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No religion, please, we’re postmodern

It is reasonably common that I do my grocery shopping after Divine Liturgy on Sunday. That tends to mean that it’s harder to keep wine and beer around the house with this state’s antiquated liquor laws, and it’s something of a pain, since it usually takes two or three stops total depending on what all I need (Starbucks for coffee beans, the local food co-op for most stuff, and then a conventional grocery store for a small handful of other items, which still leaves me having to go to a butcher shop that isn’t open on Sundays at another time during the week), but it’s more often than not the most convenient time for me to go.

Today, in line to pay for my staples of cheese, Honey Bunches of Oats, and bananas, the headline of the local paper grabbed my eye — “Losing their religion: Young people rejecting organized worship at an unprecedented rate”. (Note that, while I’ve linked to the story on the Herald-Times website, it will be virtually useless to you, so to speak, unless you’re a paid subscriber — the H-T apparently is enough on the fiscal bubble to be concerned about using their website as a loss-leader, and as such headlines are the only content they’re comfortable letting you see for free.) I was intrigued by what local angle the piece might have and bought the paper; Bloomington is certainly still within the borders of the Bible belt, but Indiana University on the whole is about as secular of an institution as they come, so religion is everywhere in this town (I remember a Distinguished Academic Visitor coming to Bloomington a few years ago and telling his host, “I can tell I’m in small-town America because of all the f–king churches”) but to an extent that just means that it’s ignored by more people. There is a Knights of Columbus pro-life ad on a huge billboard right in the middle of downtown, but then the town’s buses were sporting the “You can be good without God” cards a couple of years ago too.

As I was poking around to see if there was any way to find the full story on the web, I realized that the H-T story was largely a re-digesting of some reports that various news outlets have been covering for the the last month. There’s a Baylor University report on religion as well as statistics released by LifeWay Research, USA Today ran a story about them on Christmas Day (using roughly the same headline as the H-T), and GetReligion did the obligatory analysis of the USA Today piece. Still, there’s a bit of a local angle with some representative quotes from IU students and a couple of area clergy, starting with one Elyse Kienitz:

[She] says during her teenage years, her parents forced her to attend a Lutheran church where her father served as music director.

“It was a family obligation for me and my four siblings… Church just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t apply what I was hearing to my daily life.”

[…] [C]limbing out of bed at 6:45am each Sunday to attend the 8 a.m. service was sheer torture. So when she turned 20 and moved… to Bloomington, church ceased being part of her life.

“I know for a lot of people the church is a source of refuge, and I kind of envy that,” Kienitz said. “But I’m an agnostic. I need absolute proof before I believe. Creationism is not valid in my opinion. I believe in Darwinian evolution.”

I have mixed feelings about how seriously to take this, truthfully, and it has less to do with Ms. Kienitz and more to do with how the reporter chooses to present the story. Creationism is elided with Christianity and church, which is one problem, but another problem is that the writer seems to betray bias off the bat by saying that Ms. Kienitz was “forced” to attend. Now, I’ve been the five year old kid lying in bed on Sunday morning hoping that Mom just forgets to wake me up, but “forced” is a bit much. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is that the relationship between religion and family ties isn’t really explored at all, but it’s clearly there in this case, and once it’s not there, bam, the kid’s done. So what’s the extent to which this “rejection” of religion by young people is a function of a mobile society?

Then there’s Stephanie Partridge, who “made some friends in church, but it wasn’t a good fit for me”:

“My spirituality is pagan and nature-based… Organized religion doesn’t work for me because my spirituality is extremely personal and sacred to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I meditate and pray at home and in nature, and that allows me to find peace of mind in the midst of chaos.”

So, “spiritual but not religious”. Bob Whitaker, senior pastor at Bloomington’s Evangelical Community Church, characterizes this issue as the desire “to adapt a religion to fit their personal desires and don’t feel they need community to shape and guide them, and to shine a spotlight on their character and motivation[.]” I’ve never been of the “spiritual but not religious” persuasion; it’s always seemed to me to treat religion as a taste in accessories, a more-or-less personalizable sensibility. I’ve got to be check my own tendency to be snarky about that, because I’ve certainly exercised my own personal choice where religion is concerned, and I have done so more than once, but it has always seemed obvious to me that a “spirituality” that is exclusively personal is essentially an exercise in self-justification.

Even if that’s the case, however, are those who feel that way coming by it honestly in our culture? We’ve taken so many things that used to be experienced almost exclusively in a communal context and made it possible for the general population to experience them now in a 100% user-defined bubble. Music is no longer something one hears in the context of a gathering; it’s something that an individual listens to in order to shut out the rest of the world. Movies and TV are watched on personal devices that require no interaction with anybody (except maybe the screen). Work is done from home. We can shop for almost anything we could possibly want without ever having to interact directly with a person. Even friends and family have been fed through the individualized electronic pipe via Facebook. So why would religion be any other way, particularly if church is just going to repackage everything in a language that’s trying, usually poorly, to ape what you’re feeding into your brain through the earbuds? It makes it “accessible”, but does it actually make it worth anybody’s time in the long run? This is a question I would be very curious to hear the “bishop of Facebook”, Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh, consider.

Is the real issue perhaps not that we’re in a post-religious world but a post-communal one? Is seeing a need for physical interaction with a real person in a geographical location something that has simply become itself a quaint throwback?

Ned Steele, a local Methodist pastor, says that church is “just not relevant to that age group [of 20-somethings]:

“People in their 20s believe in scientific research and truth, and when they come to church and hear about creationism they feel like they’re back in the Middle Ages. Too often the church is judgmental when it comes to different lifestyles and sexuality; and we preach the exclusivity of Christianity too much, as if other paths to God don’t count.”

This is a fascinating statement. 20-somethings believe in “truth”, but they apparently don’t want to hear that Christianity is the “truth”. (I’m curious what else one would go to church to hear.) So what is it they want to hear about truth? That truth exists, but that the truth is that there isn’t really any truth beyond that truth we pick and choose for ourselves?

Again, let’s perhaps concede that maybe these 20-somethings are coming by it honestly. Truth is what can be reproduced in a laboratory, truth is the homeless person on the street, truth is the real story behind this or that person’s public ascendancy — might it be fair to say that “truth”, as understood in our present-day collective mindset, is a construct that itself is actually never constructive?

I don’t quite know what to think when I hear about “young people” “rejecting” Christianity. I’m not going to lie, some of the things expressed by Ms. Kienitz and Ms. Partridge resonate with me, but it stopped being a family matter for me in seventh grade (and was really only imperfectly so to begin with), so whatever I believed I had to own for myself early on, and the questioning that some of that prompted in me was only of the dominant Evangelical Protestant paradigm, not of Christianity itself or the overall need for a worshiping community. If anything, my problem in my teens was having been brought up to consider the continuum between Evangelical Protestantism and non-Christian cults to be minuscule, so that when I found early on I could not honestly identify as an Evangelical (nor, as a couple of folks made clear, did Evangelicals want me to identify with them, if I wasn’t going to believe certain things) and thus was led to believe I perhaps shouldn’t even consider myself a Christian anymore — well, I craved the community that Evangelicals seemed to be telling me I couldn’t have. Would I have felt the same way if I had Facebook and an iPod? Hard to say.

There’s the whole matter of solutions looking for problems I brought up a little while ago. I’m not sure what to say about what problems these people actually have, except to say that they want to know what Christianity actually has to do with how life gets lived in 2012, and probably they want to know in terms that don’t make it seem like a dated museum piece or in terms that don’t come across as reactionary. But how do you that in a way that doesn’t make church so secular-looking that there’s no real point in going to church anyway? If church is going to look like a hipster coffee shop, well, why not just go to a hipster coffee shop and listen to one of Mark Driscoll’s podcasts over your cappuccino? The coffee will be better, and frankly so will the music, probably.

A friend of mine was talking about how his priest handles skeptical youth by saying, “That’s okay that you’re questioning those things. We love you anyway. Keep coming.” Maybe rather than trying to keep up with “who” the 20-somethings “are”, it’s better for the Church to remain steadfast in what she is so that the 20-somethings know that they can always come home and know that their room will be ready — but maybe even that’s going to be waiting for calls that never come.

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25 Responses to “No religion, please, we’re postmodern”


  1. 1 Owen White 22 January 2012 at 8:15 pm

    I don’t know about your local Evangelical Community Church, but most churches I am familiar with that go by that or a similar name are to varying degree in the business of adapting their religion to fit (or be relevant to) the personal desires of target demographic groups.

    Sometimes I think that the elephant in the room doesn’t get discussed in this conversation, that is, we live at the time and place when there is more feasible, viable religious choice than ever in human history – and that among flesh and blood “organized” religious options. Previously class, ethnicity, the disciplinary structures of religions, relative lack of access to information, and social mores which included a real and functional shame kept a significant portion of the population from having many religious options. In the 19th century America was a religious morphing pot, and there is the famous account of Joseph Smith’s breakdown when trying to discern which of the religious options his siblings had chosen was the right one, but all of them were low church Prot options, and there was nothing in the way of social ease in radically changing religion that we have today. You can become a Buddhist if you want to. Your Evangelical parents are not going to disown you or stop paying your college bills. Hell, you can go to Zendo on Saturday and Mass on Sunday if you want, and be a member at both places, and if you have the right teacher and the right priest, neither will care. And as for those clerics who do care about such things, and are selling their faith as exclusively “the” faith – they are in a sea of religious options claiming to be the one true faith – each of which has many members who have a history of changing from one one true faith to another one true faith. People who maneuver in these milieus soon learn that there are shared postures toward “one true faith”iness between the sellers of various faith systems. These postures can be categorized with a fair degree of accuracy across religious boundaries. GTKTO Orthodoxy and EWTN and Christianity Today share certain affinities. So do liberal Evangelicalism, National Catholic Reporter Catholicism, and the subculture of the lefty side of the OCA. This objective reality of categorical postures that transcend confessional/credal commitments but obviously have a huge impact on the actual lifestyles and actions of religious adherents (much moreso than their actual creed does) eats away at the cultural viability of one religion’s truth claims over another’s. I think most people who have done any amount of religious shopping intuit this.

    In such a context, why on earth should the average joe not intuit that religious choice is not mostly a choice about what works for me and suits my personal desires? And once it’s intuited that even a choice to be a fundamentalist or a confessionalist or a traditionalist in an “ancient faith” is a personal choice, then it’s really not a big psycho-social jump to then intuit that if I don’t want to get up and go to an organized faith community on a friday or saturday or sunday morning, then that is a personal choice just as socially and psychologically valid as any other spiritual associative choice. Ultimately, the only argument against this, in my mind, can be a religious argument, not an argument from reason. The “there must be one true faith that is really true, and I must go find it” posture has been tried and found wanting, Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict notwithstanding. And once one holds that the only way out is to step into one particular faith’s inevitably circular and self-referencing logic of superiority (a logic no doubt of a species seen in other faiths), you are bound to the aesthetics and psychology of late modern consumer choice, and all that comes with it. I don’t know that there is any way out of this social situation.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 22 January 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Your Evangelical parents are not going to disown you or stop paying your college bills.

    Your Evangelical parents might not, but your Church of Christ parents might very well still do so. Happened to a godson of mine.

    Your points are all well-taken, and it seems to me that this is why, distasteful as it may be to certain kinds of Protestants (and Orthodox converts), an open and frank acknowledgement of the interplay between religion and other cultural categories — family, ethnicity, geography, etc. — is actually necessary and must be understood rather than simply reflexively saying that it’s all meaningless if you have Jesus.

    To be sure, these are not abstractions to me, particularly now. One of these days I will have to actually tell my own story in this setting — I almost did it in this post, and it’s maybe not hard to see where the jumping-off point might have been, but I opted not to, at least for today. It’s an account that’s hardly unique, but there are some particularities, I think, that may help to illuminate why the things that make me tick, well, are the things that make me tick.

    • 3 Owen White 23 January 2012 at 8:48 am

      Yes on the Church of Christers. I grew up around plenty of Baptist fundamentalists who would have disowned a child for converting to Orthodoxy or Buddhism or Judaism, etc. But those fundamentalists are separatists whose religion frames an identity via its overt expression of being counter-cultural, and being counter-cultural contra even other Christian groups. For Baptist fundamentalism to exist, there must be a lot of other ‘modernist’ Christian sects full of members who will still pay the college bills when their kid goes through the Buddhist stage.

      But then this happens, and I’ve seen this with several friends I grew up with who grew up in fundy homes – they go off to Cedarville, or Pensacola Christian College or Bob Jones, get a degree and then they go get a job, say like one close friend of mine who became a nurse. She encounters in her adult life other people who grew up fundamentalist – like Church of Christers (she is now in a different state in the South where she encounters them) and other strict low church Christian sects, but also fundy Pentecostals, and then, even fundamentalist Catholics – and she notes that there are all these incredible similarities in their childhoods, even though their parents thought and taught that the folks in these other fundy religions were hell bound (my friend’s father firmly believes that all Pentecostals and Catholics are going to hell). The common human experience she finds between these groups all condemning each other to hell jolts her, and her faith becomes a nominal one. To this day she does take herself and her kids (but husband refuses to go) to her dad’s church (her dad was and is a pastor at the big fundy Baptist church in the county seat of the county I grew up in) when she goes home. And she belongs to a conservative but not fundy Baptist church in her town which she attends twice a year if that. When talking about religion, she begins with a sigh, and then tells you that she guesses that her default beliefs are something like those she was taught as a kid, only warmed over a bit. All you have to do to get saved is accept Jesus into your heart, but maybe Jesus appears to everybody in their moment of death, and maybe most all of them accept him. She’s watched a lot of people die on her job and isn’t ready to smugly consign the bulk of them to hell. She married a guy with a lesbian sister and found that all the fears of homosexuals she was raised with were exaggerated. Now, her experiences are a bit pronounced because of the rigid fundamentalism she grew up with, but the model of her life I think to some degree applies to the experience of a lot of people who’ve grown up in a Christian faith tradition that is either fundy or just conservative (say normative Evangelical).

      Now, say you have a kid who grew up in a home where the parents converted from one faith to another. He sees his parents go from being devout believers in the, say, Continuing Anglican faith to devout believers in Orthodoxy. He notes that their manner of devotion maintains a great deal of similarity across the religious divide, and despite all of the rhetoric he hears from his parents and others about having “come home” in Orthodoxy and the superiority of Orthodoxy (they had also once spoken of the superiority of bible-believing Anglicanism), our kid notes that his dad is, well, the same old guy through the whole process – that for all the fasting and confession and standing in services, dad is the same guy he’s always been, and as keen on religion as he’s always been. That kid is ripe for becoming a religious drop-out, and I’ve seen scores of that kid in the EOC and CSB parishes I once belonged to.

      I guess the heart of what I am getting at is this – from the point of view of most conservatives, trads, and fundamentalists in organized religion, it is the spirit of postmodernism or relativism that has somehow caused the situation we are in – with the popularity of “spiritual but not religious” and people making the choice to opt out of organized religion as a religious or quasi-religious or spiritual-but-not-religious choice. But I think we have to back up a bit. For me it’s a which-came-first-chicken-or-egg question. Did pomo relativism cause the exponential number of choices we have today, and the culture of religious consumer choosing, or did the explosion of choice options and the culture of religious consumer choosing create an inevitable breeding ground for pomo relativism?

      • 4 Richard Barrett 23 January 2012 at 10:26 am

        Your last line reminded me of something I read about how John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism functioned in the 1960 election. Ramsey Pollard, then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in expressing concern about Kennedy’s Catholicism, said “All we ask is that Roman Catholicism lift its bloody hand from the throats of those that want to worship in the church of their choice.” Seems to me that the notion of “going to the church of your choice” is itself something that has a history, possibly a very interesting history in this country alone, and it may be that it’s a history with unintended consequences.

        Your hypothetical continuing Anglican->Orthodox convert family is an interesting one. I wonder about my own background — militant atheist father, Evangelical fundamentalist mother — and how people who grew up under similar circumstances came out. I made a big point of marrying somebody I could be on the same page with, and there was also a commitment that whatever we did on the religion front we would do it together, principally for the well-being of future kids. What you say about former EOC and CSB communities is, unfortunately, probably right, although my instinct is to say that the worst thing that can be said about the EOC is that they were too clumsily earnest in their attempts to bolt an Evangelical cultural framework onto Orthodox theology and liturgy to realize that it was a somewhat self-defeating enterprise. There’s a history to be written there, too, and it’s clear to me that Becoming Orthodox tells only a small part of it.

        Still, there are EOC kids who have turned out pretty well. More than a few of them are priests, and good priests. The problem that I’ve seen is that, in some cases, “Former EOC” and “Former CSB” have become their own inward-looking ethnicities, becoming the very thing they say they wanted to avoid by staying away from cradle communities. Is that unavoidable? I don’t know.

        I have a lot more to say about this, but it’s clear to me it’s going to have to become its own blog post.

      • 5 Owen White 23 January 2012 at 11:06 am

        Oh I didn’t mean to single the EOC and CSB out as particularly exemplary of my point, their cultinesses not having anything to do with my point. I only reference them because they were religious subcultures wherein a lot of kids saw their parents go through religious changes, each of which was rather zealous, and I happen to have experience with them. I have no idea if the retention rate of children in those sects from, say, the 80s through the 00s is higher or lower than other religious venues. I’ve seen (and heard of from parents) a fair amount of EOC and CSB raised kids go and not come back, some go and come back, and some never leave. I’d say slightly more than half of the “founding” family kids from the EOC parish I was at didn’t come back to Orthodoxy, and it was a flagship EOC parish – but that’s just a guess, I’ve never seen any hard data. I’ve read that for Evangelicals 90% of kids growing up in Evangelical homes stop going to church at some point in their adulthoods, and that about half of those that stop will at some point begin going to church again. If that is the standard, I certainly don’t think the EOC and CSB raised kids are outside the statistical norms in terms of drop-out, and they both may indeed be “better” on the whole. Of course, the norm involves a lot of kids not coming back to church, so “better” isn’t always that great. The EOC and CSB certainly seem to not have had the drop out and stay out rates seen among, say, Greek ethnic youth in GOArch from the 1950s through the 00s. But all that aside, my only point is that seeing one’s parents change religious commitments whilst being very committed to each one naturally lends itself towards a posture of religious relativism.

      • 6 Richard Barrett 23 January 2012 at 11:18 am

        Fair enough, and I got that; my reply was maybe a little more loosely associative than was clear. Sorry, I get on the case of folks sometimes who I think are responding to something I didn’t say, but I do it too, particularly when I’m still working through my first couple of cups of coffee.

        Again on the loose association front: I’m personally familiar with an EOC dropout case where the issue wasn’t relativism or cultish behavior or anything like that, it was simply that the kid was maybe a touch old to be able to make the cultural shift, and as a girl her perception was that there was less for her to “do” to be involved in the new community, particularly since her dad and brothers all got hyper-involved at the altar very quickly. My understanding that is that eventually she came back, but only after many years away and a lot of hard years of soul-searching.

  3. 7 Teague 22 January 2012 at 11:12 pm

    “Maybe rather than trying to keep up with ‘who’ the 20-somethings ‘are’, it’s better for the Church to remain steadfast in what she is so that the 20-somethings know that they can always come home and know that their room will be ready….”

    I like this conclusion. Christianity initially frightened me because of its strong sense of identity. Whatever else I thought about Christianity in my BC days, I knew that to become a Christian meant change. Certain things, of course, would still lie under the purview of my personal preference. But many things would no longer be my choice. There was a God, & it wasn’t me. In the end, the thing that scared me most was the thing I was looking for. I can’t speak for everyone but I think there are a fair number of people who are uncomfortable with Christianity because it is too real, too much itself. The call to deny self, take up the cross, & follow Jesus admits no self-styled religion, no cafeteria spirituality. It is a take-it-or-leave-it faith so we have to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33).

  4. 8 Your Intrepid Blogger 23 January 2012 at 1:36 am

    Owen White’s response struck a chord with me. In our culture, unless you grew up in a faith and are comfortable staying there, you can’t not be a shopper. You have a plethora of religious institutions/faith systems/whatever laid out in front of you. You must decide which, if any, to choose, and there is no simple objective test that will do your deciding for you.

    So what can I tell people to do? The best I can say is to do what I did, and look at the options and find the one that best recommends itself to them as being the truth. I can’t really expect them to do anything else. I can tell them the reasons for my decision, of course, but after that it’s their decision. It cannot be otherwise.

    Given the bewildering array of alternatives, then, I can see how it might feel easiest to not choose at all. The “I’m spiritual but not religious” phenomenon must at least in part be a reaction to this overwhelming surfeit of religious options.

  5. 9 John Michael Boyer 23 January 2012 at 3:45 am

    An interesting take on things… I’d just like to put it out there that you’ll be spending a few days with us here at a place that is full of 20-somethings that love God, spirituality, and yes, even religion… And they do it all with iPods and iPads and Facebook and Twitter, etc. Many were raised in the Church, many were not. I wonder what all those 20-somethings for whom religion “just doesn’t do it” would think of our little school here.
    Looking forward to seeing you soon, in Christ,
    JMB

    • 10 Richard Barrett 23 January 2012 at 10:32 am

      Yes, it occurred to me while I was thinking about the H-T article that seminaries might produce an interesting counterargument. I don’t really know anything about that directly, so I didn’t go there.

      I mean, heck, I do it with a laptop and an iPad and Twitter and Facebook and WordPress — but I’m no longer in that key 20-something demographic…

      Looking forward to seeing you too! Let’s touch base soon.

  6. 11 David DickensDavid 23 January 2012 at 10:54 am

    This postmodern-consumerist trap has plagued me since I realized that the church of Christ (Campbellite/Restorationist) that I grew up in no longer existed and possibly didn’t exist widely as was portrayed outside my particular congregation. In fact, my congregation wasn’t even what I thought it was, because I experienced it from a very limited perspective.

    When I converted to Orthodoxy, there were only a couple of adherents that challenged me and when I pointed this out to them the argument was essentially over (though they usually still bought me lunch).

    But I think the error here is in the exultation of something the young folks call authenticity. Authenticity is a crock. We are, all of us, liars and fools.

    From St Paul to St Herman (read a quote from him the other day on this) Christianity has been an experience of conversion from our current state to a new state. Not merely a state of mind, but a matter of immigration. You aren’t born an anything, except in so far as you were born to people who thought they were something.

    We are obsessed with the self in an unhealthy way. “Who am I”, “am I Orthodox or still a church of Christer playing at a Byzantine version of Renaissance Fair?” Well, of course I am. Why would we think we were anything but someone playing at being something?

    But if I stayed in the churches of Christ, I’d be playing my role there as well, perhaps more self-deceived, perhaps not.

    Oh and don’t go calling me a Gnostic or some such rubbish. I fully accept the premise that the people, places and things are all participating in theosis. In fact, I’m pointing out that this is precisely what theosis is, change. To change must mean I was not what I am now and therefore authenticity is completely out the window. You can’t have repentance and authenticity in the same breath.

    And don’t go thinking that my past expressions of self-condemnation were genuine. Of course they weren’t. They were just pride’s complaint.

    Kick it all to the side of the road gentlemen. There’s no answer here. I don’t think it is particularly postmodern (I call authenticity modernity’s last gasp for preservation of the ego), or premodern (if that is relegated to superstition). It is just the experience of being human.

    As a point, even if you want to take all that “Is Outrage-ish” “True-Orthodoxy” talk, few of them would trash a work like “The Way of the Pilgrim” and yet, it is exactly such a book which points out the tension between a Christian society and the inner kingdom. Christianity is supposed to transform us into the real us, but we have no idea who we are.

    Abraham was born Abram.

    • 12 Richard Barrett 27 January 2012 at 12:51 pm

      I’ve thought a lot about your comment this week, David. I’m not sure I knew you were former Church of Christ; there are a lot of former Campbellites who have come through the parish here in Bloomington (a couple of my godchildren among them, as I mentioned), as well as our previous priest, my godfather, my wife’s godmother, and so on. It’s interesting — they all say the same thing: “You’re brought up believing you’re the true church. It doesn’t take much to make you realize that you’re not. Still, you’re left with the conviction that such a thing has to exist, and you need to go find it.”

      You’re right that authenticity is a problem. It seems to be one of those things where, like sincerity, if you can fake it, you’ve got it all. Fr. Seraphim Rose, who claimed that “ethnic Orthodoxy is a spiritual dead end,” also maintained that it was better to keep older Western-style Russian icons in the churches that had them than to replace them with new, “more authentic”, Byzantine-style iconography, because the older icons, even if somewhat lacking in style and craft, represented how the tradition was actually passed on to the people who had them. At the same time, the form of Orthodox Christianity that Fr. Seraphim embraced was Russian in virtually every respect, and while he railed against people who were obsessed with “correctness”, it’s clear there was a model he was trying to receive in all of its particulars.

      The trouble seems to be — and this is one of the things that I might take from the problems that these “young people” are expressing about church — that churches in the present-day have thrown out so much of what made them what they were in order to be “relevant”, and are thus left with not much more than a collection of moral shibboleths and Bible verses that seem virtually impossible to take seriously in the world that they’ve accommodated in their trappings, that there’s just no “there” there anymore. This was evident to me when I was sixteen and desperately trying to fit in with the big suburban megachurch that the Real Christians went to, and those were the days when the pastors still wore suits rather than Hawaiian shirts. Mainline churches have largely ditched the visible framework into which the moral and theological issues fit, rendering the moral and theological issues without any way to be expressed that makes sense and/or connects to anything, or they’ve kept the visible framework and ditched (in some cases apologized for) the moral and theological content, leaving a theatre piece that may or may not be worth watching on its own terms. In either case, you’ve got a problem, because kids instinctively realize when adults are selling them humbug. Authenticity is a problem, yes, and by definition you can’t really artificially construct it, but at the same time, it’s also evident when it’s wholly absent. The crock of authenticity can’t be the excuse for “do what you please”, because that will create more problems than it will solve.

      About five or six years ago, as I was driving to the airport, I noticed a little church that had opened up on the south end of Indianapolis called “The Salvage Yard”. They had a plan building and a big sign up that said, “No Traditions, No Politics, No Baggage.” Wow — a) could it be plainer that they had split off from another congregation and were having to define themselves in terms of what they weren’t? b) Was there ever more of a recipe for self-destruction for a worshipping community? Within six months, you will have all three of those things whether you like it or not, and actively avoiding them will just mean a total lack of cohesion. They must have realized that themselves, because the sign went away, but their website still says, “We avoid traditions, and strive to stay connected to God, allow him to lead this body as he desires. No two services are ever the same, Church should be exciting, dynamic, and purposeful.” They do an annual car show now. I suppose that’s more “authentically” American than a Greek festival.

      • 13 David DickensDavid 27 January 2012 at 5:31 pm

        I take heart that gravity is just a better method of “saving the appearances” than were the crystal spheres.

        We aren’t merely subjects of sociological criticism! Yes, we are people of our age (if we don’t stare too close at the historicism latent in that statement). But boys of every age had to decided whether to labor for their fathers and even those that committed to the task often failed.

        The Old Testament is full from Abram to Ezra of followers of God trying to figure out what it meant to be followers of God. Authenticity wasn’t the question; obedience to God was.

        Oh how I’ve wanted to get what Owen appeared to have! Regardless of my difficulties through the years with him, I thought he had grasped something that I could not yet grasp. I wanted him to give me this secret knowledge. [He was the Rosetta stone for me to decode all the problems I was seeing in the Church I was joining.]

        But I had forgotten my first lesson: I am a fool whether I dance or not. So I might as well dance.

        Along with joining the Church, I have also joined the Byzantine chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. There’s no escaping this, but as it is inescapable, so it is irrelevant. Trying to maintain this awareness in my own head while simultaneously trying follow Christ is impossible.

        What I refuse to do is assume that this is all there is! God is not merely “that which explains whatever nothing else explains”, God is “that which reveals Himself to him who seeks”. To say “we have explained this, therefore it is not God” is preposterous. How far will we go to kill our Buddhas?

        God is involved in all this. While we are blind, we are not merely blind actors on the stage alone. This would be to submit to nihilism.

        Authenticity is a psycho-spiritual impossibility this side of the Grey and perhaps even after. I have absolutely no interest in it. I can see no definition of authenticity as it is commonly used except mindlessness. In contrast, knowing thyself, this is a worthy cause! In seeking to find that, you might find God as well. But asserting that you can be yourself, as if you could be anything else, is a contradiction not even worthy to be called a paradox. It’s boring; it tells me nothing.

        I am reconciled that I will never absolve the cognitive dissonance caused by “choosing to submit” to the Church. I simply assert I did it. I don’t defend it. i don’t see any way around my own foolishness, but into it.

        I didn’t “Church shop”, but what if I had? Would the mere shopping negate the purchase? Or perhaps even worse: Is the corruption of my vocabulary alone by monetary analogy stand between me and God’s redemptive grace? Since there is some obtuse symmetry between what Church I go to and the restaurant I chose to go to afterwards, am I damned?

        God save us all from the post-modern Pharisee hidden within in our own hearts. Perhaps the Zen Masters can learn knowledge by asking themselves unanswerable questions and then not answering them, but I cannot.

      • 14 Richard Barrett 27 January 2012 at 5:41 pm

        I’m not sure I followed all of that, David, but I appreciate your honesty nonetheless.

      • 15 Owen White 28 January 2012 at 8:56 pm

        David,

        No one currently breathing is more authentic than me. And every time you repeat this rant (which I have read, what?, four or five times now in the last couple of years?) I get even more authentic. If things keep going in this direction, the dry bones of the dead Buddhas buried in my back yard will arise, become re-enfleshed, and bow down in veneration of my authenticity. Then the world will end.

        So guess all there is to say in response is, thanks for being an agent of the eschaton, and man oh man does the Church of Christ royally mess folks up. Makes me grateful I grew up American Baptist, which every American Baptist will tell you is decidedly not the one true church.

      • 16 Richard Barrett 28 January 2012 at 9:10 pm

        I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s happening here.

      • 17 David Dickens 29 January 2012 at 4:21 pm

        Well Owen, It certainly felt at the time you were authentic, and a major theme in your writing seemed to be whether or not “this or that” or “these people” or “whether or not someone” can be authentic. Obviously, if I’ve come to the conclusion that authenticity itself is a wild goose chase, I don’t expect whatever passes through you to be for much use other than growing flowers in. Just like the rest of us.

        It seemed a reasonable assumption. I was (and still am, sort of) being thrashed around by some waves; and it is easy to think that any way you see some light is up. You seemed to grasp some things and I latched on to that. I suppose I was better off when you ignored me, after all even negative strokes are strokes after a fashion (thank you sir, can I have another beating?).

        I wish I could blame this on the churches of Christ, but no, this is mostly of my own concoction. To this day most of the people I work with are members of the churches of Christ and I bear them little ill will. After all, I know God loves them and is working for their salvation, they wouldn’t be helped a bit by any of my non-sense. Sometimes I wish they were more “church of Christ”y but even that is just another way of asking them to be authentic.

        Everyone does everything for the same reason. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

      • 18 Richard Barrett 29 January 2012 at 4:58 pm

        Gentlemen, I really don’t know what’s going on here. Somebody care to explain?

      • 19 Owen White 29 January 2012 at 7:22 pm

        Richard,

        Honestly, your guess is probably about as good as mine. David seems to be obsessed with my purported former (and perhaps current, it’s not clear to me) obsession with ‘authenticity’ and my blog seems to have had a very negative effect on him. The word ‘authenticity’ has probably been used more on this thread than it was on my 5 year run at the Ochlo, but I suppose every attack on GTKTO consists of my authenticity seeking. One cannot have other reasons for such, or so it seems. There is no doubt some truth to what David says, at least with regard to what I can understand of what he says, and I even agree with a lot (most probably) of what he writes, but there is something else going on there that is beyond me.

      • 20 David Dickens 30 January 2012 at 2:05 pm

        Like most explanations, this is probably less interesting than the mystery.

        I’m just a socially exaggerated personality, in real life, unless I actively try to keep my voice down, my voice carries. Unless I actively listen, I find myself “waiting to speak”.

        Online this is worse. I’m not anonymous; but I still have to pay attention, in a way that takes a lot of work, to avoid running over everything.

        I assume everyone has a sort of internal language or mental shorthand. I’m probably not as good as I should be at translating my thoughts. I think the error comes when I get involved in a conversation and assume that I can avoid some of the overhead.

        I want to “know and be known” in ways and at speeds that are unrealistic. I’m sure that many of the misunderstandings come from bizarre statements in conversations where I was in this “internal” state of mind.

        My friends have also accused me of something they call “conversational nuggets of doom” which are statements I make which are deliberately exaggerated for rhetorical purposes, usually because I want to talk about something that will come out as I attempt to explain my extreme statement.

        It’s an obnoxious habit and it might explain the remaining “bizarre” interactions in the past.

  7. 21 Elyse Kienitz 23 January 2012 at 12:19 pm

    as the interviewee, i don’t believe i was quoted warmly and accurately. i, too, agree that “forced” is too strong a word. i was never threatened by violence if i did not attend but the disappointment they would have felt in my not attending would have been in and of itself a sort of emotional beating. i did not wish to disappoint them. so i fulfilled my familial obligation and once that time came to a close, it did cease in being part of my life.

    • 22 Richard Barrett 23 January 2012 at 12:55 pm

      Thank you for dropping by, Ms. Kienitz. Consider yourself welcome anytime.

      I appreciate what you have to say about religion being a familial obligation, since that was the point that I was finding more interesting and that the reporter seemed to largely gloss over. I would be curious to know if it played out the same way for your siblings. I would also be curious to know if, since your father was the music director, if church music had in and of itself any particular familial role — did any of you participate in what he was doing, in other words? Did that have an impact one way or the other?

      To apply the thought more broadly — again, are familial obligations something we naturally shed when they’re not reinforced, so like eating broccoli or keeping a curfew, we just don’t bother if nobody’s telling us we have to? To put it another way, how is a parent keeping a kid at the table until they eat their vegetables different from or similar to there being a familial obligation to go to church? Will we necessarily “understand when we’re older”? Or is it different somehow?

      I’m not asking these questions with a particular answer already in my head, by the way. As I said, by seventh grade it wasn’t a familial obligation for me any longer — if anything, the unspoken expectation in the second half of childhood was that I wouldn’t go to church, because That’s Not What We’re Doing Right Now (long story), so I had to find my own way there (literally and figuratively) if I was going to keep going at all, and I think there was (and continues to be) some disappointment as to how that played out from both parents, although for very different reasons (again, long story).

      Anyway, thanks for giving the interview and thanks for commenting here. Hope you come back sometime.

      • 23 Owen White 23 January 2012 at 2:17 pm

        The “how is a parent keeping a kid at the table until they eat their vegetables different” analogy reminds me of just how complicated the situation is today.

        Some years ago my wife and I went vegan for a year. We were doing a lot of gardening at the time and wanted to see how much of our caloric intake we could grow ourselves, and my wife read some book espousing the health benefits, yada yada. Anyway, it really offended my mother that we didn’t eat meat dishes when we went to her house that year – it offended her way more than my brother who in adulthood refuses to eat most of her vegetable dishes. Now, my parents being the sort that subscribed to Mother Jones when I was a kid, I was used to meals with lots of vegetables and having vegetables as the focus of a meal – much more so than the home my wife grew up in which was a traditional meat and potatoes sort of thing. So say you have a kid who is told he has to eat his veggies, and he really gets into eating his veggies and grows up to be a vegetarian. He can as much offend his parents as the kid who grows up refusing to eat anything green. I have a cousin who just brought his fiance home to Ohio for the first time this last Thanksgiving. The girl he brings home brought her own organic, sustainably raised meat with her (and they flew!) so that she would have eat to meat at the Thanksgiving meal. She refuses to eat meat that is big-ag raised. That went over well. All this points to the plethora of choices today. The incidence of things like my cousin bringing a girl and her special meat home with him is going to happen a lot more today than it did 30 years ago. It’s not just eat your veggies or don’t eat your veggies. All veggies? Some veggies? Organic veggies? Locally grown veggies? Raw veggies only? When I get together with a certain set of friends here in Memphis there are only a few restaurants that we can go to that will work for the various culinary commitments – vegans, flexitarians, Lacto-ovo vegetarians, pescatarians, raw foodies, carnivores, etc. (the only shared caloric source is alcohol). Such an issue is only going to increase in social circles. A friend of mine who is in the sustainable ag / urban farming business is currently working on an article for a major magazine which will be titled “Walmart vegetarianism” and in it he talks about the expansion of veganism, vegetarianism, and especially flexitarianism in lower middle class and working class environments. The more culinary choices expand, the more parents will be pissed off that their kids don’t eat their special Christmas meatballs anymore. And even if most white Americans continue to eat a typical white American diet, the culture of choice is in the air, land, and water, and most white Americans will increasingly intuit that they eat what they eat because of their own personal desires and choices.


  1. 1 Abp. Lazar Puhalo: “When you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it” « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 31 January 2012 at 11:37 pm
  2. 2 Addenda to Chapter Five: Easing back into the unintentional epic | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 17 August 2013 at 3:45 pm

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