The American Church - A Chumscrubber Vision?

by Joel on June 24, 2006

Picking up on Kim’s post about the The Disappearance of the Church as the Demonstration of Its Truth, I can’t help but to post my view of the American church. Kim describes it as walking tall or medium height. Frankly, I think the idea of that is preposterous. Instead, I’m reminded of a movie I watched a few weeks ago called The Chumscrubber. On the surface, the adults in the portrayed suburban community are full of life and laughter. There is the veneer of community. However, it is all an illusion. In the movie, English actor Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliott fame) portrays Dean Stiffle, who finds his best friend dead but decides not to tell the adults because he doesn’t figure they will care. The Bell character even tries to pretend that the dead kid wasn’t really a friend or that he doesn’t have or need any friends. The adults ask the kids about their world, but don’t pause to hear any answers or to ask any folowup questions. In fact, they have little to no clue about their children’s lives. Almost to a person, the adults are alienated from the youth of the community. The alienation is so complete as to make the adults oblivious to what is really going on. The adults are in fact so oblivious that there is no time to appreciate that one of their kids has been kidnapped.

In ongoing theological and political battles, the American church is barely aware that there is a world beyond its shores. Or, if it is aware, its vision is so triumphalist as to be impotent as a means of transforming lives. There’s a lot of shallow praise music that says very little of discipleship or obedience.

The American church is greater in numbers and in attendance, but can’t bring itself to ask serious questions about war, economic justice, environmentals needs, racial relations and more. We can’t bring ourselves to address the growing disparity between rich and poor. We can, though, have a fine argument about who is entitled to belong to Christ’s Church. The relative “health” of the American church may come to prove that the Church is neither a building, nor a creed, as useful as both are.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Kim 06.24.06 at 8:43 am

Thanks for that, Joel.

Of course when I was speaking of the “middle-height” church in the USA I was doing so only in the superficial way in which Christianity in America is contrasted socilogically with Christianity in Britain. I am well aware that theologically much of the church in America is sheer civil religion - “The church is here to make America work”; and tribal religion - “Our God can beat the shit out of your God” ; and deeply compromised in its evangelical forms by both Manichaenism and semi-pelagianism and what Bonhoeffer called “salvation-egoism”; and that, in its more apocalyptic forms, it is simply pathological. As for the points you make, yes: Amos 5:21-24. Agreed?

2

Bene D 06.24.06 at 1:49 pm

Well, pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but the fact you two are here talking about the deep sickness of US evangelicalism (and Canada also) tells me individuals here and there in/from the US church are mature enough to understand the collective weakness of this particular people.

Joel you have to live in it - I couldn’t. I really couldn’t - I think I’d genuinely despair, and your courage and strengths amaze me. Kim, at least you have the luxury of distance and are a prophetic voice with a teachers skill to your compatriots.
Thank you both for pursuing justice, it is music we do hear.

3

J 06.24.06 at 2:05 pm

“The American church is greater in numbers and in attendance, but can’t bring itself to ask serious questions about war, economic justice, environmentals needs, racial relations and more.”

I’m sorry to hear your pessimism, but I hear quite a lot about these issues from the church. Is your despair based on the fact that you don’t hear these discussions, or that the answers we come up with disagree with yours?

“We can’t bring ourselves to address the growing disparity between rich and poor.”

Eliminating poverty is far more important than addressing disparities. Focusing on the latter over the former comes dangerously close to covetousness.

“We can, though, have a fine argument about who is entitled to belong to Christ’s Church”

Are you talking about membership or ordination?

4

Joel 06.24.06 at 8:41 pm

J,

Tell me your answers to economic injustice, war, and the environment, and I’ll tell you whether I agree with you.

In the last couple of decades, wages for “working” people have sunk while the wealthy become wealthier. Prescription drug costs have skyrocketed. Where are the sermons invoking Old Testament prophets who condemned oppression of the poor? Where was the prophetic voice in the midst of Wall Street greed, usurious interest rates and more? My answer is that they were largely AWOL.

Are there preachers condemning the government for culling through private phone records? Are there churches condemning U.S. transfer of suspects to foreign countries for the purpose of being tortured? Are there churches that complain about all the innocents picked up on phony terrorism charges and held without right of trial or legal counsel? A few, but not many.

When the AIDS crisis arose in the U.S., the overall church response was either condemnation of gays or deafening silence. Were there exceptions? Yes, but not nearly enough.

I’ve listened to hundreds of sermons from TV or radio over the last 20 years. Precious few of them speak to issues of race, war, or economic justice. I’m not talking about whether I agree with their answers. I’m saying they avoid the issues all together.

5

Joel 06.25.06 at 1:15 am

Bene,

I can live in it because I realize how short I fall of glory. I can’t criticize the American church without also humbly acknowledging my many failures to be obedient to God’s will.

6

J 06.25.06 at 7:16 pm

“In the last couple of decades, wages for “working” people have sunk while the wealthy become wealthier”

My hourly wage is roughly 60% of what it was two years ago, so I’ve lived this one. My union had no choice really, since the company is in bankruptcy and we’re trying to keep it alive. Meanwhile, I’m looking for work in another industry with the help of…friends from church. In fact, my church has an active program to help the un and underemployed find a job, or a better job. What I’m not doing is getting wrapped around the axle with apoplexy that that guy has more than I have.

“Prescription drug costs have skyrocketed”

According to today’s USAToday (http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/health/2005-06-26-generic-usat_x.htm?POE=MONISVA) , generic prices have moderated pretty well lately, after some price spikes as more insurers and markets like Canada increased their use. The stuff under patent protection is frequently pretty expensive, but those profits are, you know, the reason those drugs exist.

“Where are the sermons invoking Old Testament prophets who condemned oppression of the poor”

Maybe they got tied up trying to define oppression. I remember a hilarious article I read when I lived on the Mexican border about the frustration of union organizers hired to organize the “oppressed” workers at a textile plant across the border, which included interviews with employees of the plant gushing about the wages and working conditions (which were evidently quite good by Mexican standards).

“Are there preachers condemning the government for culling through private phone records?”

Are there preachers condemning the lunacy of demanding a subpeona to intercept enemy communications?

“Are there churches condemning U.S. transfer of suspects to foreign countries for the purpose of being tortured?”

No - they’re too busy demanding they be released from Gitmo and handed over to those countries. As Jeff Spicoli said, “make up your mind, dude”.

“Are there churches that complain about all the innocents picked up on phony terrorism charges and held without right of trial or legal counsel?”

Captured enemy soldiers are POW’s, not criminal defendants.

“I’ve listened to hundreds of sermons from TV or radio over the last 20 years.”

As I read back through this, I notice that you’re emphasis is on sermons and speaking out. My church sends about 15 people a week to Mississippi to work on homes damaged or destroyed by Katrina; we have missionaries in several countries; I can’t remember the last time either program was mentioned in a sermon. Perhaps action is more important than talk.

7

Joel 07.01.06 at 5:34 pm

J,

The 1998 National Congregations Study demonstrated that less than 3% of average congregational total budget goes for social services to the poor.

While dollar amounts don’t measure things such as hurricane and tornado clean up and many other volunteer endeavors, the statistics still show that churches raise the overwhelming amount of their dollars to spend on themselves. Your church may be an exception. Mine, unfortunately, isn’t.

Since Americans on the whole give around 3-4% of their income to the church, that means (multiplying .03 x .03) that only a miniscule amount of money is going to serve the poor as compared to what could be available.

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