I recently read a ranting criticism of ‘religious people’ that I found infuriating, and hilarious. The topic sentence of the writer’s attack was that people like me (yes, I took it personally) who live by “old fairy tales”—i. e., the Bible—are deluded, and not a little useless as citizens of something the author called ‘the real world.’ Apparently, I live with my head in the clouds spouting unrealistic inanities about universal peace, love, and abundance for all; whereas sensible and morally serious people have their feet more firmly planted on the ground. They know that in the “real world” you have to face facts, make tough choices, and compromise your ideals.
An Episcopal bishop once commented on what he called a “very silly” op-ed piece in the local paper that argued that in the ‘real world’ the last thing we need is compassion and other mushy-headed values. What we need is unrestrained capitalism and unequivocal support for strategic U.S. allies, even the nasty ones. “My response,” wrote the bishop, “is to fantasize that there probably is a special place in hell for people who take religious types aside and deliver condescending lectures about the ‘real world’, as though standing at a thousand death beds, knowing first-hand the many forms of human misery, and nurturing hope where the system is not about to provide it were somehow ‘unreal.’ It’s those who think that the ‘real world’ is about the acquisition of wealth and power, and not about their generous dispersal, who live in unreality. It’s people who struggle for status or who are obsessed with control who are not free. It is those who would be embarrassed to be a little less affluent who are ‘unreal.’”
Now, this is not to say that there is an ‘us’ who have it right and a ’them’ who have it wrong. We are always crossing over the boundary of hope into the land of cynicism, and back again. The world that demands we face facts and deal with ‘reality’ is our world too. When we lack a habit of discernment and resistance, we frequently find ourselves echoing our detractors. Prayer and hope and mercy are fine most of the time, we end up saying, but sometimes you’ve just got to face facts. We are not immune to the silly—and deadly—notion that the ‘real world’ is more real than the kingdom of God.
The critical question is who gets to say what’s real. Remember this famous flap in the Reagan Administration? Questioned about the conservation of forests, then-Interior Secretary James Watt replied that it won’t make much difference in the end if we have this or that policy of conservation because, “After the last tree is felled … Christ will have returned.” And after that, presumably, we will have no need of trees, or of the planet for that matter. Bill Moyers summed up his astonished outrage in a NY Times op-ed piece by noting that in American politics, “the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seats of power.” And that was in the Reagan Administration. If we added our own examples, we’d be here all day.
I have long held the opinion that the best thing we can do in the face of the decline of the so-called mainline is to turn our energies to the renewal of congregational worship. I’m not talking about duking it out over styles of worship, but about recovering the ethical wallop of worship—the ways in which worship of any kind, if it is laser-focused on God and the ways of God in history, can be a stay against delusion. For every time a congregation gathers to ponder together one of those ‘old fairy tales’ and confess its hope in the vision of life it describes, it renews a struggle over who gets to name the facts. It is (or can be) a habit-forming exercise in discernment and resistance, a form of fact-finding, a bracing reality check.
What’s at stake in all our praising, singing, and silence-keeping; our confessing, assurance and offering; our praying, peace-passing and blessing is the very definition of ‘real.’ The kind of ‘real’ that allows us to see how precious are all the people and things the ‘real world’ has abandoned as useless and hopeless. The kind of ‘real’, as Will Willimon writes, that allows us to see a nondescript teacher “squatting in the dust with a gaggle of common fisherfolk and former tax collectors and know that they are the light of the world.” To hear an opinionated Paul tell a “ragtag crowd at First Church Corinth, after chewing them out for fighting in church and acting bad in their bedrooms,” ‘You are God’s treasure.’” To recognize in our own congregations, just as we are without one plea, God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world, and see “a sneak preview of God’s cosmic redemption on-going in our midst.” And to encounter a million people like the woman in Louisiana who raised, on a maid’s income, sixteen foster children, and who, when asked how she did it, replied, “I saw a new world a-comin.’”
A new world. A real world. God’s real real world.