Is the American Church about the Gospel?

church

Recently, I remembered a piece I dissected in college, a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled, “The Celestial Railroad.” It’s a parody, of serious sorts, about Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, where in enlightened modern times, folks have taken to bypass such nonsense as a walking journey to the Celestial City in favor of a new railroad. Problem was, it let everyone off at Vanity Fair, where people would exchange their celestial properties (heavenly acreage) for a tenement there. Though the Celestial City was not far away, people sufficed themselves in Vanity Fair, buying, selling, contenting themselves in things and pleasure.

Sounds a lot like our world, doesn’t it?

This paragraph caught my eye:

“It would fill a volume, in an age of pamphlets, were I to record all my observations in this great capital of human business and pleasure. There was an unlimited range of society–the powerful, the wise, the witty, and the famous in every walk of life; princes, presidents, poets, generals, artists, actors, and philanthropists,–all making their own market at the fair, and deeming no price too exorbitant for such commodities as hit their fancy. It was well worth one’s while, even if he had no idea of buying or selling, to loiter through the bazaars and observe the various sorts of traffic that were going forward.”

This is entirely convicting to me as an author who makes money with her words. It causes me to pause, to reflect. Hawthorne goes on…

“The Christian reader, if he have had no accounts of the city later than Bunyan’s time, will be surprised to hear that almost every street has its church, and that the reverend clergy are nowhere held in higher respect than at Vanity Fair. And well do they deserve such honorable estimation; for the maxims of wisdom and virtue which fall from their lips come from as deep a spiritual source, and tend to as lofty a religious aim, as those of the sagest philosophers of old. In justification of this high praise I need only mention the names of the Rev. Mr. Shallow-deep, the Rev. Mr. Stumble-at-truth, that fine old clerical character the Rev. Mr. This-today, who expects shortly to resign his pulpit to the Rev. Mr. That-tomorrow; together with the Rev. Mr. Bewilderment, the Rev. Mr. Clog-the-spirit, and, last and greatest, the Rev. Dr. Wind-of-doctrine.”

Reading this makes me wonder if Hawthorne had celestial eyes to see into our society today. Could it be that the church, even then, struggled with concocting sermons to tickle the ears? That Hawthorne’s Vanity Fair is alive and well today too? I cannot criticize the industry of Christianity without first looking to myself, asking myself the hard questions. Maybe you need to reflect on these as well:

  • How much has compensation determined the viability of something I’m creating?
  • Are my words shallow, tickling the ears of those who hear or read them?
  • Am I embracing relativism as if it’s gospel?
  • Do I spend most of my days in the marketplace, while the Celestial City looms on the horizon?

I can’t help but think of Jesus. His tanned sinewy arms raking across tables set up in the Temple of God, tables of merchandise. How the One I know as Gentle Jesus lets holy anger overturn tables. As an honest, needy pilgrim, world-enticed and prone to wander, I have to let Him come into my own tabernacle, see my table of wares, and let Him do with them as He wills. It’s a frightening thing to fall into the hands of a holy God, isn’t it? It gives pause to the sometimes-trite question, “What would Jesus do?”

Indeed, what would He do? Would He be pleased at our words? Our character? Our bent toward materialism? Would He turn our tables over? What does Jesus see when His holy gaze falls upon the American church? Is it more American than Gospel? Have we created our own rules of happiness and passion that conveniently shove things like sacrifice and selflessness into a shabby back closet?

The picture of Jesus reading my books gives me enough pause to slow down and re-evaluate what I’m doing. The truth is: I like success. But success is a slippery enticement. If it woos me to water down, or to catch myself up in hawking my wares to the exclusion of the Kingdom of God, I have succumbed to the powers of Vanity Fair. May it never be. Oh Lord, may it never be.

And my prayer is that Jesus’ church would leave the enticements of Vanity Fair for greater goals–kingdom pursuits–things that satisfy in eternity but get us overlooked in the here and now. This world is not all there is, but the ad campaigns thrown our way at mind-numbing speeds desperately try to lie to us. The things we cannot see are eternal, but the things we see are temporal.

Let’s be living for the other side.

  • This really hits home. I “like” to get caught up in “speaking truth to power,” but if I am honest with myself, I think a lot of the time I am really just trying to have power while defining my own truth instead of speaking Truth – first to myself. It seems to much easier to point out the flaws and errors of others than my own, but as have learned (the hard way), if you can spot it, you probably got it. And I’m bad to knock people around with my plank trying to remove their speck. 🙂

    • Mary DeMuth

      LOVE that: if you can spot it, you probably got it…