In Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Aunt Alexandra is described as being “positively irritable on the Lord’s Day”. It is a trait I share with Aunt Alexandra. In the book, Scout traced this feature to the effects of Aunt Alexandra’s formidable “Sunday corset”. My irritability, on the other hand, usually stems from the “service of Christian worship”.
When I was younger, I imagine I had different reasons for being uncomfortable with church. Some of these were probably legitimate – things that bothered me; things that, truth be told, probably still bother me. Others were more a case of me being a whiner – it’s too long … it’s boring ….
Today, I’m more irritable on Sundays than on any other day of the week because I’m disheartened. Now, I have little problem with the inane things we sing that pass for hymns. I do find myself stopping to think of the words, often being puzzled, often disagreeing with the messages cloaked beneath their thin religious veneer, often dropping out of the singing. I have little problem with the forms of worship – again minor quibbles. I generally enjoy the special music. I can’t fault scripture. I’m not keen on pre-printed group prayers – usually I don’t find much beyond the Lord’s Prayer to be needed; and the confession often makes me laugh. Group prayers of confession rarely reflect my sense of my own sins. [That is a topic for another day … or year.] These ‘prayers of confession” more often reflect what their writers think we should feel bad about, or the values they think we should adopt. I’m not opposed to an offering, though I’ve often thought that we could go without the offering and not really miss it.
I admit, I’m inclined to laugh at the pretension that what we do in our twenty-first century church meetings is derived directly from scripture or the practices of the early church. Some things are mentioned in the New Testament, and others are attested by early church writings – but much of what we do week to week is made of whole cloth. I’m not imagining that that somehow makes our practices illegitimate. It doesn’t. They just don’t live up to their pretensions.
These are minor issues. None of this would put me in a bad mood. None of this would discourage or dishearten me. None of it would merit very much critical thought whatsoever.
The issue is the sermon.
I was raised on sermons. Some hopelessly wrong; some blood-curdling and horrifying; some profoundly true; some interesting; some boring; many on the long side. I would think nothing of a two hour sermon, and I would think nothing of hearing several of these in a week. This is partly a function of attention span – while I’m easily distracted, I can focus for long periods of time. Next to reading, the talking head lecture remains my favorite mode of gaining information of a certain type. I understand that others are not wired the same way. But for me, the sermon is the high point of the church service. I have, in the past, gone to church solely to hear the sermon. (We literally arrived late and left early to avoid the rush.)
This is my idiosyncratic background. I get that. I am odd; very few people I know listen as closely to or enjoy a sermon more than I do. I can agree with what you say, we can disagree, we can disagree profoundly; but I will usually go away thinking about what was said. Engaging with it.
That is what is missing here. And I’m at a loss to explain exactly why. Disheartening sermons have become a thing lately – a trend, you could say. Historically, it is rare for me to feel that.
Part of it is, of course, the fact that sermons are structured as talking head events for the most part. They involve a one way flow of thoughts and ideas. The pattern, of taking a text and offering commentary is a familiar one – one I am comfortable with. For my part, I preach often enough for it to be a hobby – not a calling. It is, in fact, a kind of sharing, and I understand exactly why it is a one way stream.
So why have sermons been so disappointing of late? It’s not disagreement per se. It’s not format. So what is it?
I can’t say I know for certain. I can identify three issues. It might be any one or a combination of all of them.
First, there is honesty. For a sermon to work for me, it must be fundamentally honest. The speaker must, in fact, believe the things he is saying. More, she must honestly deal with her source material. Still more, he must honestly represent other beliefs that come up in the conversation.
When a speaker repeats words that are meaningless to him; when she does not value the things she pretends to; the sermon fails. The words might seem right, but the experience rings false. It is a pep-rally or political event; it is salesmanship – nothing more. Because this is usually done in a manipulative fashion, it is an abuse of its hearers.
When a speaker shadow boxes with the beliefs of those not present and caricatures them crudely, it fails every time. Sure, it persuades a dim-witted or groupie audience who has a burning desire to triumph over those who hold differing beliefs … even if only by proxy. Sure it is gratifying to hear how easily swept aside the straw-man arguments of your opponents are. But it gives nothing to your hearers. Even if your hearers are like-minded enough to enjoy the experience, they gain nothing from it. This is not sharing ideas. It is a parody of what a sermon ought to be.
When a speaker casually uses his or her authority to support false assertions of fact, the sermon also fails. I’m not talking about mistakes – these can be made in good faith; they are certainly not ideal, but they are not dishonest. I mean hear statements about what a text means, its historical context, its origins, the perspectives of its original hearers – that are gross misrepresentations of complicated issues. Because a particular book or academic asserts something as a fact, and because you happen to agree with it, does not make it so. Known facts are relatively few; interpretations of those facts are myriad. Passing one off as the other, and relying on the authority that comes with one-sided communication and modest education – instead of giving the proofs – is lying. Plain and simple. Again, there is no place in any genuine sermon for this practice.
Second, there is code language. Like most groups, Christianity suffers from its own peculiar jargon. More narrowly, Protestants use a different group of in-group terms than Catholics, or Greek Orthodox. Among Protestant traditions, there is farther language specialization that outsiders are not privy to. And within and across these traditions there is a gulf between the language employed by conservatives, by evangelicals, by progressives, and by institutionalists and meta-institutionalists.
The problem with this is that Sunday after Sunday we play a word game. The latest seminary jargon, the latest coded expressions that identify us to other members of our subgroup and conceal our actual beliefs – even our most deeply held beliefs – from those not already in the know. Speakers become slippery. They subtly communicate things their audience might find objectionable – meaning things that directly contradict their most deeply held beliefs – while maintaining a wall of plausible deniability.
Personally, this has grown disheartening to me because I have gotten sick of sifting words. Say what you mean and mean what you say. I can respect someone who genuinely holds an opinion I think incorrect. I can respect someone who agrees with me. I can respect someone who holds a view I am agnostic of. But I cannot respect someone who plays with words to keep from making their beliefs plain.
It isn’t nuance. It is a tired, trite game.
Third, there is a coherent philosophy that I oppose with my whole being – that is being embraced from pulpit to pulpit. Now, I am being melodramatic here. There are reasons I put it that way (some valid, some less so), but I will have defer from fully explaining them in this post.
The thing is, I have a great deal of common ground with many Christians who call themselves conservative. I agree with many of their beliefs; I also disagree on quite a few points. I agree with some of the beliefs of Christians who call themselves liberal. True, I disagree with “liberals” more than I disagree with “conservatives”, but it’s really a rather close thing. I have considerable respect for those Christians who eschew labels of that kind – not out of dishonesty, but because they outworn and don’t adequately describe Christianity. I tend to favor that view myself; and I also tend to think labels that carry as much baggage as “liberal” and “conservative” often obstruct rather than illuminate. Bottom line here: I do not find these disheartening because I understand the truth and justice in the perspectives. Where we disagree, we disagree – big whoop.
The problem that creeps in at this point is the descriptor “progressive”. People seem to like that term, so more people apply it to themselves than should. What I mean by it is a cohesive philosophy. It may or may not be logically consistent; it may or may not have things to recommend it. But it is one ‘whole’ perspective. It is a viewpoint that has multiple aspects, but these seem to be adopted in toto. It is, of course, not new. Its tenets have been articulated for thousands of years. If any of these tenets or aspects were taken individually, their harm would be limited; in fact, some of them would have merit and could have beneficial effects. As a whole package, however, this philosophy is hostile. It is hostile to everything I believe to be right, good, and true. It is hostile to what I believe Christianity has always taught. The thing is, some self-identified conservatives, more self-identified liberals, and quite a few of the unaligned, have adopted these tenets.
And it is this progressive treadmill we are run through week after week. When everything’s said and done, the message always comes down to the same thing: work and more work. What you can do to be worthwhile, to be good, to be worthy, to be better than others. 1000 monstrous burdens, and 1000 ways for people to feel better than others.
There is another emptiness and purposelessness to this besides – not on its face but it it’s logical outcome. You, the hearer, become responsible for the continuation of the earth. You become responsible for the establishment of justice. When you are unempowered as most individuals are, this is an unreasonable requirement.
If that’s what it’s all about, then Jesus lied when he said, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
If that is the message, then there truly is no point in Christianity at all.