The Western culture of death is changing. Free Church theology changes with it.
Do you remember those wonderful old bittersweet salvation messages of yesteryear? Usually, they involved a multi-layer invitation appeal with lots of movement and murmuring. Somewhere in the invitation appeal would come a story about someone almost converted but then, horribly, stricken by a large truck on the way home from the service.
I began to fear churches attracted Mac Trucks.
Generously, the Mac Truck stories were metaphors for Sudden Death. The stirring revival/salvation messages were the perfect meeting for two generations; one very aware of the potential for sudden death and one very aware of the fear of Sudden Death.
The Traditionalist generation, leaders of the Free Church from the post-WW II era to the 70’s survived the Great Depression (wherein starvation and disease stalked the known world) and the Second World War/Korea/Viet Nam. Sudden death really existed for their generation.
The Modernists, my generation, (Boomers and even Busters), lived with the certain fear of Sudden Death. Our foundational moment(s) included political assassinations (JFK, RFK) and murder in the religious/political arena (MLK, MX). In addition, we were the generation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, bomb shelters and War on TV. Perhaps we had not experienced personally the death of the GI next to us or starvation on the farm. For us, Sudden Death was near-distant, present in flickering images on a screen or in the tears our teachers shed. Before we were old enough to understand we watched John-John pull away from his mother to salute his father’s coffin.
I can remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Donaldson, conducting atomic attack drills with us. We were told to get under our desks and put newspapers over our heads.
My generation really believed in the power of the press.
We had some apprehension of the image of Sudden Death. The older generation knew all about it and shuddered.
People died in those days. Germs were not yet pushed out of society. Hospitals were places where people went to die, not to be healed.
Therefore, the metaphor of Sudden Death made good sense.
Now, in the 21st century, we have a whole new set of images. For instance, as long as you can stay in the hospital you have a fighting chance for restoration. Hospitals heal.
Now, when you have to go to the "Home," well, things get rough.
The Western way of death changes, the western way of life changes with it. Fearfully, Christian theology changes with the social/cultural change, to accomodate the fusion of three very different generations.
For Traditionalists and Moderns, death was a vital reality, a wrenching, draining terrible separation for which one must prepare by decision making. To call a crowd of individuals to decide for Christ made perfect sense to the transmitter and the receiver. Now, relative affluence, dissolution of moral authority and the long lives of so many make death a cure or escape from suffering.
Post-moderns want to talk about health care, education, security and the environment. Recycling is more important than redemption. They seem to wish to live better, more noble lives than their predecessors and will gladly forfeit some of the values of their predecessors to live well and good now.
The Western way of life/death changes. The theology of the Free Church changes to accomodate (appeal to) the next generational group. The Free Church (baptists and the like) is a Populist Movement. We hear the crowd.
What are the implications of this change?
- We may never decide about eternal matters. If Christianity is a choice one makes at God’s stirring, if there is even a limited amount of free agency (my Calvinist friend), there must be some means by which new generations come to a decision. They may not pray the Magic prayer, fill out the Holy Card or Walk the Sinner’s Aisle. These are modern methods. Jesus managed to do quite well without them. The new reality of life/death (prone to change in reality but not in the settled impressions of the generational adherents) may keep "decision making" at bay until one is so set in life a change seems unnecessary.
- We may transform Christianity into an acceptable way of life rather than a transforming religion. A way of life may be said to be a replicatable pattern of living designed to enrich/empower/enable its practitioner by repetitive, formulaic behavior. Hence, the believer’s search for "the Christian code" for finance, marriage, child-raising and general values impartation. The Prosperity Gospel Faith Stealers live on Christianity as a way of life instead of as a transforming religion, establishing formulas by which man may force God to work in man’s favor.
- If death becomes a "cure" for uncertain life or long suffering, the sanctity of life is then open to question. God is shown cruel for prolonging our suffering rather than for prematurely ending our earthly experiences.
- If death becomes a "cure" or a "release," humans might just as well choose death as life.
We might benefit, then, by reexamining a Christian view of "always." If "always" hints at durability, as it must, then the God of the Bible is One who loves life. In the society of Eden, life is durable and death is fragile. In the Cross/Resurrection Event, life again triumphs over death. These are purely religious acts. No one eats better, dresses better, drinks cleaner water or prevents genocide because God spares Adam/Eve or resurrects Jesus. The acts are religious quite because they cannot be replicated with the same effect.
God loves life, creates life, sustains life, calls life to Godself. Americans, among the most religious industrialized nations left in the world, responds to prosperity by, well, by affirming life. That is, we have babies. The recent baby boomlet in the USA, see 2007 statistics, gets this endorsement from a population researcher, "Americans are the only people in the world who respond to prosperity by having babies."
The Judeo-Christian heritage affirms life, at whichever end of life we find it. The ancient precursors of the Aryans (Persians) either exposed their old people to the elements, disemboweled them or fed them to wild dogs. Judeo-Christians hover over our elders, keening to their needs and hold their hands until the soul exits, while we weep.
The Judeo-Christian heritage laments the struggle of the young and saves its strictest punishments for persons who harm children, while we pour out healing on the afflicted little ones. We do so with the image of Jesus Christ suffering the little ones in our minds and hearts.
Life eternal is our hope. Life abundant is our icon. Death cannot be the final, only image of release or cure for persons who love life.
So, my appliation starved friend, what do we do?
Press on. Do not give up life easily or happily. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give clean water, offer a chance to everyone in the name of Christ. Do not despair of life or disfigure the good news just because the planet fills itself.
Tell the truth. Jesus saves, absolutely, finally, eternally.
Keep the faith. Christianity is religion or worth less, true religion or worthless.
Don’t let long life make death a cure instead of Adam’s Curse. Love life. Don’t fear death or hope for it.