Sunday, April 22, 2012

Post-Easter living in a post-Christian world

Here it is, a rainy Sunday in Richmond.  Not heavy, mind you, but steady and soaking, and relentlessly gray.  I have one week of classes left in the spring term before finals.  A couple of significant assignments got turned in on Friday, and one small test-let is given tomorrow, and then the larger finals come along.  Baseball season has started, which is of course a personal source of joy and relief, and we've even had a perfect game thrown in the majors as of last night.  The house is quieter than it used to be, too quiet, since we had to let our longtime (twelve years, almost) best friend pooch go a little more than two weeks ago.

And two weeks ago was Easter Sunday.

Oddly, seminary can be a very difficult place to observe a day like Easter.  For all that Easter Sunday is something that would seem a big deal in a setting like this, a seminary is (if it's doing its job right) an educational institution.  The presumption is, among Presbyterians historically at least, that an uneducated pastor ('scuse me, teaching elder) is as likely to do damage as to do good out there in the big wide world.  This is not a presumption shared by many Christian traditions, who are as likely to send out someone who claims to be called with little more than a pat on the back and maybe a new Bible.  Then there are those who formally recommend that a potential minister take on some level of education for the task, but who then informally will step back and say "but don't learn too much," as if ... well, I don't know what the Hell they're thinking, but it is far more likely to come from that place than from Heaven, if you ask me.  I do not belong to such a tradition, and would not choose to do so.  I've seen and heard the results of it too often.

So clearly I believe the education is good and needful, but the relentless logic of theological academia doesn't always fit the liturgical calendar.  "Christ is risen indeed!  Now let me finish that exegesis... ."  You can see where that might not be the most uplifting way to mark the occasion, yes?

So if the seminary is not as much help, you turn to your local church (where one really should turn anyway).  It's one thing if you are, as many of my classmates, from this general area and can turn to your home church for such an occasion.  It's also the case for many that, having affiliated with a church for an internship or some other formal connection, your plans are more or less set for you.  It's another thing to be from a far place.  It would have been lovely to go back to Lawrence for Easter, or to Tallahassee for that matter, but not entirely practical.  And still being new enough to be short of an internship or other such formal affiliation, I find myself in a curiously free-lance position.  So you (or at least I) start to find myself watching for clues about how a church deals with Easter, Easter as an ongoing liturgical season or even Easter as a way of life (or both, ideally).

Sadly, I missed Thomas last week.  The church we have attended of late does many things well, but they don't seem to be all that interested in the Revised Common Lectionary, and darn it, I missed my sermon on Thomas.  The lectionary tends to bring the story of Thomas along each Second Sunday of Easter, and as I've eased into the tradition of lectionary-guided worship that has become something I've actually looked forward to, bizarre as it may sound.  Thomas seems so darned bipolar in his few Gospel appearances, ready to go die with Jesus at one point (John 11:16) only to earn himself the eternal nickname "Doubting" immediately post-resurrection, somehow without getting credit for being the first of Jesus's human cohort to make the greatest leap of recognition thereafter ("My Lord and my God!" in John 20:28).  Being driven to the Thomas story year after year almost forces a preacher to acknowledge that Thomas gets a bum rap (if he deserves to be rapped for anything, it is for abandoning the fellowship too quickly and therefore missing out on Jesus's first post-resurrection appearance, not for being doubtful about a second-hand story; do you honestly think you'd have done better?), and to lay out the Thomas story more fully and to offer the character up as something more than an ill-formed cautionary tale.  I've been fortunate to hear the story preached by pastors who have done exactly that in years past.  Not this year, though, and I've found myself a bit bummed by that.

It isn't just my particular affinity for Thomas, though, that makes me particularly keen to pick up the post-Easter narratives of Jesus's disciples, or the stirrings of the very-early church in Acts which also appear in the RCL at this point.  Their world is not as different from ours as it used to be.  Oh, on the surface it's quite different, obviously; scribbling out this blog entry on some kind of papyrus should be image enough to point to some of that surface difference, and surfaces (shallow as they may be) do make a big difference in how we live.  Still, though, the so-called "post-Christian" world in which we try to be Christ-followers now has some similarities to the world of the post-Easter disciples, or the Acts Christ-followers, what I shall call a "pre-Christian" world.

Yes, a "pre-Christian world."  Not a "pre-Christ" world, obviously (if you read John 1 seriously there's no such thing as that, right?), but a world that certainly was not predominantly Christian, a world where that term ("Christian") didn't really exist yet.  This particular movement was a minority sect within a minority sect in a vast, far-reaching empire with innumerable minority sects shadowed by the empire itself, which tolerated those minority sects as long as they didn't interfere with the Empire as majority sect.

If you go by the numbers, then the phrase "post-Christian world" probably doesn't make sense, at least in the United States.  A significant majority of Americans still claim to be Christian (78% as of a Gallup poll around Christmas 2009), and Christianity's seemingly establishment quality is such that it's still hard to imagine a person avowedly affiliated with a different religion (or no religion at all) getting much traction in a presidential campaign, even leaving aside the whole Romney-centered debate about Mormonism and Christianity in this campaign (and remember, Joe Lieberman got nowhere in 2004).  Worldwide, though, it's a different story, and even in the US the cultural sway of Christianity is not what it was.  "Christian" is little more than a niche market label in Hollywood, or in the publishing or recording industries, referring specifically to a movie or music or book to be pitched primarily to a particularly right-wing audience (i.e. not me).  "Christian college" carries much the same sort of implication these days, a far cry from the days when even the Harvards and Yales of the world (not to mention a bunch of "state" schools") had some sort of religious support system underneath.  Clearly Christianity used to wield a great deal more influence culturally than it does now.

Frankly, I am more convinced than ever that all that influence poisoned the church, and that the effects of the poison are ongoing.  An awful lot of people still resent the loss of that influence (or is it control?), rather like an addict cut off from that next high, and will wage whatever "culture war" is necessary to keep it from slipping away.  Others get teed off at the reactionary nature of that influence and walk away, cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Perhaps it is time instead to learn from our "pre-Christian" brothers and sisters, those folks who held no influence, and therefore could only live influence.  The kind of folks who became well-known in Roman cities for taking in infants abandoned by parents who did not want them.  The kind of church where Paul could send Philemon a letter via his runaway slave, challenging Philemon not only to welcome him back, but to welcome him as a brother (and dare him, implicitly, to keep his brother as a slave).  The kind of people who didn't bow down to the little tin gods the Empire put forth (please tell me I'm not the only one who remembers the Don Henley song of that title?), even if it meant suspicion and eventually persecution.  In other words, maybe it's time to learn from our "pre-Christian" sisters and brothers how to be Christian, and living with these witnesses in their post-Easter, pre-Christian world is as good a place as any to start.

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