Thursday, September 04, 2008

Proclaiming the End: A Review of Bruxy Cavey's The End of Religion

I will admit that I was prepared to hate Bruxy Cavey’s recent book The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus.  I can still vividly remember Cavey speaking at my college about ten years ago.  The first words of his lecture were, “God hates religion!”  I was put off by his rhetorical style and it left a bad taste in my mouth since.  When there was a chance to review his book I jumped at it to see how his message had developed.  Cavey divides his book into three parts.  The first part explores the inadequacy of religion and its negative effects throughout history.  Second Cavey looks at the scandalous life of Jesus as he attempts to recover the subversive nature of his message.  Finally, Cavey draws the implications Jesus’ message should have on the life of those who follow him. 

The chapters within these sections are short and digestible with plenty of anecdotal commentary.  My favourite is Cavey’s observation that most of the other religions’ version of the Golden Rule are stated negatively or passively (Do not do unto others as you would not want done to yourself).  Cavey views this as s theology of a rock.  A rock does not hurt anyone else.  As Cavey was trying to explain to his children telling them that we need to do more than just be a rock he says, “So we created a Cavey Code: ‘Rock on!”  Each day as Nina and I dropped them off for camp, we would hold our fists high as a family and say ‘Rock On.’”
Despite the pleasant writing style and accessible imagery I had some serious reservations about some of his basic theological positions.  First there is a type of anti-historicism in his work.  For Cavey history is heavy-laden with the shackles of religion.  With respect to current uses of the word ‘spirituality’ Cavey says, “I am encouraged, because I think we are finally catching up to what Jesus has been saying for over two thousand years” (43).  Cavey’s treatment of church history is found in his chapter “Chamber of Horrors” which he begins by saying, “If the history of religion were turned into a series of displays in a wax museum, visitors might think they had entered the Chamber of Horrors.  A centerpiece of the museum would be a body lurching toward you, seemingly animated – but headless.  The descriptive plaque would read, ‘The institutional church throughout much of history’” (57).  This chapter reads like a direct response to Sam Harris’ recent book The End of Faith which is a plea for rational atheism as a response to the dangers of faith.  Harris laments Christianity’s perpetration of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Witch-Hunts, etc.  In response to this Cavey offers a hearty amen to Harris.  Agreeing that indeed Christian religion is guilty as charged he is able to also shake himself loose of history say that “none of this is the way of Jesus” (68). 
Cavey falls unfortunately short here in not acknowledging how his own project is at the very least implicitly informed by church tradition.  Much of The Meeting House’s (Cavey’s church) ‘Manifesto’ reads like a paraphrase of an evangelical statement of faith.  But more than this Cavey has discarded a wealth of resources from those who have wrestled intimately and honestly with the subversive message of Jesus.  Cavey’s message of spirituality is fundamentally “me and Jesus.”  It is a group of individual followers of Jesus coming together as church.  This view of the church largely ignores the view of the church as Christ’s body.  As such if Cavey views the history of Christianity as largely headless then his own view becomes a bunch heads rolling around on the floor disconnected to each other.
Part of my issue with Cavey’s view of church is related to his misunderstanding of two important images in the Old Testament, the Garden of Eden and the Temple.  While I agree that Jesus transcended the Temple he did so on the basis of the Temple not in conflict with it and in returning to the Garden of Eden Jesus was not rejecting but using the religious imagery of the Old Testament.  Biblically the Temple was as much a theological reality as it was a practical or ritual reality.  The Temple (and the Tabernacle) depicted the way in which the world was ordered.  The Temple was a 3-D theological representation of the world as God is present in it.  In many ways Jesus was simply taking the natural steps back towards the Garden of Eden.  By calling the body the Temple Jesus makes God’s presence portable (as the Tabernacle was) but he also makes God’s presence relational (as the Garden of Eden was).  Biblically Eden and the Temple share many similarities in their actual geography.  In this way Cavey unnecessarily depicts Jesus as rejecting an aspect of religion that was deeply embedded within the biblical story.
Cavey also neglects to demonstrate how Jesus’ subversiveness was as much (and likely more) about power and economics than it was simply about religion.  One gets the impression from Cavey that the target of Jesus’ vehemence was aimed at a crusty old stick-in-the-mud priest instead of those who abuse power.  While Cavey is interested in the social aspects of the Gospel he still characterizes the Kingdom of God as a ‘spiritual’ ‘inner reality’ as opposed to the particular practices that Christians are called on to express this Kingdom.
After such heavy-handed criticism I have to admit that I did not hate the book as I was prepared to.  In many places I strongly sympathized with what Cavey was trying to accomplish.  However, the project seemed misguided from the start.  Cavey states early on that by religion he is referring “to any reliance on systems or institutions, rules or rituals as our conduit to God” (37)  There is a paradox here because we need to rely on these things in some way because it is in these systems, institutions, rules and rituals that we live and express ourselves.  A faith that could not in some rely on these things would be the worst kind if isolated and internalized spiritualism.  Jesus relied on these to spread the message of God’s kingdom.  It is a matter of living in the knowledge and trust of God’s sovereignty over these things and not the rejection of them.  Perhaps this is where Cavey is trying to end up with his notion of organized irreligion towards the end of the book where he softens up on what ‘good’ religion is.  However, this end renders much of his book unnecessary and suspect theologically.  Cavey’s final expression ultimately fits within the North American expression (religion) of evangelicalism in his approach to the Bible, mission, salvation, and to the broader church.  I do not say this as a criticism only that I think Cavey is being a little disingenuous in some of his claims.  Perhaps we need to stop proclaiming the end of religion and focus on proclaiming the lordship of Christ over our systems, institutions, rules, and rituals.

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