Ethos Matters

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Ever experience a congregation with the word "Grace" in its name that was nonetheless ironically ungracious and legalistic? I have. Indeed, throughout my experiences within American Christianity, my greatest frustration has been the frequent dissimilarity between our official doctrines and our concrete ethos. "Ethos" refers to the overall character and culture of a community. Here, I'm not primarily about the problem of hypocrisy. The ill to which I refer is more about wrongheadedness than moral failure. The common ill of having an ethos that counteracts our core beliefs is a serious one. It's something we need to remedy if we want to avoid having our good intentions do more harm than good. In short, our ethos matters. Ethos MattersPerhaps you read George Orwell's 1984. If you did, you might remember the concept of doublethink, where characters dealt with cognitive dissonance by adopting self-contradictory ideas. It is related to the concept of doublespeak, where leaders use words in deceptive ways, often using terms to mean the direct opposite of their original meaning.

Christians don't usually use doublespeak on purpose. Granted, there are fringe, sectarian situations (and some old-school cults) where folks use doublespeak to manipulate their followers. More often however, the strange ways Christians use language reflects self-deception rather than authoritarian mind control. Christians sometimes think they are speaking in ways that reflect the core values of theology—after all, they studied and memorized the proper ways of speaking about doctrine—when in fact correct memorization of the right words can obscure the unfortunate fact that one doesn't actually understand what those words mean. The problem is that even if we can consciously suppress our sinful desire to let self-righteousness into our explicit theology, we have a harder time spotting ways that this same sinful desire infects the ethos we create in our churches and larger religious communities.

Let me illustrate with a tongue-in-cheek set of false definitions. No matter how good our official statements are on these matters, many communities seem to operate as if these are the working definitions of important theological words.

Forgiveness (noun): 1. The act of letting an offender off the hook after he or she has paid for their offense ten times over, through groveling, self-deprecation, and acts of penance. 2. A disposition or willingness to let an offender off the hook if they promise to remember that they owe the offended one forever and do occasional favors as tokens of their contrition. 3. Something believers can receive from God once they have cried earnestly about their offenses and demonstrated enough progress to earn God's good favor.

Evangelism (noun): 1. Moving over in your pew, slightly, to make room for those who are bold enough to open the door to your worship space, which you had accidentally left ajar, without too much sighing. 2. Making sure, through obnoxious, trite and mean-spirited shouting that neighbors or tourists in public areas know to run whenever they find out that someone is a Christian. 3. The name of a church committee that meets together to complain about outsiders and speculates about nonbelievers' sins that are so bad that they hate God and church. 4. The phenomenon of a pastor complaining to an unusually large congregation on Easter or Christmas that they can come to church on other days too.

Church (noun): 1. A gathering of decent people who know the right afterlife passwords and are decent folks who offer weekly nagging sessions. These are free until you join up, after which you should be putting some money in an offering plate. 2. A swanky building for accommodating decent people who know the right afterlife passwords, as well as the proper kind of music for making spiritual nagging sessions tolerable.

Apologetics (noun): 1. A sport derived from Lucha Libre style wrestling, wherein a Christian debates an atheist and the crowd cheers for the fighter their friends like best at the end. 2. The art of intellectually embarrassing one's nonbelieving opponents. 3. Concocting strange hypotheses to make one's faith seem intellectually acceptable to those who already believe.

I intend no harm with these definitions. My point is simply that we sometimes spend so much time learning how to get our words right that our ethos redefines them in disastrous ways. I'm reminded of an informal study conducted by Rabbi Brian Field, of Denver. He surveyed several religious communities and asked them to provide words that expressed the ethos of their religious communities' religious education (Protestants can think "Sunday School" here). When he shared his findings, I found the way American Protestants characterized their traditions to be the most tragic:

1. hiddenness and embarrassment: giving up on showing ourselves because of repeatedly being told about our flaws; hiding or muting passion for being Protestant 2. harshness: enduring rather than changing or resisting; lessons reinforced with punishment 3. hopelessness: cheerfulness on top of a deep belief that there is no external help to be found; parents had difficulty showing that they liked or cared for us 4. independence: one should be independent from an early age; autonomy valued to the detriment of interpersonal connection 5. hardness: work hard, try hard, and be hard on oneself

It would be helpful to know which traditions were represented in this informal survey. Nonetheless, none of this speaks to the supposed heart of Protestant theology: the good news of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.

Now, when we find that we are doing it wrong, there's no need to despair, but we better make some changes. If you are active in a church or some other religious community, I encourage you to ask the young people in your midst (preferably in some anonymous or safe way) to describe the top five characteristics of your community. This isn't some silly exercise you find in a magazine side bar; this goes to the heart of everything you are about, so why not try it and take it seriously? Meanwhile, make a list of the characteristic you hope they will identify. If they don't match up, ask yourself what it is that is being miscommunicated and work to fix it.

One thing I hope your young people note as a mark of your community is comfort. By this I don't mean affluence and a life free from discomfort or pain. I'm talking about a deep, joyful comfort rooted in the God who through Christ has made all manner of things well. Christians around the world, each week, speak about the Lamb of God Who offers a peace that the world cannot give. Woe to us if we burden young people with an unbiblical approach to the law that compels them to flee the church and into the arms of a world that is glad to remove the weight of religious legalism. Of course, the world will exchange this burden for a new one based on the multitude of ideologies on the market, whether sacred or secular. And if your young people do in fact flee your midst, don't be too quick to castigate them as apostates and hellions. Instead, remember that millstones might belong on necks of both those who cause the little ones to stumble through heresy and also those who cause them to stumble through an uncharitable, Christless ethos.