I believe it's important for us - whatever group we claim allegiance to - to occasionally take a look at ourselves through the eyes of others, no matter how negative their views may be. So when I came across the book The Great Derangement by Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, I was intrigued. In reading the book, I never quite felt sure where Taibbi was headed and though it was an entertaining read, I still felt a bit baffled when I concluded. His purpose seemed to me to be to demonstrate that America is full of crazies and is headed down the tubes.
To pursue his thesis Taibbi places himself with different degrees of feigned sincerity into four different "subcultures" - the military, a newsman in Congress, the 9/11 Truthers movement and a mega-church. It is his experiences in the church that occupy the largest portion of the book, as well as my interest.
Though Taibbi comes across as a cynical atheist, in his dealings with the church, his descriptions of his experiences, though saddening, are fascinating and entertaining. I found it hard to put the book down. I have no idea why he chose the church that he did - John Hagee's Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. Perhaps because its pastor comes across even to us non-cynics as clownish, both in his preaching style and his TV appearance.
[Note: I have no sympathy for Mr. Hagee. I believe that his "Christian Zionism" is a politicization of a false theology. His unquestioning endorsement of the nation of Israel has led him to a "two-Messiah" heresy which denies that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews.]
Taibbi describes his experiences in the church, beginning with a 3-day weekend retreat. He goes through a "conversion," baptism and even speaking in tongues (which he accomplishes by reciting Russian poetry). He prays aloud and sings praises, all the while holding a contemptuous and unsympathetic attitude toward his deluded fellow-worshippers. But what struck me was an unexpected lengthy confession he makes in the middle of his narration of all his hypocritical play-acting on his 3-day retreat.
"After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship, and praise - ... an unending regimen of forced and fake responses - a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along ..., telling people how blessed you feel, and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene ... outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. ... that 'inner you' begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest ... while the outer me did the 'work' of singing and praising. ... which one is the real you?"
"You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked. For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your 'sinful' self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. ... so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really? ... it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment. I feared for my normal."
Taibbi's confession took an entire page, I had to go back and re-read it; and then I did so again. I read it aloud to Uni. Here in the midst of Taibbi's cynical criticisms of his fellow-"worshippers" was a page full of un-cynical honesty! What to make of it?
It raised questions in my own mind. Could - should - I make a similar confession? Have I, at least at times worn "a sort of mechanical Christian skin"? Have I been guilty of "checking out into ... daydreams" in the middle of worship? Have I simply gone through "robotic motions of praise"?
I'm afraid that there are many times I'd have to answer "Yes" to all of these questions. While Taibbi was afraid of his experience affecting his "normal" - his cynical atheism, I am afraid for my "normal" - the reality of my Christian life.
Yes, we'd have a biblical/theological explanation for this phenomenon. We'd say that this is worship "in the flesh." But somehow having a phrase for this isn't comforting. Worshipping in the flesh with our mind disengaged and with the Spirit disengaged, is easy to do. Do I fit the description Jesus gave when He said, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me?" (Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13)
The Sunday after I read this, I was very self-conscious in our Church worship service. As I found myself going through the motions of worship my mind wandered - not to daydreams but to self-examination. Is this real? I glanced around at those worshipping around me, singing, clapping, and raising their hands, amening. Is this real for them?
I am not questioning the validity of my faith, or that of my fellow worshippers. But I am saying that our external Christian behavior can be unreal. I often have thoughts - disconnected and irrelevant thoughts - running through my mind during worship at church or even prayer at home. At times the very words used in worship can suggest other directions for our minds to follow. I'm not speaking here of evil or greedy or lustful thoughts, however, just thoughts of any kind that distract from the reality of worship. And of the ability to keep up the motions of worship while those thoughts are going on.
Lord, I do confess that my worship has often been carried on in the flesh. Cleanse me from that sin and give me the grace to worship you with my mind and in Your Spirit.