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Alienating Christ from His Culture

October 2, 2006

Warning: Rant to follow!

I came across an interesting story posted on September 28th at the Los Angeles Times entitled “At Church, an ‘ATM for Jesus'”. Pastor Marty Baker of Stevens Creek Community Church has recently installed ATM’s–dubbed “Giving Kiosks”–in his church building so that attendees can donate their money electronically. “It’s truly like an ATM for Jesus,” boasts Baker who, like many other mega-church leaders, seeks to cater to the prevailing American culture (or lack thereof) by adapting worship style, preaching and church ambiance to the trends and desires of his targeted conversion demographic.

At Stevens Creek Community Church, the worship band will occasionally cover Aerosmith songs. Sermons are available on podcast. Men’s groups devote whole meetings to discussing the spiritual implications of dining at Hooters. Jeans are even considered to be appropriate church attire.

I think there is a problem here. In all honesty, my qualms are not over the “Kiosks” in churches (there was much talk about placing one in the back of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baton Rouge, Louisiana). Whether one brings their church offering in the form of goods, money, check, direct deposit or a debit card, the important thing is that there is giving to the church. Form of currency is not the issue. My problem is the reason given by Baker for these “Kiosks” and especially the overall spirit of concession to prevailing social trends. Church, the Bible and Jesus must be made relevant and rendered malleable to cultural shifts. But at what expense?

The mega-church phenomenon and Biblical fudamentalism live or die on convenience. Conversion and salvation have been reduced to a simple 20-second prayer, “I accept you, Jesus, in my heart as Lord and savior…”. Worship is nothing more than a few great tunes and a self-help sermon. Sunday service is pitched not as a participation in eternal divine worship but as a “great way to start your week”. Discipleship is feeling good about yourself and about God, with the only commitment entailing that 20-second prayer and doing your best in day-to-day affairs. Churches must compete with one another to attract church-goers, spending thousands of dollars in television, billboard and stadium advertisements.

What strikes me about this form of “Christianity” is that Christ is not necessary. Indeed, Christ is an idea, perhaps even just an ideal, an example. Christ is not portrayed as he truly was–a 1st century, Levitically-minded Jewish Messiah who demanded obedience, suffering and possible solitude in exchange for the promise of salvation.

Am I over-emphasizing Jesus’ humanity? In response, I ask whether Jesus can be extracted from his cultural milieu. Can we just deem Jesus’ intentional Davidic/Essene plan for his apostles as a by-product of his culture that is not relevant to our times? Can we dismiss Jesus’ thought-form and imagination because it was shaped by a Judaism that is an antiquated relic of a bygone era? Indeed, can we 21st century Christians ignore all that Jesus did and said–how he did it and what he meant by it–and simply embrace his death because all the other stuff places unwanted burdens on our discipleship? Can we just say that we are saved by faith alone instead of worrying about all those things Jesus said about serving the least of his brethren?

To answer these questions in the affirmative is to wrench Christ from his culture, his historical embeddedness. If we relativise or minimize Jesus’ teachings and liturgical structures, we no longer need Jesus to be anything but an idea or an ideal, a memory or a ghost. My problem with all this is that the Incarnation–the act of the Son of God taking human flesh in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular milieu–appears to be of little consequence. The Word (Logos), the subject of the Incarnation, appears to be illogical and non-sensical with all that Jewish talk and custom. In other words, let’s just talk about how his death–which really could have happened in any time and any place at any age–frees me from sin and the obligation to do ANYTHING more than admit with my mind that this death happened sometime for me.

And so I return again to the “At what expense?” There is no question that a religion that is packed with good times and great friends is very attractive. And the more this religion caters to my everyday life–blue jeans, Aerosmith songs, ATMs and promise of financial well-being–the better. The success of evangelical mega-church is not measured in terms of faith but in terms of numbers. This is not to say that there is no faith to be found among the attendees of these services. Far from it. Perhaps it’s the pastors who mislead: If the true Christ, that is, the historically conditioned and eternally unbound Son of God, is not preached along with his full message, then how can anyone speak of true Christian belief? The combination of Gnosticism and Pelagianism with a monetary twist that is found in most mega-churches hardly constitutes authentic, biblical, historically-conscious Christianity.

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