Nice Church

An acquaintance once told me about a wealthy benefactor in his church, a man who likes to point out that he “isn’t one of those Bible thumpers.” He just believes that it’s a good thing for families to go to church. So he’s donated millions over his lifetime to the building of churches. He is an upstanding and well-regarded church member, this man.

He came to mind yesterday, when I read Bonhoeffer’s essay on Christ’s admonition to be salt and light:

“. . . the light may be covered of its own choice; it may be extinguished under a bushel, and the call may be denied. The bushel may be the fear of men, or perhaps deliberate conformity to the world for some ulterior motive, a missionary purpose for example, or a sentimental humanitarianism. But the motive may be more sinister than that . . . [it] pretends to prefer to Pharisaic ostentation a modest invisibility, which in practice means conformity to the world. . . The very failure of the light to shine becomes the touchstone of our Christianity.”

Yesterday I talked to a friend who had just returned from Belgium. While he was there he attended service in a large cathedral. He said it was beautiful and ornate and almost vacant, with rows and rows of empty pews spreading out behind a clutch of old women huddled toward the front, awaiting the sacrament.

I suspect this is what happens when the smooth and upright exclude the Bible thumpers from their midst. The church becomes unobjectionable, even socially advantageous to join, and over time it becomes irrelevant. I suppose there’s a danger in the other direction as well; those whose relationship with God is based entirely on emotional experience have their own means of separating him (and therefore themselves) from his work in the world — religion becomes a tearful, emotionally-charged experience confined to Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, with little thought in between.

The path certainly is narrow, isn’t it? Bonhoeffer wrote that it is exactly the width of one man, the man who dragged a cross up Golgotha, and our only hope is to follow him alone. I suspect that the man who cast the moneychangers from the temple probably smiles on a little Bible thumping from time to time. The man who prayed alone at Gethsemane probably also values the unobserved communion.

I wonder if he smiles, or weeps, or perhaps both, as he watches those faithful old women, the last dregs of Christian Europe, touching their creaking old knees to the stone floors of beautiful dead churches.