Spiritual Formation

In her article “Why don’t all these disaffected Brits convert to Christianity instead?“, Melanie McDonagh reports on recent studies which reveal a surprising number of Brits converting to Islam.

Where the Faith Matters report is convincing is in its interviews with real converts, of whom Lauren Booth seems typical, though rather older than the average, which is aged 27, female, white and fed up with the mores of contemporary Brits. The interviewees identified alcohol and drunkenness, a “lack of morality and sexual permissiveness” and “unrestrained consumerism” as aspects of British society for which Islam was a remedy. Or as Ms Booth put it, after conversion to Islam, “I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness….

So why is it that the young folk revolted by contemporary excess don’t simply make for the local CofE, or Catholic church, and rediscover the religion of their grandmothers, rather than getting their spirituality via Islam? It is, I think, something to do with the real malaise of contemporary Britain which I wrote about in a little essay in The Spectator concerning the film Eat, Pray, Love. It is the notion that what exists abroad, or what is foreign to your own background, is somehow superior to what you’ve grown up with, what’s under your nose. In the case of EPL, the heroine finds her spiritual identity in Buddhism. It would have been a good deal more interesting if she could have discovered it in her local Episcopalian church. 

It may be that the British young don’t embrace Christianity because they simply don’t encounter it, at least not through the kind of religious education-as-anthropology they get in state school, which is about as opposite as it is possible to be from the Sunday School teaching which their grandmothers would have got. Actually, the death of the Sunday School pretty well marked the end of any practical instruction in Christianity for most children. No wonder they’re susceptible to the certainties of Islam, when they encounter it.”

I’ve been reading Rebecca DeYoung’s book on the the Seven Deadly Sins entitled Glittering Vices. What is apparent to me as I read the book is the lack of soul work and spiritual formation which marks much of contemporary Christianity. Rather than growing souls, we focus on an achievement, performance, and experience driven faith which looks a lot like the American dream–full of consumerist virtues and baseless optimism.

Silent Night, Holy Night

This is a rambling reflection which has come together in my mind on the year’s darkest day.

In listening to Volume 104 of Mars Hill Audio, I was fascinated by Ken Myers’ interview with Garret Keizer who has written a book called The Unwanted Sound of Everything We WantIt’s a catchy title, and I’m interested in hearing more. (Is that ironic?) In his interview he talks about the effect of noise in our culture as well as spending time providing a helpful definition of it. He reminded me that Milton places a region in hell called Pandemonium. This time of year can be just that. Mr. Myer’s introduction to the conversation is worthy of a listen in its own right, and he mentions a quote by A.W. Tozer taken from a collection of essays, The Root of the Righteous. Tozer comments,

“The accent in the Church today,” says Leonard Ravenhill, the English evangelist, “is not on devotion, but on commotion.” Religious extroversion has been carried to such an extreme in evangelical circles that hardly anyone has the desire, to say nothing of the courage, to question the soundness of it. Externalism has taken over. God now speaks by the wind and the earthquake only; the still small voice can be heard no more. The whole religious machine has become a noisemaker. The adolescent taste which loves the loud horn and the thundering exhaust has gotten into the activities of modern Christians. The old question, “What is the chief end of man?” is now answered, “To dash about the world and add to the din thereof.” And all this is done in the name of Him who did not strive nor cry nor make His voice to be heard in the streets (Mat. 12:18-21).

Tozer’s comments from the 1950’s are even more true today.

At about the same time I heard Myers and Tozer, I began Adam McHugh‘s book, Introverts in the Church. McHugh takes on our current presupposition that extroversion is next to godliness and cites a study in which 97% of those polled believed Jesus was an extrovert though, statistically at least, just over half of humanity are introverts. He goes on to say,

If human perfection, epitomized in the person of Jesus, includes extroversion then a large number of the population will always and irredeemably fall short. This adds a theological component to the already-prevailing cultural prejudice that extroversion is the superior temperament.

All this in my own mind causes me to reflect on which (extrovert/introvert) I am and how I would better serve the church by being who He made me rather than trying to be something else. And, in this season, is there any room midst the parties and productions, for contemplation and preparation in solitude?

At the beginning of the month, I came across this post (H.T. G Veith) on the season of Advent over at First Things Blog entitled, “Let’s Hold Back the Christmas Cheer”. In it Losana Boyd reminds us the the true spirit of that season which leads up to the feast days of Christmas to Epiphany. Boyd writes,

Advent is the great season of preparation for the greatest of all gifts: Christ Himself. But as our culture makes all too obvious, this is also a season of high commercialism. As Fr. George Rutler from Our Saviour Parish in New York City reminds us:

The season of Advent is lyrically beautiful if one is willing to engage the realities it teaches: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The alternative is to create a parallel universe partying in a faux Christmas confection of jingle bells, dancing elves, and self-conscious bonhomie, avoiding the Incarnation of God.

Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell—the themes of the four Sundays in Advent don’t exactly seemed filled with Christmas cheer. Instead, they are sobering, encouraging a state of wakefulness from the distractions of frivolity. Advent has become something truly countercultural–at a time when holiday parties and merry making are at a fever pitch, Advent calls us to remember the passing nature of this world and the eternity that awaits.

During an evening commute I heard this report on NPR here about Brittain’s X-Factor music contest in which a number songs have been submitted in protest of Simon Cowell’s influence on the music industry in the U.K.. One of the bands in contention for this year’s prize has submitted John Cage’s protest song 4 minutes and 33 seconds. You can listen anywhere.

Lastly, and this brings me back to noise and worship and Christmas, I was reminded of a conversation in C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy between Aslan and the three companions, Hwin, Bree, and Aravis. As Aslan speaks with each, he tells them some about who they are and why events have happened to them. After Aslan leaves, Lewis writes,

Strange to say, they felt no inclination to talk to one another about him after he had gone. The all moved slowly away to different parts of the quiet grass and there paced to and fro, each alone, thinking.

It’s interesting to me that sometimes the most appropriate response to the Word is silence (see: Rev 8:1).

Silent Night
And so, here we are in a season, THE season of preparation, and the spiritual benefit we might derive from it is driven back by all the noise of its production. This season which is to have so much meaning is drained of it’s power just as we are drained of the joy of the news we gather to celebrate. Christmas becomes something to endure, ride out, get through, and finally be done with. It seems to me we’ve turned it on its head, and the feast takes place for a month prior to THE FEAST, and THE DAY becomes the heartbreak hill of this festive marathon rather than the dawning of a new age. And so, we gorge ourselves on hors d’oeuvres and have nothing left for the meal. What should be a season of preparation and anticipation in repentance, quietness, and contemplation, leading us into the joyful news that the King is born, instead gives birth to disappointment, depression, and alienation and all because of the noise of the “holiday” production.

Please to See the King

I heard this song by the group Finest Kind on Folk Alley this afternoon.
 I have really enjoyed their Holiday Stream.
 Here’s what TabCrawler had to say about the song.

“Please To See The King”
Lyrics by Unknown

Joy, health, love, and peace be all here in this place
By your leave, we will sing concerning our King 
Our King is well dressed, in silks of the best
In ribbons so rare, no king can compare 
We have traveled many miles, over hedges and stiles
In search of our King, unto you we bring
Old Christmas is past, Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new
The king was the wren. The wren was the king of the birds. In
ancient religions the king was sacrificed every seven years for
the fertility and good of the tribe. In some places (Ireland)
the queen was royal and married new consorts to be sacrificed.
The consort was treated well for seven years (or one year) and
then sacrificed by the new consort. A wren was killed and
dressed up in ribbons, etc. and carried around the village. This
is from Pembrokeshire in South Wales, commemorating the wren-
killing on St. Steven’s Day, Dec 26. Old Christmas, still
celebrated rather than December 25, is Twelfth Night.