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Text of sermon


Gave a sermon today, several people asked to have it posted.

 

 

This is a nation of Great Revivals. Religious fervor has been a keystone of the nation from before its start. Prayer meetings, apocalyptic cults, and reflections on a small Massachusetts lake have all been part of a great series of waves, or shock fronts of change, chaos, and perhaps entropy

The Great Revivals, or sometimes Awakenings, depending on the source, were great periods of mass prayer meetings and very strongly associated with the evangelical movements in American history. The first three are generally recognized as the Presbyterians in the 1730s, to the rise of Methodist and Baptist congregations to their majority ‘share’ in the early nineteenth, and then the strong missionary and Pentecostal associations near the beginning of the last century.

A similar revival, which traded in the open-air meetings for prayer tents, and later, megachurches, is argued as occurring since the 1970s. Some would say it continues unabated. The ‘modern’ evangelical movement and the schisms created change the thrust and tone of the past Revival’s winners’ churches. 

I’ll agree with historians on a Fourth, and up them by arguing a Fifth is taking place in the last decade, but not anywhere physical.  As the speed of technology improves, new post-modernistic ideas on faith are being generated from within the Internet, and crystallizing into religions in new ways. 

Their impact is yet to be fully felt – but the Awakenings on the electronic frontier offer interesting points on faith and its relationship to religion – and can encourage us that the ‘tents’ of all religions are truly broader than even their congregants believe. Even though their physical tents seem to be rolling up in the information age.

To continue with a locally-popular location, America is famous as a ‘Western’ – read, intellectual, modernized, and mechanized – nation that uniquely still attends church. The most recent Census is being compiled, but the Bureau’s statistics indicate over eighty-percent of the country identify with a religion in the last decade. Tracking attendance is more difficult, but most assumptions have forty percent regularly attend the church of their choice. That’s ‘don’t miss a week’ numbers.

Compare to equally Western and intellectual Europe. They get most of the same movies and television; McDonalds continues its slow, deep-fried progression – but the churches stand almost empty.  Designed for grand crowds and labors of love and devotion, they’re now more tourist traps with a few Euros for a tour during the week. Regular attendance is estimated around twelve to fifteen percent.  

If you ever get the chance to go visit, I strongly recommend stopping by the local ‘great work’ if you’re ever in one of the old European cities. There are careful works of devotion, a faith that I personally can only identify at a distance, without really feeling it myself.

There are grand mausoleums of stone and glass there, quiet and reflective but still standing the test of time. The crypts are worth a visit as well.  Oh, to answer the follow-up question: As a bar quiz fact, Nigeria ‘wins’ at an estimated at eighty-nine percent regular, solid in-the-pews attendance. 

            Despite my glibness, people in those secular lands still identify with ‘their’ religion, and religion isn’t on the way all out over the world. Africa is Christianity’s current expansion ground, and assuredly over all, attendance will rise towards matching association again in the industrialized world. There’s a good argument that religions rarely die. They may change masks a bit – white rabbits, the moon, old popular symbols infiltrating their way in, or bolding being snatched for their popularity. ‘Old gods get new jobs’.   I think we can safely say after Vatican 2 that no organization should be regarded as completely permanent.

So people still identify with some religion, even if it’s sometimes twisted by time. I say this distinctly from identifying with a faith. The choir versus the cross, in another way. The effects of religion are obvious and sometimes even briefly transcendental. They don’t compare, however, to the effects of belief, but are often assumed the same. Faith is generally quiet. The question asked is ‘what does your church believe’, not what you believe.

Religion is, to be fair, not always loud. It is however, always a commonality in beliefs. The connections and similarities between religions have kept theologians busy for many years. Cyclic structure of religions is a topic deserving greater depth than I’m giving today. I only want to observe those observances, the steps, words and stories; follow a dance card that can be traced within the same broad definition.

We all meditate together in that moment of stillness. The Lord’s Prayer’s words are commonly enough known even here. On Easter 2007 – it’s estimated two billion people asked for forgiveness to those indebted. If they were all thinking the same meaning on those words, is… unlikely.    The Lord’s Prayer, in any form, could generally be recognized and it’s likely, if pressed, a similar definition would be given by most constituent. It is, after all, a prayer to step beyond the mere act of praying, very straightforward. But even that prayer comes in two different versions in the original text! 

The same stories get told, repeated down the generations and across the boundaries of religion. There are more Flood myths than seas.  The mingling of waters carries many correspondences – we have our own on that front, and they are each a very private message.   And the message compared between religions can be very different –but the same correspondence holds for everyone within the religion.

But, at the end of the day – ritual’s fiercely defended variations are held by members of that one religion, regardless the actual extent of the differences that may just slightly separate them from the church next door. Members’ independent beliefs may not quite be those of a religion’s. People still do have their beliefs, but to hold to the religion and its defended variations, do not fiercely cry out the own within their faith.

The necessity of calling a distinction between private faith and public religion has begun breaking down. As is often the case with a religious paradigm shift, the credit is given to religious technology. That’s right – Twitter and message boards dedicated to showing each other pictures are the current Great Revival. The movable printing press carried itself with more gravitas, but it is the purpose of modern technology to get up close and be personable. 

Computers, cellular phone networks, and social networks have offered rapid communication between individuals in far-off locations, letting old friends meet, business be conducted without the expense of face-to-face meetings. A lot of the rise was predicted, especially after ‘Eternal September’, September 1993, when AOL started mailing people disks of their software, and the Internet moved out of the universities and into the arena of the ordinary citizen. 

This paradigm shift destroyed the Internet’s old social guidelines. The ‘majority’ – the old tech heads – found themselves a minority. And as technology moved more friendly, the ability to identify people simply from their posting information became harder and harder.

The result is infinite anonymity. The face you show can be discarded and a new one drawn at any time. This leads to a few interesting points. First: it proves that politeness requires accountability to function in an environment for any length of time. Some people, given the chance, really like being annoying if they can’t be called upon it. Second: This is a bit broader, but ideas are actually rather viral in dispersal.

This was actually noticed before the really fast vectors were found. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, idly noted in a book back in 1976 on genetic evolution, The Selfish Gene that thoughts often seem to persist, and transmit themselves through populations in a manner similar enough to genetics to hold a metaphor above water. He referred to it as the ‘meme’.   Where genes transmit biological information, memes transmit ideas. 

A simple version of a meme would be a catchphrase from a show easily picked up and seeming to ‘click’ into part of a brain. They spread quickly and then die out. A larger meme would be an idea that persists and can repeat itself down the generations. Monogamy is commonly studied, because it’s a common practice worldwide passed down generationally, and the other large-scale common behavior, religion… appears to make people uncomfortable to study it in the paradigm of the virus, but religion’s proliferation matches many memetic forms – and fortunately, there’s a high-speed laboratory available for memetic transmission.

 On the Internet, as technology improved and social interaction sped to near instantaneous back-and-forth, ideas can spread like wildfire and even escape into the larger, slower, word-of-mouth environment. The repetition and retention of ideas can begin to resemble a cause. 

One of the most serious examples is ‘Anonymous’ – a group named for the lack of names for its members and identified leader. Anonymous serves as a sort of flash-mind on the Internet, appearing and disappearing in certain roles, but often in defense of the point that the Internet holds true free expression of views, in spite of their popularity. The most dramatic example is when anger spread across Anonymous’s ‘host’ message boards in protest of actions of the Church of Scientology; after their efforts to limit a video of Tom Cruise from video-sharing sites. 

Their basic idea of the Internet being an unfiltered transmitter of content was offended. Anonymous began action. Within only a few days, launched a series of pranks and efforts to shut down Scientology servers. Within a few weeks from no action being considered, what can practically be called a short-lived crusade had seven thousand people willing to stand and hold protests across from Scientology facilities. 

Many wore masks admittedly, but action and belief had come to a common consensus enough to hold a statement in a public forum where your identity is much easier to identify and prosecute.   Compare the rise and spread of a cause being proffered in the print era, Scientology itself, which was years from their inception based on the Dianetics books by L. Ron Hubbard to officiating a wedding.

I would like to note before moving on this wasn’t a one-off. Anonymous has spiked against other causes recently – and is a common enough phenomenon that Sony recently initially blamed Anonymous in a large-scale identity theft case. Despite being a flash-mass, the commonality of form and action shown by the group led independent observers to note the fact Anonymous did not wish to claim responsibility made many certain they weren’t involved.

But what of actual faith, or finding and slotting into faith as a religion? <Hold up mug> I’m not sure how visible this is, but what’s on the mug is a plate of spaghetti with meatball eyes, is the Pastafarian’s affectionately worshipped god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Originally, it was created as a protest by Oregon State student Bobby Henderson in 2005 against the Kansas Board of Education’s science policies, arguing that not just the Christian God should be considered, a Flying Monster made out of Spaghetti is an equally valid intelligent designer.

A mere point on the dangers of specific subjectivity while trying to teach the valuable scientific method, if that was to be the end of it. The letter struck a chord with people and a symbol of the efforts against intelligent design. But the joke stayed in a single form long enough that is was repeated when people were in a contemplative move.

 I am not making this up – the flying spaghetti bits and all – The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was published in 2006. Over one hundred thousand have been sold. The website remains popular.  There is an annual convention.  Thousands of people profess to follow this invisible creator deity, and its teachings. I admit before my research I had heard and bought the mug during the Board of Education debate, I expected a remaining focused presence but not a strong one five years later. It’s vaguely like having evidence unearthed that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the ‘Year’s Best Comedy’ presentation in 140 BCE, and sacred in 139.

Even anti-religion it appears, can honestly be a religion in the end – at some point the mask is the face. Even parodies can end up becoming strong examples of what they mock. Religion almost seems to be a niche people have that wants to be filled by something.

And what the Internet shows is that there can be unexpected niches, and more niches to slot then the old ideas of religion, when private voices are given public views. People are reaching across all lines, protected from the fear of humiliation or anger, and building and communing new houses of faith. I think it offers great hope to our creedless tradition and that we should remember to keep the doors open – if there’s any truth in the Information Age, it’s even if we’re far apart, we’re closer than we think.

 


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