Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Latte of Christ

I have frequently bemoaned the current trends in modern Christianity here. Fundamentalism has taken far too strong a grasp into the modern church. But, how has religous common sense been replaced by fantatical dogmatism? Part of that answer is the modern mega-church.

Many of the churches who have built congregations into the thousands are the churches putting forth ideas of non-acceptance and blind adoption of their tenets. Mega-churches are more like country clubs than places of worship; their popularity has been predicated on making congregants feel like members of an exclusive and priviledge elite. And part of your membership requirements is agreeing with what the church tells you to believe.

But why accept those tenets? What makes mega-churches so attractive in the first place? These exerpts from an article in the April 27th edition of the Washington Post reveal how:

For Church on the Move, one of the Bible Belt's fastest-growing nondenominational churches, the efforts to attract the next generation of believers comes at a 92,000-square-foot state-of-the-art community entertainment complex called Oneighty -- complete with basketball courts, 20 Apple iPod centers, 20 computers and countless video play stations suspended from the ceiling.

After listening to an hour-long sermon and Christian music performed by a 10-member rock band, students have full run of the place. It is a model that has been adopted by several hundred churches nationwide. "They make church fun," Ramiro Satoe, 13, said as he aggressively worked the race-car arcade game on a recent Wednesday night.

In the next few months, Church on the Move, which has 12,000 members, will renovate its lobby areas, putting in a cafe and conservation areas.

"We want to make our halls like Barnes & Noble -- feel at home, get here early, stay late . . . where we can talk about life issues, we can get to know each other," he said.

Indeed, gone are long fire-and-brimstone services. Wednesdays now tend to be more casual, social and personal -- a time to study the Bible, but also interact with like-minded worshipers who are often outnumbered on Sundays by what the devout church community calls the drop-in "seekers."

So, obviously the answer is: clever marketing and upper-middle class amenities. Really, ecclesiastical teaching has been replaced with Ipods, or at least made more interesting and palpable because you're sipping on a double mocha latte while listening to it. Also note the in-crowd attitude displayed by referring to Sunday-only worshippers as "drop-in 'seekers'." Sounds mildly condescending, doesn't it? These casual seekers aren't seen as being part of the truly committed, video-game playing, rock music listening church community.

I certainly don't begrudge a church providing entertainment outside of worship services and a comfortable environment for church members, but the whole purpose of church, to worship God and study God's teachings, seems to have taken a serious backseat in favor of church-malls and church-coffee shops. Malls and coffee shops where only the most devout and elite are truly welcome.

Thus are the politics of exclusion formed early in the fundamentalist world: through selective inclusion. So people who would probably be uncomfortable discussing homosexuality and gay issues but otherwise open become people who will not tolerate the moral threat posed by the "gay agenda." Their conversion from tolerant people to people who exclude others is predicated on their own fear that they will be excluded from their newfound church club of convenience and entertainment.

Membership to a church or participation in sanctified video games has overtaken the true practice of Christianity. The two have been great confused, as evidenced by this quote in the same Post article:

"Christians understand that church is not an activity -- it's a lifestyle," said Buddy George, a pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., home church of Rick Warren, author of the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life."

Like many modern Christians, Pastor George has it wrong. Church is an activity. Christianity and worship is a lifestyle.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Real Threat of Gay Marriage

NPR's weekly program This American Life recently dedicated its hour to the topic of "The Sanctity of Marriage." (Click the link and search for the title - you can listen to the whole program free.) The first section of the show covered the work of Dr. John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute. Dr. Gottman and his associates study predictors of marital success. They also teach the techniques that they have discovered to be successful in happily married couples

Gottman and his team observe couples that have been asked to discuss a topic they disagree on (and according to Dr. Gottman's research and common sense, all couples disagree on something (and usually about certain key subjects)) and then study that interaction. While the couple discusses the issue, researchers categorize every level of interaction: from what is actually said to how it is said (not just the emotion behind it but the rate, tone, pitch, volume, etc. of speech) to facial expressions and body language to how couples respond to each other.

Gottman's research includes same-sex couples. Dr. Gottman's research sample of same-sex couples is very small (21 lesbian and 21 gay male couples )but has produced interesting results. If the results are representative, straights could be in real trouble.

Dr. Gottman tells reporter Ira Glass that same-sex couples are not just as good as straight couples, but are "even better" when it comes to handling conflict. He notes that compared to 42 straight marriages of the same length and satisfaction), same-sex couples were better at "listening when criticized,... [being] less defensive,...[and being] more positive." He notes a conversation one gay-male couple had regarding sex initiation where one of the men told his partner that he didn't have the kind of body he was turned on by. The partner acknowledged that and then re-asked the original question. Dr. Gottman compares that to a male-female couple: how many wives would not become defensive and upset when told her husband didn't find her body attractive.

Dr. Gottman doesn't know why these same-sex couples did better. Possibly, he postulates, it's simply "easier for men to talk men" and likewise for women.

Also, interestingly, Dr. Gottman notes that it's impossible to find government funding for research on committed homosexual relationships or their sustainment without being very careful about the types of words used in a grant proposal. Certain watchdog organizations use computers to locate certain words like "gay", "lesbian", and "homosexual" to protest any government funding. As such, those proposal aren't even reviewed. This is "the kind of climate in which we're working" Dr. Gottman notes.

Unfortunately, it's not surprising that certain elements of our society,don't want gays to have successful relationships and that our government, rather than doing the right thing, bows to the pressure these zealots exert. It's also not surprising that almost no major press coverage has been given to Dr. Gottman's (admittably limited) results on same-sex relationships.

The general population, and I believe a good portion of the gay community, wants to buy into the stereotype and the hype: we can't have stable relationships. We seem desperately to need to believe the idea that we're so flawed that we can't commit to one another. This idea certainly allows those among us who are promiscuous and want nothing more out of life than meaningless sex and drugs to rationalize their irresponsible behavior.

We are no more flawed than any straight person. We are told we are flawed constantly; others would have us believe that something is wrong with us, but I believe that it is life with those messages that make us better in relationships. Perhaps we are more sensitive to our spouse's viewpoint because our own viewpoint is so often denigrated in society. We know what it's like to be told we are bad and wrong, so we are reluctant to automatically label another person as such. Conflicts then become less about "winning" (oppressing the other viewpoint or need) or villianizing our opposition, but about giving that person the understanding and opportunity to express his/her side that we so often wish others would give us.

The information I quote in this entry can be found beginning around the 25 minute mark. After this segment, the program tears into DOMA with a satirical eye and also seriously looks at the legal arguments being used against gay marriage. However, I recommend listening to the entirety of the excellent program.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Planet Out-of-Line


Thanks for the encouraging words. Funny you should mention the Pope as subject matter, since that's exactly the topic that was on my mind currently.

For the record, I was raised and still consider myself to be Southern Baptist as far as a religious denomination goes; my partner is Catholic. Neither of us are huge fans of Pope John Paul II, particularly in regard to his rigid stance on issues surrounding gays in the church.

The Pope could easily be called neglectful towards gay Catholics. He very easily could have made the distinction that he feels that homosexuality is non-Biblical, but that gays should be welcome in the Church with love and not denied communion or any other service, ministry, or rite of the church. He didn't take the opportunity to bring his people together in love in harmony despite his Biblical interpretation. He may have gone further by taking actions that allowed gays to be villianized and ostracized.

It's hard to understand how a man who was subject to oppression from Nazis and Communists could fail to see the evils of perpetuating oppression upon any other group. Still, he likely took the stances he did out of a sense of what he thought was truly right; unlike many leaders of the religious right, John Paul II probably acted, for right or wrong, good or evil, with the best of intentions with no ambition of bringing in more money, gaining political advantage, or solidifying a power base. This does not excuse his failure, but it does contextualize it.

On April 1st, PlanetOut, a leading gay website, sent out its regularly scheduled article updates on email. The subject line was "The Pope's Legacy of Homophobia."

Ironically, a "Social Grace" column, PlanetOut's answer to Miss Manners is also listed in this update. PlanetOut could have taken some lessons in manners; rather than sending this exceptionally insulting, insensitive, tasteless email. At the time that the email was sent, the Pope was clearly in the last stages of his life, on the verge of death.

He did then, and does now, as he rests in repose, deserve a show of respect. For his faults and failures in this area, the man did much good in his life. Regardless, he, like any other human being, deserves respect in death. The man man have committed evil to his gay members, but attacking the Pope does an evil to gay Catholics as well. It is hard to explain the connection I have seen between my partner and other Catholics with the Pope, but it is very tangible and important to them. Attacking the Pope is an indirect attack upon Catholics; it causes harm to an already harmed population.

There will be ample time to discuss his failures and lack of love and attention to his gay congregation. But, for now, we should let him rest in peace. He deserves the respect that any human, full of flaws and foilbles, but also capable of great love and compassion, deserves. This does not excuse him, but rathers shows ourselves to be something other than the evil he may have believed us to be.