Home/Rod Dreher/Smartphone As Cathedral

Smartphone As Cathedral

'Oh my Lord and God, I shall make an icon of Thee' (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iluBpPkCZ1Q]

Take a look at that short promotional video for “Churchome Global,” a new initiative from a church pastored by Judah and Chelsea Smith.

“Churchome is a way for you to fully experience church on your phone,” says Chelsea Smith, in the video.

No. Just, no.

Churchome Global is the apotheosis of Protestantism. Just you and God, mediated through your smartphone. No sacraments. The simulacrum of community and connection. An emotional experience of the divine. The world fully inside your head.

It’s worth spending some time on the Churchome website. Clearly these folks are touching a lot of people.

Take a look at their “About” page.  There are no creeds there, no “statements of faith,” nothing to indicate what the people in this church believe. There is this, though:

Luke 15 has become such a hallmark passage for our community. The idea and concept of home is centric in scripture. It is the idea that every human is a sojourner and he/she is returning home. Home is not so much brick and mortar, an actual space or place or room. Home is a place and a posture our soul discovers in Jesus – where the created returns to a loving relationship with the Creator. Bringing people home is what God does. Whether prodigals or prodigies, artists or intellectuals, rebels or rejects—God’s arms are open to all. God is making Churchome a community where everyone is welcome, not just to a physical building, but to an emotional place of refuge in Him. Home is God.

“…to an emotional place of refuge in Him.” Not to Truth, and transformation through an encounter with that living Truth, but to an emotional state.

“Home” is a big theme with this church. In this video sermon on the website, Judah Smith, its a very charismatic co-pastor, offers (around the 35-minute mark) his model for the church: a place where everybody gathers to celebrate. He goes on about how much he opposes divisiveness. It becomes clear that the point of Churchome (formerly known as “City Church”) is to feel good about yourself, and to feel good about feeling good about yourself in the presence of others who feel good about themselves.

This is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism without much moralism, frankly. I discovered, via this MTV News profile, that Judah Smith is Justin Bieber’s pastor, and indeed is proud to be known as “Hollywood’s A-List Pastor.” The writer, who identifies herself as Jewish, talks about going to a Smith church event in L.A. right after Trump was elected, hoping to find reason to hope:

We expect City Church’s atmosphere to be similarly solemn and tortured. Instead, it’s more akin to Church Coachella. Everyone is extremely hot and serene and mostly white, milling about and chatting offhandedly between rows. We spot approximately 16 fedoras, dozens of carefully tousled blowouts, and at least one of the actresses from Twilight. While none of the aforementioned A-listers appear to be in attendance, everybody looks like a derivative of a celebrity, a famous-face stunt double. Leah and I ask each other, “Wait, is he on Teen Wolf?” about no fewer than six men.

And then there’s the hugging. The beautiful, blithe constituents of City Church greet each other with such intimate, lengthy, erotic hugs that it becomes abundantly clear that at least half of them are Here To Find Somebody To Have Sex With, Perhaps Long-Term. Though the few congregants I speak to expound animatedly on how City Church drew them in by fulfilling promises of real friendship and “feeling good” (one tells me she came to church because “I heard Pastor Smith was really funny, and makes you feel like a friend”), the pre-service socializing vibe is a little more Tinder than Touched by an Angel.

Pastor Smith is a fashionable 20 minutes late to the stage. While we wait, a cavalcade of Bieber hits tumbles from the speakers, and eventually, a sexy Christian rock band — made up of other non-famous, very hot Jesus followers in backward hats and the apparently required distressed denim — sets up and begins to jam languidly.

“I am full of faith for the community, you, the future,” Smith begins earnestly, the rapt congregation following his emotional lead. “And I am full of grief at the same time, because of so much pain and division in our country. No matter what you believe about policy, tonight we’re in an elevated conversation. This space is about people, it’s not about policies. Policies come and go; people are eternal.”

Abruptly, and without warning, he changes lanes. “My name’s Judah, I’ve been married to my wife 17 years as of November 5,” he yells, to raucous cheers. “It was an awesome anniversary celebration and there was just a lot of sex. Chels and I have determined that we literally have had sex more than 2,000 times. We actually counted. Can I say something about sex for a minute — can we elevate the conversation?” More cheering, loud laughter. “If you had sex with the same person 2,000 times, you get good. I’m just saying. I’m having a lot more fun than you are. I can guarantee you that, buddy. I love you guys. I adore Chelsea. We have three kids — a 10-, 12- and a 7-year-old, and they love life and they love God. You know God makes sex, right? So if we’re God worshippers, Jesus followers should have the best sex on the planet because it’s sacred sex and it’s dedicated sex and it’s in the context God intended sex, so it’s the best sex.”

Without missing a beat, Smith veers right back into the sermon, which is long — almost an hour — and peppered with exclamatory “wows” and “amens” from the crowd. He begins by sharing the biblical tale of Paul and Timothy, which deals with the concept of poor leadership, and what Christians should do when faced with leaders “puffed up with conceit.” According to Smith — who projects the word “FIGHT” on a PowerPoint behind him for much of the sermon — the correct course of action is “fighting the good fight of faith.”

So that’s Pastor Smith. The writer continues:

Though his intentions are honorable — to comfort, to relieve pain — it appears Smith “genuinely won’t go here” regarding the very real dangers of a Trump presidency, either. After spending two hours with this man, I’m not completely clear about whether he’s a progressive who’s too afraid to speak out about Trump and risk alienating his audience, or quietly supportive of our president-elect. His is a nice idea, though, especially seductive to an overly anxious person like myself: the idea that politics are debasing and temporary, that we should elevate ourselves by focusing on the long game of our eventual death. Smith is so charismatic and compelling and convincing that I imagine it would be easy, as a young Jesus follower, to listen to these words and feel soothed.

I can’t help but notice, though, that these words are only applicable if you know you’ll always have food and clothing and all of the the basic rights and protections that a decent government should provide — in other words, if you look like Smith. Smith’s good fight of faith is a privileged one, an exhale that can really only be expelled by those fortunate enough to have the choice to let go, to put it all in God’s hands, to turn off CNN and spend the next 50-odd years having sacred sex and tasting artisanal beers and smelling the roses and calmly waiting to die. Most of us — including the not-insignificant number of women and people of color and queer youth scattered through Smith’s audience — can’t just exhale for the duration of our natural lives; we’ve still got to breathe.

Though I wouldn’t have come at Smith from an SJW angle, or from a narrowly political angle, the writer is onto something. She observes from the point of view of a secular progressive, but she sees accurately that there is no there there with Smith. It’s all about soothing emotions. What, exactly, does it mean to be a Christian within the Churchome community? There seems to be no firm connection at all to anything — only a vague sense of progressive millennial non-denominational uplift. Of course they believe that you can “fully experience church” on your smartphone! “Church” is nothing but an emotion, or, to be precise, “an emotional place of refuge in Him.”

When I call this “the apotheosis of Protestantism,” I’m not at all saying “this is how all Protestants are.” By no means. Most of my Protestant friends would roll their eyes at this hipster holiness. And I know that many, even most, contemporary American Catholics and Orthodox essentially regard their own churches with Smith’s therapeutic deistic mentality. Church is the place where they feel at home — and God is the wallpaper there.

No, what I mean by that phrase is that insofar as Protestantism is a general approach to God that downplays or even dismisses the mediating artifacts, rites, and institutions — sacraments, liturgies, traditional churches, etc. — and that, in many expressions of contemporary Evangelicalism, upholds the subjective experience of God as the end point of the temporal Christian life … well, why isn’t Churchome the ultimate expression of that rootless, placeless, disembodied, radically subjective approach to Christianity?

Would Ignatius of Antioch recognize it as Christianity? Ignatius, who succeeded St. Peter as bishop of Antioch, died a martyr in the city of Rome around 107 A.D. He left behind a series of letters he wrote to the churches as he was being led to Rome to be killed. Is there anything in Churchome’s version of the faith that would give a Christian condemned to be eaten by lions in front of an audience the strength to persevere? If not, why waste your time with it?

Yesterday I wrote critically of the crackpot sex-obsessed progressive Christianity of the Pornstrix. What she represents is not the greatest threat to authentic Christianity, not by a mile. What Judah Smith represents is far more toxic. A reader named Joseph, in another thread today, wrote:

Regarding the erosion of traditional morality even in Christian circles: I served in a church of mostly Millenials for a few years, and we saw this as well – not necessarily total acceptance of same-sex marriage, but 1) a rush to soft-pedal the Bible’s teaching on homosexual practice, and 2) a sense that this restriction is arbitrary.

A parallel belief we saw, that I think informs the first belief more than I realized then, was a growing distaste for the idea of having children. It wasn’t articulated clearly; but my wife and I both saw, in women particularly, almost a growing disgust with the realities of bearing and having children.

Where these beliefs merge, I think, is the loss of a sense of responsibility to past and future generations. Traditional cultures see individuals as having obligations backward in time, to honor one’s parents, and forward, to provide for one’s (hoped-for) children. I don’t know what’s played into it, but my generation (Millennials) is losing a sense of both goods: the goods of honoring past generations and creating future ones. Or at least we’re valuing other goods that render those less desirable. [Emphasis mine — RD]

A big part of both Old and New Testament Christianity is the good of becoming parents, being blessed with children; but as that becomes less desirable or even undesirable, it’s harder to see what’s wrong with sexual practices that are by nature sterile (instead of due to accidents of age, etc.).

There’s even a stream of evangelicalism that’s particularly bad about rushing to condemn “traditional” Christianity over “gospel” Christianity, and quick to put anything that our parents or grandparents did under suspicion. This stream still does see childbearing as a good, from what I see; but generational responsibility probably has to flow both ways, or it will flow neither.

There is no temporal flow at all in Churchome. There is nothing in the past that matters, and nothing to carry through to the future, and if there were, there’s certainly no means by which to carry it. It’s all about the everlasting ecstasy of Now. You and your smartphone, and the simulacrum of connection, and of God.

On the other hand, here is Orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae, standing up for the old way of seeing things as Christians:

Salvation isn’t obtained in isolation, but in a cosmic frame. This value of the world as a road to God is explained by the fact that man must have an object of giant proportions for strengthening his spiritual forces, but also from the intrinsic structure of the world as a symbol of transcendent divine realities. A symbol (from the Greek symballein, to throw together, to unite two things without confusing them), is a visible reality which doesn’t only represent, but somehow makes an unseen reality visible. …  A symbolic consciousness of the world, “sees everywhere in this world the signs and symbols of another world, and perceives the divine as the mysterious and infinite, beyond that which is finite and transitory.”

Whatever else this does, it takes you out of your head. As Martin Benda, who grew up as a Catholic under communism, said to me in explaining how his family endured without surrender: “We felt responsible to something outside of ourselves.”

The older churches taught that you can experience the fullness of the Church in the Eucharist, which liturgical Western Christians may hold in their hands before consuming it. (Orthodox Christians receive wine-soaked bread in a spoon, taken from the chalice.) Now, these postmodern Protestants have a pseudo-Eucharist in the palm of their hands, via their smartphones. What is the sign that the smartphone church points to? What is the unseen reality it makes visible?

The sacred, sovereign Self.

I believe it was Churchill who said that we make our buildings, and our buildings make us. So it is with our tools, like the smartphone. This is a warning.

UPDATE: To be completely fair, Pastor Smith’s approach is a slicker version of the RCIA instruction (catechesis for converts) I endured during my first approach at Catholicism in 1991. Three months into it, I found myself lying on my back in a dark room with a bunch of other catechumens, while Sister Stretchpants led us in a guided meditation in which we were trying to find our authentic selves. I realized finally that all of us were going to get to the point of being received into the Catholic Church without knowing anything about what the Catholic Church taught, or expected of us, other than to be pleased with ourselves, all together. I gave it up.

UPDATE.2: A reader points out that Churchome is Church O’ Me. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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