One of my greatest concerns is the lack of existential commitment Christians have to Christianity. This probably comes as no surprise to those of you who know me or are familiar with my work on this site or elsewhere. Lately, however, I’ve moved past the social commentary, or the how–which is often admittedly low-hanging fruit–and have wrestled with the question of why: why does Christianity in the West grow more and more semblant to a cult? Why is the cause, a movement that has inspired tremendous cultural and social contributions, largely self-marginalized and insulated from the very world it was called to?
It’s easy to level an indictment against fundamentalism, but this often rings hollow because fundamentalism is such a vague term, often merely used as a disposable, convenient pejorative–no different than fundamentalists complaining about ‘the world’. So, for the time being, we’ll leave that alone.
Then I got to thinking about another particularly odious portion of the body: Christian fine art. That self-caricature of Precious Moments saccharinity and self-important grandstanding which manages to simultaneously castrate itself while causing the outside to look in in bewilderment and wonder “WTF?” I’m in the camp and often wonder the same.
It occurred to me, then, to think about the content of a lot of this pseudo-art, and from this wretched magic eye pattern (I never could see those images in the first place!) something made itself quite evident. The content of these songs, portraits, books, human videos, et cetera, is often little more than biblical literalism. Instead of theological reflection or artistic reinterpretation, we’ve gone fundamentalist not only in ecclesiastical practice, but in our very articulation. We haven’t just detached critical thought or imagination from our Christian practice, but we’ve made them damnable offenses.
When I was half the man I used to be–today is my birthday, so we’re throwing this back to 1995-6–I remember first being exposed to some artists who were very influential in my progression toward musical taste. They happened to be ‘Christian’, but as I listened to Starflyer 59’s Silver record–SF would later eschew playing Christian venues and had modest critical success over the past 15 years–and reviewed the liner notes, I saw a track that had a scripture verse attached to its lyrics. I listened to 2nd Space Song, but never caught the connection between the verse and the song itself. This, for this adolescent fundamentalist raised in a Pentecostal setting, was entirely dissonant: what’s the point of slapping the verse there if it isn’t manifestly evident in the song?
This, in a nutshell, essentially illustrates the fundamentalist problem.
Though where I live now would beg to differ, houses are built on a foundation, a basement which keeps the house on firm standing. Damage to the foundation needs to be addressed in order to keep the house safe and sound. Cathedrals, temples, chapels and sanctuaries the world over are built with foundations. Basements are accepted as a given all over the world, unless we’re at the Alamo.
What happens with fundamentalism is not that it is a house without a basement, but a basement without a house. The basement is the house–gray, uninspiring, cold and lifeless. It abhors the house, its variations, the design and the personal flair of the homebuilder. It’s not dissimilar to what I’ve referred to in the past as bomb shelter Christianity, preferring the safety of enclosure over the intentional construction and design of what is supposed to go on top. In our desire to be the church rather than go to church, we take it literally: buildings are bad. Those Catholics don’t care about church anytime other than Christmas and Easter; those Baptists only care about God on Sundays. Those stained glass windows and Jesus still on the cross; those white colonial pillars and brick facades! And those Pentecostals, those lunatics meet in a tent!
(The natural rejoinder: the Hebrew children met in a tent, too. And God was there!)
Biblical literalism isn’t just confined to biblicism or a hyper sense of sola scriptura, it has infected the way we do everything: our songs are largely comprised of ostensible re-arrangements of hymns to work within the four worship chords and the limitations of our exceedingly underwhelming lead guitarists posing as ‘worship leaders’. Our art ranges from Thomas Kinkade faux-Americana camp and these…umm…works.
As such, imagination or theological reflection (a term I’m not completely pleased with, but works nonetheless) is on the outs. Hyper-biblicism then polarizes the fundamentalists, while ‘liberal’ Christians aren’t that much better, substituting the same for alignment with political preferences and commitments. Both miss the point with their noble, but ultimately short-sighted efforts.
What we see in the post-apostolic age and throughout a lot of Christian history is reflection on events. The scriptures are revered, but seldom the absolute bottom line. Western philosophy was birthed from questions, conversations and then given to theological reflection. The early works of the church reflect an imagination and curiosity that is remarkably, tragically absent from our ubiquitous sermon series, insipid small group coffee talks over revolting coffee and bestselling how-to works that rehash pop psychology from Dr. Phil over the church doctors. And those who disagree don’t ‘speak the truth in love’. Disagreements become pissing contests over who can regurgitate the most memory verses. Those who wonder are being tempted by the flesh or the world. Those who leave are falling away, like Demas. Those on the outside look on in bewilderment.
Just like a cult.
And like cults, they pick and choose what they will from the very scripture they claim to vigilantly defend: ignoring the fact that Paul was not referring to himself when he wrote about scripture being inspired and useful, or that the prophets were engaging in considerable creative imagination when speaking God’s truth to wayward power. They view the Bible as living, but treat it as though everything in it happened on paper rather than in the world. Is it, then, any surprise that the world and its state of affairs is shockingly non-conforming to the accounts of scripture: the miraculous and dynamic absent from the world precisely because we are…because we want to build the kingdom by staying in the basement.
Our theological imagination is constrained by our insistence on being biblical. As such, so is our influence in the world. And our suspicion toward mystics and artists of all kinds is also heightened: the few I’ve introduced to Teresa of Avila or Thomas a Kempis are blown away by their insights. Paul Tillich’s work speaks directly to our existential condition, often uncomfortably so. Augustine’s City of God is a gorgeous and epic artistic vision. And we settle for Narnia because it so closely echoes the gospel account…something Lewis himself wasn’t particularly emphasizing or necessarily thrilled with. Left Behind captivates the audience because it reaffirms eschatological commitments that only recently have been widely held by Evangelicals, and developed not that long ago. Jack Van Impe merges headlines with bizarre biblical literalism (and creative liberty) with the same end. So, it seems our way of being biblical only goes as far as that with which we are subculturally comfortable. We indict ourselves on charges of special pleading.
My argument, then, is simple: the best way to be biblical is to understand the place of scripture in the life of the believer: to be inspired and influenced by those who have gone before, while also contributing our creative and imaginative talents to explore the life and scope of the Christian in the cultural context in which we live, here and now; pursuing truth, challenging convention and refusing to accept anything less than honest journeying together toward understanding more fully the God we claim to serve and accepting the fact that the Holy Spirit’s work remains dynamic and creative. Often that will mean detaching from our need to have direct connection to the Bible, and that’s OK; my guess is that it will have the consistent thumbprint of Christ and consistently ring true to the gospel message.
And, because of this, I will continue to be a gadfly in a mediocre subculture, and continue to be irritated by cheap, specious songsters, books with lavish designs with gristle for content and trite preachers who are more concerned with their acrostics and prooftexts than the needs of the community.
Because of this, I write. And live. And love. All above ground.
I apologize for yet another lengthy hiatus from this site. Amidst wrapping up my graduate studies, moving and starting a new position with my new employer, The Man, wife, puppy and yours truly also found ourselves periodically homeless, broke, sick and cute. (The latter applying exclusively to wife and puppy.) On top of all that, I wound up in a car accident almost two weeks ago. I’m fine; the car, not so much. So life repeatedly gets in the way. And finishing my Masters monopolized much of my time over the past few weeks. Now that I’m in the clear, training has ended, finances stabilizing (*gulp* I hope) and life settling into a routine, I’m excited to be able to write what I want when I want, which should now have some semblance of regularity.
If you happen to like what you read, please let me know. If you disagree, let me know. Comment here or on fb, or reach me directly on my blog email: brentsirviois [AT] gmail [DOT] com. I welcome all sorts of feedback, provided that it remains respectful and or cordial and comes with an actual name. [The anonymous have no voice.]
Thanks for reading. It’s my birthday, and I intend to do what I like. I happen to like writing, and I hope you continue to find it worthwhile.
author, publisher and editor. APE.