A Contemplative Faith
Let the Earth Keep Silence
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Here’s an interesting little bit of hi-tech Christmas cheer from North Point Community Church, a megachurch located here in the Atlanta area.
We never use the full potential of our computer gadgets. Heck, we never achieve our highest potentials as human beings. Still we persevere.
I’m looking for the day when one person, on one iPhone, plays all the parts of “Carol of the Bells.”
I have a loved one who belongs to this group, so I have both visited and thought a lot about it. It has always seemed to me to be an exemplar of the terrifying, high production-value exurbanite mega-church anti-world where the wholly contingent prejudices and preoccupations of a crass and insular upper-middle-class culture are reproduced with just enough religious veneer to make it appear necessary and divinely ordained.
The high-tech bit seems to fit that seamlessly. The arguments advanced by folks in such places typically hinge on the phrase “Why not?” That is, if something wrks to get the attention of people out in the corrupt secular world, why not use it for God’s purposes? Why not co-opt the techie world to make it more Christian?
I have a one-word answer: Noise. Everything in that place is noise, noise, noise. It’s a TV studio, not a church (as you can easily see from all the cameras in the picture), and it generates endless flash and gee-whiz and a music-video ambiance in the key of “awesome” — and really, really, all we need is more silence. When an iPad can generate silence, I’ll buy one. I have little doubt that, somewhere out there, some high-tech cabal is scratching its pointy little head around a table in a room with an espresso machine and some arcade games, trying to figure out how to sell us back our silence. When that occurs, the mega-churches will be there to take their cut.
Joe, does your loved one belong to the church, or to the iBand?
I think you’ll be waiting a long time to buy your iPad. It does have applications to help maintain a discipline of silence, such as the Divine Office or Zen Timer. But the iPad itself does not generate, or even maintain, the silence. That’s up to the user.
I know you well enough to know that you are not a purist in your Luddite leanings. We all have to decide where we’ll draw the line. An interesting, and I hope not altogether irrelevant, tidbit from my past: When I met Fran, I was in the process of moving to a cooperative land trust where I would have been entirely off the grid. Rhiannon represented an ethical dilemma for me, in that she does not have the luxury to live in such a purist way. So much of my “spiritual practice”: daily meditation, a vegan diet, knowledge of the mystical tradition — is mine by virtue of my privilege and affluence. I’m not suggesting that I should abandon those things that I enjoy by virtue of this privilege, any more than I am prepared to get rid of my laptop, iPhone or iPad because of their complicity in the noisy, alienated world you describe. Nor am I suggesting that you should abandon your views, even though they probably arise out of a similar privileged place. However, I do think it is wise for all of us to consider with humility how the purity of our views have come with a cost, a cost usually borne by others.
Another thought: is knocking North Point really the best way to challenge the alienation of our culture? Mind you, I have no desire to join such a church either. Put me in the Mall of Georgia for half an hour and I will be begging you to take me to Conyers. But I think megachurches are symptoms rather than underlying causes. I tend to be suspicious of regressionist politics: “if only we could go back to the age of the Great Mother Goddess, than all will be well.” Or whatever. The genie is out of the bottle, for good or ill. The interesting question now is, what do we do with what we’ve been given?
Carl, I’m really just mystified. I value your thoughts, so I have been trying really hard to parse out your comments for the past days. But I can’t find how they are relevant, or even altogether coherent. I don’t know what’s the genii and what’s the bottle, I can’t find where the Luddite thing comes from, and I really don’t get what cost I am externalizing to others. So I guess I was not clear.
The iPad concert takes beautiful music and makes it ugly. Its use is redundant to more lovely sources of more obviously worshipful sounds. So why do it? Because it’s a big hit, I guess, or at least a novelty serving some interest of that church. What interest? I infer that packing pews with “gee whiz” stuff is significant to those folks in some way. But what way? Why does playing so publicly with this particular toy mesh so seamlessly with the atmosphere of what purports to be a place of worship? All I can infer is that this church is about taking the coarse outside world, reproducing it (with its consumerism, militarism, nationalism, and similar fetishes) within a TV studio/sanctuary, and declaring it blessed. “You’re perfect as you are; in fact, the Lord can learn from you.”
I don’t see how I am accountable to do anything about this. That’s a very facile response, evasive of a more serious concern. It’s Advent; there’s a lot of Isaiah in the Divine Office, and Isaiah demonstrates that denunciation is sometimes called for. The iPad thing helps demonstrate that this is an idolatrous, self-worshipping place, celebrating a particular — and to my mind, odious — class culture. (The device itself I couldn’t care less about; no one is calling to pry it from the cold dead hands of its owners.) Isaiah shows that we can cry foul, and must at times. I think reticence at crying foul may not be as close to an inclusive pluralism as it may seem. Surely doing so is more to my taste, though, than yours, a fact about you meriting my respect.
Well, of course my thoughts are irrelevant and incoherent!
Maybe I’m projecting about you being a Luddite (although — and correct me if I’m wrong — I believe this is a term you jokingly use in reference to yourself). It just seems that the line between “criticizing the iBand” and “attacking megachurch culture” in your previous post was pretty thin. For me, there is a clear difference. One is art, the other is politics. I think I’m more comfortable with just letting art be art, even when embedded in distasteful economic or political systems, than you seem to be. This hardly makes me worthy of respect! It’s just how I see the world. I don’t think the iBand is ugly at all. I think it’s fun and playful. To me, if you want to say “this sucks,” then say so, but don’t insist that it sucks because of the setting where it took place. I grew up in a household where rock and roll was denounced because my father thought electric guitars were ugly, so I’ve grown pretty suspicious of people who denounce art simply because they disapprove of its technological matrix. Perhaps that is coloring how I’m reading your comments here, and for that I apologize.
I think megachurches are easy targets, for all the reasons you list. But what, exactly, are you denouncing? Evangelical theology? Communications technology? Suburban culture? Right-wing politics? I can’t tell from your brief comment. My point about the genie and the bottle: the church has eagerly adopted every new technology offered it ever since Mr. Gutenberg figured out that there was money in printing Bibles. Go to the Eucharistic Congress held just outside of Atlanta every June and you’ll see Catholics using exactly this same communications technology. Whether we like it or not, this is what’s happening. Simply denouncing it, to me, seems lazy: a better response is to develop strategies for calling the church back to contemplative practice, even in the midst of the noise. As the Quakers say, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
By “the cost borne by others” I’m referring to a spiritual rather than an economic cost. I’ve seen in myself a willingness to discount others when their values differ from mine: something must be wrong with them. They are uneducated, they are oppressed, they are victims (or, the oppressor!). The “cost” refers to the fact that I value the purity of my ideological stance greater than the humility that would require me to wrestle with the fact that I may not always be right, and that others who disagree with me may not have anything “wrong” with them, either of their own choosing or foisted onto them by the evils of (capitalism, the government, the church… insert the name of your favorite oppressor here). In other words, to maintain my sense of the rightness of my views, I have to project onto others that they are wrong, either making them oppressors or victims. I’m asking them to bear the cost of what it takes for me to be convinced that my beliefs are “right.” The most obvious example of this is how Christians make non-Christians into hell-bent sinners, who need to be either converted or killed. But there are many other, much more subtle iterations of this dynamic.
As for the church “declaring blessed” all that is unjust in its surrounding cultural milieu, the megachurches hardly invented that game. That began with Catholicism, if not earlier.
Joe, you and I probably agree far more than we disagree with our assessment of the political, economic, social dynamics at work in the megachurch culture. But I can hold those views and still think the iBand is just a lot of fun. You, of course, are free to disagree with me. But I pushed back at you because I think the real issue driving your views is not how bad megachurches are, but rather how challenging it is for all of us to maintain some sort of spiritual equilibrium in a culture that is experiencing the rapid technological change that ours is.
I think by now, Carl, I have ruined your fun way too much. I’m really sorry! You seriously didn’t post this little film looking for an argument, did you? (Damn commies can’t help spoiling a good time….) The name for the condition is anhedonia, I believe, or “begrudgery” if you’re into Brendan Behan. It’s very Irish, and without drink, it may be all I have. Yeats once remarked of an acquaintance that, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
I think the thinness of my argument depends on a certain theory of culture that is admittedly Marxist and probably best articulated by Henri Lefebvre in The Critique of Everyday Life. The gist is to think of the megachurch (as a phenomenon of social class, not of spatial magnitude) not as a social symptom, but as the society itself, a site of cultural production. In late capitalism the goal would not be merely to create a bunch of consumers, but in fact to annex every private space and make it a site for the reproduction of values that are essential to social control. The megachurch, far from being a “church” as I would understand it (which would necessarily be counter-cultural to a considerable degree), is instead a culture factory in which particular vices irreconcilable with Christian confession would be reproduced as though they were integrally Christian.
I think that the suspicious glance that many of us have cast at the mind-controlled politicized “fundamentalism” of the Bush era could easily make common cause with a view like this, whether or not anyone wants to get all Marxist about it. The difference is that instead of seeing this as a matter of objectionable things creeping into the culture of big churches for the first time, I would propose that we see the megachurch as a source of those things (militarism, consumerism, etc., as I have already ranted). It’s one place all that comes from.
My bottom line on this is far lower than many would go. I see, for instance, absolutely no way of justifying the presence of flags or patriotic hymns in Christian sanctuaries – understanding of course that many would disagree. I see information technology as objectionable in these spaces because they are more obviously tools of social control and cultural reproduction than of spiritual liberation. The megachurch is by definition so far past all my bottom lines – the point at which a good rousing Old Testament denunciation comes trippingly to the tongue – that adding an iPad to the mix is simply too much confirmation of my basic contention.
Don’t worry about the anhedonia: you might annoy me, but you can’t get me down!
The problem I have with the theory you’re articulating is that I see it all as having begun not with the megachurches, but with Catholicism, probably around the time of Leo the Great. Post-Constantinian Catholicism certainly functions as “a culture factory in which particular vices irreconcilable with Christian confession would be reproduced as though they were integrally Christian.” Granted, my childhood was liberal Protestant which gives me a different perspective than yours: but I see the megachurches as far LESS hostile to radical Christianity than most of the conservative/fundamentalist churches of the early to mid-20th century, which they have replaced, at least within the evangelical world. If you want the “source of… militarism, consumerism, etc.” I think you can find a much nastier hornet’s nest than the megachurches, simply by looking at old-line Pentecostal, Assembly of God, conservative Baptist, etc. churches. I also think Catholicism is not entirely innocent in this matter as well. Remember, flags and patriotic hymns in Christian sanctuaries began in Catholic Churches (the Lutheran Church where I grew up still sings the Star Spangled Banner every year on the Sunday closest to July 4). Your New England upbringing has probably shielded you from much of the nastier dimensions of American Christianity. No matter how bad you thought it was up there, it was far, far worse down here. Still is, as a matter of fact.
“The “cost” refers to the fact that I value the purity of my ideological stance greater than the humility that would require me to wrestle with the fact that I may not always be right”
And when I last checked this blog you were gushing on about humility. There is apparently no clear bottom or end to your arrogant and self absorbed nature.
Carl, “The most obvious example of this (cost borne) is …” clearly you.
Mike, I won’t deny that there is a part of me that tends to value ideological purity above humility. Christianity has a word for that kind of thing: “sin.” Yes, I am a sinner. And yes, one of the things that I do in this blog is confess my sin. I do that not because I am proud of my sin, but precisely because I am not proud of it.
Hopefully, by the grace of God, I can unlearn some of my sinful behavior. But in the meantime, for you and any other reader who takes offense at my imperfection, all I can do is beg your forgiveness and understanding.
Thankfully, there is also another part of me, hopefully a growing part, which recognizes that humility is more important than pride. That part exists entirely by the grace of God.
In addition to confessing my own faults, I also write about the nature of sin, not just in me but in humanity in general. The sentence that you quote in your comment is an example of that kind of rhetorical writing, in which I confess my sin, in part, to shed light on our common sinful nature.
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