Friday, September 27, 2013

Does Church Suck?

           A member of our church recently asked me for my assessment of “One Love Church” in Eugene, Oregon, and their message “Church sucks”.  Upon investigation, I discovered that said church is pastored by the Rev. Crank (his real name, I swear), and that he is trying to connect with people who think that “church sucks” by agreeing with their negative assessment and offering something different.  He bills himself as a pastor, not a preacher.  Presumably preaching also sucks.  Since September he has been mailing out their “Church Sucks” message to hundreds of homes in Lane County promising a different kind of church. Specifically he offers them a church which does not focus too much on sin, which has services which last just over thirty minutes and which feature the music of Katie Perry and Maroon 5.  I am tempted to satirize this, but am unsure how.
            What then is my assessment?  First let me say that I have no reason to doubt that the Rev. Crank is sincere in wanting to serve Christ, and that he genuinely wants to reach out and connect with people, bringing into the church those who would not otherwise be reached.  I believe he has good intentions, but the road paved with such things does not always lead to good places.
            Perhaps the best way to proceed would be to ask One Love Church a few questions.  Question one is about Ariel Castro.  Castro, as will be recalled, is the man who kidnapped three young women and repeatedly raped them for about a decade while keeping them confined and hidden in his Ohio home.  He was stained deeply with sin and guilt, and completely in bondage to the darkness within him.  If the late Ariel Castro had come to One Love Church, what would have been their message to him?  Would they fear to focus too much on sin?   The message of the Orthodox Church to him would’ve been, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17).  This is not focussing too much on sin, but zeroing in on Ariel Castro’s greatest need—that of forgiveness, cleansing, healing, and transformation, all of which are only available through repentance. 
            Admittedly most men are not like Ariel Castro.  But all need forgiveness, cleansing, healing, and transformation nonetheless.  If one does not acknowledge this need and therefore is irritated upon being told that one does need to repent, presumably one will conclude that Church Sucks, and may even feel it to be judgmentally pointing the finger.  But it is doubtful that Castro would’ve felt unjustifiably judged, since the church would simply have been confirming what his tortured conscience was already telling him.
            Question two:  what is One Love Church really trying to accomplish by altering so dramatically both the church’s message and its worship?  Yeah, yeah, I know all the religious talk about reaching the lost.  But the question remains.  That is, what is the actual goal?  Specifically, is it to transform and change the people who come, making them different from the world around them and from their old selves?  Is it to persuade them to “turn from darkness to light, and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18)?  Is to radically alter them so that they now live as strangers and exiles in the world (1 Pt. 2:11)?  Or is it, as I think, simply to get them into the building so that they regularly attend the service and can be counted?  (One should take care to count quickly, since they will only be there for little over thirty minutes.)  The Rev. Crank is, I suspect, part of the American evangelical subculture, and that subculture has long been trained to work (and emotionally manipulate) to produce “decisions for Christ”, decisions which can be counted because people raise their hand or walk to the front of a church and allowed themselves to be prayed for.  What matters here is the external act; what matters is the numbers.  Success is based on these numbers, and not on the converts’ perseverance or internal transformation, which of course cannot be easily determined, much less numbered.  If one packs ‘em in, one is reckoned to be a success.  The goal then is to pack ‘em in, by whatever means necessary, even Katy Perry.
            Last question:  does One Love Church really think in their heart of hearts that the Church of God for which Christ died sucks?  It is easy to agree with worldlings as they sneeringly and disdainfully write off the Christians as a judgmental and self-righteous lot.  Whether or not most Christians are in fact judgmental and self-righteous is, of course, another question, but when one is determined to write off something, one rarely takes time to do in-depth research.  But does the Rev. Crank really agree with our detractors?  If he does not, then his strategic move to appeal to the worldling’s sneering opposition is not particularly honourable or even honest.  But if he does, I would suggest that he turn his gaze away from the trendy and affluent American west coast and look further east.  A lot further.  For in the Middle East and in other places around the globe, the Church is even now undergoing tremendous persecution, as hundreds of men, women, and even children are suffering and dying for their Faith.  These brothers and sisters are not judgmentally pointing the finger (the ultimate sin apparently in Eugene, Oregon), but are enduring torture, rape, despoliation, and execution for their love for Christ and for membership in the Church.  If anyone can face them and declare to them that their Church sucks, they will have more nerve than I have. 
            I think that the true mark of success is therefore not how successful one is at packing in worldly affluent Americans into a half-hour service featuring the music of Katy Perry and Maroon 5.  I think the real mark of success is how successful a church is at producing martyrs like these.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Revolutionary Demographics

            The world is currently undergoing a very quiet but revolutionary change.  Nations which since their inception have been Christian nations will soon become Islamic ones, and this is not due to violence or jihad, but due to demographics and birth-rates.  This is especially so in Europe, but North America is not untouched by this trend.
            Social scientists report that for a nation to sustain itself economically for more than twenty-five years it needs a minimum fertility rate of 2.11 per family.  That is, if Mommy and Daddy have on average a little over two children per family, the population can replace itself and society can survive long term.  If the fertility rate per family drops to 1.9 there is a problem, for the population cannot replace itself, and no culture has historically ever reversed such a decline.  If it drops to 1.3 the catastrophe is worsened, for this rate is impossible to reverse in the needed time.
            It is just here that European fertility rates are so alarming.  In 2007 France had an average fertility rate of 1.8 per family—well below the 2.11 rate needed to sustain itself.  England had an average of 1.6 per family. The Orthodox nation of Greece had a fertility rate of 1.3 per family, as did Germany.  The Catholic nation of Italy clocked in at a rate of 1.2.  Now compare these fertility rates to the fertility rates of Muslim families within those countries.  France as a national average may have had a fertility of 1.8 children per family in 2007, but France’s population is not declining.  Like all the other European nations it has a high level of immigration, especially from Islamic countries.  The average French Muslim has a family fertility rate of 8.1.  It does not take a trained mathematician to see that within a generation or so Muslims will predominate in France.  This means that countries like France could become an Islamic state within the foreseeable future simply because of these demographic realities.  A report released by the German Federal Statistics Office stated that “The fall in [German] population can no longer be stopped.  Its downward spiral is no longer reversible...It will be a Muslim state by the year 2050.”
            North American fertility rates are also declining.  Canada’s national average fertility rate is 1.6—as is the American average.  In 1970 in the U.S. there were 100,000 Muslims living in the country.  By 2008 there were nine million.
            So, what are we Christians to make of all this?  What is the authentically Orthodox response?  I suggest several things.
            First, we must resist the temptation to demonize our Muslim neighbours and see them as the enemy.  These statistics mean that our world is undergoing a revolutionary change, and that the world our children and grandchildren will live in will be different than the one we now inhabit.  But it does not mean that God is not in control, or that the gates of hell will prevail against His Church.  The Church’s mandate to evangelize, and our Lord’s commandment to love our neighbours remain in full force as they did before these revolutionary changes began to occur.  Fear is never fitting for the disciples of Jesus.  We follow One who long ago told us, “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).   
This refusal to demonize our Muslim neighbour of course does not mean that we must accept uncritically all the voices which proclaim Islam as “a religion of peace” (usually with a withering comparison to the Crusaders, whom no one seems to mind demonizing).  Opposition to Islam and  recognizing its historical propensity for military conquest and suppressing the rights of minorities is still compatible with our personal love for Muslims.   We can love Muslims even while we oppose Islam.  And love, uncontaminated by fear, remains our eternal task.
Just as we should resist the temptation to demonize, we should also resist the tendency to generalize, for the characteristics of Muslim population vary tremendously throughout the West.  In places like Canada and (I imagine) the United States, most Muslims have successfully embraced the liberal democratic values of the society in which they live.  That is, they value tolerance of other faiths and lifestyles, they accept western views of how women should be treated, and they eschew violence.  That is, without denying what they consider to be the basic tenets of their Islamic faith, they have become culturally assimilated within the mainstream of a liberal democracy.  But this process of assimilation is not uniform throughout the West, and in some European states, the Muslim population resists such cultural assimilation.  For some of these Muslims, creating an Islamic state ruled by shariah law would be a good thing and a goal they would vigorously pursue.  Obviously if such a situation were to obtain and if European nations came to be ruled by shariah law, it would spell the end of them as liberal democracies.  Good or bad, western liberal democracies were the creation of Christendom, and depend upon the cultural acceptance of Christian presuppositions for their continued maintenance and survival.  The tolerance which characterizes a liberal democracy is incompatible with classical Islam and shariah law.  Anyone contesting this needs to explain the deplorable state of minority rights within nations currently ruled by shariah law, and also why a number of its citizens have fled their countries to take refuge in the West.
            The impending revolution means that we should take seriously the divine precept by which we were told to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).  This command, the first in Scripture addressed to humanity, finds echo in our Orthodox liturgy as well.  At the wedding service, the Church prays for the newly-married that God would “grant to them the fruit of the womb”, and that He would “make them glad with the sight of sons and daughters”, and “the enjoyment of the blessing of children”, and one gets the impression that the liturgical tradition is envisioning something more bountiful that 1.6 children on average per family.
            Our culture has in fact lost the concept that children are a blessing.  Having many sons and daughters was once viewed as an obvious good, like a warrior having a quiver full of arrows (Ps. 127:3-5).  It was a blessing to have one’s wife like a fruitful vine, and one’s supper table surrounded by children, like many olive shoots around a vine (the image is from Ps. 128, still sung at each Orthodox wedding).  Our culture now no longer regards large families as a blessing and the sight of many sons and daughters no longer makes us glad.  Our culture is more likely to preach sermons to the parents of large families about the dangers of the over-population and of bringing more children into an already-crowded world.  It is nonsense, of course, especially given average rates of birth in Europe and North America.  But nonsensical or not, large families are now contrary to the cultural norm, and are often secretly frowned upon—and sometimes not so secretly. 
            This is because we have created a culture of contraception, one in which sex has been sundered in the popular mind from birth-giving.  In this mentality, lots of sex does not necessarily lead to lots of babies, given the use of birth-control and abortion (often used as a kind of retro-active birth control).  Pope Paul VI, who issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae denouncing the use of artificial birth-control, doubtless is saying, “I told you so” from the Kingdom as he looks down upon the falling European birth-rates.  But one doesn’t need to buy into the entirety of the papal encyclical (as I do not) to admit that something has gone wrong, and that contraceptives which were meant to plan the birth of children now have as their main purpose the prevention of the birth of children.   We need to recover the joy our forefathers felt over the birth of children, and restore this fundamental marital reality to its proper place in marriage.  We need to rejoice and be glad at the sight of sons and daughters, and not just because of Muslim birth-rates and impending revolution, but because having many sons and daughters is a blessing.
            Finally we need to continue doing evangelism and sharing the Gospel with our neighbour with joy and boldness.  Our task remains what it always has been:  to convert our neighbour to faith in Christ, whether our neighbour was formerly Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian, or secular.  Christ died for all, and we have an abundant water supply with which to baptize the world.  In earlier days we needed to travel to lands of the Middle East to find our Muslim neighbour and convert him.  Now God’s providence has brought him to our doorstep.  We are even spared the difficulty of learning to speak Arabic in order to share the Gospel with him, since if he lives beside us in North America he certainly speaks English.  In Islamic states this sharing may produce conversions or martyrdoms or both, but it remains our task as Christ’s Church nonetheless.  We need not fear what obedience to this task may bring.  The world with its changing birth-rates will pass away soon enough.  All that matters is whether or not we obeyed Christ while we were in it. 
            A revolution taking place in the world right now.  But this demographic revolution is as nothing compared to the spiritual revolution that happened two thousand years ago when God became man and died and rose again and poured out His Spirit upon the world.  It is on this revolution that we focus our attention, upon this revolution that we must boldly rely.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What's Wrong with Roddenberry

        Like many of my generation, I was raised on the television series Star Trek, weekly watching Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy “boldly go where no man has gone before”.  (A later feminist canon would excise the offending word, and they would boldly go “where no one has gone before”.) I was therefore all the happier to watch the latest Star Trek film Into Darkness.  It was a good enough film and no bad way to blow a few hours on a rainy afternoon.  I enjoyed the examples of homage paid to the original series and was not surprised to see the name of Gene Roddenberry featured prominently in the credits, although he died in 1991.
The world created by Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry was a wonderful one, in which all the nations on earth united to form one harmonious society, with all races and peoples living in peace and prosperity.  War, hatred, crime, and poverty were things of the past.  White Americans worked side by side with Afro-americans, and Russians, and Chinese, and Scots in a single prosperous and progressive community, where no task remained but to venture into the final frontier to seek out new life and new civilizations.   Humans even lived harmoniously with aliens, such as Vulcans (and in the next generation, with Klingons).  Roddenberry deliberately offered this world as a shining vision of what mankind could be and eventually would be. 
This vision shone all the more brightly in 1966 when the original series premiered.  It came into the lives and living rooms of a nation torn by racial violence, and divided by politics and views of the Vietnamese conflict, a nation locked into the Cold War against the U.S.S.R and Communism, and thus it offered welcome relief.  One day not too far away mankind would finally unite and live in peace, and all war, tyranny, and poverty would be things of the past. 
As would be religion.  Roddenberry made no secret that in his shining vision of the future everyone would be atheist, and that the world would be immeasurably better off for it.  Accordingly there was no chaplain on board the Enterprise.  The idea was that religion was one of the things that mankind would inevitably outgrow, and leave behind in the dust-pile of history, along with war and poverty.  Mankind was evolving, and if religion once formed a part of that evolutionary process, it would be outgrown soon enough.  It was only a matter of time, and if we just waited long enough, this shining and glorious future would be ours.
As anyone can see, we are still waiting, and the glorious future of harmony and peace envisioned by Roddenberry seems no nearer now than it was in 1966.  Indeed, at time of writing, it might even be further away, since even after the fall of Communism a new Cold War with Russia seems to loom.  The Middle East remains in upheaval and turmoil, and the gap between the rich and the other 99% grows ever greater.  So, what seems to be the problem?  What’s wrong with Roddenberry’s vision?
It appears clear enough for anyone not totally blinded by the dogmatic ideology of secularism that more than the passage of time is required to bring peace to the human race.  Murder and war remain abiding characteristics of the human race and constants in human history.  War is what we do, and it has been a part of the human story for as long as that story has been told.  If war was simply an unfortunate feature of our passing evolutionary development and something which we eventually outgrow, we would expect that the number and ferocity of wars would lessen somewhat as time progressed.  As a matter of sorry fact, it has not lessened.  Rather, it seems to be actually increasing.  Roddenberry was simply wrong in imagining that mankind would naturally outgrow war and hatred and enter the shining future as a part of evolutionary progress.   It is clear now that time alone will not banish hatred from the human heart.
What will?  In a word, Christ.  The hearts we have are hard and fatally diseased.  What we need is a new heart, a heart of flesh to replace our heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26).  We don’t need more time to evolve; what we need is a new birth, one by water and the Spirit, and a new nature.  Without it, we are doomed to keep on repeating the same pattern of hatred and war that has characterized our species until now, and to be locked into the vicious and endless circle of mutual vengeance.  The Church calls this teaching “original or ancestral sin”, and it teaches, not that we were born guilty, but that we were born into a world of spiritual entropy and mortality, a world where we are drawn always down, a world where selfishness comes easy and virtue comes with difficulty.  It is odd that some people have contradicted this teaching.  As Chesterton once remarked, the Church’s teaching on original sin is the only one of its dogmas that can actually be proved.  And it doesn’t take long to prove it; any book narrating human history provides plenty of examples.  
Roddenberry was right in wanting a better world than the one we have now; he was wrong in thinking that it would come of its own accord.  There is only one hope for the human race and for peace, and only one place where opposites can be united, where the lion lies down with the lamb, the Russian with the American, the black with the white.  That place is the Church of God, where dividing walls have been torn down and divisions transcended, where there is no longer division between Greek or Jew (or possibly between human and Vulcan).  Instead, God has created one new man, with a single new nature (Col. 3:11, Eph. 2:15).   With Christ alone we can boldly go into the future—and not because of our technological superiority, but because the future belongs to Him.


Monday, September 9, 2013

The Changing Stream

         I am, as those who know me well will attest, almost pathologically nostalgic, so that if someone created a 12-step programme to cure nostalgia, I would certainly count as a candidate.  Perhaps that is why I googled the name of Linda Meissner.   Meissner was a young farm girl from Iowa who dropped out of her Assemblies of God college in Missouri and eventually found her way out west to Seattle in the late ‘60s, where she became a part of the early Jesus People Movement there.  She gathered a group of intense young converts, calling them the Jesus People Army, and was instrumental in creating in the Seattle area the same sort of Jesus coffeehouse and communes that by then were beginning to dot southern California.  She was, in fact, riding the crest of a coming wave.  She worked with such Jesus People heavy-weights as Duane Pederson and Jack Sparks in that movement. 

[Photo: In the center, Linda Meissner]

The Jesus People Movement, liked all movements, has moved, and exists now only in history books and yellowing newspaper clippings.  Duane Pederson and Jack Sparks also moved on.  But not so Linda Meissner.  When my nostalgic snooping on google caught up with her, I found her on You-tube, still thumping the same Jesus People drum.  In her “Official Presentation Video”, she tells us that “In  2011 I heard the word of the Lord saying, ‘Linda, you are to go once again…’ God has given me a great vision!  The Jesus People Army is not dead!  It’s just sleeping.  But Jesus says, ‘Arise! There will be a great army of youth going forth with the good news.’  I plan to raise up another Catacomb coffeehouse in the city of Seattle.  I’m expecting God to do great things!”  The point of the video, of course, and of her website, is to solicit help in pulling this off.

[Photo:  Linda Meissner today]

 Linda’s current plan (read: delusion) is very saddening to see, though I suppose anyone who regularly googles out of nostalgia should expect it.  The success of the Jesus People was based, sociologically-speaking, on the convergence of the openness of the youth in the late ‘60s and the boldness of evangelical Christians in capitalizing upon it.  In those heady and psychedelic days, one could gather a crowd on a beach simply by playing the guitar and singing songs about Jesus, and one then preached to the crowd, Bible in hand, and many would come to accept the Lord.  Anyone trying to repeat the experiment today will attest that such openness from America’s youth has vanished, along with the novelty of long-haired young people talking boldly about asking Jesus into your heart.  The Jesus People succeeded at least in part because of its novelty, and novelty is by definition a fleeting thing.  The wonderful wave that was the Jesus Movement has long since returned to the sea.  Duane Pederson and Jack Sparks had the sense to realize this, and they continued to follow the Lord along other paths, eventually becoming priests in the Orthodox Church.

            Linda’s lesson for us is that, as the proverb has it, one cannot step into the same stream twice.  The water in the stream moves on, and if one were to step into the stream again, it would be into a different stream.  Nostalgia is okay as an occasional pastime for aging clergy, but it is fatal if it becomes the foundation for a way of life.  Each day when we rise from our beds, we look into a new stream, for each day has new opportunities for service, new things to learn, and new people to meet who need God’s love.  The things we did and learned in the past were never meant to be the walls in which we live, but the foundation on which we continue to build.  Memory makes a great comforter, but a poor master.  It is good to share common memories with friends and family, and rejoice in what God has done.  We pour the wine and remember and drink to the grace of God.  But after the cup has been drained, it is time to move on.  New work will make for more memories, and we look ever forward.  This is an especially important lesson for those of us approaching what are euphemistically called “the golden years”.  We should never stop working for God, or accepting new assignments for the Kingdom.  We can, I suppose, write our memoirs, if we think anyone will be fool enough to read them.  But more important is what we write in our day-timers and desk-calendars.  Each day God gives us a new stream.  Let us step into it boldly and with joy.  Anyone who has been part of the Jesus People would understand.