Tuesday, November 19, 2019

HWJPI? (Or: How Would Jesus Pitch It?)

"AND SO IT WAS written, as the ancients foretold, that the evolution of religion and self-help towards some common ground would continue, rendering unto God that which had previously been found only in the annals of viral marketing, and rendering unto you a new Rolex..."

The conceptual similarities between self-help and today's more "secularized religions" were always striking. We've been tracking the phenomenon for a while on SHAMblog. But even your host didn't realize the degree to which today's religion is being explicitly repackaged in self-help terms. Such at least is the message of this cover story by Scott Bass, which I found in a Virginia alternative weekly.*

The "relevancy movement" in American churchdom is nothing new, and has been most immediately noticeable in the music. Anyone who's listened to gospel music of late (or almost any music emanating from the so-called megachurches) will have a hard time distinguishing it from the genres that have parents screaming at teenagers to "turn that down!" The lyrics are more tasteful and "godly," if you will—but there's no mistaking what the actual music and underlying rhythms owe to R&B, alternative, and even rap. In effect, the pastors (and, increasingly, boards of governors) of these "enlightened" churches are turning weekly services into concerts, hoping to make the experience more tolerable for the younger generation that churches desperately need to attract in order to survive. As one of Bass' sources puts it, in a line with both literal and figurative meaning, "You can't play the old music and get the new folks." Especially in larger, nondenominational houses of worship, services have become multimedia extravaganzas worthy of a Tony Robbins seminar, featuring live performances on-stage (which may include dance routines), and even light-hearted, pre-sermon "warm-ups" by the nation's growing roster of Christian comedians.

But we now seem to have reached that point where many religious leaders are dropping all pretenses, talking openly and unashamedly in a lingo borrowed from consumer marketing. They speak of smart merchandising and brand identity, marketplace differentiation and expanding their franchise; parishioners are consumers of religion. Here's one of the pastors in Bass' piece discussing his church's promotional efforts: "We've done billboards, we've done movie ads…. We believe we have the best product in the world." You listen to that kind of talk and you wonder: Is this dude selling God or a new-and-improved grease remover?

Traditional religion, you see, has a major image problem: It's "fighting 2,000 years of bad marketing," as Bass phrases it. All that fire-and-brimstone stuff doesn't connect very well with today's self-centered, hedonistic audiences, who expect religion—like everything else in life—to meet their needs and speak their language. Today's pastors, in their effort to distance themselves from religion's hell-fire heritage, even try to look different: tres Joe Vitale-like, they're increasingly inclined to wear such get-ups as jeans and Hawaiian shirts. During the worship services, hosannas have yielded to high-fives; a collective chorus of "my bads!", followed by an instant, blanket absolution, is gradually replacing the penitent Hail Marys I remember from the confessions of my youth. Some churches, reports Bass, have even taken their crosses down. Crosses are bad karma, after all. Crosses make people think of suffering. Crosses make people think of obligation. And the only obligation that matters these days is your obligation to yourself.

Behold the church of the here-and-now! "Escapism," writes Bass, "is as much a part of our psyche as capitalism or democracy, freedom and equal rights." Yes, and more so all the time. And what today's, ahem, worshippers mostly want to escape from is any judgment or condemnation from on-high. (This, in the same way that today's highly empowered self-helpers want to escape liability for the harm they cause in the course of their unapologetic pursuit of personal fulfillment.) Hence the most successful churches jettison such off-putting, uncomfortable notions as sin. Or what used to be thought of as sin. To be sure, greed and avarice are totally off the table nowadays as tickets to hell. Preachers even build their aforementioned franchises around an end-user-driven liturgy—what Bass calls a "self-help gospel"—that warmly embraces the pursuit of ostentatious material wealth. We've also talked in this blog about Joel Osteen and his Gospel According to Ralph Lauren. (That's a joke, but it's one of those jokes that's awfully close to the truth.) As Bass writes, Osteen "epitomizes the what-God-can-do-for-you movement. [He] has grown his Houston-based church into the largest in the country, with 47,000 members." Osteen's latest book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, sounds like something that easily could've been written by a Stephen Covey or a Phil McGraw.

Nor is it just greed that's been air-brushed off the signpost to eternal damnation. I think it's safe to say that divorce by now has been totally destigmatized (and I'm not contending that it shouldn't have been; I'm just saying that for better or worse, religion has grown steadily more forgiving of human foibles than it used to be). Premarital sex is not the taboo it used to be, either, in church or out. Unwed motherhood?** Hey, if it works for you... Even the Episcopal church in my neighborhood (which is hardly in the category of the churches Bass writes about) has no particular stipulations when it comes to the circumstances under which kids are brought into the world, or into "the light of God's love."

Interestingly enough, as religion grows more lenient, self-help becomes more dogmatic. In their own smiling, uplifting ways, the likes of Vitale and Rhonda Byrne can be as demanding of loyalty to their particular "scripture" as the Catholic Church of my boyhood ever was. They'll threaten non-believers with their own versions of Hell, and not just figuratively. We saw the extent of Vitale's quiet wrath in his recent attempts to draw a linkage between positive thinking and whether or not a person's home survived San Diego's wildfires.

If the day comes when religion and self-help are all but indistinguishable...when it doesn't really matter what you worship, as long as you worship something, and it makes you happy...what then?

Something to think about, maybe, over Christmas.

* I've often said that some of the best stories are not found in the august national media like The New York Times, but rather in small-market publications.
** Wait, let me rephrase that in more culturally relevant terms: single parenthood.