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Consuming the Gospel

in this post, i unload. but the point of the post is to open up a question regarding the gospel as culturally relevant, or making it so. yes, jesus used parables and whatnot to teach and these came from life. and, it is naive to think that the gospel doesn’t get made over in our image. but, when is enough, enough? when is culturally relevant nothing more than masked idolatry?

Today has really been an awful, no good, horrible day.

I show up in my office, after my three mile bike ride in 30° weather, to find an email from the oldest member (55+) of our Sunday school class chiding me for not having let people know what was going to happen in class this coming Sunday. A week and a half ago we finished Genesis; in a week and a half we begin Revelation—yes, I temporarily lost my mind. A study of Revelation is nothing in the CoC… by the time we turn 20 we all have been inculcated with a preterist, amillenial reading of the book (despite the premillenialism of some of our 19th century forebarers). But, in the DoC, especially the DoC we attend, which has a bunch of people who began coming to church only after getting married here because they were from different faiths or none at all, this can be something quite different altogether. Especially given the fact that a number of those in the class feel it their duty to gain Bible proficiency from Daystar and Xian radio.

Anyway, these two middle Sundays we’ve been in a holding pattern largely because no one wants to teach in my absence and this weekend we will be at birthday celebrations with proud grandparents.

Two Sundays ago I asked the assistant minister if he would do something on evangelism, since this is the year of evangelism…he said no because he didn’t want to teach a class on a Sunday when no one was going to be present. (He said this despite never attending any Bible class, nor leading one…and despite insisting that I never cancel mine…because they need a class to which they can send visitors.)

Last Friday, he asked me what he would be teaching this past Sunday…I told him that he wasn’t teaching this Sunday but the following. And, I asked him, so this means you’re going to teach class?
—Yes, he said.

On Sunday, before class, I asked him..so, what are you going to teach on so I can tell my class. And, he acted like he didn’t want to teach it. So, I walked into class with nothing to offer for the next Sunday.

Well, today I walk in to my office and find an email from the oldest member of the class chiding me for not telling people what the plan for the class was. (To be fair to him, every once in a while, I suffer from a lack of administrative clarity.) I sent an email out asking them how many would be in town…

will there be people in town and attending class? this is an informal poll…if there are and you will be attending, i am still in a position to strong arm the assistant minister (or so i believe from our conversation last friday and last sunday) into teaching. but, it would be nice to have a count of people planning to attend.

(You should know, over the five years I’ve taught this class, on holiday weekends it is quite routine for the class to be composed of 4 individuals…myself and my spouse, someone from the class, and depending on the day, a class member, a visitor or a homeless vagrant)

he responded, an hour before class, with this nice little missive:

may i express a little bit of dismay here?

what kind of question is “will there be people here and attending class?”? of course there are going to be people here and some would plan to attend class because that’s what we do on sunday mornings even when there is no known plan for the hour.

i don’t sense any enthusiasm. this is a marketing nightmare.

what can i do to help you handle and faithfully execute the responsiblity and duty of leading our class?

my lovely wife responded in my stead with a very nice email, all i said was…

i could care less about marketing. largely because i don’t view the people in our class as consumers to whom i have to market.

he, of course, still has no problem with marketing. and responded with a long email (and our exchanges have been of this nature…it’s all marketing and you are the leader and you have power you need to use responsibly as you set the vision for the class…and that is another discussion) yet, i think we should take a stand…

The encroachment of business language in Christianity is to be utterly and fully shuned. We are not in the business of selling anything to anyone. Instead we (the Church, the entire body as it works together) are about calling people to a radical new orientation of their life.

Marketing, finding out what people want and selling what you’ve got in such a way that they think that they have bought what they wanted, is especially egregious. The study of the Bible is not “product;” people are neither “clients” nor “target audiences”. We are not in the business of finding out what motivates people and tapping into that, we are, instead, about challenging people to change what motivates them. Our call is to challenge consumerism, not turn the Gospel into a comodity to be bought and sold at the consumer’s whim.

Let me loudly proclaim with Lloyd Dobler

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.



Sigh. Sunday I listened to a sermon that featured this charming argument: McDonald’s hasn’t changed its hamburgers in 50 years, but its advertising continues to be effective. The gospel hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, but we have to change our message like McDonald’s does to speak to a new world!

It’s a message that the rhetorician in me agrees with, but the connection made to marketing makes me cold inside. There is too much buried in the subtext: the gospel commodity traded in the square, held up to light, shaken to see if it’s got loose parts. It was made 2,000 years ago by expert hands, purrs the evangelist. Sold with a handshake and a smile: That’s one more soul won!, the evangelist thinks as he moves on to his next mark.

I don’t think I’d cringe so much if it were possible to have known each of the 76 cows that make up that hamburger.

re: all the leadership stuff…

he apparently feels called to call the younger men of our class to a deeper and more faithful life. his self appointed roll in all this is that of mentor.

he believes that we have “birthed” a class that we should then lead it as we do our daughter.

that i should infect those in my class with my enthusiam for the gospel…

that creating a space for varied opinions and voices…a wonderful realm that is safe and free for any and all (i would add to this, safe and free for them to read the scriptures despite differing hermeneutics, despite differing political opinions, despite utter ignorance about scripture itself) is not enough…we need progress (progress which he still hasn’t defined…and apparently the fact that 90% of our members are deacons that serve on committees and a few have begun to lead weeknight bible studies, all since attending our class, isn’t enough—-not that i take any credit for their activities)

so leaders have a responsibility to their followers and/or classes to present a lesson or vision or philosphy or program or whatever in a way that draws them into the process, and for sunday school to become as serious a part of our lives as we’d both like for it to become in the lives of our friends, there has to be a continuing serious intentionality in the process.

and _in terms of progress, i’ve not been clear where you want the class to go and how you’d like to see it get there._

nor can i find much comfort in ‘the class will decide where it wants to go’, anymore than i expect a plane to fly itself or a child to raise itself. the people in the class came there for a reason that is bigger than muffins and bible study, and i’d like for both of you to consider the charge you have to lead them.

the thing is…from the beginning we said this class is just a bible class…it’s not a mini-church…i am no pastor to these people…we are just a bunch of christians that get together and read, and i, being a professor of literature and having grown up in a denomination that takes/took bible study seriously have a skill and a knowledge base that facilitates discussion.

and, the way that i teach is very, as his comment shows, learner centered. i have no desire to wield any “power” or be anyone’s leader.

so, i sent him a message clarifying all of this and reiterating that the point of our class was simply to study scripture and that the church, at large, was there to provide them “vision”...and he has responded…

yes, we do have different visions. that’s okay with me. hope it’s okay with the Spirit- if not, then we’ll see how He/She works to make them coincide.

and this is one of the things that pisses me off about evangelicals…they all think that whatever has been laid on their hearts is from God…

which in his case it’s nice and easy…push someone else to be a pastor…because…i tend to be too seduced by power

bible class, or at least my bible class, isn’t a space where power is brokered in these ways!

anyway, sorry to unload…

wow, 78 cows in that little speck of meat? and i was impressed that medieval bible manuscripts required the skins of 1000 cows.
now you see how mcd’s and bible class ARE related.

Wow. You could, if you wanted to be really rude, reply that you think Sunday school the lousiest time to instigate truly serious Bible study—it’s not enough time, nor enough space carved out around worship to facilitate it—and that you’d just as soon do away with adult Sunday school altogether as keep pretending it does something it doesn’t. But that would probably open up a whole ‘nother bunch of criticisms, I’m sure, and since he’s seduced by power, he’d probably save that to use against you. Plus, that’s what I’d say, not you.

re: MaryAccording to the Economist, I underestimated. I also used the wrong plural for cow:

Nicols Fox, author of a new book on food poisoning (and a writer for The Economist), reckons that the casualties will multiply. Meat from one infected cow is mixed with many other cows, so that one bad cow can cause hundreds of bad stomachs. A single hamburger, Ms Fox reports, can contain meat from 100 cattle from four different countries.

There’s a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where B works at the Double Meat Palace, which purports to sell burgers made of chicken and beef, mixed together in a happy meat marriage. The only diff between that and McD’s is that McD is all orgy, but no miscegenation. Oh, and the double meat was actually vegetable protein.

I swear there’s application here somewhere to J’s post. (Though the link to medieval mss? Trés cool.)

so 10 burgers=1 Bible?

Ah, yes, that is the ratio: in theological circles, it is known as the decabos. It is little known that the Hebrews’ sin in crafting the golden calf at Sinai was an improper ratio of calf to word.

“The class came there for a reason that is bigger than muffins and bible study.” Looking over this thread again, it’s this line that surprises me more than anything.

Where I do disagree with the argument that the gospel is to be sold, I can understand why and how someone might come to that conclusion: to live in America is to know that “Thinking Businessly” (to corrupt an already sorry phrase coined by the alma mater) is the way our minds turn. I’ve read The Confidence Man several times, and I believe the confidences taken in that novel say almost as much about American preoccupations today as they did of American preoccupations in 1856. Buying and selling is the way of America. I understand that, and I understand that is one of the more pernicious things to be worked through when talking about concepts such as “community” and “justice” and “grace” in America.

But the line I quoted above: what, exactly, is bigger than muffins bible study—in a bible study? If it were a class about the history of the church, I could understand him balking if you spent the entire class talking about Acts. Acts isn’t the history of the church, after all. But… it’s a bible study. That’s the whole purpose. What is bigger than a purpose fulfilled?

yeah, i’ve thought of that quite a bit, too.

there is, of course, the simplest answer: to provide some sort of vision that they, the class, can latch on to. the you need to be a leader and by this he means some sort of spiritual guide.

but, i don’t know if this means that i need to give them something that will give their christianity meaning, or if it means that i should challenge their predominantly republican politics (he is not a republican), or if i should infuse more psycho-babble (which he loves) into discussion…but he definitely thinks that this is more than just bible class…and we have always said that this is nothing but, and isn’t that enough?, bible class.

then, there is another possible reason…

i no longer believe in the scriptures as a coherent narrative from beginning to end…and, i especially don’t believe that there’s an OT God and a NT God. so, i can’t teach scripture as if in it we see God moving through history always bringing things around to the intended purpose. i don’t read Acts or Genesis, say, and exclaim “Ecce historicus Dei!” (or whatever Behold the God of History would be). i can’t provide a vision that ties scripture up into a neat little bow. and, i am sure that this seeps through in various ways.

though, it seems to me that it is the former. either way, i’m not a vision man…i’m not mr. sanguine.

how could i be with the number of cows carelessly slaughtered and thrown into the gapping mouth of Moloch?

That’s McMoloch, to you.

but, even then, providing a vision that the class can latch on to is part of the businification of church.

the class needs, he feels, some sort of mission statement that’s peppy and gives us something to reach for…and bible study, simply isn’t enough. i need to tell how the study of scripture will change their lives, i guess. and then measure whether this is acheived or not.

but, he is not my only frustration. where we are this kind of talk permeates the entire congregation and staff…they so desperately want to be a mega-church…but i get the impression that they want this simply because you are supposed to want to be the biggest, baddest believers in all of town. that in our competitive church market, a lack of exponential growth is because we aren’t packaging the product in a seductive manner.

and, we are not a small church by any means.

Garret Keizer, writing in this month’s Harper’s in one of those grand, “the world is made of two kinds of people” essays (of the sort that is also maddening, because from the outset the idea is already trite), says there’s “players” and there’s “workers.” Players are Loki, are Hermes, are always competing to score, see the world as a game with rules made to be bent, even broken. Players, Keizer says, also abide by the line, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” and continues,

The most interesting kinds of religion, for my money, challenge the Gnostic pretensions of the player. The Buddhist bodhisattva, for example, is a player who thinks liek a worker. Elite in his attainment, he refuses to enter Nirvana “until the grass itself is enlightened.” Blessedness fo rthe bodhisattva means joining the union. When American socialist Eugene Debs said that as long as there was a criminal class he was in it, that “While there is a soul in prison I am not free,” he was talking like a bodhisattva. He was talking like one of the worker saints. Not for nothing is Jesus remembered as a carpenter, like the stonecutter Socrates. Both were markedly blue collar in their approach to wisdom. Introduce them to a player, and their natural inclination was to take him down a peg. Put him to work, in other words. “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor… then come, follow me.”

“Consider your own call, brother sand sisters,” St. Paul (a tentmaker) writes to the church at Corinth. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Not many of you were players, in other words. The rise of evangelicals in American politics is the latest attempt to rectify that deficiency. It is an attempt with theological parallels in the frequently intoned evangelical credo—derived, interestingly enough, from St. Paul himself and distorted by any number of stadium preachers since—that it is “faith in Jesus Christ” and not good works that saves the believer. In the extreme version, the “saved” become players, with Jesus consigned to the role of their Uncle Guido. He made a deal for us on the Cross. We don’t have to work. We’re made men. The ethical agnostics, the observant Jews, the wetback Mexicans mumbling over their beads in the backs of cattle trucs (the same people we hire at slave wages to watch our kids and diaper our parents), let them believe in the necessity of good works. It’s rather convenient that they do.

As for us, our Godfather is in heaven.