IN THE FLIGHT SCENE TOWARD THE END OF THE Sound of Music, Captain von Trapp and the 17-year-old Rolf find themselves alone together in a convent cemetery, the younger man in his German uniform, nervously pointing a gun and trying to look every inch a killer. Von Trapp, risking all on a hunch about the young Nazi wannabe, invites Rolf to come along to freedom, and says tersely, "You'll never be one of them."
There is nothing more pathetic than a Christian trying to be something he is not. Or churches looking for love in all the wrong places.
You see it everywhere: once-faithful churches tripping over themselves to be au courant with cultural fashions-trying to out-gay homosexuals with their embrace of the movement.
But it was ever so. Ancient Israel had king-envy: Rebuffing Samuel's impassioned pleas, the people cried, "No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations. " (1 Samuel 8:19-20). Whence this craven need for inclusion and belonging, this sycophancy and fear of being left out? The Lord takes it personally: "They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them" (v.7).
'Tis the "mystery of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7); there is no making sense of this rationally. In the most counterintuitive of the laws of nature, men left to themselves will over time drift away from the love of God, not toward it. For this reason Israel was to keep her daughters from the sons of the Canaanites. Rather than producing godly jealousy in the bankrupt nations, God's people would end up hankering for the nations' tawdriness: "How lovesick is your heart, declares the Lord.... on every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore.... Yet you were not like a prostitute.... You gave payment, while no payment was given to you" (Jeremiah 2:20; Ezekiel 16:30-34).
I betook myself to see the end of the road of the Christian church's trolling for love. I circled three Unitarian Universalist churches in the phone book and drove to one on a Sunday. Unitarian churches once purported to preach Christ, but with a scruple about the trinitarian formulation of God; if there were no Christ, there would be no Unitarian churches. The architecture of the building I now pulled up in front of bespoke an older, fustier doctrine, reminding me of the saying that when liberal winds blew through the parishes of New England 200 years ago, "the Congregationalists kept the faith, but the Unitarians kept the buildings."
The sign said "Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration," but it is unclear what tradition was being "restored." The preacher was a young lesbian, the sermon an enthusiastic report on the feminist "Omega conference" she'd attended. Its highlights seemed to be the invoking of the Nigerian goddess Oya and a wave across the room from Jane Fonda. Buddha and Alice Walker were given an appreciative nod, but the name "Jesus" (I was paying attention) was absent. Indeed, it is no mean feat, to my reckoning, that in the entire Unitarian hymnbook, Singing the Living Tradition, any hint of Him is airbrushed out. On the bulletin was an advert for a "Build your own theology" seminar.
Only a Christian can fall this far, methinks. The other big religions had no height to fall from; they were never about love to begin with, never about covenant relationship. If a Muslim falls away from Islam, or a Buddhist from Buddhism, or a Communist from Communism, they have made a break with an aloof deity, or a system, or a set of philosophical ideals. But renegade Christianity is on the run from a Father, from One who waits at the window by lamplight, straining to see His prodigal child coming up the road. Go figure: The nations hold fast to their faiths, though they are wretched-"Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are not gods?" (Jeremiah 2:11). But of the people of the living God it is written, "Where have you not been ravished?" (Jeremiah 3:2).
Yet not even this is the end of the road. The lighting of the "candle in the chalice," the unprayers sent up to no one in particular, the whole enveloped in the wafting New Age strains, are like to be more the midpoint of a spiral whose final state recalls Hieronymus Bosch's Last Judgment triptych-the "hell" panel. Blessed is the church that God holds back from its most dissolute pantings for the love of the world, the Christian to whom He says, "What is in your mind shall never happen-the thought, 'Let us be like the nations.' ... As I live, declares the Lord God, ... I will be king over you" (Ezekiel 20:32-33).