Friday, December 02, 2005

Friday Link: The Siren Song of Excellence

I surfed by Dan Edelen's Cerulean Sanctum for the first time today, and ran across a great post entitled The Hidden Messages of American Christianity: Kneeling at the Altar of Excellence. I have written some about this --often in terms of our worshipping 'effectiveness', which is a term nearby to excellence.

The really striking bit of the Cerulean Sanctum post is the quotation from Oscar Wilde's story "The Happy Prince", which he weaves in well to his overall point.

The upshot of it all is, why is so much of the American church (or at least the suburban megachurches and their kin) so fixated on slick, glossy, professional excellence, when the gospel calls us to self-giving love on behalf of the other, a love which, when we see it in the Son of God, drives him, with blood and sweat and tears, to the iron piercing and rough-hewn wood of the cross?

As I am generally quick to point out, the built environment carries a great deal of our message: these churches who worship excellence frequently have no cross in evidence. Doesn't this support the idea that the worship of excellence is at odds with the cross, when the cross cannot even found in our worship?

Part of the argument, as Mr. Edelman heard Bill Hybels say, is that "unchurched Harry and Mary couldn’t tolerate a church service that wasn’t excellent and just as slick as anything you’d find on TV." I guess I want to ask: "Who says?" Or at least who, other than Bill Hybels and those who follow him? And to what extent is this a self-fulfilling prophecy, as new churches sprout up which give nothing but slick and glossy surface, and build up peoples' appetites for this sort of thing?

I had the profound displeasure of watching Joel Osteen preach on TV one Sunday when I was in Philadelphia for AAR/SBL. I just flipped on the TV while getting ready to go to a real church. I don't usually do that, I'm not sure why I did. But when I saw it was Osteen I remembered an article on him that I had read about in Christian Century a couple of months back, so I kept him on. Three things hit me:

First, the preaching was insipid. There was only scant and superficial attention paid to any biblical text, and the only thing that Osteen seemed to have in mind was solving individual problems in individual lives. It was self-help and pop-psychology and feel-good talk. There was no sense of our being caught up in a story larger than ourselves, no sense that there was a larger world out there that demanded preaching on anything more than how to keep peace in the home, no sense of Kingdom, no sense of God.

Second, everything was slick and glossy surface, from the audience (I durst not call them a congregation), to the stage, to Joel himself. Top production value for the folks at home.

Third, the message from the built space and the camera angles was clear. While Joel was preaching, the cameras would focus on him for a while, and then switch to looking over his shoulder at the audience, which was vast, filling an entire former major league sports stadium. The juxtapositioning of him and the audience seemed to convey, clearly, that here he was, and here are all these people who have come out to hear him. The message is success, excellence; but the focus is on Joel Osteen, and how he's going to help us, not on God -- and that's a problem.

And to the extent that this accurately represents vast swathes of the church in America, or at least growing trends in major segments of the church, that is even more of a problem. Because if we've dispensed with God, what do we have left?

(While you're cruising by Cerulean Sanctum, you might also check out his other posts on the Hidden Messages of American Christianity, Classism, and Correctness Before Love. He will, I think, be posting more in time. Although Dan might come from a more evangelical perspective than I (or many readers) do, I think he is accurate in his diagnoses, and that we can find these elements in one form or another in most corners of the American church.)


Blogger Dan Edelen said...


Thank you for the link and the kind words. I appreciate what you have to say on this topic of excellence. Glad you enjoyed the Wilde, too.

As for me, I'm not quite if I'm evangelical by modern evangelical American standards. I'm kind of a throwback. Plus, I'm a charismatic in the Welsh Revival and Keswick fashion, and those of us who label ourslelves such are quite few. And I grew up in the Lutheran Church, too. Call me a mongrel in the faith.

Blessings on your blogging.

Sunday, December 04, 2005 7:00:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...


Thanks for coming by the Street!

I honestly think that most of us -- quite possibly all of us -- are mongrels in the faith. I wasn't trying to nail you down (sorry if it seemed like it). For various reasons I'm generally fairly reticent to accept labels myself, not least because they reliably fail to capture the subject.

All of which is to say: thanks for your great posts on the Hidden Messages of American Christianity, and it's great to 'meet' a brother and fellow-traveller.


Sunday, December 04, 2005 8:27:00 PM  

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