In David Wells’ great book, The Courage to be Protestant, he discusses the inherent neo-paganism in American religion. “The assumption that we all have a natural access to the sacred is as old as the oldest forms of paganism.” This, writes Wells, is the assumption of many Americans, that we can get to God our way, right away. But Wells notes two new elements (hence ‘neo’-paganism) of religion today. First, the centuries-old paganism was a religion wherein people were afraid of most of the gods.
“By contrast, we are unafraid of the sacred today. More than that, we feel that the sacred will be pleased to have us, will spread out the welcome mat, so to speak, and be grateful for our attention.”
The second ‘neo’ to today’s paganism “is our consumer mentality.”
“As consumers we expect to get what we want immediately, without waiting, on our own terms, and with the right of return. That is the mind-set that now invades the spiritual quest, as it does also many of our churches. …Today we come confidently seeking, assuming an instant welcome, an immediate access when we have time for this in the midst of our busy lives. …We expect access to the sacred without cost, without thought, without pain, without waiting. We have learned this in the malls. After all, this is our right. It is also our right to walk away from our experience of the divine if we are not satisfied.”
“And many of us do [walk away unsatisfied]. To see this at work we need not look for strange cults or covens. It is there among our most ordinary neighbors. It is going on at the next desk over on the office floor, in break rooms, in meditation rooms, and on the way home in the car.”
Let me give just one more paragraph along this line.
“And it is going on in the garden-variety evangelical church of a seeker-sensitive, [conservative protestant – my addition!], or emergent kind. There you can see this very same consumer spirituality at work, completely unafraid, buying, matching product to need, at work in all these ways. Instant access! An experience to be sized up. Help when we want it, but on our own terms.”
I’ve quoted from this book before, and again, I deeply appreciated it. The book was painful at times, because Wells’ critique is penetrating and deep; it was also painful because the finger was pointed at me! Even if you don’t agree with Wells in this book, I encourage you to read it and let it chuck you around. I’d love to see an “old-school” presbyterian/reformed guy/gal, a mega-church guy/gal, and an emergent guy/gal discuss this book cordially over coffee!
Above quotes taken from pages 188-189 of The Courage to be Protestant.