A friend and reader of my blog and I got to writing about yesterday’s Fundamentalism & Wonder post, and he said a lot of that rings true to him, given the culture of his church. Knowing him to be the sort of Christian who appreciates aesthetic beauty, and a fellow Francophile, I asked him why he stayed. Here’s how he responded; I publish this with his permission:
When I lament that “my church culture” is suspicious of finding God in nature or in traditional Christian architecture or art, I’m referring more to the broad evangelical culture than to the church I attend. Certainly there’s some of that attitude in my church and almost by definition in any “Bible church,” but it’s not often on display. When it is, it’s usually from people who are recent converts from Catholicism, or those with unhappy Catholic pasts who vilify the whole institution and its entire theology. Most of us have close relatives who are Catholic, so no one has the Bible-Belt luxury of condemning all Catholics.
I remain at my church because we have an exceptionally gifted and scholarly teaching pastor, who gives sermons every single week that are like good college lectures. I do have some theological disagreements around the edges, but his points are always well thought-out and well-supported by the Bible and other texts he quotes. I think the idea of seeking God in traditional Catholic architecture would make him cautious – more cautious than me – but not condemnatory.
If you mean more broadly, why am I in an evangelical Bible church, well I could go on for a long time. My wife grew up in that church. The pastor’s teaching is certainly a part of it, and I’ve grown in that direction over the 18-ish years we’ve attended the church. So familiarity is a factor, whether it should be or not.
Theologically, I’m in the evangelical Bible church realm (despite being very uncomfortable evangelizing people who haven’t asked me about my faith) because I have faith in the Bible as by far the most reliable means of understanding God. A corollary to the reliance on the Bible is a reluctance to rely on Tradition or anything experiential. I think the “old” churches (Orthodox, Catholic) have much to commend them, especially 2000 years of interpretation and practice that can make for a very rich interaction with God. I’m also suspicious of a lot of Tradition, because its origins are often murky, and – in my mind, at least – tainted by the often corrupt history of the church as a power in European history.
But to wind my way to an answer, I think the evangelical and Bible churches generally do a better job of getting the message across, though that’s clearly a broad generalization. Growing up Catholic, attending catechism the whole way, we learned stunningly little about who Jesus was, why he came, what it means. The focus was always on the doing – when to stand, sit, kneel, cross, confess, fast, pray, etc. Verbatim recitation of prayers, responsorials, etc., was paramount. Understanding the words was not only not a priority, it wasn’t even an issue. Belief was either de-emphasized or taken for granted – it’s hard for me to say at this distance. So whether they taught us or not, we thought the key to praying was getting all the words exactly right, that holy water had magical powers, that the same magic powers existed in a piece of something-or-other that came from Lourdes or Medjugorje, or that had been touched by or owned by a saint. Why is that? Well, it’s hard for young minds – especially young minds being taught by lay people who were trying to oversimplify or ignore complex theology – to grasp the distinction between a magic object and an object whose history gives you the potential to have a more concentrated focus on God. Based on our Catechism teachers and many Catholic adults, it’s very clear that some people don’t get past that understanding. I’m sure you’ve seen people who arrive to Mass 30 minutes late, take communion and leave immediately. That kind of thing.
So at age 20, baptized, communed and confirmed, I had very little idea what it meant to be Christian, even after making pilgrimages to Medjugorje and the Vatican hoping to be transformed by place or stuff.
Looking back, it’s astonishing to think of the scales on my eyes, despite hearing about Jesus from before I can remember. (Query whether that’s the Catholic church’s fault or mine, or if it’s the nature of faith.) But whether they believe it or not, every 15-year-old at my church can explain – and not just through repetition – the theology of who Jesus was, why he came, how to approach him, and what it all means. There’s a certain benefit to the tight focus on those things, but there’s a corresponding potential for that focus to blinker us to a broader experience of God.
There’s also the independent, unstructured, unsupervised nature of independent evangelical churches, which makes them rife with potential for error in a way that hierarchical churches are not. When’s the last time a Catholic or Southern Baptist church protested a soldier’s funeral, or promoted a planned Koran-burning, or sold all their possessions to pay for advertising announcing the date and time of end of the world? And farther back, see (St.) Paul’s letters to some of the earliest churches, who went astray almost immediately. This is a major theme of my novel.
I’m not much for emotional religious experiences, because I don’t trust them, but three years ago I had one – possibly my most recent one – in Notre Dame in Paris, as I walked around the altar and saw the Bible presented in stone bas-relief. I welled up while contemplating the link across the centuries between myself and the illiterate French Christians of the Middle Ages who “read” the same images I was reading. Most in my suburban drywall church would understand that experience, though they’d be spooked by visions of people kneeling in front of statues of Catholic saints. The next day, we attended a church service at a Parisian evangelical church that was literally and figuratively underground. The small space was bleak and unadorned, and yet the standing-room-only service was excellent and true. That church had it right. But then, so did Notre Dame, in a very different way.
The comments thread is open. I am not going to publish comments that insult Evangelicalism, Catholicism, or any other form of Christianity. Critical analysis and critical observations are welcome, but not insulting commentary.