How Churches Became Full of Gatsbys
Gatsby is a story about the lengths we will go to because of shame. Gatsby’s great secret is that there is no Gatsby. An impoverished teenage boy, ashamed of his upbringing and family, invented the character of Jay Gatsby. He then spent his life lying, cheating and stealing to create Gatsby.
Churches often force people to do the same.
“Church” in America is often categorized as a cultural institution. The job of a cultural institution is to propagate cultural values. Here are some (probably unfair) stereotypes to illustrate:
- Bible Belt Churches: Individuals are expected to wear
formal dress, embrace sports, avoid dancing and drinking. There is often a focus on sexual morays and proper forms of speech.
- Mainline Churches: Intellectualism is triumphed. Education is a cardinal virtue. Involvement in
progressivepolitics is expected. Proper systems must be maintained.
- Charismatic churches: Expression is king. Energetic responses are expected. Emotional persuasion is the norm.
- Boomer MegaChurches: Quality production is essential. Excellence is the high value. Bigger is always better.
- Hipster Churches: Dressing up is disdained.
Recyclingand eating organic are holy acts. Faith is silly. Doubt is a virtue. Terms like “Justice”, “Community” or “Africa” are often heard.
Church Gatsby’s might be the thoughtful intellectual, afraid to bring up their doubts with their church. A Gatsby might be a teenager who is discovering sexuality, but has no one to discuss it with or an individual with a divergent political opinion who feels forced to smile and nod when issues of abortion or gun control are brought up.
There are (at least) two huge problems with churches that become institutions.
- Neither Jesus nor the early missionaries created or promoted a specific culture. Jesus was constantly crossing cultural boundaries. In a culture that treated women as property, Jesus spoke to them as friends. He elevated the Samaritans, a maligned ethnic minority. He had dinner parties with people who were traitors. Peter and Paul, two of the first missionaries, carried Jesus’s message to other cultures. Paul specialized in this, making it his policy to become “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
- We are saved by grace, not culture. The beautiful and multifaceted complexity that is the gospel can be expressed in one phrase: by grace you have been saved. This means that the value of a human being is independent of their host culture.