A few months ago billboards throughout Champaign-Urbana displayed a giant Krispy Kreme Donut with the text, “Look who’s rolling into town.” Excellent, I thought, they’re going to build a Krispy Kreme here and we’ll be able to get hot, fresh Krispy Kreme Donuts.
But it was all a sham. They didn’t build us a Krispy Kreme. It was just a misleading promotion announcing that Krispy Kremes — not the hot, fresh ones, but half-stale, room-temperature ones — would be sold in local gas stations. This was nothing new rolling into town at all. They’ve been selling stale, Krispy Kremes in local grocery stores for years. The only difference I can see is that the ones in the grocery stores are in a cardboard box, while the ones in the gas stations are in a display case with glass doors. Neither is hot. Neither is fresh.
But Krispy Kreme has given us an apropos metaphor for what has happened with Conservative Evangelical Christianity. Its promoters announce “Look! Here’s something new rolling into town!” And they build fancy new churches with huge auditoriums and even playgrounds (read Brenda Koenig’s astute observations in her article Mega Play Place.) but it turns out to be just the same, old, stale, nineteenth-century theology in a colorful display case.
When religion is no longer hot and fresh, it needs to be preserved so it can last a few thousand years. This is the purpose of mythology. When religion grows stale, it is no longer fit to give to your children by telling them something simple and obvious such as, “The Ten Commandments are really, really good rules to live by.” Instead, we throw in a bit of mythologizing preservative: “These commandments were carved into stone by the finger of God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush.”
But after a while, the preserving powers of these mythologies begin to obscure the true meaning of religion, building up like bad cholesterol until our spiritual arteries are clogged up.
Then maybe someone comes along who is able to give us a fresh new paradigm. Jesus was that person for many of the religious folks who lived two thousand years ago. Jesus was able to remind them in a fresh way that the teaching of the Hebrew Bible was all about loving god and loving neighbor — even about loving your enemies. It was so fresh and radical that an entirely new religion began.
But once again, mythologies were created to ensure that the teachings of Jesus would last. Nobody is going to follow the teachings of a humble carpenter’s son for very long. But if he’s the Son of God who died for your sins, well then, you’d better pay attention and believe it or you might just go to hell.
Part of the problem is that people are intelligent and they start to ask questions about religion. Then, in an effort to answer these honest questions, religious folks create an elaborate system of explanations called theology. We either accept the theology and become converts, or we continue to point out flaws in the theology and are branded as heretics. But eventually the theology builds up on top of the already growing pile of mythology. Now what we have is not just a stale Krispy Kreme, but a green, moldy one.
And that is how I find contemporary Conservative Evangelical Christianity. It has been packaged and repackaged in one bright box after another, but it unfortunately still contains the stale mythologies and moldy theologies that any intelligent person would toss into the garbage can.
Once in a while, a few folks have come along to try to freshen things up such as Martin Luther during the Reformation and a variety of bible-thumping preachers during the religious Great Awakenings here in the U.S. But none of these folks have been able to give us a hot, fresh Krispy Kreme. At best, they’ve only been able to take a stale one and put it in the microwave for a few seconds.
Jesus taught that God was loving and forgiving. He even referred to God with the intimate and affectionate term Abba or “Daddy.” Yet the stale forms of Christianity insist that God demands death as punishment for sin (hmm, doesn’t sound very loving and forgiving to me — sounds more like a tyrant or a monster). But, since God is “merciful,” he substituted his own son, Jesus, to die in our place (if this version of God were such a genius couldn’t he easily solve the problem of sin without killing someone?). Then Jesus is resurrected (doesn’t that sort of negate the whole purpose of him dying in the first place?) and ascends into heaven (even though we now know heaven is not “up”) and whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life (then why are people still dying?)
In science, when a theory has been proven to be wrong, we throw it away. We don’t continue to believe that the earth is the center of the universe when we’ve actually looked at and traveled into space. We can clearly see that the earth revolves around the sun which is just one of billions of scattered stars that are expanding away from a central event called the Big Bang.
But not so with religion. With religion, we stubbornly cling to things that don’t work as we pile on more and more theologies in a futile effort to explain how our mythologies could be fact.
This week is Holy Week for us Christians in the West. Beginning with Passion/Palm Sunday and continuing through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and ending with Pascha (Easter), we retell the story of Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection. Although, in many ways, Christmas has surpassed Easter as a holiday — especially in its commercialism — Easter is, liturgically, the heart and soul of Christianity.
And as much as I reject and rebel against the stale mythology and moldy theology that accompanies it, I approach Easter like a homeless person who’s gone dumpster diving and found a Krispy Kreme. The mold is only on the outside. Inside there is a still a message that I need to hear:
Love is stronger than death.