Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Monty Python theology

Ok, here's a good exercise for you if you're feeling like you're (to quote Karen Carpenter, that famous optimist) "On Top of the World," or if you have begun to think that the world is really a quite happy place (you are disqualified if your "office" has padded walls) and/or that humanity is making progress -- every day, in every way, we're getting better and better!!!

Go to the Barnes & Noble website, browse the "Religion and Spirituality" section, specifically the "Books under $10" section. You will likely find some of the following.

First, The Joke's on Ewe: Jokes, Riddles and Funny Stories Little David Told his Sheep. Now, I'm aware that solitude can have strange affects on people, and some people believe that their pets answer when they talk to them, but this scares me. On the other hand, now the story of David "feigning" madness in front of the Philistine kings makes much more sense. And it's obvious that David was called to be in Saul's court not just because he could pluck a harp -- he was doing standup. Maybe Henny Youngman was a direct descendant.

Then, there are various books containing "church jokes" (mostly written by Nietzsche?), and "Fun Facts About the Bible," not to mention God Plays Golf.

You see here how hard some people will work to try to make following Jesus seem palatable -- or even fun. I mean, if God plays golf, maybe I can get into the Heavenly Country Club!!! (Hmmm -- I wonder what the girl on the beverage cart sells there? Or would it be free? O -- wait -- we couldn't be thirsty in heaven!!! Ha!!! On the other hand, what fun would golf be if. . . . Nevermind.).

Ok, here's another: Sinners in the Hands of God Made Easier to Read. Is this what it means?

I can almost hear Jonathan Edwards proclaiming boldly: "Those who are morally challenged need to maximize their opportunities to create a positive trend in their self-talk, creating a behavior-change that will result in better relationships, greater contentment and less guilt and negativity. If those people do NOT do that, God will, quite possibly, create a situation in which the negative self-talk and negative choices may bring about further negative consequences that will encourage deeper self-examination that will motivate one to relinquish the guilt and negativity and trend toward behaviors that bring positive self-talk and positive relationships, toward the goal of full acceptance of oneself as a beloved creature of God with whom God wishes full fellowship, intimate communion and communication." Jonathan Edwards meets Joel Osteen.

A friend of mine who no longer professes Christian faith has this gripe against church: churches lie. They're not truthful about the gospel, grace, sin and/or judgment, not to mention about who God is (assuming that churches actually do know who God is!). He says that if churches told the truth about those things, our songs would essentially tell us that we suck and deserve to go to hell. In other words, we would stop sugar-coating the gospel and our own very human need for redemption and grace. Some more contemporary churches are discovering the same thing. It's one thing to go to church to get a good free show, complete with rock and roll and laser lights. It's quite another thing to go to church and have an Isaiah 6 experience -- where face to face with the Holy God, we are compelled to hit the deck and cover the backs of our heads. I mean, this is bigger than any tornado drill -- or the real tornado, come to think of it.

A few years back the acting troupe Monty Python made a movie called The Life of Brian. According to a documentary on the group, they started out to satirize Jesus. But after reading the gospels, they decided there was no content there to be made fun of, so they trained their sights on how churches present Jesus. I've still not seen the whole movie straight through (though I own a copy), but one scene I've caught a number of times is the crucifixion scene which features the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," a quite cheery tune with bright and carefree whistling -- sung by those being crucified, and joined in by the gathered crowds. In other words, this is what Monty Python apparently thought was what churches presented as the message of Jesus (best if spoken with a fake British accent): "just keep your chin up; things will get better! Always look on the bright side!" As if that was what Jesus' life and death were all about. Bull.

I told my teenage son about this scene one time, and for years we had our own little private gag (!) going on in church. Whenever one of us would hear some part of a sermon that aligned with the "look on the bright side" message, we would (very quietly) whistle a bit of that tune, and then stifle our laughter.

Annie Dillard has said that no one really takes seriously what we profess to be doing in church -- that if we did, we'd go to church wearing crash helmets -- and that we're like children mixing up a batch of TNT in our new chemistry sets to kill a Sunday morning. She's right. We're killing ourselves with kindness, not to mention laughter.

We do this because we think people need to hear something nice about themselves -- for instance, that God loves them unconditionally. Certainly this is true. But all heresy is a matter of overemphasis. To emphasize God's love and grace in such a way that it excludes or hides from us God's holiness becomes heresy, not to mention falsehood. It's shallow.

I recently heard a sermon series on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, in which the essence of Jesus sermon was presented as a message of self-esteem and lowering one's stress level. I could have whistled through the whole thing.

So, if you hear me whistling in church, you'll know why. Pay attention. And if I miss one, you have my permission to whistle.