Panem et Circenses

The Roman poet Juvenal once wrote in his Satire all the average citizen of the Empire cared for was “panem et circenses” — bread and circuses. No longer was the average Roman a hero, a legionnaire given to political involvement, promoting the security and prosperity of Rome via steel and ballot. Instead, the satirist laments, Roman citizens abandon their civic duties and their military heroism for others to handle, quite content to stay home as long as they’re fed (bread) and entertained (circuses).

Some 1900 years later, we in the West, particularly in America (heirs of Rome that we are), would once again agree with Juvenal’s assessment of things. Few volunteer for military service. Few vote. We rarely get excited over anything which might be remotely considered duty in any iteration. I’ve encountered people willing to do anything for money — except work. One individual asked my church for assistance after losing his job, received it, then came back later asking for more help, saying he now had two jobs but just didn’t want to go to them. (I declined to give aid that time.) So whether it’s going to vote, going to war, or going to work, we just don’t want to do it.

The same goes for any sort of commitment. The average age of marriage and having one’s first child has been steadily increasing for years for myriad reasons, but fairly recently the marriage rate itself has plummeted. Couples cohabitate for years and even have kids, but they never marry. Some cite financial reasons, but wouldn’t a truly committed couple take steps to make it work somehow? The overwhelming majority don’t even provide that much rationale; they just want benefits sans commitment. The attitude doesn’t stop there. Once married with children, many abandon both in messy divorces. Some divorces are valid, yes, but here I’m referring to the “I just can’t do what I want and be your spouse/parent” ones. And so spouses and children are abandoned. The reverse is also true: many adult children abandon their elderly parents, relegating them to a long-term care facility and never seeing them again because they don’t want the commitment of caring for them themselves.

So what do people seem to want? Bread and circuses, food and entertainment. Eliminate discomfort, and people won’t need to act; eliminate time for independent thought, and they won’t want to. How does this play out for us? Fast food restaurants. Chinese takeout. Delivery pizzas. Drugs. Drunkenness. Reality TV. Graphic movies. Pornography. Casual sex. Social media. Smartphones.

Panem et circenses.

And this happens inside the church, too.

It used to be that the people who comprised the church acted like the church. There was an evangelistic urgency, a missionary zeal. Parachurch organizations grew like wildfire. Christians organized into voting blocs, and clergy voiced their opinions on policy — and those voices were respected. (I can almost chalk up the silenced voice in the public sphere as a simple consequence of post-Christendom, but not quite.) Parishioners volunteered for everything. They sang. They served. They accepted their church as-is and stuck to it even when it did something they didn’t like, which it inevitably did.

Now, however, even self-professed Christians desire little more than bread and circuses from their churches. For years now, church programming has been driven by a consumeristic mentality. We advertise programs catered to every flight of fancy a “church shopper” might have. Our music abandoned its theological moorings and has become indistinguishable in content (and style) from the songs of secularism — because they keep people entertained. Children’s ministry becomes babysitting: kids are given only fun videos and snacks (at times literally bread and circuses) in lieu of biblical content and theological primers. And when someone is no longer fed or entertained they way they want to be, out the door they go, off to join the next church which might give them what they’re after.

We made these changes with dire consequences. Far from being a radically alternative community, a place in which the world has no place, the church has become yet another source of food and entertainment. Our message is the world’s (“you’re fine as you are”); our songs are the world’s (“hold me in your arms, person-who-is-never-named-in-this-song”), and our symbols are the world’s (coffee cups, not crosses — crosses are bloody and offensive). Some even drop the title of church altogether in their very names; I personally know of two simply called “The Creek.” Our architecture has turned sacred space into something identical to a warehouse on the outside. Even our most fundamental rituals — baptism, the Eucharist, and weddings/funerals — look like things the world does, use the same elements, or at the very least are downplayed or panned as optional to the Christian life (which is true only for marriage, unless celibacy just isn’t for you).

We entertain. We provide satisfying fluff. And we look like everyone else in the bread-and-circuses game. Is it any wonder people stopped coming to church? They can get exactly what we offer from a thousand other sources, any one of which will let them sleep in on Sunday morning.

It’s time to stop. Cut out the humanistic food. Close the curtains on entertainment qua entertainment. We need to look like Christ, not the Colosseum. We must look like the holy, not Barnum & Bailey. Food? The body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for atonement for sins. Living water and baptismal fonts. The word of God proclaiming the Word of God. Selfless service to our neighbors. Public condemnation of sin and private corrections. Community. Grace. Heaven. Hell. Eternity. Trinity. Jesus.

Let’s put away the smoke, the light shows, the “required” ecstatic high. Abandon panem et circenses. Show people a risen Lord in all his majesty. That is something which will wake them from their dogmatic slumber. That is a love which cries out, which demands others love in return. Stop selling tickets to the circus and start proclaiming Christ.

Advertisements

Unapologetic

A conversation with another pastor after a revival meeting this week gave me the title of my first book (if no one’s stolen it already): Unapologetic Apologetics. (Coming to a bookstore near you, summer 2082).  My clergy brother told me my sermon reminded him we must never apologize for the gospel, never be sorry Jesus came and that our only salvation is in him. Even when the truth is hard for others to hear, we boldly proclaim it in love.

That got me thinking. I doubt any of us have ever told a lost soul, “I’m sorry Jesus loved you enough to die for you,” but it’s possible we’ve altered our message or apologized in other ways. One of the biggest ways the contemporary church seems to soften its message is the way we don’t talk bout sin — not even specific sins, but the general concept of sinfulness. “Sin” has become a dirty word, and many ministers avoid it altogether. I’m not fully convinced replacing “sin” with “mistake” or “failure” mitigates that much emotional distress, but I’m certain it does remove any inherent moral content associated with the misdeed. I can fail a chemistry exam, after all, or mistakenly conclude 2+2=3, but neither of those things has implicitly moral/ethical/theological implications. Stealing does. Lying does. They are sinful things, and they demand proper classification and nomenclature. If we don’t use the appropriate terminology, we’re saying these things aren’t as bad as they truly are. We’re not offering the full moral truth; we’re apologizing for giving someone a guilty conscience.

We also frequently apologize for Christianity’s exclusivity claims, increasingly abandoning them altogether in favor of an inclusive or pluralistic approach to other religions. It’s offensive to declare ours is the only true religion, that the Christian God is the one true God, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation. That’s offensive, it hurts, it’s “triggering,” it’s a myriad of other similar things. So people back down and apologize. “I didn’t really mean Jesus is the only Savior. I’m sorry if I called your religion false in any way.” We say we’re sorry for speaking the truth and allow other people to live lives which will take them and the demons they worship straight to hell.

We apologize for other things, too. Minor things. The Crusades, for example. I will never apologize for those, but even I’ll admit the Spanish Inquisition, while unexpected, was too far. I’ll even say the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the murder of the Anabaptists during the Reformation deserve apologies.

But not exclusivity. Not the existence of sin and hell. These are realities, core parts of our faith, and I will never apologize for something the Bible says.

Christians, we must be bold. We cannot back down from the truths of our faith simply because the world disagrees with them. We knew it would: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The cross of Christ has always been offensive. It has always impressed upon us the reality of our sin, always pointed us to a single atonement.

Never apologize for our faith. Be a stalwart defender of Christianity. Stand in the gap and boldly, lovingly tell the world about its Savior. For without this proclamation, we have no Church, no hope, no love for our neighbors.

The World of Gardeners

My grandfather always said he was “a big fan of Mama Nature.” And he was. He meticulously kept a variety of flowers and shrubs in immaculate condition. A range of fruit trees dominated one side of the hill behind his house, and a blackberry briar claimed the other. His garden was the biggest personal-use plot of land I’ve seen to this day. My other grandfather (and grandmother) worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Being outside, caring for nature runs in my blood.

Unfortunately, those genes never kicked in. I have a black thumb, killing every plant I’ve ever cared for, for any length of time. I’m allergic to oak pollen and dust. I hike in the fall when things are dying and dead.

I’m pretty I was cursed as a baby by a gypsy.

Regardless of a lack of personal talent in the area, I’m greatly concerned for our environment (one of the few passions I get from my father, a former environmental engineer and current environmental science teacher [his genes activated]). Without taking a stand on global warming — I leave that to your conscience — I still know a problem when I see one. And we have a problem — many problems. Oceans saturated with so much carbon dioxide they can’t absorb much more. Coral bleaching. Algae blooms extending for miles. Failure to invest in sustainable energies. Mismanagement of industrial waste. Rapidly dwindling landfill space. Products designed to break after so long. Other things crafted by an artificial timetable to go “out of style.” Species going extinct, resources being depleted, corporations destroying lands without reclaiming them, industrial farms . . .

Mama Nature can’t be too happy right now.

Of course, there is no Mother Nature. There’s only the created world and its Creator. But something tells me God isn’t too happy with things, either.

You see, when God created the heavens and the earth, He called it good. It was good — perfect, in fact. Nothing had yet marred it in any way. No sin, no natural disasters, nothing. No corporations had invented mountaintop removal. No chemicals yet spilled into the seas. It was perfect. And into this perfect world God placed humanity with a command: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).

This is known as the creation (or dominion) mandate. Humans were made to conquer the world and rule it (muwahahaha!). It’s our purpose: to be caretakers and stewards of an entire planet. This is confirmed a few verses later in Genesis 2:15: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” We are to care for our world. We were created to be gardeners. Not warriors, not consumers. Gardeners.

Simply put, we can’t care for a dead garden.

Christians have always believed the creation mandate confers a duty to practice good stewardship of our natural treasures. It’s our job to exercise responsible use of water, land, plants, and animals. A few have objected over the years, saying that if the world is just going to burn anyway in accordance with 2 Peter 3:10, why bother saving it? The selfish answer is, of course, because we still live on it. We don’t know when Christ will return, so we don’t know how much longer we need to make things last. Theologically, we have the rest of Scripture. An explicit command to tend the garden, repeated arguments based on nature, an awareness of creation worshiping God even if we don’t . . . We must be good caretakers, good environmentalists.

How do Christians demonstrate care for the environment? Here’s a short list.

  1. Reduce, reuse, recycle. It still helps.
  2. Conserve water and electricity whenever possible. Unplug “energy vampires” when not in use. Take shorter showers. Buy energy efficient/high efficiency appliances and toilets.
  3. Write your politicians and advocate environmentally friendly legislation. Show the government we as Christians care about this issue, too.
  4. Pray. Always pray.

These are baby steps, but they’re a place to start. Every little bit helps, folks.

Let us worship God by taking care of His world.

Saint Stephen’s Option

There comes a time in every Christian’s life when we must decide how to move forward, how to be salt and light, how we will relate to the world around us. As I’ve outlined previously, theologians and ethicists categorize our options into a few different groups (and more abound than in my earlier post). Today, though, I want to skip the helpful nuances and present you with a black and white, heads or tails choice with precisely two options for our cultural engagement.

Option One: we give up. This choice is exactly as it sounds. We just give up, roll over, and call it a day. We admit we lost the war and adopt positions which mirror the secular-humanist philosophy of our unchurched peers. Marriage? Well, the law is the law, so let that one go. Open the doors of our worship spaces and let all gays, lesbians, and transgenders wed. Go a step further and unite them at our hands, invoking the blessings of a largely apathetic (if not outright non-existent) God upon the union. Abortion? It’s a clump of cells, barely alive, and certainly sub-human. Expel it from the uterus, crush its skull in the birth canal, just get rid of it. After all, you might be inconvenienced by having to care for a child, particularly if you’re not married. But if you’re not, that’s fine. Living together is the “in” thing, after all. Commitment is outdated, and since sex is only about your own pleasure (not even your partner’s, but yours) and has zero spiritual or mystic dimensions, have fun. Be yourself. Oh, and don’t fret about staying in your marriage if you’re already hitched. Marriage, like sex, is only about your personal happiness. Leave whenever you like for any reason whatsoever. I mean, some people just don’t get along, and it’s hard to make it work.

To support these changes, we’re going to need to give up a lot of other things, too. No more talk of sin. No cross, no atonement, as these require sin. Miracles are anti-science, so none of those. Oh, and let’s toss any theology argued from creation, as creation is a silly, antiquated idea from the mythic age; we’ll need to get rid of Paul, and the Pentateuch, some psalms, the last chapters of Job . . . well, honestly, the angry Old Testament God is pretty problematic (the concept of judgment is a bit woolly these days), so let’s only go with the New Testament with the aforementioned omissions. Be sure to skip Revelation, too, though, as there’s a lot about people not being saved, hell, and lakes of fire.

Really, Option One changes every facet of worship. Most (all, if we’re being careful with our lyrics) of our music would be inappropriate in such a setting. Sacraments convey a sense of “in” and “out,” so let’s skip those. Prayer might be a bit, well, pointless at this stage, so give that a miss, too. And since there’s really nothing left to preach, we may as well leave out a sermon. Someone can give a rousing talk or a self-improvement seminar, but leave sermonizing out of this.

As you can see, the first of our two options ends in simply closing the doors of the church. It would be superfluous (as so many think it now), unnecessary reinforcement of the cultural norms (as so many churches have already become). The church would stop being called out from among the world — the literal definition of the church — stop being weird, stop being alternative and counter-cultural.

In the spirit of fairness, I want to paint Option Two (remaining steadfast) with an equally exaggerated treatment. This second of our two possible choices is the opposite of the first. Instead of giving in, we redouble our commitment to our current positions. We declare sex belongs only in marriage and marriage is one man and one woman for life. We call abortion murder, the willful and deliberate taking of another human life. We preach sin, hellfire, judgment, and damnation. We sing songs about the cross of Christ and the atonement made to cover our personal sins. We teach stories of a creator God who loves us and disciplines us. We say “you shouldn’t do that” as well as “I encourage you in this,” whichever is appropriate at the time. We initiate believers by baptism and serve them the body and blood of Jesus Christ in our Supper. We promote peace and human flourishing, not hedonistic, individualistic self-destruction.

The truly radical part is how we can do all this while suffering for it. I never want to diminish the persecutions faced by my brothers and sisters in other countries, but even here we face insults, protests, and people crying out for our destruction. In the eyes of our culture, Christians are increasingly being painted as villains. But we endure it all. We don’t change our proclamation, opting instead to willingly face the consequences.

I call this the Saint Stephen Option. St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church — and its first martyr. As his story goes in Acts 6-8:1, Stephen was seized for preaching the gospel. In his defense before the Sanhedrin, he simply recounted salvation history, ending with a vision of Jesus. He was stoned to death, his last words crying out to God to forgive his killers.

His is the example I propose we follow. I say we draw the line in the sand and hold to it. We don’t budge. We don’t jettison unpopular doctrines. We cling to them more than ever. We preach and teach the fullness of the gospel. We do so in love and because of love. If we are robbed or killed or spoken of evilly or forced from positions of influence or ignored entirely, we bear it in grace. We willingly suffer for proclaiming Christ and him crucified, realizing the salvation of souls is worth any sacrifice we may be called upon to make. It is our turn now; Saint Stephen has passed the baton to us. Our sacrifice, our blood will be the seed of the church. Future generations will say of us, “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38). But only if we hold the line.

Option One is untenable. Of these two, only the Saint Stephen Option will work. Only our continued witness to and critique of our culture will do it any good. Only if the Church maintains its status as an alternative community will it continue to exist at all.

The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18). Don’t open the doors and let it inside freely.