Two prominent tales are being played out in the culture of American Christianity right now. They appear unrelated, but I believe they are intimately connected to one another, and highlight the cognitive dissonance we struggle with in regards to religion.
Fred Phelps, the founder and patriarch of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and the “God Hates Fags” street preacher campaigns died today. Over the years, I have had a few encounters with their “ministry.” I have run into them at Gay Pride Parades in San Diego, and witnessed the crowd response of anger. I have been involved with groups of people attempting to block their protests at funerals.
Fred Phelps was the poster child for one of the primary reasons people feel that Christianity is disconnected from cultural development, and why it exemplifies the kind of prejudice and hatred we are told to expect from religion.
Concurrently with Phelps failing health and his death today, Mark Driscoll is making news at the same time. Mark Driscoll has been caught up in accusations of abuse of leadership, plagiarism, and buying his way onto the NYT bestseller list. He has been called out for misogynistic teachings, crude language from the pulpit, and demeaning comment about fellow religious leaders.
Phelps’ protests at soldier’s funerals, and Gay Pride Parades; and Driscoll’s self-promotion, and crudeness from the pulpit seem to have no connection at first glance, but I believe today is a day we can begin to see the death of the death of the church.
What I mean by that double negative is this: Every so often the church needs to die to some sense of religious impropriety and dark behavior, which we have come to expect in it, but there are seasons when it is time for the Phoenix to rise from the ashes, and we see the season of death to give way to a new birth.
My hope is that we are close to the end of a decades long process of death, and are nearer a resurrection. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of its own demise; may we find a new season of church life coming upon us soon.
This is neither a condemnation against Fred Phelps (whom I hope will somehow still find the grace of God), nor Mark Driscoll (whom I hope will find the path to health). Rather this is the simple acknowledgement that both stories speak to the anger our generation holds toward religion, and both stories speak to the need for reform.
I was born on Martin Luther’s birthday. I wish I had his capacity for changing religion.