The Calvinist theologian and preacher John MacArthur once delivered a sermon in which he decried the what he called juvenilization of the Church. He noted that social media allows us to create our own world – deciding which music we listen to, which people to connect with, which information we see, and anything we don’t want to see, we can easily block. This creates a sense of selfishness and self-centeredness which in turn inculcates a child-like mentality. It is thus difficult to create a sense of fellowship which is all-too important for the life of the Church.
MacArthur, in spite of being a non-Catholic (and a proponent of diet anti-Catholicism), is on to something. Religion, in general, and Christianity (particularly Catholic Christianity as the true form of Christianity) in specific, is meant to elevate the human mind, the human soul, and, in a sense, the fullness of the human person. True religion is God-centered, not man-centered; nonetheless, this does not deny the human element, but rather directs its attention to a higher good, a greater reality – in fact, the source of all good and reality – and in so doing elevates the human mind.
Yet, with the crisis in the Church – the decline in Church attendance, the decline in ordinations, the PR nightmare caused by multiple scandals with deep-running roots – people within the Church are willing to do anything to draw people into the Church. Instead of focusing on God and using this to elevate man, the leaders in the Church, rather, focus on man, and this almost inevitably leads to appeals to lower and lower parts of man, all for the sake of seeming “cool” or “relevant.”
We saw this a few months ago when an Episcopalian cathedral in San Francisco hosted a “Beyonce Mass”. That’s right – a liturgy in which the music of Beyonce took center stage. Those who organized the event believe that her music contains an unique expression of certain Biblical truths which is all too necessary and relevant to today’s situation. The organizer of the event teaches a class in which the lyrics of Beyonce are used as a springboard to the analysis of the Old Testament.
There are multiple issues with this. One commentator described the event as a “bringing together of secular music and a religious message to tell a message of empowerment for particularly women of color, but anyone who happens to sing praises to the goddess herself, Beyonce.”
Christians are obliged, as a matter of conscience, to fight for justice, particularly in the name of those who are oppressed and marginalized. Yet, worship is not about “empowerment.” There is a saying, first coined in the Patristic era: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivandi – “The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief which is the Law of Life.” How we pray, how we worship, both influences and gives expression to what we believe, which in turn influences how we live our life. Liturgical worship, as the highest form of prayer, should thus inspire us to live as better Christians, including for our fight for justice. Yet, worship, in and of itself, is centered on God. Forget about how man has certain duties to God, which are fulfilled at least in part in the worship of God. Forget all that stuff about the Eucharist being a participation in and memorial of Christ’s death. It’s about empowerment, which seems here to be defined in the most generic manner, like something one would find in Women’s Studies 101 (but without all the added academic verbiage and with more religious pretense).
Further, the organizer of the event, for a living, teaches courses on how Beyonce reflects the message of the Bible. One song contains the lyrics, “I’m a train wreck in the morning, I’m a b**ch in the afternoon…I don’t know why you love me, and that’s why I love you.” Since the audience is ambiguous, this can be seen as a prayer between us and God: we frequently offend God, fail in our moral obligations, but God still loves us, and the infinite love of God should move us to love God in return.
I mean, it’s not like there are 2,000 years of Christian and Jewish commentaries on Scripture that make the same point in a more profound manner and with less cliches and vulgarities. It’s not like African-American Christianity has been producing hymns and cultivating a rich spirituality of its own for the past few hundred years. And, if you would prefer to adopt a black nationalist, “back-to-Africa” mentality, it’s not like there areas of Africa where Christianity has existed almost since the dawn of the Church which have their own unique and profound spirituality. (Cyprian who? What’s an Athanasius? Desert Fathers? No, too patriarchal-sounding. St. Augustine? Nah, was too uptight about sex for our taste.) Rather, we need to look to pop stars to find the “embodiment” of “black female spirituality.”
Beyonce is the embodiment of black female spirituality? Almost trivializes black female spirituality, doesn’t it? When man focuses in on himself above all else – which, by the way, is the very definition of pride – man falls deeper and deeper into sin, and instead of expressing his or her full potential as a child of God, they contaminate and bring down everything they do. Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Our connection with God is what is the center of our entire being. That’s what gives us our immeasurable dignity. What brings about the immense depravity that results from sin is when we ignore this fact and guide our gaze downward towards anything else but God, acting in accordance with our immediate wants and needs instead of ordering all things towards the highest good, God.
When God takes center stage, all that we are and everything we do is elevated by God’s grace. When this is not the case, everything we touch is brought down. It is one thing to examine how religious and culture intersect and influence one another. It is one thing to use the best of whatever culture or time period we live in as a means to evangelize. It is another thing to make some aspect of contemporary culture the center of worship. Hence, the worship was nothing more than a poor attempt to seem relevant to an ever secularized youth, and the spirituality that surrounds it nothing more than a parody of traditional African-American spirituality. Because God was not the center stage, everything else was brought down. Unlike traditional Christian worship, or even traditional African-American spirituality, there is no sense of the transcendent, no sense of God’s presence. When your worship looks more like a concert than a sacrament, your bound to bring about a passing, fleeting sense of joy or profundity at best, nothing that can truly bring us closer to God in the long-haul.
This happens when the subjective spiritual view of a small group of individuals is projected onto Divine Worship. Outside of a liturgical realm, you see this in a moral realm. In an article written by John Cornwell in Vanity Fair, the theological differences between Pope-emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis were discussed, and how these differences are causing division within the Church. Speaking of how Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI remained loyal to traditional Catholic views on sexuality. The author goes on to say, “Never mind that new generations of young Catholics were living together before marriage, coming out as gays and lesbians, divorcing and remarrying.” So, we should ignore dealing with whether or not the traditional views of the Church or the Bible are correct, and change Church teaching to get with the times? “Traditional Church teaching does not fit into our own personal way of life, so instead of changing our life to conform to the will of God, we should take the principles that lay the basis for this behavior as axiomatic and expect the Church to change.”
Again, a self-centered mindset brings down everything else, while a God-centered attitude elevates everything. When we conduct our sexual life on our own terms rather than on God’s terms, are we shocked when out-of-wedlock-births increase, so that, as of 2016, 39.8% of births were out-of-wedlock? Or when divorce rates rise (take, for example, how divorce increased in England in the period between 1970 and 1993 from 4.7 for 1,000 people to 14.1 for every 1,000 married people, and that even when it lowered in the period between 1993 and 2014, it was still significantly higher than what it had been 45 years earlier, at 9.3 for every 1,000 married people)? Take also the #MeToo movement. Some say that the #MeToo movement is a reaction to a legitimate issue, namely society’s underwhelming response against “rape culture.” On the other hand, some say that the #MeToo movement blows out of proportion the issue or rape, making it seem as if rape is more common than it is or is even tacitly approved by society, even though the West has more respect for women than any other part of the world. The fact that either of these two things are an option says a lot about the state of contemporary sexual mores.
All of these issues and similar ones – whether moral, social, or liturgical – stems from turning our gaze inwards towards ourselves at the expense of turning them towards God. We project ourselves onto the world, accepting what we like, rejecting what we don’t, remaking the world in our own image instead of conforming ourselves to God and ordering all things to HIM. This can only lead to decline, decay and disorder.