Saturday, February 18, 2006

For “catholic” Christians, Old is the New New

If history repeats itself, it’s interesting to be re-living an era for the first time. Liturgical scholarship has paved the way for where the Church will head: into the Past, and with great reverence. This scholarship has pointed to the historical continuation of and new appreciation for very old Christian habits: a meal, a bath, readings from an old book, praying and healing. And now, not just in worship but in lifestyle, some Christians may find themselves reliving the early years of their Christian forefathers and fore mothers.

The reason is very simple. Something else that is old is gaining strength, even if in new ways: persecution. I am not an alarmist, and I don’t want to sound melodramatic. I’m not into shock value, and I rarely engage in conspiracy theories. This new persecution is in many ways not active at all but passive. It finds its voice in many conduits. Here are a few:

1. A media that holds a double standard towards Muslims and Christians. Muslim violence towards Christians (and certainly Jews) is often overlooked, downplayed or ignored. This places Christianity in a defensive position, having to justify its history and doctrines, while Islam is never asked to do the same. Any Christian violence is examined, and a claim of absolute truth is sneered at with flippancy.
2. The assumption of Christianity as culture, not a religious life that asks some obedience, if not total obedience. This is a mild persecution that makes the Christian life one choice of many, a consumerist decision more than a radical faith claim.
3. The effort by some Christians to turn the faith into a business, leaving an orthodox faith to look obsolete, naïve and outdated. These Christians would never want to see this as persecution, but to my mind, it forces orthodox Christians into a place that looks like a medieval dungeon to a world used to mass media and celebrity.

This may not be persecution as much as apathy. Either way, it is slowly causing Christians to look to Church History with more frequency and earnestness. This shows up in many ways, from highly successful Christianity 101 programs (like “Alpha”) at churches to History Channel documentaries on the early apostles to the success of Roman Catholic radio programming like Relevant Radio. (The topics here are not selling WWJD bracelets or promoting the latest Christian rock concert. They are Eucharist, baptism, confession, and certainly political issues like abortion and birth control.) I believe “catholic” Christians are seeing themselves the way they used to be seen in many respects, as household meetings in a community that is doing something obviously different from the community, because the faith is no longer assumed.

This is happening in Protestant communities as they shift from a “membership” model to a “discipleship” model. Christians are starting to see themselves as disciples of the person of Jesus more than members of a local church. This is their response to living in a Post-Christian culture where the faith is no longer the assumption, even if over 80% claim to be Christian. This sort of “ownership” of the faith often finds its common denominator in simple things, old things, things pre-Constantine Christianity considered their defining rituals and lifestyle.

Now, why am I limiting this discussion to “catholic” Christians? The Relievedebtor bias strikes again! From my experience, too many charismatic or evangelical Christians have resisted this subtle persecution in a different way: they have attempted to blend into the culture as seamlessly as possible. (Disclaimer: this is not true for them all, I know it’s painting with a broad brush, etc. etc. etc.) In ways I’ve discussed previously, charismatics have made evangelism a business model. In music, attire, mass media and even coffee shops in church lobbies, charismatics have not reverted to the old things of Christianity, but tried to bring a post-Christian culture into their “new” way of being faithful. My bias is that this is ultimately misleading about what the faith truly is, and will create a cultural Christianity that makes Christians indistinguishable from anybody else. It is often great for behavior modification, but I don’t know that it cultivates a life of faith as well as a creedal and sacramental piety.

In many ways charismatics are indignant about this persecution and offer harsh rebuttals to the world before adopting many of its sales techniques. For that, it deserves some credit. But to my mind, catholic Christians have no interest in turning Christianity into a fad. They have an interest more in bringing the world to a counter-cultural revolution, fueled by water, bread and wine. I don’t mean to sound pietistic or simple; I’m referencing a simple return to orthodoxy more than anything else.

One final thought: if the “clash of civilization” comes to a head and the threat of Islam to the west is taken more seriously, I can see more Christians reverting more quickly back to the “old” things of Christianity. A theology of prosperity will have much less appeal when Iran’s nuclear weapons are headed towards LA or NY.

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