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Evolve or Die: The Internet’s Challenge to the Christian Church

The Christian Church is slowly dying in America due to a lack of imagination.[1]  Early Gnostic Christians, such as Valentinus, would have argued that the Orthodox Church was dead on arrival with it’s seeming obsession with the tomb of Jesus Christ and its exchange of personal knowledge for hierarchy.[2] However, as it was a product of its time, where institutions and government were growing in importance, the Orthodox Church not only survived but thrived. Similarly, when the printing press opened the Bible and other theological writings to the literate masses in the 15th century, the Christian Church splintered and reformed to meet people in the new dynamic, where equality and individualism were the emerging values of the day.[3]  ChurchIn the 21st century, the Christian Church again stands at the precipice. The advent of the internet, like the invention of the printing press but on steroids, is in the process of profoundly changing society at a rate that the human attention span can scarcely absorb. This rapid expansion of knowledge and onslaught of information, like a massive energy field, will obliterate everything in its path that does not share its rapid forward movement, including the Christian Church, unless the Church has a sweeping metamorphosis that is as rapid and authentic as society’s.[4]

Many theologians have argued about how to save the Church. Nevertheless, despite the belief among some church congregations that adding a contemporary service and a rock band will save them, the data shows that this is plainly not the case.[5] The problem is not in the nature of the service or that more people want to sleep-in on Sundays. The problem is in a dead theology that allows for condemnation of homosexuals and support of institutional racism and white patriarchy, behaviors that send people with loving hearts running for the hills.[6] The problem is a dead theology with a message that no longer resonates: that is, dead sermons.[7] Christian theology is incomplete, suffering from a systemic lack of imagination, and this rigidity trickles down to the Christian Church. This plight of rigidity besets all human institutions, including academia, science and medicine. [8]

Such a bold statement seems ridiculous when we have thousands of libraries with millions of books on every theological subject possibly imaginable. How, after almost 2000 years, could we not have gotten to the heart of Christianity?  The Bible itself states, “Jesus, the same yesterday, today and forever.”[9]  However, more times than this in the Bible, Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul suggest that the full breadth of Jesus’ teachings were not revealed to the public.[10]  The Nag Hammadi scriptures add to this notion of hidden teachings when Thomas says that he will not share with the other apostles what Jesus revealed privately to him for fear that they will stone him.[11] Most Importantly, Christian theology still cannot answer basic questions about the nature of our relationship with Jesus Christ and God.Bible

For example, Christian theology has no acceptable answers to the question that was so poignantly raised by a student in a theology class at Columbia Theological Seminary.  In a discussion with Brian Powers (via Skype) about his work, Full Darkness: Original Sin, Moral Injury, and Wartime Violence, a student noted that when Powers states in his work that bystanders to violence are complicit in the violence itself, this argument implies that God is complicit in the violence of the world as the ultimate bystander.[12] Powers’ response to this question was that he would agree with this statement if not for eschatological promises. But even if eschatology means Jesus is literally “coming back,” this picture still paints a God who, with perhaps schadenfreude, watches the world burn, while assuring us that he will one day provide a fire extinguisher. Meanwhile, we get a friend named Jesus to go through our pain with us. Plainly, this answer is not an acceptable one to any would-be believer, and this fact is born out in church attendance.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s dictum: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children,” shines a spotlight on our theological dilemma.[13] Perhaps as Christians, we should ask whether our theology passes Greenberg’s test.  How is Jesus’ grace “sufficient” in such a scenario?[14] How can anything be said to be “finished” in a world where children burn?[15] ArtworkIn an interview before her recent death, Womanist theologian Katie Cannon noted of her childhood, “By 4 or 5, I was wondering: ‘What did we do as black people that was so bad?’[16] Dr. Cannon’s question could be extended to all of humanity in the world that Rabbi Greenberg defines.

Unfortunately, the Church is not well equipped to hasten a rapid metamorphosis in theology, because, as in most human institutions, one person’s new idea challenges other members’ personal identities and position in the hierarchy of the institution itself, which is always founded on past knowledge, tradition and bureaucracy. Cultural and social institutions do not change quickly.[17] Nevertheless, perhaps when faced with its own demise, at least portions of the Christian Church will accept the call to imagination and the challenge of rapid reformation thrown down by the worldwide web.

In the Western world, science is rapidly becoming the new religion of the masses, because science can at least plausibly promise that it will one day reach a more perfect understanding of truth: the nature of humanity’s existence and role in the cosmos. In the early 1900’s, scientists were willing, despite great controversy, to push past Newtonian physics, which they had believed for 200 years were the sole defining laws of nature.[18] Albert Einstein, instrumental in this rapid change, stated “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Certainly, without imagination, quantum physics would not exist.Beautiful Lights

If Christians are certain that Jesus is the truth, why are we so afraid to search out new ways in which God is speaking and push past doctrines that are six times older than Newton’s laws? Fear, not faith, and knowledge, not imagination, are what keep the Church trapped in place, and the public can see that the Church is no longer engaged in the quest that the Apostle Paul set down for us in Philippians: that it be our determined purpose to know Jesus Christ.[19] In the 17th century, scientists, philosophers and theologians were one in the same, until the Church, fearful of scientific truth’s effect on church truth, abandoned the partnership.[20] Perhaps, rejoining in such a collaboration, and accepting scientific truth’s effect on church truth, would trigger in the academy and Christian Church the requisite imagination to update our theology and restore Christianity’s relevance and indispensability in the modern quest for truth and meaning. Until then, the Christian Church will continue its march toward the grave, because dead theology can only yield a dead church.


Until next time, joy and laughter to you. And triple sinks.


[1] Newport, Frank. “Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance.” Gallup News. September 7, 2018. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/242015/church-leaders-declining-religious-service-attendance.aspx

[2] Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. (Random House: Vintage Books, 1979), 40-41, 95, 111.

[3] Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe–and Started the Protestant Reformation. (Penguin, 2015).

[4] The idea that the internet is similar to the printing press came from a conversation I had with Dr. Brennan Breed at lunch on January 15, 2019, Taqueria Del Sol.

[5]   Newport, Frank. “Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance.” Gallup News. September 7, 2018. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/242015/church-leaders-declining-religious-service-attendance.aspx

[6] Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. (Simon and Schuster, 2016), 111-116, 236-237.

[7] Newport, Frank. “Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance.” Gallup News. September 7, 2018. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/242015/church-leaders-declining-religious-service-attendance.aspx

[8] No story better illustrates the resistance of human institutions to imagination than the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. The first scientist and doctor to discover the link between handwashing and infection, the germ theory of disease, in 1850, prior to Louis Pasteur, he was ridiculed and maligned by his colleagues at his hospital to such an extent that he went mad and thereafter died in an insane asylum. Markel, Howard. “In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis Saved Lives with Three Words: Wash Your Hands.” PBS. May 15, 2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/ignaz-semmelweis-doctor-prescribed-hand-washing

[9] Hebrews 13:8 (AMP).

[10] Matthew 13:10-13, Mark 4:34, Luke 8:10, John 10:6, 1 Corinthians 3:2, 1 Corinthians 4:1, Romans 16:25 (AMP).

[11] Gospel of Thomas 13. Meyer, Marvin. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. (Harper Collins, 2007), 141.

[12] Powers, Brian S. Full Darkness: Original Sin, Moral Injury and Wartime Violence. (William B Eerdsmans Publishing Co., 2019).

[13] Id. at xii.

[14]  2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (AMP).

[15] John 19:30 (AMP).

[16] Genzlinger, Neil. “Katie Cannon, 68, Dies; Lifted Black Women’s Perspective in Theology.” The New York Times. August 14, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/obituaries/katie-cannon-68-dies-lifted-black-womens-perspective-in-theology.html

[17] Roland, Gérard. “Fast-Moving and Slow-Moving Institutions.”  Center for Economic Studies. February 2004. https://www.cesifo-group.de/DocDL/dicereport204-forum3.pdf

[18] Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. (Harper Collins, 1979, 2001), 40.

[19] Philippians 3:10 (AMP).

[20] Wertheim, Margaret. “Faith and Reason: History.” PBS. 2019. https://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/intro/histo-frame.html

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