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This week I read two articles that seem to capture the the contradictory impulses of this present age. The first reported that Christ United Methodist Church in Shreveport is offering “Ashes to Go” services on Ash Wednesday. This will allow people simply to receive the ashes in their cars for a kind of “drive-thru” shriving. In the second, David Brooks argues that secularism must in the future become more enchanted, more sensitive to the transcendent, if it is to flourish.

The two articles send two different messages. In the one, religion is being disenchanted and secularized. In saying that, I am not making a statement about the dogmatic position of the church in Shreveport. I do not know the minister or the congregation at all. They may well sincerely believe in the traditional doctrines of Christianity. Further, as a staunch Presbyterian, I do not have sympathy for Ash Wednesday services anyway. But I am interested in the larger significance of this silliness: When a church reaches the point that its worship can be delivered like a cheap burger at a fast food restaurant, it has long ago lost all sense of mystery and awe. And if it cannot even inspire congregants to step out of their cars, it is indubitably incapable of inspiring any passion or commitment. Such drive-thru redemption is surely typical of the most basic religious dogma of our day: We believe our religion, like our entertainment, should be permanently on-demand and yet perennially undemanding.

By way of contrast, David Brooks points out that current forms of secularism need to change. They need to develop a sense of the sacred and the transcendent if they are to inspire passion and have any cultural stamina. The current secularism which he describes is indeed rather bland: Polite middle-class mores, shorn of metaphysical assumptions, where being kind to each other is the whole of the law. This, he argues, cannot continue indefinitely because it does not address humanity as it really is. Human beings are emotional, passionate creatures, and for any creed to survive, it must take this into account. We want—we need—transcendence and the sacred. The current secularism of the trendy urban neighborhoods and the leafy suburbs is simply too prosaic to possess lasting appeal.

What is interesting is that Brooks is calling for secular people to find precisely that which Christ United Methodist Church seems to have blithely abandoned. Of course, the Shreveport church is not unique in this. There are many other congregations where mystery and awe have been thrown aside in favor of a Christianity expressed through the predictably trite idioms of secular, consumer society. From megachurches built to look like concert venues to popular preachers who are often nothing more than scruffy comedians and cocksure spivs, much of what now passes for Christianity is thoroughly disenchanted and indeed thoroughly disenchanting. It is often no more mysterious and awe-inspiring than a strip mall. 

Of course, the drive-thru ashes idea is not an example of the self-aggrandizing showmanship of the clowns and the con artists. It comes from a kind and sincere desire to reach out to people, but it does so in a self-defeating way. The problem is that many churches and pastors are so immersed in the disenchantment of the culture that they are unaware of how this has shaped their practices and compromised their message. Where Christianity comes to be seen as just another commodity competing for market-share, then customer satisfaction drives the church’s mission. The drive-thru is not a neutral instrument for delivering the sacred benefits of an ancient faith. It is itself part of the problem, symptomatic of the disenchantment of a fast-food world. Christian worship will only offer a real alternative to such unsatisfying and shallow secularism where it refuses to pander to popular taste and instead draws unashamedly upon its heritage of historic wisdom.

Towards the end of the article, Brooks says, “The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.”

Very true. And one wonders what speaks more of autonomy than the automobile, and what indicates the prioritizing of that autonomy more than remaining in one’s automobile even when attending Christian worship. Drive-thru Christianity is not Christianity at all. It is merely an anemic, second-rate secularism dressed up in a surplice and clerical collar.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary

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