Some of you don’t remember 1985, but I do. I remember 1980! And though there wasn’t exactly a well-formed statement or complaint, I sensed early on there was a cultural disappointment that we hadn’t got our jet packs yet. I’m not sure about 1980, but by 1985, jet packs were behind schedule!
Think about that a minute.
Sure, this is not a well-defined phenom I describe, but if I sensed it, I bet others did too. There was definitely a sense of progress in the air as the stock market roared to life and everyone’s standard of living seemed to rise with the tide. But there were these nagging disappointments about how utopia was so close yet remained just out of reach. (AIDS?) At least we had futuristic hair and clothing styles! (Parachute pants?)
And if there’s one thing about living a life of faith, it’s that the temptation subtle (not overt) to move God out of the driver’s seat when things are good, and, baby, God was very much moved out of the driver’s seat (subtly, of course) in the 1980s. We complained about it too, but that was just lip service, really. A political talking point for vanity’s sake, and not much more.
These are my subjective memories and experience, sure, and as such should be modified before accepted willy-nilly. But I bet others recognize the picture I paint. There is something to it. I will freely admit, between my age (as an impressionable youth), the time, and the place(s), personal influences impact my presentation. But, as I see it, “God” has evolved quite a lot over the course of my life.
My faith heritage was a particularly hardcore sect of American Protestantism. It would be easy, for outsiders, to say we were evangelicals, but not for an insider, and even as an outsider, you would see us as an outlier on that graph. We were “people of the book” on steroids. Passages like Hebrews 13:8 would create a very rigid image of God for us. But the world around us was becoming so fluid that we didn’t see the changes even within ourselves.
Like the elephant in an alcoholic’s room, Darwin’s evolution owned Monday through Friday, the dirty devil owned Saturday, leaving only Sunday for Jesus. Sunday and (well, okay) an hour every Wednesday night.
Think I exaggerate?
The science teacher at our school was a member of our church. He was the one teaching Darwin and evolution M-F, but piously sitting through stale worship with the rest of us on Sunday. Oh sure, in our small, conservative town in that day and age, he would spend a moment or two qualifying the lesson plan with his double-minded devotion, since practically all 30 kids in his class were “Christian” of one brand or another, and he would tell us we needed to learn this stuff to get along in the world, to pass the test, to get a diploma, so that you can go to college and get a job. We had to pay the devil these dues.
Really? As a man of God, a member of the “people of the book,” did he find God authorize that?
No. He didn’t.
Yet no one challenged this.
Sitting there in a classroom (or church building) lit by electric lightbulbs, invented by scientists and engineers who did not learn this power from Jesus, but from science, the evolution was subtle, but powerful. No one had to pray for light; you just flicked a switch, and like magic, the power was at your fingertips. Absentminded power of unbelievable proportions, no need to pray for it.
I feared hell, of course, but that was all mythical in nature. I feared Jason in Friday the 13th like that. My real fear, the one that had my parents’ generation running drills and taking cover under their school desks, was nuclear war.
I went to the mall each weekend not realizing I was hypnotized by “the Gruen effect”* or that merchants, even from ancient times, create artificial worlds that entrap the human imagination – sometimes inventing problems so they can sell you the new and improved solutions! And anyway, some of those boutiques offered tantalizing pictures and gadgets a twelve-year-old has no business looking at. But I found them with no parents around to intervene.
And who took me to the mall in the first place?
It was de facto permission. Shoot, almost an invitation! They could hardly have engineered this exposure more if they rolled out a red carpet!
With God’s turf whittled down to Sundays and a brief moment on Wednesdays, everything quietly and subtly became clear to my impressionable, young mind. When my family sat down to eat homecooked meals together, we offered prayer before we ate, but when we sat down to a meal at Taco Bell or Luby’s, we did not. Someone still offered a prayer along with a ceremonial raising of the flag and the national anthem at the ball game, but this was not real worship; this was a token of a bygone era, as much for the benefit of beer drinkers as Christians.
God was getting small while the rest of us got high.
We made mention of our freedom of religion in political discourse, but of course the “Christians” were already divided and conquered in Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal enclaves by that point, and the discussion remained generic mostly except that it addressed abortion, prayer in school, or homosexuals and AIDS. In fact, I was a little embarrassed by “the moral majority,” not for flexing power, but for being such fuddy-duddy, goody-two-shoes and daring to address the larger world, the turf already surrendered to Darwin by God. These impotent do-gooders didn’t know their place!
I never would have said these things in those days, but I was feeling them. That’s how it works being subtle and double-minded.
In the faith heritage-sect I grew up in (and others too, I presume), we held “the health-n-wealth gospel” in ridicule. This was the one place where God seemed to be growing. Maybe we were secretly envious. Not so much of the hair and makeup of the wives on their televangelist shows, but for how that in a world of Reagan and “greed is good” investments (and movies), the health-n-wealth gospel found a way to be relevant. Either way, this was the evolution of God.
I look back now and see how sexist, racist, and “homophobic” (I have trouble with that term) it all was. We have evolved since those days! Our evolved God is now tolerant. Women preach and lead worship now, we either endorse (or quietly turn a blind eye to) homosexuality, and we fashionably feel bad about our continued racial segregation(s) and inequities. All these things we thought led us to hell when I was a kid, but of course that was our mythical fear even then.
I mention all of this now on this blog because since it is my lived experience, this is the kind of thing I find behind our ecclesial neglect and mistreatment of the poor. We don’t even see it; our God has evolved so much! That utopian dream Reagen brought us so close to before dovetails nicely with a “God bless America” bumper sticker and we take it and live with our Diet Coke version of health-n-wealth gospel.
Oh yes. We ALL preach health-n-wealth gospel now. It’s just that some of us aren’t as flamboyant about it as others. But there ain’t nobody at my old school preaching or embracing downward mobility. No. We want retirement plans that match those of the people to whom we preach, and that’s the kind of preachers they want preaching to them.
If Jesus is really the same yesterday, today, and forever, then someone should be selling off all their wealth and giving it to the poor (whether a rich man like in Mark 10 or a poor church like in Acts 2 and 4). Rich visitors with gold rings should be sitting at our feet while the poor enjoy equity in our assemblies. But instead, we write and gobble up books about “when helping hurts,” send the poor to our soup kitchens in a galaxy far, far away across the tracks, and join annual service projects while deploying social workers to help poor folx become financially independent – hopefully remaking them in our image.
And we fretted the loss of “prayer in school” and the teaching of “evolution” when I was a kid. No one seemed to notice that “God” was evolving. No one seems to notice that his transformation is nearly complete now. Maybe if we make America great again, we will finally have him remade in our image!
*”The Gruen Effect.” Google this for more info, but it is the name given the retailer’s phenom where they attract you to stay in the store and spend more money than you planned on upon arrival.