Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Ten Commandments...served just the way you like 'em!

The latest thing in Christian evangelism is something called the "Felt Needs" movement. Pardon the awful pun, but the genesis of this is as follows: The long-established religions (in particular the Catholic Church, but also Judaism in its more orthodox flavors) continue to suffer from a dramatic attrition in membership. This is largely due to their intransigence on certain issues--notably, in the Church's case, contraception, abortion, and women in the laity. Of course, it's not that people who leave the Church and other old-time religions have forsaken God. They still want a place to go to worship...they just want to do it their way. Christian churches are competing for this new group of potential constituents. Some of them, in the process, are striving almost frantically to be more "relevant" to latter-day lifestyles, and more flexible in their approach to behavioral standards that heretofore were viewed as timeless constants.

Ergo, Felt Needs. Or what more than one critic has labeled "eye-of-the-beholder religion." You see, It's all about you and what you need from God! Kind of like that Nationwide Insurance campaign*: Whatever you do, "'re covered." It's all good! Lest you think I'm oversimplifying, I refer you to a key line in the article linked above: "A felt need is simply that--anything in any area of my life that I perceive as a need." So instead of your having to meet the religion on its terms, the religion goes out of its way to meet you on your terms, thereby making you feel more more godly in whatever it is you do. These ministries expand their reach by cutting back on their rules.

I'm sure there are limits somewhere. No legit religion would countenance needs that were truly despicable, no matter how strongly they were felt (notwithstanding the Catholic Church's own deplorable tradition of policing its in-house practices). I don't imagine you'll find too many preachers who embrace the heroin dealer for his need to get middle-schoolers hooked on smack. Still, I'm not sure it's a positive development in theology when, rather than forcing people to accommodate to morality, a religion seeks to accommodate morality to the people--in fact, each individual person. And I'm not sure society as a whole benefits when one of its strongest historical voices for common moral ground decides to be "more inclusive" in its definitions of acceptable behavior, thereby making people feel comfortable about things that used to be considered sins.

Then again, this isn't about society. It's ABOUT YOU! What's more, it comes directly out of self-help's phenomenal success at "reaching people at their own level." If you've read SHAM, you know that the self-help movement is as responsible as any force in modern culture for the erosion of uniform standards in all areas of life.** SHAM encourages each individual to seek his own fulfillment in his own way (even though the gurus' prescriptions for achieving that are bogus and ineffective). Wannabe preacher/celebs see how well Joel Osteen has done with his Gospel According to Ralph Lauren, wherein the aggregation of great wealth and huge amounts of creature comforts no longer seems to be sinful. The wannabes see their peers land choice TV gigs by incorporating ego-stroking feel-good shtick lifted verbatim from the likes of Tony Robbins and Zig Ziglar. They go the path of least resistance.

Look, I'm not a religious person. I'm not contending that I, of all people, can somehow lead us out of today's moral morass. I don't plan to set up my own church, and I doubt that anyone would attend if I did. I'm just saying, don't tell me you're a religion if your church has no "thou shalt nots." If you're gonna set yourself up as The Way, then your church should have rules. Otherwise it's no church at all. It's just...well...a sham.

Best known as the "life comes at you fast" campaign.
** The mechanism of how this happened is too complex to explain here (see SHAM pp. 25-40 and Chapter 8, as well as Wendy Kaminer's absorbing I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional).


Rodger Johnson said...

Yeah, you're on the money with this one. The, feel-good, cotton-candy, custom-tailored evangelicalism has driven me away from the church.

Note: Your Joel Osteen link isn't working...

Anonymous said...

Historically, corruption and decadence in the established churches have led to back-to-basics movements, from Luther to the Amish. I keep waiting to see this backlash to today's "anything goes" morality, but if it's happening--or happening here, at any rate--I haven't heard.

Trish Ryan said...

You make a good point about how a church with no rules is a sham - like Burger King saying "have it your way" no matter what the cost or damage.

As I read the Felt Needs article, though, it seems like they're actually taking the church to task for wacking people over the head with rules before learning their names or what brings them into church in the first place. (Typically, you don't end up in a Jesus service because your life is going so swimmingly well that you want some new people to celebrate with.) Too many people have been hit with the "Do you admit you're a sinner in need of a savior?" line, when what they need first is a friend. Jesus lays down some pretty tough rules, but he rarely uses them as a means of introduction.

By the way, did you see MEN IN TREES on ABC last night? Fun show, right up your ally :)

Steve Salerno said...

Rodg: The link should be fixed. Thanks.

Anon: Point taken. But what's different today, from yesteryear, is that historically most theological "corrections" have been FROM something, TO something else. I.e., a disaffected theologian may have left one church--unhappy with its rules--but ended up founding a new church, with new rules (apologies to Bill Maher). But what do you do when you can't even discern the rules of your church, in order to rebel or "reform"?

Trish: And where exactly would my alley be?

Anonymous said...

Well, usually the reformers have returned to the Gospels as their starting point and tried to reestablish the church of Jesus' first followers, as they interpreted it. Being able to actually READ the Gospels for themselves, as opposed to having them at second-hand in the official interpretation from a language they didn't speak, much less read, was apparently huge. Of course, soon enough their own followers created their own rigid, intolerant churches and the persecutions and divisions began anew. But people keep reading, and keep hoping that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world...

acd said...

As I read the article, it seemed that the concept of "felt needs" is just a marketing ploy for the church to gain people's acceptance. Then they can indoctrinate them with the "real" rules.

The article says, "To ignore a person's felt needs and aim at other needs is a sure-fire way to guarantee that his mind will close and remain closed to our message....If he senses that we don't have the answers to his needs, his mind will close again to us and he will look elsewhere for a solution to his needs and problems."

It sounds like the church is not so much giving in, as it is making it look like they are--in an attempt to direct people towards their original message. Because of this, I'd say that the issue lies not with the church's actions, but with the fact that people are no longer willing to accept religion's rules unless those rules become a bit more liberal.

I'm not necessarily blaming individuals who feel this way. (I am not, after all, a devout defender of organized religion.) My point is that it seems you are focusing on the church lowering its standards, whereas I see the bigger societal issue as being people's increasing desire to make their own rules.

Now, maybe there are concrete examples of religions truly lowering their standards. But I'm only going by the article you referenced and the "Felt Needs" movement specifically. It just looks like the church is keeping the same values, but simply packaging it differently. I know, maybe it sounds like I'm arguing for the exact same thing everyone else is, but I see a subtle difference. Does anyone else understand what I'm saying?

Steve Salerno said...

This is an interesting point acd makes, about the second level of sham (sham piled atop SHAM?) that may be in play here. You wonder, though: Could a church carry that off over the long term?

Comment from anyone who's lived this?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
If you will indulge me a bit, I'll share a brief story that I have used in addressing this very topic.

When my daughter was a toddler, she was very headstrong (some things never change!), and was driven to run wildly, inevitably toward the street. I would admonish her with a firm "NO!", and when that didn't work, I would grab her arm and restrain her. At some point, I even threatened her with a spanking if she went toward the street again. She begrudgingly stayed out of the street out of fear of the consequences, should I catch her.

As she grew older, I taught her how to safely cross the street, until she grew street-savvy enough to cross on her own. As she grew to adulthood, she learned that the street was simply a route to places she had never seen, and while she remembered and understood the reasoning behind the fear that had once constrained her travels, that fear was no longer felt, as it no longer served a purpose.

So it has gone with the dictates and "laws" of religion. Once upon a time, the Laws of Kashruth forbade Jews from doing things like eating pork, claiming that doing so was a "sin against God." The origin of the laws was pretty simple: The rabbis were more educated than the majority of their followers, and made the association between the frequency of people who had eaten pork and those who grew sick and even died. Of course, nobody in those days knew about microbiology, parasites, or food-related toxicology. Even had the rabbis been learned in these fields, they knew their followers were not. So how can a leader induce his people to avoid eating things that can make them sick, especially given the fact that hunger was pretty much commonplace? What inducement would override the physical yearnings? The answer was to teach the people that God had forbidden them to eat pork, and would rain down upon them a fate worse than their hunger if they disobeyed.

In a less sophisticated society, the more learned used the tools available in their attempts to protect and control those whom they considered their charges. Chief among those tools was fear. As the "common man's" (generic term, rather than gender-specific) level of knowledge and understanding grew, the need for (and effectiveness of) control via fear diminished. Thus, some of "God's Laws" were understood to be metaphors, rather than rigid principles. It takes the churches a long time (not to mention, the fear of becoming irrelevant) to let go its hold on long-held dogmas and rituals, but we are seeing just such an evolution occurring, accompanied of course by the corresponding backlash from those who would have nothing change.

Just as my value as a parent has transcended the fear I once wielded, so has the value of spiritual communion with Divinity evolved. My children approach me now, not out of fear, but to learn from my perspectives and experience. So, too, are many approaching God in whatever form they understand Him/Her to be, not out of fear, but out of love and respect.

Granted, this evolution carries with it a corresponding erosion in the power that religion holds over its followers' lives, but perhaps we are reaching a point where religion itself is becoming an obstacle to spirituality and a true communion with the Divine. In my opinion, the only people who would object to such a change are those who feel threatened by the thought that their power might be lessened.

I know that I cherish a relationship with my children that is based upon love, respect, and understanding, rather than fear, and cannot help but believe that a Divine Being would want no less for its manifestations / progeny.

In short, what some decry as religion's "changing the rules to please the polls," I see as a very healthy progression toward the acknowledgement of spiritual adulthood. While there are always instances where a person (or religious body) goes over the line into absurdity, I think that this evolution is, on the whole, a very hopeful thing.

Cosmic Connie said...

Adhering to the Ten Commandments or some other basic code of behavior is one thing, and, in fact, I don't think the Ten Commandments should be messed with. (Even though Ted Turner tried, apparently without irony, to replace them with "The Ten Voluntary Initiatives" a few years ago.)

However, churches and other religious institutions have always tended to get so bogged down in dogma and politics and petty rules that for many people, they get in the way of true spirituality.

Besides, all of us -- devout or not -- pick and choose what we believe. I am willing to bet that even the most devout Catholic disagrees with the Church on at least some issues.

IMO, there's nothing wrong with churches changing with the times. If they didn't, we'd still be arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, instead of having the privilege of listening to our choice of pinhead televangelists. :-) I agree that the "feel-good" evangelism is kind of silly, but then, I take issue with a lot of things about organized religion, in both its new and traditional forms.

I do feel that today there are so many churches and other spiritual organizations that there truly is something for everybody. If you feel a need to be slammed with hellfire, brimstone and a boatload of guilt, there are churches that will do that. If, on the other hand, you want to be absolved of any personal responsibility and just want to go to church to feel good, there are churches that will accommodate you. And there's a heck of a lot in between those two extremes. Like finding true love, if you want to find the best church for you, you gotta shop around.

I know that Steve's basic argument is that SHAM has contributed to the erosion of standards, in and out of the churches. But you simply cannot expect churches to remain static, any more than you can expect society to stay the same.

Yes, SHAM has found its way into the churches, as it has into every other aspect of life. I understand why this is troublesome for many. But, SHAM-related silliness aside, I like the Rev’s idea about the human race having reached a level of “spiritual adulthood.” Maybe we’re only fooling ourselves in that regard, but it’s an intriguing possibility anyway. And I do think it is possible for a church to err on the side of compassion –- as Trish suggests that Jesus would have done -- and still maintain its standards and its integrity.

Anonymous said...

So basically Steve you're arguing that self-help is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in society over the past half century?

RevRon's Rants said...

Anonymous -
While I disagree with Steve's take on this argument, I would never stretch his words to match your interpretation. Like Steve, I feel that there is nothing wrong (and a great deal of potential) with self-help, but take exception with those who would abuse the promise of help for their own personal gain, while leaving those about them deluded, injured, or just no better off than when they began.