Priestly Goth

my over all reflections as the Priestly Goth

Currently At Priestly Goth Icons

Lent is just about a week away, which means we are in that period of transition from the seasons of the incarnation, celebrating the birth and various epiphany’s of who Jesus of Nazareth was during his life.  This means we are in the time of Carnival and Mardi Gras.  Priestly Goth Icon Carnival /Mardi Gras sale 15% off any purchase through February 18th, 2015. Use coupon code MARDIGRAS2015 .

I have listed the first two Wall crucifix icons made from reclaimed wood.   In this series of wall icon crucifixes I’ve taken wood recovered from construction sites leave the wood rough showing it was used and discarded. The crucifix and cross are themselves strange objects of beauty and devotion showing an implement of torture and death, and Christ’s suffering.Crucifix icon1  The beauty of the crucifix is what God was doing and has done from the crucifixion of Christ, that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have shown God’s love to us in the cross and in that love is victory over the powers of sin, death and oppression.

I now have a number of listings that are made to order of icons I have done in the past: Available made to order at this time are Saint Monica; St Michael the Archangel; Mary the Mother of God Who Shows the Way: Jesus Christ the Light of Life.

Lastly, a reminder that I take commissions – to commission an icon use the “Custom Order Button” in the Priestly Goth Icons shop.

David Bowie Is(n’t) Original

music-david-bowie-is-2At the top of the David Bowie Is exhibition the Yohji Yamomoto black record body suit presents the wild spectacle of David Bowie.  Then one moves to spend time in David Bowie’s early years, or really , the time before “David  Bowie”.  Here I got a sense of him as creative reclusive person, who through mime discovers his whole embodied self can be the basis of art as performance.  David Bowie emerges out of a varied set of influences and a traditional performance art.

(This isn’t a review of David Bowie Is exhibition, but a reflection on Bowie as an artist informed by the traveling exhibit, that had been at the Museum Contemporary Art, Chicago, and closed January 4, 2015.)

“David Bowie” in seeming contradiction to the spectacle isn’t about  authenticity, or originality.  David Bowie isn’t concerned about himself as the origin of his art.  From the start he rejects the Rocker”s refusal of stage make up.  The Rocker rejected make up as inauthentic.  David Bowie picks it up like the early rockers, but doesn’t attempt to make it “authentic” or representing an original author. Rather, make up becomes part of an abyssal persona without originality.  Make up is of course a key component to the Ziggy Stardust era along with wild costumes.  In Ziggy Stardust we, also find the various ways in which Bowie, as a performance artist, borrows from all sorts of sources and in collaboration. He collaborates with designers for the costumes , on  album art, and with studio musicians.  Originality, authenticity is questioned and turned upside down, even as “David Bowie” leaves behind very creative and odd artifacts .

(We should not forget that David Bowie is a staInside+David+Bowie+retrospective+features+rbPiViJ9bRTlge name and persona.  A friend once met David Bowie in a book shop and she approached him and asked are you David Bowie?  As he pulled down his shades, to reveal his eyes, he said to my friend, “Not today, love.”).

A portion of the David Bowie Is exhibit pauses in reflection upon Bowie’s 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live.  Behind the displayed costumes from that performance, in large lettering, a question is emblazoned: “David Bowie Revolutionary or Plagiarist?”  That question raises the dilemma of our understanding of authenticity and originality. bowie-2   It also comes at a point in the exhibition after which Bowie’s originality is troubled by having seen how David Bowie is collaborative, and draws not only inspiration but whole tropes (conceptual and visual) form various works and art forms.  Originality and authenticity is also troubled by Bowie’s system for conjuring of lyrics.  The exhibition has already challenged notions of authorial originality and intention.  So, one is prepared to see the question as a false dilemma.  Yet I also think it articulates how we fail to grasp tradition and how it functions.

As wild as David Bowie is, my experience of him , as presented in David Bowie Is, was as a traditional artist and not avant guarde.  Granted there is much in his performance that challenged convention and the status quo, but he is overtly and intentionally working with what he has received, and what others have abandoned and bringing what has been handed him  into a place of freshness and newness.   Part of what he receives as his career progress is “David Bowie” as a tradition to be mined. His own body of work becomes that which he receives and passes on to himself.

David Bowie fits within a tradition of entertainment, performance, art, and music.  David Bowie is also his own Tradition.

It perhaps is strange to think of Bowie as an unoriginal , inauthentic, and traditional performance artist who has challenged the status quo and created a unique persona and set of personas.  This is strange because we think that challenging the status quo occurs out of a place of authenticity and originality. We see tradition as only a conservative and static impulse.  Yet, if we see tradition as a dynamic moment of receptivity and creativity, then we can begin to look at the self-contradictory aspect of originality and authenticity:

Can any of us claim to be our own origin? can any of us be ourselves without dependence upon or reference to anything nor anyone else?  Don’t we all receive ourselves from others? Authenticity as originating only in the self and through independence consumes itself in an impossibility.

Bowie refuses the obsession with authenticity, embracing artifice and persona.  In so doing he puts himself in a place to receive a tradition of performance art that he then uses to create an astounding body of work.  In the body of work of “David Bowie” one doesn’t find the true authentic artist of an original body of work.  Rather one finds a body of work in conversation with a tradition of music and performance art (mime, fashion, theater, film, music), and a body of work that becomes its own tradition that is received and passed on.

David Bowie’s artistic body of work is overwhelming, shocking, wild, and creative, but it isn’t original.  The career and body of work received under the name “David Bowie” is possibly one of the best illustration of Jesus’ aphorism from the Gospel of Matthew: “The Scribes of the Kingdom are like one who brings out from the treasury what is both old and new.”  Such is what it means to be in a tradition, to have received a treasure out of which one brings both the old and the new.  Such is the body of work of David Bowie.

Granted David Bowie’s tradition isn’t a religious tradition but of performance, art, and music, and of “David Bowie” himself.  In this body of work we find what is both new and old, revolution and plagiarism. What we don’t find is an authentic original author, David Bowie. Such a singular and authentic origin doesn’t exist.  Or rather the origin and authenticity of David Bowie is found in others from whom he received what makes up “David Bowie.”

 

Icon of the Epiphany

EpiphanyBaptism

Yesterday was the feast of the  Epiphany.  In the west this feast is the celebration of the arrival  of the Magi and their adoration of the infant Jesus of Nazareth presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  In the east the Epiphany is the feast of the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan, the above icon is the icon of the Epiphany or Theophany.

The icon is rich.  In the lower portions of the icon in the water are the depictions of spirit manifestations of water, the figure with the wings and wild hair and a beard represents the Jordan river.  on the other side is Leviathan, these are the spirits the personifications of water.  Christ’s hand of blessing is not raised as in of the icons but is in the water, blessing the water.

Jesus stands in a way reminiscent of the crucifixion

Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf
Processional cross, Egg Tempera and gold leaf

feet and legs together, dressed only in a loin  cloth.

John the Forerunner’s preaching is represented by an ax laying against a bush, “…the ax is at the root…”

It is also, not surprisingly, a Trinitarian icon.  At the top God the Father, un-circumscribed of whom we can’t make any image, unknown but by the Son and the Spirit, is represented by the semi circle of blues and black.  The Spirit represented as the Gospels describe descending on Jesus of Nazareth as it is revealed (epiphany) that this human is God the Son.

And Angels Attend, (indicating Jesus Christ’s temptation in the desert, after which the Gospels say he was attended by angels.).

I painted this icon as a medallion, in part to strengthen the sense that God in Jesus Christ comes for the whole earth and all of creation, represented by the river and its spirit manifestations in the painting.  The extent of the realty hear represented is particular and universal, cosmic.  Salvation, Reconciliation, Liberation, is in this material world, in (re)connecting matter the created world with its source, the very Life of the world.  A great estrangement took place and God the Son, as Jesus of Nazareth comes, and we can see God, and find our true life, the life of the whole cosmos.  God is now forever part of the matter in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This radical act of God, is the very thing that makes possible the painting of icons.  If God had not become flesh and a human in the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, God would have remained beyond us.

The above icon of the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord is available in my Etsy shop, Prietly Goth Icons

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

holynativity

 

Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.

Longing for Justice in Absence: #StayWokeAdvent

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that WIN_20141130_143419the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)WIN_20141130_143444

This cry for God to act from the lectionary  for the First Sunday of Advent seems very fitting.  Calling on god to tear open the heavens.  Tear down the barrier between heaven and earth that keeps the kingdom from coming and God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what if this has happened?  What if the heavens were torn open and God has come down? (As depicted in these iconic depictions of the heaven opening.)  In Advent what we wait for, what we are awake to is that God has come in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.WIN_20141130_143332

The tearing of the heavens and God coming with justice happened. It happened in a very strange and nearly imperceptible way.  The nations, the powers, have been shaken.  Yet, we can be unaware, live as though all is lost.  Admittedly, in times like these, it doesn’t seem like this story has much relevance or meaning.  If true what good has it done for those who continue to suffer injustice, oppression, and death.

Isaiah, a few verses below the words above, wonders why God doesn’t act as in the time of Egypt , when God delivered Israel from the oppression of  Pharaoh and Egypt, the empire and power of the day. But think with me on that story:

Did Israel’s freedom from enslavement and oppression at the hands of the state power and government come because Pharaoh gradually made reforms and improved the conditions of the Hebrews?  Did the justice Isaiah recalls and longs for come from Pharaoh, or even with Pharaoh’s help and co-öperation?  No, it was wrested from pharaoh by God.

But in that wresting from Pharaoh the freedom of the Hebrews, God remained apart from humanity and creation in that moment of liberation.  God crushes the power of oppression, destroying its ability to exact its legal penalties, and it’s justice.  It was fearsome and violent, and at Mount Sinai the Israelites weren’t so sure what to make of all this shaking.

Now, when we speak of God’s advent, we are no longer speaking of the shock and awe that Isaiah is longing for in the tearing open of the heavens and God coming down. Yet, even so the heavens have been torn open and God has come down.

WIN_20141130_143456It is worth noting that this didn’t happen only once: God tore open the heavens in the incarnation, and then again as the Spirit came upon those followers of Jesus, to form the Church, on Pentecost.

Even so, none of this has brought a permanent end to injustice.  The heavens have been torn open and God descends… and then what… disappears?

Christians, (perhaps even the Church), are, and have been as much a part of oppression and injustice as working for liberation and justice.

There are questions… is something awakening?

We wait in darkness with not much light.  This is Advent and a place of deep longing.

For now lets sit with heavens torn open and God come down, but seemingly little shaken, and ask what is the source of justice and liberation?  What are we looking for, and who are we looking towards to provide it?

 

Wake up and Keep Awake: #StayWokeAdvent

I’ve kept mostly silent about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  On Social media I’ve attempted to direct people’s attention to Black and other voices from the margins around what happened and the continued unrest in the wake of the announcement of the grand jury’s decision.

In terms of white voices this post by Geoff Holsclaw is a good response from a position of privilege that is seeking to be open to move beyond privilege.

As the strange juxtaposition of the lit sign of Seasons Greetings and heavily armored police showed we are in the Holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving.  I’ve never particularly seen Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, and the attempts to make it a Christian Holiday have always struck me (even as a child) as strange.  As a child it was one of the few Holidays that my family celebrated that was really just about family.  Christmas and Easter were times for family to gather but they were first feasts of the Church. It’s not that God was absent from the celebration, but I don’t remember ever attending a worship service on or around Thanksgiving.  My Grandmother (on my mother’s side) was the daughter of a Swedish immigrants, My Grandfather (mother’s father )second generation Swedish American.  My father was a naturalized citizen of the United States, his family were refugees and displaced persons after World War II (a story for another post).  As immigrants who had been able to assimilate into White America we were genuinely thankful for the life we were able to lead in the U.S.  As for me as a child the story of Thanksgiving never really touched me.  It’s problematic and racist themes eventually came to mean that mostly Thanksgiving is an excuse and a means to see my family.

I say all this to draw attention to what looms on the horizon on Thanksgiving if one keeps the liturgical calendar of the Church: Advent.  The transition between Thanksgiving and Advent  always felt abrupt and jolting.   The pallid whitewashed soporific mythology of the Pilgrims was in stark contrast to the jarring scriptures of wakefulness and prophetic words anticipating God’s justice come in human flesh.  At Thanksgiving we were full and thankful, on the First Sunday in Advent we were in the dark, empty waiting for fulfillment.  Hopeful, yet aware of things being out of whack.  In Advent we were called to admit our failings and await God’s loving answer to our violence and hatred.  Thanksgiving pretended all was as it should be. Advent said we were still waiting, but the dawning transformation of the world was on its way.  In Advent we were to hunger for the righteous reign of God.

Clearly, the shooting of Michael Brown and now with the failure of a grand jury to indict Daren Wilson has jarred us from the whitewashed and soporific mythology of America that continues to be told on Thanksgiving.  Many of course want things to just calm down to not look at the reality that the system of America is and always has been racist, that since I’m deemed white I have privileges that people of color and certain blacks continue to not have.

We’ve had an Advent moment come before Thanksgiving, don’t be lulled back to sleep, Stay woke.  Being awake isn’t easy.  To open your eyes to the world and the systems we inhabit.  This Thanksgiving to be awake probably means to lament, to grieve and to confess.   Sure there are also reasons to be thankful, but I doubt it is for the reasons that the Thanksgiving mythology wishes us to believe, and the source of that goodness isn’t  from the god of the altar at which we are to burn the incense of our thanksgiving.  But then as a member of the body of Christ our Thanksgiving (Eucharist) isn’t the founding of another principality of the world but in one crucified by the systems of the world.  And this crucified one says wake up, stay awake.

This Advent, I encourage  saying awake by listening and waiting with Theology of Ferguson and Stay Woke Advent.

Social Media, Denominations, and Ecclesiology

Last week Drescher in The Narthex  analyzed the recent GTS conflict and possible resolution in terms of social media, its use by the GTS8 and the possible implications for denominational power dynamics and ecclesiology. The way the conflict has played out certainly has a great deal to do with social media and how the  GTS8 used it.  It is worth reflecting on the ways this would have played out differently before social media. Had this happened 10 to 15 years ago I probably would have read about the conflict, if I would have known about it at all, in the Christian Century of Christianity Today. As I’ve  sat  with  Drescher´s  article  I’ve  come to  think  my  difficulties  with the  piece  that I  briefly  outlined  here,  are  clarified  by my  asking  what’s  at stake  in her ecclesiological  claims for  social media.

If I’m  reading Drescher  correctly  what is  at stake  is  the possibility  of a more just  and truly  ecclesiological  functioning  of the  church ( read  denominations?),  made possible  by an  embrace  of social  media. Or  more to  the point, what’s at stake  for Drescher is that social media offers a way to truly fulfill the priesthood of all believers, in a rewiring of the church. What follows is my beginning to reflect upon the possible effects social media might have on the church and what that may or may not mean for our ecclesiology.

A side note to my reflection here: I’m not sure that the case study of the GTS8 shows social media put to use in a way that exemplifies the priesthood of all believers or even one where the powerless through social media have made the powerful hear them.  While professors and priests are seeing their positions of privilege and power decreasing in the society, still to be professors and clergy professors in what is essentially the Episcopal seminary, makes this case study more about two powerful factions within the Episcopal church.  Thus, I don’t see this as a conflict between the high-handed magisterial institutional and those without access to this magisterial institution, rather this is a conflict within the magisterial institution itself.  Granted the GTS8 stood to lose their standing within the institution and unjustly. However, even without social media I’m certain (but willing to be corrected) that the GTS8 would have in the least  had the ear of members of the magisterial institution, and would have had this ear because they walk quite freely in these halls of power.

The above quibble though shouldn’t ignore Drescher’s experience that social media drew in those who had no immediate connection with any of those in the debacle and that social media makes things public that at another time could have easily been and probably would have remained behind closed doors.  In short what Drescher is pointing out is that social media fosters networking, wider participation, and truth-telling.

That social media fosters networking and quick transmission of information about events and situations as they develop this can draw people into action and participation, but it seems to me it also (even in my engagement in social media) encourage and fosters by-standing, the rapidity of information can overwhelm and make it difficult to know what or how to act or even know if action is the correct response.  Some of Drescher’s positive claims about truth-telling and social media work mainly (it seems to me) when the sufferer of injustice is able to harness social media adeptly and those in power or the oppressor either doesn’t make use of social media or  is inept at harnessing the social technology. It becomes no easier to discern and know what is going on nor how to interpret the flurry of  claim and counter-claim when all parties are able to use social media equally well.  Also, social media can be used by anyone for the pursuit of their ends and can do so effectively. (e.g. One could argue that social media was used expertly to turn back a just decision by the board of World Vision concerning their gay employees.)

The shift I see isn’t necessarily towards the priesthood of all believers, though the connectivity of social media and it’s flattening effect may be harnessed in that direction, rather there is a shift in power based on who can best use the new technology.  This technology makes it possible to rapidly harness a wide-ranging network of people that with the old technology took much longer to build and required institutions like denominations to keep up and grow those networks.  With Social Media these can rise up (and just as quickly disappear as Drescher’s article tacitly recognizes), and it is more likely that those not at the centers of the old way of doing things are more comfortable with these new techniques of social organizing. The shift then is towards those who are comfortable with and have access to social media.

Ecclsiologically this new technology we call social media shows us that the old social technologies weren’t the church, but technological means to organize and divide (lets be honest, or perhaps more aptly to organize by dividing) Christians (and thus the church). Thus, social media does challenge the denominations attempt to claim exclusively “church” and “body of Christ”.  The old means of organizing weren’t unequivocally the church.

So, we should be very hesitant to claim that those who adeptly make use of social media are somehow incarnating the truer ecclesiology, because like all technologies social media isn’t unequivocal.  Whether the church in her essence is seen as a priesthood of all believers or as a holy ordering of bishop, priest, deacon, and people (though these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive ), social media can be harnessed for the living out our life together, and it may reveal some aspects of the church that have been neglected or hidden. However, it is the human heart and an openness to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that determines whether these means of organizing ourselves will be consistent with transforming work of the reign of God. Certainly social media has peculiar ways it can connect with this transforming work, but in our use of the technology we can undermine that possibility, just as our use of the old technologies undermined said possibilities.

The Meaning of Decline: Christianity, Religion, and Spirituality

Recently discussion of Lillian Daniel’s essay in 2011 and subsequent book on the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) and the need for institutional religious community, has been appearing in my social media streams and in a few blog posts.  This has dovetailed with two books I’d picked up recently. I wasn’t surprised but, I’m finding that we’ve been anxious about the possible decline of religious institutions and Christianity in the U.S.  for the past 40 years (Most if not all of my lifetime).

The first  book is from 1973, A Fire We Can Light, Martin E. Marty’s prognostications on the state of Christianity in the United States at that time.   Marty writes at a moment of an upsurge in religious fervor and conversion.  However,  Marty reports a lack of commitment to the trappings of religious institutions.  Marty puzzles over this growing interest in Christian faith that doesn’t care about American Christian institutions.  These movements were the Jesus People and what Marty calls new Pentecostals but soon would be called Charismatics.  Marty notes the interesting ways these groups have an unusual relationship to institutions.  The Jesus people are depicted as being unconcerned with doctrines or even consistency in beliefs, Jesus’ divinity, Resurrection and reincarnation are said to coincide in one person.  The new Pentecostals retain denominational identity but are an ecumenical phenomenon.  Marty anticipates both that these “Pentecostals” will have continuing effect in the various denominations (My wife is the daughter of some of these Pentecostals in the Episcopal Church), and that something like but unlike denominations will emerge out of this group, eventually Vineyard and other loose confederation of charismatic congregations (my mother-in-law, is currently in one of these congregations.)  However, Marty is concerned that these groups aren’t going to really contribute to the life of established religious institutions.  Reading A Fire we can Light now it is interesting, for there is an anxiety about decline and yet report on a great deal of dynamism in the religious (we might say now spiritual) landscape in the U.S.

The other book I’m reading is from 1996 (my first year at Fuller Theological Seminary) Robert Wuthnow’s Christianity and Civil Society.   The main thrust of the book is for another post, however, the questions addressed and raised by Wuthnow, are rooted in an anxiety about the relevance of religion in our culture and society.  He’s asking what if anything our religious institutions can or should contribute to Civil Society. In seeking to answer this question Wuthnow doesn’t  know what to do with the seemingly contradictory statistics about the importance of religion in the United States.  Reading this now I say, ah this seeming contradiction is that in the statistics we are seeing the emergence of what we’ve now label SBNR.  Yet scholars like Wuthnow and the writers of surveys hadn’t noticed that a distinction and line was being drawn between spirituality and religion.  Even now if I use the language of Religious Studies, SBNR are religious, just religious outside of traditional institutions. From a Religious Studies standpoint “institutions” aren’t’ the essential component to being religious, though at the same time Religious Studies has been adverse to essential definitions of religion, and have stuck to phenomenological ones.  So I can tell you this is an instance of religion but I can’t tell you why all instances of religion belong to that set.  But I digress, in apart because Wuthnow was well received in Religious Studies as well as Theological circles.  Wuthnow seeks to be upbeat, the most negative reports on religion he feels are exaggerated, because of the continuing reports of belief in God and the practices of prayer etc.  Even so, he can’t deny the decline of the “Mainline”.  From the data Wuthnow sees that Americans don’t seem to be any less religious then we have been especially if one looks over the long-term (and not simply comparing the 1990’s to the 1950’s).  Yet at the same time there does seem to be a decrease in interest in the religious institutions, specifically at this time represented by the decline in the formerly dominant religious institutions of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.  Even, so Wuthnow seeks to be optimistic about American religious institutions.

Both Wuthnow and Marty can’t quite make sense of the phenomena they are seeing and describing.  At first I just chalked it up to hindsight being 20 x 20.   But I was also intrigued by their difficulty of seeing genuine religious conviction and experience outside of the established institutions or even outside religion as an institution.  That this happens in the thought of Martin Marty a key figure in established Christian religion in the United States is understandable especially in 1973. However, it is more striking in 1996 from Wuthnow a prominent sociologist of religion to miss almost entirely what I already knew as at that time: people were already identifying as spiritual and not religious, it hadn’t become a thing “Spiritual but not Religious”.  Many of my friends and acquaintances were already expressing such sentiments in the late 1980’s, by 1996 to me this was old already simply the landscape in which I lived.  It was already obvious to me that people felt they had religious experience and faith outside of American institutions of religion.

So, what is in decline?  Does it matter?

It matter’s to people whose sense of religion and faith are dependent upon American religious institutions.    It matters because many people who may have named their experiences of transcendence and connection with God as religious and then found their way to Church are now calling that experience “Spiritual” and concluding not only that American religious institutions aren’t necessary to nurture their “spirituality” American Religious institutions (including mainline and progressive ones) stand in the way of nurturing spirituality.  And I think this evaluation is largely correct, and much religious institutional life in the U.S. was either useful in the 1950’s or always about these institutions captivity to values and outlook that have little to do with Church or Christian spirituality.  If so, then what is in decline isn’t religion or the Church or Christianity per se but certain trappings that either were only a very particular cultural adaptation or things set against the very values these institutions claimed to uphold, that is it’s  either dead wood or hypocrisy.  I say let it go, let it decline.

If your religious community is genuine it may shrink in this context, but it won’t disappear.  Sure American religion and the Church in America may not look like it has for the past 50 years (or may not look like, but that’s okay.

We need to embrace what’s happening and let things decline.  If we do, maybe some SBNR may see the Church as the  spiritual institution it is supposed to be.

We need to stop trying to preserve “religion” or “denominations”, but seek to follow Christ and be the Church in our time and place.  Sure that produces anxiety because we may get it wrong, and we don’t know what we are doing any more.  That’s the risk.

I’ll conclude with this anecdote:

This past Saturday I was at a gathering of Church Planters for the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.  In this meeting were African-American and Hispanic church planters.  A few  African-American church planter’s I talked to were coming out of large African-American congregation with programs and large attendance.  These pastors spoke wearily of how these congregations were full of “church people” who only interacted with themselves and of programs once created by these congregations to reach the community and now simply perpetuating themselves with no sense of what was actually going on in the community.  These pastors were becoming church planters because these “church people” and institutions were  a barrier to the Gospel.  A Hispanic pastor spoke of the difficulty of starting a Hispanic church plant in neighborhoods that are diverse and thus missing whole groups of their neighbors because everything they do as a congregation is in Spanish and for Spanish speakers.  This was perceived as a negative limit and not being responsive to the environment in which they as a congregation existed.  These are insiders, those committed to religious life, saying American Religious institution (even those of ethnic immigrants having their separate institutions, denominations and congregations) works against the values of the Church and the Gospel.

Perhaps it’s time for these things to decline and pass away.  Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions, and American Religious institutions don’t need to be saved or preserved.

Theophany – Baptism of Christ Icon

Stages of the Nearly completed Theophany icon.  If interested in this icon it will be available in my  Priestly Goth Icons Etsy shop in September.

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