Defining Faith v Religion - Part 3
God, I love the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. If you haven't seen it, then you are just wrong. Rent it online or go to your local used DVD store and pick it up. For those of us who are 'children of the 80's', this film--directed by an honorary philosopher and poet of our generation, John Hughes--was practically a right of passage. Into what, I'm still not sure. But damn it, it gets you there!
One of the iconic moments of the movie is barely over a minute long and yet it effectively launched Ben Stein's career in entertainment. In it he brilliantly portrays the droning, high-school history teacher that we have all had in various manifestations. As he blathers on about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, the students boredom-induced responses run the range from one girl's threatening death stares to another guy waking up in a puddle of his own saliva. Recalling this moment in the film got me thinking. As much as I wish that life was like ditching school, stealing a Ferrari from your best friend's dad, joy-riding it all over Chicago on a perfectly sunny day, and pulling of an epic lip-syncing of Twist and Shout surrounded by a half-dozen beautiful women and thousands of parade-goers, more often than not...it's not.
couldn't leave well enough alone
So several months ago I wrote a two part series that sought to define what I believe to be the mutually exclusive terms of 'faith' and 'religion'. I thought I was done. But then, like in Hollywood, I couldn't leave well enough alone. I felt compelled to make The Dark Knight Rises...or hopefully something better, like Toy Story 3. OK, no more movie references! Let me get on with it and share two more defining characteristics, one each for faith and religion, which will hopefully serve as either encouragement or a warning sign as we tarry on in our spiritual journey.
"Are you not entertained?"
OK, I lied. One more movie reference! Remember the classic scene in Gladiator where Russel Crowe's character, Maximus, fights his first match in a literal theater made for human barbarism? After slicing and dicing his way through an initial barrage of competitors, the reluctant warrior screams at his blood-thirsty audience, "Are you not entertained!?" This isn't done to join with the crowd in celebrating another good show, but rather to shame them for sinking to such depths of depravity.
You see, there are two forms of entertainment: one that engages and inspires change and impact and another that simply passes the time and numbs us to responsibility by appealing to our shallowest of desires. When it comes to the latter, I cannot think of a finer example than that of the modern American 'worship' experience.
welcome to the show!
Chairs are important. Got to have the newest, thickly-padded chairs. And when it comes to worship as a "living sacrifice" as the Apostle Paul described it, we all know that lighting is the key to achieving true transformation. Red and magenta are sure-fire winners. Oh, and if you can add a fog machine! Boom! You are almost guaranteed to enter the Holy of Holies...every...single...time. Mix in the most charismatic and least-offensive preacher you can find and keep the whole show...I mean service...to ideally seventy-five minutes or less, and someone on Yelp is bound to declare that this church has 'a great worship service'.
Think this sarcastic rant is an unfair characterization? Ask pastors what percentage of their congregants participate in other activities of the church that happen outside of Sunday morning. Quickest way to shrink your attendance? Announce an all-prayer meeting or service project. Want a cult-like following and status as the newest 'must see' church in town? Hire a rock star 'worship leader' who previously scored and occasionally still moonlights as a professional recording artist in the half a billion dollar Christian music industry. I've personally heard former colleagues in 'the ministry' say that if you can't "knock it out of the park" on Sunday morning, your church is as good as dead.
And don't make the mistake of assuming that this is a new development. Religion has always rallied to supposedly sacred ceremony as the pinnacle of worship, thereby reducing faith to a form of holy entertainment. Even the ancient practice of the Eucharist--which in the end entails stuffing and slurping down our gullets some Costco sample-sized bread and juice--is declared in Catholicism as "the source and summit of the Christian life." Human nature, being what it is, will always gravitate to the least amount of pain and boredom it can conjure up. Religion just keeps coming up with new and creative ways to 'give the audience what it wants.'
In contrast, faith is boooor-iiiiing! Seriously, the best word I found for it is 'mundane'. As an edjective, the word means, "dull and ordinary" and "relating to ordinary life on earth rather than to spiritual things."
That's perfect! Faith is inherently worldly. The words 'faith' and 'spirituality' are actually antonyms. We are always trying to connect faith to a grand eternal plan, when the real essence of faith is grounded in the common now. It's found in somehow rallying the will to be loving to my cat when it has yet again desecrated my front porch with the partial remains of some poor, unfortunate rodent. Faith is seen in working when I don't want to work. It's helping out some jack-ass who forgot to put gas in his car. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Faith is loving when you are tired of doing it and you see absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe the light is you surprising yourself that you somehow managed to put up with life without being a total dick in the end.
the high call of exploring boredom
I actually feel excited about exploring ordinary boredom as the supreme act and pinnacle of faith, like a student who is 'expecting God to show up' as he or she faithfully sits through an annoying presentation on voodoo economics. It just feels like there is real depth there in contrast to the more aesthetically pleasing presentation that passes for 'worship' these days. Who knows!? Perhaps by mowing my lawn along with trimming my neighbors overgrown weed garden on Sunday morning, I've actually been engaged in worship more than lifting my hands in exaltation to the almighty projector screen.
But perhaps you would rather "take the blue pill". If that's the case, then let me conclude by sharing with you something I would like to call, 'The Honest Benediction'. You are free to pass it on to your pastor or priest next time you see him or her, or to use it yourself if you are professional clergy. It goes like this...
As we leave this house of worship, may you quickly forget all that was said and sung but for the general, warm feeling of non-committal contentment.
May your 'constructive criticism' on how to improve the service, which you inscribed anonymously on the back of a connection card, be well received by the spiritual leaders to whom the care of your soul is entrusted. May you be endowed with Divine patience and an open checkbook as they seek to find a better Worship Leader and a more entertaining children's ministry Director.
May God's favor lead you to the best parking space and the shortest line at your favorite post-service restaurant.
And may God's blessings but not his commandments be present with all of us each day, until we meet again.