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Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

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Spiritual Formation With Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson

by Drew 2 Comments

I used the above song as the entryway into today’s sermon, which primarily drew on Deuteronomy 6.  After the Shema, we find this exhortation:

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. ” (vv. 6-9)

In many American families of yesteryear, it was a tradition to have a family Bible.  Usually this was a large, high-quality, beautifully decorated Bible that doubled as a place to record family history.  At the front would be a genealogy chart, tracking births and deaths, baptisms, confirmations, and marriages.  They were commonly passed down as both a sacred book and a place to record family history.  My parents have one for our family.

Family Bibles were often ornate affairs, signifying their value and place in the home

Family Bibles are still sold today but the tradition is not as widespread.  You can even buy antique ones for a more authentic feel.  I came across this ad on the internet:  No writings, complete Bible. Very clean pages. Very minor wear for its age. Corners are somewhat rubbed. Restored family pages, with the marriage certificate engraved. A very well preserved antique family heirloom!” (Emphasis added)

How did we get to place where Bibles are mere heirlooms?  In Almost Christian, Kenda Dean writes persuasively that the vast majority of youth Christian formation is done via outsourcing.  We drop kids off at youth or Sunday school, we take them to a see Christian band, or we send them on a “mission trip” for a week.  Little of this, if any, is reinforced at home.  While this is the norm in Mainline Protestant and perhaps Catholic homes, it is not so in Mormonism.  Members of the LDS church know that it is the responsibility of every adult in the community, especially parents, to raise up young people in the faith.  Most Mormon teenagers will get up at the crack of down five days a week during high school to attend ‘seminary’, a rigorous exploration of Mormon history, values, and theology.

Speaking from my own (ecclesial) house, Methodist family life can rarely compare to this kind of intentional formation.  How many of us treat our Bibles as heirlooms?  Often Bibles serve as little more than decoration for a shelf or coffee table, pristine and untouched like museum displays.  How do we reclaim, for our own time, the tradition of the family Bible?  For those of us in the Mainline there will be no spiritual revival unless we reclaim the family as the primary locus of Christian education, a place where spiritual formation (.e. prayer, Bible reading, God-talk) is prominent.

How do we do that?

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“The Beast in Me”: Johnny Cash on Sin and Human Frailty

by Drew 5 Comments

The beast in me,
Is caged by frail and fragile bars.
Restless by day and by night,
Rants and rages at the stars.
God help the beast in me.

The beast in me,
Has had to learn to live with pain.
And how to shelter from the rain.
And in the twinkling of an eye,
Might have to be restrained.
God help the beast in me.

Sometimes it tries to kid me,
That it’s just a teddy bear.
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air.
And that is when I must beware,
Of the beast in me.

-Johnny Cash

 

No, I’m not suggesting that Christians are werewolves.  There is something to this concept, though; earlier spiritual writers spoke of “the shadow side” (like St. John of the Cross).  We have the capacity to be angels or beasts.  Judging by everything around us in contemporary North America, most of us are choosing the beast over what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

This sense – a Christian sense – that something in us must be restrained, caged, is profoundly unpopular these days.  We have mistaken license for liberty, and we’ve traded the freedom to be children of God for slavery to our basest whims.  Modern culture, psychology in particular, would deny that this “beast” is real.  They say don’t “repress,” don’t “hold back,” “be real.”  Surely we are spiralling downward so rapidly that we can’t help but soon realize that the world’s definition of “real” is a facade, a complete fraud.

To be who God has called us to be, there is some necessary trimming, some things that must be left behind, rejected, forsaken.  Christians call this freedom.  But, contra many of the evangelicals in our midst, the turn to Christ is not accomplished in one glorious moment.  It’s a daily affair.  Daily we die to self, we live into our baptism and must be born a new.  The beast is caged, but he still roars.  May God help the beast in all of us.

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