Monday, April 13, 2009

Is This Really Happening?

I like going to parades with my kids. And no matter what the array of lame and/or amazing "floats", when these guys go by its always a shake of the head and "Is this really happening?"

"Did I just see that?"

"I don't understand."

I think Shriners do some good charity work. I don't know, but I think so. I hope so.

I attended the Shrine Circus recently, and though they spent a good half hour parading themselves around the place in front of the captive mostly young audience and then belaboured to introduce themselves---they didn't really tell us anything. What they did do was tout their commitment to provide "affordable family entertainment," and even though they took every opportunity to sell incredibly overpriced must-have kids' merchandise to can't-say-no-parents and brief and boring animal rides for safari-like prices in the lengthy intermissions while parents had to find a way to keep antsy children at bay---I almost believed them!

So I hope they do some good charity work. I don't say that to be mean. But does anyone even know what these guys do? Aren't we sort of not supposed to know? I guess I might be okay with that, but I get sort of curious whenever the mini-cars and marching bands enter my life again.

I'll say this for them, though, they sure know how to stimey a parade-goer. And I think I have them to thank for over half of the bagpipe-marching-bands I've ever seen, which I don't see nearly enough. So, despite knowing next to nothing about the Shriners and not being sure I even want to know, I have to tip my hat to them. I love a good bagpipe-marching-band.


Trev said...

They're an Arabic offshoot of the Freemasons.

jon said...

Thanks. But what does that mean? !

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...



We're living in a Fellini movie.

Trev said...

A 16th century cult with a pseudo-islamic belief system that set up shop in the U.S. in the mid 1800's. They've also had "secret" ties with upper level Mormons (or at least have been accused of such).

The Shriners were predominently established as a philanthropist organization with very loose requirements (i.e. "you need to believe in some kind of supreme being to get in the club). But as we all can assume with any cult, there's probably more going on than just what we see on the surface ;-)

joel said...

Sounds like something else I know of...

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

aw, Joel. Cheap shot. Boo.

jon said...

actually it seems very unlike something else i know of. . .

secretive and exclusionist as a rule; concerned firstly about pomp: certainly these are tendencies that can (and do) crop up in people and organizations, churches included. but this is certainly and decidedly not the spirit behind the church.

that said, granted i recognize what i'll with all due respect call a "shriner's impulse" in some church trends and traditions, but this is not a foreign discussion in the churches and schools i've been a part of (lately it takes the form of a discussion about "being" and "belonging"). but the spirit of the church and its founder speaks loudly and authoritatively against our own impulses in this regard and reforms us accordingly.

so, no, this sounds exactly unlike something else i know of.

there, i bit!

Trev said...

I don't know Jon, saying "exactly unlike" may be a bit excessive.

Perhaps "secretive" and "exclusionist" isn't the rule of the average church, but it certainly can be/has been it's spirit. Just ask any homosexual or woman in ministry. Albeit there are a few churches that are ACTUALLY non-exclusive, but they're few and far between.

Jon, just because they let you walk through their doors and shake their hand doesn't mean you're in the club.

Concerning "secretive": I've seen/heard of a lot of churches go down in a heap as a result of secret meetings and secret talk. You can't tell me there isn't a bit of a cultish "need-to-know-basis hierarchy" within the church.

Like any cult/business/organization - the boys at the top know what's going on...the boys one tier below them know a little less and that trend continues; it all filters down the line and gets more sparse and vague until you arrive at the oblivious new-comer at the bottom. At risk of scaring off the new-comer, we leave them in the dark out of fear of scaring them away too soon.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

aww, shucks. I liked this better when we were just saying, "hey, Shriners. pretty weird."

jon said...

i wasn't denying these tendencies in people or organizations. but the spirit (or the goal, or the motive, or the design) of the church is that all are welcome and its no secret what being a committed member entails. having beliefs that the group commits to is not exclusionist in itself.

in my experience one is hard pressed to find a church that is at all secretive about those beliefs or commitments entail. and having commitments and beliefs does by definition excludes other commitments and beliefs, but that doesn't make a group by definition exclusive. it just makes it a group.

there is also a huge difference between cultish secrecy and prudent discreet leadership. you aren't honestly suggesting that churches should air everyone's dirty laundry and not exercise confidentiality and discretion in what gets talked about among the leadership? i know there is a boys club mentality that can be perceived (or actual) in this, as any, organization, but no church leadership group i've been a part of was not open, welcoming, or anything but service-minded toward the people it served.

there is a real difference between a group that tends toward exclusionism or secrecy but strives for welcoming and openness (as part of its "spirit", or its driving DNA) and a group that is defined by exclusionism and secrecy and just pops up now and then for some notoriety. (i'm not saying that the shriners are necessarily that, but that is the impression i get. i don't wish to paint them all with the same brush and am open to correction)

homosexuality and women in leadership are good points to raise though. but if you say "ask any homosexual or women in ministry" whether the church is by definition "secretive" and "exclusionist" and you won't get one unified answer. i have known people in both of those categories who would not say that is the Spirit of the church, even if it is a tension point in the lived experience of the group as it tries to get along and negotiate life's tougher issues.

what they would want to talk about is how the church handles the tension between "belonging" (as in all are welcome) and "being" (as in what this group is ultimately after). certainly, if you laid out a spectrum with "belonging" on one end and "being" on the other and placed churches on that line according to what they stressed more, then you'd be able to find churches all along that spectrum.

but most churches are in a constant discussion about how to live in that tension. and if they are not, then they themselves have forsaken some of the key things that "being" a church entail (such as humility, other-centeredness, love, and so on). Those churches themselves stand to be corrected, and the place where they will receive that correction (if they care to listen) will be the very Person that they are gathered around.

i'm not arguing for blind naivete about the struggles here, nor am i or was i denying that these aren't issues for the church. but what i am saying is that the DNA or the Spirit of the Church and its Founder are the very thing that speaks to those struggles and drives them to reform (if they are still caring to listen).

you aren't going to find me denying that these tendencies don't exist in the church as a group. but what i will say is that these are human problems, and the group is defined (at least as an idea) by what it strives for and centers around. when it comes to appraising how well it lives up to that, then one needs a measuring stick for assessing it, and in the church's case it can be found at center (in Christ) rather than outside.

jon said...

matthew, you had me at "aww, shucks"

Trev said...


I think if I took this any further, we'd end up beating a dead horse.

You've made some fine points Jon. I will concede that I was to broad with my "any homosexual/woman" comment. I guess in my own personal experience concerning homosexuals & women in ministry I have seen little-to-know exception to the status-quo of exclusion.

But stereotyping is stereotyping, of which I'm guilty.

You first paragraph seems to allude to the fact that a church's ideal state does not resmemble it's current state. I just want to make it clear that I'm not attacking the church's ideal method of operations, I'm attacking its current method.

Two questions for you Jon:

1) Based on your preceeding statements about the church - how different is it from a cult in your eyes? Or another way of wording it would be - what comes to mind when you think "cult"?

2) Do you think Christ is actually at the center of every church? How do you test this?

Trev said...

Oh man, I need to proof-read my comments BEFORE posting them. Sorry :-(

jon said...

i'll fully admit i have a bit of a shriners stereotype in my head, but to be clear i was just trying to say as lightly as possible "what's the deal with those guys!" and maybe reflect on some of my impressions.

that said, i'm really fine with the comments and questions, even if i have moved on to a new post. so, two brief answers and a return question (even if it is just a rhetorical one):

1) i don't know that i really use the word "cult" ever. i was kind of surprised at all the definitions i just found in the dictionary. i don't mind books about "cults" that clearly define what they mean by that and then deal with the content of the thing, but so often it just seem like the word gets thrown around pejoritavely. kind of like the word pagan. it just seems like a dead word due to overuse and misuse and all that.

nonetheless, when i think of a cult in the to-be-avoided sense of the term i think of a manipulative or coersive organization or leader which doesn't explain itself well (or even bother to explain itself at all), or doesn't open itself to critique and discussion with the outside world or even with loosely connected affiliates.

wow, how's that for a definition? just made that up!

anyway, i cringe at manipulation in church, and it happens. and there are plenty of fringe elements which can get downright coersive and even oppressive, even with the best of intentions, believe it or not. "cultish" elements i guess someone who used the word might say. its not good.

but what makes them a full blown cult i imagine would be that there is little to no escape option, or recourse for questioning the leadership. most churches in my experience would not fit the bill there, even if at times you'll get some "culty" kind of leaders or dynamics holding sway for a time.

in fact, a pretty good argument could be made that one of the things that comes back to bite us the most as churches is the fact that we are such an open book, so open to critique, and offer such a wide freedom to leave, to make a mess of things. people can leave without reconciling issues, people can come in bringing their baggage from the church down the road. people can critique you left right and center and there isn't a lot to hide. church membership is a common tool to try to gather a core group of people who agree together on some common goals and commitments (with reconciliation as a centrifugal force) in order to make a good go at some semblance of Christian community, but even then a person is always free to say no thanks i've had enough, these aren't my values anymore. hopefully there is a lot of discussion before a parting of ways. ideally both sides learn something from each other and even reconcile and build consensus. but it doesn't always work out that way. but the basic idea is a far cry from a cult, in my experience.

2) I suppose I could turn the question around and say that a church, by definition, is a place where Christ is at center. But that would be avoiding your question probably. I don't think Christ is properly or perfectly followed in any one church, if that's what you mean. But he can be at center even when (and sometimes especially when) a church is an absolute mess. A people who are centered around the God who is reconciling the world to Himself in Christ will recognize themselves as a people in process, being reconciled to God and one another, and might be centered around God in hope and faith even when they are trying to figure out how to properly love one another, and others, in truth.

I don't know that I can judge when and if Christ is at center, per se, but one can certainly look for things that careful examination of Scripture in dialogue with other interpreters says are Christ-like.

How do you test it or what do you look for? A general rule of thumb seems to be whether a people looks to Jesus Christ in the flesh as the Son of God. If that's in place, no matter how much still may need discussion, I'd feel like there was a Christian commonality there to build on.

But at the end of the day the true Christian community is something we are longing and striving for, and anyone who claims to have arrived already is acting presumptuous. But I don't think this means Christian community is contentless or non-existent. I understand attacking the church as a current reality or attacking its "current method" (as if a current method could be widely attributed to the whole church), but when examples of people failing to be the true church they long for is used to discredit the whole enterprise then i think that select examples are being substituted in philosophical evalution for ideas and ideals, and i'm not sure how helpful that is, at least to the question of the value of the central idea, ideals, or better yet, the central Person or Founder.

But that leads to my question, and maybe we'll just pick this up another time, whatever:

On what basis does someone outside the church attack its current reality? Is it attacked for not living up to its Founder, Christ? If so, then wouldn't the best way to make that "attack" be through Christ-like theological engagement? Or is it attacked for not living up to some outside standard, some ideal set by societal agreement, or philosophical measurements? If so, what is that standard? Is it set? Who set it? Does that person or group live up to it themselves? You see where I'm going with that.

Anyway, that might be all I have to say about that. Which turns out to be plenty I guess! If you want to chime in still I'll look in for a little while. Not trying to pull the rug out from under it. Hope I've answered somewhat.

Obviously I'm a bit of a sucker for joel's shots, and have a hard time turning down a challenge or a question (perhaps to my own demise)!

In the end I still gotta look at that picture of the old guys in mini-cars and give an endearing chuckle and say "what's going on around here!?"

Trev said...

Ok, what really sucks here is that I made a nice long response last night and woke up this morning to find it didn't post! Brutal!

Oh well, Canucks won last night *skipping on cloud 9*

I'll try to reiterate my thoughts:

First off, thank you Jon for articulating your thoughts so well. I really liked your definition of "cult" and will concede your points on "cult" vs. "church". Having said this, I still have heard of/attended many-a-church that fit your description of "cult" alarmingly well, but I do see your point.

I asked the "Jesus at the Center" question because I've never been to a church that appears "special" or "set apart" in any way. They seem to appear/talk/act like everyone else.

Cocerning your question, which was a good one:

I think the church is attacked for its own hypocrisy by a surrounding environment which utilises subjective morality.

One of the biggest criticisms against the church is its claim to have an objective source for morality (God). Yet, we see an orginization that seems to follow suite with whatever the rest of the world is doing. The church is constantly evolving and re-examining its moral compass....just like everyone else. So what's the difference? What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society? Is society following the church's example, or is the church following soceity's example?