Today I experienced "Contemporary Worship" in a mainline Protestant church: coffee, orange juice and doughnut holes as you enter the sanctuary (you may take doughnut holes in napkins and drinks in styrofoam to your seat if you'd like, but there are no decent cup holders in the pews--only those little shot-glass sized receptacles for sullied communion glasses); hippie-ish female pastor in jeans with a kind of Amish-quilt shawl/stole and a headset microphone; several jeans-clad female song leaders with tambourines and other noisemakers; sappy lyrics to songs projected on huge over-chancel screen; music piped into and projected out of great rock-concert amplifiers positioned on either side of the Holy Table.
The actual "service" was a kind of rambling mishmash involving the announcement of upcoming fundraisers, the sharing of "joys and concerns," the signing of "fellowship sheets," the telling of a saccharine "children's sermon" (ostensibly to two children) but clearly intended to induce childlike happy feelings in adults, the preaching of an "adult message" also clearly intended to induce childlike happy feelings in adults, the delivery of a sprawling, improvised pastoral prayer and, to punctuate it all, the almost unendurable congregational mewling of the lyrics to a half-dozen vapid "praise songs" (in which "home," "throne," and "come" supposedly rhyme and whose canned synthesizer music is accompanied by "live" tambourines and jingle bells wielded by the song leaders).
It was almost too self-consciously folksy and mindless
to bear, but since my sister and I were visiting our beloved 87-year old aunt--a devout churchgoer--it would have been singularly churlish to refuse her invitation (expectation, really) to accompany her to this "contemporary worship" experience at Zion United Church of Christ, Waukon, Iowa. Besides, the coffee was pretty good, actually--as were the doughnut holes.
Today's sermon (for adults) was based on the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18, 1-8). It's a parable I didn't remember--about a persistent widow who unrelentingly demands justice from a judge who respects neither God nor public opinion. Ultimately, she simply wears the judge out and he grants her justice--not because he sees the rightness of her case or because he gives a damn about her personally, but because he's just plain sick of her wheedling.
The moral of the story supposedly concerns the power of prayer and the necessity of "not giving up." God, apparently, will eventually get so weary of our demands for justice that he will, at last, accede to them. Well, I suppose that's at least partially good news: so there is a way for really determined people to make God be fair. Prayer says Luke/Jesus, if it is "faithful and unceasing," will, eventually, get us some kind of humane treatment.
But the assumptions underlying this parable are decidedly unpleasant: God is here likened to the unjust judge--an all-powerful entity who has no particular attachment to what we humans consider "justice." He is, moreover, an all-powerful entity who is capricious, arbitrary and subject to the strategies of lobbying and pressure-politics. Justice, it would seem, therefore, is an entirely human, not a divine, concept--and the only way justice can be obtained, if at all, is by "manipulating" God--by never letting him off the hook, or--so to speak--by eating all his doughnut holes.
Unsurprisingly, the pastor delivering today's sermon chose not to dwell on God's injustice--or on the absurdity and the cruelty of the universe. Rather, she focused on the widow--and on the widow's psychology. The woman's refusal to accept injustice, her commitment to making persistent demands even in the face of seemingly endless indifference--these traits, the pastor insisted, were what gave meaning to the widow's life and allowed her, in a sense, to define herself vis a vis God and even, again in a sense, to prevail against the arbitrariness and insensitivity of the universe: she became greater (to paraphrase Pascal) than that which destroyed her. It seems to me, then, that in this parable, prayer rather resembles "revolt" in Camus's philosophy or "engagement" in Sartre's--a way of leading a fully authentic and worthwhile life in the face of an absurd world.
So--I now continue where the pastor did not venture--I guess we should go ahead and pray (or rather, keep on demanding justice; never, never giving up; bombarding the SOB in charge with our complaints). Though God (or the unthinking universe) will undoubtedly remain as inhuman and uncomprehending as ever (N.B.: Jesus does not say that the judge's "nature" changes), yet nevertheless, YOU, like the widow, will be changed; YOU will begin to feel that your life has acquired shape and sense; and thus YOU will find that your demand for justice has, indeed, somehow been met--even in God's eternally unjust courtroom.
And YOU did it: YOU ate up all God's doughnut holes and you went home feeling vindicated!