Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jesus SMASH!

First of all, an admission: I actually thought last Sunday was Fathers' Day. In fact, as you know, Fathers' Day is this coming Sunday. Just something for you to keep in mind as you read anything else I write.

I've been intending for a long time to comment at length on Jeff Sharlet's Harpers Magazine piece about New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs. The moment has kind of passed. I did comment over at the High Hat Blog about my visit to a megachurch about five years ago. I could relate to Sharlet's arguments about consumerism and exurban migration. As to the millenialism and weird geopolitics -- I got nothin'.

Wait, here's a tangent. My last book read was God's Secretaries by Adam Nicolson, about the creation of the King James Bible. It was pretty good, and incidentally not a devotional book at all, but intellectual history that provides a window into Jacobean England. Anyway, one tantalizing bit of info there was that some of the scholars on the KJ translation committee wanted to exclude the Book of Revelations. They got voted down. Revelations is the source of all manner of trouble and nonsense. The Armageddon, the Rapture--all that stuff is in Revelations, and stands out like a sore thumb next to the Sermon on the Mount and all the rest of the New Testament. Jesus is like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk in that book. I understand generally how Revelations got written: it was 100 AD and people thought Jesus was coming back the day after tomorrow to overthrow the Roman Empire. But why it has continued to be part of the Biblical canon, I don't really understand. I've never read Revelations, have never heard a sermon preached from it, which is not odd since liberal Protestants and all Catholics basically ignore Revelations, yet the religious right sometimes gives the impression that Revelations is ALL they read. How about somebody doing an edition of the Bible that leaves Revelations right the fuck out?

Here's one particular thing that struck me in the Sharlet article. In my job I hear and read a lot about the joys and struggles of ministers in their careers. I was reading something recently in which a preacher contrasted graduate school (seminary), where you get a fresh start every 4-5 months--new topic, new teacher, new group of peers--with a parish church, where the content is always the same, and the faces are always the same. Soon after reading this, I picked up the Sharlet article, and New Life guru Ted Haggard describes the small-group structure of his church: it's on a semester system, so if people dislike a class or a group of classmates, they naturally get a chance to jump ship after a few months. That's the consumerist approach megachurches take: lots of choices, lots of room for the theology and doctrine to be market-tested and tailored to what people like. Whereas traditional churches tend to operate on the unspoken assumption that you are a Methodist or whatever by virtue of family and civic ties, so your church is your church, and you have to take it as you find it.

The bad news is, these are bad assumptions nowadays--people WILL drive to the next town over, they WILL shop around, etc. The better news for these old-style churches is they have a chance to offer a realer, more familial type of community, which you only get when you are somewhat stuck with people. This preacher I was reading also talked about the emotional whiplash he felt as a young man early in his ministry, how tough it was to go from celebrating a birthday or baptism in the afternoon, then visiting a dying person in the evening. You think Ted Haggard ever does a funeral? Or comforts a dying person? Rarely, I bet. These Colorado Springs assholes, these postmodern gypsies, if they get sick or old they're going to move back home, or close to a family member who'll care for them.

There's a site called Butterflies and Wheels that I've dipped into now and then. Its stock in trade is being indignant over Intelligent Design, etc.: with religious fundamentalism interfering with science. They're smart folks over there--Brits, some of them, don't you know--and more conversant with philosophy and hard science than I am. Stuff I am somewhat conversant with--social science, religion, and critical theory--they're fairly hostile to. I sort of left the comments board of their blog with my tail between my legs. I felt I ended up making content-free arguments in favor of simple civility. Weak tea, not much fun for me. On the other hand, those folks congratulate themselves for going to a friend's funeral and refraining from heckling the eulogy. I'd call that strident. But again, they're smart, and I'll continue to browse there now and then.

Here at Dix Hill I've mentioned that in real life I get to hear some really interesting lectures and panel discussions on theology and medicine. I alluded to a couple of them at B&W and got sneered at, but I'm going to re-present them here. In one presentation, a guy was proposing a methodology for measuring an individual's religiosity. By way of background, this dude works in a program on spirituality and health, studying issues like whether people who profess religion, pray, etc., have better health outcomes. That prayer-and-healing stuff generally leaves me cold, but this guy rolled out what I thought was the best application of critical theory I have ever heard. Knowledge is socially constructed; religion and secularism alike are knowledge systems, held together by the trust their adherents place in them. Religion is best understood not as a checklist of beliefs but a worldview, a lens, a framework. The best measure of religiosity is not fidelity but fluency. The specific content of any worldview, religious or not, is less significant than whether one can articulate it coherently. (As I tried to tell the science/philosophy geeks, "Einstein wasn't a great scientist because of the number of theorems he had memorized.")

In another talk, a public health researcher compared two small Missouri towns that were similar in geography and demography. One town was marked by a stronger religious community: more vital congregations, and (significantly) warmer and more cooperative relations among different congregations. There were some positive public health indicators associated with the more robust religious climate. He did a social capital analysis suggesting that religious institutions create "bridging" social capital that enables resources to be shared and transferred effectively. Admittedly, this was a qualitative study, that argued correlation rather than causation, but it appealed to me as making a case for religion based on its effects. I have forgotten the name of Town A in the study, the high social capital town; sadly, however, Town B, marked by selfishness and distrust, was Hannibal, Mark Twain's hometown.

Anyway, that's This Week in Dix Hill religion.

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