Unshackling the American Church: The Tyranny of Modernism

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The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
—Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”

They built seven houses on the former gas station lot. Yes, a violation of the physical laws of the universe, but I saw the houses with my own eyes.

Less than six months after my wife and I pledged our troth, I took a job with Apple Computer in the heart of Silicon Valley. Having lived my entire life in the Midwest, I expected some disorientation, but nothing prepared me for the future shock I experienced.

We settled in a two bedroom apartment in Sunnyvale—a name epitomizing idyll—nestled between AMD, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo!, and Lockheed Martin. As the local rubes, we wore our homespun naïveté on our sleeves, attempting to live as we had in the heart of the heartland. Our first agenda was to get to know our neighbors. Isn’t that how they do it back in Mayberry? Our complex was a chutney of Indian, Hong Kong, and German immigrants, all drawn to the computer capital of the world. We saw them through their windows, watched them walk into their apartments, but every knock on the door was met with a vast unanswered nothingness. We spent three-and-a-half years attempting to meet our neighbors. In the end, we met no one.

How to describe the eerie feeling when you knock on someone’s door, can hear people talking inside, but no one answers. Worse yet was to descend the staircase in the morning only to see the people below us attempting to leave, but instead scamper back inside like so many timid mice when the cat’s around.

Our Hong Kong ex-pat neighbors stayed invisible. The Indians would be out and about talking in English, only to change to Bengali when they noticed us coming. Conversations consisted of them looking confused when we said, “Hi, we’re the Edelens…,” before they distanced themselves from our outstretched hands. MannequinThe Germans, who inhabited the farthest buildings in our complex, would gather at the pool in their micro-bikinis and thongs and play a sort of game called “Let’s See How Long We Can Ignore the Two Americans Crashing Our Party Before They Go Back Where They Came From.” Never in my life had I introduced myself only to have someone laugh and turn back to his friends as if I were a kind of comedic, talking vapor.

Hundreds of people lived in that complex; surely someone would warm to us.

Only later did we learn from one of my immigrant co-workers that American television and movies piped into Hong Kong and India had effectively taught everyone in those countries that every last American carried a Smith & Wesson with a caliber big enough to down a 747. Open the door and you risked having Dirty Harry and his wife, Foxy Brown, put a slug in your head just for the fun of it.

We had a good church, but we noticed little spots of social leprosy there, too. When our official small group meeting was over, you would have thought someone had finished our prayer time by yelling, “Grenade!”—the room cleared that fast.

The excuse was always the same:

Me: “You’re going to work at 9:00 PM?”

Not Me: “Yeah, gotta fix some code for the video drivers.”

Me: “Wanna grab a coffee with us before you head in?”

Not Me: “Sounds great, but no time. Maybe next week.”

Next week rolls around. Lather, rinse, repeat. Evidently, not much got done; the video drivers, product manual, or marketing plan never received their promised healing. Nor did we ever share a coffee. Not once.

Our first church attempt had been far less successful. We were new to the area, but the church’s small groups were all closed. Weren’t accepting new people. One older couple did invite us over to their house, which oddly enough reminded me of something out of “Ozzie and Harriet,” and we enjoyed one of the three homecooked meals we had in our three-and-half years in the Valley. But the small groups were closed and most people rushed home after the Sunday service. Work? Seemed to always be the reason. No reason for the closed groups, though—at least that we could tell.

We had some friends who lived on the other side of San Jose whose new house had about ten feet of yard all the way around it. They wanted to paint the outside of their house a certain color, but the housing association that owned the land only approved five colors and their choice wasn’t one of the five. Nor did they have any say about their landscaping. Kiss the planned cherry tree goodbye! In fact, our friends didn’t technically own the outside of their home—just the inside. There wasn’t much to the outside anyway. You could pass the Grey Poupon through one kitchen window to the next. To step outside their patio door was to promptly step into their pool. The patio itself was more a concept than an actuality.

But the neighborhood was even more perplexing than the limitations, as houses that had been sold the week before never saw new occupants. In those mad, housing run-up days, the buyers flip-sold the house and pocketed upwards of $50,000 by doing so. The result was a neighborhood dotted with homes perpetually for sale, yet not even a year old—possibly forever empty.

All this time, the disquiet in my soul grew.

In the Valley, the measure of a man was his job, his affluence, his earning potential. I’d seen glimpses of this back in Ohio, but like a city-sized thumb it pressed down on you here with a new kind of ferocity. And affluence wasn’t just the measure of men. The teenager drove a Porsche Boxter. Private schools, each more tony than the next, sprouted in the hills, sponsored by aging rockers with kids (or grandkids), who had to ensure the little darlin’ got into Stanford with a full ride. This led to the quandary of choosing between battling school fundraisers, this one featuring Neil Young and that one headlining Joan Baez. (Tip: Go for Neil.) Because we all know that unless Junior gets into that accelerated pre-school, he’ll never take home the sheepskin from that Ivy of the West, dooming him to a future managing an ice cream shop with only twenty flavors.

Don’t ask any of those measured men to give, though. A study came out while we were there noting that residents of the Valley gave only 2% of their income to charity. A man would never consider dropping a measly 2% of his income into his 401k, but 2% was good enough for the least of these. Maybe the parents of those least people should have worked harder to finagle them into a name private school.

It was in our last weeks in California that they built the seven houses on the former gas station lot near the corner where we lived. Somehow they put a driveway down the middle of that, too. Einstein would have had all his wackiest theories proven by the way the architects had folded space to make room for seven houses. Seven houses that were nearly touching, but for all that closeness might just as well been on different planets. As we had learned, proximity did not mean neighborliness. A lot of other things were missing, too. The blur of life left everyone panting for something to make life worth living. But in the Valley, what was truly sacramental eluded many.

We slave away at jobs that have little meaning so we can buy things that provide no lasting meaning at all.

We willingly severed our connection to the soil from which God first fashioned our original ancestor because soil is dirty and doesn’t look good on our Steve Maddens.

We lost God in the blur of a million spurious activities that hold no eternal value.

We do not pray because our televisions and computers bury us under the problems of the entire world, so we don’t know where to begin. We don’t have the time anyway.

We love the material and tolerate people rather than the other way around.

Our savior died on a rough-hewn cross and rose again, yet many of us who claim His name find our iPods to be more real and the music gracing them more comforting.

We talk about community, but we cannot name our neighbors’ children, nor have they ever stepped foot in our home.

Time with the family is rated by quality, not quantity.

And the very things of God that He created for our benefit are forgotten amid the hustle—and cheapness—of modern life.

It’s disheartening. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to lie down and accept this as the only way to live. Yet so many Christians, the ones who hold the breath of God in their spirits, are all too willing to join the world’s parade when confronted with the discordant times we live in. Need I remind us, the Church was not founded on “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!”

What’s needed are people who understand that the simple ways we abandoned in our rush to modernity have meaning because God Himself gave them meaning. Lose them and we lose part of the eternity He placed in our hearts.

To cow to the times and say that nothing can be done because we live in a fallen world is to fundamentally deny that He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world. This is not blind utopianism, but a call to live lives wholly consecrated to manifesting God’s will for us in a world tainted by sin. It’s a call to rediscover what is pleasing to the Lord in each small moment of the day, whether we be baking bread or sharing our childhood stories with the next generation. It’s dedicating every thought, every action to the Lord in a way that finds His sanctification working out through us in the tiny slices of this present day. It is the heart of worship.

In the days ahead, I’ll be exploring how we Christians can challenge the assumptions of Modernism and find what is truly of God in a discordant age too preoccupied with the earthquake and storm to hear God in the whisper.

Thanks for reading.

***

So much of what we do as a Church in this country is devoid of meaning. We’ve allowed the Enemy to strip out so many simple and sacred aspects of life that we didn’t notice they’d gone missing one by one until it was too late.

Other posts in the “Unshackling the American Church” series:

21 thoughts on “Unshackling the American Church: The Tyranny of Modernism

  1. Great Stuff Dan!

    An excellent start to an important series, my life is too full of information and rushing about, and I find myself chasing my tail half the time jsut trying to get around to doing the next thing on the list!

    Maybe I can learn some ways to challenge myself into living slower and more simply.

    Cheers,

    Mike

  2. What a surprising look at silicon valley! It’s sad to see though that in the near future the entire nation could be like this, the parts that aren’t like it already. We have our high speed internet connections to chat with people on the other side of the planet but we can’t be bothered to go next door and chat to our neighbor.

  3. Mike Oliver

    Found this site with a link from Joe Carter. I am a 60 year old widower and I live with my 101 year old mother in a small midwestern city. I could move to a larger city, work more hours and make twice the combined income of my mother and myself. In fact that was the case a number of years ago. I do not write this in order to have you think I am a wonderful person, but to say that I am happier in this situation than I was in the other. I’m not sure this would be the case if the ship of my life had not taken on a new captain about ten years ago. The happiness derived from activities and things is brief and illusory but the happiness He provides is real.

    • Mike,

      Thanks for coming by. I hope you’ll sit and rest a spell here.

      Taking care of our folks in their old age is one of the things we’ve jettisoned in order to keep up. However, my brothers and I dropped everything we were doing to take care of my mother in her finals months. That decision has totally altered the direction of my life, but I would not change what we did for anything. Some things cost us, but when we do what God asks of us, we should be thankful.

      Modernism has stripped us of this understanding. Principles are turned upside-down and what is right is joked at for being wrongheaded. Again, to be conservative means to conserve. It amazes me how many so-called conservatives are willing to give everything away to grab for things that perish.

      Bless you. Those who never look back are the ones that God honors.

  4. Manual trackback:

    Here are a couple of recent blog posts that help Christians untangle their thinking from worldly attitudes: Skye Jethani writes about what’s wrong with a corporate model of church leadership, and Dan Edelen shares a first-person account illustrating how empty modernity really is.

  5. Sheena

    Thanks for that post Dan. I found myself nodding with much of what you said about your Silicon Valley experience, we are in London now (from Scotland) and have been here for 3 years. I have found it incredibly hard here to build relationships here outside the church, it’s a very different culture for sure!

  6. Diane Roberts

    Welcome to California…:)
    This isn’t just going on in Silicon Valley, nor among just various racial groups – but throughout California. Since I am a second generation Southern Californian, this behavior is all I know, but a few of my friends from elsewhere say it ISN’T this way in the churches elsewhere. People in churches here are friendly and will say “hi.” But that is the end of it. It’s sad that out here Christians follow the society in this regard. Thankfully, many churches are starting home groups and other small groups to counter this trend. For people alone – single people and the elderly, it’s deadly. The churches here should know better and every church IMO needs to preach on this and counteract it.

  7. Quote: “the heart of worship

    Dear Dire Dan, this was some of your best writing. It had real, heartfelt angst. I could feel what you felt: anomie carried to the nth degree.

    The heart of worship is to bring it down from Heaven to Earth.

    • Oengus,

      “Anomie” captures the essence of this post. Great word. I need to shuffle it back in to my writing. I used to use it more often. Can’t let great words die simply because we get lazy with our vocabulary.

  8. Thanks, this is a good topic. No wonder you moved back out of CA, sounds miserable in Silicon Valley. I don’t know what it is like in the midwest…have always lived in So. Cal. Modernity does have its issues….I was watching Leave It To Beaver reruns with my kids, and that dad does not connect with his sons!

    Diane, our church is doing the same thing…moving to home groups in order to help people connect and minister to one another through hospitality. But it is not easy to incorporate. People mistake hospitality for “entertaining” and it stresses them out.

    Great post Dan. Looking forward to more.

  9. Kristie,

    The inconsistencies of Silicon Valley were the part that bothered us most. We once had a woman tell us that the reason she liked the Bay Area was that “the people were so tolerant, unlike those rednecks in the Midwest.”

    A more perfect oxymoron for that whole place could not be more profoundly uttered.

    But all was not a total loss. My wife and I encountered people who were questioning the lifestyle of the Valley and that has led us to where we are today–on an organic farm in Ohio. Much of this series is thanks to the extremes we encountered out there.

    We also know that as California goes, so too goes the whole country eventually. That’s why I think those object lessons are critical.

  10. Wow I knew your time living in my area were rough but not that bad…

    You know with foreigners that move next door, I don’t have a problem with them keeping with themselves. As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself usually around neighbors. But my best friend an ENTP tends to make friends and that breaks the ince.

    Now with churches, that is a different story. Churches really need to work hard to build a good environment to help people make friends in the the Church. In the Protestant churches I attended that was a big problem of a depersonalized experience. That is one of the big blessing of being in the Coptic church. The arab Christian culture is very friendly and hospitable. If you start going to their church they basically adopt you as a family member. I actually think that is the way it should be in all churches.

  11. Vicki

    Excellent post, one that needs to be read all over. I’ve experienced much of the same here in the southern U.S. Everywhere, we’ve lost God in ‘spurious activities that hold not eternal value’, as you so well stated. Looking forward to more from you on this topic, Dan.

  12. Pingback: Swap Blog » Blog Archive » Wanting more from the modern church
  13. I felt like a broken record, as I had to read this statement about a dozen times before I was able to shake the disbelief and move on:

    …the church’s small groups were all closed. Weren’t accepting new people.

    I probably missed a lot of good stuff in your post. I’m still obsessing about that one line.

    • I hope it’s not too pretentious to reply to your own comment. 😉

      Hebrews 10:25 (New King Jimmy):

      not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

      At the risk of sounding like I’m attacking the folks at that church, isn’t this verse even more violated by the situation you described than by my not being in the church every time the doors are open — i.e. the manner in which this verse is generally (mis)used ?

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