Category Archives: Church

Stereotypes, the TSA, and Christian Legalism

At the root of any stereotype there is at least some kernel of truth; for a stereotype, even if it is rarely true, is at the very least not always false. The fact that I tend to regard employees of the Transportation Security Administration as a largely disagreeable bunch is not because it is true that they are always disagreeable, but because in my experience they have seemed to make a peevish attitude rather the rule than the exception; though I suspect that anyone whose job it is to daily perform the practical equivalent of herding cats might find their patience understandably stressed. Still, if one is to be violated, it might at least be with a smile.

Likewise, there is a general sentiment among skeptics that Christians are essentially like the TSA: always patting people down and cavalierly putting fun or apparently useful objects into the rubbish. “Christian” may as well be synonymous with “killjoy.” I wish this sentiment were entirely untrue, but I have encountered these unpleasant types myself. They are like the person who thinks it their sacred duty to cheerfully broadcast their diet regimen to everyone in the vicinity of the hors d’oeuvres. There is nothing wrong either with diets or hors d’oeuvres, but there is something to be said for tact.

But poor tact is not the real problem of the legalist. Finding life much easier to navigate when separated neatly into clearly defined compartments, he can make little sense of the notion that it might be perfectly acceptable for him to drink alcohol in his own home and sinful for him to drink it at his alcoholic brother’s. For the legalist, “alcohol” is synonymous with “drunkenness”. He thinks that since recreational sex is immoral outside of marriage, recreational sex is always immoral. He thinks that an expletive uttered in pain is the same as an expletive uttered in anger. Rather than trouble himself with considerations of an act’s proper context, he finds it simpler either to perform it wantonly or to banish it altogether. The world in which the legalist lives is not the one in which he finds himself, but the one he fashions in his own conscience. He worships himself as Judge, at the feet of his own law. A legalist knows little about mercy and everything about judgment. Wielding a microscope, he is ignorant of planks but an expert on specks. In his own failings he grants himself a pardon; in the failings of others he issues only a sentence. In his zeal to subdue the world with his gavel, the legalist has forgotten his real place in the defendant’s chair.

Though there is some truth to the charge of Christian legalism, it would be equally in error to suppose legalism the result of Christian doctrine as it would be to suppose fascism the result of being German. If there was one thing that drew the ire of Christ, it was the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees. Christ was, first, Savior and, second, the great anti-legalist; and to be Christian without following Christ is (crudely) even worse than being French and having no regard for cheese. Legalism is as much a thorn in the side of Christianity as it is annoying to the skeptic. Nevertheless, the skeptic, being predisposed to believe anything that might serve to justify his skepticism, will eagerly take any example of abuse and hold it up as doctrine. Thus, every Christian becomes a hypocrite, a Pharisee, an Inquisitor, and a Crusader; for the rejection of a faith which produces moral abominations is clearly much easier than one that produces Pauls, Livingstones, Müllers, Elliots, Bonhoeffers, and Liddells. The late Mr. Hitchens said quite soberly that religion poisons everything. It is difficult to take such statements seriously. That some religions poison some things is certain, but I think I should just as soon point to unruly school children as evidence that education poisons everything. Nevermind that atrocities are committed only in spite of Christ’s example; the skeptic would have us believe that He is at best a fiction and, at worst, Lucifer himself.

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In the Halls of the Vatican

Having recently had the privilege of visiting Europe, I was gratified to find myself in a great many churches and cathedrals, many of which have stood in some form since the Middle Ages or the Enlightenment. In only rare instances were these buildings not absolutely magnificent works of art in every respect: from the architecture, to the stained glass, to the sculpture and the paintings. If there is one thing the United States lacks, it must be a rich, complex history spanning millennia; nothing, save the ground itself, is very old.

At the Vatican in particular, I found myself in both the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica under the spell of an awe akin to that of gazing at the stars under a perfectly clear night sky: not a square foot was devoid of a masterpiece. “Truly,” I thought, “this is one of the most impressive sights I have ever witnessed.” And while it is possible that my inexperienced senses might be easily overwhelmed, I would hazard a guess that only a brute, cold to beauty, could look upon such a scene unmoved.

Looking round, unable to escape the feeling that I was incapable of the degree of appreciation due such work, my thoughts first dwelt in almost equal measure on technical curiosity (I have done only a little painting), the historical significance of such a collection, and the grandeur of the aesthetics themselves. I readily acknowledged that the skill and acumen necessary to produce something with the beauty and depth of Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment could only be the result of true genius.

But after the impress of these other contemplations had run its course, they were momentarily eclipsed by a more fundamental reflection: To what purpose is all this?

In pursuit of this inquiry, the diverging paths on which my mind had trod now began to merge into a single track. Where I had before only admired, I now bid Rome to give an account of her actions.  Gazing still upon the marbled and gilded halls, my thoughts ran thus:

For what was all this made? Was it that man might revere God, or that he might submit himself to the glory of Rome? Were such exorbitant commissions weighed solemnly against the plight of the starving? Or were Rome’s marbled halls too thick to admit of their cries? Was this “pure and undefiled religion” (1)? Does God look upon such extravagance in the name of “the Church” with favor or with contempt?

I thought that what had begun as the Body of Christ had become captive to a host of ghoulish intruders: Humility had been bound and gagged, and on her throne sat a loathsome successor: Power; while Reverence and Superstition exchanged amorous glances beneath the Pope’s unheeding eyes. Truth had been drowned in holy water and garroted with rosaries, and the stench of its corpse was masked by the scent of countless candles offered to legendary saints whose cold stone visages stared fixedly upon an innocent and expectant congregation. Tradition stood tall and triumphant upon the rubble of what ought to read “sola scriptura” (2), proclaiming boldly the authority of “the Church” and beckoning all to submit on bended knee beneath her gilded scepter. The good done in the name of “the Church” (and there has been much) had been accomplished that all might stand in awe of her good graces and bow to kiss the rings on her benevolent hand. Faith she had forgotten, and Works reigned supreme. Under the weight of a withering but quiet oppression, Salvation had become a pledge of allegiance to Rome’s glory, to her “Sacred Tradition”, and to her Pope.

The frescoes had turned strangely pallid before my eyes.

I considered the similar perversions which had in different guises afflicted the Protestant denominations, wondering if my Reformed upbringing had in some way grafted upon me an illegitimate bias; for surely there were errors in every church (3). No, I concluded: Where heresy had crept subtly into Protestant congregations a mere Christianity (4) firmly called all to repentance. Yet here in Rome was a perverted Doctrine enthroned, honored, and worshipped; a thing of human manufacture; a deadly mix of truth and myth and lore offered at the feet of a maternal goddess. Catholicism was not all bad, I avowed, but this had made it that much more dangerous; for, like Eve, she had succumbed to a tantalizing fruit with a deadly core by inclining her ear towards an insidious serpent. Where Rome should have driven a fierce heel into the serpent’s head, she instead fed it crumbs underneath her banquet table and called it “Sacred Tradition”.

Yet, there were qualities for which Rome could not be faulted. She had not embraced the common sin of either apathy or irreverence, but had simply misdirected her allegiance; nor had she fashioned Christian doctrine into an abstraction, only corrupted it in places and exchanged it with her own. I thought she had only to dethrone her false gods and she would be welcomed back from her prodigal wanderings with a chorus infinitely more joyous than even her choirs could produce.

As I wandered amidst the throngs out onto the monumental steps of that magnificent building and sat down among the columns of its courtyard, I was reminded of a passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette:

“Oh, lovers of power! Oh, mitred aspirants for this world’s kingdoms! An hour will come, even to you, when it will be well for your hearts – pausing faint at each broken beat – that there is a Mercy beyond human compassion, a Love, stronger than this strong death which even you must face, and before it, fall; a Charity more potent than any sin, even yours; a Pity which redeems worlds – nay, absolves Priests.” (3)

Rome, though you are dead, you might yet live. The God whom you claim to serve beckons you home; you need only heed the knock. (5)

 Notes:

1.)  James 1:27

2.) “by scripture alone”

3.)  Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1853.

4.)  Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952.

5.)  Revelation 3:20

Passing the Plate: A Good Idea?

As someone who values tithing, the tradition of “passing the plate” still always makes me uncomfortable. It is not that the two are necessarily contradictory, but it does seem to unnecessarily add social pressures to the act of giving to the church. Why should anyone see me give or not give when it is none of their business? On the subject of giving to the needy, Jesus commanded his disciples to “be careful not to do [their] ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” and to “not let your left hand to know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be secret” (Matt 6:1-4). How does passing the plate, or any other form of giving that requires one to act publicly, comply with this?

I have heard that churches that pass the plate see an increase in income than those that do not. But is increased giving over other churches that use more passive methods really better if it is in any way compulsory? “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 8:7). If there is higher giving in churches that pass the plate (because they pass the plate), then it is for either of two reasons: 1.) people’s laziness has engulfed them to the extent that they will only give when the option is literally placed in their lap, in which case their main priority is not giving to the church, but appealing to their own laziness, or 2.) they give as a result of perceived social pressures. I spoke to someone yesterday who said that her father (a non-Christian) will give, but only if the plate comes to him, because he feels compelled to do so. The church should not want his money because he is hardly a “cheerful giver.” The intention of passing the plate might not be to compel people to give, but it is nevertheless perceived in such a way by those to whom the plate is passed.

I maintain that even with the use of checks or some other method, which may conceal the actual amount given, it is no one else’s business to observe whether one gives anything on a particular occasion or not. Even people who otherwise would not care cannot help noticing who does and does not contribute something to the plate. Why insist on making people do it publicly when there are alternatives?

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice of passing the plate, but even if the intent is not to pressure people, even subtly, to give by putting them “on the spot,” so-to-speak, it still seems inappropriate to me, given that we are commanded to give in secret and without compulsion. Provide people with a way to give that doesn’t require them to be seen by others.

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