Monday, April 6, 2015

The day after Easter 2015...

Back in 1968, Harvey Cox wrote a call to the church that continues to ring true to me. In his
analysis of social confusion and ethical distress, he concludes that "for our time a re-appropriation of the radical utopian, sectarian and monastic impulses (are essential) in Christianity."

(Our age needs) a rediscovery of styles of Christian life and images of Christ that in recent years have nearly been forgotten...Christ has come to previous generations in various guises: as teacher, as judge, as healer. In today's world these traditional images of Christ have lost much of their power. Now in a new - or really an old but recaptured guise - Christ has made an unexpected entrance onto the stage of modern secular life. Enter Christ the harlequin: the personification of festivity and fantasy in an age that had almost lost both. Coming now in greasepaint and halo, this Christ is able to touch our jaded modern consciousness as other images of Christ cannot. (The Feast of Fools)

His goal was to unleash the new/old wisdom of St. Paul's "fools for Christ" as an alternative to bureaucracy. His hope was to nourish a playful, embodied and creative critique of American consumerism. And his method of transformation included small groups of bold believers using the arts to prefigure a redeeming and healing culture. To say that Cox was not only ignored but actively dismissed by the church would be an understatement. Yes, the core of his work took shape and form in the Jesus People movement, but these groups existed largely beyond the radar of popular culture and religion. And when mainstream Protestants or traditional Roman Catholics did notice, they were dismissed as Jesus Freaks. Broadway appropriated the vision of Cox in "Godspell" in the early 70's giving countless young people a taste of joy that was a clear alternative to the status quo of their home congregations. Folk masses blossomed for a season and a new generation of liturgical music began to take root. But as so often happens in a market economy, the emphasis from Broadway - and the new music - celebrated a personal spiritual transformation rather than participation in the Body of Christ. So the focus of American religion became a 25 year obsession with being born again. Charismania and worship wars were the rule of the day distracting us from practicing a disciplined and creative life together as disciples of Christ.

Wonder why John Walker, Jr. joined the Taliban? Or young secular Muslims are now flocking to jihad with the so-called Islamic State in Syria? Curious about the heroin epidemic throughout New England? Or the mass exodus of young evangelicals from church given culture wars 3.0? Our realm in 2015 is even more cynical and jaded than anything we knew in 1968. It is also more terrified and depressed. So while I continue to value the call to consciousness conveyed by Cox in his Christ as clown archetype, a 21st century Christ must know how to express the compassion and awe of the Lord if we are to take seriously our current culture of fear and loathing. As Douglas John Hall observes, for 21st century Christians in the West, we must be able to speak to one fundamental question: is their meaning to life BEFORE death? Previous generations - and those without security - look to God for hope beyond this life. But that is not our struggle. Rather, we must be able to embody an alternative to greed, fear and despair - and not in isolation with beautiful, individual saints - but as engaged communities of faith. In other words, as the Body of Christ.

Richard Rohr recently expressed our challenge like this in a conversation about the methodology of St. Paul: Paul (had) a very concrete missionary strategy of building living communities which produced a visible and believable message. (This is quite different from the post-Protestant regression into mere individual salvation.) Paul is a collective, corporate thinker, who creates corporate audio-visual aids to spread the message. Yet for centuries we've interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals. This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist rather than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes, we get preoccupied with the parts--and never get beyond that.

Paul seems to think, and I agree with him, that corporate evil can only be overcome or
confronted with corporate good. Paul uses primitive yet very powerful words for the negative side of corporations, institutions, and nations--in various translations: "thrones, dominations, principalities, and powers" (Colossians 1:16). These are not "bad angels" as much as collective evil attitudes. However, because they are so widely shared, they no longer look like evil. Paul is pointing to the mass consciousness or collective cultural moods that control us, things we can't see when we're inside of them. And, because of this, and the way we are programmed to think, the powers and principalities are hard to resist.

For instance, I've never heard a single sermon on the tenth commandment--"Thou shalt not covet . . . anything that is thy neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17)--because coveting goods is the only game in town. It's called capitalism, consumerism, and advertising! It would be downright un-American to criticize any of these. In Paul's thinking, those big cultural blindnesses can only be overcome by a group of people living and affirming and supporting one another in an alternative lifestyle. The individual can hardly live an alternative consciousness by himself or herself. The pressure to conform is too great, and the eyes (and words) to see it are just not there. It is no surprise that the word "non-violence" did not come into usage till the early 20th century.

One of the reasons I know I ache so profoundly for sabbatical is that it is exhausting to nourish the Body of Christ without personal renewal.  As I have expressed at other times, I have rarely found such support from within the institution. In other locales, I was able to find monastic retreats for both accountability and spiritual sustenance. But not here. One of my prayers for this sabbatical is to walk and rest, pray and sing in another faith community (and choir) and listen for the still small voice of the Lord.  My ministry isn't done yet - and I have some clues about how it might be reshaped - but now is not my time for action. Rather, this is a season for stepping back and listening with faith and anticipation.  And it is only 24 days away!

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