Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Christianity outside the cocoon

So Doug from IllumiNations stopped by the paper yesterday and I used up a lot of his time chatting with him. Doug has this amazing quality of making me comfortable talking about faith, which is something I can do on a blog but I'm not good at in real life. (I suppose that's part of what makes him a good pastor.)

I first got to know Doug about four years ago, when I was assigned to do a special publication about the 40 Days of Purpose that his church was embarking on. The conversation shifted from there to my own journey from a mediocre Protestant to a fairly serious Catholic. I enjoy talking with Doug about this, more than with most people, because I never feel like I have to either defend Catholicism or shill for it. It's simply talking with a brother whose Christian walk is taking a different route.

A subject that came up was the tendency of American Evangelicalism to sort of cocoon itself. We discussed a friend of mine who spent his whole life surrounded by members of his own Charismatic mega-church (a church that Doug is well familiar with), and then when he discovered that the world didn't end at the church doors, swung full force into kind of a belligerent Dawkins-style atheism. I don't know how he'll end up. (I understand his mom reads this blog, so Judy, take courage. When He's answering prayers, God gives top priority to mothers.)

One of the things Doug mentioned was that his son had been to a Maronite church while away at college, and been struck with how much the ancient liturgy had in common with his own experiences of Christianity. It was kind of a door-opening experience, seeing that there are Christian traditions out there that are different (and much older), yet not alien. Evangelical Protestantism, for all its influence in our culture, is only a small part of the vast Christian Church.

So between that and the approach of Reformation Day, it seemed like a good time to re-post a letter I wrote to my now-atheist friend in 2006:


Note of explanation: About a year ago [in 2005], a close friend of mine was unjustly dismissed from his job teaching at an Evangelical Christian school. We had a long talk when I heard about it, about the clannishness of such schools, and about the tendency for rules to go unwritten: "the Club and the Code," as he described it. He'd had it up to his kiester with Christianity, and was seriously doubting his faith. This rattled me, because he had been a strong influence on my own faith when we were teenagers, and a sounding board when I became Catholic. A couple of days after my friend and I talked, I sent him this long e-mail. I'm sticking it in here with identifying information changed. I still think what I said then is worth saying.

I've been thinking a good deal about the conversation we had Sunday, and I finally put my finger on something that I wanted to say that I couldn't really formulate at the time. You're welcome to dismiss it as "witnessing," although that's not really what I want to do, at least not in the Sunday School "bring-a-friend-and-get-a-prize" sense.

You're pissed, with excellent reason. You're pissed at a school that screwed you over, and a church that places its focus on "the club and the code," as you put it. In feeling this way, you think you're also pissed at Christianity, but you're not. This is why.

You're not, because you've never really had much experience of Christianity. (I don't mean experience of Christ; that's another matter entirely.) What you've had is extensive experience with a specific kind of Christianity. You've spent your entire life in a cocoon, the walls of which are defined by a small, recently-developed movement that thinks it's all there is. I'm not running down your church or Evangelicalism in general. They do good work, they love the Lord, and they hold to the core of the Gospel, which is redemption by Christ. But Evangelicalism is no more the whole – or even the essence – of Christianity than the third lug nut on your right front wheel is the whole of your car.

What the Evangelical movement of the 60s and 70s that you're familiar with has done is to strip away the visible aspects of the Christian faith and replace them with other visible aspects. The confessional is gone, but there's a coffee bar. The iconostasis is replaced by a video screen. Most tellingly of all, the altar has been eliminated and replaced with a podium.

Christianity is not just hymns and a sermon. It's not about the emotions or the bumper stickers or the intellectual study or the "codes." It's not even just the Bible. Those things are expressions of Christianity, and they're the familiar ones to you and me, but they're only the tip of the iceberg.

Christianity is more than just an American white-bread cultural imperative. Christianity is also ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, and palms on Palm Sunday, and fires on Pentecost. It's painted icons of Christians who have gone before, and statues of the Blessed Virgin, and Stations of the Cross. It's rosaries and prayer cards and incense and holy water. It's not just the upraised hands of the Charismatic; it's also the dipped knee of genuflection and the sign of the cross and a kissed icon.

How many times have you seen pictures of people lighting candles before a statue of Mary and thought, "What idolatry!" But it's not. It's a Christian practice far older than Sunday School coloring books. The people who come to the Blessed Mother with their requests are Christians holding to a tradition that goes back to the catacombs. Those superstitious people who line up to see a bone of St. Anthony? They're honoring the memory and holiness of their Christian brethren and sistern. Yep. That's Christianity, too. It only looks alien to someone who's only seen one small slice of the faith.

One of my favorite corners of the calendar is the feast of Corpus Christi, where the consecrated host, the Body of Christ, is carried over the heads of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people parading through the streets. To you, it seems weird, but to the vast majority of Christians, it's the most natural thing in the world.

We hear all the time that the Church isn't a building; it's the people. That's true, but it's also a structure built not just out of laity but of priests in robes, bishops in funny hats, and monks in habits. You think of those things as frippery, but they're as much an integral part of Christianity as a preacher in a double-breasted suit. It's also ordinary people; not just the few currently walking around but the ones who have already gone to heaven. The Church, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, stretches not only through space but time as well.

Christian writing didn't begin with Rick Warren, or even with Lewis. Try reading John of the Cross, or Ephraim of Edessa, or (best of all, I think) Thomas A Kempis' "Imitation of Christ." These are a much deeper glimpse of a very deep faith than anything you can get at the Christian bookstore at the mall.

I'm not trying to put together a sales pitch for Catholicism here. For that matter, I'm not trying to sell Christianity at all. If you really are so browned off that you just can't stomach Christianity, then by all means leave, or at least take a hiatus. Better that than to keep chained to something you hate. But bear in mind that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream't of in your Sunday morning bulletin. You've only dipped a toe into the sea so far. You kind of owe it to yourself to take a look at the whole thing before you dump it.

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