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Neil Postman vs. Joel Osteen

I just finished Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. This important work, from a communications professor and cultural theorist, is more relevant now than when it was written in 1985.  I will be digesting it for a while, but the chapter on religion was especially interesting.  Postman’s basic thesis is that Western culture has shifted from a typographic culture to a television culture.  Challenging a common misconception that a medium is neutral to the content it transmits, Postman looks intently at the sea change that television has wrought across Western society and predicts dire consequences.

Reading him 30 years after the fact, where the Internet has taken over from television, Postman is even more prescient.

The last half of the book is mostly spent looking at these consequences as they have played out in particular slices of culture including education, politics, news, and religion.  In the chapter on faith, Postman quotes a former Executive Director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association:

“You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

This serves as a kind of summary statement for how television has shaped the expression of faith that comes over the airwaves.  The medium (television) is thus anything but neutral to the shape and telos of the content:

“You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader – from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther – who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user friendly.” It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.”

I literally wrote the word “Joel” in the margins the book beside this paragraph. (Yes, it’s a paper book, because they are better than those electronic monstrosities, as recent sales figures show.) We don’t need to rehash all the issues with the prosperity gospel in general or Joel Osteen in particular; we’ve covered the basics before here.  But, whether you like what Joel does or not, I think it’s easy to see the connection between the marketing/consumerist goal of “offering people what they want” and Joel’s platform as a combination of “good cheer,” celebrated affluence, and celebrity.

Postman’s chapter-long take on religion and television will put not only Joel but many of those popular televangelists in a stark light.  While he wrote in the era of Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart, others – include Joel – have taken up these gilded mantles.  I’m not sure even Postman at his most cynical could imagine preachers asking for $60 million luxury jets, for instance.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a must-read that will make you rethink the way you engage all forms of media, not just television. I would also recommend Deep Work, in which Cal Newport draws on Postman and others to recommend a new approach to work based on the temptations of social media and other features of electronic culture.  I’ll give Postman the final word, as he concludes that the effect of television’s influence on preachers can result not just in a difference of quality, but of kind:

“I believe I am not mistaken in saying Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

 

 

Source: Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books), 121.

 

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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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Thoughts On Not Shutting Up

Dr. Steve McSwain over on the Huffington Post Religion Blog asked me to shut up recently.  Actually, he wants all of us who preach to shut up: the title of the piece is, “I Wish Christian Preachers Would Just Shut Up.

To be fair, he says he didn’t mean to be “unkind,” but I’m not sure how asking someone to shut up can ever be done kindly.

Of course, his real beef is not with all preachers, but just those who align themselves with right-leaning politics.  Strangely, he does not seem to have any issue with Christians who align with left-leaning causes.  So while he calls out Billy Graham & Co. for a pseudo-endorsement of Romney, he does not bother to name that the exact same thing happens in the left-leaning churches with their candidates.

He continues by telling us that none of us read the Scriptures as well as he does:

If Christians were to actually study the Scriptures, which of course most of them do not, and so were to develop their own understanding of the sacred text itself, they would discern between truth and the nonsense that is preached from scores of pulpits in Christian communions across this country. Instead, however, many of them get their beliefs more from the spurious notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” or the equally spurious B-grade movies they watch as in the “Left Behind” series.

A couple of issues.  Being a Christian does not mean developing one’s own understanding of the sacred text.  That way is madness.  That way does not recognize Divine revelation for the whole of God’s people, but a blank canvas to be interpreted to one’s own tune.  As part of John Wesley’s posse, I recognize that Scripture does not stand alone, but rather as the primary source for truth alongside tradition, experience, and reason.

Also, how exactly does one know what is preached in “scores” of churches across the theological spectrum each Sunday? This seems presumptuous.  While there is a strong strand of Darbyism/dispensationalism in American Protestantism, it is (despite all the TV exposure) a minority opinion.  Roman Catholics, Orthodox christians, and most Mainliners do not subscribe to it.  Informed evangelicals do not. I have preached against this kind of eschatology myself, and blogged on it here and here.

I actually think the whole notion of the rapture is just as silly as Dr. McSwain does, so perhaps his “shut up” proviso does not apply to me?

On the whole, this entire screed seems really to be little more than a cheap shot at the Grahams.  They have their flaws, Franklin in particular, but there are much more problematic and influential individuals in American Protestantism at present (here’s looking at you, Mark Driscoll and Joel Osteen).  On the whole I like Billy, but to each their own.

For now, perhaps we can encourage Dr. McSwain to offer something more constructive to his theological opponents than “shut up.”  At the very least, don’t apply your disdain for a few to all of us.

Near the conclusion, he writes:

Maybe it’s just me, but many religious leaders today seem contradictory, confused and, well, just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail.

True enough, Dr. McSwain.  I too loathe much of what is said from certain pulpits. But I’m trying hard to be the solution, and I’m not going to ask your permission to continue doing what God has called me to do.

By the by, that thing you said about being “just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail”?

It applies to bloggers as well.

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Tea with Bunyan: A Pilgrim’s Life

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Over my hot tea this evening, I found myself flipping back through a  well-worn copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  This is simply one of the greats in the Christian (and otherwise!) literary canon.  Yes, the language is difficult, but it is entirely worth the effort.  As much as I enjoyed The Shack, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement was a bit too strong: it does not compare to Bunyan’s masterpiece.

Consider this jewel, with All Saint’s Day coming up:

Good Christian, come a little way with me, and I will teach thee about the way thou must go.  Look before thee; dost thou see this narrow way?  That is the way thou must go.  It was cast up by the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, and his apostles, and it is as straight as a rule can make it.  This is the way thou must go.

Magnificent.  These were the words with which Good Will (*not* Hunting) sent Christian on his journey to the Celestial City.  Ours is the age of “Yes we can!” and “Do not follow where the path may lead…” and “Follow your heart.”  Does anyone else hear Penn and (not so much) Teller yelling, “BULLSHIT”?  In this age of revenge against all norms, traditions, and paths, Bunyan reminds us that the path God calls us to is not one of our choosing.  We are called to a path we do not find on our own; we are defined by a story of which we are not the author.  We are not “the captains of our soul,” we are simply run down by the Hound of Heaven, captured by Amazing Grace.

And in an age where we perpetually confuse wants with needs, and have lost the practices necessary to sustain even a modicum of Christian self-discipline, Bunyan’s Christian reminds us,

I walk by the rule of my master, you walk by the rude working of your fancies.  You are counted theives already by the Lord of the way, therefore I doubt you will not be found true men at the end of the way.  You come in by yourselves without his direction, and shall go out by yourselves without his mercy.

A little harsh, perhaps.  But all-in-all, good medicine for mainline Christians who, in despising their evangelical brothers and sisters, have lost all concept of discipline and the consequences attendant to its failure.  If you’ve not read Bunyan, put down your John Shelby Spong or John Piper or Joel Osteen – please, for the love of God – pick up The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Bunyan’s allegory will, I can promise, guide your own pilgrimage toward the heart of God.

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Sacraments as a Protestant Problem

communionofapostlesI attended a wedding at a Presbyterian Church this weekend, which to my delight included a communion service towards the end.  This is a rarity in my denomination, and was a nice surprise at a wedding of two people whom I did not know were particularly sacramental.  My own practice is to offer communion by “intinction,” whereby the minister gives each person a piece of bread to dip into a common cup.  At this wedding, however, a common cup and loaves were blessed, but the actual sacrament was organized quite differently.

Here, the loaves were torn in half and placed on trays.  As each person came up the center aisle to receive the elements, they tore off a small piece of bread themselves, ate it, and then grabbed a little “shot glass” of juice from the tray, pounded it, and returned it to the tray.  The effect of all of this was interesting.  Rather than being, in my eyes, a congregation going forward to receive the sacrament together, it turned into a large group of individuals waiting in line to get their own little mini-meal.  I felt it was unseemly.  Moreover, there was no invitation by the pastor that expressly said who should and should not come.  Although this is not his fault, perhaps, the liturgy he used described this act as a “symbol,” and as one of my seminary professors said, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”  In other words, if what we are doing at the Lord’s Table is merely a symbol, then what power does it have other than a reminder, a nice ritual that either gives us warm-fuzzies or turns us to repentance?  A far cry from “This is my body…” 

I would welcome someone from the Reformed tradition giving me some insight onto Presbyterian practices on this point.

But to the larger point: Protestants have a problem with the sacraments.  Perhaps not Lutherans and Episcopalians so much, but the rest of us, probably so.  How often do we celebrate Eucharist? What is baptism, and who should receive it?  These questions lead to questionable practices so deplorable that it makes me not want to celebrate “Reformation Sunday.”  Note, for example, the youth group that had “communion” with Coke and Doritos.  ::Sigh::

Sacramental Protestants, then, have a problem as well: how do we educate people in the practices that the Christian Church has maintained for centuries?  Churches aren’t focused on these questions anymore.  We are too busy opening coffee shops in our churches and enjoying the pizazz of multimedia and jam-bands to worry about something so stifling and traditional as Eucharist.  But it is these rituals that pull the veil back, that help us peak at the really real.  If they are lost, or worse, marginalized and bastardized, what will keep Christian worship from being simply another social outlet, a charity organization, a motivational seminar, or worse, a gathering of people having “the form of religion but not the power.”  Joel Osteen, take notice.

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