|September 12, 2010
THE WIDE DIVIDE IN AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
Based on how Jesus Christ is incorporated into faith, traditional Christianity in America has evolved into a spectrum of idiosyncratic faiths anchored at either end by two main forms. For example, type A is a highly structured institution with a clearly defined hierarchy having clearly defined creeds, confessions, and rituals. Churches of this type commemorate Jesus Christ in ritual and eventually ingest him. At the other end of the spectrum, Type Z by comparison is completely unstructured. There is no hierarchy, confession, creed, or ritual. Jesus (not Jesus Christ) is idealized, idea-ized, and mentally assimilated. Between these two extreme views lie almost innumerable ways of responding to the original “impetus” initiated by the Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth.
Type A: Words are important. At this end of the spectrum, the communion elements (bread and wine) of the sacred “meal” are magically transformed through the priest’s verbal formula into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Thus, when the believer eats and drinks these elements, he or she is eating and imbibing bread-and-wine-become-Jesus Christ. The idea of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ is a very early tradition. For example Ignatius a, second century writer, in arguing against those he considered heretics claimed that the heretics did “not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior” (Smyrnaeans 7:1). He described the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote preventing death, but leading to life in Jesus Christ forever” (Ephesians 20:2). Even earlier, in the first century, the Gospel of John reports Jesus saying “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:54-55). Of course, one cannot really be certain that these statements are meant literally. Like everything written, they are subject to interpretation, but the official position of the modern churches of type A is that the elements of the Eucharist become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ—but who knows what goes on in the minds of those who ingest and imbibe. The mental stance of those who celebrate Christ’s death in this way may range from the doing of a perfunctory act (with no conscious reflection on the act) to an attitude that shares the official view of the church.
I described it as a “magical” transformation, but people who believe that the transformation actually happens would likely describe it as a “spiritual” change. With such a designation one has evoked a shadowy world of “spirit”—a sort of fourth dimension only available in our three dimensional universe to those of certain mindsets.
In type Z, feelings—not words, are important. Type Z is not institutional but rather spontaneously experiential—an ephemeral uncontrolled moment in wide spectrum of Christianity. It has no official connection to organized institutional Christianity. People who share in type Z activities might participate in a traditional Christian congregation; on the other hand, except for an early brush with “church” in the parental family home or an occasional exposure to religious programs in the public media, they might have no formal connection to any organized “church.” What provides “form” to type Z, if that is the right word, is not official religious structure but Christian gospel/country music. There are no religious services as such, or defined groups, but anyone who shares the “communal muse” can meet for regular “gospel” jam sessions in various locations to perform gospel songs—and their own music written to celebrate Jesus. The music is not consciously theological, but based on personal experience; biblical themes may be drawn on, and romanticized (i. e., the song writer relates the theme from the perspective of the song writer’s own personal religious experience and feeling; nothing is dictated by creed or informed by history). The words of the songs do not fit into specific confessional parameters, but each individual song writer celebrates his or her own personal experience “with Jesus.”
In type Z Jesus (the title “Christ” is, perhaps, too formal for this environment) is an ideal in the mind of each song writer. What is celebrated in the music is not the Jewish man that lived in Palestine in the first century but rather an eternal Spirit—on whom is projected all of the ideal attributes of the traditional Christian God. The primary focus on Jesus tends to marginalize God as the one who acts in believers’ lives and thus inspires the music. The one who acts and inspires is Jesus the eternal Spirit. God may be a default assumption, since God is needed to authorize Jesus, but God is clearly not the focus of adoration.
Actually, there is a parallel in Greek religion for the decline and rise of Gods. One early God in Greece, for example, was Cronos, who was eventually killed by his son Zeus, who then in turn became king of the Gods. Eventually Zeus himself fell into decline—he became obsolete in the ancient world being eclipsed by the Christ. So the emergence of a kind of “Jesus worship” that marginalizes the God of Hebrew and Christian faith should not be surprising. There are precedents.
Except for the exalted role Jesus plays in these two extreme types, there appears to be little in common between the types. As it is today, so it was in antiquity: there never has been only one way to construe Jesus. In today’s Christianity Jesus has become an ideal eternal Muse, who acts in the life of believers, and inspires not only organizations of faith, but even a formless musical faith. Jesus the eternal Spirit is like Lady Wisdom, who “in every generation . . . passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27).
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:30am
Hey, Dr. Hedrick,
Actually this has nothing to do with the “Wide Divide in American Christianity” that appears in Charlie’s latest blog post. Instead it is encouragement for readers to heed Charlie’s imperative to “Read My New Book”. I did and I can say that this is not a book to miss. I’ve been fiddling with the Gospel of Thomas in one way or another for close to four decades and I have no qualms about saying this is probably the tidiest, most concise and most coherent book dealing with Thomas to have come along in many years (and maybe the best news is that you don’t need tap your 401k to buy it- thanks Wipf & Stock).
Charlie, I had never thought about Type Z before but you're exactly right--the gospel music is the glue that holds this religious experience together. For example, each August, the Alfred E. Brumley Gospel Sing is held at the civic center in Lebanon, and smaller versions are all around this area. The format includes various traveling gospel singing groups plus the occasional pastor making a prayer or a personal testimony by the moderator or one of the singers as to how God had come into one's life. No sermon--in fact everyone who gets to the stage limits his/her comments. The music is the ingredient that allows everyone to go home feeling spiritually fulfilled. I'm a native Ozarker (Ava and Douglas County), and these "Type Z" gatherings go back for probably 100 years or more. I remember them as a child there in the 1950s.
From where, I wonder, do you draw your Z example?