Saturday, June 4, 2011

Fast Faith Nation

In recent years quite a bit of attention has been paid to the quality and content of the food we eat, especially with regard to what is commonly called “fast food.” For such “food” to be fast, it has to be, in essence, pre-digested. Ingredients and the food’s form itself must be made so that they can be cooked quickly and appeal to the simplest drives we have. Good nutrition, balance, and savoring the experience of cooking and eating are sacrificed for convenience and immediacy.

The result of all this has been the degradation of food, our health, and the meaning of meal itself (as opposed to simply feeding). Few families eat home-cooked food together with truly wholesome ingredients on a regular basis, as meals are relegated to “food units” in busy lives… much more like stopping by the gas station to “tank up” than a time for conversation, enjoyment, and memory-making.

Much the same thing has happened to Christianity in our nation in recent decades. Just as we have become a “fast food nation,” so we have become a “fast faith nation,” with processed-faith pundits dishing out rigid ideologies, pat answers, and party-lines at the Great American Spiritual Drive-Thru™. All of this seems appropriate, even necessary, because of our unquestioned belief in a world centered on conforming everything—food, family, faith, everything—to the unrelenting beat of consumeristic capitalism.

The problem, of course, is that such spiritual fare cannot nourish the soul. The soul stands outside of consumerism’s grasp, because it cannot be measured or commodified. The soul cannot live on “fast faith.” Eventually, as life proceeds and the going gets tougher, “fast faith” is revealed for what it is: starvation rations. Here are some warning signs that you may be on a “fast faith” diet:

Pre-digested: “Fast faith” comes to us in simple, easily-consumed forms, bearing the trade-mark of someone other than Christ himself. Authentic Christian faith comes to us from the Gospel as something to chew on, not something for sipping only. We cannot exist by living on someone else’s faith, opinions, or experience, no matter how holy or familiar that person may be. That would define the Christian mostly as a consumer. The essentials of the catholic and apostolic Christianity we live are handed on to every generation so that we might each, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, encounter the mystery of faith and thereby join Jacob in receiving a new name—in our case, the name of Disciple.

Artificial: Fast food frequently has a great many artificial ingredients. These usually appeal to the most basic food drives we have: salty, sweet, fatty, etc. Gradually, we lose the taste for what is real and healthy, preferring the fake and the damaging. Over the long haul, this isn’t good for us. When we eat foods containing compounds unknown to nature, our bodies tend to react to them as allergens, and this takes a serious toll on our metabolism. Our faith, too, needs to be natural if it is to be healthy. “Fast faith” often employs lots of buzz-words, short-cuts, and techniques having no root in the Holy Scriptures and apostolic Christianity. These artificial ingredients often appeal to our laziest or most shortsighted selves. Yet, over a matter of years, our spiritual metabolism is thrown off, and when we confront the truth about life, we find our faith to be brittle and anemic.

Convenient: Real faith cannot be packaged up and handed to a parishioner at a drive-thru. True faith is a gift that must be entered into over time, through relationships, and experienced personally. It does not exist simply to be consumed or used and then disposed of. It exists as an eternal truth, something to be explored, deepened, wondered at, and embraced in a never-ending process of growth in knowledge and love. Authentic faith cannot be made to be convenient, for our God is a God of Truth, not of convenience.

Hyper-Individual: “Fast faith,” like fast food, tends to emphasize the individual at the expense of the group. Instead of a home-cooked meal involving the contributions of many and eaten in community, such food is reduced to a privatized “just-the-way-I-like it” experience. Portion control is lost, and food becomes more like a drug than nourishment or a holy experience. The “fast faith” consumer is obsessed with getting what he or she wants NOW, and the community or family becomes largely irrelevant. The learning, sharing, and growing that happen in community is not nourished through individualistic “fast faith.” There can never be peace between such a selfish and degraded sense of faith and the sacred meal of the Holy Eucharist.

At the head of the Season after Pentecost comes Trinity Sunday. This day is a unique celebration of the mystery of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. That mystery cannot be conformed to the diseased thinking of “fast faith.” Instead, on that Sunday we offer the Solemn Te Deum in an action of pure praise and adoration. On Trinity Sunday we come together as a part of Christ’s Body to re-affirm the orthodox, apostolic, and life-giving faith that is at the heart of all authentic Christianity. In a deeply counter-cultural way, we will implicitly reject “fast faith,” and affirm Whole Faith. In that moment, as at every Eucharist, we will join in with the whole chorus of Christians past, present, and future at the holy (and healthy!) Banqueting Table of the Kingdom of God—in which the Liturgy always participates, and of which it is a glorious foretaste.


  1. Amen!
    It disturbs me, however, that so many people prefer spiritual fast food to the more nourishing stuff. Mainstream denominations like mine-- I'm a United Methodist-- are growing, while those offering a more simplistic version of the Christian message thrive. Any ideas on how to make serious spiritual food more palatable?

  2. Amen!
    It disturbs me, though, that the denominations which offer spiritual fast food are growing, while those that teach a more reflective version of the Christian message are losing members. Any thoughts on reversing this trend?

  3. Dear Roz:

    I'm assuming you meant "aren't" for "are" in the comment. Given that, here's my response:

    My sense is that part of the answer is to be found in what you wrote, with the word "palatable." I think we need to be less concerned with palatability and more concerned with doing things well and having considerable depth of spiritual authenticity. This applies especially to worship, which must be substantive and transformative--exactly the opposite of much of the comfort-driven pablum the mainline has settled for.

    Perhaps the day of the so-called "mainline" is drawing to a close, but the Megachurches are having increasing problems, as well. I knew someone involved in doing demography for very large churches who remarked that all of their indicators suggested that smaller, lower-overhead communities of sacramentally-inclined people were likely to be the future "norm."

    I also think that the future of Christianity will be much more about commitment than about consumerism. I would advise everyone, in addition to putting much more focus on depth in worship, preaching, and scripture study, to get serious about a catechetical process in their community. What we are facing requires deep formation in the faith, not just chit-chat or NYT bestseller theology, which has tended to be showcased in the mainline churches I've seen for a while now. This focus on some form of real commitment is one major reason the "more simplistic" forms of conservative Christianity are thriving... and why the "more simplistic" forms of so-called progressive but often pretty noncommittal Christianity are dying.

    So, I think the answer will be found in catholicity at its deepest.

    Also, I believe we are going to have to come to understand a dimension of the Gospel (the "narrow gate") that Americans have typically ignored in favor of the commercial success model. It will be hard, but ultimately very good for us. It will put us back on a spiritually nourishing -- if a bit less palatable --diet.

    Thanks for commenting!