer, but writing nonsense.)

At times, the way the musical lines jerk around almost arbitrarily can grow tiresome. It seems to me like they’re a band that hasn’t quite found their niche, their sound, their artistic statement, and so they try to fill in the void with (sometimes excessive) complexity. But they aren’t far off from finding “it.” There are points where they simply burst with energy and joy. They’re creative, and unafraid to experiment. Their experiments haven’t quite yielded that breakthrough, but they don’t seem too far off from that “Eureka!” moment. Here’s hoping they find it.

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This will be an ongoing series here. (If I can talk about an ongoing series at a 3-week old blog that has less than 100 total views.) Basically, if I find music that makes the room it’s played in more beautiful, then I will post it here. First, let’s start with my favorite band right now: the Avett Brothers. Listen to a show they did at the Newport Folk Festival here.

Sound mix is a little iffy at the very beginning, but they got it down by the end of the first song. One of the highlights (besides the whole show) is Down with the Shine (at about 32:30). Two words: bluegrass waltz. That’s literally what it is–a drunken bluegrass waltz. The other song you ought to check out here is Die Then Grow (at about 45 minutes). Simply beautiful songwriting, which is typical for the Avetts. And their lyrics are always unrelently honest–never whiny when speaking of hard things, or adolescently idealistic about the way things ought to be, but just honest. And strikingly so.

All of their stuff is beautiful. You will be bettered by listening to them.

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