Monday, October 18, 2004

Re-inventing Christianity. Again.

While surfing the net, I recently came across a blog operated by some of the people who frequent The Well, a hip alternative-y worship outreach by a Langley Vineyard, a charismatic church here in B.C..

I like their group weblog, despite my reservations expressed below.

One of the prominent people behind The Well--which would appear to be a swell thing in and of itself--is Jordan Bateman, a former journalist. This piqued my curiousity as Mr. Bateman freelanced for a couple months for B.C. Report, my old magazine. He's currently working on various writing projects.

Anyways, in this post here, Mr. Bateman argues that the Christian church has, in some ways "jumped the shark", and that "intelligent people" need to save Christianity from itself.

Here's most of the salient parts of what he writes. Emphasis is mine throughout:

....[The] modern church jumped the shark during the televangelist scandals of the late twentieth century. It was the moment that the Bride of Christ became a joke with most people, falling into a deep pit of mistrust and irrelevance. We forfeited God's deity and turned Him into a punch-line for late night comics. No local church was safe from the snickering. Christians left in droves. Any sermon on generosity--no matter how anointed, sincere or God-breathed--immediately raised the hackles of those who remained.

But Church has survived. It hasn't flourished, and it hasn't returned to the prominence it once held in society, but it has lived on. Like the post-apocalyptic survivors in The Postman or the little ants in A Bug's Life, we limp through life, oppressed by the thought that, at any moment, the world might lash out against us again. We think that the evil soldiers of pop culture are at our gates, wanting to annihilate us, once and for all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Church, for the most part, has dropped off the world's radar. God, however, has made a comeback. Film and television is littered with references to a patient, kind God. The Jim Carrey movie, Bruce Almighty, cast Morgan Freeman--one of the world's most respected and gentlemanly actors--as the Divine One. God was treated with respect and dignity. Dogma's Alanis Morissette portrayed God as fun and alive (shocking!). The voice in Field of Dreams restored the relationship between a father and son--what greater gift can God give than that? Even the God of The Simpsons' Ned Flanders is full of grace.....

....Music, film, art, literature, the Internet--God is busting out all over and the so-called "Christian" world is beginning to recognize it.

Now, we must ask God for the right answer in how He wants to use this new move. If the Church has jumped the shark, what spin-off does God have in mind for the next period of time? Where does He want to take His bride next?

"Intelligent people are always open to new ideas," Solomon added in Proverbs 18:15. "In fact, they look for them." Christian leaders who desire to be "wise as serpents and gentle as doves," as Jesus ordered us to be, must now look for new ideas. If we do what we have always done, we'll get what we have always gotten: Nowhere.

The future of the Church is now--it's time for the intelligent people to listen to God's heartbeat and take some risks.

I would like to make some observations on this.

I am well aware of the irony of using something new, the Internet, to stand up for the "old time religion". But the subtext here, that what is new is often inherently better, is a bit troubling to me.

I usually am content to concede that new technologies and new methods of doing church are worth trying. But the Christian church should be careful to kick the tires of any new theological ideas before describing them as sound.

Take the example that Mr. Bateman cites, that of the excesses of the televangelists. These televelangelists were grounded in theologically "new" ideas that only came into prominence in the Protestant wing of Christianity after World War Two.

Jimmy Swaggart--an Assemblies of God Pentecostal.

Oral Roberts, who needed $7 million U.S. lest God "call him home", was a prominent faith healer in the 1950s. Much of his theological underpinning springs from the radically new "Latter Rain' movement of the late 1940s.

Although Jim Bakker is sometimes self-serving in his autobiography "I Was Wrong", he has realized some of the errors in the "prosperity gospel" message that he used to prominently feature on his PTL broadcast. He now believes that treating God as a celestial ATM machine is misguided.

One could argue that the excesses of these men was partly due to a lack of spiritual balance and a lack of grounding in the historical tenets of their faith. The "new spiritual wisdom" may have led them to a mindset where morally dodgy behaviour was now acceptable in their own minds.

If we concede that these men were theologically wise, the Bible does note that a man should take care when he thinks that he is standing, lest he fall.

I would advise those of us in the church, who consider that we are the "intelligent people" in Christendom, to take particular note of this Biblical admonition. I have a sneaking suspicion that the televangelists who fell into scandal felt, at the time, that those who were critical of them were dumber than a bag of hammers.

Let's not make those mistakes again.