Tuesday, February 23, 2010

UFC Jesus

read this article first: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/02/us/02fight.html

Okay, several months back I already touched a bit on this whole topic in my extensive series entitled, "What Would Jesus Say about MMA?" I made the case then, that, in principle, Jesus would not find either viewing MMA or participation in MMA competition as sinful. The argument was made that Jesus' judgement would be according to scripture, and scripture is full of martial imagery, scenes of violence, and makes copious use of fighting and athletic metaphors to describe the tenacity and determination required to live a sanctified Christian life. So, with that basic summary in mind, please understand that my response here is not a knee jerk reaction to this article on MMA churches, nor is it a condemnation of Christians who participate in MMA training or competition. What I am exposing is the shameful, pathetic, evangelical exploitation of pop culture trends, in order to build "designer" churches which cater to transient tastes and cultural fads.

Without trying to get into a history lesson here, let's say that the evangelical church over the last 100 years or so has pretty much buttered its bread by trying to find out what was culturally "cool" and then use that in the name of Jesus to reach out to people. Whether it is Billy Sunday, Amiee Semple Mcpherson, or Chuck Smith and his hippie style worship and church life, evangelicals have, for a few generations, been attracting crowds by appealing to cultural appetites of fickle masses. That is exactly how I see this whole MMA church trend. Except, I find this particular instance not only shameful, but also moronic.

Honestly, how many guys are really going to want to come to Jesus because he had his "Octagon" experience at the cross? The only person who is a bigger moron than the person who thinks like that, is the person who actually thinks such a message will attract guys and actually tries to use that message to sell his brand of Jesus. Think about the motto of the Xtreme Ministries fight team, "Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide.” What person actually thinks that the "real guys" out there who are stubbornly resistant to the gospel are going to start flocking to Jesus once they catch wind of that uber macho motto?

Before I move on to my alternate proposal for preaching Jesus, I do want to take a moment to comment on what the so-called evangelical critics of UFC Jesus said in response to this article. One critical comment which really grabbed my attention, not because of its insightfulness but rather on account of its irony, was made by some pastor named Eugene Cho of "Quest Church" in Seattle, who said, “What you attract people to Christ with is also what you need to get people to stay.” Basically, all you need to know about Cho, and whether he is in a position to make a comment like that, because he supposedly stands above the fray of all these evangelicals who hock Jesus with cool, is look at the name of his church, "Quest." How much more transparent do you have to be than that, that you are using "hip" to reach people (the church name sounds like it was taken from a book title in the "spirituality" section at Borders). At any rate, I clicked on Quest Church's website and what did I see there but a cross draped with linens, a casually dressed band up front toting all the usual equipment, guitars, drums, etc., and interior walls painted the exact same colors you would find at your local Starbucks (hmmm, I wonder what kind of Jesus Cho is selling to people in Seattle). Then I clicked on Cho's twitter page and found out that the most recent set of sermons there is on what? You guessed it, relationships. Yeah, no one else is doing that! That is really different, and totally above the fray. I guess even in this case of an evangelical critic of UFC Jesus, we have an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

In view of all this, let me suggest a different way for evangelicals to start thinking about all these lame tactics they use as catnip to get people attracted to the terrible gospel of Christ. The principle I am thinking of, is rooted in scripture, specifically, in the qualifications of a minister or elder in the church. 1Timothy 3:7 says that a bishop must, "have a good reputation with those outside the church." The word for "outside" comes from a Greek word, exothen, which means, "someone not a member of a particular in-group." Paul is basically saying, "how would someone who is not a Christian, and who does not understand Christian doctrines and practice evaluate this man based upon his behavior?" He is assuming that most people, due to common grace, have a basic understanding of what constitutes normal, sane behavior. Let's plug that principle into this particular issue of trying to baptize what is cool, with Jesus, so churches can get more people through the door: how will turning Jesus into a UFC fighter play among unbelieving guys who have an ounce of sense in their brains? Honestly, to ask that question is to answer it. These people don't really look at UFC Jesus type Christians and think of them as creative and cool and edgy, as much they look at them and think of them as shallow, superficial, creatively challenged opportunists who will do anything or say almost anything in order to attract attention to themselves, get more people through the door, so they can build bigger buildings, stroke their egos, and line their wallets with more cash. Please don't tell me either, that the world is impressed after all, with these kinds of churches, with their counterfeit, Christianized pop culture, just because they say they love Jesus and volunteer to go to the homeless shelter once per month.

I appeal to the evangelical intelligentsia to put a stop to UFC Jesus and all the rest of these foolish ideas, and just go back to preaching Jesus and his cross. Just start doing church in the very simple, unadorned, sincere and authentic ways that the apostles did. Never do we find them renting out amphitheatres and putting on pankration events in order to sell a "gladiator Jesus" to the Greeks and Romans. In fact, what we find is that the apostles went out of their way to preach Jesus in a way that did not fit the cultural expectations of the Greco-Roman masses, because they wanted to exalt the message above culture, not cloak the message in culture. The reason they did that was because they wanted people to know that when they heard the true Jesus proclaimed that it was to Jesus they were being attracted and not to some cool new cultural trend (1Corinthians 2:1-5). So here is my appeal: stop preaching UFC Jesus, gladiator Jesus, rock-n-roll Jesus, cool Jesus, pot smoking Jesus, SUV Jesus, environmental Jesus, hippie Jesus, guru Jesus, Dr. Phil relationship Jesus, Starbucks Jesus, and any other Jesus you can think of, and just preach the Biblical, apostolic Jesus. When we do that, yes we probably won't be liked by the culture, but at least we won't be thought of as a bunch of morons who slap the name of Jesus on what ever thing is currently brand name, for the selfish purpose of attracting a crowd.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Doggy church

I confess that often there are cultural movements that fly completely off my narrow radar screen. For istance, for months, I was ignorant of the cult following generated by the MTV hit show, "Jersey Shores," I confess that I often have no idea with what is going on with Brangelina, and don't even start asking me about the Kardashians. But when it comes to pop movements in the church, I try to keep up to date the best I can by reading Christianity Today and by periodically surfing the internet for the latest "ministry" trends. If you have an interest in catching up with what is "cool" in contemporary evangelical church life, I invite you to consult the "churchapreneuers" series here on Calvin on Tap. However, it has recently come to my attention that a chic, cutting edge ministry is on the rise and it has been flying well below my radar screen for some time. The new ministry craze I am thinking about is the whole new phenomenon of "doggy church." Let me explain.

Just a couple of weeks before Christmas, a parishoner handed me an article from the L.A. Times entitled, Presbyterian church in Westchester offers dog-friendly Sunday services a href="http://http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/unleashed/2009/11/covenant-presbyterian-church-dog-friendly-la.html">. Naturally, being a huge dog-lover, my attention was immediately captivated. The story began in typical fashion. A new minister comes to an old, yet once thriving church, which had a shrinking membership, aging members, and little connection to the surrounding community. Obviously, any minister worth his salt would want to reverse the trend and restore the church's mission. The plan the minister of this church came up with was anything but the usual. Reasoning from the premise that any expression of human love is an analogue or even expression of divine love, Rev. Tom Eggebeen decided "He would turn God's house into a doghouse by offering a 30-minute service complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers and an offering of dog treats."

As odd as all of this might seem to those of us who attend more traditional services, and who probably look aghast at local churches who advertize exciting worship including belly dancing, batton twirling, and light shows, this probably catches most of us well off guard. The author of the story reminds us though, that dog worship is not all that unusual, explaining that, "The weekly dog service at Covenant Presbyterian is part of a growing trend among churches nationwide to address the spirituality of pets and the deeply felt bonds that owners form with their animals." Apparently, a tsunami of canine services are sweeping the land and Laura Hobgood-Oster, a religion professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, sees this as not only a good thing, but a theologically sound thing. Not only does such a practice challenge the traditional thinking that dogs don't have redeemable souls, which she thinks is incorrect, but also it reflects a certain sensitivity to changes in social, community, and religious life wherein "pets are really central and religious communities are starting to recognize that people need various kinds of rituals that include their pets."

What should we say about all this? Should Biblical Christians even attempt to make any response? After all, giving attention to lunacy, in the eyes of some, often is an indication of legitimizing it to some extent. Ordinarily, I would be happy to showcase the folly and briefly satirize it, however, in this case, because it has to do with dogs, I think a word of response is in order. As already mentioned, I am a dog lover. I grew up with dogs, and as family we have had dogs. Not long after I first read this article, I took my dog, Captain (a wonderful Golden Lab), to the vet for what I thought was going to be a simple check-up only to find that he had a very aggressive form of cancer. In the space of a week-and-a-half our family had say a very painful good-by to our dog who had filled our home and hearts with deep joy for several years. As I left my Captain-dog with the vet attendant and said good-by for the last time, I looked into his eyes and told him how good he had been to us. There was no choking back tears here, because they were flowing like a river. Leaving him behind to be put down was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. It has been several weeks now since I had to put him down, and I still cannot get him out of my mind. I often hear in my head the clickety-clack of his feet walking across the hardwood floor, and my house still retains some of his familiar smells.

Why bring all this up? Well, because I am painfully aware of how much a dog can mean to a person, and I understand the bond and companionship that people share with their pets. All that being said, I understand how people want to think that their dog has a redeemable soul and that they will see a deceased pet in the new heavens and new earth. But none of that has to do with the worship of God. God is the object of our worship, not our pets or our feelings for them. It is not just odd, but idolatrous and blasphemous in the extreme, for churches to make humans and their relationship with their pets, an object of worship. Whether or not we will be reunited with our cherished pets in heaven (and for my part, I hope I see Captain again in heaven), the fact remains that worship is for God, not for man. To obscure this or de-emphasize this is to exalt the creature rather than the Creator, and that is grossly sinful and idolatrous. Beyond that, playing on the emotions of these people who share such a deep bond with their pets and making that a part of worship is not only idolatrous, it is unthinkably cruel and shameful. I used to think that the fraudulent and false worship perpetrated by the purveyors of CCM with their emotionally charged praise songs was not only idolatrous but a very shameful and cruel manipulation of people's emotions. But this dog worship, I am sad to say, is even more cruel. How selfish of churches, to lust after and covet having a crowd at church so much that they would manipulate people and their emotions by using the deep bond they share with their pets, in order to draw them into worship, and give them the false hope that bringing them to church is a bringing them to Jesus, and is a means of ensuring their pets place with them in heaven.

Ours is a dark and sinful age due to sin. Paul reminds us in Galatians 1:4 that this is and always will be a radically evil age until Christ returns in triumphant glory. It is not surprising then, that we see darkness, deception, and sinful distortion of the created order all around us. What is especially disheartening and soul wrenching is that people, in the name of God and His worship, would practice such gross deception and manipulation, in order to serve their own selfish ends. Shame on you Rev. Eggebeen and all you other religous fools who carve up the souls of the simple minded and turn God's house into a house of corruption and idolatry. The church gathered for worship is God's house, not a doghouse.