Monday, December 27, 2010

What about church? (2)

I've been reading Daniel Okrent's Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition, and it's a real eye-opener. If you ever wondered how it was that a bunch a teetotalers (in a beer-loving nation like ours) ever worked up the political momentum to actually amend the constitution in order to keep people from enjoying a snort once in a while, this book lays it out in all its surprisingly-sordid detail.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about . . .

On page 2 Okrent quotes Billy Sunday, who was a popular American evangelist of the early twentieth century, and a lifelong campaigner for "temperance." When the 18th amendment to the consitution, banning the sale and distribution of alcohol, was passed, an ecstatic Billy Sunday said this:
The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn cribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.
Putting aside the extraordinary theological confusion on display here, Sunday's words are of a piece with a long tradition of puffery and hucksterism in American culture, in which a cause (or product, or diet, or lifestyle choice) is promoted with over-the-top promises of bliss, while at the same time a failure to accede to that cause (or buy the product, or choose the lifestyle, etc.) will result in untold misery and degradation.

This method of persuasion is so common in American culture as to go almost unnoticed. It is rife in commercial Christianity, with Your Best Life Now being only the most obvious example. It even colors the tone of much pulpit ministry, coaxing the pew-folk to be good, tithe, volunteer, vote, or whatever. I'll call it promoculture. In the church, promoculture language not only invites exaggeration, intentionally brushes over nuance, and conveniently ignores alternative evidence, but inevitably shades into outright legalism.

Imagine America without promoculture. It's hard to do. You'd probably have to go back to pre-industrial village life, I suppose (see this post on Christmas nostalgia). Imagine, let's say, the game of baseball without promoculture. You'd have to go back to pick-up games in the sandlot. My point is simply to demonstrate the all-pervasive nature of, and our economic dependency on, promoculture.

Now try this thought-experiment: imagine evangelical America without promoculture. Again, very hard to do, methinks. [Update: but see Lore's comment for a clue.]

See, I hate promoculture. I mute the commercials on TV, and I tune out the promo-jabber in churches. In the first post of this ongoing series, I featured a rant of Mark Driscoll's against "religion." Point being, as I look around for a church to attend, I'll be extremely wary of religion, and I'll also be extremely wary of promoculture. Don't try to sell me a book, get me excited about a program, or entice me into buying the latest must-have Christian music.

The question is, if you take promoculture out of the evangelical church, will there be anything left? Sometimes I wonder.


Lore said...

One of the first things I noticed when I moved down here and started attending The Village was the lack of promoculture at this church...and perhaps it's because I'm coming from being on staff at my other church as the main catalyst for creating that culture (graphic designer). Every Sunday now I feel ON during the entire service, I don't have to tune out announcements, infomercials, light shows, great bands, whatever...It's Christ crucified. That's it.

Bob Spencer said...

Boy, that's beautiful. I'd like to find me some of that!

speculator said...

Through more than two decades of Christian life, the most transcendent expressions of living the faith- and being living signs of reconciliation- that I've experienced (and continue to be inspired by) is the monastic way of community worship and "ora et labora" intertwined in life.
There's something about disciples gathering around communion, prayer, and listening to Scripture that removes the center from preacher-personalities, and- at its best- from pop-culture distractions.
Quakers are also very adept at this.

In addition, we can do what we can as individuals to maintain some healthy equilibrium, being from this world, yet not owned by it.

Bob Spencer said...

Speculator, my thoughts sometims trendi in that same direction. However, I have known the downside of liturgical worship practices, so I'm perhaps not as sold on it as you are (there's that promoculture lingo again). But in theory it might guard against personality-cults and the seepage of spiritual content from our community worship. On the other hand, the worst case of alpha-pastor personality cult in the church I've ever experienced was in a liturgical church. Hmmmm... could it be we have met the enemy, and he is us!

speculator said...

That's interesting- my negative experiences in churches have had more to do with imperious pastors and elitism than with liturgical practice. You would draw lots of comments from among your readership about the pilgrimage of the "church-burnt."

Remember that monastic prayer is not the same as the pageantry you've seen in parish churches. It's entirely different for all involved, when prayer is among equals that pursue and celebrate God together, without intermediary or cluttered narrative.

Nope, nothing's been sold to me. Educated consumers are not quick to buy.
The famous Pogo quote is succinct indeed! The enemy is us, when we impulsively buy into things (philosophy, politics, influences, etc.) without careful thought.

Bob Spencer said...

I like your description, Speculator. Your use of the term "cluttered narrative" is especially apt. Because the cluttering of the narrative is what the evangelical movement has done (in spades!). And your reference to prayer "among equals" also speaks to the problem of --if not cults of personality--at least heavily pastor-centered services. It's almost sacrilege to suggest this might be a problem, so attached are we to leadership models. But all that is for a future post in this series.