Monday, April 03, 2006
rolling stones theology
i went down to the chelsea drugstore
to get your prescription filled
i was standing in line with mr. jimmy
and man, did he look pretty ill
we decided that we would have a soda
my favorite flavor, cherry red
i sung my song to mr. jimmy
yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was ‘dead’
you can’t always get what you want
you can’t always get what you want, no
you can’t always get what you want
but if you try sometime you just might find
you get what you need
in this month’s christianity today, chuck colson, already one of my heroes of social commentary, hits a grand slam in my book. in soothing ourselves to death: should we give people what they want or what they need? colson rails against endless repetition in church of meaningless ditties that have zero theological content and could just as easily have been sung in any nightclub. he opines that churches are becoming more “theater-like” and christian radio stations are dropping “serious programming in favor of all-music formats.” The reason? because, as one station manager pointed out, “(w)e don’t want to do anything that will upset our listeners.” we are “so busy . . . taking care of the kids, family activities, Bible study, cooking etc., that (we don’t) even read the newspaper or care what is happening in the world around (us). Church for (us) is getting (our) spirits lifted.”
so, why the shift from active participant to passive receiver? colson notes, correctly, that cognitive thinking, which is necessary when engaging such heady stuff as discipleship and discussions of how christianity works within moral and ethical constructs, is becoming increasingly difficult in america. “According to a recent study,” colson notes, “the average college graduate’s proficient literacy in English has declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent today. The study defines proficient literacy as the ability to read lengthy, complex texts and draw complicated inferences. Think about it: one out of three college graduates cannot read a book or absorb a serious sermon.” sadly, as a professor, i witness this daily in the classroom. and, sadly, as a life-long church goer, i have seen it in the pew. life being what it is and humans being who we are, most of us find it more comfortable to be passive receivers than active participants in life. these facts beg the question, “why?”
in the article’s title and body, colson nudges us toward another of my heros who was on to the answer decades ago. neil postman knew that television would eventually impair our capacity to think. indeed, the center of most american homes is no longer the kitchen table, but the home theater - bigger screens, louder sound systems, and more comfortable chairs. postman prophetically predicted how television’s influence would effect the home. however, the effects of television have spilled out of the home and into the church. unfortunately, our churches are no longer setting the standards for the home; instead, churches are following the trends of the american family. more and more sanctuaries echoe the informality of the american living room, complete with comfortably squishy theater seats instead of hardwood pews, and projection screens that remove the worshiper from the text of things like hymn books and, well, THE TEXT. as an academic whose primary tools are texts, this is alarming. as a worshiper who sees american churches becoming a blend of the home theater and the country club, this is frightening. many american churches, in my estimation, tend to focus on filling, not a spiritual void, but a social void via egocentric entertainment as opposed to the individual focusing on god.
the projection screen is doing for american churches what larry mcmurtry says the 24hour gas station did for travel. in the latter case, a traveler can literally drive across the continent and never actually not have a roof over his head. he can leave his house and enter his car in a garage, obtain fuel under covered pumps, and purchase pretty much any amenity he needs in the gas station itself, most of which offer more choices than walmart did in the early days of sam walton. in other words - travel has become comfortable and, therefore, easy. similarly, in the former case, the projection screen has made the american sanctuary a mirror of the home. in other words - worship has become comfortable and, therefore, easy. come in on sunday morning in casual dress, flop down in a cushy seat, pat our feet to the band, watch the screen. this is fun stuff. but having faith in the real world is not always fun. in fact, more often than not, it’s hard work. and if we are not used to the mental and physical heavy lifting required of church worship, what will happen when the real world becomes uncomfortable? maybe this is why i am drawn to “high church.” preparation is a pain. i have to iron my shirt on saturday night. i don’t really enjoy wearing a coat and tie on sunday mornings. i get hot. my neck itches. and if i’ve strained or pulled a muscle in a weekend activity, the wooden pews acutely remind me of my physical limitations. sometimes, while juggling a hymn book, a book of common prayer, and the bible i drop things, and i am reminded of my clumsiness. at other times the predictability of the liturgy makes it difficult to keep focused on the task at hand, reminding me of my mental weaknesses as well. and yet, each of these inconveniences work in concert to keep me focused on the act of worship itself. each discomfort is a reminder that worship is not about me - it’s about god.
maybe mr. jimmy read chris van allsburg’s children’s book, the wretched stone. maybe not. but in the end, church ought not to be about what we want - our favorite flavors. church ought to be about what we need.