Religion is an organization. It is an occupation, a career, a “calling.” Religion, in most every way, is a trade. For a career in religion, there are specific skills that you have to learn and master, and the pedigree for most mainline denominations of the Christian tradition have highly demanding coursework and vetting processes. Religion is big money, and, more importantly, it represents the means by which persons can have the greatest impact on the shaping of his or her society and culture. If you want to wield religion to secure power and take your place in the shaping of things to come, you have to learn the tools of the trade.
In a previous article, I wrote about bad religion. I attempted to address some of the reasons that religion has begun the slow decline into irrelevance in our culture, just at a time when interest in spirituality and faith are being renewed and re-investigated by the public. Today, I am going deeper into religion and the ways in which it can be hijacked for an agenda that seems to have the “greater good” at heart. There are many possible stumbling blocks and slippery slopes on the road to a mature faith walk, and the more that we investigate those possible pitfalls, the better chance we will have to navigate that path safely and responsibly.
As a matter of clarification, let me say that I am (1) a United Methodist, a firm believer in the Christian faith, and a former youth minister, (2) I am a Liberal who believes in the trust of the people tempered by prudence and supported by the autonomy of all persons, so long as that autonomy does not impede my liberty, (3)I am a federalist, as were the majority of our founding fathers, and I honor our flag and the republic for which it stands, (4)I am a patriot, whether the following narrative casts doubt on that for you or not. Please feel free to engage in debate in the comment section of this magazine, but know that I will not engage in conversation that challenges the authenticity of these things that I hold to be self-evident. You can challenge them, by all means; you just won’t get a response from this publication.
So, onward and upward. The livelihood of the Christian religion has many tools that support the growth of our religion. The Christian religion, after all, is founded in action and rooted in colonization. We should recognize that if we are going to have an honest introspective about how we use the tools of the trade. The early Christians were about action – selling all their possessions and living together to work on the mission given to them by Jesus himself, to “Go and make disciples…” The later Christians were about colonization – from the Roman acquisition of the Christian Standard, to the Catholic missionary expeditions to spread whatever nationalism was conquering foreign worlds at the time, to the Anglican Empire, which is the empire that the sun truly never set on. That is, admittedly, a dramatically oversimplified, abbreviated, and skewed version of the Christian history, but I have other fish to fry, so I am not interested in an exhaustive account. The point is that our Christian tradition is about action and recruiting, and we have done it exceedingly well throughout most of the 2000 years of Western Christendom. There are three tools that we use as Christians to execute our religion that I want to address: our doctrine, the Bible, and the Church.
We find ourselves today in a very different cultural paradigm than any other moment in history. The tools that we use to grow our religion seem to have less impact and, therefore, less effectiveness in recruiting new members and shaping cultures and governments. Somehow, the argument that “It is in the Bible” doesn’t have the same potential to end and argument that it once had. In fact, it can many times inflame an argument more likely than punctuating it. The fear of Hell and the promise of eternal pleasure in Heaven have less sway over the average church goers than they used to, so pastors that preach fire and brimstone often don’t have the undivided attention of the populace that they once commanded. There are also so many denominations in the church, and non-denominational churches, that the differences between the basic tenets of those faiths are lost on the general public.
The differences that are lost are what we call doctrine. Doctrine is important for a community of faith. I know that it has a sour taste for most people, but it is essential that a body of believers has a shared understanding of God and that they know what that shared understanding is about. For instance, if one believes that God is fundamentally about Grace and mercy, then he or she is unlikely to have a sustainable relationship with a body of faith that understands God as primarily about wrath and punishment. That may seem obvious, but we are apathetic at best about making such distinctions in our churches, let alone some of the more subtle distinctions that once led to entire reformation movements among Christians. Doctrine should be about the essentials of your belief system that provides a sense of unity for your community of faith. Instead, it is often used as a tool to ensure uniformity among the members of the community, and this can stifle the celebration of the uniqueness and character of each of the individuals that belong.
The Bible is the central text of the Christian faith, and it contains some of the most powerful examples of divine inspiration that have been collected in one place. It does have a context, and that context is important. Also important is the fact that is has been painstakingly translated into English, a language that is not very congruent with Greek or Hebrew. Understanding Biblical translation is critical to understanding the Bible itself. Because the Bible is such a crucial part of our spiritual development, it requires a significant investment in order to sufficiently harness the benefit of the wisdom that it contains. As Christians, we grow and change and develop, else we sacrifice the place of relevance that we hold in the world. The King James Bible, for instance, represents the best of Christian scholarship at the time that it was transcribed. Again, context matters. The earliest transcripts that were used for that translation were from around 1100ad. Since that time, we have discovered texts from as early as 49ad. We also do not have Biblical translations that are sponsored by the ruling powers anymore, as it tends to create a sketchy relationship between the scholars and the ruling party, as was the case with King James. It is a beautiful text, and it resonates with readers in a way that touches something about our understanding of God, and for that it has authority. We must, however, understand that we give it that authority; the Bible in general does not have doctrinal authority by itself. That doctrinal authority is imposed upon it by the religions that utilize it as a tool of the trade.
The church is the backbone of religion. It is the tool that is used most often by religion to recruit and convert the “un-churched” among us. The church is the resource with which religion makes that big money. I like to hear people say that “The church is not a building, the church is the people.” It isn’t that I disagree, I just like that most people who say that would not consider going to a worship gathering in the street in December in Iowa. It is too daggon’ cold. No, the church, in all practicality, is the building, and the people are the attendees. People do not do church, they attend church. Church is not a verb, it is a noun; a thing; a place. We go to church. We, in general, are not at all trying to be the church. I recently heard an axiom that I think applies here, “We insist that our church have a mission, when in fact it is the Mission that has a church.” If our movement is founded in action and recruitment, then the action that is most important is the recruitment of members for the church. I can almost hear the heads shaking, saying “That is not the point of church at all. The point is to love your neighbor and sacrifice oneself for others.” But, I tell you, I have heard the message time and again. Good Christians teach Sunday school and invite their neighbors and co-workers to church. The message ends up as “come and see what we are doing,” rather than “Go and show others what you are about.” Solid Christians support the Christian “brand” by attending the right concerts, and shopping and eating at the right stores and restaurants. Churches are not so much about changing the nature of our consumer culture, but changing the goods that we consume to better support the efforts to recruit more members of our movements. The church is as much a tool for that process as it is an institution for the proliferation of divine justice and mercy. Show me your checkbook and the calendar, and I can give you an accurate picture of your values. If you spend %75 of your tithes and offerings on your building and your staff, and you spend the majority of your time on the inner workings of your “ministries” in the church, then you are self perpetuating, not self sacrificing. It doesn’t change just because you took a church outing to Chik-fil-A.
I find that this topic, and the specific way that I am approaching it, tends to make church folks pretty defensive; even downright angry. I would submit that the message of Jesus did the same thing at the time that he delivered it. Not that I am trying to compare my message to the message of Jesus, I will leave that to the religious professionals. I am just a lay Methodist, an armchair theologian, who happens to want to understand the workings of my faith and is not satisfied with the status quo for our church and our culture. I want to learn from the teachings of Jesus and make an effort to allow those teachings to impact my life and my behavior. I am not interested in using those teachings to impact the behavior and lifestyles of everyone else. The tools of the trade are legitimate tools, but like any other tools, they have a specific use. When used for the wrong purpose, they can do more harm than good and they are less effective for doing what they were intended to do. When we learn to use the tools and hone our craft, we can make something beautiful. When we leverage the Bible for our own purpose or to prove our own point, or use our doctrine to manipulate people into uniformity, or even use the church to grow the church rather than invest in the community, then we misuse the tools of the trade. That, my brothers and sisters, is a graver sin than any of the “un-churched” have the power to commit.