Some Assembly Required

By Rev. J.C. Austin

When I was in ninth grade, my youth minister canceled Halloween. I’ve mentioned before that for some reason my otherwise very mainstream Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta hired what turned out to be an essentially fundamentalist youth pastor for a couple of years when I was in high school.

She’s the one I credit ironically for introducing me to classic hard rock artists from the generation ahead of me like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Led Zeppelin, because I figured if she was that offended by them they must be doing something right. (For the record, I was correct.)

Anyway, the senior high youth group had a tradition of a Halloween party every year with costumes and games and special treats, and as a ninth grader, this would be my first time getting to participate. But as the holiday approached I heard that we were now having a “Fall Festival,” not a Halloween party, and we were now supposed to come dressed up as our favorite Bible characters. And just in case we missed the point, the written publicity made it very clear: “no ghosts, zombies, witches or wizards, or demons.”

Oddly, I realized, that restriction was pretty unbiblical; there are demons all over the Bible, after all. I briefly considered pressing that point, but figured I wasn’t going to get very far arguing that my favorite Bible character was one of the demons. So instead, I grabbed a Santa beard, a bathrobe, and a long stick and told her I was dressed as Moses. But I told my friends I was actually Gandalf, the powerful wizard from Lord of the Rings. That’s right: move over, James Dean; I was a rebel with a cause.

The really annoying thing about this youth pastor (Linda, we will call her) is that she was not the stereotypical fundamentalist, filled with anger and judgment, threatening us all with damnation if we did not follow her instructions as if they were coming directly from God. That wasn’t her at all. She was actually a very sweet and dedicated person who genuinely cared about our well-being as Christians and simply as people whom she had been charged with nurturing.

And she was clearly inexperienced, being really only a few years older than us and having had no theological training, so she was clearly leaning into what she thought a youth minister was supposed to do and be, and probably cramming resources for being a youth minister when she had any down time, most of which were being produced by fundamentalist Christian publishing houses.

And the problem was that fundamentalist Christians in the mid-1980s were aggressively raising alarms about what they argued was a widespread and growing threat of Satanic practices in the United States. In what is now called the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a wave of allegations was made about Satanic ritual abuse of children by daycare workers all over the country. Of the more than 12,000 allegations made, not a single one was substantiated in court, but that obviously did not stop the true believers, who simply accepted that as a sign that the Satanists were even more powerful than anyone had realized.

In reality, this was what sociologists call a “moral panic,” in which generalized fears about the future or health of a society are focused onto a particular group or groups that can be identified as deviant and malicious and therefore targeted for removal, thus securing the safety and well-being of the larger society.

But the group itself, and certainly the individuals accused of being part of it, may have absolutely nothing to do with any of this. The most obvious examples in U.S. history are probably the Salem Witch Trials and the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism in the1950s, but expressions and incidents turn up all the time. In fact, in many ways the current QAnon movement is simply the latest version of this, and is even repurposing some of the specific elements of the 1980s Satanic Panic in doing so.

So, for Linda, my well-intentioned but annoying youth minister, this was why we couldn’t have a Halloween party anymore; this is why we couldn’t pretend to be ghosts or zombies or witches or wizards or demons. Because for her, doing so was like handing a four year old gunpowder and a match. Sure, the child might not have any intention of harming themselves or anyone else, wouldn’t even know that what they were playing with could be harmful.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the child could accidentally cause a deadly explosion. And that’s what had to be prevented. Not because she didn’t want us to have any fun; because she was genuinely fearful for the state of our souls, because we didn’t know or recognize the dangers we would be putting ourselves in. And she basically told us so that we would understand what to her was the real problem.

This passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians sounds at first like it has nothing to do with our lives today whatsoever. Part of that is the central problem seems so alien to our world. Essentially, the Corinthian church is divided over the question of whether it is right for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to other gods. When these sacrifices happened, the worshippers didn’t throw out the meat; anything that was left after the ritual observances was simply sold in the market.

Some of the Corinthians saw no problem with buying and consuming this kind of meat: “hey, these gods don’t even really exist, so who cares if the meat was sacrificed to them? I don’t believe in Bacchus, but I do believe in good barbecue. So let’s eat.”  But other Corinthian Christians were horrified by this attitude, to the point of perpetuating their own moral panic: “How can you say that? This meat was dedicated to another god, which means it is opposed to the one true God. And you’re going to take that into your body just like the priests of that god do during their rituals?!? You are literally consuming evil and opposition to God!!!”  That was essentially the same thing that was going on in that debate over Halloween in my youth group. And for the record: I was correct.

And Paul would have agreed with that. Which is also what makes his actual response to the Corinthians so interesting, given that Paul isn’t renowned for his diplomacy or hesitancy to stand up and oppose theology that he thinks is wrong. Paul tells the pro-meat crowd, you’re right in terms of theology, terms of knowledge: “we know that, ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”   This what I and the other youth in that group were arguing. This is the correct theology, the correct knowledge. Linda’s fear of the powers of evil was actually coming from what Paul calls a weak conscience. So we were right!

The thing is, though, Paul has already established that taking pride in having the correct knowledge is, first, not the point, and second can cause at least as many problems as it solves. “Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols,” he begins this whole passage by saying, “we know ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up; love builds up.” Those contrasting metaphors are easy to speed past, but they are such a powerful and important distinction that I want us to linger there for a moment.

“Knowledge puffs up,” he says, and the language here is important. When he says knowledge here, he means that correct theological understanding or interpretation about God, Jesus, and the falseness of other gods and therefore the emptiness of their idols. Paul is quite clear that there are those who possess the correct knowledge in this debate and those who do not.

And yet he’s also quite clear that is not what matters and, in fact, it’s part of the problem. When he says, “knowledge puffs up;” he’s using a word there that literally means to inflate. It’s the classic insult of someone being full of hot air, falsely making themselves larger than others.

One of the most annoying people in the world to talk to is someone who is absorbed by the obscure, independent corners of culture: art, film, and perhaps especially music. “My favorite band? Well, it would have to be…Feral Hog Picnic. (*looks away disdainfully*) You’ve probably never heard of them.” Or they take pride in only caring about the work of famous artists that nobody else pays attention to. “Oh, you love the Beatles? How original. I don’t listen to anything except the bootleg recordings of them playing in the clubs in Hamburg; they had a real edge then, but they completely sold out after that.” The point seems to be less about the actual knowledge possessed and more about the fact that they possess it and you don’t, and this somehow makes them better than you. That’s what Paul is criticizing.

Love, on the other hand, “builds up.” The word he uses there literally means, “to build a house.” Now, think about that in contrast to knowledge puffing up, making something falsely larger by adding something insubstantial. Because there are few things more substantial than building a house. When you build a house, you do so not simply to have a roof over your head, but to provide a space that is warm when it is cold; that is cool when it is warm; a space that provides shelter from high winds but allows gentle breezes to flow in; a space that provides security against threats and for the things and the people that you treasure the most; a space that allows and encourages your family to live and grow together and care for each other.

And you don’t just build a house over a weekend: it is a conscious and deliberate process over time, one that requires intentionality and skill and perseverance and vision. Sure, you can buy a pre-fabricated house and simply drop it down on a plot of land. But the houses that are strongest and best are assembled from the ground up in the place they are intended to be and stay.

And what’s really important to note in the point that Paul is making is not just the distinction between knowledge and love, but also the similarity. Both of them have an impact not just on others, and maybe not even primarily on others. Limiting our faith to knowledge has a negative impact on us; it puffs us up, convinces us we are bigger than we are, more knowledgeable than we are. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge,” Paul says, because the most important knowledge is that we can never know enough to save ourselves.

But that’s neither the point nor the promise of the gospel. The point is what he says next: “but anyone who loves God is known by God.” The blessing and the challenge and the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not that we can fully know God; it is that God fully knows us, and the way in which we experience that and are filled by it is by loving God, and we cannot love God without loving each other, without loving our neighbors. When we live a faith of love, it doesn’t exclude knowledge, but it puts it in its proper place: as a tool for helping us to love more faithfully, more fully, more intentionally, building up others by building up Christ’s kingdom, and vice versa.

In our annual congregational meeting that follows this service, we’ll be presenting some knowledge about what we have done in the past year amidst extraordinary challenges and opportunities, and what we hope to do in the coming year as a church. But the focus, the point, the calling, is the ways in which we have lived out a faith of love and how we intend to do so going forward; how our love as a congregation has built up the love of Christ in each other, our neighbors, and our world. It is a project that is never finished; a home that is never completed.

And yet that, in itself, is part of the blessing. For there are always additions to be built up; there are always improvements that can be made; and there is always more room that can be created in a loving home, room that expands rather than divides, room that helps us not simply weather any storm, but welcome any and all who come in search of shelter, and sustenance, and community, and purpose, and love.

 

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