Neo-Christian Myth #4: The Sweet Tooth of American Christianity

When we study church history, the prevailing tension is one between continuity and ingenuity—between preservation of the gospel tradition and the adaptation of it to new languages and cultures.

Sometimes that tension collapses when we entrench ourselves in the “this is the way we’ve always done it” syndrome, and invariably those ruts embed us in coded practices and symbols that eventually become part of the belief system entirely. Then any challenge to the method becomes a challenge to the meaning.

Other times the tension spins away as we play with new traditions and explore curious cultural corners, dancing ever farther into distant orbits of Christian faith and practice until all of a sudden we realize that, hey, we’re not even Christians any more.

The two thousand years since the time of Christ sounds like a long time. Forever ago. Yet really, it’s not that long. In Wendell Berry’s book, Jayber Crow, the main character reflects toward the end of his life about the place of memory and how really close we are to one another.

“I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room.”

Would Jesus recognize us?

Sometimes I think we’ve been playing a spiritual version of Telephone Tag: Jesus whispered something in the ears of, say, John, and he whispered it into Paul’s ears, who whispered it into Lydia’s ears, who whispered it into the ears of a merchant from Gaul, who whispered it into a Roman soldier off to build Hadrian’s Wall, who whispered it to an Irish slave, who whispered it to a … The question is always, is what we proclaim and practice anything like the original message? Do we even assume that it should it be like the original message?

There have been some major variations in the life and practices of the church. Some are good, some are bad. The question of this series is, which of those adaptations fundamentally change the trajectory of Church by tinkering with its DNA? Donald Miller’s posts, here and here, seem to represent for me the DNA tinkering that will make us into something else. I’m merely asking us to consider some of the changes he is reflecting, how they will fundamentally change our course, and whether we really want to go there.

Miller writes:

“God has no problem with us enjoying Him, each other, nature and for that matter a worship experience. And if we don’t enjoy a specific kind of worship experience, He could care less whether we go choose one we enjoy more. … God has no problem with you having pleasure enjoying Him, and when we don’t through a specific methodology, He has no problem with us switching things around so we do. He’s not calling us to be sanctified through dutiful boredom.”

Myth #4: Our spiritual practices should be shaped by our personal preferences, which reflect our learning styles and result in our pleasurable feelings.

Let’s call this a version of Freud’s pleasure principle, translated into religious language. In that paragraph above, Miller pits pleasure against dutiful boredom, and he suggests that our church-choosing and church-going should be driven by personal enjoyment of “a specific methodology.”

To some degree, he’s got a point. I go to a liturgical church because I enjoy the liturgy; I love the steady diet of the rites and rhythms of Anglican worship. I wouldn’t enjoy some other church traditions. But I can also assure you that through our years of church attendance there have been many occasions when the duties of being a part of community gave me no pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I like pleasure. I prefer worship services that are well-orchestrated and creative to services that bump along in old ruts; sermons that are stimulating and witty, with some humor and one or two really good insights to those that are boring, stream-of-consciousness memoirs of the life and times of the pastor; music that grabs me by the gut and throws me down in abject worship or lifts me up in ethereal feelings of praise. I even seek pleasure in church architecture, the flowers on the altar, and bulletins without typos. I’m a pleasure addict.

But that was a disclosure, not a confession. Meaning, there’s nothing wrong about enjoying something and finding pleasure in it. But this has never been the gauge of obedience. Oh no. Miller seems to think that if we do not act on our feelings, we’ve marginalized something central to who we are.

I can assure you that if I had acted on some of my feelings over my many years of church-going, there would have been considerably more prayers for the repose of souls. The Good God knows that my feelings are not always the best guide for my words or my actions.

Miller goes on:

“The subtext of these comments seemed to insinuate that God wants us to suffer for Him. But not suffer by reaching the poor or by being outcast, suffer, literally, by standing in a church service singing songs you don’t find catchy. Really?”

We are all pleasure addicts, but I can assure you that dutiful boredom or singing dull songs is not what it means to suffer. That’s not to say that community never involves suffering, for it does. Yet enduring the ups and downs of a community as it passes through seasons of tedium, frustration, failure, and even pain, is part of belonging, and to belong means to bear all things.

One of the comments left on last week’s blog mentioned affluence. And here is where the myth really comes home to us. In our American arena of privileges and endless possibilities, our reckless obsession with individual choice, we have made our own preferences the fullest measure of our spiritual obedience. Any impediment to pleasure is now an experience of suffering. We live in a candy store of options, all of them geared to satisfy our cravings for entertainment, inspiration, novelty, exhilaration; to deny us our cravings is inexcusable.

No wonder we can’t remain in a church. Who can ever please all the people all the time? And what about other Christian practices? We call them “disciplines” for a reason. Ancient Christian practices were never about pleasure; they were about transforming us, helping us make that long transition from being children tossed in the wind to being ammas and abbas trained in ways of holiness. God likes us to see us happy, indeed. But there is more. Even dutiful boredom has its place in the rhythms of a mature Christian life. Or it used to.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    “dutiful boredom” Thou hast said it.

    “trained in ways of holiness” That’s one thing nobody has ever quite been able to do with me, even with “constant pain, disgrace.”* Maybe I have Indian blood in my veins or something. “The life of an Indian is a continual holiday…” ~Thomas Paine, 1795

    * youtube.com/watch?v=Ckom3gf57Yw

  • http://www.highmountainlodge.com Tom Beckwith

    Having grown up Presbyterian before forsaking Geneva for Canterbury, I remember the first question of the Westminster Catechism “What is the Chief End of Man?” and its inimitable answer: “The Chief End of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

    I also remember a hard word from my childhood and adolescence: “Duty.” It got a bad rap in the 1960s and 70s. I remember one time at coffee hour at my Episcopal Parish in Golden, CO, sometime in the late 70s bringing up that word, and an older parishioner who’d been deeply influenced by the Charismatic movement objecting vehemently: “Worship isn’t a duty, it’s a celebration!”

    Well, yes. But it’s also a duty. It is us fulfilling our Chief End. We are not complete or completely human unless we perform that particular duty. St. Augustine observed, “Or hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

    There is a tendency in Protestantism to clump together in like-minded groups, and if you can’t find a like-minded group, you go your own way by yourself. One of the early American Puritan Divines (I forget which one; graduate school was a long time ago) eventually formed a “Church of One” because he found that he couldn’t agree completely with any other Believer–and hence couldn’t be in communion with them.

    Being a catholic Christian by disposition and through teaching, I find this trajectory virtually incomprehensible. But I think Miller is just reprising an old Puritan tendency–only he’s repeating it in praxis instead of theology.

    Ah, how far have we traveled that we now can argue, with a straight face, that it is permissible for our lives to mold our worship instead of our worship molding our lives.

    • Fred Garvin

      The “church of one” man was Roger Williams; he left/got kicked out of Massachusetts, founded the first Baptist church in America and then left it to remain a “Seeker”, essentially a one-man church.

  • Stan Theman

    I’m glad I don’t have to waste time in church; going to church wastes time, effort and money.

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