The Church in America often brings up images of an two groups: those who are in, and those who are out. Only, who fits in these groups depends on who you’re talking too. The groups shift and change, and when it seems most clear who belongs and who doesn’t, well, that’s when it gets most interesting.
Most bibles provide a short description prior to major sections. In the psalms, often this tells the reader who authored the text, what it’s about, whether it’s a prayer of supplication or joy or thanksgiving. These descriptions give readers a heads up, and sometimes even provide a little bit of background about what the writer was writing about.
Psalm 84, according to my New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the bible, is about “The Joy of Worship in the Temple.” Which, when you start reading the actual text, adds a good amount of illumination, with some extra confusion. “How lovely is your dwelling place, oh Lord of hosts,” begins the author. “Even thee sparrow finds a home…happy are those who live in your house…for a day in your court is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Is this verse about living in Gods spiritual kingdom? Or is it about going to the temple often?
If it’s the former, then the verse fits well with the kind of spiritual warfare Alix Spiegel explores in episode 77 of This American Life. Alix travels to Colorado Springs because, as host Ira Glass explains “there’s an elaborate program underway involving dozens of churches and thousands of people to pray, not just for these things nearby, but to try to fundamentally alter the civic life of their city through prayer.”
The campaign, started by Ted Haggard, involved sending members from his congregation of 6000 into the streets if Colorado Springs to pray for just about everyone and everything, from individuals to houses to streets and everything else you can think of. Alix, a self proclaimed atheist, describes her fascination like this:
The thing about this that I find so striking is that it’s not a PR campaign. They don’t knock on doors. They don’t ask for donations. They’re not trying to win the hearts and minds of non-Christians by letting them know how much they care about them. In fact, they don’t even want the people being prayed for to know that they’re being prayed over.
And all of this fascinates the non-believing Spiegel.
Alix struggles, not just with the program itself, but with the language of the church. She writes “They’re constantly using phrases like spiritual dynamics, standing in the gap, spiritual discernment, intercessors, the Joshua generation, true in your walk, in the natural, the 10/40 window.” She describes all of this like its a foreign language, something she does not understand at all.
Eventually, Alix finds someone she can talk to and understand, and even starts to seriously consider the Christian message (in this very particular form). As she struggles, she sees the divide, between her atheism and the churches religion (between her “Darwinism” and their “creationism,” between her non belief and their belief) expand and shrink, leading to a spiritual struggle.
Looking back at Psalm 84, and especially the question raised about whether it expresses a universal spirituality (for all time) or a particular religious pronouncement (worship in the Temple of Israel), Alix’s struggles take on new life, and even mix things up.
First, while the church in this story assumes a universal spiritual struggle for all times and places, from the sound of it they have created a very particular language about it that, unless you were a part of their movement, wouldn’t make much sense.
But Alix struggles during her conversations, in part because the language of spiritual struggle isn’t always particular to a time and place: sometimes it speaks of universal truths. Religious language isn’t always linked to specific definitions and meanings; maybe a Christian will talk about losing a battle to the devil, when what they mean is that they are struggling with addiction, or facing a difficult time, or doing something they don’t like. Religious language, rather than being fixed to a particular spiritual language, tries to give words to universal human struggles.
Which Christianity do we teach? Are our values particular to our community, difficult for outsiders to understand? Or do we speak to universal problems that everyone faces? How do we respect the historical rootedness of scripture while also declaring that it says something in our context? All of these questions permeate both Psalm 84 and Spiegels exploration. As Christians, we are forced to live in between these two worlds: called to be stewards of the tradition while also allowing it to speak to our own context, even to those who have not always belonged to the church. How we navigate this space will determine much of the future of the church.