As I have travailed through goop’s Netflix offering (though not every episode) this past week, I have been interested to see, in perfectly filmed Hollywood decadence, a gem of an example of what we Christians have complained about for a long time. And that is what is mostly referred to as a post-Christian culture. As I’ve watched Gwyneth Paltrow and her elegant, perfectly dressed team wander from one wellness situation to another—the psychedelic mushroom way to emotional healing, the ice-water breathing technique to combat anxiety and panic and to “alkalize” the body, the carefully crafted diets to lower “biological age”—it has seemed that I am observing the true pagan flourishing of a culture that has fully and finally forgotten its recent Christian past. Gwyneth and the goop team are looking to extend their lives, to maximize the health they do possess, to make sure that life is “good,” whatever that means, to deal with sadness and other kinds of emotional alienation and misery. They are on a quest. There is no guide to help them. Gwyneth will be the guide.
If they did look to the “Church” for help, I do not think the “Church” would be much use to them, because, in a thousand clever ways, the “Church” has thrust its most helpful book into a back cupboard, where it molders under a pile of dust:
And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the Lord.” Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.
I mean, there he was, rummaging around in one of those many rooms around the temple, discarded and broken furniture piled along the crumbling wall. The light essentially nonexistent. The sacrificing work of the temple going on for years—generations actually—without anybody stopping to wonder about the point. The king languishing on his throne. Little shrines and places to sacrifice to every other god dotting the landscape. The poor oppressed, the widows exploited, and most of all, the book of the law not being read in a really really really long time.
Hilkiah sneezes from upsetting so much settled dust, and then, as he thinks about going away and disturbing some other room, his hand falls on some ancient scroll, and instead of, for some reason, tossing it aside, he sits down to read, and the spiritual top comes off his very temporal head.
And I am reminded of the curious state of Christianity in America. Every time I read this text I have a vision of that one church that built a basketball court at the front, or wherever the sermon might have been expected to take place, and the promotional video blasted all over twitter of the pastor playing basketball, because somehow (can’t remember how) the whole gimmick was going to say something about Jesus.
Or anytime that Stephen Furtick tries to quote a bible verse. He tries so hard but can never quite understand it because he has no underlying hermeneutical sense. Or anytime I hear someone try to tell me that the “gospel” is “Love God and Love Neighbor.” Or every IFB pastor railing away against all the clothes of all the women in the congregation. Or any of the twists and turns that supposed Christians take through various texts trying to make sense of what it even is.The western Christian world is flooded with every kind of bible—ones in lots of volumes, ones with lots of margins for your own precious thoughts to be recorded, right alongside the very word of God, ones for you to color in, apps, audio versions, endless debates about the problems with each and every translation—speaking of decadence, it is astonishing how many bibles we have, and yet almost no one has time to read any of them, and when they do, this isn’t what happens:
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes.
I have tried to imagine what it would be like to go to Gwyneth Paltrow and the goop team and describe this other possible path to wellness. If I wanted to do that, where would I turn within Christian culture for resources? I mean, I could take stacks and stacks of books recently published about everything that’s wrong with Christianity. I could take Kanye’s album with me, maybe. I could take piles of Christian tweets printed on t-shirts. Before I went, I could read a thousand blog posts about strategy, about evangelism, about being loving, about biblical interpretation.
“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus in this morning’s gospel, “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?”
The crowd sits and stares at him. I mean, I guess it can’t? Is that what he’s trying to say? Is he even talking about salt? Gosh, I really need to buy more salt.
In other words, the church now is as it ever was. Whether we’re talking about Hilkiah in the temple, or all the people actually listening to The Word, as in Jesus, in person, in his own day, or any of us trying to crowd into the comfortable padded seats of a stadium masquerading as a church—we, none of us, have the ability to hang on, to even understand what is the point, or what we should be doing, what the text even means. We all are sheep, gone astray, after psychedelic mushrooms and breathing treatments and useless gimmicks.
We cannot save ourselves. We cannot make what was once salty, salty again. That’s the whole point. With us, nothing is possible, even the thing we know should be possible—reading the book, telling the world—is not possible. With God, of course, all things are possible. Which is why Hilkiah finds the book, why it is read out, why the king tears his clothes, why Jesus comes, the True Temple, The Light, The Word, The Way, The Truth, The Life.
But don’t miss that intervening step. The book is lost, the book is found, the book is read, Everybody Repents, God has mercy. The mercy of his own Son who comes into the world, who comes into that dark moldering room, who comes into the bright, clean hallways of goop headquarters in LA, who comes even into the church sometimes, even to someone struggling along through some obscure text trying to even get it.