Christianity’s Continual Fade Into Irrelevance?
May 13, 2011

The powers that be within the bubble that is Christendom continually amaze me. …At their ability to increasingly banish themselves and the religion further into irrelevancy.

It used to be that only the most blatantly arrogant talking heads sullied the religion’s image in the eyes of “the World.” Those like Pat Robertson or possibly James Dobson. Ultra-conservative Christians who happened to have significant influence in politics while having little or no positive effect on Joe the Sinner. Or even the more obscure-yet-somehow-heard examples like Fred Phelps and Terry Jones. All those were easy targets for the rest of the world to quickly dismiss as right-wing lunatics.

But it seems recently things are reaching a new low. Now we’ve got bastions of liberal/progressive Christianity coming clean about how they may not care quite so much about the rejected, as many thought, as much as they care about their own reputation. I don’t know all the details, but when people like Jim Wallis of Sojourners reject an ad promoting gay inclusion in churches, regardless of the details, it sends a disheartening (but not surprising) message: Those who the Empire has rejected, who, in liberal Christianity, once had a place to turn for hope and shelter from the onslaught of prejudice from “Christian” bigotry, now must find a new home.

Because that home they once had has been sold out from under them to the influence of the Empire itself. Or if they haven’t completely sold out, at least they’re being leased to pay someone’s image-enhancement bills. But that’s just my theory. …Perhaps ask someone like Sojourners contributor Becky Garrison or others on what they think of it. (On a related note, my favorite is when Dan Savage writes, “If progressive Christians can’t unite behind the concept of ‘welcome’ then, gee, what the fuck good are they?” )

So the Few with Influence, whether they’re on the right or left, seem to be continuing a trend that’s gone on for ages. Creating a world of their own design that caters more to the whims of power for power’s sake, for comfort and safety, and progressively less to the cries of a hurting public. They are painting themselves into a corner that, while perhaps increasingly comfortable, grows increasingly smaller and isolated. While the rest of the world moves on, they’re trying to maintain and polish their little bubble, with all its mirrors and finery.

We used to think there was something different, something refreshing, about the establishment of liberal/progressive Christianity. But we’re starting to realize that it’s all just the same as that stuffy old box of religion as we’ve come to know it.

Yes, people like Pat Robertson and Jim Wallis (I’m saddened that I now must lump them all together) have great influence in the world…correction, in the Empire. But even with enormous power, individuals and institutions can become irrelevant. I think even of Barack Obama. The most powerful man in the world. And how even he is powerless against the Empire of greed. How great plans for Change devolve into stale taglines under the blinding lights of power and popularity.

Ironically, all this reminds me of the ancient times when Christianity challenged the Empire instead of sleeping with it. When even cruel emperors like Nero, who strung up Christians and burned them for light for his evening walks in his garden, were powerless against the tide of revolutionaries who stood for a Better Way. But then, somehow, those revolutionaries gained more and more power, with the likes of Constantine and such. And then Christianity became the Empire it once stood against. Then Christians, sadly, became the ones who did the burning of those in opposition to their power. And today, while not many literal burnings at the stake occur, the Church has executed many good ideas and people who don’t outrightly prop up their platform.

But again, it’s strange to me how a person or an institution can seem so influential, while in reality they’re nothing more than figureheads of a bygone era. The era of institutions itself is fading because the world has come to realize that they just don’t work. They don’t work because you can’t trust them. You can’t trust them because they don’t feel. When someone feels, they can relate to vulnerability and loneliness and powerlessness. But something sad happens when priorities migrate from relating with the stories of others to building a platform for one’s own story. And life becomes nothing more than a haze of people trying to grow their own bubbles. And we become less relevant to each other for the sake of trying to become significant.

And that’s what I’ve seen happening within Christianity. As it tries to hold onto its own reputation, it is losing it.

***

So here’s a quick open letter to the religion and the figureheads, on the left and right, who maintain the status quo within it:

Face it. People just don’t care about you anymore. You’re too high-maintenance. You’re a nag. And you expect everyone to want to ride in your car–that ’84 TransAm that you can finally afford–just because you’ve got the loudest stereo on the block. The trouble is, you’re still playing Stryper like it’s cutting-edge. You’re balding. And your beer gut is hanging over your spandex pants. Yes, the ones you’ve stuffed with a cucumber. You need to go home, to the holy House you still share with your Mom, and look at yourself in the mirror. You are living in your own fantasy world. You have been sliding into irrelevance since the moment you started thinking you were cool.

So here’s my advice: You need a good cry. Move out of your Holy Mother’s house. Get a ratty apartment in the bad part of town. Hang out in the Home Depot parking lot and hail a job with some day laborers. Then–and this may be more difficult than working with the migrants (it seems to be the cliff over which only the true revolutionaries dare to explore)–go to a gay support group. Listen to their stories. Let them hug you. Hug them. Listen to their cries. Don’t give them advice. Just listen. Just keep your damn mouth shut and listen.

Maybe there’s still hope. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure. As long as you, Christianity, try to hold on to your reputation with power, you will continue to fade. As one unpopular rabble-rouser from a tiny, backwater Jewish town once said, “As long as you try to save your soul, you will lose it.” …Or is it already lost?

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Jesus Died for This? (review)
December 20, 2010

I met Becky Garrison a few years ago in the Bahamas at Soularize, a sort of postmodern Christian anti-conference. I was the director of a faith-based site at the time, and she was touring with her then-new book, The New Atheist Crusaders. We grabbed dinner and conversation a couple times in Nassau, I interviewed her about her book (I’ll post the video some time), and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

One thing you must know about Becky is that she will tell you what’s on her mind. She’s not the type to mince words, which is a refreshing change from the too-typical Christian passive aggression. And her books reflect her edge. So if you’re ever in doubt as to whether there’s anyone in Christendom that doesn’t play into the “Let’s talk nice and then I’ll condemn you behind your back” bullshit, Becky is an author you should look into.

Becky’s latest book, Jesus Died for This? A Satirists Search for the Risen Christ covers a lot of rhetorical territory. It combines confessional, memoir, rant and wise guidance into one package that’s approachable both for Christians and non-. While Becky is a satirist, one of rare breed in Christian circles, this latest work of hers seems more personal and less ranty than her other books, and I like that. It’s still edgy but not as angry and is more reflective, showing Becky’s softer side.

And in my opinion this book really illustrates how wise Becky is. How she’s not just eternally angst-ridden, as some critics have perceived her. She has very deep experience under what some may see as an impenetrable shell of sarcasm, so she often doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves for her wise perspective on spirituality.

And Jesus Died for This gives more glimpses of her maturity as a writer and a truth-seeker than previous works. She digs into the problems that she sees as holding Christianity back from real relevance in people’s lives and puts the spotlight on important issues, but also shares deeply personal stories that explain why she feels so passionately about the topics.

While she was in town taking part in my Is Religion Worth It? event, we had the chance to hang out and talk about her book, and this short exchange I think covers the heart of it:

Q: You discuss a lot of topics in Jesus Died for This, like war, commercialism, activism, hypocrisy and others that share what I read to be a common, pervasive feeling in the book: frustration. Can you describe what is for you the biggest frustration you have with Christianity today that caused you to write the book? And what do you see is a possible solution for that problem? So…What’s that one thing you wish you could tell those you were trying to address in the book?

A: Over the past few years, I’ve started writing for outlets like Killing the Buddha, The Revealer and Religion Dispatches that are definitely outside of the Christian (read “evangelical”) worldview. This adventure has proven to be quite the eye opening experience as I come increasingly into contact with the wider spiritual community.  In particular, I’ve found there’s a growing desire among more moderate humanists to engage with like-minded Christians on social issues of common concern. Along those lines, as someone who has outed herself as an apophatic Anglican [at the Is Religion Worth It? event], I’ve started exploring with spiritual atheists the common threads we both find in our connection to something outside of ourselves. (Celtic Christianity appears to be the thin line that joins us together.)

I would love for Christians to really sit with those who aren’t part of the evangelical/emergent/organic/mission/HipsterXnity/whateverthehellthisnewformoffaithiscalledthesedays world, as I think many folks would be shocked to learn just how insular and ridiculous our faith fights are to those outside of this insulated bubble. Once they stop following the latest faith fad, maybe then they can hear the small voice of God that’s been lost in the white noise of commercial Christianity.

As a writer, I struggle with the 16″ disconnect between my head and my heart. Words come easy to me but I find it next to impossible to actually put the Greatest Commandment into practice. Still, I know that is the path I am commanded to take as someone who tries to follow the teachings of Christ. I penned this reflection in January 2010 for the God’s Politics blog regarding my struggles to reconcile with those brothers and sisters in Christ where we’ve become estranged.

These thoughts remain very much in my head (and moving to my heart) as I move into 2011.

My favorite part of what she said was, “I would love for Christians to really sit with those who [don’t see things exactly as they see things].” I think conversation is key, and not the kind of conversation that’s a mask for an attempt at conversion. We all try so hard to convert whoever it is we’re arguing with that we forget that real conversation seeks to see things from the other’s perspective. And that’s one thing I especially like about her book. While she calls bullshit on many issues within Christianity, she also acknowledges her own issues. And I think that demonstrates that Becky is trying to lead by example in turning things around for the better.