December 15, 2009

false prophets

But more than this, it also gives rise to numerous outlandish attacks and far sweeping slanders against parishes, priests, and jurisdictions which preach and maintain an Orthodoxy which does not fully cohere with the easy-going, Protestantized ideas of Orthodoxy that some believe needs to be accepted as normative in order for the Church to “grow roots” and “develop” in the U.S. These people take issue with the P-word; they don’t care for its polemical character and that’s understandable. What they do in response is substitute the word “American” for “Protestant,” believing—as so many Evangelical Christians do—that the two concepts are and should forever be interchangeable. “American Orthodoxy” thus allows for Protestant concepts, forms, and ideologies to be imported into the Church and remain off the table for serious questioning.

I recently found a very cheap copy of the first collected volume of Marvel's comic adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet. When I first read the book, I was amused at how remarkably Mormon the whole thing was, even as it deeply appealed to me on some level. Later, I would discover some deeper oddities about the whole thing–how a book that had involved some research on American folk magic had been written by a man who believed in a religion that, in some ways, grew out of those practices, or how the idealized "salvation" of American-Indian relations fits in with a Mormon counter-mythology which sees the temporary alliance (and some conversions) with Indian tribes in and around the Utah War as God's true plan for America.

I have long thought that Mormonism is the natural religion of the American people. The Latter-Day Saints teach authoritatively what many religious Americans already believe: that the US Constitution was divinely inspired, that the self-dependent atomic family is the core unit of civilization, that the Law is constantly under a process of revision and revelation, the bodily nature of all reality*, bourgeoise striving as a religious virtue (as long as you tithe, or intend to do so).… I could go on. Add onto that the appeal of a secret society (for such vanities are as far as elitism goes in a democracy), and you have a very appealing mix. I can only suppose that the relative weakness of Mormonism in the US has been due more to some of the stranger teachings and a popular memory that dwells more on plural marriage than the business-like sensibility of the Quorum. Mitt Romney's Mormon characteristics are the source of both appeal and fear for the American right.

So, I suppose, in some ways, it may even be unfair to label as "Protestant" much of those characteristics we pass off as "American" and therefore necessary for evangelism. "Inculturation" as a buzzword means to accept a culture whole-cloth and make weak edits; a Christian understanding would recognize that the good in non-Christian (or, perhaps in our case, un-catechized) cultures is probably around the ratio of volume of baby to bathwater. (Assuming one of those big old washtubs.)

I am not suggesting that Protestantism has played no role in the American religious consensus; that'd be foolish. So I really do not care if that is the rhetoric. It certainly is more true to say "Protestant" in the general case than "Evangelical". I was amused, in the sort of way I can be sometimes, when a commenter on the AFR kerfluffle said that converts from liberal Protestantism would disdain Evangelicals for the same reasons they did when they were liberal Protestants, while I–as someone who has never been an Evangelical or a liberal Protestant–was left wondering what the real difference between the two is on the basis of the assumptions they take with them into the Church. There is broad agreement on a praxis of "engagement" and marketing in American Protestantism; that holds for my mother-in-law's PCUSA church or "Affirming Catholics" as much as for Southern Baptists, "Non-Denoms", the Church of the Calvinist Scenester or Evangelical Episcopalians.

America's religious heritage is both frighteningly complex and stupidly simple. It always trends towards regional means, because of the pressures of both democratic conformity and marketing. If Methodism was the great compromise religion of the American frontier (it sucked in ancestors of mine who had variously been Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and near-heathens), today's is the mega-church. It comes in flavors, sure, but but they come off to me as having the substantial difference of Urban Outfitters vs Abercrombie and Fitch. They're still in the same damn mall, after all.

A number of reviews of Red Prophet that I have read used something along the lines of "America gone right". Apparently that is an America where magic keeps us from exploiting the Indians, an accident of history keeps slavery outside of our borders and those nasty Puritans stay with England. Basically, nearly everything embarrassing and uncomfortable about American history is writ-out by fiat. I am not saying this makes the book a bad piece of fantastic fiction, but it does make the emotions it elicits curious.

There is a tendency–natural to everyone in a nation saturated with nationalist marketing–to see the "true" nation as only the good parts. This explains the pathos of so much writing on the Civil War. It needs to whitewash in one of three ways: Defending the CSA, Defending the USA or making it have the ethical content of Homer, which is not much. Shelby Foote wasn't right about the Civil War being America's Illiad and Odyssey until he made it so, I think. Similarly, when we say that the Church needs to let us be "Americans" that either comes with the "only the good parts" understood, or worse, a tendency to make the foul fair because it is "American". Even if nations were to have a true form in the eye of God, we cannot assume that there is anything about being American that excuses us from the harsher messages of the Gospel.

I am only really concerned with one major change to the Church in order to accommodate the American: I want to hear the Liturgy in beautiful, formal, poetic English. Not the everyday, but a language clearly meant for worship. That does not preclude the use of other languages as appropriate, but it is of a much bigger concern–evangelically–than any number of projects. (Secondly, good choirs, but let's do this one-at-a-time.)

*Contra Harold Bloom, I do not think that gnostic spiritualism is America's natural religion. There may be a narrow-band where that is true–the 19th century elite and their descendents–but American beliefs on the body and spirit have far more to do with material monism; we're angels in heaven because angels are bodily beings, too. Etc.


  1. I could not agree with you more about Mormonism as _the_ American Religion.

    I have only ever belonged to Churches whose services are all in English (excepting some _Eis Polla_'s).

    You suggest that you do not think that the language change is the only thing to be fixed. I suspect your thoughts go further than sound English in the Divine Liturgy and good choirs. What else do you think should be done?

  2. Actually, I don't have many ideas beyond that. I mean, those seem like fairly basic things to offer American faithful–consistent, beautiful Liturgies in English and competent, joyful singing of the Church's hymnography–that I'm stuck wondering what else you can really add to them other than letting the Church grow deep roots, with monks and nuns and Saints and elders all here in America. The work of evangelism is about changing lives, not sales pitches, and I feel like the Church does a pretty good job of it when we let it be itself.