Building on Water

I try to keep up.  Really, I do.  Although my specialization is in ancient religions, at heart I’m an historian of ideas and I try to keep up with the origins of the many Christian denominations.  You see, with so many competing versions of the one correct way to please God it pays to hedge your bets.  Thing is, there’s so many options and some seem to spring out of nowhere, like toadstools after the rain.  The other day I attended a local community event.  One of those kinds of affairs where local organizations set up tents and sometimes sell food.  Many of the tents were for churches.  As supporters of community values (mostly) this isn’t unusual, even with the declining numbers in the mainstream.  Then I heard a voice.

“Do you read?” the man asked.  I confess to having a bookish look, so I admitted I do.  “We want you to have a free book,” he said, handing me a plastic bag (warning sign one) containing a small paperback and several fliers.  Now, I was here to look around and maybe get a bite to eat, so I thanked him, tucked the bag under my arm and walked on.  Only on the way home did my wife look at the contents.  The church—for it had to be a church giving such things away—was one of which I’d never heard.  This would’ve been disorienting if it weren’t for the fact that ever since college—where I learned quite a lot about denominations—I’ve been noticing new varieties of Christianities, cropping up somewhat frequently.  Each seems to believe it has found the answers, despite the threadbare denominations that have been around for centuries.

I make fun on nobody’s search for meaning, or the truth.  It is, after all, a lifelong quest.  I am suspicious of those who claim to have already gotten there, however.  For those traditions that declare they’ve found the answer centuries ago, the passing years with their constant changes have worn on them.  Especially if they’re awaiting a divine cataclysmic ending to it all that’s been delayed for a couple of millennia now.  Others are, apparently, wanting to pump some fresh air into these tired lungs.  This group featured a website “the famous one [all one word].com.”  I was surprised and a touch saddened to see Jesus relegated to the role of a media celebrity.  But then again, I can’t keep up like I used to.

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.

Doubting Normal

The problem with being mainstream is that you have a hard time impressing anybody. “Mainstream church does something normal” is hardly an eye-catching headline. So when mainstream Christianity’s in the media it must be abnormal. According to a recent Washington Post story, mainstream leaders are protesting Christianity leaving Jesus behind. To be fair, that’s an Evangelical speciality, but still. Without naming the elephant named Trump in the room, these mainstream leaders are doing what every Christian in the nation should be doing, which is objecting to the abuse of their brand. The Religious Right has been driving this car and from all indications RR is drunk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once the darling of Evangelicals, once wrote that it is a Christian’s duty to wrench the wheel from the hands of fascists. Now they call shotgun and select the tunes.

I could be getting this wrong. As the child of an alcoholic, I don’t know what’s normal. My wife must tire of hearing the question from me, “Is this normal?” I just don’t know. One thing I do know is that being unable to know what to expect has prepared me well for Trump’s destruction of America. I can’t tell if it’s normal or not, so good thing we have the two-faced Evangelicals to tell us it is. Those who watch religion might say it’s odd to have mainstream Christians on the moral high ground over their more self-righteous kin, but these seem to be strange times. Religion, like anything that can be used, can also be abused.

Even our Orthodox siblings know the score. The Orthodox Church basically went underground in Russia, which is, after all, a Christian nation. Stalin, at least, was honest. He couldn’t stand that mamby-pamby opiate of the masses. He had the fortitude to call himself an atheist. 45, on the other hand, calls himself whatever it takes to make himself look good. What? Christians are fashionable this season? Okay, I’m one of those. Even people who should know better (just because your daddy was an Evangelist doesn’t make you holy—too many Evangelists were caught with prostitutes to make that claim) have delighted to invite a lion into the sheepfold. I don’t know about you, but I’d be edging toward the fence just about now. Something doesn’t smell right in here. But then again, don’t take my word for it. The situation looks normal to me.