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.


Sammie said...

self esteem!!!???

I believe Jesus had a few things to say about Self-esteem. only he spelled it P-R-I-D-E.

goodness gracious

chip said...

Yeah, you're right. I'm guilty. :-)

Xiphos said...

Here's hoping you don't mind random people posting comments on your blog(though if you did, you probably wouldn't have put a link to your blog in all your emails).

You seem to have hit on the very reason that I refuse to "go to church" anymore. It's not that I no longer profess Christianity, it's just that I don't even want to be associatd with the phony brand of Christianity. Some times I wonder if the average churchgoer even has an inkling of what it means to be Christ-like. I moved to Edmond a little over a year ago, and I visited a number of churches in the area, and every one of them seemed like a clique of people who meet together not for true authentic worship of the Father but so they could check off their little "I've completed my spiritual acts of worship" checkboxes. And the preachers I listened to preached to that. They told the congregations exactly what they wanted to hear in exactly the ways they wanted to hear it. "God loves you unconditionally" "We are God's chosen people" "Jesus wants to be your friend". To be honest, there are some times when God scares the bajesus out of me. And nobody talks about that God. Wait, I'm wrong. They do. There are the preachers who will tell me that God's going to send me to hell if I don't eat my worthless two centimeter square unleavened cracker and two ounces of grape juice that they call communion. Or if I praise God with an instrument. Or if I'm not a member of some church. Or if I smoke. Or if I drink. Or if I do anything that doesn't conform to their pattern or their definition of Christianity. But I'll tell you one thing that no church I entered did. Not one person in any of the congregations we attended went up to my wife and I (with the exception of the time we went to a congregation where we already knew someone) came up, said hi, introduced himself, and gave two bits about us as people. Most of the "Christians" I met there were about as like Christ as my car is like a horse. So, may God have mercy on me, but I just plain don't "go to church" anymore because all these "Christians" are a little too selfish for me.

chip said...

Xiphos -- wish you went to my church. I need all the help I can get!

Xiphos said...

Sadly, that comment was more inviting than anything I got in my entire search for a church home here. A few months ago I might've even gone for it, however, I'm much happier with having church in my living room sunday mornings with close friends who I know are actually seeking a relationship with Christ and trying to be Christlike. That and I'll take homemade matza and a glass of wine with a meal around a table over sitting quietly in a pew while someone passes trays around. Oh, but if I start talking about that, you'll get me into my communion rant, and we've already seen what happens when you get me ranting.

On another topic, I like your blog. You're well-written and I like the way you think, even the times I disagree. I'm still working my way back through, but I thought I'd tell you your thoughts are appreciated.

Ty said...

Well said. I think, as xiphos' example indicates, that a whole lot of the people listening are not "happier" with a 12 step program and a self-esteem boost than they are with the hard truth, as long as they can see it from scripture.

We, at the Grace Church of Christ, in Boise, have started reading the lectionary and cutting the sermon to a few minutes. Last Sunday I had to tell them that life, especially Christian life, is dangerous:

Moses walks into fire while the earth shakes to meet God, Adam lives in the Garden and death is right in the middle, Adam invited sin and death came too, and since they saw Jesus transformed, 2/3rds of the crew went to the chair (so to speak), even the Psalm (which was not necessarily planned to correspond with the rest of the lectionary readings) has joy for us only after being honest about our sins and facing punishment in our training.

Several people told me that they were glad that I spoke.

I think that too many people think that they have to tame God to make people okay with him instead of recognizing that he is wild and it is we who must do whatever we need for him to be okay with us.

chip said...

Thanks, Ty. Why is it that we Christians fear the truth about ourselves if we are committed to truth and if we trust God's grace? Our fear of truth undermines both of those.

Ty, I read a little of your blogs -- interesting stuff. Thanks.

Ty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ty said...

Thanks Chip. One of the main reasons I can proudly support Jesus and encourage people to follow him is that he saw truth as a friend of faith. While absolutes may be allusive, I know of no surer route to virtue than the relentless pursuit of truth tempered by love.

btw - I hitched over here from Brian Rusher's blog. We were neighbors and part of a prayer group together back in '97-'98, and remains one of my closest friends.

chip said...

Ok -- getting the connection now. I went to OC with Brian's dad. Thanks again for your comment. I've been re-reading some Hauerwas on truth-telling == the church's job in the world is to tell the world the truth. The problem is we're so good at lying to ourselves.... I know people need their faith bolstered, but it seems to me we bolster our self-esteem and our "rightness" at the expense of understanding our sin and total sinfulness and then bolstering our grasp on God's grace. We lack a decent doctrine of sin and evil. Drop me an email sometime, Ty. And finish the thesis!!! It looks interesting!

Clyde said...

But Chip--haven't you read Schuller's, "The Be-Happy Attitudes"??? What a Qlassic (sorry, I wanted that to convey more of a "quack" feel).

I am not sure I understand the Beatitudes and everything in the SOM, but I'm pretty sure it's not fundamentally self-help...:-)

Rachel Miller said...

I have long felt that the concept of "positivity" or "positive thinking" is sadly misleading--a poor substitute for the joy of being in Christ. If we were truly seeking what the Bible calls "joy", we would be opening ourselves to (perhaps not even happiness) the terrible fullness of being tested and refined in God's holy fire to perfection--the joy of knowing him and being like him through suffering. We want happiness, and we want an easy faith along with our easy American lives.

Positive thinking in the church is part of the reason why I think many of the songs we sing are so unfulfilling and unhelpful in worship--think "Blue Skies and Rainbows"; it gets worse than that, in my humble opinion--we have become wrapped up in feel-good worship, and are losing much of the art and beauty of a poetic hymn heritage. Singing "O Sacred Head" in worship might make us meditate too much on the pain of Jesus' suffering, so we follow it up with something which doesn't cause us to work out complicated phrasing and revel in imagery created by a talented writer.

I worry that my generation will lose the desire for DEPTH in worship, and will not realize the lack of it in our relationships with God, because we want so much a connection with him based on a feeling of his nearness and not on a knowledge of who he is.

Enjoyed reading your post, Dr. Kooi. Not sure if I processed all of it right, but it sparked these thoughts, so thanks.