Ok, so this post is both a clarification on comments I’ve made elsewhere and a so-called “shameless plug” for a resource we just put out at Bloom.
Two weekends ago at our gathering I made a case for why we’ve self-consciously tried to build our community around “thick practices”… rich and thoughtful rhythms of worship, prayer, Bible reading, communion, etc. In that message I used the word “religion” often. And always positively. In fact, for instance, I said that it was essentially “religious” commitments of the four Jewish boys (Daniel and his pals) in Babylon that helped them preserve their Jewish identity in the face of immense cultural pressure. Likewise, I said, unless we have a robust “religion”, in our day – a day in which Christendom is in shambles which means that the culture at large cannot be counted upon to sustain a Christian identity – we will simply not survive. The “empire” will assimilate us. Count on it.
I thought I was very clear in what I was advocating. But as it happens, more than I’m usually aware, the word “religion” is still a bigtime stumbling block for people, and the hence the message gets muddled. They remember the “dead religion” of their childhood and cringe; the empty and meaningless rituals they were forced to go through because they were born in this or that religious tradition. They look back on those days and despise the hypocrisy of it all. OR, they remember the days of their youth when they were steeped in fundamentalism. “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or hang with girls who do” and all that bit, which usually went hand in hand with a sometimes aggressive posture towards the world. Man-made rules and regulations that – while well-intentioned – failed to hit the mark in terms of cultivating people for what Jesus said is pinnacle of human existence: that we should love the Lord our God with all of our faculties, and love our neighbors as He loved us. Legalism. Blech.
When I say “religion”, I never mean those things. I am never advocating a return to “dead, dry, rote religion.” Neither am I ever advocating a return to some kind of separatist social taboos (though I will always call people to a life of enfleshed holiness) or to an aggressive posture towards the world. The Prophets were harsh critics of “dead religion” (=religion that did not lead to love of God and neighbor). Jesus was an even harsher critic of the religious culture of his day. “These people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…” The New Testament authors continue the trend, criticizing the view that by “the works of the Law” a person could find rightstanding with God, and likewise predict the days in which people will have “a form of godliness but deny the power.” Yes. YES. I affirm the critique.
The trouble is, many Christians seem to imagine that religion simpliciter, by itself, is the problem. Therefore we should have a (misusing a Bonhoeffer term) “religionless Christianity.” This popular video and along with this one are great examples of this view. But I do not have any idea what that would mean. I cannot imagine a situation in which my commitments to what I think is REAL – The Triune God and his work in the world first through Israel and then, stunningly, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and his continued work in the world through the Holy Spirit and the Church, which awaits Christ’s return as a sign, foretaste, and testimony of That Which is to Come – were not enfleshed in rhythms, habits, and patterns of life that sustain those commitments, extend them, help them find footing in my life, and make them possible, in the much the same way that I cannot imagine my commitment to Mandi, my wife, apart from the rhythms, habits, and patterns of life that support, sustain, and nurture our union. The rhythms, habits, and patterns, let us be clear, are not ULTIMATE. They are PENultimate. But their being penultimate does not make them dispensable. My union with her would be a pure fantasy apart from the things that WE DID together, regularly.
I think I get what the critics are saying, though. They are criticizing what Jesus criticized: man-made structures that GET IN THE WAY of what is Real (God and his work in us) rather than ENABLING AND PROMOTING what is Real taking hold in us. I stand with the criticism. I just wish they’d be clear: it is not religion simpliciter that should or even can be dispensed with (or at least I’d like to see someone try and still retain their “Jesus-identity” over the course of, say, decades); it is “hypocritical religion”, “dead religion”, “legalistic religion”… i.e., BAD RELIGION that should be done away with.
But a network of rhythms, patterns, and structures that habituate us into the Christlife, into the life of the Triune God, into an ever-growing awareness of our incorporation into Christ’s Body, his Church, and into all that he calls us to be and do in the world… LET’S HAVE A LITTLE BIT MORE OF THAT, PLEASE! I want my life to reflect all that God desires it to be. I want the church I pastor to similarly reflect. I do not know how we will do this without “thick practices” that help us get there. It CERTAINLY won’t happen by us “thinking” about it more, or “feeling” more pious feelings. We have bodies. We must habituate those bodies into God’s purposes.
In any event, THAT is why we do the stuff that we do at Bloom. Why we’re unapologetically “liturgical.” Why we worship around the Christian calendar. Why we repent and take communion every week. Why we put out resources like the Advent 2012 Devotional that are rich in the history and language of the Church. It is not a fad for us. We don’t do it because it’s cool and “the kids these days seem to connect with it.” It’s not a brand. It’s not a marketing ploy. It’s a conscious and deliberate attempt to make sure that “Christ had died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is the defining reality of our lives, over and against every other power that seeks to encroach upon our identities and co-opt us for its purposes.
So I commend the resource to you, and sincerely hope you’ll use it. I think it’s an example of “Good Religion”, but in truth, that has a lot to do with how you’ll use it. If you use it as a way to make God like you more, I can assure you it will be “bad religion” for you. If you use it as a little invisible “badge” to make you think yourself superior than other people, I can assure you it will be “bad religion” for you. If you feel guilty and awful about yourself because you missed a prayer time or two, I can assure you it will be “bad religion” for you. If you use it as an excuse not to uphold your household, family, or work responsibilities, I can assure you it will be “bad religion” for you.
But if you use it to cultivate in your own heart a deep awareness that the Coming of God into the world (both in the Incarnation and at the moment when “He shall come to judge both the living and the dead) changes EVERYTHING, then I think you’ll be well on your way to making the resource a bit of “good religion”.
Here’s to hoping that’s exactly what it becomes for you.
Peace and Joy to you, for Christ has come, and will come again.