Friday, September 10, 2010

Mutant Christians and Mushy Faith

I’ve got interfaith dialogue on the brain right now. It probably started with Drew’s great series of posts exploring religious pluralism. And now, between the “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco, the Koran-burning pastor in Florida, and (on a more hopeful note) watching Claremont School of Theology take the first steps toward becoming a multi-religious university, interfaith relations are never far from my thoughts.

So maybe that’s why, when I read this article about teens becoming “fake” Christians, my first question wasn’t “How can we renew faith in our youth ministry?” but “Why do we instantly go on the defensive when considering other religions?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for youth ministry that have more spiritual substance than just weekly pizza parties. But every time this story gets reported, it’s with the lead that a scary new religion is sneaking into our churches. This op-ed by the researcher, Kenda Creasy Dean, goes even farther, with a two-paragraph intro that compares teens’ faith of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to the symbiotic villain Venom from Spider-Man. Are you quaking in your boots yet? I know I am!

But if we read further, what is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

• A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

• God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

• The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.

• God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.

• Good people go to heaven when they die.

A weak foundation for youth ministry & faith formation? Definitely. But an insidious new religion? Hardly. Last time I checked, Christians do actually believe in a Creator God who wants us to be nice to each other. That’s hardly heresy.

The rest, I’ll admit, is mushy. In creative writing terms, there’s no concrete detail in this list—it’s all tell, no show. And it’s mushy language like this that we sometimes resort to when we’re trying not to tick off people with other religions. You know the sort: “We are all giving honor to the same divine essence,” etc. Nothing about that captivates me as much as the particular details of the Christian story. Or the Buddhist story, or the Muslim story, for that matter.

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Churches that have resisted the pull of MTD, according to Dean’s research, are more likely to “place a high value on scripture” and “explain their church's mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ.’” Which makes me nervous that people who are afraid of this mutant invasion of Christianity by building even higher walls around faith—by reiterating the reasons why we are right and the “mutants” (and by extension everyone else) are wrong.

If that’s the way churches plan to get teens engaged in Christianity, I feel like it might backfire. At least it would have for the teenage Margaret. At my high school lunch table I sat with Methodists and Mormons, Hindus and Buddhists, evangelicals and atheists. What would Dean have me say to these friends? “I’m glad you’ve got your own faith, but ya know, you’re totally lost without Jesus”? I would have rejected that. If that’s what separates our religions from each other, then no wonder teens resort to bland, all-encompassing faith like that described in the article.

I wouldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t believe in the power of the Gospel story. And I want to be able to articulate that Gospel—to give, as Peter writes, “an accounting of the hope that is in [me]… with gentleness and reverence.” But I also want to keep listening to others’ stories! Whatever the answer to mushy faith, it isn’t simply “Run from everything that isn’t Jesus-y enough.” There has to be a way to claim my faith without watering it down (or clobbering people over the head with it).

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Yesterday I attended the first CST chapel service of the year. At the top of the bulletin there was an invitation that invited us to replace God-terms with terms we felt comfortable with. Underneath, it said, “This service is in the United Methodist tradition.”

Some mushy words did slip into the service—it’s hard to avoid. But there were also moments of better poetry—like when the preacher brought up Paul’s image of the Body of Christ. Of course, not everyone might use the same metaphor, he said. But we could all learn from the image of one body with many members, all diverse in gifts and all essential.

Maybe that’s a way for us to start talking.

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