"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Evangelicals And Paganism

I grew up in a very traditional area of a small New England city.  My neighborhood was camera-ready with white frame 18th century houses and some even as old as 1687 when the town was incorporated.  It was community of old wealth made by the grandfathers of current residents who ran the large industries that gave the city its reputation as being the nation’s biggest supplier of hardware.  The West End, where I lived, was conservative, old-fashioned, very Protestant, and clubby.  Few of the present generation had to work, and were more often skiing at Vail or summering at Martha’s Vineyard than staying at home. 

As would be expected from their Anglo-Saxon heritage and long New England history, these old-line families worshipped at spare, severe, and stern churches.  The Catholic church where I went was pure Baroque by comparison.  The masses were still in Latin, and the High Mass was all pomp, ceremony, pageantry and theatre.  The priest’s vestments were white flowing linen with gold embroidery.  Before the Offertory he would walk down the aisle accompanied by simply-cloaked altar boys, swinging a gold censer filled with frankincense, and chanting prayers from the liturgy.  On Easter Sunday at the Polish cathedral on Broad Street, the pomp and pageantry were absolutely operatic.

There was no mystery in the Protestant churches.  There was no Mass, no consecration of bread and water into the body and blood of Christ, no icons, no statues, no frilly garments, gold crosses, no ornate crucifixes showing the suffering of Jesus.  They were Spartan, hardwood-and-maple, unadorned, and above all, simple.

I have long since given up the Catholic Church but have heard that at least in outward appearances it has become more Protestant. The congregation sings hymns, hugs, and shakes hands, High Mass has been streamlined, and everything is in English.

It is in Eastern Europe where mystery, pageantry, pomp and ceremony still reign. The walls are stained black because of decades of incense, the glass on the many icons is smudged with the kisses of the faithful; the consecration takes place in mystery behind the iconostasis, an ornate gold door separating the priests from the congregation; the emergence of the high priest and his train is dramatic and impressive.  Orthodox vestments are ten times as ornate as Catholic ones, the censer is large and clanking, the chants echoing from the vestibules and corners of the nave is loud and ancient.  No one sits at an Orthodox mass, but stands, or moves about to pray at an icon, and then return.  Children climb over and under sarcophagi which contain relics of saints.

I always felt that American religion had lost much of its passion, especially when compared to Christian Orthodoxy; but was even more convinced when I travelled to southern Mexico and visited the sites and ruins of ancient Zapotec and Mixtec pre-Columbian civilizations.  Religion during the time of these cultures was pagan, ritualistic, and complete:

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.  This religion was not a tame animism – like that still found in India.  I would occasionally see a tree trunk painted red and garlanded with marigolds to honor the spirit who lived there – a quiet presence to be revered and respected, but not feared.  Here in the Oaxaca valley under a powerful sun and surrounded by mountains, there was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods.  Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once (Monte Alban, Uncle Guido’s Facts, 1.5.12)

What impressed me most was ritual human sacrifice:

I especially was taken with the idea of human sacrifice.  The ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ was nothing to actual ritual sacrifice.  I could not imagine the power, the mass emotional power – thousands around the sacrificial mount, surrounded by the living gods of mountains, sun, wind.  Not even the 70 million pilgrims at Allahabad could possibly generate the religious feeling that must have been felt at the moment of sacrificial death. (Monte Alban)

Evangelicals in the United States have always had the right idea, especially black fundamentalists.  While the churches are as spare as any of the severe New England ones, the ceremonies are loud, lively, passionate, and participatory.  There are moments of personal salvation, religious epiphany, miracle, and ecstasy.  There is an animistic power to many of the black services, with the entire congregation singing loudly and in unison, swaying with the music and the emotion of the moment.  Black preachers do not give restrained, subtle sermons; nor talk of secular things.  They are bombastically Biblical, sweaty and enraged at the sin and mendacity around them.

Yet, the number of evangelicals in the United States is declining.  John Dickerson writing in the New York Times (12.15.12) notes:

In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.)

Why has this trend occurred? Some observers have suggested that is because televangelist mega-church pastors like Rick Warren have strayed too far from Biblical texts and in their desire to proselytize have watered down the Word of God.  Others have suggested that fundamentalists have increasingly rejected the concept of ‘Separatism’ – that is that God has anointed only certain paths to salvation (theirs).  Others blame the secularization of America, witnessed by recent successful votes on gay marriage, marijuana, and abortion; or the dramatic increase in ‘Nones’, those who profess no religion.  Others have pointed to the very visible hypocrisy and corruption of evangelical leaders.  There are even websites which provide a historical chronicle of misdeeds from Aimee Semple McPherson to Jimmy Swaggart and beyond.

Dickerson suggests a way up from the decline:

How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.

In my view this is exactly the wrong approach.  What may be missing from evangelical churches as well as their mainline church counterparts (who are losing congregants far faster) is passion, mystery, and ecstasy. These elements of the Old Time Religion as well as the traditional Catholic Mass are taking indirect hits from America’s secular, technological, virtual, commercial culture.  There is less and less place for such emotional, illogical, and some would say primitive, expressions of faith.  Many Americans are now afraid for their future, scared of the Fiscal Cliff, expanding war in the Middle East, and massacres of children; and see nothing but greed, avarice, and venality.  They do not need sensitivity and humility but catharsis, explosive religious passion, and spiritual power.

Who can be closer to God than the Zapotecs who tremble as the feel His immanence in the dark, brooding mountains surrounding them; quake at His terrible roaring of thunder and lightening?  Who cannot physically feel His presence in the hot sun, the fresh winds, or the clear waters of the valley? And who cannot feel his avenging and purifying justice in human sacrifice.  This pagan ‘God’ is as mighty and righteous as the Old Testament God, but is more real and physical.

If evangelicism – or any religion for that matter – is to survive in an increasingly secular world, it must become more pagan.  The more socially acceptable, moderate, and accommodating it becomes, the weaker it becomes.

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