Thursday, March 1, 2012

Journey to a Product Without Nutrition

Consider this a reflection on what is bugging me about calling Lent, or anything else spirituality related as "a journey."

My journalist grandfather instilled in me linguistic vigilance at a young age as we critiqued newspapers, broadcasts, and my own writing. After my familial linguistic training, my tutelage was affirmed by the Managing Editor at The Olympian, who passed on memos giving us overused phrases to be taken out of our professional lexicon. Over time I developed an eye and ear for words in my vocation that were overused to the point that their meaning was in question. About two years ago, the word "journey" made it on to my list.

Church folk are addicted to this word (spiritual journey, Lenten journey, prayer journey--the sky is the limit) so I removed it from use whenever possible, lest I fall to addiction. I asked others to join me on this journey, to curb journey usage. To no avail. So I tried lampooning journey's use. I called on my muse in the mighty Steve Perry, who led the band Journey when it was truly great in the 70s and 80s, to help me. Whenever I experienced a journey reference, I'd sing a Journey lyric in my head or out loud. Some of my favorites:
  • Someday, love will find you. Break those chains that bind you.
  • When you feel love's unfair, you just ask the lonely.
  • Anyway you want it, that's the way you need it.
  • The wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'. Don't know where I'll be tomorrow.
Last year during Lent (the height of the Christian journey season on the church calendar), I started creating Facebook/Twitter posts, mini-devotions called Lenten Journey, using Journey songs to think about life with God. These posts are sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes serious, always rock and roll. The pursuit of all things journey, both ecclesiastical and musical, became a small hobby to the point there is some conversation about the word journey, its use, and why it makes any difference.

I noticed the problem with usage of journey on two fronts. First, I was inspired during a conversation with some colleagues/friends (thanks Sophia Agtarap and Jonathan Assink) about a presentation by Timothy Beal in Seattle several weeks ago. Second, looking at the faces of people St. John's Lutheran Church and talking with them about prayer.

Beal spent some of his time during a recent talk offering thoughts on Bible illiteracy among Christians, despite the fact that at any given outlet of Bibles, hundreds of different versions are available. The Bible, like almost anything else, has become a product. What a curious legacy considering the desire of Martin Luther and others to get Bible into the hands and language of the people. The big difference is that Martin Luther wanted to convey that the word of God is gift. It is perilously tempting for congregations to put together a series of faith "products" in order to maintain their bottom line (whether it be in revenue or attendance) or survival.

During the recent Lenten study on prayer at St. John's, I have looked at the faces of people attending and their earnest desire to connect with God. I think about my preparation and the tools I have used, and wondered if I am offering them but another faith product. I do not believe many faith community leaders intentionally commodify the faith in order to gain their own preferred result. However, it is in the pervasive use of journey that I see faith being packaged as a product. A "Lenten Journey" becomes a product to bundle for people in the congregation. It is a fine line between strategically planning opportunities to feed faith using creative imagery, and assembling a product that is void of any nutrition for the soul, for the sake of a faith community's bottom line. Herein lies the problem. If faith is packaged to improve the bottom line, faith fails to be a gift.

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