Almost Christian

I’ve recently begun reading Almost Christian: What The Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean. I got turned on to it by Tony Jones who is blogging through the book. Even though I’m not too far into the book, I can tell that Dean is addressing the issue in a thoughtful and balanced way so I’m looking forward to reading more.

The main point of the book seems to be that the faith of teenagers is in crisis. American teens don’t seem to be able to successfully articulate their what their faith means to them or what they believe. And Dean believes this trend is most likely due to the fact that American Christian adults are doing a poor job of exposing teens to classic, orthodox, traditional Christianity. She writes:

“What if the blase religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks, no passionate surrender to ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of a decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter in creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today? If this is the case–if theological malpractice explains teenagers’ half-hearted religious identities–then perhaps most young people practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism not because they reject Christianity, but because this is the only “Christianity” they know.

And if you are unclear on what Dean means by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” she outlines five guiding beliefs of MTD:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to fell good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

And this is all taking place, according to Dean, primarily because adults don’t do a good enough job talking about and practicing their faith in front of their children. For all I know, that may be true to some extent. I’m not that up on the history of polling teens in this country on matters of faith but I wonder if this isn’t such a new development. Is it possible that with current day fixation on polling, data, focus groups especially in the American Church, we’re just finding out what has more or less always been the case? It’s like people who are freaking out that autism is on the rise when it’s much more probable that autism is relatively static but that it’s being diagnosed much more successfully with benefit of today’s medical advances. Again, I’m not an expert and to some degree I’ll take Dean at her word, but this is something that I thought of while reading the book.

Ultimately, Dean, along with everyone else who fixates on why teens don’t seem all that interested in American Christianity, is attempting to untangle a very complicated web of intricate and inter-related factors. It’s certainly worthwhile and I’m glad the work is being done. But I wonder if we are missing a key point in all of this.

Imagine you were an alien visiting earth. You have no previous religious practice and you have no previous knowledge of the various world religions practiced on earth. You arrive and someone tells you about two Gods. One God created the world and everything in it. If you believe in that God and love that God, you will be spared eternal conscious punishment in a place called Hell. And because a vast majority of the world don’t believe this God in the right way, they will go to hell forever, even though God loves them all very much. And then the other God, the God of MTD, created the world and watches from above, wants everyone to be nice and happy. This God will help you when you need help and if you’re a good person, you’ll be rewarded with being with God in heaven.

What religion makes more sense? What God would you place your bet on if you were that alien? Personally, I don’t blame American teens for believing what they do. Given the choice between the classic, traditional depiction of the Gospel, I’d choose the God of MTD every day of the week. I’m not saying that I’m a proponent of the MTD message and I’m not saying that the prescriptions Dean makes are totally off base. So far she brings up valid concerns and offers helpful suggestions, but are we missing the bigger picture? What is the gospel are we sharing to our kids and is that gospel compelling? For me, I believe an entirely different gospel today compared to the gospel I was offered as a youth. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t teach me or that I didn’t have awesome youth workers at the church I was raised in. The gospel I was offered didn’t work for me. It was the prime suspect. Everything else was pretty awesome. Great parents, great people at the church I grew up in but I needed a way to connect to God that made sense to me. Doubling down on teaching kids a message that doesn’t compel them doesn’t seem like a great solution.

The Contradiction of the Cross

“On the cross, our false dependencies are revealed. On the cross, our illusions are killed off. On the cross, our small self dies so that the true self, the God-given self, can emerge. On the cross, we give up the fantasy that we are in control, and the death of this fantasy central to acceptance.

The cross is, above all, a place of powerlessness. Here is the final proof that our own feeble powers can no more alter life’s trajectory than a magnet can pull down the moon. Here is the death of the ego, of the self that insists on being in charge, the self that continually tries to impose its own idea of order and righteousness on the world.

The cross is a place of contradiction. For the powerlessness of the cross, if fully embraced, takes us to a place of power. This is the great mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, from Jesus to Martin Luther Kind Jr., the mystery of the power of powerlessness. As long as I am preoccupied with the marshaling of my own feeble powers, there will be no way for God’s power to flow through me. As long as I am getting in my own way, I cannot live in the power of God’s way.”

— Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox

Creativity: “Divest Yourself from the Outcomes”

Creativity is risky. That’s a lesson I learn in a very real way every three years or so when the band I play in releases a new album. Ideally, artists create art for the simple reason that the art is inside them and to keep from exploding or going insane, they need to give it form and release it to the world. For my particular band we work at a unrushed pace, always deferring to give ourselves more time to make sure what’s in us is given a form that all four of us agree is the best we have to give. There are both positive and negative aspects of going slow. The positive is that you can really put what you’ve done under the microscope and are free to endlessly edit your approach. The downside is with this approach is that you can easily find yourself at the bottom of a very deep rabbit hole, losing any sense of direction, without any light to check your compass. We’ve tried to do everything out power to speed things up, but our process is just what it is. This isn’t to say that great records can’t be made in a matter of weeks or even days. Many of the very best records in our collections testify to that fact.

The other benefit of our slow approach is that when we finally get to the point of releasing our music to the world, we are content with what we’ve done. We can look each other in the eye and know that this album is an honest representation of who we’ve been as a band for the past two years or so while we’ve been making this album. We often talk about our what our albums will mean to us in twenty, thirty years from now. Will we look back and know we put the best part of ourselves in those songs? In order for us to be ready to release what we’ve done, the answer to that question has to be “YES!”

This sentiment allows us to more easily absolve ourselves from the peripheral outcomes that we encounter, primarily the opinions of others about what we’ve done. My friend Shane Hipps uses a great term that I’ve adopted, “Divest your self from the outcomes.” Becoming too attached to the opinions of others can lead an artist outside themselves, altering their original motivation and inspiration. This is incredibly hard to do and in a sense, it’s impossible. But attaching yourself to the outcomes must be resisted, even when the outcome is complimentary to your work. If you are not content with your work, keep working. If you are content with your work, own it and release it out into the world and never look back. Good reviews and bad reviews of what you’ve done are just steaming piles of dung, worthless to who you are as an artist.