Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soul Searching, Part 8- Consumerism and the Church in America

More on the damaging effects of individualism taken too far in America:

Most US youth tend to assume an instrumental view of religion. Most instinctively suppose that religion exists to help individuals be and do what they want, and not as an external authority or divinity that makes compelling claims and demands on their lives, especially to change or grow in ways they may not immediately want to. For most US teenagers, religion is something to personally believe in that makes one feel good and resolves one's problems. For most, it is not an entire way of life or a disciplined practice that makes hard demands of or changes people. Stated differently, for many US teenagers, God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience… This instrumental view of religion is not the invention of teenagers. It seems to be a dominating image of religion embraced by many adults in the United States.- pp. 147-148.

The rugged individualism that drives the "American Dream"- the quest for greatness through individual accomplishment that so dominates most of American culture seems to have a more deep effect on American religion than just promoting an attitude of self-service rather than collective involvement. It also seems to alter some very foundational concepts, such as the relationship between God and man. Traditionally in the Judeo-Christian religion, this relationship has been likened to that between a King and his subjects. We do not "use" God, we serve him. We do not really have a choice in that matter, either- God demands our allegiance as a King demands the allegiance of his subjects and if we do not grant it to him, then trouble ensues for us. That has been how this has normally been understood. It is interesting to note two periods where such an understanding did not occur and the revolutionary results that occurred on both those occasions.

The first is in the first century AD. In the period leading up to this, Jewish thought had developed away from the notion that they must serve God as his subjects and instead begun to develop the notion that by jumping through certain hoops, they could in fact guarantee that God would do certain things for them- in essence promoting the manipulation of God for their own good. Along came Jesus and later one of his apostles Paul. In what we hear from both of these early Christian leaders we see a radical challenge to this mindset. Both find themselves executed largely at Jewish prodding for advancing the notion that God's sovereignty demands our allegiance and that ritual cannot manipulate God into performing acts on our behalf. We receive things from God because he intends to give them to us as part of furthering his plan, a plan for which we are also working if we are his servants. This was lost in first century Judaism, and the result is a radical split of the people of God with the church being forced to break away from its mother institution- Judaism.

The second incident happens at the Protestant Reformation. Catholic theology has at this point made the same mistake as did Jewish theology in the first century. They have proposed a series of rituals by which "purgatory" can be escaped and salvation secured. Again, we see a manipulation of God going on in Church ritual. In response to this come the Reformers who demand that we once again recognize that salvation comes by the will of God alone and is for his purposes, not our own selfish interest. Again, the sovereignty of God had been supplanted by the will of man, and again a radical transformation in the thought patterns of the church had to take place.

Now for those of you who know my personal theological leanings this all may sound a bit out of step. I'm sounding very Calvinistic today, and I will have to write another post later that somehow squares all of this with what I also believe to be true- that we as people have free will. That is for another post, however.

The main point of this post is this- I am afraid a similar error is at work in our churches today, at least in America. The individualism and consumerism (which is just a working out of individualism in economic terms) of our culture have been applied to our religious values. Just as we can pick and choose what suits us in a super-market, so we can pick and choose what suits us in the church. If I don't like the preacher at this church, I go down the street and join that one. If the music isn't quite up to par, I just go off to another church where they have hired a professional band to wow them with their music finesse. Especially among denominations (or non-denominations) where individual churches stand on their own (this is primarily Baptist churches) this phenomenon means that the survival of the church in large part depends on its ability to draw a crowd. So mega-churches thrive and small-town churches die out. And to thrive mega-churches alter their teaching and style to suit the "needs" (read "whimsical desires") of their congregants. The real result of this in terms of theology has been, in my experience, the idea that salvation is accomplished simply by saying a little prayer to ask Jesus to live inside you and then you are guaranteed a spot in heaven no matter what happens the rest of your life. To be frank, this whole concept is heretical and has probably sent more souls to hell in America than any other lie that has seeped into our churches. Yes, salvation is the free gift of God to man. But the God who paid a high price to accomplish this salvation does not expect for his gift to be trampled by those who just want a ticket to paradise but can't afford a cruise in the Caribbean. He expects for the gravity of what he has accomplished on our behalf to inspire a life of service to him, a life engaged in winning back the world that has fallen to sin and restoring creation to how it should be. What we have done and are doing in America is attempting to manipulate God for our own purposes. I don't think such an exercise can continue, there is going to have to be a "reformation" of some sort that occurs in the American church as well.

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