Saturday, July 19, 2008


Oh, all right. I'll write something in English.

The other day, I either heard or read something about Christian culture, and it got me to thinking about the glide path of transcendent passion. "Christian culture," as explained by the person who brought it up, referred to carrying out certain acts, habits, enforcing certain rules, that would be a logical product of Christianity, while not attending church or believing that faith in Christ was necessary for salvation. Someone who found teachings like "turn the other cheek" appealing, enjoyed the odd contemporary Christian artist, felt a little swell of good feeling if they saw a cross or other Christian symbol displayed in public, might be an acculturated Christianoid, but might keep an actual relationship with Christ at arm's length.

That got me to thinking about Judaism, and its status today not only as a belief system, but as an ethnicity and a culture. The effect, if not the purpose, of the laws of kashrut, has been, throughout history, to keep its practitioners a community separate from their neighbors. Orthodox Jews who keep kosher can't partake of a meal prepared in a kitchen used by people who don't keep kosher, even if the food itself is marked with kosher symbols: the ovens, the dishes, even the dishwasher may introduce contaminants. And when people can't exchange visits, their ability to build two-way friendly relationships based on equality is severely stunted. A fair number of rabbis point to this explicitly, and assert that it is part of their reason for existence that Jewish people are to be set apart. The strong prohibition against outmarriage is another factor in making Jewish people a carved out pocket that stubbornly resists assimilation. "Assimilation" is a dirty word to such folks, as a matter of fact.

The funny thing is, I've known a fair number of Jewish folks who identify Judaism as their heritage, their community, the people with whom they're most comfortable, and all or nearly all claim to be atheists. I remember, when I was younger and saw things more black and white, that I thought "atheist Jew" had to be an oxymoron, since one element in the definition of "Jew" was belief in one and only one God, the God of Moses and Abraham. Now I know better. Until recently, though, I would not have thought that such a thing existed within Christianity: an atheist Christian. And a big part of my heart rebels at the stretching of that label to cover people who bear such traits.

What that's got me thinking about now is the curve that this seems to follow: the Israelites were bonded together into a devout, tightly-knit nation whose norms were powerful and strictly observed, as a result of a number of founding and re-founding events in which G-d showed His love for them. Then the rabbis took over, and with the apparent intent of training such devout people to express their love in a more and more perfect way, they explained the Torah to death in the Talmud, and the institutionalization of worship ran amok. Today, respect for the Talmud is based in some part on its place in tradition, its status as a link with the past, and in some cases the extremely distant past: a lot of folks who put stock in its teachings would explain that it has passed the test of time, that it's something that endures in a world that changes too rapidly. But they can feel this way, and at the same time not believe that there is, or ever was, a G-d.

And it worries me that this path is being cleared, one inch at a time, for the Gospel. It's being re-explained, re-invented, re-packaged in more clever illustrations and analogies, catechized into more formulas, pinned down and chloroformed into more and more sermon helps, codified into more sub rosa orthodoxies, and it's getting easier and easier to "do Christianity" on autopilot, by recipe, and in so doing extinguish the joy and the passion and the transformation.

One symptom I'll single out for concentrated griping, and it's one that I've disliked for a long time: the "This is a Christian nation" crowd, who want to stick the Ten Commandments on the walls of public buildings and pick fights over adult-led prayer in K-12 schools. Talk about freezing up Christ's love for us in institutions! Talk about picking a battle that doesn't amount to pocket change in the big picture. An image of the Ten Commandments isn't magic. It isn't like the special effects Ark from a Spielberg movie. It doesn't give off any kooky kind of God-radiation that smites down evildoers. It's just flippin' ink on paper, or, if they ponied up extra cash, notches carved in rock. When people hide it in their heart, and become aware of their sin because of it, then yes, God's word is powerful; when animated by the Holy Spirit and put in motion to convict people of their wrongdoings, it's miraculous. But fetishizing it is an exercise in Christian culture, not growing nearer to Jesus. My proof? All the folks who think the Bible is a great book of teachings, whether or not anyone named Jesus ever lived in the first place. No shortage of those.

I'm positive none of this is original with me. But lately it's been falling squarely within my gaze, and it worries me. We are equally good at producing carbon dioxide and institutions, which is to say that both are by-products of our everyday, unconscious activity. In an MBA class I taught last Spring, we talked several times about how business leaders are always trying to bottle and reproduce revolutionary change, and how impossible it is to do so. When the Holy Spirit works the miracle of faith in a heart deadened by sin, and that heart turns to Christ and believes, that's something revolutionary. When we try to bottle that, to freeze it, to photograph it, we take a step on the path that the rabbis followed in producing the Talmud. And I suspect Jesus would call that the wide path, and encourage us to take the narrow one instead.

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