Cool Christianity?

A recent article in the WSJ by Brett McCraken has gotten a bit of play in the Christian blogosphere.   The general thesis:  young Christians don’t want “hip” Christianity – they want Jesus Christianity.   It’s a fine thesis.

So he has a list of complaints.

First:  pastors who refer to pop culture.   Granted, I’m equally confused by the passions of Lady Gaga, but I confess the occasional retelling of a Star Trek, X-Files, or Law and Order Episode.  I’ve quoted The Onion.     My youth group got my references to Friends, The Simpsons and Zombies and sometimes complained to me when I got stories wrong.

But isn’t referring to pop culture part of our work?  I don’t think it is much different retelling the insights of Malcom Gladwell or the poetry of Mary Oliver in a sermon.  People tend to have their eyes glaze over when I quote Calvin rather than Calvin and Hobbes, or offer extended quotations by the theologian Rene’ Girard.  My feeling:  it’s always justified for Christian pastors to talk about vampires, and better than referring to Hegel in German.

His other complaints: pastors in skinny Jeans (someday I’ll fit, really); showing ‘R’ rated movies; holding services in nightclubs.  But what seems inauthentic, fleeting and manipulative to him makes me wonder what are they teaching?  Instead of being horrified, I’m intrigued.

Being an Anglican, of course, I prefer the robes and holy ponchos, films with subtitles and attend nightclubs after mass.  But it seems to me that fussing over image is actually making image out to be more important than it actually is.

His complaint about churches being technologically adept, however, seems especially off the mark.  A pretty good indicator of a church interested in other people, for example, is a website that’s been updated within the last month.  Although tweeting during the service offends this Anglican, sharing religious references seems a justifiable part of my job.  We may not be able to create youtube videos on a weekly basis, but refusing to engage a visual culture seems irresponsible.

Mr. McCracken does seem to be a bit on the defensive about sex.  I admit, I will also be shunning sermons, podcasts, and twittering about the holiness of fellatio between married couples, it does seem to me that people are rightly curious about the Christian perspective, if there is one.

But I think, personally, that’s our own fault.  Our denominations have been dancing around trivial issues of sexuality while refusing to confront the very real challenges people face at all ages.   Personally, I admit, I think the gospel has very little to say about sex.  We might examine why it’s a subject about which most people are fascinated.

And although I’m completely in agreement that being shocking for its own sake seems opportunistic, self-serving and ill-considered,  I just can’t get very excited about it.  I’m bored by being shocked.   And what’s more shocking is that Christians are just now talking about subjects that have been played out in contemporary culture.  Are they really just NOW talking about these titillating practices?   It’s not the practices that are shocking, after all.  It’s that Christians are talking about them.

That said, the gospel is shocking.  Just in a completely different way.

He gets close.  He writes, “If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”

I understand this.  But I admit I cringe a little at the hyperbole.  Is this world created by God “utterly” phony?  Is it completely ephemeral?  Or is he talking about how Christianity, like the “cool” has become just another spiritual product?  Because what is certainly true is that the commercial enterprise has infected every part of human engagement.  Interrogating that reality, holding the mirror of the gospel up against that, would require a more severe look at our current system of social and economic priorities.  Then we might end up examining the powers, and not merely some misguided attempts to be relevant.  Money, not sex, is closer to the gospel’s true concern, and its consequences are, perhaps, shocking.

He’s right about some things.   From my vantage point, I doubt the institution will be cured by any quick fix.   But what is certainly true is that mainline churches don’t have any fixes.  They’re not even on life support.   Young people aren’t flocking to your local 930am Sunday Morning service with genial overweight pastor with a nice smile who loves everybody and quotes Auden and Kierkegaard.    Twitter and Good Sex might not save the church or compel the curious, but what mainline churches have been doing for the last 30 years isn’t working either.

It’s the work of pastors to engage people, churched and unchurched, where they are, communicating with the technologies that people have access to.  It does make our job more difficult.  We have to know a little of everything.  But it also focuses the work.  We are, fundamentally, communicators of the gospel.  We’re not building managers or administrators; we’re not therapists or nurses.  Technology is one of our tools.  Perhaps technology, itself, is the message, but that is for another post.

And since God is at work in the culture, we will necessarily be referring to His presence there.  He was not confined within the church; nor does he only speak in the alphabet of the creeds.  Sometimes to help a young woman understand the cross, a reference to Mean Girls will have to do.

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