Sunday, August 15, 2010

The words of the prophets in the age of information

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL. Aug 15, 2010. Proper 15C.

It is often pointed out that we live in the “information age” or that our economy has become an “information economy”. What that means, of course, is that first, we are bombarded with vast amounts of information. This information comes in the form of the spoken and written word, but it also comes in the form of images. It is transmitted via print, radio, television, movies, and the internet. It also means that we are an information economy because more and more people make their livings creating and composing the information that we receive or in creating and maintaining the infrastructure by which the information is transmitted and received.

It seems to me that this information takes at least two primary forms: First and foremost is entertainment. We could literally spend every moment of our lives being entertained. Turn on the radio or television, put a CD on the stereo, pick up a book (yes, there are people who still read), or sign on to the internet. There are sitcoms, dramas, soap operas, comedies, and a million other forms of entertainment. Fortunately, there is still something in the human heart and mind that craves engagement with other creatures of flesh and blood; otherwise, we might starve to death in a semi-hypnotic state in front of our televisions.

The second form of information is information per se. We are also subject to a constant stream of so-called news, journalism, or current events. It seems that we’ve been hearing about the Gulf oil spill for years, not months. Television journalists have interviewed every fisherman and all the restaurant and hotel owners on the Gulf coast. Information also takes the form of emails, memos from the boss, newsletters from the neighborhood watch, your college alumni organization, or Zionist Environmentalists for Peace in Afghanistan.

Philosopher Marshall McLuhan distinguished between “hot” and “cool” forms of information transmission. “Hot” transmission leaves little or nothing to the imagination; “cool” transmission requires fairly intense engagement. I think church, then, is a “cool” form of information exchange. You have to make the effort to get out of bed, shower, dress, get in the car and drive here. You have to sit, stand, or kneel in response to the liturgy. You have to read the service leaflet; respond in the appropriate way at the appropriate time; find the right hymn in the hymnal and so on.

In other words, church is terribly anachronistic. These days most of the information we receive is “hot”; it requires little or no engagement or participation from us. And that is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to persuade people to come to church, especially an Episcopal Church. The church’s “cool” information is hard-pressed to compete with the millions of forms of “hot” information all around us.

Here’s another way to think about it: Not very many years ago the fastest growing city in the U.S. was Las Vegas. What is the principal industry in Las Vegas? Entertainment. My friend John Killinger who taught preaching at Vanderbilt for many years interpreted that fact to mean that the church was losing ground because people were putting a premium on being entertained and the rapid growth of Las Vegas was just a symptom of that phenomenon. Think about it: The local parish church cannot compete with show girls and magicians, much less with Oprah Winfrey and Taylor Lautner of the Twilight movies. And the churches that are successful have adopted a show business format for their worship services. The mega churches have orchestras or at least heavily amplified “praise bands”. They project the lyrics of the “worship songs” on screens in front of the church. (Note that music sung in such churches is never called a hymn; The word “hymn” sounds much too old fashioned.) And in some of these churches the worship leaders’ faces are visible via closed circuit television on screens in every part of the building. No wonder the Episcopal Church is losing members!

But I also have to say that even though these mega-churches have adopted an entertainment format for worship, some of them do a wonderful job of feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and helping people who have lost jobs find new ones. Some of the pastors of these churches are prophetic in the best sense of the word. For the most part, I believe Rick Warren at the Camel Back Community Church in California is one such pastor. But I also believe that many pastors preach “lowest common denominator sermons”. There is one pastor of a mega-church whose face I see multiplied dozens of times whenever I pass the book section at Walmart or Target or any such place. He urges people to live their “best life now” but I wonder what he does with texts such as “take up your cross and follow me.” His youthful, happy face makes me think that he has never suffered, never felt one moment of doubt. If that is so, how can he possibly help lonely, hurting people? But I digress..

I want to suggest that something is missing from the “hot” information all around us, and Jeremiah puts his finger squarely on the issue: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back-- those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” The information age is marvelous at transmitting entertainment and facts, but it has no place for the prophetic word. In other words, the information age tells us what we want to hear but not what we need to hear; it fills our eyes and ears with dreams but not with anything that really challenges us.

Imagine NBC or Fox or HBO announcing a new series: “The Last Prophet Standing” or “The Prophet Files” or “Meet the Prophets”. And every week Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Isaiah or someone like them would spend 30 minutes or an hour lambasting us for neglect of the poor or propping up military dictatorships or just our own personal shallow spirituality and failure to cultivate a deep relationship with God. Before you could say “Nielsen rating” it would be cancelled.

So that is part of the reason that it is so difficult to get people to go to church. Every week someone reads aloud words such as these of Jeremiah: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name….” Or these words of Jesus: “"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” And I make an effort to apply these words to our lives today. And the culture says, “No thanks; I think I’d rather watch re-runs of Law and Order.”

We (and I really mean all of us, myself included) would rather listen to easy words, smooth words. We don’t want to hear what the prophets have to say. We don’t want our dreams troubled. We prefer “hot” information to “cool” information.

Now, it would be easy for me to stop there. It would be easy for me to deliver a diatribe against a culture that does not have a place for the hard and challenging words of the prophets. But I think there is a word especially for St. Alban’s in today’s readings. I want to challenge you, me, and all of us to listen for the hard words that God might have to say to us.

One of the ways that you can tell the true prophets from the false ones is that the true ones always challenge us. They will invariably tell us the things that we do not want to hear. Perhaps I have not said enough about St. Alban’s and its future. Perhaps I should more frequently talk about the hard choices we need to make to be faithful. If I have failed in that, I ask God’s forgiveness and yours. St. Alban’s and just about every Episcopal Church I know faces a very rocky road. We are all going to have to work very hard to get people in the pews. We have to remember that the church has both a front door and a back door, and we have to make sure that more people are coming in the front door than are going out the back door.

If we are faithful and St. Alban’s grows and changes, here are some of the things that will happen:

  • There will be conflict
  • Households will be divided
  • Children and their parents will be alienated from one another
  • Some people will even leave the church

Of course, some of that will happen even if we do not grow and change. In other words, there is healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict. How can know the difference?

If our conflict is healthy, if it occurs because we are trying to do God’s will, here is what will also happen:

  • God will strengthen us
  • Jesus will be with us
  • Our light will shine so brightly that people will be drawn here

I am not bold enough to say that any of this is the “word of the Lord,” but I think it might be God’s word to St. Alban’s right now. However, we will only know that if we try it and find it difficult and challenging but ultimately life-giving.