Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Message and the Churches' Failure at Proclaiming It

I’ve talked in the last several postings about how (and why) the churches are losing people, when it comes to proclaiming the fundamental message of Christianity. As I’ve noted, to many of us, it seems increasingly imperative that we actively leave and/or oppose the churches, precisely if we want to retain some vital, meaningful contact with that message.

I’ve framed this discussion in terms of Easter, the season of the liturgical year in which churches remember what is central to the gospel proclamation: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is that central message, I want to suggest, that is simply obscured and lost sight of in much of Christianity—in particular, in how the churches live from day to day, a lived proclamation which is the most significant proclamation possible of the gospel message. When the message is not lived in an accessible and clear way, it cannot be credibly preached in other, verbal ways, nor can it be appropriated by those whom the church addresses through its proclamation of the gospel.

To a great extent, the churches are not reaching many of us with their preaching because that preaching (and the life of the church underlying it) is removed from our everyday experience. The church’s preaching is superimposed on our lives, as if it is extrinsic and foreign to our lives.

This is never so apparent as in the Easter season, when the central, core proclamation of Christianity—the death and resurrection of Jesus—appears as some esoteric event dropping in from the supernatural world, as the church preaches about and liturgically reenacts the passion and resurrection of Christ annually. Little attempt is made to do what is fundamentally necessary if we are to understand the significance of Jesus’s death: that is, to relate that death to other deaths in the world, and, in particular, to the deaths of the countless others who, like Jesus, are crucified throughout history (and in the world today) by the powerful of the earth.

Jesus’s death is treated in much Christian preaching and iconography as an exotic, otherworldly event, unlike and unrelated to any other death in the world. And yet the whole meaning of this death revolves around the significant ways in which the death of Jesus is like—is akin to, echoes and provides meaning for—the deaths of other victims of the powerful.

And to an even greater extent, the resurrection is presented, in much of the church’s preaching and worship, as some alien intrusion into this world, almost like the landing of a space-ship from another galaxy. The death and resurrection of Jesus are mythologized in Christian piety and proclamation, removed from their context in the life of the historical Jesus, made into miraculous events with no connection at all to the life of the man who proclaimed the arrival of the reign of God in history, or to that central message of the reign of God. The resurrection is, in much contemporary Christian preaching, even divorced from the death of Jesus, without which this event of astonishing reversal of injustice and oppression makes no sense at all.

Paul Tillich once noted that what is entirely alien cannot be appropriated by believers. If the Word of God is as utterly alien to this world as some believers appear to think, if it only stands against this world and its vocabularies and experiences, then we cannot understand or appropriate it. We can take into our own understanding and act on only what connects in a meaningful way to the structures of our human minds and hearts.

And as Karl Barth himself once noted, ironically, the emphasis on the otherness of God’s Word in much neo-orthodox theology actually ends up making the divine captive to the human in many Christian traditions. Barth noted this, in particular, as he critiqued a literalist, fundamentalist reading of the scripture, which imagines that God’s Word is spoken in the biblical text in a way that completely shatters the presuppositions of this world, but is at the same time completely clear and controllable.

As Barth noted, those who think that they can lock the entire meaning of that totally other Word up in a collection of verses actually rob the Word of the very force they believe they are preserving, by making the text true in a literal sense. Fundamentalism imagines that it owns the Word of God—something that evacuates the Word of God (and God!) of the transformative significance that defenders of the literal Word of God imagine they preserve more faithfully than any other believers.

The grand irony of much contemporary Christian life is that those who most loudly proclaim that they are faithfully preserving the traditional, otherworldly Word of God are those who are most actively undermining the force of that Word for many of us, by reducing it to the magical, extrinsic, and very controllable grab-bag of "truths" that defenders of orthodoxy seem always to carry about with them. A grab-bag of "truths" and instant answers carried about by people whose own lives seem to be little affected by those truths and answers, in any other than the most superficial extrinsic sense . . . .

To many of us, this disparity between the message proclaimed and the one lived indicates that the core teachings of Christianity are not making their way into the minds and hearts of those who are catechized. Those with instant answers most ready at their fingertips, those the least troubled by searching questions about how their answers connect to the lived experience they are supposed to illuminate, these chief defenders of Christian "truth" in the world today: these are becoming a strong counter-sign to the Christian message, and churches that permit themselves to be captive to such messengers are losing the battle to proclaim that message to the world.