Stonewashed Worship
Churches are striving to appear 'authentic'—like the rest of consumer culture.
Andy Crouch | posted 09:00 a.m.

In the final years of the 20th century, Levi Strauss & Co. stopped selling denim.

I know this because I remember denim from my childhood. When my mother brought home jeans from the store, they were thick slabs of dense cotton. The first thing we did was throw them in the wash, hoping to soften them enough to be wearable by the first day of school. After half a dozen washings they began to yield, but even months later they still turned the rinse water blue.

Then some enterprising managers discovered they could charge a premium for jeans that had been put through an industrial-strength version of our home routine. Throw some abrasive rocks into the wash, and the jeans could arrive on store shelves looking like they had been lovingly worn for years. So what if they had been pumice-pummeled to within an inch of their useful life? Stonewashed jeans were a huge hit.

I've been thinking about the days of board-like denim as I hear people describe their longing for an "authentic" church.

Authenticity is the watchword of a generation that is suspicious of squeaky-clean, franchise Christianity. Last month I spoke at a young, thriving church that describes itself as "real church for real people." I could understand the appeal of that phrase.

Church, and church people, can often seem unreal. Among my personal unreal church experiences was the megachurch service where we were invited to turn to the stranger next to us and "share a deep personal need in the next two minutes." Then there was the heartwarming, personal account of a minor miracle that I heard from two different preachers, speaking in the first person, on two separate occasions.

But our longing for "authenticity" also bears a suspicious resemblance to the latest plot twist in the story of consumer culture: the tendency to rapidly replace the squeaky-clean franchise with the "authentic" franchise. The leather seats in our sport-utility vehicle caress our stonewashed jeans as we put some blues-tinged pop on the radio and drive to the local Joe's Crab Shack. It's a ramshackle dive that you might think would fall down any minute, if you hadn't seen it being built just eight months ago by a speedy professional crew that travels around the country building Joe's Crab Shacks.

Not in the mood for shellfish, especially 1,200 miles from the nearest ocean?

Just down the road is the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a homey, weathered place where a welcoming fire emanates from gas nozzles. On the walls at Cracker Barrel hang nearly 1,000 pieces of Americana, lovingly collected and restored to a suitably worn appearance. Each one has a bar code.

To paraphrase the Epistle to the Hebrews, I do not have time to tell about the freshness of the salsa picante at the unassuming burrito joint wholly owned by McDonald's, or the rustic pleasures of the Italian grill where concertina music floats through the air, and good, simple wine is poured from oaken casks. Nor do I have the budget. But all of these experiences, as much as they improve on the chain restaurants of a few decades ago, only reinforce consumer culture's latest trend: the good life, the "authentic" life, is available for purchase, and all the hard work has already been done.

So we connoisseurs of the authentic go shopping for a church, and our senses are well-tuned. We may discern it in the heartfelt break in a song-leader's voice, in the not-too-pretty edge on an electric guitar, in flickering candles or in ancient forms of prayer lifted from liturgies hither and yon.

We are human, and human beings have never shaken off the sense that everything true participates in a tradition. But we are also Americans, and Americans are impatient. We'd like our church authentic, and we'd like it authentic when we first put it on.

Down the road is a sanctuary where the stained glass is a bit tacky, the prayers are formal, and an uncomfortable number of the people are old. They've been singing the same songs for decades now, hymns that sound stiff and unyielding at first. Downstairs is a food pantry that opened for business when faded denim was a sign of need, rather than ease.

We walk in, uncertain of where we should sit. The regulars make room and hand us a hymnbook. We hold it—heavy, thick, and unfamiliar—in our hands. Its cover is threadbare at the edges. We open it and try to sing along.


Your Dominant Intelligence is Linguistic Intelligence

You are excellent with words and language. You explain yourself well.
An elegant speaker, you can converse well with anyone on the fly.
You are also good at remembering information and convicing someone of your point of view.
A master of creative phrasing and unique words, you enjoy expanding your vocabulary.

You would make a fantastic poet, journalist, writer, teacher, lawyer, politician, or translator.


Ok, two fun things for today. First, a columnist from the NY Times that I wrote a letter to (different writer from the letter on Job that I put in my blog) put my letter in his blog! Very exciting. You may need a membership to www.nytimes.com to see it, but they are free to obtain. If you go to the opinion article section, and then go to the "Kristof Responds", you can see it. Here is what it shows on his website.

Ben, who identifies himself as a conservative who disagrees with me but generally enjoys my column, writes with a general comment about this blog:
I am troubled, though, by the way you manage the reader response page. Once in a while you post letters written by thoughtful conservatives who raise concerns or arguments with your positions. More often, you post rants written by extremists. I certainly apologize for how frustrating it must be to deal with these nut jobs, but I don't think you advance intelligent debate and discussion by posting them on your site to show how stupid they are and then dismissing them with a clever comment... The conservative movement has its fair share of wild ones, but these aren't the driving force behind the average conservative's worldview any more than insane members of the left are of yours. Were you to use your reader response page for intelligent debate, I imagine you would obtain far more credibility with the many thoughtful and open-minded members of the conservative right.

Actually, Ben, I am on the lookout for intelligent, thoughtful responses, and I try to post them. The problem is that those whacko emails I post — those really are representative. Now, it is true that I tend to focus on the blog on criticisms rather than praise. The email coming in tends to be of two types: “You’re a hero” and “You’re an idiot.” I don’t tend to share the compliments, both because it would be immodest and because they would be of little interest to anyone but my mother. I also think that one of the press’s problems is a perception that we’re arrogant and unresponsive and aloof, and I think one way to counter that is to engage critical readers. So I look for tough criticisms but also intelligent, well-informed ones. The reality is that a large number of emails coming in, from both left and right, are not noted for their thoughtfulness, coherency or printability. Frequently they advise me to perform impossible acts.

Also, today I wrote a "test" for Beth Martin's fiance... and yes, I sent it to him! I'm excited for them, I think he sounds like a terrific guy and a strong Christain. Still, I felt it was necessary to tease him a bit, so I sent this letter.

Dear Sir,
It has come to our attention that you intend upon marrying one of the noblest and most upright women God has seen fit to place upon this earth. This is an area of severe concern for us, as perfection can easily be ruined by… well, by your average guy.
Therefore, we require you to pass, with flying colors and impeccable credentials, the following exam. Some questions will seem straightforward and serious to you. Rest assured; they are. Some questions will seem goofy and/or humorous. They are not. This is a reflection of the fact that you are still quite young, and it would be in your best interests to take them seriously. If at any time you feel the questions are unfair, it would be best not to let us know, as it is grounds for initiating KHF (Kill Her Fiancé) operations. KHF operation commencement is our prerogative, to be initiated at any time for any reason we feel is pertinent. We suggest you tread lightly.

1) State your name, your testimony, and your reason for desiring marriage.

2) Please proceed to http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes1.htm and take the test you find there. Report the four-letter result.

3) List your three main reasons for wanting to marry Beth.

4) List three reasons she should even consider marrying you.

5) List three important people you identify with and why. These should be people famous enough that their biographies can be found on the Internet.

6) List three influential people in your life, including how they influenced you.

7) List your three most preferred methods of death should you answer a question wrongly.

8) Please discuss what your response will be the first time "Uncle Dan" talks your children into streaking through the streets of Little Lake, Michigan without clothing.

9) Please list three things you will do within one year of marriage to honor Beth’s mother. (Hint: At least one of these should be nomination for sainthood. Just a suggestion)

10) Name all the sports that are more fun, challenging, and competitive than Ultimate Frisbee. (if you desire to live, this list should be VERY short)

11) If your life's work could be anything you want, what would it be?

12) How long are you planning on being married? Circle one.
"Permanently" "Forever" "Till death do us part" "None of the above…Initiate KHF Operations!"

13) Explain your views on men and women’s roles in the church.

14) List three or more favorite books.

15) List three or more favorite authors.

16) Give your favorite passage of Scripture with brief explanation.

17) What is the best kind of sermon?

18) How many children do you want in your family?

19) Briefly explain your major, why it interests you, and what you hope to use it for.

20) True or True (circle one). Monty Python: Search for the Holy Grail is a work of great genius.

21) Explain your views on predestination.

22) When finished, return the completed exam to bbartlett@mha.org Read Proverbs 31, Isaiah 58, and Ephesians 1:15-23. Close the Bible, thank God for your good fortune, and have a wonderful day!

p.s. KHF operatives work closely with KHH (Kill Her Husband) operatives, so please proceed with caution for at least the next 70-80 years.

Heh, actually this is a sorta cool quiz for ANYONE to take... if you want to, feel free to take it yourself (if a question doesn't pertain to you, ignore it) and send me the results! bbartlett@mha.org

Have a great day!


Some thoughts for today...

If you haven't yet, PLEASE read the Peter Principle. It's an absolute riot.

Never in the history of sports commentary has a columnist been proven so right. Please check out Tuesday Morning Quarterback on www.nfl.com in relation to the Colts-Patriots game.

I would love your comments; do you personally prefer carpeted or hardwood floors in your bedroom?

Finally, ask yourself this question: In my growth as a person, what has educated me the most? And what is it about myself that responds so well to that kind of learning? Next, think of ways to use that knowledge.



Here is a letter I wrote today to William Safire, an opinion writer for the New York Times. He wrote an article about how the book of Job (and, presumably, Christians or Jews) would respond to the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from the tsunami. As you'll see, I disagreed with his interpretation. Go to www.nytimes.com if you want to see his article, but it will probably be gone by tomorrow. If you know nothing about me and my understanding of God, this is a pretty good starting point.

Dear Mr. Safire,
Thank you for your recent article on Job, and what the book has to say about suffering. It means much to the Christian community when those who are in position of influence take the time to consider how we approach the world.

However, I think it is a mistake to approach the Bible as Spinoza did, reading a certain portion without understanding the larger scheme of the work. I believe you missed the point of the book.

Throughout the Bible, we are shown that life is not about a moral code, nor is it an all-out love fest (though those are both elements of the larger point). Instead, the Bible teaches us what it is to glorify God.

The famous play JB outlines what most humans believe to be an impossible roadblock to a Christian understanding of God by suggesting that if God is good, he is not all-powerful. If he is all-powerful, he must not be good.

The problem here is that humans have arrogantly assumed that they have complete knowledge of what is good and what isn't. They are making the case that God is either uncaring, by allowing large amounts of pain when he could prevent it, or that he is weak. They assume pain is inherently bad according to their personal moral code, and that God must live up to it to be worthy of their interest.

Job shows us that this argument is not the point. In the beginning of the book, Job is a good guy. He doesn't break any rules, he is "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1) God allows Satan to test him, but note that he does not tell Satan what the end result will be. Clearly, God has more in mind for Job than some cosmic bet. God is teaching Job something.
Near the end of his time with his friends, a young man makes some observations that God does NOT correct in the end. Apparently, they are true. This young man, Elihu, makes some of the most important summarizing arguments of the book in chapters 32-37. His points, along with God's statements, make it clear that God does not want moral perfection from us. He wants to be WORSHIPPED. God is teaching Job that he needs to be seeking and worshipping God, not just obeying his rules.

As Elihu says, "God is exalted in his power, who is a teacher like him? Or said to him, 'you have done wrong'? Remember to extol his work, which men have praised in song. All mankind has seen it, men gaze on it from afar. How great is God-beyond our understanding! The number of his years is past finding out." (Job 36:22-26)

In another place (Job 35:3-8) Elihu points out that your righteousness or lack therof doesn't add anything to God or take anything away… it affects only us. Instead, we should be worshipping.
After God's statements, all of which point to his cosmic value and worthiness of worship, Job's reply says it all.

"My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you." (Job 42:5, emphasis mine) Job now realizes that "being good" isn't enough. Suffering is there because God allows it. He allows it because it is a part of what must be done (and only an all-knowing God could know what must be done) to gain the worship of his creation.

Where would worship of a powerful God be without fear of His power? Where would joyful worship be without pain to oppose it? Who would worship God through his plan of salvation if there were no death to be saved from?

Many have struggled with the question of whether something is good because God does it, or whether God does it because it's good. This is a hard question because the former perpetuates chaos and we don't feel as though the latter has been shown to be true. The correct answer, though, is neither. Something is good because it glorifies God. Therefore, God does those things that glorify Himself, because there is no other good in the universe. He is bound by the need to honor himself, because the Truth is that He is deserving of it, and God cannot avoid doing what is right due to false humility or a desire to look good in our eyes.

Christian theology is built on these principles. It cannot be approached in the same way as Islam or modern-day Judaism, because goodness isn't a meeting of the standard. Goodness is worship for the only One who CAN meet the standard.

Thank you, again, for your thoughts on this important and emotionally hard issue. I continue to appreciate your articles and your contributions to society.

Ben Bartlett


Just some short thoughts for now...

Quick video game update... Dave gave me a THOROUGH thumping last night in Mario Tennis, and then went on to defeat me in ESPN 2k5 as well! He is clearly not as demoralized as I thought. No more NY Jets for me... I'm going back to the Lions.

Also, guess what happened two years ago today? I was in Washington DC, on the phone with a certain adorable Asian... and I asked her out! That's right, today is the two year anniversary of asking Samantha to be my girlfriend. Of course, now she's my fiance, so within about 6 months or so we'll have a REAL anniversary to celebrate. How quickly life changes... and how lucky I am!

Final thought. Why don't they have a Quiznos in downtown Lansing, for crying out loud?