Sacred Cows #7: The Gospel of Fun
So imagine the following scene: A church decides to have an Easter sunrise service on a Sunday morning. One of the features of this event is to attach a cross, that looks suspiciously like a white frosted cake standing upright, to a cloud of helium filled balloons that will float off into the distance. There is some talk that maybe someone will find it. There are some printed words somewhere in the confection. And there is a prayer that it might be a mighty witness for the gospel as well as an offering of praise. I beheld this with my own eyes in the late 90s. The Gospel of Fun has indeed taken over the church.
Now if we are going to use our imaginations seriously let’s picture this: Present at the balloon offering there are a host of other Christians representing different traditions down through the ages; Martin Luther, the Reformer is there next to John Calvin, Augustine and Paul are looking on, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are standing near T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers. Frederick Douglass and Dostoevsky turn to each other. Saint Nino of Georgia, Thomas Aquinas, Jane Austen and Charles Finney are all in attendance. And finally Jesus himself is present. And what would such a cloud of witnesses make of this strange diminution of the truth of their faith into a pop spectacle. (And balloons do pop!) Could any of these believers from times passed not be disturbed, even deeply saddened, perhaps some even to the point of tears. And Jesus? Who suffered and bled and died for all of humanity? What would he think of balloons being offered in his name? I certainly can’t claim to know. But I do remember the story of the unworthy offering of Cain way back when.
And this strange image of balloons and sweet crosses flying into the sky is only the tiniest metaphor of the shape of a Christian faith now also tainted and deformed by the new universal Gospel of Fun.
The examples are legion… and I am thinking of the exorcism story in the Bible when I use the word legion. Where to start (because there is no end): What about Happy Birthday Jesus cakes for Christmas? Or Youth Bibles to make the Faith more Fun and Exciting? How about Catholic balloons? Speaking of balloons, what about hot air balloons shaped like Jesus? There are at least two. T-shirts featuring Pepsi or Coke graphics with ad slogans modified into a ‘Christian witness’? How about images of a laughing Jesus? Church music, like much contemporary religion, has turned into a blood bath of feel good commercialization. In the extremities we find such phenomena as the Toronto Blessing, where for over a decade congregants engaged in laughing, dancing, shaking, barking like dogs and entering trances all in the name of being ‘drunk in the Lord’. Sounds like Fun doesn’t it? And it is, with a capital F.
The Gospel of Fun and Positive Thinking (we’ll get to that down the road) have essentially taken over much of Western Christianity and beyond. And I can already hear many of my Christian friends saying ‘Hey no fair. We have to do whatever we can to reach out for Christ. Don’t be critical.” What’s really odd is that the general impression of the Western secular world that Christians are still all hellfire and brimstone. The media jumps on every weird ‘Christian’ they can find. Think Westboro Baptist Church. Think of the crazy Florida pastor who was going to burn copies of the Koran. Or the naïve folks in the Jesus Camp documentary. They leap at every utterance that any celebrity makes that suggests that they are still clinging on to some bigoted form of traditional morality. And in reality most churches in America have long ago converted to a feel good version of the Faith. Concepts like hell, heresy, judgement are nearly taboo in most Western churches. God is a therapeutic deity. The point is to be positive, whole, healed, happy and to have Fun.
That it’s impossible to find such a message in the Bible doesn’t seem to cause too many sleepless nights . The anti-intellectualism which had surfaced within Christian circles in the second half of the 19th Century has had the effect of making sure that the average congregant is no more worried about these contradictions than they are about eating a moist birthday cake.
Interestingly the word ‘fun’ does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Neither do any of its relatives; amusement, entertainment or diversion. Although one word does show up which is an elderly relation: merriment. And some folks try to shoehorn words like blessed, happy or joy under the Fun umbrella. But merriment is an interesting word. The word in the New Testament is a Greek word which can also be translated as ‘cheer’. And it is a good thing to be of good cheer. The prodigal son was certainly cheered up by his father’s celebration. But then there is this ominous passage in the twelfth chapter of Luke where Jesus tells the parable of the rich man who has worked all his life just to finally kick back and have some fun. His motto? ‘Take life easy; eat ,drink and be merry.’ And then next word out of God’s mouth is ‘You fool. Tonight your life will be required of you.’ It’s more complicated than that, but I think we can easily see that the philosophy of Fun gets no free ride from Jesus.
And in fact Fun with a capital F did not enter the Christian world until the 1950s. When in order to combat juvenile delinquency and a fear of Communism para-church organizations began to seriously create youth ministries who would lure kids into the fold with ‘funspiration’. These ministries continued into the Sixties and they hooked up with the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. This was a crucial time. These new Christian hippies moved away from the stale and boring traditional churches and into the charismatic world. They brought with them the new catchier praise songs, developed by the youth ministries during the folkie era. Catholics had guitar masses. They brought a looser, more casual, approach to the Faith. Jeans and T-shirts came into the church. And they also brought in the T-shirts with cute Jesus slogans. By the mid-eighties the transformation was fairly complete. The older culture of easy listening Christian crooners and televangelists had merged with the newer Christians and their peppy tunes and Christian market. Eventually New Agisms would be interlarded. And lashings of Positive Thinking culture.
There is an informative book called The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler (Eerdmans). In it he states that “Of course these changes came at some cost. White evangelicals invested heavily in young people and aggressively adapted to their preferences for an informal, entertaining, feel good faith. They ended up with their churches full of Christians who think that the purpose of God and the Christian faith is to help them feel better.”
And so for far too many folks the Gospel of Fun has superseded the Gospel of Christ, and they can’t even see it. It is identical to the aging hippie wearing high tech spandex biking gear. How can you explain it to them? Rational argumentation is dissed as judgmental. Everyone is supposed to smile. Check out their Facebook pages. (Of course there is a very dark side to all of this Fun and Positivity. Try to express a thoughtful dissenting opinion on internet sites like IMDb or in response to a newspaper editorial and just watch the knives come out.)
You know this might all be a bit of a downer… But if you look at it a different way it’s just so Cute.
I think we’ll have to continue this next time…