Thursday, December 14, 2006

Forget Enlightenment, I Just Want Entertainment

At its worst, conservative religion (and religion is, by and large a conservative enterprise, as it seeks to conserve the traditions of the past - this is true even of the most liberal expressions of religion) can be so reactionary that it creates an artificial crisis every time anything in our culture changes. This has long put me off. As such, even during my fundamentalist days I have always been at least a little bit annoyed with the likes of Josh McDowell and Ron Luce, whose near constant beating of the "moral decline and degradation" drum rings so hollow in the face of history. Their theological and political agenda demands a sense of escalating moral crisis so they make one up, creating a Golden Age, a fanciful re-remembering of the 1950s, and then selectively choose their data to show how far we have fallen from that glorious moment when we walked so closely with God.

This not only misidentifies the current situation, but it also ignores the problems of the past. As such it keeps us from truly identifying authentic social, cultural, moral and spiritual problems; nearly perennial problems so often called simply "the human condition." Sexual issues so dominate their moral consciousness that they choose an age so characterized by racial injustice that the idea that all persons just might deserve equal protection under the law and equal treatment in society nearly tore apart the fabric of our country, because at least back then when a teenage girl got pregnant you could either move her to a home in the country or force her to marry the father.

I say that to say this: I am about to sound like them, making a reckless and historically unsupported statement that might exaggerate a current problem to promote an ideological agenda. At least, that's part of how I feel every time I utter the words that I am about to type. But then, the more I look at the words, the more I think that, while they are certainly held captive by a prejudice so ingrained that I am not even aware of it, they just might be true. These are those words, so recklessly unsubstantiated that I nearly blush at their boldness:

We live in the most intoxicated society in the history of the world!

There, I wrote it. Now it's out in the open. I feel better for having got that off my chest.

We live in the most intoxicated society in the history of the world. Of course, I can't know that. If anyone's ever done a study on that, I have no knowledge of it. I can't even come up with how we might measure that. But consider this: Not only do we as a culture have a collective addiction to mind-numbing and mind-altering chemical agents, but we also use so many non-chemical means of entertaining ourselves to the point of distraction.

Between our televisions (every time I watch TV I guiltily remember the classic Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Hobbes, meditating upon Calvin's glazed expression as he stares vacantly toward the altar of mindless entertainment sighs and says, Marx hadn't seen anything yet), our computers, our car stereos, our Ipods, our cell phones which are quickly turning into mini-computers, and a thousand other points of light-filled shiny junk we have created a truly virtual reality which ensures that as we trek through our actual reality we will be constantly surrounded by and immersed in a sea of entertainment.

But this is not necessarily a new problem. Religions have long identified a fundamental human problem much like the one I'm railing against. We have long walked through our lives asleep. We have long been bundles of unconscious non-reflection, acting in rote patterns which are never critically engaged. Technology has simply raised the stakes, allowing us to magnify our natural stupor.

That we are asleep becomes apparent when we try to critically engage our own behavior. Why do we act the way that we do? Do our actions demonstrate that we understand our own interests and the behaviors which are most likely to bring about those interests, or do our actions serve as reminders of our almost exclusively reflexive rather than reflective nature? Generally, I suspect, it is the later rather than the former.

What makes you, say, angry, and how do you act (or, more accurately, react) when you become angry? Every day when I drive I see people use their cars as automotive missiles designed to carve out the one space of road that the driver owns, and will defend with his or her very life. I see parents so stressed out, so miserable, and so unconscious of their misery and the factors which have given rise to it, that they yell at their children, tearing them down and passing on that misery like a genetic inheritance.

I see so many other forms of reflexive behavior which clings to our suffering as though it were a birthright rather than a poison to be discarded. And, of course, I see these things in myself. When I am not self aware, when I am not mentally awake, I scream at the drivers of other vehicles as though they could hear me. I reflexively pass my suffering on to my gorgeous wife and beautiful child, because nothing, not even the flu, is more contagious than a bad mood. At my worst I sleepwalk through life, unaware of what I'm doing or why I'm doing it, sowing the seeds of suffering in myself and the world around me.

Yet my faith, my religious tradition, like all the great religious traditions, screams to me: Wake up! Wake up, sleeper. Rise from the dead.

I am not a functionalist who can identify a single purpose for or function of religion, but if I were I might say that this is it. At its best religion, rather than serving as Marx's opiate for the masses, calls us out of our deep slumber, begging us to see the world all around us, and see it clearly. It calls us to identify the causes of suffering and work for its alleviation, while also waking up all those around us. This is salvation. This is enlightenment.

But we live in an intoxicated and consumer driven culture, where everything is commodity. And the best selling commodities are those which drive us deeper into our slumber, those which intoxicate us even more.

I thought all of this as I passed a billboard on the Interstate advertising for a church. It had a sharply dressed, fashionable man, looking almost like a more realistic action figure. Wearing sunglasses and a huge smile, he was clearly exhilarated as he rode a kind of surf board through some white, fluffy clouds. The sky was crystal blue, and the sun shone brightly behind him. If there had been music, I'm sure that it would have been the trendy new metal that so often accompanies action sports. And, in big, bold letters were the words:

Church wasn't meant to be boring!

Message: Like all other things in this world, the sacred exists purely for your entertainment. If you're bored with your church, if it challenges you and asks of you what you're not willing to give, if it makes, as one court musician noted in the marvelous movie Amadeus "too many demands on the royal ear," the problem isn't you. No, it couldn't be you, dear consumer. The problem must lie in your church. So, you should change churches the way you change the brand of your shampoo, or the way you change your Internet Service Provider, or the way you change any other commodity that stops meeting your wants and needs.

Forget that your religious tradition reflects thousands of years of spiritual disciplines designed to facilitate a life-alerting encounter with the divine. And, of course, forget that there is something wrong with you, something profoundly wrong. Forget that you experience that fundamental wrongness every time you medicate yourself to dull your existential pain, only to wake up in the morning the same person you were, only a little bit more miserable because once again your miracle cure left you unchanged save for a bit more or less vomiting this time. Forget that every fiber of your being is screaming for meaning, though the sound of that screaming has been mostly drowned out by the sounds of all the electronic gadgets around you that distract you from the only life you're guaranteed to live.

No, no, there's nothing wrong with you. So, come to our church. Allow us to be one more distraction, one more piece of meaningless entertainment that caters to your every whim, dear consumer. Because, well, look at how chasing after your own way has served you so far.

The question of how religion is to interact with culture is a tricky one, and as old as religion and culture. Clearly for a religion to having anything meaningful to say to the culture that surrounds it, it cannot stand entirely apart from that culture offering nothing but condemnation, reflexively rejecting everything. But neither can a religion so immerse itself in a culture that no distinction can be made between the values of the religion and the values of the culture around it. Religion serves as a counterpoint, offering a different way of life to those who are brave enough to wake up from their slumber. It offers a way, a path to sanctification.

That narrow path cannot be offered up in exchange for a large crowd and a full collection plate. And the best, the most successful churches are not necessarily the biggest and the brightest, because religion is, despite Max Weber's insightful hypothesis, not a capitalist or even democratic enterprise. And salvation is not a commodity to be bought and sold.

The best churches, then, are not the ones that cater to your every desire, demanding nothing of you but that you show up and be entertained, paying, of course, for the show. Rather, the best churches are the ones that wake you up and show you a new way to be human. They don't say there's nothing wrong with you. Rather, they say, we are, all of us, marked by suffering; but we don't have to stay that way. Here is how to change. It is slow and painful, yes. But it is always painful to wake up from anesthesia, and it is always slow going to learn how to use limbs you never knew you had.

This message may not play well in a marketplace full of people who have no idea what's wrong with themselves or how to fix it. But it should never be exchanged for a more popular message that will never help anyone.

No comments: