Michael Jinkins: Trivializing the gospel

What does the church have that nothing else does?

Morning “news” programs have never been just news. In the early days of television, chimps provided comic distraction from heavier news items. So for me to complain about a latter-day “Fall” from some mythical Golden Age rings hollow. But, these days I feel almost as though the Morning “news” programs on all the major networks are trying to out-do one another in becoming caricatures of themselves. Silliness reigns supreme.

I can accept this, though with some real regret. But what is really bothering me is that many churches seem to be taking their cues from the same cultural trends that have nearly trivialized to death the morning programs.

A few weeks ago I got a report from a student about an ordination service in which the head of the ordaining commission paused from cracking jokes (some of which were in really poor taste) to say, “Now we have to get to the boring stuff. I need to ask you these questions.”

The “boring stuff” incidentally was not just any set of questions, but the vows by which the new minister was promising God and God’s people to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of all and Head of the Church, to accept the Bible as God’s Word, to be instructed and led by the confessions as she leads the church, and to be a friend among her colleagues as she seeks “to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.”  

When we make vows in the presence of God, as Thomas More says in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man For All Seasons,” we hold our souls in our hands. This is a sacred drama unfolding in real life. And the drama played out in the service of ordination is far more powerful, provocative and interesting than any weak comedy being contrived.

In a recent column David Brooks wrote a fascinating essay, “Weekness and Endurance,” about a new trend he is seeing. People in this post-bubble age have rendered a judgment on the shortsightedness of the past two decades. It’s time “to be a little more serious, to think about the long term more, to return to fundamentals.” Over-against the tide of ephemera and superficiality that has characterized the media and much else, “there must be room,” he writes, to offer “an aspirational ideal . . . that separates for busy people the things that are enduring from the things that aren’t.”

The church is in the “enduring ideals” business. Conan, Letterman and Stewart have the comedy market covered. There are better story-tellers on NPR. And as long as Eric Clapton keeps doing his Crossroads tour, the church will never be better than a third-rate venue for rock music.

What does the church have that others don’t? Please excuse me while I get biblical. We have the Word of God in an earthen vessel. We have a genuinely serious response to the realities facing the peoples and societies of our world. We don’t need a church that humors our foibles, but a God who forgives our sin. We don’t need a liturgy that tells us to try a little harder, but a God who raises us from death. There’s not much room in the foolishness of the gospel for base silliness. The folly of the cross is for real.

We are in danger of trivializing ourselves right out of business here in our quest to look cool. Where else will the world turn when the world finally begins to wonder if someone somewhere has something serious to say about the human predicament and the state of the cosmos?

Brooks reminded me of one of my favorite poems by that dyspeptic old agnostic Anglican Philip Larkin. He visited an empty church one day, and wondered at the mystery entailed in that “serious house on serious earth” where “all our compulsions meet, are recognized, and robed as destinies.” He reflected that such a place can never be obsolete, “since someone will forever be surprising/a hunger in himself to be more serious,” and will therefore gravitate “to this ground” which is “proper to grow wise in.”

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.