The evangelical twitter/facebook/world wide web of spin and PR control has been firing on all cylinders in responding to the latest from the grabbiest of headline grabbers, Rachel Held Evans (see here and here for some of the more popular). So I thought I would join in the fun and add yet another line of thinking.
For those of you who do not know, Ms. Evans is a Christian journalist (not that the word means much these days) and blogger who routinely causes ripples among evangelicals with her comments about why the church is doing X wrong and will crash and burn if it does not heed her advice. In a world where any mad nutter with a library card and some spare time can publicize their views and spin their credentials to gain credibility, can we really blame Ms. Evans? For the sake of my own readership, please ignore the questions this raises about the reasons you read this blog.
In here latest installment of the church is not good enough for me, Ms. Evans succinctly summarizes why she (and the generation she presumably speaks for) have left evangelical churches when she says,
“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
On first read, this is a welcomed response to the pedantic cry of the by-gone seeker movement that insulted thousands by thinking that the historic baggage of the Christian church could be overcome with mere aesthetics. As someone who regularly spends time with young people between the ages of twelve and nineteen I celebrate whenever someone refrains from telling me to be cooler. I want to recognize that the church has bought into a model of branding ourselves to meet the impulsive desires of a consuming hoard, and that Ms. Evans is right to point out this silliness for what it is.
However, on deeper reflection Ms. Evans’ definition of what it might look like to “find Jesus there” turns out to be a rhetorical bait-and-switch that is as old as (if not older than) the general-issue M1 Garand issued to my grandfather. Ms. Evans’ says the church is lacking because LGBT friends are not “truly welcomed” and because the lack of a challenge to holy living in the areas of “living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.”
You see we all have Übermensch (superman or over-man) that we seek to emulate and to erect as the vision of a new humanity (in theological circles this is called eschatology and/or protology). The Übermensch concept originated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He developed the concept as an idealized humanity for which we should strive on this earth, forsaking the other-worldly, supernatural aspirations of Christianity. Nietzsche saw the need for the super natural as a sign of weakness; a sign that one could not handle the realities of life.
Unfair as it would be to lay the crimes of WWII at Nietzsche’s feet, nevertheless it remains true that this concept was used by the National Socialist party in Germany as a propoganda tool to cast a vision for what they called all Germans to become. The problem was that the National Socialist brass had added its own elements to this idealized man. These elements included strong sentiments about how to resolve the issue of integrating the Jewish population into civil life in Europe. It is this idealized man which was part of the ideology that fueled the widespread blindness to the crimes being committed. Propaganda only works with a simple message. They had sacrificed compassion because their wasn’t room for it within their idealized humanity, their propaganda machine.
This is the same tactic that is used (with an early American Republican spin) in the much more popular Superman figure of vintage television and graphic novel lore. This franchise has become the ultimate tool for reinforcing the idealized portrait Americans have of themselves (the most recent manifestations being the Smallville franchise and the Man of Steel movie). Clark Kent is the ultimate American: hard working, impeccable character, humanitarian sensibilities, and capable of overcoming what seem like insurmountable odds (read we can solve the energy crisis, the healthcare problem, and the turmoil in the Middle East). He even has the same insecure, hero complex. More profound is the obvious link made back to the ultimate Übermensch, Jesus of Nazareth, in both franchises. In a climatic episode of the Smallville show, Clark willing sacrifices himself and falls from a rooftop forming the shape of a cross (see it here at the 2:20 mark). Following suit the producers of the Man of Steel film hired a theologian to help them write materials marketed to evangelical churches so they might “fill the pews!” (see it here)
The problem with these Übermenschen, Supermen, and all messianic pretenders is that they have become so branded and marketed that they have lost their edge. Rather than being a vision of the men and women we all wish to become, they are our own distorted, self-flattering versions of who we think we already are. This is ultimately the reason why Ms. Evans’ rationale for the exodus of Millennials from the church is specious and duplicitous. What Ms. Evans really means is that the reason she and ‘the generation she identifies with’ are not in church is because they do not see themselves their.
The reason why Ms. Evans stays away from the church is because it is there where Christ is encountered. It is in this encounter where he ultimately confronts and condemns the flattened, domesticated Übermenschen we have replaced him with. It is there that we see that we, as the church, have fallen short in countless areas and have sinned so grievously. And it is there that we hear that this irreducibly complex God-man offers us forgiveness yet again.