Six Neo-Christian Myths: Exiting the Arc of Christian History

Today I ran across a post by Donald Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame and more. I do not follow Donald Miller much or read his work—not out of any protest or high-minded posture, but, well, you have to pick and choose. I don’t have anything much to say about Donald Miller at all, really, nor should I pick on this singular post as representative of the man’s full contribution to Christian spirituality. After all, he’s clearly successful: multiple books, a much sought after speaker, a chosen public pray-er at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, a member of one of Obama’s task forces. He must be very important—he has his own Wiki page (where I obviously found much of this. Does that make it all true?)

Nevertheless, the post, which you can read here, caught my attention, because in it Miller seems to embrace many of the misconceptions we have today about “church” and many of the myths that so painfully gut our Christian spirituality of the deepest practices and purposes that have sustained faith over the last 2000 years.

Two things happen when you spend a lot of time studying the history of Christianity. First, you get depressed. Abuses, violence, confusion, faithlessness, more violence, pride, bad theology, lack of compassion, divisiveness, and on and on. For sure, studying Church history can be disturbing. But then, after a while, amidst the muck, the grace begins to shine through with a gentle, pervasive, even relentless certainty. The darknesses remain, but they are merely long shadows cast by a great light shining on small things.

For example, you read about the religious, political, and cultural chaos of the 14th century in the European arena—ongoing war, failures in spiritual leadership—and you begin to wonder, where are the believers? Where is the demonstration of faith? Where is the good God in all this? And then you read about Julian of Norwich or Walter Hilton or Gerard de Groote or Richard Rolle or a dozen other quiet people of prayer and great love for Jesus. They were there, singular witnesses standing in the light.

And then, the next step in studying Church history, once you’ve shouldered the melancholy and treasured the light, is to ask: what sustained these people in faith? What, in fact, has enable believers over the centuries to believe, to trust, to hope—to stand?

Each of them has his or her own story and unique experiences and practices that nourished faith, but they also all share some common experiences and practices. One such practice is worship, and yes, they all worshipped outside Church walls—in their work and writing and thinking and praying—but they also recognized that the regular gathering to worship in community was a vital part of their faith. Sometimes I don’t think they would recognize us in our freewheeling, independent, me-centered spiritual lives.

So, as a mini-series of posts for this new year, I thought I’d address one of these neo-Christian myths each week. Each of them, when understood as a commentary on worship within a church setting (I’m not talking about the building, of course, but of the community), leads us far afield from the rich, resilient faith of Christians who have preceded us and, I believe, will ultimately fail to sustain faith, both individual and corporate. They exit the great arc of Christian history.

Myth #1: Connecting with God has “feelings” attached to it.

Miller writes of going to a stellar worship service with awesome music, but disappointingly admits it left him cold. He says, “As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.” Perhaps this myth should be nuanced a bit. Maybe I should have written: “Myth #1: Connecting with God has good (warm, wonderful, exhilarating, jazzy) feelings attached to it.” Miller’s brief account has overtones of detachment and ambivalence, for sure not feelings you really want to cultivate in a worship service.

This was troubling to him. And if I thought that “connecting with God” should entail some sort of spiritual soul-rumbling, then yes indeedy a lot of the worship services I have attended have been much worse than mere disappointments. They’ve been a colossal waste of time. Lots and lots of time. I bet I’ve been to more church services than most of you readers all put together. (PK, remember?) Clearly I have not connected with God if I measure this by the boredom, restlessness, and frustration that I’ve felt at times in church services.

But anyone who has loved a spouse, parented children, or had a job knows that the work involved in each of these kindles a vast array of feelings—some painfully joyful and others just plain old painful. If we leave a relationship, give up on a task, shirk a responsibility because we’re just not feeling the love—because we have bouts of boredom, restlessness, and frustration—then there is no love, no commitment, no givingness. We do the work, care for the children, serve the spouse faithfully no matter the roller coaster of emotions that may assault us through the course of a day, a week, a month, or years.

In fact, I do believe this is one of the deepest and most powerful of spiritual disciplines: Let nothing distract you, nothing—not another’s faults, not confusion or anxiety or fear, not lack of fervor or coldness of heart, not even your own faults—from the constant turning to God in trust and repentance. None of it matters, press on, press on. This unremitting movement of the heart means patting those feelings (or lack of them) on the head, acknowledging their presence, and then moving again toward Jesus.

To go to church, gather with the community in worship, celebrate Christ, and expect to “connect with God” in ways that mollycoddle my emotions is to cultivate a rather shortsighted perspective of both connecting with God and the purpose of church at all. We connect with God through faith, through mutual love and service, through adoration, and all of that can be done without one iota of sensing his presence. Just ask Mother Teresa, whose posthumously published private writings, Come Be My Light, paint a picture of a woman whose “connection with God” was both shockingly bereft of the feelings we might expect and shockingly faithful in her trust in God and her desire to do his will.

Miller writes, “I worship God every day through my work. It’s a blast.”

I write, I worship God every day through my work too. Sometimes it’s not a blast. That doesn’t make it “not worship.” In fact, the saints tell us that when we can relinquish the need for pleasure as the price of our obedience, God might indeed be honored more highly.

So back to church. Myth #1 presumes that we go to church to “connect with God.” We don’t. We are already and always connected with God. (Another irksome contemporary phrase: “God showed up!” Really.) We go to church because we are connected with God and with one another, and there we express that connection through worship—song, word, Eucharist, greetings, prayers. We bring our feelings—whatever they are—to worship rather than expect to find them there. We baptize them in the truth to which we belong, and we cart them out of there to the work he has called us to do.

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.

  • Tom Beckwith

    Years ago, when I was serving as a parish organist in a liturgical church, I was having an initial meeting with a self-absorbed bride-to-be, her psychotic mother, and the bride’s mashed-upon fiance. The two women were clearly on that “planning the perfect wedding” arc, while the poor boy was just along for the ride.

    I found myself in that difficult, frustrating place of saying, “No. You can’t have that piece sung at your wedding. Why? Because not only is it a secular piece, but its sentiments conflict with Christian doctrine.”

    Now, mind you, this was long before the cable TV show “Bridezillas” was even a whisper of an idea in a capitalist producer’s mind.

    Anyway, it was one of those terrible experiences where, instead of finding oneself the collaborator in crafting a beautiful sacramental experience, you found yourself turned into the hairy troll barring the door to silliness that wouldn’t even have made it on to reality TV, but might have been the seed of a Monty Python skit.

    At one point, I sort of lost my “cool” (not that I’ve ever had that much to begin with) and said to the Bride, “You do realize that every marriage ceremony is a service of worship to Almighty God, and that you two (I gestured to the mashed potato sitting in the front pew) are marrying one another in the presence of God, and that He is more important that you are?”

    Well, the consultation didn’t end well. The next day, I got a call from the Rector of the parish. “My God, Tom! What did you say to that woman?”

    “Uh, that God was more important that she was?”

    Silence on the line, then, “Oh. That explains so much…. You know what this means, don’t you?”

    “Uh, that I’m gonna have to play her in to ‘Here Comes the Bride, Big Fat and Wide’?”

    “Exactly. And leave off the grace notes that make it sound like a silly Vegas wedding between Siegfried and Roy and one of the Tigers.”

    “Father, you’re no fun.”

    Now this may seem like something tangential to Kathy’s blog post, but it isn’t. It’s just a magnifying glass held up to one of the biggest lies of our generation: that loving God means we are by virtue of loving God, going to have good feelings. That worship is about us “getting our needs met” instead of an obligation and duty because God created us precisely for the purpose of magnifying his deity.

    Ultimately, all the restrictions, social and theological, that we encounter aren’t about “making us behave,” but are instead guidelines to lead us into deeper joy and fullness of living our lives, and more profound love of God.

    “The words ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’ don’t imply that I must do grim stuff or believe grim stuff that turn me into a sour, pickled Calvinist. But the word “worship” is telling. Its linguistic roots translate as “worth-ship”–that the person you are addressing is more important that you. God is worthy of our “worth-ship.”

  • Anne Thulson

    I often wonder why I still go to church. One metaphor helps me. Going to church is like sitting through the credits at the end of a movie. You sit because you are curious about how the film was made and because you are grateful for the makers, including the obscure grip boys. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s peaceful. Sometimes it’s an epiphany. Sometimes you don’t stay. After the credits are over, you stumble out of the dark theater with a handful of other film nerds and you are glad to be among them because you know that they carried on and kept the ball in the air, when you weren’t paying attention or for the times when you didn’t stay.

  • Norman

    Good post. Yes work is involved with worship. Going to church should only be part of ones worship life. It is a daily walk with Jesus. He sustains us. Praise be to God.

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