Bowing to Baal
I recently heard someone on the radio say that we (Americans) live in a “post-religion” nation. The radio personality went on to describe how America has become a land void of virtue, no longer giving spiritual matters much thought. In other words, America has become increasingly secular.
This is, in my opinion, untrue.
Allow me to suggest that the exact opposite has happened. Rather than become less religious, American culture has become increasingly religious.
After all, for something to be secular, it needs to have no religious or spiritual basis. However, humankind is inherently spiritual. As James K.A. Smith suggests in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, everything we do has some form of religious and spiritual significance.
Notice I did not say that America has become increasingly Christian. Yes, several reports and polls have me hopeful for a resurgence of interest in historical Christianity. But the religion I find to have the most adherents in America is the pagan religion of self-idolatry. In this religion, we are gods.
In the religion of self-idolatry, there are several denominations. To name a few: status, entertainment, or money.
The dark deception of this religion is that it makes us feel free. No one considers that, when one’s week is scheduled around their children’s travel team, they have become enslaved by something that fights for primacy in their lives. Whether it’s the children’s travel team or our mode of employment, nothing is content with being penultimate (for more on this, see James K.A. Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, p. 15).
Sad but true: when we value anything more than the worship of our Lord, it has become an idol. And when we bow before the Baal of our lives, we are not free. We are in chains.
Breaking the Bondages
It frightens me that many members of my parish—perhaps even I—have, at times, succumbed to the Siren song of self-idolatry. What are we, as those who claim to worship the Triune God, supposed to do?
The answer is simple: go to church.
While I was scrolling on Facebook the other day, I came across a quote from Hilaire Belloc: “The Church is a perpetually defeated thing that always outlives her conquerors.”
In the time of St. Augustine, the theater was perhaps the main mode of self-idolatry that stood in opposition to the Church. While today’s threats take on various other forms, we can be sure they will always
- stupefy the unwary public and
- fall into decay as the perpetually defeated Bride of Christ continues to stand victorious, by the grace of God, in the arms of her Groom.
When I say the answer is to “go to church,” I mean more specifically to live the sacramental life.
Church is not a spectator sport, it is a gathering around Word and Sacrament, cradled in prayer, where God’s people participate in this world as an outpost of God’s Kingdom.
Rather than fulfill this sacred life of worship, many churches in America have sought to cater to the religion of self-idolatry. The Divine Service has been replaced with a second-rate rock concert and a superficial TEDtalk. This is the theological equivalent of putting makeup on a pig.
Instead, the Church ought to boldly and wholeheartedly be what only we can be: the subversive, alternative community of sinners saved by grace. We point the citizens of the Kingdom of Man toward the radical beauty of the Kingdom of God.
Sounds simple enough. But how do we do this?
Taking Sunday Back
What does it look like for the Church to be the alternative, subversive community she must be when she commits to the message of her King?
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, many churches have attempted to make their services look more like the world, in order to be relevant and attractive. But we are not called to look like the world around us, but rather to proclaim the timeless message of the Kingdom. We are not to conform, but to be transformed (Rom. 12:2).
Life in the Church is not about entertainment or programs. Life in the Church is about Word and Sacrament. For the Church to be the subversive community she is meant to be, gathering for worship must become her priority again. Christ’s followers ought to be in outright rebellion against all the idols that are vying for primacy in their lives.
This public display of placing Christ at the center of the life of the Church would result in a cultural shift. According to the Religious Landscape Study, self-proclaimed Christians account for 70% of the American population. Imagine the profound difference in the rhythm of American social life we would see if 70% of the population were worshiping the Lord on Sunday.
But, of course, it wouldn’t have to to stop on Sunday.
A Life of Prayer
One of the most attractive aspects of the Anglican tradition, in my opinion, is the Daily Office.
This Benedictine practice of basing one’s day on a schedule of prayer is radical and undeniably subversive when it stands against corporate giants and political figures who desire to be our gods.
Whenever a friend begins their journey on the Canterbury Trail (that’s Anglican-speak for joining the Anglican tradition), I admonish them to pray an office each day. The habit of even praying one office, Morning or Evening, maybe Midday or Compline, is formative.
And I would ask anyone who prays the offices to pay close attention to the pronouns used. They’re plural. Why? Because the Daily Office is not meant to be prayed alone. The Daily Office is designed to be prayed together.
What a beautiful and peaceful act of sedition against idolatry it would be for parishes across America to pray even one office each day as a community.
To accommodate this daily act of corporate prayer, sacrifices would need to be made. We may need to leave work early. Our children might not make it to certain sporting events. But it is not the duty of the Church to raise children who are starting athletes on the travel team, but children who are worshipers of the Most High God. It is not our duty to be wealthy, but to be worshipers of the Most High God.
Consider the practical implications: the community will begin to wonder why a church is packed on a Tuesday evening, for example. But consider the vocational implication: being a community that prays together is how we make disciples.
Christianity was built on fishermen and washed-out tax collectors who took the Gospel seriously. Surely, as a people who prioritize the Kingdom message and life together as God’s people, we can change the tides of this culture. We won’t bow to Baal anymore.
Zachary Jones is married to his best friend, Bethany. He serves as assistant rector of Christ Church Westshore and is a chaplain candidate canonically resident in the Special Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy. Zach is currently finishing his Master of Sacred Theology at Trinity School for Ministry. You can follow him on Twitter at @thelittlevicar.