Tuesday, August 23, 2011

To Pagans and Heretics III

All of this defining I have been doing has been necessary to discuss the marketing of those ideas. I’m not talking about some conspiratorial campaign to market a new world over. Marketing includes the word of mouth exchanges that we all use. I will discuss the marketing of liberal Christianity, but I believe you will find parallels to the other groups I have discussed. I will also draw a connection to the fundamentalist beliefs.
More important than getting to know the ins and outs of this market is understanding who the market is for. Polls often cite the fact that 80 to 90% of Americans believe in God. However, time/use studies by the government show that only 25% of Americans are attending church on Sunday. So there is a majority in the middle that have a wide range of spiritual beliefs, but they are only expressed in polls as belief in God or not. When defending their Biblically based arguments, religious leaders will site that 90% figure, claiming that they are all in complete agreement.
There is one thing that the 90% do generally agree on, and that is a distrust of atheists. This was discovered in a poll somewhat by accident. They were attempting to measure feelings towards Muslims and included the Atheist label to increase the accuracy of the poll. They expected atheists to be statistically insignificant. Although that 75% that did not go to church this Sunday may not be comfortable with their clergy, or may feel that their church has become less Christ centered, or they like some of the ideas but not the rules, or just can’t give to an organization that covers up for child molesters, they still are less comfortable proclaiming that they don’t believe in God or even thinking about their sister marrying an atheist.
Churches have been aware of this for a long time. It is not stated in these terms and may not even be conscious for most. It is stated in terms of the latest idea to increase the membership. When working on increasing members, they look at what people are thinking. If people think Christ was all about doing good things then their church should be out there cleaning up parks. If people think church should be a celebration, get some new musicians. If people want to know about recent historical discoveries about the first century, offer a class.
In the mid 20th century, more and more seminaries began to teach textual criticism, the idea that by reading the Bible, you could determine that it was not written by Moses, the prophets and the apostles. This led to heretical ideas like maybe the miracles in the Bible might not have happened. This was not immediately passed onto the people in the congregations. Some young people who thought they were very dedicated to the church found they could not be once they went through seminary school. Some of this started to leak into the mainstream. In the mid 1980’s a group of scholars and laymen founded The Jesus Seminar. They wrote books, toured and gave a new interpretations of the gospel stories.
About that time I was getting more involved in my community and found that churches were an important part of that. When you needed volunteers to help with your neighborhood cleanup, they seemed to have a group just ready to go. I eventually stumbled on a church that was involved in doing good works, had some good music and a pastor that hadn’t done anything I would have a problem with. And he was just starting a class using a book by Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar. It was not until years later that I was shown a book that exposed some of the not so scholarly methods used by the Jesus Seminar.
Later, also somewhat by accident, I picked up a book by John Shelby Spong. He was one of the first of the older generation of church leaders to really look into the psychology of homosexuality. He found out that he had been wrong to preach that it was a sin. It was apparently quite natural. He is now retired and writes extensively about how the Bible is not the word of God. Somehow he has maintained his love for Christ, although he has never explained why in a way that satisfies me.
It is rare that anything will be explicitly stated that these tools are used to keep people interested. But sometimes it is. There was an organization named Campus Crusade for Christ that works specifically to attract those young people who weren’t indoctrinated into Christianity by their family. The group eventually figured out that the word “Crusade” has some negative connotations. Now they just call themselves “Cru”. This was specifically because, “some people may be initially turned off at the mention of Christ.”
To hear more of this type of talk, you really don’t need to dig too far. You only need to get past the nice brochures that are left out for that 50-75% of people who don’t come in every Sunday. Once you are past the Sunday Service, on just about any committee or in a meeting at any level above the most local, you will hear talk about membership. There may be some language about doing the work of the Lord, but there won’t be much detail. Once you are at this level you are supposed to know what that work is and make the connections yourself.
For me, I eventually could not look at anything we did that I felt had actual value and not find a completely logical reason for doing it that did not require a supernatural explanation. The only thing the church offered was an infrastructure of buildings, regional leaders and a communication system. There may not seem to be anything wrong with that. And if my church, the United Methodist Church, was an organization that built clinics in third world countries and fed the homeless in American cities and did little else, then I would agree. But that is not all that they do.
First there are just the buildings themselves. Look around at all of them in your area. Each one must be heated, kept cleaned, and have the lawn mowed. They are rarely full except for a few hours a week. The reason for so many of them is that each disagrees on the tiniest bits of theology, things that have little impact on the world but took years to parse out and tons of paperwork as each new difference split off to form another denomination. Imagine the community center that could be built with the combined effort of those organizations. A center that would be for everybody.
A good deal of effort of the particular church I attended was put into working to change the organizations official policy on homosexuality. One of the things that made the church vibrant was a very creative staff of people in the Sunday School which taught that there was a guiding consciousness that created all things and watches over us. The questions that began to arise for me were why am I part of an organization that needs to have its policy on homosexuality changed? And, do I want children to be taught to believe someone is watching out for them, or do I want them to learn to think for themselves?
Not too far away, in other churches in the same organization, children were being taught that their prayers could cure diseases. Most of the other churches were either oblivious to the issues of homosexuality or actively working to keep the current rules in place. Again, more time spent arguing over something that the rest of the world has already dealt with. Of course, I am just one person and there is the question of creating change from within an organization or from without. It is up to you to decide where you stand.

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