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The Illusion of Greatness through Proximity

Stephen Witmer on small churches:

Your weakness cannot hide behind an excellent band, or a beautiful new building, or the excitement generated by packing 1,000+ people into a big room. It can’t hide behind a large budget surplus, or big cash reserves. And if your small, unimpressive church is plopped down in the middle of an equally small, unimpressive town, you will also be denied the pleasures of what E.B. White once called (in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York”) “the excitement of participation” — the sense of belonging to something “unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.” As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity. Your church’s weakness will be evident to you and to all – and this is God’s gift.

One principle often spoken of about Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns was, “a crowd draws a crowd.” This is one of the reasons ‘flash mobs’ became popular a while back. Everything looks more impressive when a big crowd is involved. But the key word here is “looks.” It’s an illusion. It’s an illusion of greatness.

E.B. White’s idea of the “excitement of participation” rings true as well. I was a part of a worship service last week with several thousand people. At one point in the service we sang, In Christ Alone. I’ve sung that song with 40 people, with 800 people and with 4,000 people. It’s always the same song. But it feels different when you’re with 4,000 people than when you’re with 40. Remember that much of this is illusory.

Small churches can’t hide their weaknesses as easily as big churches. But they both have weaknesses. In a small church, you’re stripped of all illusion and get straight reality. Most of us can’t sing well enough to join the opera. And our sins are ever before us. Sometimes it’s good to see reality. To make a joyful noise that’s off-key instead mumbling the words and hoping the masses will drown out my voice so that God won’t notice how awful I sound. To look the preacher square in the eye instead of staring at the big screen and ducking down and hiding behind the 500 people sitting in front of me. To be forced to shake everyone’s hands instead of being able to sneak out without shaking anyone’s.

Empowertising = Depowertising

Andi Zeisler writes about advertisements catering to feminism. Quotes are from We Were Feminists Once.

On creating needs no one really has:

Here’s the thing we all know about advertising to women: the products aimed their way, from household cleaners to cosmetics to personal-care products, are pitched to solve a problem that in many cases the consumer might not ever know she had until she was alerted to and/or shamed for it (Wait, I didn’t know my armpits were supposed to be sexier!) (p. 25).

On selling back a movement to target groups:

Celebrating [feminist] ads themselves simply celebrates advertisers’ skill at co-opting women’s movements and selling them back [to] us – and then rewards us for buying in (p. 28).

Zeisler makes the argument that when the feminist movement began to gain steam, the corporate world jumped all over it – to sell feminism back to women in a repackaged, reshaped, and gutted form.

The movement’s success has rendered it irrelevant as something to be considered in shaping culture (p. 20).

I’m still working through this book, but the seeming thesis is interesting. If you apply her thoughts on the feminist movements to other movements in culture, including Christianity, here’s what you get. The corporate world co-opts a movement and tries to sell it back to those who are a part of that movement or who might be attracted to it. By the time the product goes through the mediator of the corporate world, it inevitably changes into something that is different from the original movement. In the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, every institution becomes its opposite.

It shouldn’t shock us that corporate Christianity, or as a writer/publisher I know calls it, “the Jesus business,” is a watered down mess. It’s gone through the wrong mediators. And now it’s being sold back to us in a gutted form that has no power to actually shape culture.

Anything that might give it to them

Mick wants a violin. She tries to make one. It’s pretty hard to make a violin. It doesn’t work out. She reflects:

Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.

-Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, p. 51

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” – John 5:39-40

Image-Free Language

Robert Alter makes the point that modern English translations of the Bible tend to abstract physical imagery and metaphor. There are a number of examples of this. For instance, the translating of the word “seed” as “offspring.” Or the phrase “hot of nose” being replaced with “wrath” or “hot anger” (see Ex. 32:19, Lam. 4:11 as a couple of examples among many). Or the phrase “he who pisses against the wall” being replaced with “male” (see 1 Sam. 25:22, 34 among other passages).

Alter writes,

One of the most salient characteristics of biblical Hebrew is extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrases

Gerald Hammond tartly observes, ‘eschew anything which smacks of imagery or metaphor – based on the curious assumption, I guess, that modern English is an image-free language.’

– Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, pp. xix, xx

One of the reasons I’ve found myself over the years struggling with metaphor, imagery, and imagination is that so much theological literature is devoid of it. This issue is compounded if our Bible translators follow the pattern. But if you look at the teachings of Jesus, and of the Bible as a whole, they’re remarkably full of imagery and metaphor. James Harleman imagines someone talking about Jesus’s sermons:

Why is this guy talking about a farmer? I wanted esoteric spiritual truths!

What’s this crap about mustard seeds?

Where are my bullet point steps for getting in good graces with God?

Why doesn’t this Jesus guy just give us an acronym with the keys for successful living?

-James Harleman, Cinemagogue, pp. 71-72

Jesus didn’t use image-free language. We need to learn how to go “on the body” (as minimalists writers put it) in our speech and how to understand such language in our reading and listening. Or else we may really end up saying, “What’s all this crap about mustard seeds?”

Full of Books and Worrying

Portia describes her father:

I feel sorrier for him than anybody I knows. I expect he done read more books than any white man in this town. He done read more books and he done worried about more things. He full of books and worrying. He done lost God and turned his back to religion. All his trouble come down to just that.

– Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, p. 49

“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” – Ecclesiastes 12:12-13

We’ve added this book to our ‘recommended reading’ page.

Facebook and Twitter

For those of you who’ve been reading my (Heath’s) stuff for a while, you may or may not know that I’ve never been active on Twitter. I don’t even have a Twitter account. I have a personal Facebook that I hardly ever post to. The church posts my sermons to my Facebook timeline weekly. I don’t have an Instagram either. So, even though I’m technically a millennial, this (Twitter) is still new to me. I’ve just never imagined that anyone cared what I had for dinner or where I was going on vacation.

Anyway, we are attempting to get the Recognizing Christ Twitter and Facebook pages going. We’ll try to keep it interesting. If you want to check them out you can go HERE for Twitter and HERE for Facebook.