This sign is in the offices of Oklahoma’s largest church: Life.Church, formerly known as Lifechurch.tv, formerly known as Life Church, or Lifechurch. I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter.
There is in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein this idea that you cannot pick up the vocabulary of one community of reference or language game and simply port it over to another community of reference without bringing some of the grammar with you. (This is not grammar in the sense of how speech is coherent; it’s grammar in the sense of how we use words to give life the semblance of coherence.) The sign above is the clearest indication I’ve seen in a very long time that he was correct.
Other than writing for magazines this past year, I’ve barely been able to force myself to write about what is happening to our country, both culturally and politically. This is in large part due to my ongoing conviction that words are now mostly used to indicate tribal affiliation, not get at the truth of a statement or position. They aren’t worthless yet, but the moment is close. I am never surprised when politicians—Left, Right. Libertarian, Green, etc.—use words cynically. The entire Trump team is eaten up with cynicism at a level that is hard to fathom, even as he used words throughout the campaign and in his first year to indicate he is bereft of an interior life, the final stage of cynical nihilism.
Churches have factored into the Trumpian narrative since the beginning of his campaign. Just this morning I read Amy Sullivan’s excellent piece at Politico in which she does a solid job of explaining who the Charismatic/Pentecostals are, and why they got involved with Trump and remain his strongest supporters. Save You A Click: They Think God Orchestrated Trump’s Election. If that sounds too far-fetched, just know for now that it’s really not. Many of them, Stephen Strang of Charisma Magazine most especially, sincerely believe that God has given us Donald Trump as a means of “saving” our nation. (We’ll ignore the civil religion component of national soteriology for now.)
That churches have so wholeheartedly embraced a man who has to be a top three contender for Presidents Who Took the Lord’s Name in Vain has been both shocking and dispiriting.
Yes, I said dispiriting. In spite of my own lack of faith, I still held some fundamental beliefs about the role of churches, temples, mosques, etc., in our collective ethos, not the least of which was that they are genuine conversation partners about what is right and good. No, I did not often agree with them, especially about issues of human sexuality and gender, but about issues of character, I often found myself in agreement. There are still faith communities that are pursuing the truth, but it’s past time to say that those who support Trump as God’s man in any meaningful way are simply not Christian faith communities. They are practicing a Christianity so modified by the tenets of civil religion that they have created a new hybrid every bit as exotic as the other Christian hybrids of the modern era: Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And now we come to a sign in a church office. I have to reiterate that this is by far the largest church in the state, and it’s one of the largest in the country. The senior pastor is commonly invited to speak at large-scale religion conferences, especially of the “how to be a better marketer” variety. Pastor! I meant pastor, not marketer. Sorry.
I am not of that tribe of skeptics or atheists who believes you cannot teach religion without teaching lies. That, too, is cynicism, just from a different ideological location. Do I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, or that a snake talked to Eve, or that the Prophet went to heaven on a horse, or that Vishnu regularly took human form? No. Of course not, but myths of a faith community (or country) are fundamentally different than corrupting the use of words in an everyday context. If you teach people to believe an obvious lie, it’s not a long journey to them disbelieving obvious truths.
The first line of the sign might as well say, “We wholeheartedly reject the label truth-teller.” They are a megachurch in every single way that matters. They have tens of thousands of members in multiple states on multiple campuses, more than 20 campuses, in fact. Not a single one of those multiple campuses qualifies as “micro.” The campuses in Oklahoma City are larger than nearly every other church in the city, so what the hell does “micro” mean in this ad?
The simplest way to describe the idea that Life.Church is a micro-church is to call it utter horseshit. It’s so clearly false that to tell your people that it’s somehow the truth is to do violence to language. Worse, it conditions your people to parse untruths as truths, and the corollary is always therefore to parse truths as untruths, the fake news of religion and politics. It’s not just a venial sin; it’s taking the Lord’s name in vain and failing at being a pastor. It is hating the truth.
In short, it’s to prefer marketing results to gospel results. Life.Church has always used the language of marketing, but they were foolish enough to believe that you can borrow the vocabulary without borrowing the grammar. Marketers don’t care about the truth; they care about results. If the product isn’t new and improved but saying it is increases sales, then the shit is new and improved. The metric is about margins and bottom lines, not truth-telling. Truth-telling is supposed to be the domain of the religious community, so why are so many failing so badly at it?