Australia’s mostly widely-read weekend newspaper recently carried a front-page story in which we were informed that a popular Rugby League player would no longer play or train on Sundays so that he could attend his weekly church service. Canterbury Bulldogs star Will Hopoate negotiated the clause into his contract due to what the newspaper called his “staunch devotion to his Mormon faith.” The article went on to quote the 23-year-old who spoke about his desire that Sunday be maintained as a day set apart for rest, worship and charitable work. The coverage not only spoke about Hopoate, but carried positive information about the Mormon religion and other high-profile Mormon athletes.
I have no problem with the young man wanting to have a sacrosanct day in his week dedicated to prayer and refection. The world would be a far better place if each one of us, religious or otherwise, also took a day each week to stop and reflect. What I found most interesting in the article, though, was the obvious novelty seen in what Hopoate was doing. Actually perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word, maybe I should have chosen ‘disappointing,’ and for two reasons. First, only two generations ago a newspaper article would have been more likely commenting on the novelty of professional sport actually taking place on a Sunday. Second, it’s disappointing because mainstream Christianity has basically sold out on what were once its core values and that has been left to be picked up by groups such as the Mormons. How many Catholics, Anglicans or Orthodox do you notice standing up for the value of Sunday? How many are instead spending Sunday worshipping at the Cathedral of Saint Westfield or singing the joyful praises of Macy’s?
It’s not only Sunday church attendance though, it’s everything. Think fasting, think Lent, think meditation, think morality. Basically all these aspects that were traditionally the identifiers of a person of Christian faith have been ignored by the Christian faithful in the West and picked up by everyone else. (Maybe that is one reason why the same ‘modern’ Christian faithful are shrinking at an alarming rate. History shows that fervent Christianity grows a hundred times faster under persecution and life is seemingly too carefree in the West for most Christians to really bother about their baptismal promises).
As a demonstration of how traditional Christian concepts have become novel, take the annual Islamic period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving known as Ramadan. Each year as Ramadan approaches the news media is awash with feel-good stories of admiration for Islamic families and Muslim individuals who will be living out the great fast. Politicians and senior figures are seen at table after sundown sharing in the evening meal. Don’t get me wrong; there is much to be admired in a fast of such depth, but that a traditionally Christian nation is amused by some annual penitential fasting demonstrates how far the Christian apple has fallen from the tree. Google ‘fasting’ today and you won’t find references to the specific allowances in the Orthodox Lenten observance or the Catholic prescriptions for Fridays; instead it’s all about the health benefits of not spending a lifetime eating whenever we want. I wonder how many Catholics realise that McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish burger was invented by a smart franchise owner in Ohio in 1962 in response to his Catholic customers who actually took the Church’s prescription of not eating meat on a Friday seriously.
Then of course there is meditation and contemplation. The Christian faith has a rich mystical tradition coming forth from some of the great saintly figures of East and West: Antony of Egypt, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila. Whole communities of men and women have dedicated and continue to dedicate themselves to reaching a deep communion with their God. Yet today’s average Christian is so out of touch with his or her own mystical tradition that when they desire peace they run off the nearest Yoga ashram or Bahai temple to seek out what is embedded in their own heritage.
If Christians are going to really bother being Christian then my humble suggestion is that we learn how to do it properly. As a mainstream group we have become frightfully lazy and we have been showed up time and time again by our brothers and sisters of other faiths who actually take their religious commitment seriously. Like young Will Hopoate, it wouldn’t hurt all of us who are allegedly bearers of Christ to consider how we might more evidently bear the name.
Copyright 2016, Bernard Toutounji
Image Attribution: 6 Chavalen el asfalto, Kemeki, Morguefile.com