The Fish Wars

I know it is tough to be a Christian today. These days, in polite society, one gets the impression that no decent person with even a shred of intelligence could believe the non-scientific, backward, even hateful things that Christians purportedly believe.

Game over? Are Christians just waiting for the clock to run out, wondering if, like youth sports, there is a mercy rule in religion? I see many Christians, in a hurry to get to their cars and leave, hustling out of the stadium of religion, heads hanging in grief, guilt or shame.

I get it. I understand both sides. People genuinely misunderstand Jesus. They think they have heard the Gospel. They say they know Christians. But they reject both the caricature of Jesus they have heard and the un-Christian Christians they have met. Christians feel judged too—rightfully protesting: “We don’t hate gay people! We are not all in bed with politicians! We don’t think that everyone who disagrees with our denomination is going to hell!”

This is all real. But the instinct to fight back in a kind of PR war will not work. Remember The Fish Wars—the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish? That went well…for sellers of trinkets. But I’d bet my last dollar that millions of pieces of plastic of the back of cars did not change many minds. No one ever converted to Christ because they lost a bumper sticker war.

But, standing tall in the middle of human history, behind all the ups and downs of two thousand years cultural religious tension is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the most amazing being to ever walk, talk or do deeds of love, power and justice. He can handle some bad PR.

Jesus stands through his moments on the cross. At the cross Jesus stepped upon the stage of world history, where he has remained up to the present. As he said at a crucial turning point in his career (John 12): I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion], will draw all people to myself. We need to see clearly the profound wisdom of his chosen path toward his goal.

Jesus very purposively rejected opportunities to be a political or military leader or a king. With his incredible power and attractiveness, had he wished to do so, there were many ways he could have avoided the cross. But, as he clearly told his followers at the time (John 10): I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.

In his death on the cross Jesus revealed both the depth of human sin and brutality and the unlimited reach of God’s love and power. Jesus lifted up on the cross is the turning point in history that consistently makes itself seen and felt in every generation—even generations in which church, Christians and religion are not popular. How? Two things:

First, as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we preach Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God. And second, we live as if we believe this wisdom is true. We don’t, in frustration, merely point to doctrine. Rather, being partakers of the life of the risen Christ, we announce, embody and demonstrate a cross and resurrection-enabled life. We do so not just for our own piety, but also for the sake of others, that others would experience our followership of Jesus as for their good.

– Todd Hunter

Homo Consumens and the Desire for Presence

More than one writer has observed that entering the modern upscale mall is like stepping into a cathedral. (See most recently, James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom). Large pillars or high arches frame the entryways. Vaulted ceilings with skyward glass or regal rotundas give us a sense of the sublime—a feeling of transcendence. Looking down at the veined marblesque floors, we feel ourselves sliding across antiquity. And the shops—they are like so many quaint chapels where we can taste and see the sacraments of our age. If we are supplicants in these modern cathedrals, coming in search of some Real Presence, we do so as a new breed. We are not worshippers, but consumers. We are homo consumens.

The homo consumens, wrote Psychologist Erich Fromm, is one “whose main interest becomes, aside from working from nine to five, to consume.” His attitude is that of “the eternal suckling” who “with the open mouth . . . consumes everything with voracity — liquor, cigarettes, movies, television, lectures, books, art exhibits, sex; everything is transformed into an article of consumption.” More than 30 years ago (On Disobedience and Other Essays 1981), Fromm’s words may have seemed cynical. Now, it is a way of life. Although we may wince at the label, our life as homo consumens—to the degree that we can afford it–is the new normal.

As a good psychologist, however, Fromm looks at the thing behind the thing, and this is what he sees: “we know that behind this urge to consume there is an inner vacuity — a sense of emptiness. There is, in fact, a sense of depression, a sense of loneliness.” And he knows “there is something very deeply wrong with this.”

Philosophers and cognitive scientists have confirmed that we live much of our lives through “image schemas”—quasi-pictorial representations that fit and make sense of our lived experience, however unconsciously. For instance, TIME as MONEY: we “spend it,” often don’t “have it,” and so can’t “spare it” or “afford it.” Emptiness and fullness also are dual metaphors that seem to capture our lived experience. We might say someone is “full of anger,” “filled with jealously,” or “full of it!” Alternately, an event or incident may “leave us empty” or “hollow.” The loss of a loved one has left a “hole” in our lives. We sometimes feel “drained” or like we “have nothing left to give.”

Of course, many of these metaphors are rooted in our very bodies. In the case of hunger, to be filled feels better for most of us than feeling empty. (Aristotle observed that it is not taste that is pleasurable, but the sensation of swallowing—the anticipation of filling. Otherwise, dieting would be easy; we’d just taste and spit it out!) Emotionally, too, we dread feeling empty and instead long to be filled—with passion, with vision, with love. And this brings us back to Fromm’s concern. That the consumer impulse that we now see as normal is instead a symptom of a deep and increasingly untreated malady that he calls “a sense of loneliness.”

Contemporary psychologists of Attachment Theory tell us that we are at root relational beings. We are hard-wired to connect with others and, while the data is still coming in, the modern versions of connection (social networking, hooking up) do not seem to be filling us up. The symptoms are not just linked to consumer throngs, but can be seen even where noble aspirations and activities substitute for the real presence of relationships.

For Christians familiar with the Bible, this discussion should remind us of the invitations to a filling of presence: be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), Christ living in me (Gal. 2:20), Jesus’ In them and You in me (John 17:23). And we recognize that our enthusiasm to learn about God or work for Him is not always the same as letting ourselves be filled with Him. Granted, this filling is a mystery, though not much more mysterious than love itself. It cannot always be easily described, although it can be pursued and known—or else there would be no sense in commanding it. And this calling to “be filled”–to let some One’s presence grow in us–is a high calling, for this relational presence is our deepest human need–by design. If we humans don’t follow this invitation to a Person, our emptiness will seek to be filled with some-thing. But then, we will only be left alone with our things.

The Singularity of Voices

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11b-13)

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People groups often adapt to change in fits and starts. Some people like fresh inventions and innovations; other people find the new expressions difficult or substandard, and long for things as they used to be.

The people of Israel had been in exile, and had recently been released to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city under the watchful eye of King Cyrus of Persia. The city walls were repaired, taunting enemies were chased off, and—with great anticipation and fanfare—the foundation of the new Temple was laid.

The former Temple—a glorious structure built by King Solomon—had long been destroyed. The new Temple would bring joy to the people as a worshipping community, but it would be a different structure than the one that preceded it.

So there was both rejoicing and weeping when the foundation was completed. Perhaps the older folks wept, not only because the Temple was returning to Jerusalem, but also because it would be different from the one they remembered from their youth. For the younger people, who had no memory of the former Temple, it was a new and exciting project, one that would finally ground their identity in their homeland.

We’re told that all the voices—the weeping, the laughing, the mourning, the rejoicing—all came together as one voice.

We who follow Jesus do so in a culture that is characterized by rapid, discontinuous change. It’s not just that the world around us changes—technology, international relations, social and legal boundaries—but also that the life of the church keeps changing. New expressions of worship and mission emerge, sometimes on their own, and other times in the midst of congregations that have been immersed in many years of tradition. People often rejoice when these changes come. Others, however, weep.

The older I get, the more I appreciate this tension. It’s difficult to distinguish between traditions that have deep and lasting value and those that are just temporary cultural preferences. It’s both exciting and frightening to pursue innovations in worship and communal life. It’s too bad, however, when the response of the church is to divide and separate, draw lines in the sand and create boundaries that alienate.

It is a joy, however, when all come together and search for the fingerprints of God in what seems to be emerging in our midst—not new expressions for the sake of newness, but fresh engagements with the Spirit of God that capture new images and songs, revitalizing ancient traditions and creating new ones. And within all the tension that comes with new things, the voices that cry out do so as one voice, a voice that rejoices before God.

Right now I’m hearing the prayer of Jesus—a prayer that anticipates even us—that might help us think about this:

“I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

May it be so, Lord.

– Mike McNichols