Superficiality & Christian Formation

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So today I head off to teach a class in Christian Formation at Seattle Pacific University , with a particular interest in the cultural context in which the next generation seeks to become spiritually formed.

A glance at a few pieces in yesterday’s “must read” stack set the stage.

First up is a piece about Hugh Hefner’s spirituality. Summarized we are told, “Hefner doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral or baptism since he was a college student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis in his own backyard.”

On the moral/ethical front, he will be the judge of morality and based on his standards he says, “Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term. [My] definition of sin is things that are hurtful to people. (Has he sinned?) Oh, sure. But I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it.”

Who God is will also be “voted on” by Hef, “I would believe in a God who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah. I would vote in favor of that.”

Malcolm Boyd says “Hef is a seeker. He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. In fact, I think, with most people in situations he’s trying to size them up in a kind of spiritual dimension. I think most people would not know that. Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think as such a great many people have never really understood him. He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”

After church ceased to influence his theology he turned elsewhere and we learn, “Hefner has constructed a unique theology informed by eclectic sources. For instance, he says he learned his morality from popular movies as much as he did from his parents and their Puritanical Protestantism. Filmmaker Frank Capra, director of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” among others, provided a bulwark for Hefner’s spiritual ethos. “I think the movies were my other mentors, my other parents.”

His most spiritual moments? “Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about. I think it brings your emotions to the surface to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden sometimes, that are from very early childhood that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.”

Oh, and by the way, he is raising his kids with no formal religion.

We move next to Madonna whose recent flirtation with Kabbalah took her on a trip to Israel, where interestingly, real practitioners of Kabbalah were scornful of her American derivative they think of as “Kabbalah-lite” Israeli broadcaster Uri Orbach dismissed it saying, “This is entertainment, not Judaism.” (Madonna was joining a group of 2,000 other students of Jewish mysticism from 22 countries, according to the Kabbalah Center, sponsor of the trip. Designer Donna Karan and Marla Maples, an ex-wife of Donald Trump, were among the other celebrities expected to attend, the center said.)

She was discouraged from visiting the Western Wall because “As she did in Israel, Madonna has spent most of her career adding to the world’s chaos, not ending it. From her early days of mocking the Catholic faith, to her later forays into sadomasochism and the onstage kiss she shared with barely legal Britney Spears last year, the 40-something pop diva has built her fortune on scandal and sleaze. So it’s no surprise that the Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall did not roll out their welcome mats when the self-professed Boy Toy pulled up in her SUV one night to join them at prayer. And it’s no wonder devout Jews question the sincerity of Madonna’s newfound faith, since six years of Kabbalah studies apparently have had little influence on her outrageous public behaviour. Madonna’s purported transition from Material Girl to Ethereal Girl has all of the hallmarks of her previous spiritual kicks, and few signs of authentic conversion. Once again, this sometime-devotee of Catholicism, Anglicanism, Hinduism and now, Judaism, has latched on to a faddish form of a venerable religious tradition.”

And one astute observer draws a line between “spiritual and religious journey this way, “Her new spiritual home is the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles, which peddles a Jewish mysticism unmoored from Judaism’s monotheistic roots and biblical morality. It is a trendy spirituality, popularized in the 1960s by an American rabbi and now sold to celebrities whose most obvious sign of religious commitment is the red string they wear around their wrists to ward off the so-called “evil eye.” Like many Americans today, Madonna has turned her back on traditional religion and morality, opting instead to make her own rules. Her meandering spiritual search suggests that her self-referential beliefs have repeatedly failed to satisfy her. But she is unwilling to fully embrace a religious tradition that makes real demands demands that go beyond wearing a bracelet or making a quasi-pilgrimage overseas. Madonna wants spirituality without religion and salvation without repentance. She wants cheap grace. And try as she might, she cannot find it. She cannot find it because authentic spirituality is always rooted in conversion, commitment and community. It always comes with strings attached not the strings of a bracelet donned for good luck but the strings of objective moral standards that require the believer to conform her life to God rather than the other way around.”

Our next stop is the world of televangelism where Paul Crouch’sfundraising tactics have led him to say the following, “[If you support TBN, God] will give you thousands, hundreds of thousands. He’ll give millions and billions of dollars¢â‚¬¦.(and) If my heart really, honestly desires a nice Cadillac ¢â‚¬¦ would there be something terribly wrong with me saying, ‘Lord, it is the desire of my heart to have a nice car ¢â‚¬¦ and I’ll use it for your glory?’ I think I could do that and in time, as I walked in obedience with God, I believe I’d have it.”

Critics include a televangelist watchdog group, which observed, “The people on TBN are living the lifestyle of fabulous wealth on the backs of the poorest and most desperate people in our society. People have lost their faith in God because they believe they weren’t worthy after not receiving their financial blessing. “ And religious historian William Martin who commented, “It is difficult to fathom how anyone familiar with the abundance of biblical teaching about the ‘deceitfulness of riches’ could have devised the prosperity gospel. While the Bible does not condemn all wealth, it surely points to its dangers in numerous passages.”

Unfortunately a stroll by a Washington Times journalist through the typical Christian bookstore reveals a different kind of commercialism practiced by the “good guys,” the evangelicals. “A walk down the aisle of a Christian bookstore reveals Bobblehead figurines of Catholic priests, socks embroidered with the words “As I follow you, Lord,” and Scripture candy — “reaching the world one piece at a time.” The store sells jewelry, greeting cards and T-shirts with spiritual versions of secular trademarks. The music bins are full of Christian-themed compact discs — telegenic performers smiling on the covers — offering praise and worship in every style from bluegrass to heavy metal, from rap to reggae to salsa. Such merchandise is typical of “Jesus junk.”

Which prompted this response from Roberto Riviera, “Much Christian culture is just a subculture that doesn’t question the assumptions of the majority culture, it just takes them in a different direction. The ticky-tacky stuff comes from people who haven’t decided if they want to engage the culture — fully contributing something — or they wish to withdraw. It is neither really Christian or postmodern pagan. It is an attempt to have both.”

So this is the context of today’s Christian formation, a light and fluffy popular culture in which seekers self-design light and fluffy “spiritual” and “religious” quests.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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