Monday, April 28, 2008

Buddy Christ to the rescue

"Religion is very market driven," Anonymous wrote at 5 p.m., April 25. He or she offered the thought that even monotheistic religions adopt different gods over time, or at least modify their views of God.

"Jesus is almost portrayed as a big brother 'buddy' nowadays."

I couldn't help thinking of the movie "Dogma," which is hilarious and thoughtful if you can stand to wade through the constant profanity and juvenile sex jokes (it more than earns its R rating; even edited for TV, which is how I first saw it, it's pretty raw). In one scene, a cardinal played by George Carlin announces that the Church sees the need to update its archaic image and so has decided to replace the "wholly depressing" image of the crucifix with a "new, more inspiring" image: the "Buddy Christ." The statue unveiled shows a grinning, winking Jesus giving an approving thumb up.

What makes this scene is so funny -- apart from the ridiculous, smarmy statue itself -- is the idea that a religion desperate to attract followers would dump the central symbol of its message in order to make it more "user-friendly."

And yet ... it is good and necessary for our images of God to grow and expand. If faith is to remain relevant, it must speak to the needs of the current generation -- while also connecting this generation to the wisdom and traditions of the past. A living faith isn't afraid to find new ways of describing God. A living faith isn't afraid to see God in new light.

Christianity doesn't have to kick Christ off the cross to also embrace a laughing, accessible, warm Jesus. Buddy Christ is silly satire, but he makes a point.
Are religions today watering down their messages to attract followers? Should they change with the times? If so, in what ways? What should never change? Let me know what you think. (And thanks for the thoughtful comments on the last post. I enjoyed reading all of them.)


Iztok said...

Religion is forced to make changes. In the past religious leaders were convinced that Earth is flat based on the holy writ. This truth changed once we've discovered Earth is spherical. Most Christians nowadays know that Earth is older then six to ten thousand years ("truth" in the Bible). So what is a religious person to do when reason contradicts their faith? Most compartmentalize. What they believe on Sunday, they don't during the week. Sunday Bible explanations are that "day might not be a day", when Monday comes, day is 24 hours (give or take few seconds due to rotation of Earth - unless one thinks Earth significantly sped up the rotation in past 6-10k years).

Biggest Christian denomination and Islam consider women not suitable leading their religious institutions. Smaller denominations an religions are less misogynistic and more agile this going with the times accepting women as equal in every respect.

D.J. Williams said...

Christianity has indeed become way too market-driven. The endless aisles of Jesus Junk that fill most Christian bookstores is nauseating. Sadly, many seem to think that taking a pop-culture trend and stamping it with Jesus is an effective method of ministry. Saved is another movie that points an accurate satirical finger at many aspects of pop Christianity, even if its offered alternative is equally empty.

Should we change with the times? Depends on what you mean. Our task is contextualization - how do we communicate the unchanging message of the gospel to this time and culture? This shouldn't involve changing the message to make it more appealing or comfortable. Jesus' truths were balked at as 'hard' even by the disciples themselves sometimes. Good contextualization should involve communicating the original message in such a way that the hearer understands it just as well as the original audience did. We also need to remember in this endeavor that often times the medium becomes the message. Smoke signals are a horribly ineffective medium for communicating advanced calculus, for example. I would heartily recommend Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death to anyone, Christian or otherwise, who would like to explore this topic further.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anonymous said...

Great observation Anonymous (even if its too broad and vague). Great questions Jane (as usual) Great point DJ.

Let's establish some facts and move from the general to the more specific so that one's answers to the questions presented are clear. I prefer clarity to agreement for agreement's sake.

I think the questions presented and the approach to them bolster the wisdom of Christians that put major emphasis on Scripture and the most generally accepted interpretations of the last 2000-5000 years as best encapsulated in the Creeds and Mere Christianity. See Calvin, Luther, Barth and Bonhoeffer as well.

Anonymous, you stumbled into some morsels of truth.

more to come tonight

work beckons

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said: "Religion is very market driven."

Very vague. Let's break it down into something meaningful rather than a slogan.

Some churches have shown they will do just about anything to get more members. Many have watered down Jesus's teachings on sin to do so. Most of those churches, ironically, have been in decline in membership for over 20 years after some "success" in same for many years before.

I refer to the so-called "mainline" denominations that essentially have become political social gospel churches.

Many blur the line so much with their mantras of "tolerance" that they present no great distinction with secular entities. So they "compete" with other secular, morally relativist entities. They make no case to challenge people to be called out.

Amazingly, those churches, esp many mega-churches, that have maintained a bright line of right and wrong and that recognize the authority of scripture, have grown. They are racially diverse as well.

We find that there is hunger for standards and values. esp in young people that regularly flock in huge numbers to Popes whenever they venture out in the US and even in Europe!

I do not mean to suggest, AT ALL, that having greater numbers, in a vacuum, is a worthy goal.

I think the secular cultural decline in this country for 40 years has produced a rise both in secular decline and in those that seek God.

I certainly agree that the Church should adapt its message to changing culture and different cultures in the world. One thing that so warms my heart is to see African Christians sending missionaries to the US!

Standards must be maintained.

But I will offer this to affirm Jane's basic point. My brother, a Southern baptist theology professor and pastor, said this to me about the new church movement that is not as rigid in some areas socially, but which maintain a very Biblical sermon agenda:

There is a lot to be said for being liberal so as to get people into the Church. Many Americans are "unchurched" today. We can identify those that can be witnessed to better when they are drinking our coffee in the lobby!


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a couple of good movie recommendations. I must be slipping to have missed them, especially the George Carlin movie. As an aging hippie, he probably remembers all the stuff done during the 1970's by the Jesus freaks.

This was probably one of the biggest revamps of Jesus in centuries. People took advantage of the fact that the reviled "hippies" bore a striking resemblance to traditional images of Jesus to poke the religious traditionalists in the eye.

The same conservatives who shouted down hippies as faggots, sissies, commies, and whatever, had to come to grips with the fact that, every Sunday, they gathered together to praise someone who looked an awful lot like the same long-haired faggots they spoke out against during the rest of the week.

Hilarious stuff.

And while the Jesus freak movement died out pretty quickly, a lot of their ideas stuck.

Iztok said...

"I think the secular cultural decline in this country for 40 years has produced a rise both in secular decline and in those that seek God."

Hm... last research shows that atheist/agnostic/non-religious group is the fastest (by far) in last 10 years.

"U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that 16.1 percent of Americans have no particular religion at all, while 23.9 percent identify themselves as Catholic. The next largest “belief group” is Evangelical Baptist at 10.8 percent. All other denominational groupings show in the single digits or less."

Anonymous said...

I had to do a little research for this discussion, but nothing too serious (mostly YouTube) since we're talking about pop culture here.

I liked the clips from Dogma, have to watch that one. The comment from gamecock about which megachurches survive and which ones don't got me checking into that Joel Osteen character. I think he's got the biggest church out there, so I wanted to see what he's doing.

Turns out his Lakewood Church is housed in a huge coliseum where the Houston Rockets and various bands used to entertain. I think both Larry King and 60 Minutes have interviewed this guy (and it's on Youtube).

His message is apparently pure pap designed to make people feel good about themselves (a la Oprah and Dr. Phil) and not much more. He wouldn't even commit to damning us atheists to hell.

My, how Christianity has fallen. This man must certainly have a Buddy Christ on the dashboard of his Lexus SUV.

He somehow found some $200 million dollars to renovate that coliseum into a stage fit for the Second Coming of Christ (at least that's where I'd buy a front row seat).

That boy is rolling in some serious dough.

Makes millions off his self-help style books as well. Got a beauty-queen of a wife and the whole family on the payroll. He makes Jim and Tammy look like the rank amateurs we all know they were.

Osteen really knows how to market religion. He's got my vote as "Most Likely to be AntiChrist".

Anonymous said...

Well, atheists and non-believers may be a fast-growing group, but we suck at marketing (unless you count Microsoft). I want a Mega-non-church I can go and be entertained in tax-free splendor.

Sadly, I don't see that ever happening with us, though.

We just don't have the right uplifting message to "share" with others to get those bucks rolling in.

D.J. Williams said...

Anonymous (4/29 7:38 AM) said...
"His message is apparently pure pap designed to make people feel good about themselves (a la Oprah and Dr. Phil) and not much more. He wouldn't even commit to damning us atheists to hell."

We may not agree on much but we can agree on Osteen. What he's preaching isn't the Christian gospel, but the perfect example of a tailored and marketed message to make people feel good and get them in the door. You're right about his affluent lifestyle - in fact, he thinks God wants to give you that lifestyle too if you believe hard enough. I guess somebody should tell third-world Christians that they just don't have enough faith. Sick, really.

Christianity is a message of reconciliation to God through Christ's sacrifice, not a Jesus-ified American Dream.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anonymous said...

My earlier comment about religion being very market driven was meant to be a generalization across all religions and wasn't meant to be specific to Christianity, though that is probably where you will find the most entrepreneurial religions.

If a religion doesn't find its niche market and deliver to that market, it will fail, just as any business would. Religions simply die out without proper promotion, no matter how good they were in their heyday.

The Zoroastrians invented monotheism, but outside Iran you just don't see them around much.

Even within Iran they are a persecuted minority. And without doing any research on YouTube, I'll bet there just aren't any Zoroastrian MegaChurches to be found anywhere.

Somewhere down the road they lost the battle.

Islam found its niche among Arabs and flourished to the point that Arabs could feel comfortable in many parts of the world as the local people struggled to adapt to their ways.

Christianity served the same purpose for "civilizing" parts of the Americas, Africa, and Asia for the Europeans.

A lot of conversions to Islam or Christianity depended largely on which rich foreign traders showed up at your doorstep ready to wheel and deal. Religion followed the trade routes.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see we can mostly agree on something here. Osteeh, eh?

Then why the heck is he so popular and making so much money? I don't think he's an atheist faking it.

Though if I were even more cynical and better looking, I might give it a shot.

Nick said...

Maybe what we're changing isn't the message at all, but our understanding of it. Iztok says that "religous leaders were convinced that Earth is flat based on the holy writ."

Actually, the opposite is true. Isaiah 40:22 says "It is he that sitteth on the the circle of the earth."

The Bible is timeless, and its message applies to every generation. We just need to read what it really says instead of believing someone who tells us what it says.

Iztok said...

Nick, I don't know where you've learned math, but circle is flat. Earth is spherical (ball - to a good approximation). Hebrew does know the difference between those.

Plus, there are other references that would indicate writers of the Bible thought Earth was flat (from being high enough to see all corners of the Earth, which is only possible if Earth would be flat - I can possibly agree that corners were thought of as directions, but one simply can't be high enough to see every surface due to being a sphere).

D.J. Williams said...

Anon (4/29, 8:04 AM),

No, I don't think Osteen is an athiest faking it. I think he's the son of a popular "health and wealth" preacher with no theological training who moved from the sound booth into the pulpit after his dad's death. I believe he's genuinely convinced of his own message, he's just genuinely wrong.

Why is he so popular? The same reason that Dr. Phil and Oprah are so popular - an easy, feel good message that feeds the materialistic desires inherent in our culture.

BTW, Iztok - we've had this discussion several times before, and I still think it's ridiculous to say the Bible proclaims the earth is flat based on poetic language. Anyone ever referred to a 'sunrise' before? HA! So you believe the sun revolves around the earth! How naïve. :)

Soli Deo Gloria

Iztok said...

DJ, Poetic language?

What is poetic in:

“saw a tree of great height at the centre of the earth...reaching with its top to the sky and visible to the earth's farthest bounds.”

how about:

“Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory.”


“Behold, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye shall see him...”

Obviously all of the above could be completely reasonable statements if earth was flat. This is consistent with the view of early Christian church as well.

Yes sunrise term really comes from this. People that initially coined the term believed that Sun rises (most likely thinking earth was flat too). Which is ok. They never claimed that they were omniscient when invented the description. So yes term sunrise further confirms that our ancestors Earth was in the center of everything (geocentricity). So were early writers of the Bible.

Anonymous said...

As an atheist, I've always found arguing bible quotes a bit futile. I've seen religious books twisted around so many ways it's not worth the effort.

It seems that for every interpretation, there is a re-interpretation. It is how many religions have survived over the years.

People pick and choose what works for the moment. While a lot of religious people decry secularists for their "relativism", I don't see that the religious are any better. They just play the same game on a smaller field.

You can find this in Islam as well as Christianity; both religions of the "book", so to speak. At one time "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" caused a lot of suffering, now it's largely ignored.

You can find stuff about women needing to keep their hair covered in church because of what the angels might do and quotes about men having long hair (hey, hippie, get that hair cut, who do you think you are, Jesus?)

There have even been excerpts published under names like "The X-Rated Bible" in which all the sexually perverted stuff has been extracted and paraded around.

It's mostly for nothing because no one is going to hear or believe anything written in any holy book they don't want to hear or believe.