Scott Benhase: Somewhere between Holden Caulfield and St. Augustine
Historically in our culture people turned to St. Augustine to read about a life well-lived. Then at some point Holden Caulfield became a more popular source of insight on life.
“My life shall be a real life, being wholly full of Thee.”
- St. Augustine from “Confessions”
“The world is full of phonies.”
- Holden Caulfield from “The Catcher in the Rye”
Historically in our culture people turned to St. Augustine to read about a life well-examined and well-lived. Then at some point Holden Caulfield became a more popular source for meaningful introspection and living. It is an irony of our time that St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, is a real person while Holden Caulfield is the fictional creation of J.D. Salinger. “So it goes,” to borrow from Kurt Vonnegut.
But the irony is deeper than that. For many people today, church is the last place they look for truth, beauty and meaning. There are many reasons for that. We could debate why people don’t seek the church as a source for what is “really real” in life. I bet we would have substantial data to support both our contentions for why this is so and we would both be right for the most part.
However interesting that would be, I don’t believe it would do anything other than further bemoan the church’s loss of influence.
What if we instead called people to a “real life,” as St Augustine sees it? What might people need to experience in church for that to happen? Here are some helpful questions for such a call.
When people enter our churches do they experience hope? Do they sense the possibility of a new and different life? In biblical language: Do they get a glimpse of the “holy city”? Do they get an inkling of what God has intended all along for creation? Do they experience in worship grace and beauty, finding themselves drawn into the very life of Jesus? Does this worship gladden their hearts? Does it open their eyes to see God’s action in the world? At the exchange of “the peace” or at “coffee hour,” do they sense among us real humility, gentleness and love?
Regardless of size or shape, every church can faithfully address those questions. Our common life on Sundays should be shaped by how we intentionally respond to those questions. When churches do so, a buzz begins among members and visitors alike, something that moves spontaneously through our lives and out into others'. It’s grounded in a passion about who we are as a local outpost of the body of Christ.
Holden Caulfield was right at least in his contention that “the world is full of phonies.” Maybe not full, but full enough that people today take a much more cynical stance to their lives. They are turned away by what they sense as hypocrisy in church. And we Christians bear our share in causing this.
But I believe people still long for truth, beauty and meaning -- lives full of the really real, lives wholly full of God. What would it look like to shape our common life on Sunday to reflect such a real life? The answer will make all the difference in the world to people we have yet to meet.
Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.