My dysfunctional relationship with museums and photo albums is strikingly similar.
Though I am not disparaging either, I find that I treat both in similar fashions. My family has long since resigned themselves to a certain method of showing me their pictures. Instead of sitting down with me, and showing me with great detail, their photographs from their most recent trip of excursion, they hand me the camera (who has photo albums anymore, anyway) or the computer monitor and let me go through the pictures “at my own pace.”
And then they walk away and leave me alone.
My family, at least, knows me well enough to know that I do care about their trip, I do want to see what they saw, I do want to experience what they experienced, but I also don’t want to linger relentlessly over still photographs. Because for as vivid and well exposed as their shots may be, there is just something that feels artificial and distant about a photograph. And so I flip through the photographs rather rapidly, giving genuine (albeit somewhat predictable) verbal responses periodically to the plant life, historical setting, odd looking animal, or other beauteous find. But mostly I am just looking to “get the gist” of what was seen, heard, and experienced.
Kind of like how I go to a museum.
In college, on a particular spring choir tour, we stopped at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. At the time, I believe a Norman Rockwell exhibit was on display. Now, I don’t want to miss the point here by debating whether or not a Norman Rockwell exhibit belonged in the high museum of art. Norman Rockwell fans and Thomas Kinkade fans can breath easily on this one. The point of the illustration is once you had seen a Norman Rockwell painting, you had seen them all. My time in the High Museum lasted for an hour, tops, and then was spent checking the scores on the ACC basketball championship.
Museums are hard for me. There is something sterile, disconnected, and out-of-reach in their artificial lighting, their informational placards, their self-guided tours and their kitschy gift-shops. The whole experience seems to be tailored around “isn’t that nice” and “wow, thanks for the memory” as people return to their lives. Aside from the souvenir they may have picked up, you aren’t going to go home with any of the things at the museum. Unless you are really, really, fortunate, you are not going to recreate that moment in the family photo album. They will both be, at the end of the day, disconnected memories and distant artifacts, with little to no connection to daily life.
And so comes the danger in the life of the church. Whether it be in sermons, small group bible studies, Christian Education environments, or children’s work, we fight the same temptation nearly every time we walk in the door. We will either be leading people through a museum exhibit, or accompanying them in the trenches of a mission field.
When our aforementioned teaching vehicles contain more reminiscence of the historical setting of the scriptures, times when these texts were particularly meaningful, applications from previous generations, or are interpreted through the hermeneutical framework of other authors in other contexts, we risk this dangerous diversion. Well constructed museums can give the illusion of being real. They can have all the feelings of genuine life, complete with environmental tweaks and sound effects and all to make one think they are someplace they are not. The fundamental difference is you leave museums. You live in your mission field.
As a pastor, I routinely fight this as I prepare sermons, teach classes, and train leaders. It is easy to look at commentaries and bible dictionaries to find out all sorts of little known facts regarding a text. And yet, unless we are linking the texts to the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ, and then find the intersection of that text first in our lives, and then in the lives of the people we are leading and shepherding, we are doing no better than the museum tour guides who recycle the same script to new patrons every day. If you have heard it once… well, then you have heard it.
And so, how are we doing? Are we more concerned with presenting the narrative story of the Gospel as a beautiful piece of artwork to be looked at behind the glass? Is the teaching of scriptures the show to get people in the building so that they will actually stay behind and buy whatever it is we are selling behind the gift-shop counter? Or are we being ourselves equipped to lead people into the mission field, where the vitality and viability of the gospel are both needed and displayed?
Time will tell. But it is a tension that, unless we are both aware of it and and fighting against it, will always see mission eclipsed by museum.
It has struck me afresh how often we pay lip service to big, deep, mysterious things… but those things feel sometimes like they are for show more than anything else. In my reading for the Doctor of Ministry that I am attempting to complete with Covenant Theological Seminary, I have begun asking the question “how do we get off balance as a church in regards to how we communicate God’s story through worship?” I hope that over the coming months and years to use this blog as a platform for developing some of those ideas (at least in my own mind).
In reading Dr. Robert Webber’s final book, Ancient-Future Worship, I was struck by this question:
“Considering our world situation in this postmodern time, waiting, so to speak, for a fresh narrative to explain and pull together the world, why do we Christians stay focused on the modern world that privileges reason, science, consumerism, and marketing?”
from Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative
Reason, science, consumerism, and marketing are the trading capital of the world in which we (most of us) live in. Consider reason and science. The popularity of classical apologetics and the virtual jettison of presupposition from the main stage of Christendom should make it clear. People don’t want “faith”. They want answers. Ideas like “mystery” and “unseen” cause people a whole lot of angst, especially when the church has become a mere amenity to their already comfortable lifestyle. So what do we do instead of giving them a biblical answer? We identify what they need (as consumers) and market to them (so that they will stay). The problem is we produce consumers instead of disciples, and the answers we give rarely have staying power, because instead of addressing root causes, we address symptoms.
James D. Hunter has outlined some very significant, worthwhile concepts in his book that are worth considering by all. The trouble that he sees in our current cultural context is that we have relegated everything to the political realm of discourse, and have seen that as the only venue through which to affect cultural change.
Part of what Hunter then is arguing for is a presence in culture that takes on neither of the trappings of the religious right or the religious left, but instead argues for a mindset and practice that views the world through the lens of the scriptures, not just a political mindset. It is this theory of cultural transformation that he calls “faithful presence within”.
In faithful presence within, Hunter argues: “The practice faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness–not just for Christians but for everyone.”
Hunter goes on to further write this:
Many Christians would undoubtedly object to this broader understanding of faith, hope, and love and, even more, object to creating common space in which those outside of the Christian community can also appropriate meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging. Why should their commitment to the world go beyond trying to persuade nonbelievers to convert in order to attain heaven? Beyond being a good in its own right, there are at least two reasons why Christians must move in this direction. The first is a political reason: Christians cannot demand for themselves what they would deny others. A right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist, and so on. The second is a cultural reason: the very plausibility and persuasiveness of the Christian faith depend on a cultural context in which meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging are possible. The viability of Christian faith and the possibility of sharing that faith depend on a social environment in which faith–any faith–is plausible.
Under the influence of Western Culture, Christianity tends to take on a uniquely individualistic cast, a “Jesus and me” kind of faith. We talk much about a “personal relationship with Jesus.” And it is certainly true that we are brought, by God’s grace, into personal communion with Christ. But Christianity is equally a faith that is meant to be anchored in community.
The greatest single problem in the church today is that too many people have taken a “personal relationship with Jesus”, made it private, and then called it good enough to the detriment of the body of Christ. It is sin at its most rampant manifestation, where God’s command to love neighbor is eschewed by an unquenchable love for self baptized under the guise of piety and spirituality.