I Don't Pledge Allegiance, To the Flag

I guess I’m not patriotic. That’s what I assume, at least, when I find myself on my usual side of a controversy like the one that erupted recently when a school note involving the pledge of allegiance went viral.

The note was a waiver, sent home to be signed in case the parent/guardian wanted to opt their child out of reciting the pledge. On the paper, a disgruntled mother expressed her disgruntledness, while her brother-in-law, the child’s uncle, snapped a pic and shared it. The rest is news feed history.

The actions of the adults, and the thousands of comments found under internet shares of this story, point to a visceral anger that something is wrong with this country when nationalist traditions like the pledge are questioned. Those who don’t feel this way are deemed “unpatriotic.”

I am one of those who feel completely baffled and out of step with the vitriol. But I’m used to feeling out of step with current American sympathies. I’m a socialist. You know, the devil.

Any time I question our national obsession with capitalism, or our quickness to war, our sense of lofty superiority and international supremacy, or our constant failure of memory and imagination when it comes to our social ills, I’m immediately aware of who disagrees with me. Definitely those on the political right (Republicans, libertarians, alt-right, etc.), and often Democrats don’t like what certain folks on the far left have to say regarding the policies of our country (as well as the morality and ideology behind them). So I’m not surprised when something comes along that upsets large parts of the public but doesn’t bother me (and vice versa).

Still, this pledge thing bothers me; not because kids can opt out, but because it’s still being said at all. From a civics perspective, the pledge strikes me as both socially irresponsible given our global reality and naively jingoistic.

The problem with our culture's tendency to separate every issue into easy dualism (writ large as the two party political system) is that we're often quick to do away with nuance in favor of the snappiest soundbite. In this case, when someone says they don't like the pledge, it's the natural step for an opponent to say "well then you must not like America."

Which in my case is and isn't true. I guess we need some nuance.

The Pledge as Bad Policy

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Though the pledge has gone through several iterations since its first, mostly permanent revision in 1892, this is the current one, last updated in 1954 to capitalize "Nation" and add "under God."

When it comes to the pledge, what we're talking about is a fealty oath, a demand by the State fulfilled by its subjects. The pledge requires loyalty, and unquestioning relationship to the flag and the specific form of government that it represents. The pledge doesn't beg our allegiance for "the best possible version of our Republic" or to "the basic precepts at the foundation of our Republic" but to the Republic itself. This, whether intentionally or not, makes the pledge a nationalist tool for keeping subjects in line whether the Republic is what it should be or not. The Republic is as it stands, and you're to pledge allegiance to it.

Hopefully it's obvious why such unquestioning nationalism is seriously problematic. When such beliefs have historically emerged as governmental structures, they haven't had the best track records. We don't often speak kindly of fascists, after all (except to cheekily note that they're good at getting trains to places on time).

This jingoistic turn is what separates the practices of saying the pledge from being or feeling patriotic. Patriotism, in its ideal sense, allows for careful and heavy criticism. You can love a place, feel a sense of ownership to it and pride in what it can be, and still be completely honest and aware of its failings. As noted above, the pledge doesn't allow for the kind of free thought, debate, or imagination that a healthy patriotism necessitates. Therefore, equating the pledge and patriotism just doesn't play.

The problem only grows larger when we consider how the conflation of the two has resulted in a terribly rigid sense of what it means to be an American citizen. The inflexibility, combined with the misunderstanding (or even willful ignorance), is what makes the dedication to the pledge dangerous to actual individual and social freedoms.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the 1943 Supreme Court majority decision[1] to overturn a previous ruling which allowed students to be compelled to say the pledge in school[2], railed against the ideological orthodoxy which would force any American into a prescribed behavior at the expense of other more important, though less tangential, ideals. He wrote,

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

Prescribed orthodoxy is what makes the pledge a terrible idea in the first place. No formulaic, performative act can distinguish one citizen of a free republic from another—which is why the willingness to say the Pledge is a terrible assessment for political belonging. More than that, this is why it's antithetically American to support the pledge as that which defines loyalty. And if the pledge can't and shouldn't define loyalty, why have it?

The pledge is a false litmus for "true Americanism." This makes it problematic for all citizens over which it holds sway (which is to say all of us).

Unfortunately, the problems with the pledge continue, deeper and deeper down for religious persons. The show of parroted patriotism that is the pledge is one of special import to Christians[3]. Because not only is a pledge of allegiance politically troublesome, it’s idolatrous.

The Pledge as Idolatry

When God sent Moses down from the mountain with a list of commandments, the first two are, roughly, "I am God" and "thusly, no worshipping some other god." For those keeping with the Judeo-Christian heritage, it still stands as an instruction not to worship that which is not God.

Unfortunately for nationalism, this provides a distraction from the necessary worship of the nation. It also doesn't make capitalism too happy, as capitalism demands the primacy of currency, with people and their innate createdness being secondary to their role as money-makers then money-spenders.

Benjamin E. Zeller used the recent Colin Kaepernick[4] controversy to discuss Émile Durkheim's model of religion with the totem as the center. Our Americanism, our sense of civic religion, then, is centered on the flag, the "symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship." This symbol is given explicit power via the pledge. The flag is the symbol of the national god to be worshipped, the pledge its scripture, the national anthem its hymn.

Christianity gains its power from being a witness to the truth that Christ stands against the death dealt by national power in favor of the life offered by God. Peace and community are the eternal way, truth, and life. Rome will always only be the cross and the sealed tomb.

The Christian, therefore, cannot both accept the primacy of Christ and that of the state. The pledge is an acknowledgment of servitude above and beyond all else. Reciting it is, then, idolatry to the Christ follower.

This isn't a new concept, as the first Supreme Court challenge to the mandatory recitation of the pledge stemmed from Jehovah's Witnesses children refusing to say the pledge in school in 1935. Yet despite its age, the controversy is still fresh. It's so fresh that stories of people sitting during national anthems, or refusing to say the pledge, or politicians advocating fierce returns to Americanism continue to be front-page news.

The worship of the flag and the Republic for which it stands is at a fever pitch. There is no sector of American life untouched by the call to worship the Americanness of all things. Entreaties to "make America great again," to say the pledge without question, and to sing the national anthem with sacred reverence all require modern Christians to declare dual allegiances, using frighteningly similar religious and civic liturgies to do so.

The pledge is such liturgy. It simultaneously claims to be a marker of truth and of identity couched within truth. It demands that the flag be both witnessed and the cause of witness. This demand places the flag, for those who pledge allegiance to it, at the right hand of the empire which flies it. All of which makes unflinching nationalistic dedication hard to square when you also claim to worship a carpenter who said caring for the poor and sick, who said loving for God and neighbor, matters more than a flag and the Republic for which it stands ever will.

[1]: It should be noted that this ruling is what makes it ridiculous that a school or teacher need to send home a note to give permission for a child to opt out and not say the pledge. While it's helpful that the note gives parents and children an awareness of their rights, it's unfortunate that it's needed. They don't have to say it now, no opting out necessary. Thanks to a later ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, children under its jursidiction (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) don't have to stand for it either. (According to Snopes, the school in question sent the notice home in compliance with Florida law, which requires children know their right to refrain from saying the pledge and requires parents know they can excuse their child from saying it. Even though a teacher can't compel them to say it in the first place.)

[2]: Not only is this in keeping with the right to dissent protected by the First Amendment, it's pedagogically sound when teaching children anything as belief-based and intellectually complex as allegiance. Young children aren't fully capable of understanding what allegiances are, and we shouldn't be asking them to swear to anything based on the assumption that they'll support a specific brand of nationalist ideology in the future (which keeps with the sound method to "never teach a child anything you'll have to unteach them later"). To do so is to support indoctrination, something easily accomplished with young, impressionable minds. The Hitler Youth program was successful for a reason.

[3]: I absolutely do not mean to imply that "religious persons" and "Christians" are to be conflated here or in any context, nor do I intend to imply that the pledge is only religiously problematic for Christians. It's just that my context is Christian, and I can't speak for my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. brothers and sisters. But I'd like to think that any of those who feel the divine life trumps the life of empire would agree with what follows.

[4]: That this controversy has emerged from the world of American sport adds a layer, as the idolatry of the American state has intertwined with the idolatry by Americans of professional sport, particularly American football. The worship of both ride waves of liturgy, each with their own means of consecrating that which is most holy: the flag, the game. In recent years, the worship of these two pillars of Americanism have merged into codependent parts. Tom Suttle notes exactly this in his excellent recent piece.


I was thinking about the Eucharist today. Did you know "eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks?" That's pretty cool. The central ritual of Christian practice over the millennia is to say "thanks."

It has probably been said a thousand times before and more eloquently than I am capable of, but this stands in stark contrast with the global system of capitalism which dictates the rhythm of our lives.

Capitalism's primary animating value is scarcity. This logic, that there isn't enough, pulls every other human value into its matrix of scarcity. Time, money, natural resources, love, companionship, beauty—all these and more are stripped of their ultimate value and defined instead by fear, anxiety, and the will to power. How ironic that capitalism generates so much waste, a surplus so tremendous that no one in an earlier age could possibly imagine it, while so many go hungry. Capitalism's excess and the gap between rich and poor reifies its own myth of scarcity.

Eucharist, on the other hand, is a symbol not just of gratitude for the fundamental fact that everything that is worthwhile in life is an unmerited gift, but it is an expression of abundance. Through this ritual Christians gesture toward the meal saying, "We exist there, in the wheat and grapes, in the broken body of Christ given for us," and we respond "Thanks," content that this will be more than enough—enough to share.

The Myth of Christian Voting

The trend in U.S. politics for the last few decades, from the conservative side at least, has been to court the "evangelical vote" by creating calls to arms around various hot-button social issues. This is often called the ‘culture wars’. A broad name, but complexities, of course, abound.

The usual push-back points are that not all evangelicals are alike, that we have a hard time defining the term evangelical in our modern context, that those who court such a vote are often Christian in name more than deed, that Christians should vote based more on the biblical teachings of Christ and less on the modern social lens through which we try to squeeze the Bible… you’ve heard them all. There are more think pieces on these subjects than one could ever read.

This is all amplified in the case of Donald Trump, as most things are. Trump seems to be courting the evangelical vote effectively, which in this case means he’s able to pull socially conservative folks who also identify as Christians and who, usually, name Christianity as a driving force behind what and who they vote for.

The response in this case has been for more than a few evangelicals to talk about why voting for Trump is antithetical to evangelical beliefs. This New York Times piece has been making the rounds; this one at Ministry Matters is well-written, too.

But both miss the point, which is that being a Christian really isn’t a matter of civic responsibility. The thing is, you are Christian apart from your role in the citizenry, and the two identities have very little to do with each other.

Here, you might say I’m not being practical. You might say, "If I believe that Christ teaches to take care of people, I’m going to vote for people and policies that help others.” And I’ll say, “Of course you are.”

But the thing is, your participation in the life of a nation, in the life of an institutional system, isn’t the same as your life in Christ. It isn’t wholly different, but they aren’t analogous. When Ben Carson spoke about it being necessary for a Muslim who wanted to hold office to renounce their religious allegiance, he missed the point that Christian politicians have to do this, too. In Christianity (though the metaphor is troublesome), Christ is king, and America ain’t dealin’ in kings.

There are lots of reasons—practical, emotional, intellectual, STRAIGHT-UP-BASIC MORAL—to not vote for Donald Trump. But being a Christian has little to do with it. Your identity in Christ isn’t a moralistic one, though how you act communally is undeniably linked. Your identity in Christ isn’t tribal, meaning that it isn’t confined by narrow categorization like party affiliation. Your identity in Christ isn’t governmental, civic, or legislated. Life and identity in Christ is something much more universal and free than any specific policy vote you make or label you choose to associate with. We humans like to put things in boxes because categorizing makes things make sense; unfortunately, the mystical nature of incarnation, of God-Human, makes categorization impossible.

So I don’t think evangelicals should or shouldn’t vote for Trump because I don’t believe in this ethereal voting bloc which is “evangelicals,” nor do I believe in labels which denote things as “Christian” or “secular.” Instead, if Christ is incarnate, in our bodies and our air and our lives lived as liturgy itself, then voting becomes quite secondary. That doesn’t mean that it stops being our civic duty, or our duty to work for our neighbor simply because they’re our neighbor. Some of our decisions will look more like Christ. Some won’t look like Christ at all. None of it is separate from the mind of God. Nothing is outside the realm of the divine life. If Paul is right, then there are no categories. We are who we are, created and free, only bound by the burdening Christianicism with which we have hobbled ourselves.

I Am Not a Progressive Christian

Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW), Lutheran Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints here in Denver, CO was a guest on Fresh Air about a month ago. As a friend pointed out after seeing her speak recently, the theological tradition out of which she forms her ministry is nothing particularly revolutionary. Mainline American Protestant Christianity has preached a flavor of her message since the late 1950s. Her genius is how she says what she says, and that she takes this tradition seriously enough to preach it to people the church has overlooked for decades.

Terry Gross assumes in her line of questioning that NBW must be coming out of a younger theological tradition which has been variously dubbed “Progressive” or “liberal” Christianity. Gross hints at this when she asks,

TG: Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs.

NBW: I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no.

TG: That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.

Gross wasn’t expecting this, because she assumes NBW, as a tattooed, female, swearing pastor preaching to a largely LGBTQ congregation, must also therefore preach about being “radical” and changing the world. But NBW responds:

I don’t monitor people’s behavior, let’s put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about like sort of monitoring behavior and so far it has failed to work as a strategy for making people better… On some level Christianity became about monitoring people’s behavior… like a sin management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires.

To anyone paying attention to American culture, language about sin management systems will bring to mind conservative Christian moralism, especially as it relates to control over what people choose to do with their genitals. NBW speaks to this. But hidden here is also the flip side of the same coin: Progressive Christianity.

Much of Progressive Christianity has defined itself in narrow terms largely interested in the behavior of it's participants. In order to be a "Jesus Follower," and not a mere "religious Christian" (see my posts on the Rohr meme going around 1 and 2) adherents must, for instance: buy local, buy organic, vote Democrat, support full LGBT inclusion, and buy into a community supported agriculture co-op. Personally I'm not against any of these. Indeed, I support them. But I do not support them as prerequisites for full inclusion in the body of Christ.

The Body of Christ—the Church universal and eternal—is a rocketship propelled by the fire of the Holy Spirit. While it may hold a few people inside it, saints and giants of the faith, the fire that springs forth from it is all-consuming, gathering all people, conservative and progressive, all creation, organic and inorganic toward it as it streaks toward heaven. It claims everything for itself, it is irresistible and uncontrollable. As NBW puts it:

My job is to point to Christ and preach the gospel and to remind people that they are absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late stage capitalism, for instance. That they are named and claimed by god and that this is an identity is more foundational than any of the others and that their completely forgiven and all of their mess ups are not more powerful than gods mercy and God’s ability to redeem us and bring good out of bad… I think when people hear this over and over they become free.

The job of a pastor, of our individual churches, is to appear before everyone and point to the rocketship and stand in awe and exclaim with joy, "Look!"

Christianity Beyond Memes

I’ve been thinking about this post of mine recently. Mostly because that Richard Rohr meme continues to show up in my social feed.

It occurs to me that both “options,” or ways of doing and being Church offered by this meme, potentially leave out a group of people for whom Jesus would seek to show care and concern. Here I'm thinking of people who experience severe developmental delays and disabilities. Usually these folks need a high level of care from those around them whether they be parents, family members, or specially-trained healthcare workers.

Such people usually exist on the margins of the Church. Our churches do a poor job including anyone in worship, service, liturgy, missions, and outreach who does not conform to the narrow parameters of body and ability that most of us exist within. This is a failure of underlying ecclesiologies (theology about the Church) which demand “belonging and believing” on one hand or “following the way of Jesus” on the other.

The Way

“Following the way of Jesus” is especially problematic in its privileged assumptions. It flirts with the notion that one must first attain knowledge about how to live, and then have the ability to live within the narrow constraints of that knowledge. It is a kind of gnosticism: one has special knowledge that leads to salvation. It should be obvious how limiting this is for people with cognitive disabilities.

Belonging and Believing

“Belonging and believing” has problems of its own. Believing is an especially fraught requirement for those whose with impaired cognitive abilities. What does it take to “believe” a certain set of precepts? What does it mean to live those precepts out?

However, "Belonging” offers a wider frame. With very few restrictions, one may belong to the body of Christ. This is a community that makes an universal offer to all: come and reside with us, with Christ. This kind of community can and does encompass an incredibly wide variety of ways of being human. In this case, those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord comprise the body of Christ alongside those who may not have the capacity to overtly confess as such. As saints, they share a common belonging within the metaphysical ship we call Church.


Which brings me to my final point about the popular meme that is the occasion for these two posts: it falls into the post-Enlightenment, American Protestant trap of foregrounding completely the work, knowledge, faith, and being of the individual person. Even the side it seeks to negate (“belonging and believing”) falls almost completely on the action of the individual.

What of Christ’s being? That is what ecclesiology really is: applied Christology. In becoming part of the Church, or by seeking to follow Jesus, the focus really ought to be on joining Christ’s being, Christ’s life, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s work, Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and Christ’s faith. It is the work of God in Christ and the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit that hold all things together—even stupid memes.

Merely Religion

I find it odd that certain Christian spiritualities preach a so-called “way of Jesus” that is supposed to be available to us outside of the context of religion. This “way” is almost always presented in contrast to “organized religion,” or “the Church,” or “institutionalized Christianity,” or simply “worship.” A Christianity lacking institution would be preferable—Christianity which is not instantiated but which is instead an airy "way of being."

Richard Rohr puts it this way in a meme I see shared often:

We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation.”

There has been tension between the "religion of Jesus" and the "religion about Jesus" for about two millennia, give or take a few decades. Frankly, I think the religion of Jesus—informed as it was by second temple Judaism, the Pharisaic movement, and various charismatic movements (Essenes, etc)—is essentially inaccessible to us in the form proponents of the “way” would have us believe. As readers of the book, we get glimpses of the way Jesus lived, the way he called us to live, but only parabolically—in a thrown-to-the-side kind of way. Our access to the way of Jesus is glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, never grasped. Our spiritualities make attempts to gain focus, to polish the glass, but clear understanding is always experienced as a gift, as apokálypsis, as an uncovering, as revelation. To claim that these ways of seeking understanding are somehow irreligious is simply marketing jargon.

The religion about Jesus and the functional edifice of the capital 'C' Church is a technology for carrying (some would say defending) the message of the gospel and the story of Jesus' life. Rohr's "mere religion" is the vehicle through which the message of and about Christ has been carried through the millennia. Without it, the way of Jesus would not be available to us.

I take an Augustinian view of a church within the Church. People who hear the call toward discipleship and transformation comprise this spiritual body and press the wider Church to conform to the fullness of the gospel. We may argue for a way which seeks belonging and believing, or discipleship and transformation, or fear and faithing, but one way or the other we argue for a religion. Christianity must be instantiated. It must be represented, as God was in Jesus, by something with actual being which claims existence for itself. This is merely religion.

Thought and Prayer

Today there have been a lot people turning their ire at the "thoughts and prayers" platitudes that follow an American mass shooting event. It's the go-to phrase for politicians, who are forced to say something after a public event. Annoying.

But a lot of other people say "thoughts and prayers" too. Look, it's a formulation. The words, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families," don't really mean anything regarding the way they were originally arranged. For politicians it's like saying, "I acknowledge this event happened and will now engage in the appropriate way of saying so." For others "thoughts and prayers" means, "This event makes me sad," or, "Oh shit," or, "I wish this wouldn't have happened."

"Thoughts and prayers," as a phrase, does a bunch of heavy lifting we don't necessarily want to do in public. This is especially true when we're limited to 140 characters.

I don't get the ire. Living in a country as violent as the United States and railing against the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is like living next to a coal plant and shouting at the sky about air quality.

Anyway, quiet, contemplative, even conversational prayer is fine. Even good. Posting about it on social media doesn’t effect your reach, though. God don’t care about “likes” and RTs.

Lord, have mercy.

The Easter Grump

Over Easter, I said to Logan (as part of a larger conversation) “One of my biggest problems with Easter…” Yeah, I know. “Problems with Easter.” I’m an asshole. I know.

But there was a point there, so let me finish. My biggest problem wasn’t that Easter falls into the trap of being an important Christian holiday because the only important Christian holidays (and by important I mean “gets a big to-do”) are the ones that are marketable to kids / are occasions for presents. But that is a problem I have with it. That’s another post, though. What I went on to tell Logan was this:

“All jokes aside, I think one of my biggest problems with Easter is that people treat it like we didn’t just go through Lent, or that we won’t go through it again next year.”

What I’m trying to get at is my frustration with our insistence on living linearly, when our actual sense of time is so damn circular. We use calendars. We rotate through a cycle of months, we live through the cycling seasons, OUR CLOCKS ARE ROUND. People want events and narratives to end and be definitive in their conclusions, but that's not how our lives play out, and it shouldn't be how our stories play out.

How we tell stories matters. How we communicate a narrative matters. Good stories tell us something true about human reality and our felt, lived existence. And Easter is a really good story. But one of the most critical things it communicates to us about reality is that “great stories are living stories.” They keep going.

Which is why Easter in the context of our circular lives is an even better story than the one people try to pigeonhole it as each year. “We are Easter people!” they exclaim. Yes, but you’ll be Lenten people next year. “God died! God is risen!” Yes, but it’s actually “God died! God is risen! God will die again! God will rise again!”

To me, that’s a truer, better story. It mirrors our daily lives. We go through the same stuff — good and bad, momentous and tiny — day in and day out. We age, which is linear on a small scale, but we die and our cells spread through the air and soil and pretty soon we’re as much like stardust as everything was in the beginning. Which is about as circular as it gets.

Full On, Balls to the Wall, Pedal to the Metal, Mind-Bending Mystery

Mark Sandlin of The Christian Left has a bio on Time.com that is careful to mention he's from the South. He's a bonafide, capital 'S' Southerner from the South. The American South is where I'm assuming he's from. Except, you know, without all the baggage.

Well, Flannery O'Connor is also from the capital 'S' South and one of her stories was the subject of my last post. Obviously Sandlin didn't read it, because if he had he probably wouldn't have written this.[^1]

Collectively we need to more closely follow the lead of Jesus and lovingly confronting [sic] those who want to turn the Prince of Peace into a tool for dividing and marginalizing. Every time anyone tries to exclude a group of people they dislike in the name of the Great Shepherd, we must pronounce the radical inclusion of a loving God.

I mean that's cool. I get what he's saying. I agree that there's a lot about American Christianity that's distasteful. Sandlin isn't exactly using Jesus to divide and marginalize. But he clearly knows who's a sheep and who's a goat,[^2] who's on the top rail and who's on the bottom, and he just wants to lovingly confront people with that, you know?

That's what Christianity is about, right?

Maybe Sandlin appreciates that Christian grace is a full on, balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, mind-bending mystery. But judging by this article published by Time, I don't think he appreciates it very well. For O'Connor—and increasingly for me, as well—grace goes beyond the eschatological vision of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. We can expect our virtues as well as our failings to be burned away by the mystery of grace.[^3] How then will we tell the sheep from the goats?

We are free to define Christianity as Left as opposed to Right, Progressive as opposed to Conservative, Protestant as opposed to Catholic (as opposed to Orthodox). But I have to believe that we would do better to define it by grace and the paradox of faith.

But hey, I'm probably just jealous that Time isn't publishing any of my own half-baked ramblings.

*[^1]: I have a very high opinion of myself. *[^2]: Matthew 25:31-46 *[^3]: Talk about getting rid of baggage.

Artful Worship

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Hymn as Art

It's amazing that that's a hymn. It's wonderful, isn't it? Even as someone who struggles daily with what I believe, with what I want to be true and what I want to know, it's easy to see the beauty there. It's a poem, it's got a beautiful melody that I would sing to you if you were here, it's a theology lesson; in short, it's a hymn. That's what hymns are supposed to do. All that stuff I just said. It's a huge task, and lots of "hymns" fall short. So many fall short, they started calling them "praise and worship" songs to skirt the criteria.

At this very moment, I'm listening to Sufjan Stevens' version of "Holy, Holy, Holy." When I listen to this (which is often), I think "why isn't this what Christianity sounds like?" It sounds like morning, like a new dawn, like a breeze, like life. It sounds like he gets the hymn, actually. We in the Christian tradition are blessed with some amazing pieces of worship art, and yet what grabs the spotlight arcs evermore toward the commercial and the bland. This is the unescapable consequence of the Protest Reformation. Don't get me wrong, Luther had some good points. But if you want to see how tasteless and artless and uninspiring Christianity can be, walk into one of a million Protestant churches in America. Maybe the picture of Jesus will be interesting. Like, maybe he won't be white.

I realize that, so far, I've been picking out a smaller piece of worship, the music, to make a larger point. Though let me point out that contemporary worship isn't the only perpetrator; old churches that sing old hymns can be just as bad. So the issue here isn't that "the old hymns are the good hymns." It's about good art versus bad art. It's about which art moves us into an experience with the divine, and the other kind which is about feeling good. And just because a church practices high liturgy doesn't mean they've got their finger on the pulse, either. When the liturgy and the atmosphere and the worship art, in all its forms, move us to an encounter with Being, that's when things are moving as they should. That's when the art is doing its job. Not only is it beautiful unto itself, but it's moving outward and shaping us. It's giving us a glimpse of grace and divinity. It's teaching us something. Can a contemporary song do this? Of course it can. But I haven't heard one yet up to the task. Maybe that's me just being picky. But if we place value on the space in which we worship and all that we hear and see in that space, I think it's to our benefit to make sure that the entire worship experience is examined. American Protestantism (and it's the American kind I speak of because that's where my experience lies) pushed off so heavily from symbol and art in its desire to find a kind of basic purity that it went entirely off the grid.

When we take things like hymns seriously as art and as theological tools, we're affording them a value in our attempt to become, in our attempt to more fully connect with divinity. When Sufjan sings "Holy, Holy, Holy," he's teaching. The hymn is doing its job, and as the interpreter and presenter of the art, he's doing his as well. That's why it works. He could just as easily do this with a song that doesn't try to be "religious" at all. Any song that meets the criteria above is a hymn in my book. Unfortunately, almost all contemporary Christian art (which I don't really recognize as its own category) fails to meet even one of those standards. I don't think it's because people are less able to create something beautiful that teaches me a theological truth—I think it's because Christianity (which is different from a life lived in and through Christ) is about presentation and perception and baseless emotion. In short, it's about selling me something.

Lemme Buy Some Jesus

Now, I'm not trying to put all churches in a basket here. I'm aware that many still practice meaningful, inspiring liturgy in a meaningful, inspiring space. It happens. I've seen it. But it's far more likely that I'll see some place called The Rock or Lighthouse or LoveSpace or J-Man's Clubhouse 4 Totes Awesome Timez. And what would I find in there? Probably "contemporary worship." Now, before I go on an old-man rant, let me say that I recognize the need for nuance. Not all churches do anything, not all contemporary worship is the worst, etc. Still, I can't remember the last time I heard a hymn that taught me anything that wasn't written by a dead person. Praise and worship songs (and the worship environments they feed and are fed by) are anthems meant to evoke an emotion, not tell you anything. It's not about you contributing to the worship in that moment, it's about the worship affecting you. This approach reeks of commercialism and marketing, which has become the mark of American Christianity. Churches are stores, and you shop around for one, and you buy the one that fits.

Hymns are an extension of the need to create in the face of the Creator, to create while being created. It's a fascinating way to connect with who we are and who we wish to be. The fact that such a process has become so largely about hitting the top of the Christian charts is depressing, naturally. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know. Entering into a new Worship Center complete with gym and smoothie bar would be enough to show you that bringing people into churches is a business. The art is reflected in this cynical, extremely un-Christ-like model. Most new worship songs are as flat as the large screens they're projected on. Asking me to sing "Jesus, I love you" fifty times doesn't mean anything. It's about trying to get me to feel something. To have big feelings. Because if I have big feelings, I'll come back for more feelings, and eventually I'm donating to a place called The Highest Loft for a new warehouse to feel in. And I guarantee that what I experience in that space won't be about confronting the Divine. It won't be about reshaping my mind, heart, and the works of my hands. It'll be about getting me to buy in to a message with all the depth of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Which, incidentally, is the featured art at The Highest Loft.

So What?

So what? Where does that leave us? We know modern Christianity is increasingly hyper-capitalist. We know what this focus on self, on the push to get to "the basics" of scripture (which is usually framed as getting things squared away with yourself, again), extends into our sensory worship experience. A church's space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let's just stop and ask why. Let's ask if the art is teaching us something, if it's moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls. Let's ask if our hymns are good hymns, and if they're leading us deeper into the arms of goodness.