GK Chesterton famously responded to The Times’ question, “What’s wrong with the world?,” by answering simply, “Dear Sirs, I am.” Sheldon Vanauken made a similar point when he remarked that “the strongest argument against Christianity is Christians.” Both men refer, of course, to sin.
But today, we Christians have really outdone ourselves. We’ve somehow managed to become into an argument against the faith even when we’re not succumbing to immorality at all. For in addition to the ubiquitous scandals of our sin, contemporary Christianity has another problem, perhaps responsible for even more damage to its evangelical efficacy. Our faith has become, in a word, cheesy.
We live in a land of WWJD bracelets, Jesus-is-my-homeboy t-shirts, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music, and “Tebowing.” We traverse a “Christian” landscape as garish as a Thomas Kinkade painting, strolling to the beat of that sickly sweet poem about footprints.
With these as the most recognizable symbols of our faith, is it any wonder its former adherents fall away disillusioned, or that potential newcomers fail to take it seriously? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake.” First impressions today would suggest that God is something more like a Care Bear.
Frankly, despite having been inculcated with all of this indulgent silliness from a young age, I find it hard to sympathize with the cheerleaders of this style of discipleship. There are good principled arguments against much of this sentimental excess, of course. But to be honest, my reaction is more visceral than principled. It actually turns my stomach to see the fullness of truth so belittled.
As the CS Lewis character in Freud’s Last Session says of his church’s hymns, it’s rather “like dipping a chocolate bar in sugar: unbearably cloying.” The problem with them, he says, is that “they trivialize emotions I already feel.” (The real Lewis, by the way, commented that such songs were just “fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music.” We Christians built Chartres and crafted the Pala d’Oro; I’m confident we can improve upon “On Eagle’s Wings.”)
Contra the intentions of those sketching this Technicolor caricature of Christianity, such indulgent expressions diminish rather than augment the grandeur of the faith. The issue with cheesiness is that it makes Christianity appear unserious—not in the sense that it looks joyful as opposed to somber, but in the sense that it looks like a pleasant (if sickly sweet) fantasy rather than the ultimate truth about life, the universe, and everything.
The Church’s doctrine answers the most important questions we can pose. Her instruction infallibly guides us in moral living. Her sacraments effectuate our very salvation. Yet we would trade the blood of Christ for the Kool-Aid of pop Christianity. Even if we don’t drink judgment upon ourselves, we’ll still end up with one hell of a stomachache.
These widespread bastardizations of religious devotion inspired Thomas Bergler to write an entire dissertation on the immaturity of our contemporary faith lives. In The Juvenilization of American Christianity, he argues that the twentieth-century focus on making religion palatable to our young people had the pernicious consequence of making youth-group devotion the default model for Christians of all ages. As he puts it, like it or not, “We’re all adolescents now.”
And ironically, as is apt to happen when we edit the faith to fit the times, our cheesy rebranding has made Christianity seem irrelevant to the very young people it was supposed to be made marketable to. The reason is simple: This dumbed-down version of orthodoxy offers them nothing they cannot attain without it.
Fellowship, fairness, and fun are all fine things, but Christianity has a monopoly on exactly none of them. When we present the creed as nothing more than a sunny affirmation of these, with some ambiguous tie to your best buddy Jesus built in, it isn’t long before kids realize that the smiley savior isn’t so necessary for achieving what they had wanted out of this deal in the first place.
In a recent Atlantic article, Larry Alex Taunton describes a study of college-aged atheists that he and his colleagues had conducted, which asked these students what led them to their atheism in the first place. Perhaps surprisingly, by and large these young adults were raised not in liberal secular homes, but in Christian ones. They did not complain that their churches had seemed outmoded or boring, as we might expect, but rather that such churches had seemed unextraordinary and superfluous.
Their catechesis had been, generally speaking, neither obnoxiously traditional nor irritatingly intellectual; instead, the now-atheists had found it vague, superficial, and ultimately unsatisfying. Writes Taunton, “[T]hese students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable.”
If Christianity is to be the alternative offering for these disillusioned youths, then we’d better present something that radiates authenticity, which we’ll never be able to do by dressing the faith up as something it is not. If it’s to be the antidote to irony, which has become this generation’s default coping mechanism against the BS fed to them by Washington and Hollywood, the Gospel must inspire its hearers to embrace reality in its fullness. Juvenilized corruptions are only going to encourage a similarly cynical disengagement from yet another too-good-to-be-true façade.
The Bible is not a self-help book, and while the Gospel is indeed good news, the Evangelists were not cast in the mold of modern-day motivational speakers. Emotionally driven praise and worship songs are not going to win over anyone, and I swear, if one more person tries to tell me that the etymology of intimacy is “into-me-see,” I’m going to have an aneurism.
So what is the solution to all of this sugary nonsense? Where can we look for a way forward? Why, backwards, of course, to the fullness of our Christian heritage. All that we need, we have had all along.
One piece of that tradition in particular that I think we would benefit from rediscovering is the liturgy: both Mass and the Hours. These are, ultimately, the cure for what ails our cheesy modern church. Of course, it’s not that liturgy is insusceptible of bastardization when cheesemakers get their hands on it, as though it’s somehow impregnable against the forces of juvenilization. As we all know from painful Lifeteen-filled experiences, that’s simply not the case (a fact that should make us ever more grateful for the ex opere operato formula).
But when celebrated properly, the liturgy is as un-cheesy as any prayer could be. For it replaces our Jesus-is-my-best-bud adlibbing with the words God himself has ordained for us to say to him, forming us in his image rather than vice versa. Such ritual is God’s prayerful script for us, as it were, and God does not deal in cheesiness.
Perhaps what is worst about our age’s happy-go-lucky Christianity is that it cheats us out of half the story. Zooming in on all the positive elements at the expense of the negative ones, we lose the ordered context within which the faith operates. We get the good news of the Gospel, but with no idea what bad news it was supposed to be answering. We’re handed redemption without sin, salvation without struggle, Easter Sunday without Good Friday. In short, we lose the cross.
But a Christianity without the cross—and I don’t just mean the rainbow one on that rhinestone necklace—is no Christianity at all. If a Christian never wipes that ridiculous grin off his face, chances are he’s not doing it right. Our faith is many things, but painless is not one of them. It’s pure, yes, but it is not sterile.
The suffering of the crucifixion is so essential to our tradition that St. Paul says he decided to know “nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Our Lord himself commands us, “Take up your cross,” and something tells me he isn’t thinking of the tacky hymn version.
The upshot is that we know Christianity will survive this spell of cheesy evangelization. After all, if the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church, I don’t think Joel Osteen is going to be bringing her down either. But no matter how sure we are that the bride of Christ will move past this unfortunate trend, still we should be concerned about the souls that could be put in jeopardy in the meantime. And aesthetically, we ought to want to fix this, since we should desire to offer God the most beautiful worship we can muster.
But for now, and for as long as we’ve got all of this cheese here, perhaps the best we can do is pair it well. And on that note, I’m getting another glass of red wine.