It is easy to forget that when Tommy "Crimson and Clover" James released his excellent record Christian of the World in 1971, there was no such thing as Christian rock. Pop stars didn't make dramatic confessions of faith, or when they did, they didn't write rock 'n' roll albums about them. Even Elvis had the good sense to make his gospel recordings reverent affairs steeped in Baptist quartet singing, not electric guitars. Rock was a young man's game, and the church belonged to the adults, who were understandably reticent about "the Devil's music."
Fast-forward 40 years, and the tables have turned. Even in more liturgical churches, guitars are the rule rather than the exception, to say nothing of drums. American Christianity has been juvenilized, as Thomas Bergler makes painfully clear.
Indeed, it is difficult to argue with Bergler's basic diagnosis, especially without resorting to the adolescent forms that he decries. Christianity has been irrevocably cast in romantic terms over the past 50 years; in many corners of the church, "personal relationship" has become an unimpeachable phrase. The kneejerk anti-institutionalism of mainstream American evangelicalism is undeniable. The emphasis on (good) feelings over theology; the obsession with sexual purity relative to other Christian virtues; the subtle and not-so-subtle appropriations of cultural norms, from the use of movie clips in sermons to the blatant commercialism of the "book table"—all these have strangely resulted in a deeper incubation from the wider culture than anyone could have imagined. Would any of us really deny this reality?
Of course,it is almost impossible to write about this juvenilization without sounding grumpy or at least as alarmist as the groups who, according to Bergler, kick-started the phenomenon in the 1950s. Indeed, his careful tracing of the historical antecedents is extremely helpful, especially for anyone involved in ministry. And he makes a laudable attempt to be generous about the invigorating and generally well-intentioned passion of our nation's youth ministers.
The question, as Bergler points out, is not whether the church has been juvenilized, but whether or not this transformation is good. I personally do not care about the packaging if the message is true. Bergler, like Marshall McLuhan before him, suggests the packaging is not neutral, that it always changes the message. And he is probably right. Are we then to assume that the message that appeals to the young, whether it's one of political yes-we-can-ism or of personal spiritual and moral improvement, will stray, by default, from the gospel? I certainly hope not, but again, we'll have to see. Perhaps Bergler is occasionally hampered by generational baggage, such as when he conflates all of pop culture into one monolithic beast, falling into the same ditch that many other Christians fall into: acting as if they are not somehow a part of the culture themselves. Compartmentalization serves no one, whatever the century, especially when it is based on an inflated view of human nature.
In fact, narcissism is moot if what is being said about "us" has any validity. The gospel message is addressed to people, after all. I remember speaking with a pastor who was preaching the basic, adult gospel each and every week—the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He remarked that, contrary to what one might think, the people in the congregation who gave him the most headaches were not the older, stodgier types, but rather the younger, ex-parachurchers. They were the ones consistently policing his every word (and each other), demanding something "more" than the Good News of Christ's finished work on the Cross. They wanted their marching orders, in other words, because they had an adolescent—and, ironically, unbiblical—view of themselves and their potential that, as Bergler says, "change is possible and desirable." They "pushed back" when he would talk about the tragic dimension of the human condition; they didn't want to hear about themselves, at least not as they actually were. The older people in the church, on the other hand, wanted a comforting word, one that took into account the storms and shipwrecks of life. Transformation simply does not have the same appeal to a 70-year-old as to a 30-year-old. Mercy does.
Perhaps that is the most troubling aspect of the phenomenon Bergler describes. For the sake of reaching young people, the church has compromised the severity of God's law, instead offering a superficial semi-Pelagian piety (which "relationship" language unfortunately tends to encourage) that young people can master, at least theoretically. This teaching not only leads to religious burnout and self-righteousness, it also blunts the assurance and freedom of God's grace. That is, "me and Jesus" is not a problem if the "me" is the sinner and "Jesus" the savior! But when it becomes a partnership, you not only lose those who have been around the block (and failed to live up to their side of the bargain), you also lose the good part of the Good News: that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Bergler runs into trouble in his discussion of Christian maturity. When he laments the lack of adulthood in American Christianity, some might say that he simply trades one "moralistic therapeutic deism" for another, that his vision revolves around growth just as much as the adolescents he is describing. The Christian religion, after all, is not ultimately about the Christian, either adolescent or mature—it is about the Christ. And the great irony of the gospel is that maturity, when it happens, flows from the absolution of one's abiding immaturity, not from the injunction to grow.
Bergler's vision of a mature Christian ("Mature disciples of Jesus center their lives on following Christ and partnering with him in his kingdom"), on the other hand, sounds like an alternate works righteousness, albeit with "emotional connection" replaced by old-fashioned religious obligation. So while his diagnosis is spoton, it misses the freedom at the heart of the gospel.
Then again, to quote Tommy James, perhaps I'm just "draggin' the line."
David Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor in chief of the Mockingbird blog.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This piece is a response to Christianity Today's cover story, "When Are We Going to Grow Up?"
Other Christianity Today cover stories include:
Miracles in Mozambique: How Mama Heidi Reaches the Abandoned | There are credible reports that Heidi Baker heals the deaf and raises the dead. One thing is for sure: She loves the poor like no other in this forgotten corner of the planet. (May 11, 2012)
The New School Choice Agenda | Why Christians in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere are choosing to send their children to struggling public schools. (April 9, 2012)
The Missing Factor in Higher Education | How Christian universities are unique, and how they can stay that way. (March 2, 2012)
The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really | The government is by far the best institution to raise the poor's standard of living. The church does something more important for them. (February 10, 2012)
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