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Playing at Christianity
A couple of months ago, I got chance to talk to some newly minted college grads looking for teaching jobs. They were all polite, well-rounded twenty-something kids that were professional in appearance and demeanor. I’m in Kentucky, so nearly all of them were some flavor of Christian — Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, the whole gamut. Two of them in particular stuck out as avatars of trend I had been noticing for a few years.
The first one, we’ll call him “Kurt,” was a young man that worked his way through college by running a small, labor-intensive business. He spent most of his time working while listening to books on his phone. He was a serious fellow, sharp and analytical. Over burgers, he talked about his childhood, balancing a belief in science with the belief in Christ, and how C.S. Lewis had shaped his opinion on human suffering. I imagine that he could be hard to get along with; his line of speech was direct and sometimes brusque. Still, I liked him. He spoke his mind and showed evidence that he had seriously considered all points of view before coming to a decision. He was excited about being a teacher because it gave him the opportunity to help young people work through these problems themselves. For a 24-year-old kid, he was quite impressive, the product of serious thought about the relationship between humanity and divinity.
The other kid, we’ll call her “Sally,” was an effervescent, bubbly young lady, a bright and engaging personality with a beaming smile to match. She was polite and well-mannered, seemingly the kind of kid we all want our kids to be. Under the well-polished veneer, though, I found something quite different. The more I talked to her, the more aware I became of just how superficial and even vain she was. She was selfie-obsessed, social-media obsessed, and only thought about ideas in the sense of how they affected her directly. When she spoke about teaching, it seemed that her primary interest was decorating her room with posters and writing good lesson plans. She seemed particularly interested in the virtue-signaling aspect of teaching, as if her choice to be a teacher was a long-term act of martyrdom that only the most pure and noble could undertake. Her limited understanding of the Christian faith revolved around platitudes and kitschy praise music. She talked a lot about what organizations she was a part of (teaching and Christian) but never about what she believed, how she arrived at those beliefs, or the greater implications of those beliefs.
In short, Kurt is a Christian. Sally, however, is merely playing at Christianity.
The Sallies of the world are far too common and they’re not exactly a new phenomenon. Kierkegaard noted the evolution of “comfortable Christianity” in the 19th century. To Kierkegaard, a great many — perhaps most — Christians were simply using the church as a social mechanism, aping meaningless rituals out of the need to belong to something. These comfortable Christians were fine with universal salvation of Christianity but not so keen on the whole “broken vessel / personal sacrifice / serious prayer” scene. Today, the much-bemoaned “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen and his ilk is the most notable example of our modern comfortable Christians, but the basic premise of “you be you” is more prevalent in local country churches than you might think.
In some ways, this shift to soft Christianity in mainstream America was predictable. I imagine it’s difficult to get anyone to sit through Jonathan Edwards Lite for an hour, much less a generation that complains when the avocado on their toast is non-organic. So, they get butts in the pews any way they know how, and “any way” always seems to involve telling 16-year-old kids how flippin’ awesome they are. Hollowing out the church in an attempt to pander to a fickle youth is dangerous in a myriad of ways. Such churches are creating a generation of pseudo-Christians, young people entering the adult world with an incomplete theology consisting of palatable Christian beliefs that are unmoored from their healthy counterbalances. They embrace pity without justice and easy grace without hard sacrifice. (It is worth noting that outside her of adorable fashion-necklace crucifix, Sally’s social views were virtually indistinguishable from a garden-variety social justice warrior). Take all that hard stuff out of Christianity and it’s not farfetched for one to imagine a quasi-hippie Jesus frolicking through the slums of Buenos Aries arm-in-arm with the Sanctified Che on a “freedom” march.
That is not to say that the hard lessons of Christianity aren’t being taught. There will always be a desire for the real deal, and those searching for an all-encompassing meaning to their lives will go and seek it, even if they must find it in unlikely places. Many lost young men — the people who need these tough lessons the most — find a similar code of self-sacrifice and personal responsibility in the military.
You could make an argument that the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson has been predicated on his willingness to tell young people to embrace the idea that life is suffering and we must build ourselves into the kind of person that deserves God’s grace. (Somehow it makes sense in our age that the most profound Christian speaker of our generation is a Canadian kinda-sorta agnostic).
So there is hope for a type of young person that takes life and its responsibilities seriously. The church, though, stands at a perilous crossroads. Can the modern church reform itself from within? Can it stop its gradual slide from bulwark of western civilization to rudderless social club? Or will it be content to fade into the abyss, playing pretend with the greatest legacy the world has ever known?
Published in Religion & Philosophy
“There is something frightful in the fact that the most dangerous thing of all, playing at Christianity, is never ever included in the list of heresies and schisms.” — Søren Kierkegaard
No, but we are. And I don’t mean to disagree, but the Church is perfect instrument for evangelism. We just don’t want to do it.
Translation, please? I’m not hip/woke enough for this, even if I’m surrounded by Millennials. :-)
Means fully understanding.
Not if we use language and non-verbal cues that turn them away; guess we’ll agree to disagree on this one…Chaplain Nanda’s experience speaking here, btw…) :-) Also, “Many are called, few are chosen.”, said Someone we claim to speak for.
“Jordan Peterson is a believer in the New Religion, the one where God is the force for good inside each of us, and all religions are paths to wisdom, and the Bible stories are just guides on how to live our lives.” – as I said, a false prophet.
Nonetheless, the Church was ordained and commissioned by Christ himself to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
We are not doing that. We should.
Far predates Millennials, the term was coined by Robert Heinlein in 1961! It caught on in tech sub-cultures. Oxford Dictionary: “understand (something) intuitively or by empathy.”
Robert A. Heinlein, in Stranger in a Strange Land. More here.
Millennials would probably miss that one too. It’s from Stranger in a Strange Land, which was written by Robert Heinlein in the 1960’s. It means to intuitively understand a subject, or to fully comprehend the meaning.
EDIT – Clifford and Arahant beat me to it.
Yes. On reflection I should have moderated my language on Sally.
Thanks sirs, for the explication: to intuitively grasp/understand…How did I grok that tech and sci-fi were in here somewhere? :-)
As the case of Sally illustrates, we also need to tend to the flock of the faithful, and lotsa churches are failing that one big time too.
As Skip says, faith is part of a relationship. And relationships sometimes have dry spells. Too much trust in seeing the rewards of faith in this life risks being self-defeating. For what if they do not come? What if they come… then go? Is life not getting better a reason to lose faith via a self-fulfilling prophecy: “If I had faith, my life would be getting better. Since it’s not, I must not have faith”? And I don’t mean life “getting better” in just shallow ways, but in the grimmer sense that life sometimes “gets better” during times of trial because those times of trial deepen you. Well, what if they don’t, or at least don’t seem to be doing so at a pace and manner mere mortals can observe?
I’ve had times of trial deepen me. Or so it seemed at the time. And then other trials that… didn’t.
For me, awkwardly enough, becoming a new mom has turned into one heckuva spiritual dry spell — I doubt my old self would recognize me. Much of new parenthood is endured by remembering “this, too, shall pass”, one reason to trust this dry spell isn’t permanent drought. But to cop a phrase from Osteen, I am not living “my best life now”. And believing I would be if only my faith were true strikes me as, well, a bit Osteen-y.
From a sci-fi book I’ve never read. However, a Hacker’s Dictionary describes grok as,
and I hear/read it used a lot in that sense.
We used to say it in programming. To “grok” meant to be able to hold a complete understanding of something within a single thought. The sub-routine should be something a person could “grok.” If not, it was too big…
No disagreement. And some churches do one to the exclusion of the other.
This is a fair point. My chief concern, though, is a church culture that isn’t trying to get kids to grow out of their juvenilia but reinforcing it.
I don’t know whether this post on Christian kitsch would leave you laughing or crying, then, @mbrandongodbey. Maybe a little of both?
It does contain @skipsul‘s daughter’s memorable phrase “delicious licorice sin beans!”
How many young people have it all figured out, especially spiritually speaking? We’ve all been through being a Sally or a Kurt – it takes years and hard knocks….but God is there.
As Heinlein’s conceit in Stranger in a Strange Land had it, the word “grok” came from a non-human culture on Mars, where it literally meant “to ritually eat and digest the body of your honored dead.” In the novel, the practice had developed (IIRC) in response to prolonged resource scarcity and the spirits of the dead remained to be communicated with. The meaning you cite was a secondary and metaphorical one.
The novel’s protagonist was a human child rescued and raised by native Martians. On being returned to human society, he brought Martian truths to humans on Earth and was (knowing that it would happen and willing to accept it) torn to pieces by the mob for having done so.
Heinlein cleverly developed a few incidents mentioned in passing in his juvenile novel Red Planet when constructing the alien culture for Stranger, and certainly intended the parallels between “grok” and the Christian rite of communion and the parallels between the career of his protagonist and that of Jesus.
What I found much more interesting in the novel than “grok” was the “Fair Witness.” Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and Heinlein foresaw the development of the technological ability to seamlessly and undetectably construct a false audio and video recording of an event. He had it that in response, certain people were dedicated from early childhood to training and conditioning that would render them capable of giving truly accurate eyewitness testimony when required, and incapable when in that mode of giving false witness. A Fair Witness was an early adherent to Heinlein messianic protagonist and witnessed his death.