Dumbed Down Christianity
Many years ago I visited Montreal in Canada and I took a city bus tour. The driver guide stopped at a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson and informed us tourists “This is Lord Nelson – he fought wi' the Navy long time go”. We then moved on. I was a bit surprised with the lack of detail in his narrative but no-one asked for more information. This is what we call dumbing down. You see it everywhere. Songs of Praise on TV can still be good but it is often more of an entertainment show than worship. They hardly ever read from the Bible and the prayers are few. There's never a sermon now. Lots of churches in Scotland don't have any Sunday School nowadays. Some have started up what is called 'Messy Church'. That's not what the church looks like after the schools have been in for a service or what it was like here after a recent wedding when the guests sprayed confetti inside the sanctuary without our permission. 'Messy Church' is a wee bit of Sunday School and a wee bit of snack with tea, coffee, biscuits and chat for parents, games and activities for the children and it is usually held on a week-day late afternoon or evening. It is a half-way house between children and their families and the Church. The hope is that people will draw nearer to the Church but there has been no evaluation of whether it works to that extent. However, some of these 'Messy Churches' are well attended and it would be hard to deny that they are better than having nothing at all. We could change the pattern of worship here on a Sunday morning. You could all have longer to chat and blether. We could serve tea and coffee to you in the pews. We could sing a few hymns and maybe have a discussion. And you could then go home. Would you like that? So much is being dumbed down. So much Christianity is being lost to new generations.
In the last verses of Paul's Letter to the Christians in Rome, he continues to set high standards for Christians and for Christianity. He is aware that certain types of individuals join congregations and cause nothing but trouble. He warns the faithful to be alert for this and to recognise what is going on. Paul was almost paranoid about alternative explanations, alternative theologies and alternative doctrine being introduced into nascent Christian Churches, dumbing down and weakening the strong and clear Gospel message which he himself had taught and preached. I do my best to hold the line preserving this place as a 'House of Prayer' for everyone and not letting it become a karaoke or a disco for funeral services. It is not easy.
In The Scotsman this week there was an article by Hugh Reilly. He is a former teacher and a lapsed Roman Catholic. 'Lapsed' is probably too mild a word. He is quite hostile to the Faith into which he was baptised and in which he was nurtured. And this bitterness extends to all Christianity and Christians. Hugh Reilly recalled his experience of funerals as a child, one of which was struggling with others to carry the coffin of an aunt down the stairs, saying 'It would be something of an understatement to opine that Aunt Margaret was a rather over nourished individual'. He noted that health and safety regulations today limit such dangerous activities. But the main point of his article was the dumbing down of funeral services. He says 'With the demise of religion, the majority of educated human beings realise that death is the final frontier and they wish their lives to be celebrated. Modern society is putting 'fun' into funeral...However he has some criticisms. On the choice of songs he says, 'Given the inherent vanity of humans, it should come as no surprise that the rather pompous 'My Way' is number one in the popped-off chart'. He then laments the public and social outpourings of grief which have taken the place of quiet dignity, tracing this development back to the death of Princess Diana. He notes the presence of roadside shrines in Glasgow, some with Celtic and Rangers football shirts, some with bottles of Buckfast side by side with the message 'Gone too soon', and even a carved pronouncement 'F...the Polis'. Glasgow Police now have a designated Shrine Management Liaison Officer to deal with families. Reilly notes that Twitter and Facebook announce deaths while the body it still warm and these messages attract lots of 'likes'. He says, 'In this world of the vacuous self-obsessed, taking a selfie at a funeral is not considered beyond the pale. Young women dress to impress in low cut little black dresses and towering high heels while young gel-haired young men booted and suited as if auditioning for Ocean's Eleven. The funeral, you see, is all about them, not the body in the casket”. And we would add – and certainly not about God, nor Jesus Christ, nor the forgiveness of sins, nor the gift of eternal life. But what does High Reilly expect who himself has deserted Christian faith and added to the idolatry of the world. He left the best but hates the dumbed down version.
Paul criticises the purveyors of alternatives to Christ's Gospel. He says that they are serving their own appetites. They are promoting themselves. They are in it for personal gain. They use flattery and smooth talk to sway people's minds. In the context of the practice of faith, people are vulnerable because they are exposed. The reason why fighting in churches is worse than elsewhere is because after the Church there is nowhere else to go. You can join any kind of club but the Church is about your eternal soul. If you are fighting at that level of your existence there is no peace and no comfort. Paul often had a nice turn of phrase. He suggests 'I want you to be wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil'. This suggests that some of the alternatives to the full Gospel that were being peddled in some Christian Churches amounted to serious dumbing down of Christian lifestyle and responsibility. It might even have been insidious, seeking to entice new Christians back to former ways or inviting them to explore diverging values, experiences, actions, behaviours and practices. Paul wants Christians to be innocents amid the bloodthirsty, idolatrous and sexually corrupted culture of Rome as it was in his time. The way to crush Satan, says Paul, is to resist Satan. Christians cannot entertain evil and not be hurt. God knows – there is plenty of opportunity around in our own society today. Elsewhere in Romans Paul discusses Christian freedoms. There was a view that since Christians are forgiven and sure to be forgiven then they could do anything much as they liked. It was this view that Paul was seeking to counter. 'Should I sin so that grace may abound', he asked? His answer was a definite 'No'.
The last verses of the last chapter of Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome clarify and articulate what Christianity is all about when it is not dumbed down. 'Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith — to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen'.
'Establish you in faith' is what Paul means. So that you don't give up. So that you are sure and assured in your personal relationship with God. So that you know Jesus as your personal Saviour and Lord, Friend, Help, Confidant and Guide. So that you are not discouraged or depressed. So that you rejoice whatever your circumstances. Paul says that Christians receive the mystery not as hidden but as revealed. The mystery of God, the mystery of creation, the mystery of the universe, the mystery of life, the mystery of mind and spirit in a human body, the mystery of unresolved questions, the mystery of divine love, the mystery of Christ's salvation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to the mystery of life and existence. Knowing Jesus Christ answers the big questions we ask. And this is for the good of the nations and all humanity. It is slowly getting there. There are more Christians in the world than ever. In spite of the fact that Islam and Islamic issues get far too much coverage and publicity, Christianity is still expanding. Many Muslims are becoming Christians, sickened by the excesses justified by the Koran and jihadists. That won't be on the BBC TV News at 6 or 10.
Paul, ends with a glorious affirmation of the existence, rationality, goodness and love of God. That is why we are here. That is what we are doing. This is not dumbed down Christianity here – not at least – for this hour on a Sunday.