We Americans have our good qualities but seriousness is not one of them. Perhaps at one time we were a serious people but consumerism, fear of suffering and self-absorption have taken over the nation and infected our religion.
Jon Gabriel of the libertarian-leaning Ricochet blog has been writing about his disillusionment with Evangelical Christianity which led to his conversion to Orthodoxy. His description of the Megachurch service that broke his faith sounds, to this bad Catholic, purgatorial:
The lights went down, the fog machine cranked up, and a row of multicolored synced spotlights singed my retinae. Here I was for the zillionth Sunday morning getting my eardrums pounded by low-quality soft rock with vaguely Christian lyrics.
I know the drill. Just keep chugging my coffee, shield my eyes with the church program, endure the tear-jerking video, then enjoy a nice sermon. It’s almost Easter, so it’ll probably be about Christ’s final days before he suffered crucifixion.
The pastor leaps on the stage, thanks the Worship Team, adjusts his wireless headset, and begins.
Wait. He’s not talking about the Passion. Or our need to repent. Or Christ. I glance at the program and find the sermon title.
“Three Ways to Succeed at Work.”
Hold on … I showered, dressed, wrangled the kids, drove 15 miles, and navigated this maze of a campus for a bad light-rock concert followed by a TED talk?
A church service written by Tom Wolfe would not be more absurd.
Orthodoxy is taking on the role that Roman Catholicism once played for a certain type of American intellectual: a refuge for the soul that longs for tradition, objectivity, and depth, appealing to both the aesthetic and ascetic sense. Catholicism of course nuked both its aesthetic and ascetic traditions back in the 70s and then nuked its moral authority in the early 2000s when it became clear that Bishops were letting priests molest teen boys with impunity, and the average Catholic parish is shot through with the same content-free feel-goodism as any mainline denomination.
That leaves Orthodoxy. The Orthodox have their own problems with narrow ethnic tribalism and widespread indifference among its members, but the traditions are still there for the serious seeker. In Europe and the Americas, only in Orthodox churches do men attend services more than women: the ancient Orthodox liturgies and traditions of prayer and strict fasting seem to appeal to men.
Serious people want a serious religion. Churches that attempt to appeal to frivolous Americans are driving these people away.
What would a serious American Christianity look like, regardless of denomination?
- The centrality of the cross. Whatever the reformers meant by “once saved always saved” it could not have been the cheap grace peddled by American churches today by which Christ suffered so we don’t have to. Suffering is an inescapable part of life and the only real source of wisdom. Christ suffered not so we can avoid suffering but so that our suffering makes sense. Suffering is something for the Christian to embrace: it teaches, heals and sanctifies. Christianity without the cross can’t make sense of pain, defeat, or death. It can’t preach virtue or even repeat the Beatitudes with a straight face. It collapses in the face of suffering.
- Prayer over activism. The Apostle James said that faith without works is dead, but the inverse is also true. In my years working for various charities I noticed that works are often the refuge for professional Christians whose faith is hanging by a thread. The Gospel ceases to say much to them about God but it says a lot about universal health-care. Large service and education based Christian charities are increasingly indistinguishable from their secular counterparts, and I suspect most will decide that their missions will be better served by jettisoning any reference to faith. I also think that is for the best: Americans are active, generous and extroverted enough; the serious work of faith has to be going inward, seeking God and conformity to his will.
- Tradition over contemporaneity. Tradition gets a bad rap. If tradition becomes an end in itself it makes people rigid and indifferent to the needs of others (as Pope Bergoglio is always pointing out) but tradition also frees us from the tyranny of now: it forces one to step outside his temporal prejudices and engage the wisdom of the ages. Tradition should make us humble: it implies respecting the collective judgement of past generations more than our own. Tradition also orients us to the future: it is meant to be handed on to the next generation, while contemporaneity dies with the current generation and has nothing to say to the future. Only tradition can create a multi-generational community.
I suppose other “serious” attributes could be a demanding moral code and a solid intellectual tradition, but these things can’t sustain faith in themselves: humans are very fragile, and the highest ideals and clearest arguments don’t keep anyone from sinning, burning out, or falling away.