toast me a little jesus

by Zach Kincaid

There’s a Nigerian myth about the sky. Once, it knelt close enough for anyone to reach up and touch it, take a piece and eat it like you and I pick an apple from an orchard. The sky became the sustenance for villages far and wide. There was no hunger, for just above your nose loomed a great blue dome of bounty. But this nearness to the heavens did not last. Soon, villagers took for granted the blessings of their blue neighbor and became greedy and gluttonous. They pealed off more than they needed and threw away the excess. Seeing the wasteful behavior, the great sky gave warning to take only in need and not a nimiety of its gifts. But the consumption continued until finally the sky said it must move away. It did, to where it sits today, buckled between dirt and the outer spaces.

When the sky let through Jesus, it dipped down in a vulnerable procession of lyric angels and bated stars. Jesus carried the torch of God and found needy people - outlaws, drunks, cripples, whores, robbers, zealots, and would-be preachers - hungry and desperate. People flocked from all over to hear him and perhaps receive his touch that would dispel their sickness or abnormality. You know the story. He consumed all of our calamity in an effort to move us back into the presence of God... to a place where the sky is close enough to procure our lives... the manna from old, now redeeming new wilds of soul and city. Right? Do not worry about what you eat or drink or wear. Your father in heaven knows you need it and he’ll keep you. And tomorrow? No worries. Today is enough to think about.

As Jesus ended his week of passion, he solicited an invitation to his disciples. Take and eat. This is my body that I’ve broken for you. Take and drink. This is my blood that I’ve spilled out from my side for you. It bids us to consume him rightly. For he has knelt close and has suspended himself between that dirt and those outer spaces in a horrowshow that beckons relationship with the divine and an uneasy sincerity about what can happen when heavenly stars get tangled up in the earthen gardens.

Consuming Jesus is the title of Paul Louis Metzger’s new book. It asks us to reevaluate how we build community and what it might mean to genuinely follow Christ in a society that commodifies everything. For many in America, Jesus is a name that wields a gavel and a voting box and fishy auto bling and Colorado Springs pilgrimages to prepare for Sunday justice with a psychiatrist-turned-radio-jock. And, if followed rightly, prosperity will be dropped in the form of material blessings and happier living... to make you a better you (jumping to Houston). Many churches, with their coffee bars and branded, survey tested worship styles, bring market values to measure rates of success and viability. One clear way to count your blessings in church today is attendance figures... and even more, identifying and targeting what population segment you’re attracting. The result is a consumerized model of church building, planting, and maintaining, and one that segments people and communities based on race, class, age, and everything in between.

“The church must rediscover its own story and its sacramental means of sustenance in order to reconfigure the structures to defeat consumerism,” says Metzger. “The consumer-driven church culture fosters homogeneity and upward mobility, not transforming harmony and downward mobility of the triune God that is realized in the cross and resurrection.” Given the premise of a church gone mad with consumerists principles, how does Metzger propose a rediscovery of the story?

He first clarifies. Fundamentalism. It has robbed the evangelical church of intellectual pursuit, social consciousness, and the idea that God’s kingdom is here and now (and not solely in the bye and bye). To the first count, in a movement against modernity, Darwinism, and humanism, it starved the universities of its presence by moving out and starting its own schools in the early twentieth century. To the second, one of the architects of the movement, Dwight L. Moody, noticeably shifted from feeding the poor with bread to feeding them with the Gospel alone, in part as a reaction to the social Gospel movement that linked up less and less the cause and call for work among the disenfranchised. This began a strident move to conversion-centered or conversion-only ministry. And, to the last, prominent startup schools like Wheaton College in Illinois exchanged the idea of a transformation of culture to a separation from it... because God’s kingdom is in heaven... because the true believers will be raptured up and meet their Lord in the sky.

With these three tenants as parts of its platform, Fundamentalism usurped the work of earlier abolitionists and underground railroad organizers and helped turn the idea of a church in culture to a church in contention with culture. Said a different way, the neighbor became the other and the other had to be battled against - Hollywood is evil, Sundays must be free of commerce, the consumption of alcohol is a sin, evolution should have no allowance. Later, gambling, prayer in public schools, segregation, and, more recently, the need for a marriage amendment due to homosexual threats all make up a look outward at the vices of the other as set apart from us. Meanwhile, race and class division, Metzger says, fail to be subjects of concern either inside the church or in the culture at large, which ripple out other oppressors from homogenous neighborhoods to healthcare access, from availability to education and technology to sheer income standards. Metzger -

"The fundamentalist reconfiguration of the church from a retreating fortress to a political battle camp to a homogenous unit is a faulty order that plays into this consumer cultural vision of social relations. Many evangelical leaders give the appearance of going to battle to maintain a certain morality or a certain standard of living and way of life - even a Kinkadian-like utopian vision of upward mobility and homogeneity... Moreover, the individualistic and otherwordly orientation of many evangelicals today involves a lack of awareness of the social context and structures that we inhabit and a lack of concern about overcoming the problems in the here and now. Focusing on getting people saved, especially those like us, and setting them apart as a righteous remnant that will someday rule with Christ, can lead to the unwitting quest for political power for our special-interest groups, coupled with market-driven church growth."

As a result, big-box churches deliver everything to its consumer parishioners, from worship to fitness to education to entertainment. With jumbotrons broadcasting palpable messages for a thousand Pavloff tongues (to sing), one begins to wonder what’s the point? What’s the point in a model that transforms worship into entertainment and preaching into motivational speaking?

It’s the consumer church mindset.

"Whether the evangelical subculture is conscious of it or not" Metzger says, "the consumer spirit is deeply entrenched in its soul: that is, in many ways its soul is but a reflection of the larger culture’s own narcissistic spirit. The consumer-church mindset, which offers self-gratification and fulfillment to the individual, is not redemptive. Rather, this mindset is violent: it enslaves and violates those who have bought into it, causing them to spiral further inward and downward in to the bottomless pit of their insatiable desires. The church must awaken and see itself as a peculiar people with a particular politics, a people whose mission includes shaping each other’s lives through conversion and participation in the crucified body of the risen Christ. This call for upside-down living flows from an inside-out heart in which heaven dwells. Hell, on the other hand, is in hearts and lives that are turned inward and upward (as in upwardly mobile), which we can observe in some evangelical gatherings today."

Ironically, Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus released within a few weeks of Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You, which invites you to "...embark on a remarkable journey... that will help you break free from the past and realize your full potential as a spouse, parent, or friend. Whether you realize it or not, miracles are happening all around you. I'm confident that reading this book will lead you to accept the gift of who you were meant to be and live a life filled with more hope, joy, and victory." This type of theological masturbation is exactly the opposite of Christ’s call. One look at the website of a prominent Christian bookstore chain, Family Christian Stores, provides additional fodder on this fire of Christian drivel. Titles on their homepage include: The Seven Pillars of Health, The Ten Second Prayer Principle, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want.

In addition, highlighted titles that appeal to building up the family feed “diabolical” and “idolatrous” behavior seen in the church today, writes Metzger. The constant chatter about family this and family that misplaces our focus inward, securing our own kingdoms and legacies. “Given such a family-oriented religion,” he says, “perhaps there is not much difference in the end between evangelicalism and Mormonism, where focusing on the family culminates in the deification of the family.”

It is in “our DNA” as the organization Focus on the Family says on their website, “to encourage and strengthen families worldwide.” But, what’s the motivation? “We're on the front-lines,” they say, “wherever legislation threatens to harm the family.” Certainly, FoF’s mission is broader, but much of their work further isolates Christians into a “gospel of privatized affections” as they insulate and protect families from outside threats.

It is this way of thinking about society - as an outside threat - that we tolerate divisiveness and tailor our communities around our comforts and likes. But Metzger argues that the church is mobile, like the Ark of the Covenant - on mission to rebind, reconcile and redeem. And, he says, Christ teaches this himself. In the eucharist, Jesus “enters into concrete local space and transforms it, meaning that, as we partake of the Lord’s Supper - engaging Christ in our union with him - Christ takes us to where he is in the world.”

I recently spoke with Paul Metzger about Consuming Jesus, and he made special emphasis on the hope that it would be a constructive text, positive and reformatory instead of cynical and snide. This is certainly true in the two closing chapters of the book, “Reordering the Church’s Outreach” and “A Nobler Vision of Patchwork Quilts and Church Potlucks.” In the first, he centers on reconciling the church with the world in ways that redistribute resources, blame, ownership, and glory in ways that frame the church as sacrificial and not self-seeking or empire building. In the second, Metzger defines the Perkinsonian quilt as one that pieces together a variety of missional work including soup kitchens and car shops and medical clinics. It would also break down the megachuch palaces and distribute the abundance with impoverished faith communities. Metzger cites particular “patches” that help color the work of the church into something that is shared and not homogenous, one yet different. This American quilt weaves in the worn out and downtrodden and lets loose the golden threads that have kept captivated a church consumed by its own naveled gaze and not being consumed by the jesuses that Matthew identifies in the wide reflection on a dying society, of which the church is a member.

Maybe then the sky will hang down a little closer as it once did.

(December 2007)