Thursday, December 17, 2009

Churches for Algernon

Back when I was a youngling, I devoured science fiction. Some of what I used to read, like the old classic Asimov stuff, just seems dated now. Punch card computers and 1950s gender dynamics come across as little more than quaint. Other classic sci-fi, like the lucid fever-dreams of early Bradbury and Huxley, is richer and more relevant. These aren't simply grand zappity zappity rockets and robots space operas. They used science fiction to go deep into social and existential issues. It was good stuff.

One of the sci-fi short stories I remember most vividly was the 1960 Nebula Prize winning "Flowers for Algernon." Spoilers will follow, so if you haven't read should read it. The tale was told from the perspective of a diarist named Charlie, a mentally challenged young man who is subjected to an experimental procedure to increase his intelligence. It works. He goes from being a gentle, simple soul to being a soaring genius...and then the procedure fails, and he returns to his prior state of being. His struggles with his deepening awareness and his struggles as that awareness fades were intense, meaty stuff. As a bookish seventh grader, it rocked my world.

Yesterday, as I was perusing one of the blogs I feed, I read a pastor musing about whether there is any place for a professional clergy in the modern church. That got me off on a related tangent, not so much about professional clergy as the folks we pay, but about the place of folks who have decided to become "professional." Meaning, to totally focus their lives on the study of our faith. If what counts is emergent church relationality and emotional sharing, the deep knowledge of tradition and language that an educated and specialized clergy brings to the table means very little. Perhaps more significantly, if what matters is JesusMegaCenter skills as a motivational speaker and corporate executive, then you really don't need anything more than a couple of audited Bible College courses and an MBA.

That feels like a symptom of Christianity's decline. I wonder sometimes if the trajectory of the church is heading cognitively downwards, away from the intellectual apogee of folks like Tillich and Barth, of Christian existentialists like Kierkegaard, of well-read mystics like Merton. Maybe we've had our "peak" moment, as our heady exchange with the enlightenment fades. Perhaps we are now drifting downwards, back into a simplistic primitivism where the big and the shiny are the only things that hold our semi-literate twittention. In that church, you don't need someone who has studied deeply, or who spends much of their waking life mulling over the way Christ intersects with culture.

It feels like a loss worth mourning. To paraphrase Charlie's last line in the short story: "Please if you get a chance put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the chirch yard."