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Stealing the Sunday Sermonette: Has Jesus Jumped the Shark? - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
Stealing the Sunday Sermonette: Has Jesus Jumped the Shark?
(The theft, disclosed from the top, is from bill_sheehan, a nearly-ordained now-atheist who graces us with his thoughts every week. You should read them.)

It's hell in the writers' room. (Also, rather stinky, since so many of the showrunners have been dead for going on 2000 years.) Ratings have been way down and are heading even further south, as recently confirmed by their equivalent of Neilsen.  The moment may be coming- may indeed have passed- where this long-running series will resort to some kind of stunt to turn things around. Most millennials, even some of us older folks, know the term for this, deriving from the classic 70s comedy Happy Days which, faced with declining numbers, decided to put the Fonz on water skis. The resulting scene sent him over a shark and the show's reputation over a barrel:

When will, or did, the Church do this? Perhaps, as Bill speculates today, it was as early as the third century, when the Christian religion and politics first mixed in a bad way and we got stuck with the "mystery" of the Holy Trinity. Maybe it was more recently, when "prosperity gospel" enabled the likes of Joel Osteen to beg for money while living in luxury that Jesus would have decried with weird metaphors about camels and needles.  Or it's just the slow creep of what Tom Lehrer encouraged to be done "if you really want to sell the product," adding rock bands to the chancels and raffling off iPads in the leather seats formerly known as pews.

That last part is part of it, but it's not It. Rather, it's arguable (and here's a good argument for it, titled Jesus Doesn't Tweet) that the old-school elements of Christian ceremony are what we all relate to. We want our smells and bells, and the sacraments that can't be duplicated at an atheist's Sunday Assembly or in any secular setting.  But we want them in connection with a message and a mission, which need to be consistent, and loving, and, yes, interesting.

Sorry, Lord Jesus, but we're fucking that part up.


Consider the Christian year.  You may as well; it's rammed down your throat by that horribly repressed and persecuted still-majority of population (declining) and power (sadly increasing).  Its center is at its beginning: Christmas, which now creeps into the final three or more months of the preceding year and gives us that constant reminder of this Miracle of Birth. Never mind that, if it happened, it surely didn't happen anywhere near December.  It's preceded, liturgically, by Advent, which is slowly gaining secular traction in this country with calendars and crackers becoming part of our co-opting.

Then, for a random number of weeks but never more than about ten, we pack in stories of persecution, presentation and really bad parenting, skipping over the Missing Years and quickly heading right into religion's wheelhouse: suffering and regret.  For here comes Lent, and seven weeks later, we get what is essentially the season finale on Easter Sunday. Alleluia! Praise the Lord and pass the chocolate bunnies!

There follow predictable plotlines about doubting Thomases, blind men on the road, and ascensions into heaven, with last Sunday's Pentecost bringing one last story of hope and change.

And there it ends. We're into summer reruns.


Finally, summer. (Well, not so finally- it's in the 50F range today here.) School's ending for the very cohort the church is seeking out, and many businesses slow down. Unfortunately, it's exactly when this organized religion chooses to hibernate for a period of many months.

There are still guidepost events to keep the wheels from totally falling off- mainly manufactured observances, such as today's "celebration" of that stupid Holy Trinity mystery. But for the most part, it's literally called "ordinary time."  The choir is retired, the robes packed away until "Rally Day" in September. It's months of hymn sings and clergy vacations. You could burn down the church with fireworks on the Fourth of July and it would take three months to get a trustees' meeting scheduled to decide what to do. (And advocate for taking a stand on your denomination's offensive view on LGBT matters? Sorry, Ray- no meeting this month. Or next.)

I understand where this came from. Once upon a time, long before my time, we had a way more agarian society, and we needed that summer off in order to harvest from those fields.  Yet today, the only fields we're traveling in summertime are soccer and baseball fields, and our closest contact to farms is flying over them on the way to Disney World.  We have no excuse for not having a message- and we're idiots for tying our message to a series of  "seasons" that have no relevance to me, much less to those missing Millennials.

Don't worry, O'Reilly- I'm not suggesting that we kill off Christmas. We still gotta shake that moneymaker. Easter, likewise. But we need a better story arc for the other 50 weeks of the year, and not one tied to "Christ's Gracious Life" and "Suffering- It's Not Just for the Jews Anymore."  We have to start paying attention to the needs outside our doors, and stop watching the same reruns over and over and over again and then complain about our ratings being down.

We make strides.  Just last week, on the choir's final gig before the summer off, the handbells did Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and the minister even worked Buffalo Springfield into the sermon.  But I suspect it won't be enough, and further that it won't change in time.

Which means Sunday mornings may just become another CSI franchise- and I never liked that shit, anyway:P
2 comments or Leave a comment
bill_sheehan From: bill_sheehan Date: June 1st, 2015 12:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Great essay, Captain. Forgive me if I take issue with one point.

The lovely WaPo article you cited was written by a young convert to the Episcopal. Sadly, it expresses her liturgical tastes, and not those of young people in general.

I speak with a bit of authority here, as a former Episcopalian. Until buying a house in a bedroom community of Boston, I was a member of a High Church congregation in Boston. Liturgy was taken seriously, music was taken seriously, the forms of prayer were taken seriously. Yet it was not a whited sepulcher; the church was passionately devoted to social justice, ministering to the poor, sheltering the oppressed, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned.

I committed matrimony in front of its altar twice. The second time, long before gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts and before the Diocese approved the liturgical blessing of same-sex relationships, it was a gay service. The Unindicted Co-Conspirator and I didn't believe that there were second-class citizens in the Church, so we used the rubric with which we'd been blessing gay unions (without the Bishop's approval, but one needn't bother the Bishop with every little detail...). We just changed the pronouns.

A couple weeks ago, I learned that the church had been closed and sold.

What went wrong? Downtown church, good mix of young people, great music and pompous circumstances, and progressive social action. Just the kind of place Rachel Evans would love, right?

Trouble is, you can't do big liturgy without a big old barn of a building. You can't do processionals and recessionals without a basilica. You need space to swing a thurifer. A big 19th century building on Beacon Hill is one expensive piece of property to keep and maintain, and Millennials are sadly famous for not having money. The usual internecine conflicts invariably arise - a priest goes out of favor, a vestry decision to fund refurbishing the famous organ rather than repairing the less famous roof and back wall leads to rancorous division, the ultra low interest rates for government bonds and bank interest fails to keep up with inflation and devours endowments...

The smaller neighborhood church down the street from our old house was less costly to keep up, but those whose spirits were fed by liturgy and other pompous circumstances are doomed to slow starvation. When we were members, there was a full-time priest. The church can no longer afford that. The diocese has made noises about merging the church with another, but there's nothing nearby. It already absorbed a defunct church from the next town - only four elderly women came over, and I don't think any of them is still alive.

My personal belief was that none of it mattered, that the only thing that counted was to preach the Gospel, using words if necessary. God would take care of the rest.

As you might guess, I no longer believe that. I think the only growth will be in non-denominational happy-clappy churches meeting in rented spaces hoping to grow into hit megachurches, at which time they might buy an old theater or sporting arena, which will succeed until the cult of personality around a charismatic preacher is shattered by inevitable scandal. Lather, rinse, repeat.
yesididit From: yesididit Date: June 1st, 2015 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
i'll never understand christianity. none of it ever made a lick of sense to me. plus most of it is stolen/borrowed/copied/plagiarized from other even older religions. even its important holy dates were moved around to coincide with other religions' holy days (christs birth for example). because there are going to be celebrations on those days regardless. so christians had to find a way to make it THEIR celebration, not the pagans celebration!

these days, most people have discovered that god doesnt take attendance. we have enough social contact that church on sundays isnt the only time we see anyone off the farm. and us young folk are sick to death of hearing about more and more children abused by clergy. sick of hearing how their superiors KNEW what was going on and turned a blind eye, or relocated them, so they could go on and do it again. we're not letting our children anywhere near that. we're a different generation, different priorities. church just isnt one.
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