The New Reformation

I’m generally always game for a visit to a sacred sanctuary, no matter the particular predilections of the faithful found within. But the effect such tours have on me tend to vary widely, depending on whether or not I happen to be inside America’s territorial boundaries. In Japan, for example, I found myself once in a small Buddhist temple just outside Kyoto, with an enclosing courtyard isolating me from the entire world; coins glistened in the sunlight on a rock nearby, folded prayers fluttered in the breeze, and I was struck with a sense of intense transcendence that flowed up from the Katsura River into the hills above, drawing me along with it. In Istanbul, I was transfixed by the main dome of the Blue Mosque, the intricate patterns weaving in and out of each other, intertwining with verses of the Qur’an laid out with calligraphic grace. In the adjacent park, tourists and locals mingled at dusk as the ezan rose up and floated out into the city, calling the faithful to prayer; it stirred something deep inside me as well, echoing subtly off the walls of the Hagia Sophia and stretching East, following the dimming sunlight across the Bosphorus. And in Geneva, I found myself wandering into Saint Pierre Cathedral, an historical microcosm of the Protestant Reformation. An ancient site of religious worship, its highest tower looms over the lakeside city, following the example of its former adopted pastor, Jean Calvin. All the typical vestments and embellishments of Catholic cathedrals have been long stripped away, leaving only a simple Bible on the altar, with Calvin’s chair still adjacent. In the solemn midday hush of the nave, made more pronounced in contrast to the chattering of schoolchildren circumnavigating outside, I touched the chair and examined the book, reflecting on the intense intellectual work that twisted the city, and indeed the entire continent, around itself. I could feel it still twisting me around myself, after all these years.

In these places, with my senses and mind aglow with wonder, I can feel a memory of God so intimate and precious that I often don’t want the moment to end, although it invariably does.

In America, I feel quite differently. There are, to be sure, a handful of ancient beautiful churches that draw me in, but “ancient” in America is always scare-quoted and asterisked when compared to the rest of the world. Usually, I find myself drawn more to newer people-filled buildings; not to Saint Patrick’s in Manhattan for example, but to Redeemer Presbyterian. Whereas the holiest of holies elsewhere are imbued for me with a sense of spiritual significance, a kind of cosmic intensity that resonates through the very foundation stones themselves, I don’t feel the same kind of gravity pulling me in when I visit American churches. That is not to say, of course, that I don’t feel anything – to the contrary, when I am around American believers I feel strongly attracted to their engaging personalities, their love for community, and their hope for a better world to come. In short, I find myself drawn to their Humanism, not their Christianity (such as it is).

But I am simultaneously repelled by the religious systems in place that Europe has buried and we Americans have inherited, and which we have been seemingly incapable of reforming. We need a New Reformation, a willingness to fix the things that are broken, to set aside the things that cannot be repaired, and a courage to make orthodoxy subservient to truth.

Five hundred years ago, Luther’s theses on the selling of indulgences (among other troubling matters) ignited a fire that had been smoldering at least since the time of Jan Hus. Though argued in theological language, the problem was also political and economical, as the Roman Catholic Church built its influence and power quite literally on the coins thus collected. The proverb was often repeated and wonderfully effective: “as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” But the problem was also clear to many, including to an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg with a confrontational streak. Half a century later, beginning at the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church did begin to rein in the practice, and Pius V effectively canceled the kinds of financial transactions that had so provoked Luther. Still, it remained a powerful and global institution, and as such it needed a steady supply of coin from Catholics who remained faithful to the Magisterium.

Half a millennium later, I happened to visit my local parish with my father-in-law, a lapsed Catholic who had recently begun rewarming towards his childhood faith in the wake of some family deaths. Near the end of his homily, the priest began reflecting on the financial needs of the parish, taking on a surprisingly stern tone. He lectured the gathered faithful on the importance of their pecuniary responsibility, and explicitly charged each family with providing an equal portion of the established annual parish budget: a sum totaling millions of dollars that would burden each and every family by nearly five figures. Smiling sweetly as he concluded, the priest noted that worksheets had been provided in each pew to help all gathered redesign their family budgets to meet their ecclesiastical obligations. My father-in-law sat in stony silence, then marched out as the mass concluded. His initial enthusiasm had been quenched, his religious hopefulness replaced with outrage that a specific dollar amount had been laid at the feet of these Catholic families as, if not an indulgence per se, at least a spiritual obligation. To this day, he stands by his decision as we left, to never attend Mass again. The Reformers might sympathize with his anger, but I’ll note that he hasn’t instead chosen to visit the Lutheran church across the street.

I have visited, of course, that church and others, to my continued disappointment.

There are glimmers of hope, islands of truth amidst the sea of confusion that is the American Christian landscape. But it is largely a slow slide into illusion and irrelevancy. Aside from the Catholics, the historical denominations, the so-called “mainline” Christians, are suffering stagnation and death. Among the spiritual descendants of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, the number of adherents has dropped by at least five million over the last decade1)Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015.; their most substantial demographic are people born prior to 1945, their least substantial are younger Millennials born after 1990. I’ve met some wonderful people among these mainline congregations, particularly among the Methodists and some liberal Disciples of Christ. People who want their doctrine to be in the service of truth and love, and not the other way around.

In contrast, the so-called “evangelical” Christians, though they’ve also begun experiencing a slow retreat, have mitigated some of these effects, at least for the time being. Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Calvinists continue to be a steady minority of this group (as are the more excitable Pentecostals), but the loss in numbers seen in the Southern Baptist Convention is potentially balanced by the growth in the nondenominational Evangelical churches.

It is particularly in these Evangelical congregations, most commonly seen in the form of megachurches (more than 2000 attending weekly), aspiring megachurches (those who ape the practices and systems of megachurches), or pseudo-megachurches (more than 2000 combined attending across several campus locations), that I typically see the most confusion, the least value for truth, and the most pressing need for reformation. Nearly every new congregation formed within the past decade fits this model, and without a clear denominational structure or history, there is a conspicuous blank right in the heart of each church’s identity. I sometimes call these the “Blank Churches,” since they seem to be created with a fill-in-the-blank identity. The blanks always seem at first glance to be named at random, although there is usually some kind of post-hoc rationalization from Scripture applied. “Wellspring Church,” or “Capstone Church,” or “Life Church,” or Compass Church” are all on the table, and all tell you absolutely nothing about what the church is like or what they believe. It’s a solid marketing strategy, of course, followed religiously by all the dominant megachurches in town. In fact, if you’re a successful (read: popular) enough congregation, you can even drop the word church from your name! Thus, Fellowship Church becomes “Fellowship,” Gateway Church becomes “Gateway,” and “Prestonwood Baptist Church” becomes simply “Prestonwood.”

At these congregations, my disappointment begins nearly as soon as I walk in the door. The entire logistical plan of each building is such that visitors are directed toward a conveniently-positioned welcome booth or table. I typically ask two questions of the people who have volunteered to be the first face I see: 1) why are you a member at this church, as opposed to the church down the street? 2) what kind of theology is taught here? The answers are virtually always the same. In response to the first question, I’m told that the people are so nice here and the pastor really teaches from the Bible. In response to the second, I’m told most commonly to check the website or sometimes what is ‘theology’? Occasionally I’m referred to a member of the pastoral staff, and at that point it’s even odds that I’ll get a more substantial answer than what I’ve already received. Often my interactions with the pastor will deepen my disappointment, such as the time I visited a local pseudo-megachurch and the head pastor bragged during his sermon that he will happily delete any email from one of his congregation that is more than six sentences long. Or the time I visited a dominant megachurch and had a casual conversation with a subordinate pastor who freely admitted that Christianity might very well be untrue, but he still valued the happy and comfortable life it had provided for him and his family. To say nothing of the pastors who spend their spiritual sanctimony on political advocacy, endorsing candidates for office as well as political parties, and exhorting their congregations to render their souls unto Caesar.

It is a normal aspect of human psychology to look to a leader for guidance and advice, but far too often I find the office of pastor, particularly among American Evangelicals, to have become a kind of miniature Pope who operates with the equivalent of ex cathedra authority in the lives of his church members. Especially for those pastors outside the domain of denominational oversight, they are accountable ultimately to those self-selected elders that they attract to their orbits, and who have every vested interest in establishing and maintaining a Holy See of their own. Every 100-acre campus once began as a basement Bible study; every multimillion-dollar endowment started by passing a single plate. In the old cathedrals, the architecture positioned the parishioners to focus on the altar, overlooked by Christ crucified. But the Reformation stripped that out, and Evangelicalism replaced it with audio-visual equipment. Instead of a tabernacle, Evangelicals have a drum kit. Instead of Christ, they have a pastor.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t good men and women who respond to a calling in good faith – far from it. This is merely to point out that when these men and women go into the Evangelical landscape to learn how to respond, they are presented with a system that has not been critically vetted against the best interests of the people they want to reach. It is a system forged by the orthodoxy of an early Church that sought to consolidate power and leverage it against the pagans who had previously dominated religious practice. It is a system built up by a power- and money-hungry institution that sought and claimed the right of kings over an entire continent. It is a system that has been predominantly interested in the right hand of God, not in the rights of man. And it is a system where faith is taken as allegiance, whereas doubt is taken as treason.

It is also a system with significant blood on its hands. Long before the Reformers, the Roman Catholic Church sought to wield the power of the sword to reclaim the Holy Lands from Muslim rule, or to stamp out beliefs proclaimed heretical. Through this, the Church linked genocide with divine salvation, a blemish that only grew in Europe as the centuries marched on, and was championed by the Reformers in turn, as well as echoed by Luther’s condemnations of the Jews. Indeed, this stain spread throughout Protestant Christianity and was exported to the Americas and to Africa, where countless Christians happily slaughtered and enslaved so-called savages thinking it was the will of God. It is the same system that Calvin established as a civil authority in Geneva, where opponents to his rule were tortured and beheaded, and the Christian heretic Michael Servetus was slowly burned alive at the stake.

Good Christians and good pastors deserve a better system than this. They deserve a sanctuary unmolested by and unencouraging to the base desires of power and authority, or pomp and popularity. They deserve a home that doesn’t fetishize faith to the point of suffocating reason. They deserve a community that welcomes all, with the goal of moving collectively closer to Truth. And they deserve a God that provides those things for them. In the spirit of the Old Reformers, I propose a collection of newer principles to help guide the New Reformation on this task:

Per Veritatem: through Truth

Per Æquitatem: through Equality

Per Caritatem: through Love

Per Fraternitatem: through Brotherhood

Per Deum et Humanitatem: through God and Humanity

It is imperative that Truth be placed first. Without a primary commitment to Truth, the Old Reformation fractured and fought, splitting into opposing camps as quickly as Luther met Zwingli. The Old Reformation also played one camp against each other, setting up state churches in positions of dominance that ended only when Thomas Jefferson and John Madison built a wall of separation in America. The New Reformation must treat all people as equals, no matter the nature of their religious opinions. By extension, love for fellow human beings, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood should not cease at the church door, but should be promoted throughout all of human society. The Christian in the New Reformation should strive to love all people as one would love a member of one’s own family. And finally, the New Reformation must seek to bring the realm of God back into that of Humanity, so that both may work together to effect the salvation of us all. For too long the sacred has been lost from the world, glimpsed furtively only on Sunday mornings before being chased away by the glitter of a disco ball and driven into hiding from a thumping bass.

It is easier to tear down than to build up. But the modern Christian Church, and particularly the modern Evangelical Church, is built on an increasingly fragile foundation, and if we are being honest, the cracks have been showing for some time. If it is not demolished from without, it is unlikely that it will be kept upright by the superficial efforts being made from within. The new Church, and the New Reformation, may very well be the providential step forward.

References   [ + ]

1. Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015.

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Muhammad, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.