The Pap-ist Threat
Some years ago, an editor asked me how he could give his children an appreciation for the English language. He wanted them to write well. Since he's an evangelical Christian, I told him he should teach them Psalms from the King James translation of the Bible. My mother did that with me as a child, and it gave me an early sense of metaphor and rhythm. It taught me to appreciate, and understand, complex, beautiful English.
My friend didn't like my suggestion. After all, nobody reads the KJV anymore. Forget poetry (not to mention sensitivity to the underlying Hebrew), today's suburban Christianity is all about accessibility. It's been dumbed down.
Now I'm not a Christian, let alone an evangelical. If megachurches want to play bad-to-mediocre rock instead of great hymns, that's their business. But the spread of Christian pap does have spillovers, not the least of which is that devout Christian faith no longer brings with it a deep familiarity with what's actually in the Bible, as opposed to a few verses from the preacher's PowerPoint. Unless the person is over a certain age, Biblical literacy, when you do find it, rarely means acquaintance with great English. Forget theological or philosophical sophistication. I'd settle for the ability to comprehend complex sentences.
Throughout American history, Christian (largely Protestant) devotion has stretched people's minds and given them reason to think, if only within a closed system of belief. Religious practice has taught people to read, write, and speak. The rhythms and rhetoric of the Bible have given America its greatest political rhetoric, from Abraham Lincoln's to Martin Luther King's. Today's Christianity produces...George W. Bush.
Megachurch Christianity may hone organizational and business skills, but it isn't teaching believers to think about abstractions or communicate in higher than "everyday" language. No wonder megachurches combine their up-to-date media with fundamentalist doctrine. It fits well on PowerPoint--no paragraphs required. Leaving aside the validity of what they preach, today's most successful evangelicals are spreading pap.
While I'm ranting about the pap-ist threat, I should put in a few words about the mega-bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. If anyone still used the phrase "begs the question" correctly, I would apply it here. While I'm sure the book inspires some people to more-fulfilling lives, Rick Warren's treatise is offensive in its audacious dodging of even the most sophomoric philosophical questions. (What about Hitler? Ted Bundy?) Just leafing through a few pages in Borders, I lost brain cells. Then I got mad. What a fraud, however honestly intended. Warren is amazingly featured (along with Al "Worst Speaker in the World" Gore) at this year's elite TED conference.
On a related note, John Lanius recently blogged on what his wife calls "Contemporary Christian Porn," and other forms of popular but debased evangelism.
Yes, all of the above could be considered an extended criticism of market-based competition. In the U.S., after all, religion is the freest market. But I'm not against the system; I'm all for it. As institutional responses to modern life, I find megachurches fascinating and productive. (I even had nice things to say about their architecture, which, while purely functional, is more interesting than its low-church Baptist predecessors.) But the most successful product is not necessarily the best on all dimensions--or on the ones I care about. And criticism is also part of the system.