Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Lewis, Tolkien and Evangelical Senility

One of the most productive religious revivals of the last two hundred years occurred at Oxford University. Initially, this spiritual movement resulted in the conversion of a few hundred. Now, however, it touches millions of lives around the world. Unlike our more famous revivals, where people may glow in the dark or remain frozen in place for hours, this was a revival of Christian thought. 

The Oxford converts formed a community that launched its members into the intellectual stratosphere. Seventy years later, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Dorothy Sayers,  J. R. R. Token, Michael Palanyi, Charles Williams and many other lesser known writers continue to influence not only Christianity but secular culture as well.

As I write this, The Hobbit is playing in our theaters, just a couple of years after the Lord of the Rings and Narnia may be fading from their long runs at the box offices and bookstores. Meanwhile, the writings of Michael Polanyi have been quietly provoking breakthroughs in economics, neurology and, of course, in chemistry, the field in which he won his Nobel Prize. These Oxford converts have been a most productive group of people.

Christian thought and Christian community nurtured the intellectual gifts of these believers, refined and developed their ideas, and helped them reach several generations of readers and researchers both within and without the Christian Church.

Although most of the Oxford group would not easily fit within the boundaries of contemporary American Evangelicalism, we have continually drawn upon their insights to address our postmodern questions. It is difficult to know what modern Evangelicalism would even look like without them.

Nonetheless, I don't think we would tolerate a community like theirs today.  Unbelievers wouldn't like them or their ideas, of course. But believers wouldn't either, to tell the truth. Intellectual life is at low tide in the American Evangelical Church at the moment. We seem to have little patience for serious conversation.

How can I explain what I mean?

Perhaps this will help.

When I was a little boy, our church ran an “old folks home.”

I found it mysterious. Once, when my great-grandmother broke her leg, I spend several hours there trying to understand the world the staff and patients had created. We had not yet learned how to sanitize (and camouflage) the unpleasant realities of human biology as we do today. So I still recall the sights, sounds and smells of human decay. However, it was the social aspects of the place that intrigued me the most.

I discovered that although Mr. Tommy was completely paralyzed, he was as rational as a person can be without healthy human interaction. The staff treated him kindly and he seemed to appreciate their help. Still, recalling his condition makes one grateful for modern advances like FaceTime and voice recognition software. 

Most of the others in the House of Mercy however, suffered from dementia. Well, come to think of it, perhaps they were not suffering! They laughed hardily enough, rocking away their hours and talking to people I couldn't see. Perhaps it was their lack of awareness that unnerved me.  But of course that was not their problem. 

One French-speaking woman was always calling for her mother. She giggled in her unknown tongue as she stroked a doll’s face.  Even though I watched her intently, I don’t think she ever saw me. Her mind was in a time and place that comforted her but which removed her from me.

Outside, a president had been assassinated. American cities were burning. The world was threatening to blow itself up. People were learning how to fly to the moon. But that poor woman knew nothing about any of that. Her eyes were fixed on something that although invisible to everyone else brought her some sense of joy.

But at what cost?

Inside the nursing home where she and the others lived, a little boy was trying to make sense of the world. He was mystified by this display of human fragility that made the word seem less safe than before. He was discovering that big people don't always have the answers; that sometimes big people are less aware than little ones.

Blissfully unconcerned about my existential anxiety, the inhabitants of the House of Mercy rocked on, shouting at one another about all their real and imagined offenses. They had become yesterday’s people, incapable of (and uninterested in) making a contribution to a world in which they no longer played a part.

Presumably, they had once conversed about world events. They had once made love. They had once raised families. They had once created machines and pieces of art. They had once participated in the life of the world. Then, for some reason and at some point, they began either surrendering their lives voluntarily or succumbed to the various kinds of neurological disease that worked to steal their lives. 

Whenever I consider the current state of American Evangelicalism, I think about those scenes at the House of Mercy Nursing Home. 

We are still here. We still breathe and eat.  But we have gradually cocooned ourselves in a spiritual gated community where we ignore most of the global changes around us. We have disinvested ourselves of huge chucks of real life rather than face the unsettling realities that might shake our internal equilibrium. 

Not much science makes it in here and hasn't for some time now.

Nor literature.

Nor philosophy.

And, increasingly, not much theology either.

We enjoy technological gadgetry, the products of the sciences we have, for the most part, rejected. But American Evangelicalism is a world of group think and cliches, where the price of community is conformity and where happiness is often purchased at the price of remaining in a state of intellectual adolescence. 

Unencumbered by the responsibility of offering answers for modern questions, we prefer speakers that say amusing things to make us happy over ones who tax our minds with difficult conundrums.  Our worship services are brief, vacuous, and often look a lot like kindergarten. We have lost much of our collective memory and so have little idea who the likes of Wesley, Calvin, Luther, and Aquinas were or what they may have said. We may have heard their names but are not likely to believe they have much to say about anything in real life. We wonder what sort of sadistic artists would have ever put words like propitiation, incarnation, and redemption in worship songs and why they could have ever thought anyone would know what such strange words meant.

We wonder why any faithful believer would study things like genetics, paleontology, or neurology.

If we listen to the conversation of people in this gospel ghetto of ours, we will hear amazing and revealing things.

“My nephew was raised in this very church by good parents. Then he went off to college. Now He believes the earth is hundreds of millions of years old; can you believe that? Our pastor took him for a game of golf and lunch but it didn’t help. Maybe it’s not a good idea to send our kids to college!”

“That nice young man wants to become a pastor. Naturally, he wants to study the Bible, which is good, but he will need to understand how the real world works if he plans to be successful. So I told him to study marketing and management. He can study the Bible on his own.”

“I love our church. The pastor talks about sports and things I can relate to. The service keeps your attention and best of all -- you’re out in an hour!”

Meanwhile, the culture's pressing questions about sexual identity, addiction, human origins, global warming, mass killings, and urban sustainability are met with clich├ęs, sneers and, ultimately, by silence. Not only are we uninformed by modern perspectives on such things, we have lost historical Christian perspectives that might have added our unique voice to the discussion. We have become so alienated from our own past in fact, that perhaps few things are as alien to us now as historical Christianity. Therefore, information we might have found in our own hymns, theology books, creeds and art is long gone. Like the people at the House of Mercy, we have found that our old life and its belongings just don't fit in this place.

When someone mentions things we have lost, we comfort ourselves with words that lack real content.

“God is doing a new thing.”

“God hates religion.”

“God wants His people to be happy.”

Rock. Rock. Rock.

Happy. Happy.

Drool. Drool.

What time is lunch?

We do not notice that little children are growing up in a house without answers. We seem unaware that we have been amusing them with the same mindless fare we have been feeding ourselves. Except for our neat electronic gadgets, the world stopped evolving for us somewhere about 1870; before the likes of Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Max Plank; before the discoveries of continental drift and DNA; before globalization and the Internet; before Christians stopped having much to add to the disciplines of human society; before the great Oxford revival that could still renew our understanding of biblical faith if we would actually pay attention to it. 

One wonders what our little children will do when they discover the truth: that for over a century most of us have been asleep at the wheel, too terrified of an evolving world to think or converse about much of anything of substance. And what will they think when they discover that the people who made us the angriest were those who tried to wake us up? 

I am proud that our little church cared for people who could no longer care for themselves. The House of Mercy Nursing Home was a loving and kind response to human suffering. Many congregations still do such things and I am proud of them too. I am not proud when church becomes becomes a retreat for those who no longer wish to think.

There are many wonderful things I could say about American Evangelicals. Intellectual courage is not one of them.

So enjoy The Hobbit. We may not be anything like it for a long time. And besides, like all spiritually healthy things, The Hobbit breathes virtuous life into all who encounter and savor it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it may spark courage in someone to go against the current tide of intellectual sloth. Perhaps he or she will assemble another group of prophetic Christian intellectuals like the ones whom God touched at Oxford. And if so, perhaps our children's children may delight in the wonders of an informed, sanctified and anointed intellect; as we do whenever we read the works of those shaped by the Oxford revival.

Some things to think about as we ponder what we might do with this blessed gift of a brand new year. 


Marilyn said...

When i was a child my mom used to take us every other week (approx. i think) to one of these "old folks" homes.. i really loved going (minus the weird smells) and spending time with them. We would make little ceramic figurines a few nights before so they'd be cured by time we were to go and then took those to paint with them.. Thanks for the blog.. It not only spoke to me, it brought back a GOOD memory - Bless you.!!

BC said...

Decades of observing and trying to understand the decaying modern "Church" have given me the following perspective...

The Christian world, and the American version, in particular, has defined itself as a mere shadow cast by the much larger secular world. The world at large may well stand in the sunshine of curiosity and knowledge, yet its shadow cannot or will not glimpse these with any marvel or interest because its alter ego always stands directly between it and the source of light.

Sadly, one can apply the analogy above to the Church when using Christ interchangeably with curiosity and knowledge.