Tuesday, October 6, 2009

iTunes Christianity

iTunes has revolutionized the music industry. The days of buying an entire album just to get a few songs are gone. Today consumers can pick and choose the only songs and shows they want and place them on their computers, iPods, and burn them to CDs. I doubt there will be any more concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Peppers because music executives only want singles that they can market on iTunes for $.99 or $1.29 a pop. This is only one aspect of the consumer trend of customization. Today consumers have thousands of choices and thousands more choices within choices. We can build computers, cars, clothes, and other items to our exact specifications without any excess baggage we do not want.

This mentality is no longer limited to consumer products. eHarmony can provide us with a perfect mate scientifically selected to be compatible, doing away with all that nasty getting to know you stuff. This mentality, naturally, is now a part of our spiritual lives. Parade Magazine along with CBS Sunday Morning presented a snapshot of the American spiritual landscape with some very interesting results. Americans now pick and choose elements from one or several religious traditions and combine them in a customized package. I call this iTunes Christianity.

Americans are embracing the parts of the Christian faith that they want and ignoring the rest. Americans want churches to meet their increasingly high demands and if one church or denomination fails at this task they simply move on to another. This is indicative of the consumer nature of Christianity where spirituality or faith matters are commodities to be bought and sold, just look at the religion section at Barnes and Noble or turn on TBN.

The report on CBS Sunday morning included an interview with Randall Balmer, professor of Religion at Columbia University and Episcopal priest who said that Christians today have no problem being a member of a denomination while practicing Tai Chi in the park, consulting astrological tables, and doing yoga when they get home from work and see no problem with the mix. Another person interviewed was Garrett Sarley who was an Episcopal, then a Catholic, (do you see a pattern here) and now is a yoga instructor and CEO of a yoga center. He sums up the issue pretty well. “People start to look for how do I produce the experience that I want from my religion without having to adopt the beliefs that don’t seem to match or don’t seem relevant with how I’m living my life.” I will delve into this statement a little later.

This does not just include men and women doing yoga at the Y or checking their horoscope in the local newspaper. This also includes those using their Christianity to promote a certain political or ideological platform. These persons focus on the limited aspects of the Christian faith that match their social political agendas. These are both liberal and conservative. We must ask ourselves, are we using Scripture and our faith tradition to support our politics or are our political beliefs shaped by our faith? One example of this making its way around the Christian blogosphere is the new Conservative translation of the Bible. This translation will literally cut out those “liberal” verses from the Bible. You know the whole taking care of the least of these and love you neighbor business. Instead, it will look for Biblical support of capitalism and private property. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

In any case iTunes Christianity becomes more about personal fulfillment and happiness rather than worshiping and serving God. It becomes what does God and the church do for me? If the answer is not satisfactory then we move on to the next church or the next religion. Garrett Sarley makes it clear. People want the benefits of religion without any of the sacrifice. People want the grace and the good feelings without any of the discipleship and accountability.

The truth is that the real joy of practicing a religious faith is in the discipline. It is in the service. Jesus taught to seek the Kingdom of God first and all other things will come as well. The Hindu and Buddhist faiths teach that with discipline comes enlightenment, albeit in different ways. Being a Christian is not about self-help or self-service but the elimination of the focus on the self and a renewed focus upon God and neighbor.

I also think that religious faith; especially Christian faith should not make you feel good about yourself all the time. If the teachings of Christ do not make you cringe at yourself at least every now and then perhaps you are not being exposed to the fullness of the Christian faith. Discipline and discipleship lead us to be more Christlike and require us to respond to the love and grace of God by conforming to Christ. We have to take the whole thing or none at all. We cannot pick and choose those things we like and ignore the difficult or uncomfortable aspects of Christianity.