Thursday, April 10, 2008

Spiritual Reflections on a Weekend In Vegas

A couple of weeks ago, Trish and I went to Las Vegas. We had been there several years before.
That time, we had gone for a couple of days of vacation; someone had told us that in the summer, rooms were cheap and the food was good in Vegas.

This time, we had been invited to go with a group of our church leaders to a technology trade show. Our hosts wanted us to look at the electronic wizardry that some believe will revolutionize the way people experience worship.

While in Vegas for this noble cause, we were encouraged to see a couple of shows. We were assured that these shows would demonstrate what its like to be totally immersed in the techno-aesthetics of Vegas Theater. So, we chose to see “O,” and “Ka.” True to their reputation, both shows were incredible. The technological effects were dazzling; the gymnastics were breath-taking and the acoustics sensational. From the standpoint of sensory experience, the shows were nothing less than hypnotic. Their constantly shifting scenes were emotionally stimulating and kept our adrenaline pumping. Best of all, for their post-modern audience, the shows made no cognitive demands. Our brains were engaged in processing sensation but never provoked to draw any inference or to assign any meaning to the thunderous sound or the brilliant effects.

Obviously, the shows are created and produced by highly intelligent human beings. It takes raw genius to coordinate the kind of human movement we witnessed with the sound, light, machinery and image of the Cirque. However, the genius is focused upon entertaining the senses, not upon provoking thought. Even the lyrics of the songs were meaningless monosyllables that the artists created. Though most people who go to those shows probably assume the lyrics being performed are in some foreign tongue, the fact is, the words, like the images and movement, are not meant to covey meaning. All the sensations in the theatre are like the colors of a kaleidoscope, testimonies to a universe in flux that creates momentary impressions that quickly fade and leave no lasting mark.

When we left the theatre, the show shifted to the streets. The perfumed people and the perfumed casino air created a kind of secular incense that contrasted with continual whiffs of cigar smoke. Lights were flashing, always and always. There was no silence in Vegas; sound blasted away in all places and at all times, bits and pieces of songs, scores and jingles cooing and wooing to all kinds of delights. Breasts, buttocks and midriffs, flashed upon twelve feet screens above our heads while living people, imitating the art, floated through the crowds in various stages of undressed exhibitionism. It was a veritable celebration of surgical silicon. Meanwhile, the jiggles of slot machines hypnotized the gamblers with their short tunes that played the same mad incessant melodies, creating a cacophony that somehow becomes a lullaby. The little songs put reason to sleep so the tourists may indulge their addictions without the pain of judgment or the awareness of consequence. I found this show even more impressive than the one in the theatres.

The food was good in Vegas. Our sleeping accommodations were suburb. Our camaraderie and conversation were stimulating and delightful. All in all though, Las Vegas is the worse side of American life – perpetually adolescent, cognitively retarded, hopelessly addicted, spiritually impoverished and eternally lost. It is the Pilgrim’s worse nightmare; a terrible parody of the shinning city on the hill that our founding fathers came here to build.

O.K. I admit. That’s a bit overdone. Las Vegas does not pretend to be a permanent state of being for anyone. It is, however a snapshot of postmodern American culture. Even as a temporary respite from labor and responsibility, Vegas reveals our nation’s bipolar tendencies; we seem driven by a relentless workaholism that we alleviate with the occasional plunge into mindless sensation. The problem is, neither pole of our national psyche is really conducive to feeding the soul, developing the intellect, acquiring wisdom or cultivating relationships.

So as I stood looking out of my twenty-fifth floor window at the lights of Vegas, I asked myself, “what can the Church of Jesus Christ possibly learn from this spiritually bankrupt city?” We had come to Vegas to learn what American seekers expect and to figure out how to give it to them. However, for me anyway, it was a real question if Christianity is in any sense compatible with anything Vegas has to offer. It seemed to me that Holy Scripture, the apostles and all the saints since them would have very little good to say about anything in this city.

So I am not nearly as convinced as our gracious hosts that the nation’s people will flock to the church if only we become as entertaining and as technologically sophisticated as the Vegas showmen. The gospel, after all, is about a cross and self-denial. It is a reminder that we are dying and that we need to prepare ourselves for another world. The gospel views the stuff of Vegas as illusions – distractions that seduce the human soul away from God and goodness.
This is a message that is deeply at odds with what most modern Americans really want to hear.
On the other hand, most modern Americans know that something is wrong. Otherwise, why all the addictions, Prozac and twelve-step programs? Modern Americans need places like Vegas because their lives are so empty; they have to be distracted from what they believe to be the meaninglessness of life. The question is, are churches believing that they can cure people from their spiritual ADD by giving them more of the same? I think not.

This could be a self-righteous statement and if so, should be rebuked; however, I really believe that Christ Church at its best has exactly what modern Americans need: the presence of God. It’s that simple. Many real spiritual seekers in American culture are not going to church because they don’t believe churches offer a spiritual life. That’s why we have to market ourselves so hard. So what we call being “seeker sensitive” is really about secularizing ourselves in order to appeal to the worse side of American life. That is not a path we need to take. People come to our church for a divine encounter in which their souls are pierced through by an awareness of God. Its not comfortable in the way that a blood transfusion is not comfortable when a weary man stumbles into the hospital for an infusion of life.

I say all of this though to promote rather than to discourage our acquisition of new technology. It may seem to be a funny way of approaching the subject but I think we need the technology as a tool and not as a master and that if we don’t establish and maintain a philosophy of ministry and spirituality, then technology can become, as I think it is for many churches, a mask for spiritual bankruptcy.

We need the technology because younger generations of Americans are plugged into a grid through which they constantly feed upon images, impressions, sounds and sensations. This technological grid has become a cultural environment that the gospel cannot afford to disdain. It is a mission field in which millions live, communicate and do their business. To avoid it is like an earlier generation saying that urban life is too complicated and wicked for a church and so we should keep all our churches in rural places. Obviously, we do pay a spiritual price when we move from an interaction with raw nature to more complicated social environments. Nonetheless, the move must be made because that is the flow of human history, as the scripture itself makes plain.

Continuing this analogy, we could say that the technological grid in which most younger Americans now live, has made not only the environment of nature alien and foreign to them but also the environment of literature and unmediated human interaction. Thus, many in our younger generations find it difficult to process concepts that are not punctuated by moving images and powerful sound. This means that one’s first encounter with the gospel is more likely to be through watching Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ than hearing Billy Graham preach in a crusade.

Because our culture is quickly moving away from the written word, spirituality has become a feeling more than a thought for most Americans. I don’t think this is the way things ought to be but it is the way things are. People are not apt to think unless they can be made to feel. We are responsible as ministers of the gospel to lead people to think but we won’t get that opportunity if they are not first brought into an experience that they perceive as genuine rather than as manipulation. Therefore, technology cannot be used as a gimmick to replace spiritual life but as a means to communicate spiritual life.

Finally, our culture tends to judge excellence as presentation rather than as content. Sooner or later if the content is missing, people don’t stick around, of course. No one wants to see “Ka” every week. However, if the presentation is sloppy, most people now will not give you a second chance, even if the content is superb. Unfortunately, that is where Christ Church is, offering excellent spiritual content through mediums that are increasingly dated, worn out and which fail to communicate to younger audiences.

Since this is an essay about spiritual impressions, I will not attempt to describe here the specific kinds of technological upgrades I believe we have to make. I will leave that to those who are knowledgeable about such things. However, in the artistic city in which we live, mediocre sound is a real handicap, which is what we have at present. The absence of quality video also hurts us, not only for our Sunday audience but for the thousands who watch by web cast. These are not luxury items then that we can afford to overlook but are vital tools for the work in which we are engaged. Therefore, despite my Mr. Scrooge-like introduction, I will be encouraging our church to move as quickly as we can to acquire the first rate technological systems that we need in order to stay in business in the culture that is now dominate in our country – the technologically savvy-business – entertainment-postmodern – post literate - post-religious scandals generation that we must reach.

It will be our responsibility then to introduce people to the Holy Scriptures, to prayer, to the spiritual transformation that happens in every age through the same way – dying to self and preparing for eternity. It’s not easy for people to make that kind of transition. On the other hand, it never has been. Just like the Lord reminded me as I looked at the lights of Vegas out my hotel window: St. Paul built a church in Corinth; there will be a church in post-modern America too.

The world is constantly changing shape. However, it is always the world and is thus perpetually at war against the human soul. To be a saint is to learn how to walk through the world and finally away from it; without self righteousness, with abundant compassion and with divine wisdom.

Like the apostle John said, God sent not His son into the world to condemn it but that through Him all might be saved.”

That includes Las Vegas. And, thankfully, it includes us too.

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