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Why Christianity Is Not Working 2

December 23, 2009 2 comments

Effects of Modernism and Postmodernism

One can see in the art and literature the trends of a culture, and I think the biggest challenge for Biblical preaching is modernism and postmodernism. Indeed one can hardly have one without the other. Rabbi David Lapin describes modernism correctly as the automatic rejection of “old” ideas, “Modernism is the odd notion that mankind should view revolutionary change as inherently good. It is the views that, almost by definition, modifying today’s society will produce a better tomorrow” (Lapin 1999). This bodes well for our economy, as old things are discarded to make room for new products and commodities, but it rejects the notion that anything could be learned from the past. Ironically modernism was perhaps at its height during the 50’s and 60’s (a time that many cultural critics hearken back to nostalgically), when schools and education were being reformed in the destructive ways mentioned earlier in this essay. When modernism becomes consumerism, it starves the soul. If ideas about spirituality are consumed in the process, nothing takes root. The focus is on quantity, not quality; on breadth, not depth. There is no space for reflection, let alone application. Listeners at a sermon might react with “I’ve heard it before! What’s next?”

Consumerism feeds the natural human desire for instant gratification. But while our ancestors worked long and hard to grow food, and sat down to enjoy the evening meal with the family; our culture has given us fast food. Lapin reflects on this: “The rapid growth of fast food, however, conditioned us to the notion that anytime and anywhere is suitable for a snack or meal….Or national personality was shifting. We became more self-indulgent and less disciplined; more attuned to immediate gratification than to what was best of the long-term” (1999). Technology may have made life easier, but our problems are more complex than ever because of it. We expect fast, easy solutions. We expect to sort through things to find what is relevant, we are taught to weed through data to find answers that apply to our lives. Our culture isn’t looking for truth, because the truth isn’t always easy.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, goes beyond that. Quoting the neoconservatism philosopher “Irving Kristol defines ‘postmodern art’ as a ‘politically charged art that is utterly contemptuous of the notion of educating the tastes and refining the aesthetic sensibilities of the citizenry. Its goal, instead, is deliberately to outrage those tastes and to trash the very idea of an aesthetic sensibility’” (Medved, 1992). This is, perhaps, where the anti-moral filth in Hollywood comes from. Its purpose is to offend and shock.

But there is more to postmodernism than that. It is a reaction to everything that has come before. Americans may not remember well their own history, and modernism may have us ripping down buildings that have not had a chance to become historic, but Americans remember atrocities. One need only look at World Wars I and II, and lament with T.S. Elliot in The Waste Land to illustrate this point. I work at a private school in Bellevue, with students from all walks of life, where I co-teach a class about art, culture, and contemporary society. These kids cannot understand what is so miraculous about a Jackson Pollack painting. They do not see the genius of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They figure you could just take a picture of something if you wanted it to look real. They miss the art because they have seen just about everything. Only the most atrocious and abominable images get any reaction to it. They aren’t trained to see the subtlety of brushstrokes, or understand the religious symbolism, or understand the suffering by the artist to create beauty. And why should they, when Pollack has been highly copied, and you can get Michelangelo’s “Hand of God” printed on a t-shirt? They know that art is supposed to move them, but it takes a lot to do so.

For Biblical preachers, their duty becomes more difficult as people in our culture turn against the methods for the very same reason they turn against modern art. They see traditional things as threatening and cling to science for truth. The professional atheist Dawkins argues with religionists saying that “of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this [a book about atheism], which is surely a work of Satan” (2006). As a member of this culture, it is difficult to turn away from the many accomplished and important people who have publicly turned away from faith. The inventor of the new physics Einstein has said “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion…The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve” (as quoted in Dawkins, 2006).

Kids These Days

One author declared that “If there is a moral movement in each generation, we need to know the direction and the velocity of the movement. This helps us understand what tomorrow might look like, and it helps us decide whether we welcome that particular vision of tomorrow for our children” (Lapin, 1999). I am here to tell you: the future for Biblical preaching ain’t pretty. Being receptive to Biblical preaching requires a certain thinking paradigm which does not mesh with our current culture.

For the high school students at the school I work for, these students come from non-religious families that celebrate secular holidays and mostly pay lip-service to Christianity. Of the twenty-five or so kids I work with on a regular basis, only one identifies herself as Christian, and could find her way around a Bible. Others claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” as if they are afraid of the very word. There is very little that moves them, except for intolerance. They are politically and socially moderate, only advocating change if it seems like it will work quickly, and won’t trample on anybody’s freedom of speech or expression. They are terrified of somebody telling them what to think, yet are generally obedient to authority. There is a general lethargy to their generation: they would rather play video games than work, they are barely able to imagine their own futures, and they absolutely do not believe they can have any impact on the world. It is hard to say how much we must explain this with simple adolescent development, and how much is due to the culture they are indoctrinated into.

As a teacher, I was taught to avoid religious topics whenever possible, unless I wanted to cover all religions equally, in an academic manner. Teachers are to avoid sharing their religion with their students, which means they are not permitted to be a role model in this area. While there is a general expectation that teachers will have Christian values, they are not allowed to share them, or talk to students about how morals are shaped. Apparently, in order to create a society that has certain freedoms, those liberties are not extended to the very people responsible for passing them on.

What is Needed

To be receptive to Biblical preaching, one must have a belief that some things are absolute and true. Christians find this truth in the Bible, which contains God’s truth, His plan, and His expectations of us. Indeed, true Christians believe that “the words of the Bible are inspired of God. Divine inspiration has rendered the Bible infallible….The inspired Book is inerrant” (Holland, 1998). But our culture of secularism has taught us to look to science for answers, and to look to our subjective experiences to reason out what is true for us as individuals. This goes against the idea that Biblical preaching is for everyone.

To be receptive to Biblical preaching, one must also have a fear of the unknown. The Bible contains answers to the unknown by offering salvation through Jesus Christ. But American culture is based so much on instant gratification, especially through information, that I doubt people worry much about what is unknown. They can read about what other cultures believe, and they can look to science for answers (the answers of which, to me, seems quite soul-less and depressing!). The information is so overwhelming, that it is easy to just assume that someone somewhere knows the answer, and to give up looking for one’s self. Or one might adopt an answer they have read because it “makes reasonable sense” to them at the time, without regard for any objective truth. Good Christians know that “Salvation, either present, or future, is dependent upon a knowledge of and obedience to the Word of God” (Holland, 1967).

Ultimately, “popular culture…is a man-made product, generated by a surprisingly small community of vulnerable and insecure human beings. That community has reconsidered its values and modified its priorities several times in the past, and future changes are not only possible, they are inevitable” (Medved, 1992). The question is, how can Biblical preachers contend with this? How can they—or should they—change to meet the needs of their congregation living under a new paradigm?

There is much to contend with! It is clear that these paradigms do not fit together. While that is not to say that Biblical preaching is irrelevant, preachers must be aware of what they are working against, and do what is in the scope of their power and experience to create change. To reach this generation, the preacher to be aware of their real problems and offer comfort and real answers, not fear, prejudice and damnation. Appealing to the emotions of  the congregation by scaring them into baptism is not going to work. Rather, the preacher must find the truth as he or she knows it, and make it relevant. They need to re-teach, and coax the starving soul back to health.

Bibliography

Bloom, A (1987). The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dawkins, R (2006). The God Delusion. New York, New York: Bantam Press.

Goodreads, Inc, (2009). Quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Retrieved July 23, 2009, from Goodreads Web site: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/38442

Holland, T (1998). Preaching: Principles and Practice. Brentwood, Tennessee: Penmann Books.

Holland, T. (1967). Sermon Design and Delivery. Shreveport, LA: Gussie Lambert Publications.

Lapin, D (1999). America’s Real War: An Orthodox Rabbi Insists that Judeo-Christian Values are Vital for our Nation’s Survival. Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc..

Medved, M. (1992). Hollywod vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Why Christianity Is Not Working

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

This is a paper I wrote for a class on Biblical Preaching. Why is a Wiccan in such a class? Well I had this fantasy that I was going to become an Army Chaplain, which requires a lot of religious classes. The professor was a fundamentalist, but claimed to be open to our spiritual values. As someone who doesn’t believe in Biblical preaching, it was a hard class to be in. But I thought it might interest you. Why do you think preaching doesn’t work in our society these days?

Cultural Trends and its Effect on Disillusionment with Preaching (part 1)

Every generation looks at their children and wonders where it all went so wrong. Parents worry about their kids listening to rock and roll, wearing torn and baggy clothes, and the language that comes out of their mouths. Kids these days seem so disrespectful! Adults tell themselves it certainly was not like that when they were young. Religion in particular has gone through some changes as the culture changes. It used to be that religion defined culture, and unified Americans as they set out on the great experiment called democracy. But times are changing. Our valued culture is slipping. Even some experts are starting to agree. Rabbi David Lapin declared,  “I believe America is in decline—not compared to five or ten years ago, but when compared to the years following World War II until the early sixties….Americans remain unaware of, or indifferent to America’s decline” (Lapin, 1999).

There is a battle going on between the left and right, old and young, Christian and other religions. The problem is the culture in America as a whole is challenging the relevance of preaching. One hundred years ago, the Bible was the standard classroom text, studied in rural and urban school houses all across the country. Now you can scarcely find a Bible in a school library. The focus is on secularism, and our culture has generally become anti-religious. The new generation of Americans “have come to feel that religious America poses the real threat to our continuity, so they instinctively migrate to the end of the rope opposite from religious conservatives. Although not committed to every nuance of secularism, they consider it the lesser of two evils and lend their not inconsiderable weight to the left of the rope” (Lapin, 1999).

Where do these ideas come from? They are imbedded in our own culture; the way we educate our children, the media and entertainment that permeates our society, in new religious movements and evolving concepts of what it means to be an American. Post-modernism and Consumerism has changed American culture forever, leaving religion behind. The effect the culture has had on our nation’s children is becoming more obvious as traditional values slip away. Paradigms shift, but the beliefs necessary to relate to Biblical preaching have not. The seeds of Christianity through sermonism fall on fallow ground.

The “New” Education

These ideas perhaps begin in the way we educate our children. Education now focuses heavily on awareness of multiculturalism. Instead of reading Milton and Augustine, they read Maya Angelou and Sherman Alexie. It may sound an atrocity to set aside the great literature of the past, but “the purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue—openness” (Bloom, 1987). This “openness” is intended to create a society that welcomes all people, regardless of race or religion, but it also creates subjectivism. Each identity is voiced individually, but very little is shared. This type of education goes beyond the classroom: “People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever, let alone one that informs the vital interests of life” (Bloom, 1987).

Instead, our schools promote a secular education, where religion of any kind, whether mainstream or not, is neither taught nor considered. Rather, the student learns to worship science and reason. Passion is removed. Students who prefer a Creationist, rather than Evolutionary, belief are ridiculed by teachers and peers alike. For the sake of openness, no religious ideas are taught or publicly tolerated in the classroom. One critic suggests that in education, “there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible” (Bloom, 1987)? The social contract of openness and tolerance for differences does not give students a sense of shared identity as Americans. With no shared values, how are we to get along?

With regards to Biblical preaching, this type of education has students looking broadly across many religions and cultures, rather than deeply into their own. Secular education teaches an avoidance of religion, and an avoidance of one source for truth, effectively negating the potential power of the Bible for these students. Students are more aware of other religions than ever before, and the church itself is so fractured in denominationism that youth are overloaded with outside information. The simple days of growing up in one church with the family your whole life—those days are long gone. People now, literally, shop for religion. Their education in subjectivism allows them to choose their religious beliefs, rather than being told what is true.

“Hollywood vs. America”

Another problems lies in the media and entertainment which permeates our culture. The value of openness has spread to the availability of information. Now juicy items such as scandals in the church quickly become public news for the whole world to judge and comment about, without proper context. The horror of war is splayed across the nightly news. The media talks about everything without thought to decency or relevancy, and every atrocity is beamed into the living room with no thought of the consequences. It also seems that the nature of the stories themselves is changing. Lapin points out that “as such alarming stories continue, we experience less discomfort. After the second and third well-publicized cases of babies found in Dumpsters [sic], we become anesthetized….Life continues, and very few of us stop to realize that these things simply were not happening fifty years ago” (Lapin, 1999).

The openness in education and information exchange is purported to be for the support of Democracy. Professor Bloom suggests that information about other people, secularism and political moderation erode our values:

…as Tocqueville put it, in a democracy tradition is nothing more than information. With the ‘information explosion,’ tradition has become superfluous. As soon as tradition has come to be recognized as tradition, it is dead, something to which lip service is paid in the vain home of edifying the kids. In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old… (Bloom, 1987)

In Hollywood too, the traditional values are ignored. Gone are the days of a dancing and laughing Ginger Rogers and the family musical. Films contain more sex, violence and pessimism than ever before, despite the criticism from the public. Film critic and radio show host Michael Medved points out that “Hollywood ignores the concerns of the overwhelming majority of the American people who worry over the destructive messages so frequently featured in today’s movies, television and popular music” (Medved, 1992). The rating system is a help to audiences in telling them what in a film might offend them, but when choices are limited, it is difficult to find a film the whole family can agree on. Medved claims that “the apologists for the entertainment industry seldom claim that Hollywood’s messages are beneficial; they argue, rather, that those messages don’t matter” (Medved, 1992) but many know that the opposite is true. On one hand the entertainment industry is making offensive films and calling it art, but on the other hand, people are still buying tickets to see them! One hand washes the other. Does art create culture or does art reflect culture?

In particular, I think of the movie The Passion of the Christ. While the movie plot was taken from the Gospels, the visual component was so violent, that I personally could not watch it. I am reminded of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next” (Goodreads, inc., 2009), and I wonder if the Bible is going the same route as Greek and Roman mythology, where a beautiful religion dominant for thousands of years is reduced to a Disney movie.

The church, now, is on TV, partaking of a culture it claims to despise as self-proclaimed evangelists beam their messages into living rooms and ask for a donation for God. Some of these so-called men of God become almost objects of worship as cult-like believers flock around them. One questions if true Biblical preaching is being done, or if the charisma of the preacher himself is at the audience. Perhaps it is an attempt to modernize, and use this new forum to reach people who otherwise could not (or would not!) attend services. This sort of evangelicalism has become absorbed in the fabric of our American culture and, for better or worse, impacts the way many people understand Biblical preaching.

Indeed, the very definition of what it means to be an American has changed. We cling to our puritanical roots, yet uphold rationalism and secularism as a national value. Americans have struggled to balance religion and rationalism since the beginning. One atheist points out that “The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’” and then turns around to apologetically say “I am not in favor of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies” (Dawkins, 2006). For him and many others, the two beliefs cannot exist simultaneously, yet we know that the best of Biblical preaching comes out of a rational argument. Part of this struggle, I believe, is imbedded in our own history, particularly with slavery. Separation of church and state requires us to keep religion out of the classroom and out of politics. But in reality, if there were no moral compass, we would still have slavery and segregation. It was thanks to religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr that the Civil Rights laws were passed to allow human beings to be truly equal in this country.

(Continue)