Friday, August 05, 2005
From Bill McKibben's article in the August issue of Harper's, "The Christian Paradox":
The apocalyptics, however, are the lesser problem. It is another competing (though sometimes overlapping) creed, this one straight from the sprawling megachurches of the new exurbs, that frightens me most. Its deviation is less obvious precisely because it looks so much like the rest of the culture. In fact, most of what gets preached in these palaces isn't loony at all. It is disturbingly conventional. The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs. Their goal is to service consumers - not communities but individuals: "seekers" is the term of art, people who feel the need for some spirituality in their (or their children's) lives but who aren't tightly bound to any particular denomination or school of thought. The result is often a kind of soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith.
A New York Times reporter visiting one booming megachurch outside Phoenix recently found the typical scene: a drive-through latte stand, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at every service, and sermons about "how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt." On Sundays children played with church-distributed Xboxes, and many congregants had signed up for a twice-weekly aerobics class called Firm Believers. A list of bestsellers compiled monthly by the Christian Booksellers Association illuminates the creed. It includes texts like Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen - pastor of a church so mega it recently leased a 16,000-seat sports arena in Houston for its services - which even the normally tolerant Publishers Weekly dismissed as "a treatise on how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals." Nearly as high is Beth Moore, with her Believing God - "Beth asks the tough questions concerning the fruit of our Christian lives," such as "are we living as fully as we can?" Other titles include Humor for a Woman's Heart, a collection of "humorous writings" designed to "lift a life above the stresses and strains of the day"; The Five Love Languages, in which Dr. Gary Chapman helps you figure out if you're speaking in the same emotional dialect as your significant other; and Karol Ladd's The Power of a Positive Woman. Ladd is the co-founder of USA Sonshine Girls - the "Son" in Sonshine, of course, is the son of God - and she is unremittingly upbeat in presenting her five-part plan for creating a life with "more calm, less stress."
Not that any of this is so bad in itself. We do have stressful lives, humor does help, and you should pay attention to your own needs. Comfortable suburbanites watch their parents die, their kids implode. Clearly I need help with being positive. And I have no doubt that such texts have turned people into better parents, better spouses, better bosses. It's just that these authors, in presenting their perfectly sensible advice, somehow manage to ignore Jesus' radical and demanding focus on others. It may, in fact, be true that "God helps those who help themselves," both financially and emotionally. (Certainly fortune does.) But if so it's still a subsidiary, secondary truth, more Franklinity than Christianity. You could eliminate the scriptural references in most of these bestsellers and they would still make or not make the same amount of sense. Chicken Soup for the Zoroastrian Soul. It is a perfect mirror of the secular bestseller lists, indeed of the secular culture, with its American fixation on self improvement, on self-esteem. On self. These similarities make it difficult (although not impossible) for the televangelists to posit themselves as embattled figures in a "culture war" - they offer too uncanny a reflection of the dominant culture, a culture of unrelenting self-obsession.