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“REAL GOD”?

I found this ad in a newspaper last week. It doesn’t matter which newspaper, and I’ve intentionally removed any marks from the ad that would identify the church who placed it, because I want to deal with the content, not the agent.

So, maybe it just demonstrates that I’m not the target audience, but I have to be honest: I don’t get it.

There are exactly two details here which tell you that this has anything to do with Christianity; the presence of the words “Easter” and “God”. The cityscape and overall generic postmodern presentation certainly don’t tell you that, and there is nothing else about the ad which says in any way, “This is the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ after His Crucifixion and three days in the tomb, and we celebrate this because if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain and we are the most pitiable of all men.” Instead, particularly with the attributes being pointed up of “AWESOME MUSIC” and “CASUAL STYLE”, this might as well be an ad for a nightclub. Okay, fine, the ad tells us that the teaching is “RELEVANT” (whatever that means — relevant to whom?), but does it tell us that the teaching is Christian? Are we supposed to be relevant and assume the whole Christianity part will take care of itself, or vice-versa?

“REAL GOD”? What does that even mean? As opposed to the “FAKE GOD” you’ll find anyplace else?

What, in fact, does this actually do to proclaim the Gospel which Easter recognizes, commemorates, and celebrates?

There is a joke where somebody has to explain to St. Peter what Easter is in order to get into heaven. The person has to think about it a bit, but finally says, “Well, let’s see — that’s where Jesus is in the tomb, right?”

“Yes.”

“And the stone rolls away…”

“So far so good.”

“…Jesus comes out…”

“Yep.”

“…and if he sees his shadow, there are six more weeks of winter.” Ba-dum-pum.

If we want that to remain a joke with a clever punchline rather than the reality, we have to do a lot better than this. I do not doubt the sincerity of the community who placed this ad, but we either know, and are proclaiming, what we’re celebrating — that is, the Risen Christ — or we aren’t. I’m sorry, but this just plain doesn’t cut it.

If the trouble is a category error on my part — as my godson Lucas likes to put it, if I’m trying to figure out what color Tuesday is — and/or at thirty-two I’m just too much of an old fuddy-duddy to get it, then please, enlighten me.

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12 Responses to ““REAL GOD”?”


  1. 1 Phil 16 April 2009 at 2:22 pm

    I’m largely with you. The cool-looking design isn’t any more contentful than were the images of candles and christmas ornaments used on the slides for song lyrics during advent, at the church of my youth. I’m not sure what’s ‘postmodern’ about the design, though–just sort of trendy. In general, the whole ‘awesomeness!’ vibe is kind of obnoxious.

    I notice, that the image the city includes balloons floating up into the air. So, I take it it’s supposed to represent a city in real celebration. That’s something.

    As for ‘relevant’ and ‘real God’–these could be further attempts at being cool, or they could stand in direct contrast with attempts to be cool. There’s just no way to tell. Here’s one charitable reading: this is a community that’s interested in the genuine intersection of spirituality and contemporary life, over and above some saccharine or cliched feel-good message. What does it mean–they might be asking–for us to recognize, and celebrate, the presence of the risen Christ right here in River City?

    Or they might just be trying to impress the kids.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 16 April 2009 at 2:28 pm

      Here’s one charitable reading: this is a community that’s interested in the genuine intersection of spirituality and contemporary life, over and above some saccharine or cliched feel-good message. What does it mean–they might be asking–for us to recognize, and celebrate, the presence of the risen Christ right here in River City?

      That’s a reading, sure, but I guess my trouble is that I don’t actually see that anywhere in the presentation presented objectively. It sort of captures the vibe of the posters one used to see for club shows in Seattle in the early ’90s, but that means the way it is attempting to be “relevant” already puts it close to twenty years behind the times — much like many of the “relevant” church buildings out there are actually pretty tied to 1970s architecture and aesthetic.

    • 3 Richard Barrett 16 April 2009 at 3:54 pm

      By the way — looking at the original, it’s pretty clear the “balloons” are nothing of the kind. They are just “random” ink splotches intended to give it a gritty/used/urban/whatever aesthetic.

  2. 4 Laura 16 April 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I think ads like this and others that I’ve mentioned to you are around because people feel The Church should market itself (i.e. Advertise God to the masses because that’s what people want.) So, instead of proclaiming the way Christ commanded, we “market” to the whims of our audience. Because Jesus Christ was really focused on people liking him (sarcasm, by the way).

    I feel there are many layers to this predicament of the “relevant church” (and I do see it as a huge problem). Even though we can see where it came from and why…fixing it will probably never happen before Christ returns.

    In the words of your wife, “You’re feeling the pain of the Schism.”

    • 5 Richard Barrett 16 April 2009 at 2:58 pm

      In the words of your wife, “You’re feeling the pain of the Schism.”

      To coin a phrase, you said a mouthful, my friend.

  3. 6 Phil 16 April 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I’ll have to take your word for it on the balloons, Richard.

    I’m taking my usual line here of defending whoever I feel is getting short shrift, even if that means I’m taking a bit of a slant.

    ‘Relevant’ is annoying. I hear the word a lot, and it’s usually a synonymn for ‘cool’ or ‘hip’. But it certainly doesn’t have to be. Think of what it would be for some experience of church to be ‘irrelevant’–a sermon that seems to have no connection with your life or faith, that speaks to insecurities you don’t have; that speaks in a language (literally or figuratively) you don’t understand; etc. I prefer the term ‘indigenous’ to ‘relevant’, but at bottom it’s the same idea–it’s what Paul did in Athens when he started with what pagan Athenians knew. Now, if he ended there, that would be nothing short of giving up on the Gospel. But he didn’t, and–maybe–neither is this church.

    My point is that, for all I know, this church is just pandering. But trying to be indigenous and authentic (aka ‘relevant’ and ‘real’) are good values. So long as nothing is lost, let’s seek real, rather than counterfeit, spirituality, and let’s preach the Gospel within the idiom of culture.

    There’s a worry, as it were, about irrelevence (about no longer speaking intelligibly into a culture) and there’s a worry about pandering (letting culture hijack the gospel). I take it that some Christian traditions have found one of the other of these two as the greater threat. True (though, I think, as a matter of historic accident, not inevitably), those traditions that have sought ‘relevance’ have been more likely to pander, have been more prone to going off the doctrinal deep-end. Those traditions that are more hesitant to incorporate cultural idiom into their practices are less likely to drift from orthodoxy, for sure. But there will also be a steeper cultural learning curve for those who come into the church; these traditions will be less culturally accessible to would-be converts.

    All’s I’m sayin’: if ‘relevance’ amounts to a desire to do church indigenously, then this isn’t a value that’s essentially at odds with the Gospel. Rather, it’s a perennial pastoral concern.

    • 7 Richard Barrett 16 April 2009 at 9:14 pm

      Good thoughts, Phil.

      I’m going to have to disagree with you about the equivalence of “relevant” and “indigenous”. “Indigenous” is a concept primarily tied to place; it’s from the Latin word indigena which means “native”. “Relevant”, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means “Having a bearing on or connection with the matter at hand”, which suggests that it’s a temporal quality — how something relates to the now. Given that, something can be indigenous AND relevant, I suppose, but I’m not sure that we can make them coterminous. This really does make all the difference in the world; “relevant” will always be timely, but “indigenous” is timeless. I suggest that when “relevance” makes the faith unrecognizable to those who would otherwise ostensibly share the beliefs in question, there’s a problem.

      The trouble with the Mars Hill example, and the trouble with the whole “idiom of culture” business, is that St. Paul expected the Gospel to transform the Athenians. His expectation was not, “Okay, this is what you know, this is how it’s Christian and you didn’t even realize it, so if you stay there, that’s cool.” Rather, St. Paul used that example, and the Gospel, to transform the culture — it wasn’t the other way around. Christianity challenges and expects fallen man to change, to conform themselves to the image of Christ — it is not the image of Christ which is conformed to fallen man. As St. Athanasius is often quoted, “God became man so that man might become god” (“enfleshed”/”en-god-ed” might be a better way of understanding the words). At what point can we agree that the “idiom of culture” becomes an excuse? At what point can we look at what a church is doing and say, “Well, that may certainly be relevant, but I’m not sure it’s Christian”?

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about defining yourself in negative terms; there’s a church I drive past with some frequency that has a sign saying, “No traditions, no politics, no baggage.” It’s a sign which just screams “We split off from another church and we’re telling you we’re nothing like the people we left.” The thing is, to some extent, all of those things are natural products of the life of a community, and as such they are neither intrinsically good nor bad — they just are. So what is this sign intending to convey? That it intentionally implodes every six months and starts over again with an entirely new batch of congregants so as to keep traditions, politics, or baggage from developing? Because that’s the only way any community is going to stay free of those developments.

      How does one assuage the pain of the Schism? Great question. I healed it for myself by honestly confronting the ecclesiological question, answering it with the help of the Holy Spirit, and making a choice and a commitment based on the answer — but I can’t heal it for anybody else, so the pain never quite goes away.

  4. 8 Phil 16 April 2009 at 5:48 pm

    By the way, how does one assuage the pain of the Schism? How does one treat the wound itself?

  5. 9 Phil 16 April 2009 at 5:53 pm

    One more comment, for now. Sorry.

    Looking back at the image, I’m thinking that maybe the best way to interpret it is in contrast to other churches–churches that, for whatever reason, just ain’t going to speak to the kidz. The poster says:

    Our music doesn’t suck.
    Our preaching won’t bore you death.
    We don’t expect you to look all put-together.
    We’re not a bunch of obnoxious, judgmental phonies.

    Now, it’s good to not be those things. It would better to BE other things, positive things. This is the greatest error of the emerging church, as I see it: its propensity to define itself by what it’s reacting against.

  6. 10 Richard Barrett 17 April 2009 at 2:43 pm

    One additional thought about this, inspired by Fr. Benjamin Johnson: There is a big difference between doing one thing two different ways and doing two different things. At what point does the former become the latter?

  7. 11 Richard Barrett 17 April 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Also: no need to take my word for it on the balloons. Look at the original (i.e., not shrunk down) scan of the image here: https://leitourgeia.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/easter-ad-in-paper.jpg


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