Following an earlier theme, I sometimes wonder how many people don’t like the label ‘Christian’. The Greek root and Latin suffix “follower or belonging to’ – as in slave ownership – ‘of the anointed one, or messiah’ in Hebrew has always felt ambiguous, somehow. Before reaching for the faggots and flaming torches, don’t forget I’m a professional flying buttress, uncomfortable with the pierced ear of slavery, so hear me out. I think I’m in agreement with K S Wuest when he remarked that the Antiochans, where the term was first used, had a wicked sense of humour and were fond of making up derisory nicknames for people who didn’t seem very keen on the deity personified as the current Roman emperor. Tacitus, the historian writing at the end of the first century, noted that the ‘vulgar’ or popular appellation was used when referring to the Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in CE 64. Peter, and later, Polycarp and Ignatius were proud standard bearers for the nickname and it does rather seem to have stuck.
Why the history lesson? I read an article in ‘Christianity Today’. Not perhaps my publication of choice, but I couldn’t seem to find a GQ anywhere. An eighteen month old copy was lying around in the staff room and a real fifty-dollar word caught my eye. Juvenilisation. The article was, I have to say, quite well-written, and it explored the connection between yoof culcha and the rise of the postmodern Church, coming to the conclusion that the church had basically been juvenilised, hijacked by the immediacy of modern culture, sin had been largely subsumed into an egocentric narcissism of immediacy and discipleship other than being a rather long word, had been overtaken by focus groups and the Alpha Course. Young people as a demographic capable of social and indeed denominational leverage is quite a modern phenomenon. Before 1950 and the beat generation, before Chuck Berry and Elvis, adulthood was defined in terms of getting married, having first found a job, then producing children, often in quite large numbers. If you were a churchgoin’ type, you attended on a regular basis with other sober folk who carried a similar denominational stamp. Events on a Sunday morning were probably quite similar to those your parents and grandparents had experienced. Then somebody invented teenagers, brimful of hormones and rebellion, Woodstock and Jimi and the Rolling Stones followed later. Out of this very different paradigm, new forms of social activism and church identity began to emerge. I’m not going to write a thesis on the sociopolitical impact of, say, the New Charismatics or whatever, but yesterday, I attended two churches, back to back and I came away thoughtful. Not because of their differences, which were obvious, but because of their similarities.
If there’s a band, people don’t sing any more. Hymns or otherwise. Apart from the Trappists who take rather a dim view of idle talk in general and probably rock bands in particular, people find themselves mostly listening, occasionally joining in as far as a modern lyric allows, and if all there is is one acoustic guitar, mooning along listlessly to some saccharine and repetitive mantra or other. In short, much of it, pleasant as it undoubtedly is, is a little bit juvenile.
I made a point of taking note of what was sung. Stripping away the slick guitar licks and atmospheric keyboards, most of the songs were – well – lyrically bland and lacking poetic robustness, celebrating love as to a paternal figure in the same way that a lovestruck fourteen-year-old might. I imagined them without the words, and thought of beaches and sunsets, hand in hand with a barefoot, slim, dark-haired girl in a white dress, smelling of patchouli. There was beauty there, undeniably, but in the middle of it all I found myself somehow exterior, as if watching from a distance and from this perspective, I wondered what mature, grown up worship might actually look and feel like, if indeed it actually exists. Adults aren’t usually propelled so determinedly by their emotions and watching people with greying hair and the weathering of years on their faces behaving uncharacteristically – waving arms, beatific expressions, swaying gently and so on, gave pause for a thoughtful moment. Anywhere else but in church and arrests might follow. Years ago, we clapped hysterically, jumped manically and touched heaven, perhaps. Many still do and I would say to them as enthusiastically as I can ‘more love, more power’.
Then, everybody got older, but the culturally relevant tree had already been planted and it grew unstoppably and the old still behave like the young, the new inheritors of the stage. I wondered if I was influenced by the fact that last Sunday was the presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Nunc Dimittis is emblazoned on banners in English and Hebrew. Was old Simeon a mature worshipper, I wonder?