What Happened to the Christian Message?

Christianity spread like wildfire in the first few centuries CE—when it was illegal and punishable by a horrible death.  Today, mainline churches are aging, shrinking, and dwindling.   What was it that caught on to such a phenomenal degree in the early Roman Empire?  What happened to the Christian message today?  What is the Christian message?

There is a story in Acts about an Ethiopian eunuch who heard the Christian message from Philip, while riding home in his chariot.  They even passed by some water in the desert, and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized in it.  What was Philip’s message that so impressed the Ethiopian?  All Acts says is that Philip told him the good news about Jesus.  The earliest Christian message was, “He is risen!”  And I doubt that much Christian doctrine had evolved by the time of Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian.

We have lots of doctrine now.  Swedenborg wrote 30 volumes of doctrine.  Then there’s the Church Fathers, the Catholic History of doctrines which they call the Catholic Tradition, Luther’s body of writings, Calvin, Westley, and all sorts of other Christian theologians.

And consider the setting of the Acts story.  The conversion of the Ethiopian occurred while they were riding on a chariot in the desert.  They weren’t in a magnificent cathedral.  They weren’t in a simple chapel.  The conversation happened in the midst of their life situation.

Mainline churches and even Jewish synagogues do pretty close to the same thing.  There are Bible readings, prayers, and a sermon.  People mostly sit there and listen, while the priest, minister, or rabbi preaches to the congregation.  It’s all very passive.  True, people do sing hymns, and recite psalms.  But I wonder if the problem with contemporary Christianity is the form, and not the content.  The way church services go, rather than the message of Jesus.

I can’t imagine that people have changed that much since Roman times.  I can’t imagine that the message of Jesus isn’t relevant.  In ancient Rome, there were temples everywhere, and people even sacrificed to the “spirit” of things like road intersections, rivers and sacred places, woods, and the Roman gods.  I heard a scholar say that pretty nearly everywhere in ancient Rome was sacred—woods, temple grounds, rivers, roads, lakes, everything.  Were the ancient Romans more tuned to religion than we are now?

Maybe.  Science took over in the 19th and 20th centuries, including psychology.  Science gives us a world view that doesn’t need God.  This would be unthinkable in Roman times.  Even merchant ships sacrificed to Poseidon to give them safe travel.  Psychology has taken upon itself the task of legislating morality to us.  Psychology has taught us to be vulnerable, to be open, to express our anger, to seek self-gratification, self-expression, self-fulfillment, and also to love and work.  But psychology’s message doesn’t include God, says nothing about God as the grounding for morality, as a soft science, is not spiritual.  Then there is the legacy of the Enlightenment and Immanuel Kant.  The upshot of Kant’s philosophy is that we don’t need revealed scripture, or even God, or religions, because reason can lead us into moral behaviors.  All these forces have made the message of religion less relevant.

But there is still a large percentage of people today who call themselves spiritual but not religious.  Spirituality has not diminished even if religions have.  Why are spiritual people saying that they are not religious?  Maybe it is because what they think religion means.  On the simplest level, maybe religion conjures up images of sitting in a building listening to a preacher talking at you.  Then there are some of the doctrines that have evolved over the centuries and millennia.  Christians teach that God gets angry at humans, that God punishes, that God calls for genocide, that God murders unbelievers, that God casts the wicked into hell.  These are behaviors that we disapprove of in humans—in fact, these are behaviors that Christians teach believers not to do, and yet God does them.  If I believed these things, I wouldn’t be religious either.  But my God is loving, is all love, can do nothing but love, forgive, and seek to make humans happy.  Maybe my beliefs aren’t all that Biblical, but they are Swedenborgian.

The Christian message I hear, and I believe, is the message of love.  God loves, Jesus loves, and we are invited to love God and to love one another.  That message is in all the Gospels, which were written in the first century CE.  It is likely that that message was told to the Ethiopian.  This message of love was taught in a time when people were murdered in the Coliseum for entertainment.  A time when roads were lined with people being crucified.  When gladiators killed to entertain the masses.  This society heard the message of love and Christianity flourished as an underground movement.  If a society like that of ancient Rome responded to the Christian message of love, would an enlightened society like ours respond less?

I don’t think the message of love falls on deaf ears today.  I don’t think that science has rendered us dead to spirituality completely.  Though apathy is widespread today, I believe that people still care.  I think that the problem with Christianity today is that the original message has gotten buried under human thinking and church traditions.  Philip converted the Ethiopian on his chariot.  If Christianity can integrate with the workaday world, perhaps it will resurrect.  I don’t think the Christian message means sitting facing the altar listening to p preacher hold forth.  It can mean that, for those who like it, but doesn’t have to be.  Then there are all those messages of hate in the name of the church that turn people off.  I think the message of love is still relevant.  While churches are dwindling, I’m not sure that the Christian message is.

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Body and Soul

There’s a lot of talk about

Skin, hair, fingernails, clothes

A lot of talk, business, money

Skin, hair, fingernails, clothes

 

Then there’s mind and soul

Feelings, lusts, affections, joy

Thoughts, truths, reasoning, wisdom

Not much talk about this

Life Is

“You’re going to have a hard life,”

My boss told me, in my 20’s

I’ve had dreams crushed, my heart broken

But who hasn’t

I’ve lived impoverished a long time

I didn’t feel it as a Harvard student

When I got my Ph.D.

I was worse than impoverished, deeply in debt

And I felt it

I’ll likely never get out of debt

I wrote and published a book

When I was poor

I lowered myself to begging a few times

Was relegated to the back seat of a lot of cars others owned

All the while I played and wrote music, poetry, lyrics

 

Some people live a comfortable life

To them, a good life

But shit happens, even to them

Some people are rich and complacent

Some people are very rich and dedicated to acquisition

I have known a few years of comfortable middle-class

And bought expensive art prints

A piano, an amp, guitar

A couple crystalline rocks

I travel places with my partner

 

My life has been hard at times

And I have known accomplishment, and contentment, and bitterness

I have no regrets

In the Presence of Greatness

The ancient Greeks thought that certain men were divine, such as Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander the Great, and in Homer, the great warrior Diomedes was called divine.  Other than Jesus, I am not one to deify human beings.  But I think I know what the Greeks were getting at.  A few times in my life, I’ve been in the presence of humans who affected me with such power that it was almost divine.

I just returned home from a concert by the Tallis Scholars.  They sang late Renaissance/early Baroque music a capella.  I listened breathlessly as the counterpoint melded into harmonies and phrases were tossed from bass to soprano, intricate cadences and all perfectly in tune and with perfect rhythm.  It wasn’t only the music, it was also the performance.  I have Renaissance music on my iPod,–in fact, I have recordings of the Tallis Scholars themselves.  But listening to these recordings don’t do what that concert did.  I was in the presence of greatness–in the compositions they sung and the way they sung them.

I’ve been in the presence of greatness before, without getting the impact this concert gave me.  I’ve seen Bob Dylan in concert, an awful concert at that, Santana, a good concert, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer three times, and others.  I saw Steve Martin walking around in a New York art gallery.  But I wasn’t transported like I was at the Tallis Scholars concert.

The first time I heard Handel’s Messiah in the city I now live in was one of those experiences.  I alternated between heartfelt smile and tears of joy.  I went a second time a year later and the performance didn’t make such an impression on me.  This is going to sound funny, but another time I felt that power was at a bicycle race.  I stood near the finish line.  So I saw the cyclists in the last quarter mile.  That’s when they opened up.  In the home stretch, the cyclists gave it all.  Seeing those men giving 100% almost brought me to tears.  Another time I was at a Latin music festival and onstage there were four dancers giving it.  Watching them, too, made an impression on me.

I drove home from the Tallis Scholars wondering why I worried about things like money, traffic, material possessions, the worldly preoccupations I’m driven to pursue.  Seeing such a perfect dedication to art took me into another space, a special place, a holy place.

A Ruffle, a Whim, a Whine

Mine is a generation of relations

That don’t stay

Separation, reunion, broken connections

Together today

Tomorrow away

A ruffle, a whim, a whine

Is enough to sunder sacred institutions

 

For better, for worse

In good times, in bad

These used to be lasting words

And couples stayed, sad or glad

Relationships weren’t just a fad

A ruffle, a whim, a whine

Didn’t amount to a curse

 

We’re too concerned with self-fulfillment

Too accustomed to our own way

Too comfortable independant

Unwilling to give others their say

In a world without sacrament

A ruffle, a whim, a whine

The basis on which our hearts are lent

Time

I remember a time

When most of the world was older than me

It seemed much of what I did

I was inexperienced in, it was all new to me

Now much of the world is younger than me

I know what I’m doing, and I’ve seen it all

Brokering Truth

Brokering Truth

With Russia’s intentional misinformation campaign through social media, and with news stations becoming mouthpieces for politics, it is now imperative for we, the people, to become intelligent consumers of truth.

These days, anyone, myself included, can post opinion, fact, falsity, or truth on the world wide web, on web pages, on social media—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram.  And readers can go to any site and read what’s on it.  And the credulous will believe anything they read.

I’m olding now, and things were different for a good portion of my adult life.  There was a time before the internet.  There was no Wikipedia, rather, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica; there were no web postings for information, rather, there were books.  There was considerable advantage with these old-fashioned methods of learning.  The articles in Encyclopedia Britannica were written by world authorities on the subjects in it.  The information that one would read in Encyclopedia Britannica was reliable.  Today, anyone can post on Wikipedia, expert or not, informed or not, opinionated or not, vicious or not.  When we needed deeper knowledge, we would need to read books and research.  In order to publish a book, the author needed to go through an editor, or a review process.  Academic books go through a committee of peers, or experts on the subject.  Not just any Joe can publish on university presses, so the information we would obtain was fairly reliable.  When we would discuss ideas or information, often the question, “What’s your source?” would be fired at us.

Now we need to consider the source more carefully than ever before.  The efforts of Russia are not only to spread misinformation in order to favor a given political candidate.  What Russia is trying to do is to destroy the notion of truth itself.  They want us to think that there are no facts out there, that no news is reliable, that all information is only opinion.  News stations are becoming vehicles for partisan politics.  Some networks are putting out lies, and obvious propaganda.  And they are calling it news, which it is not.

But there are facts.  There is truth.  It is now incumbent on we, the people, to care about truth and to sift through the mass of media to discover fact and truth.  We need to consider the source.  We need to be skeptical.

I grew up skeptical of everything.  I thought everyone was trying to sell me a bill of goods. This was a character flaw I needed to overcome.  But doubting until convinced is a good method to employ now when sifting through media.  The fact is, some media sources are indeed trying to sell us a bill of goods.

Skepticism can lead to sincere inquiry and the quest for truth, for fact.  The enemies of truth want us to give up, to believe that everything is opinion and that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.  When it comes to black holes, the late Stephen Hawking knows more than me or my girlfriend.  When it comes to brokering information, the Encyclopedia Britannica is more reliable than Wikipedia.  When it comes to politics, an actual film of a politician speaking, including the US President, is more reliable than what Fox News, or any other broker of information says he says.  World stability may well depend on we, the people, arming ourselves with sound research techniques.  I’m going to turn religious now.  If we persist in skeptical searching for fact, for truth, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).