Wednesday, December 28, 2005
The Lernaean Hydra of American Christianity
In Greek mythology, the half-god hero Hercules was sent to kill a legendary beast called the Hydra, who dwelt in the Lake of Lerna. The hydra was a venomous, dragon-like beast with many heads. As if such a creature were not formidable enough, each time a head was cut off, two new ones grew up in its place.
As I consider the history and current state of American Christianity, this image from classical mythology immediately came to mind. While it is certainly the case that Christianity has always been possessed of different expressions, in the wild frontiers of America it seems that expressions of faith multiplied into truly Darwinian variety.
Why the comparison with the Hydra? What happens in a consumer-driven, individualistic society when things don't go my way at church? I go across the street and start my own. Where there was one assailed by the sword of conflict, now there are two, ad nauseum. This is different than faithful reproduction, which preserves the form of the original and grants it autonomy to live its own life. The hydra is not reproduction, it is multiplication of the problem.
As the problem has progressed, we now have more than thirty different expressions of Christianity right here in the smallish town of Salem (which, remember, is the capital city of the most unchurched state in the nation).
This drives people crazy. As we have been reaching out to people in Salem, we have discovered that one of the inevitable questions (from Christians and everyone else) is, "what denomination are you?" To this, we reply, "We're non-denominational." This is of course true in the strictest sense--churches of Christ (and indeed all Restoration churches) claim no official, central governing body which determines their forms, doctrines, or practices.
But in a sense, we're giving them only half the truth, since we usually know why they are asking the question. Buried in the "what denomination" question is a variety of other notions lurking just out of consciousness: are you traditional? do you resemble any other church with which I've had bad experiences? are you one of them? as in, one of those the media lampoons as prudish, judgmental and narrow-minded (all great sins in today's culture).
There are probably more lurking in there, but the point is, we come from a tradition, just like all churches do. There is much good and true about our tradition and much we claim as our own, and there is also much that is rotten, moldy, and just plain wrong. And yet we are a church of Christ, and we will remain so as long as I have a part in the leadership of this fledgling community of faith.
And now we come to our struggle: given that it is each generation's great burden to take up what is graciously given them by their forebears and press forward, how does one remain what one is and at the same time purge that which is useless, wrong, or false? How does one determine which practice or form?
To return to our original metaphor, how do we keep the pressures of conflict from causing us to become yet another fleeting form, defined by what we are not and warring continually against the others? In what way can we keep from multiplying the problem (inventing new traditions from scratch, heedless that they bring their own problems not yet born)? How can we be an authentic product of the natural process of reproduction, an image of our parents, autonomous yet of a fine lineage?