Friday, May 28, 2004

Catholic Bishops Want Their MTV

According to an AP report, the Pope is warning that America is headed toward a soulless existence of materialism and moral relativism.

Headed? Really? Good thing we have the Pontiff to point these things out.

I'm just kidding. He's old. He's a bit slow on the uptake, but he's still a sweet guy. And a helluva card player.

Yes, Your Eminence, America is paving the road to soulless consumerism and material-focused living.

In response, American religious leaders are encouraged to engage the popular culture, in an attempt to understand the younger generation of Americans who are headed down this road.

I thought the line about reading the "signs of the times" was funny, though. I can just imagine a roomful of cardinals in full ecclesiastical regalia, huddled around issues of "Tiger Beat" and "Rolling Stone".

If you'll allow me to remove my tongue from my cheek (which sounds more painful than it is), I did want to comment seriously about this. This issue of being culturally relevant is a serious one, I think. We see Christians doing all sorts of things to achieve this, be they useful ways, like starting magazines, or worthless ways, like selling tee-shirts.

And I've heard the arguments (even made the arguments) that the Gospel can be re-presented to each generation, in a way that they can relate to, without the truth of it being changed. Paul became "all things to all men, so that by all possible means [he] might save some."

But I think there is a balance to this. Because in our zeal to adapt the Gospel to the times in which we live, we sometimes end up trying to adapt the truth of the Gospel also. Meaning, what we emphasize begins to change. We give less weight to certain elements of the Gospel that we used to. And this changes the meaning of Christ.

One complaint I heard quite a bit during the whole "Passion" debacle is that the film focused too much on Christ's suffering and death, and not enough on His life and teaching. And while I would have enjoyed more scenes of teaching in addition to the film as it stands, I think these critics miss the point. First, and most obvious, the film isn't called the "Ministry" or the "Teachings" of Christ, for a reason. There is a specific focus that the director-as-storyteller chose. That's it. But I think this belies a deeper problem to some extent.

We are more comfortable with a holy man on a mountain than a suffering God on a cross.

When Jesus is on that mountain, he's nice, clean, safe. Like Buddha. Like Confuscious. Like Plato. Like Ghandi. He's the "good teacher."

But when Jesus is on the cross, we're confronted by the injustice of it. And the injustice stems from the fact that "he who had no sin became sin for us." It's the "for us" that drives people crazy.

Back to topic: The Gospel isn't the Gospel without sin. The Gospel isn't the Gospel without redemption. Jesus didn't walk the earth, only to give us some good thoughts and inspirational poems. There was a specific, vital purpose for his life, and that purpose brings all of his teaching into a new perspective. We were sinful. We were condemned. And now, we are (or can be) redeemed. That's the Gospel. That's the story.

So the inherent danger of trying to make the Gospel "culturally relevant" is that if we go too far, we make the Gospel spiritually inadequate. We cannot whitewash the bald fact that we must be born again. Must die to ourselves and be raised in Christ. If we preach nothing but a feel-good Messiah, we leave the picture incomplete. Jesus must be Lord to be Savior. Otherwise he is neither.

I earnestly commend the Catholic church for this renewed focus on reaching the younger generation. And I agree heartily that this country is becoming more secularized with each passing generation.

But we can take a desire for relevance too far. So far that the cross itself becomes irrelevant. Once that happens, we might as well all just stay home and watch TRL.

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