Church Reboots and Science Fiction

April 16, 2011

I was in high school when the original Star Trek television series premiered. As nerdy then as I am now, I watched every episode, and every re-run, and every afternoon syndication for years. I finally stopped — not because I wasn’t interested in the Star Trek universe, which was infinitely expandable (as multiple incarnations have proved over the last 45 years) — but because I could look at any five seconds at random from any of the original episodes and immediately recite the entire plot and character development of the entire episode.

I needed reinvigoration even in my fantasies, because I knew how all those stories were going to end. I bothered to focus my efforts only on those spin-offs where the “United Federation of Planets” was asking new questions and exploring new ideas.

So I was very interested when Paramount “rebooted” the Star Trek franchise in 2009 with a prequel to the original series that focused on the history of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the others  before they became the beloved characters of my youth. I must say that the new young actors did an incredible job of playing not only the characters, but playing the original actors playing the characters. I loved what I saw, and as the movie went on I found myself having questions from the original series answered at last. (“So that’s how Kirk cheated the Kobayashi Maru no-win test!”).

And then Spock’s mother dies, Vulcan is torn apart in a singularity,  and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute! That never happened.” The Star Trek universe was open and undiscovered again.

That’s what a successful reboot does. The “new and improved” version isn’t just repackaging. It isn’t just rearranging the furniture. There is something that allows the new version to succeed where the old version can only continue to deteriorate.

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It is in that context that I want to consider the “State of the Church” address delivered by Community of Christ President Stephen M. Veazey on April 10.

Since the CofChrist meets in “general conference” only once in three years instead of once every six months as is customary in the LDS, and CofChrist conferences are far more legislative in nature, there are few talks given to the whole church by church leaders. Thus, the CofChrist has begun to develop a practice that the President of the church addresses the church live from the  Temple and in a webcast each spring when there is no conference.

Steve began his address with a short recap of the final words of the most recently adopted Section of the CofChrist Doctrine and Covenants.  (164)

“The mission of Jesus Christ is what matters most for the journey ahead!”

Steve then began to explain what the mission of Christ actually involved, quoting a scripture from Luke in which Jesus takes the opportunity to read in his synagogue a passage from the Old Testament that He then declares as applying to Himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Here I found a comfortable familiarity; this has been the Scripture which Community of Christ has taught to its own congregations as the basis of what they are to do since the church began to grow more liberal in the days of the original Star Trek. It was a “remake” of sermons I’d heard dozens of times before and preached more than a few times myself.

To be sure, there were some subtle alterations, but also sudden papered-over logic gaps. When we first started seeing this kind of mission as core to following Christ, we still regarded ourselves as the “one and only true church” (sorry about you guys and gals in Utah!), and so we took for granted that there was no distinction between joining our church and carrying out the mission as stated above. One was simply a step on the path to the other. But now that we only assert we are one true church and accept members from other denominations there’s a little sleight-of-hand required to go from “bringing good news to the poor” to “join our denomination”.

So, in discussing “bringing good news”,  Steve took time to assert that:

“This invitation always includes the understanding that people best experience the gospel through the fellowship, ministries, and sacraments of the faith community. The idea of introducing people to Christ without engaging them in the faith community distorts the gospel as Jesus lived it!”

But here’s the logic gap. After all, while Jesus did participate in Jewish life as a devout Jew according to all historical records, His definition of the “faith community” certainly didn’t comport well with the existing religious structures, and He is remembered for restoring community outside of those structures rather than bringing outsiders into one Jewish faction over another. “Faith community” is not equivalent to “denomination” if you assert that there are multiple “true” denominations.

And that led directly to short-circuiting any sense of excitement I might have had about this reboot. Steve then proceeded to describe five mission initiatives:

  • Invite People to Christ — Christ’s Mission of Evangelism
  • Abolish Poverty and End Suffering — Christ’s Mission of Compassion
  • Pursue Peace on Earth — Christ’s Mission of Justice and Peace
  • Develop Disciples to Serve — Equip Individuals for Christ’s Mission
  • Experience Congregations in Mission — Equip Congregations for Christ’s Mission

Henceforth, every church activity and function is to be organized around one of those five classifications.

Upon reading those initiatives, one of my best friends quipped, “If that’s actually new to anyone listening, our evangelism programs must be more effective than we thought!”

Indeed, we just completed revamping our world church organizational structure so that all functions and activities would be organized around the “ministries of the Temple” — a project whose physical construction and definition of role has been the central preoccupation of Headquarters since the early 1980’s at least. The five mission initiatives, though described this week as “life-changing, church-changing, and world-changing” appear to be little more than a renaming of the legacy organization we just completed after several years of effort. In fact,  now all reference to Temple Ministries has vanished as if the Independence Temple had morphed into the LDS COB.

Consider what Steve had said about the importance of the Temple in his corresponding 2005 address to the church:

“The Temple has a unique role to play in understanding our mission and in pursuing the cause of Zion. The Temple is much more than a building. It is revelation: God speaking to us regarding our identity, our message, and our future. The ministries of the Temple challenge the church to deepen its understanding and practice of those ministries that bring the fullness of the peace of Jesus Christ into individual lives and into the world:

“The Temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. It shall be for reconciliation and for healing of the spirit. It shall also be for a strengthening of faith and preparation for witness. –[Community of Christ] D. and C. 156:5a

“If we are striving for peace, reconciliation, and healing of the human spirit, we are expressing the essence of the ministry of Jesus Christ.”

Same product; different package. Indeed, the “life-changing, church-changing, world-changing” initiative appears to be mostly a new pitch to raise contributions and reverse a 30-year decline in funding. The remainder of Steve’s state of the- church address is basically a plea for more funding, detached from any realistic vision of how that funding leads to the fulfillment of the mission outlined.

In fact, the most innovative part of the initiative is that each of the mission areas is becoming its own budget (and “profit”) center, allowing members to direct their “tithing” to whatever program areas they wish to support. If members wish the church to be a poverty-fighting charity, that’s what it will become; if we wish to spend all of our time on preaching, so be it. Our prophetic vision will become market-driven, and the market will decide what parts of the institution will survive. (And here, I thought we were the liberal branch of the Restoration!)

But is a church with a $30 million dollar budget for everything serious about a mission to “abolish poverty” at the same time it gives up the claim it is a destined instrument Christ uses to fulfill that mission.

The two positions are incongruent. They look like nothing so much as saying, “Follow Jesus, but be sure and do it through me!” It becomes the “business of religion”, and promotes a “business as usual” practice even if it proclaims prophetic slogans. Since the church routinely diverts funding to other charities such as the Red Cross, why not direct contributions to those agencies? (In fact, when the CofChrist redefined “stewardship” principles to “generosity” principles several years ago, direct contributions were initially placed on equal footing with tithing; it didn’t last.)

We have become accustomed to such a dichotomy in the Community of Christ. We are perfectly happy to be prophetic — someday — by proclaiming that we must act, but refuse to admit we do not know what to do, lest resources be diverted to fulfilling Christ’s mission outside our institutional control. A simple maxim from management applies: if you are constantly revamping organizational charts and renaming activities, you are not poised for success, you have already lost control.

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After reading Steve’s address, I found myself, sadly, remembering another science fiction classic — Asimov’s Foundation Series. This series of novels eventually grew to absorb most of Asimov’s science fiction creations (such as his famous “three laws of robotics”). It presumes that a far-future mathematical genius — I just love those guys — develops a mathematical theory allowing him to predict the future historical, economic, political, and social forces driving his civilization. He uses the math to foresee that his civilization will soon fall into a 30,000 year Dark Age of barbarism, and resolves to use the math to find a way to shorten the darkness.

His (government-funded, of course) Foundation begins to manipulate history into a better path, and, as a result, every few decades a great developmental crisis arises that threatens to detail the better future. When this happens, a pre-recorded hologram of the genius explaining the origin and resolution of the already-predicted crisis is delivered to the Foundation’s leaders to great ceremony.

This procedure works for centuries as one crisis after another is explained by the long-dead genius and resolved. Then a new crisis appears, the notice of the genius’ appearance is issued, and the Foundation’s leaders gather for the ceremony. But when the hologram begins to play, they slowly realize to their horror that the crisis he is telling them how to resolve is not the crisis they are facing. They have lost control of their envisioned future.

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7 Responses to Church Reboots and Science Fiction

  1. Dan on April 16, 2011 at 9:34 AM

    I could look at any five seconds at random from any of the original episodes and immediately recite the entire plot and character development of the entire episode.

    nerd. :P

    Joseph Smith’s Restoration is quite the reboot, don’t you think?

    Same product; different package. Indeed, the “life-changing, church-changing, world-changing” initiative appears to be mostly a new pitch to raise contributions and reverse a 30-year decline in funding. The remainder of Steve’s state of the- church address is basically a plea for more funding, detached from any realistic vision of how that funding leads to the fulfillment of the mission outlined.

    it is easy to reboot a fictional story, but much harder for real life. The Foundation story is pretty interesting. A mathematical genius thinks he can predict the solution to every future problem, but fails to account for some variable that, down the road appears as nothing he predicted. I wonder if religious leaders also face the same situation, thinking they have a solution for future problems, but alas cannot.

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  2. Mike S on April 16, 2011 at 3:30 PM

    FireTag:

    Thank you for the insight into the workings of the CofC. It has been fascinating over time to learn more about it.

    I do somewhat mirror many of your feelings:

    – In the LDS Church, I feel that we keep getting repackages of the the same things in new “inspired” programs. It has been a LONG time, however, since we have had any new revelation. Our last section added to our canon has been a LONG time ago. Instead, we get retreads.

    – I, too, feel like the LDS Church is very businesslike in many ways. We spend $350 million over 25 years on humanitarian things, yet spend $3 billion (ten times that) on malls and high-end condos. I don’t know that Christ was particularly interested in the redevelopment of Jerusalem, but perhaps has more important things to do.

    – I do like the acceptance that, just given pure numbers, the majority of people who make it back to God will NOT be either CofC NOR LDS in mortality. If it required being LDS in mortality, then 99.9% of the world are damned. At least your church is upfront about it.

    Thanks for the series. And I, too, loved Star Trek. I watched it every day growing up (along with Dr. Who :-) )

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  3. Sharon LDS in TN on April 16, 2011 at 6:49 PM

    Loved this overview of CofC and their journey in the world of religious variety.
    Helps to understand not only them but others including the LDS because we all merit not only focused close individual examination and discussion, BUT, taken as a whole in a collective persepective…..just like it helps to view even our own epiphanies or other revelations within the compound of an eternal perspective, not just a tiny window.
    Sidebar: My husband was one of the twin adnroids on the Plant Mudd / I, Mudd episode.
    We have neat pictures and memories. Still “Trekkies”, I tend to agree that many great ideas about higher spirituality could be ‘learned’ / examples from Star Trek!!!!
    After all is said and done, we REALLY WILL be “beamed up, Scottie” in the 2nd. coming!
    Love to All

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  4. FireTag on April 16, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    Sharon:

    Fascinating. Did you ever give him that quizzical “illogical” shutdown look in the midst of an argument just to see how he’d react? :D

    My daughter did a Dr. Who post here:

    http://www.wheatandtares.org/2010/11/13/meditation-doctor-who-and-the-darklets/

    Perhaps I’ll have to do a post on Babylon 5 in future. Or better, Firefly/Serenity.

    Mike S.:

    How would you divide your tithing of you had the choice between the five options now being given for members of the CofChrist? (or, more appropriately for LDS categories, your 4 purposes.)

    Dan:

    I agree that the Restoration was a reboot in many ways — and I do agree with Steve that the mission of Jesus Christ matters most, of course — but I think the notion that religious or any other human leaders have the answers is often where apostasy starts.

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  5. Mike S on April 16, 2011 at 11:04 PM

    If I could divide tithing (in order of priority):

    1) Helping the poor
    2) Basic buildings to serve members (ie. don’t need marble from China or wood from Africa for a temple in Utah)

    I would actually spend very LITTLE on missionary work. For this, I would rely on people seeing our good works (as in #1) and the examples of members. I would also rely on the Spirit of God leading people who are otherwise prepared to accept the message into circumstances where they meet members, etc.

    I would spend even less on places like BYU.

    And I wouldn’t spend any on shopping malls, high-end condos, hotels, private hunting reserves, etc. While some may split hairs and say that “tithing” funds aren’t used for these, it’s about as transparent as Bill Clinton asking what the definition of “is” is. Great, so they’re using profits made of prior investment of tithing – same thing. And if it’s all “investment profit”, perhaps we should use it to actually help people instead of acting like a corporation and trying to make even more profit.

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  6. Ryan on April 17, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    Missionary work could/should return to the no purse/scrip option and could/should free up a lot more cash to spend on other worthy projects.

    I’ve heard it mentioned elsewhere, and think it worth considering, but in the beginning of this church, they built temples (temples for which there was a revelation to build them), but they did not build churches. Today we do both, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually doing so.

    The church just announced that it will build a structure in Provo/Orem to house 48 YSA wards (4 stakes) and will have 53,000 square feet of space. The cost on that building alone will likely exceed $15 million or so.

    My suggestions on tithing:

    33% on the poor, needy and widowed in the church.
    33% on church expenses (buildings, upkeep, etc)
    33% on humanitarian aid, the poor, needy and widowed throughout the world.

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  7. John Hamer on April 19, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    I love Foundation, but Isaac Asimov clearly began writing without a plan. At the outset he promised a 1,000 year history covering the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire to the rise of a new Galactic Empire based on Seldon’s twin Foundations. The stories were loosely drawn from Gibbon’s classic history of Rome and the original three books (actually a collection of short stories) are among the greatest space operas written.

    Unfortunately, Asimov screwed up. His first mistake is that after the first volume, no barbarian kingdom has the technological capacity to challenge the Foundation. His second is that the Galactic Empire falls too quickly, leaving no enemies for the Foundation to fight. Asimov’s clever final foes — the Mule and the Second Foundation — are also used up dramatically in the original trilogy and so the arc was exhausted with some 7 centuries left to go. It’s no wonder then that when Asimov returned to the Foundation universe in Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth, he felt he was forced to “reboot” the series. In the end, he effectively destroyed the concept of the Seldon Plan, pyschohistory and everything the original arc stood for by introducing the giant mind-borg collective of Gaia/Galaxia. After trashing his universe, we shouldn’t wonder that he had nowhere left to go but backwards into prequels, creating a dismal arc with Prelude to Foundation and its worthless sequels. I’m a huge fan of Asimov and the original Foundation series — but I think the later works are essentially vandalism, even if they were (initially) written by the Foundation universe’s true creator.

    Likewise I think that the Star Trek re-boot was an unfortunate failure. At the end of the day, Star Trek is a television show which doesn’t translate well to movies. I personally think there’s nothing sadder than the retreat into remaking the old characters. Yes, they were well cast, they looked the part, and they were generally an attractive bunch, but the best part of Star Trek is the concept, not the characters. Star Trek isn’t about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, it’s about the Federation — as the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and (to a lesser extent) Voyager proved. I would love to see a new television series set in the time of the original Star Trek, but following around Kirk-2, Spock-2, and McCoy-2 in Vulcan-dead mirror universe isn’t Star Trek anymore than the “Arthur” re-boot is Arthur. It’s just Hollywood regurgitating its intellectual properties.

    That said, I don’t really understand your criticism of Steve Veazey’s message.

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