July 2009

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So much is being written about the death, funeral, music, career, family, etc., etc., etc. of Michael Jackson that I have little to add. (One of my favorite posts is at View from Here).

My own observation has to do with the fact that Jackson’s mega-event funeral did not involve any church.

The influence of the church in society at large (outside of its doors on Sunday) is almost non-existent. In the US, religion has been successfully corralled to Sunday worship with only a few exceptions: weddings and funerals. That is to say, people who never darkened the door of a church could be counted on to do so when attending a loved one’s wedding or funeral. The broad church being what it is, that did not mean that people actually heard the gospel on these occasions, but they nevertheless remembered the significance of Christianity as an organized religion.

For some time now, this last small vestige of religion’s specialness has been dissolving. More and more weddings are conducted by civil or para-church clergy in a non-church context. Funerals have been something of a hold-out, however. True, a funeral home is not a church – but they have in the past been made to “feel” like church, with churchy music and a minister-type presiding from up front.

I think Michael Jackson’s public funeral may have been a milestone in normalizing the non-religious funeral. We would not have expected the music industry to do anything different than what it did. But I suspect that the cultural size of the event – out of all rational proportion – shattered the stained glass barrier that constrained funerals within a religious setting. Michael Jackson epitomized “it’s OK to be what you want to be.” Nothing new there. But a funeral with such huge cultural clout without any church connection has, in my view, marked as “complete” the marginalization of religion in America. I think millions of the young and young middle aged will think, “that is the kind of funeral I want” – lots of sentiment along with a little flash and glamor, but with none of the restrictive quality of church standards and fixed ideas.

Spirituality is in; religion is out. That has been the trend for some time.  But Jackson’s funeral was such a powerful cultural role model that I think it may serve as the tipping point for the younger half of society to sever organized religion from its last tie with our culture: funerals. Exalting sentiment and artistry over character and rational hope in so strident a manner will coax the anti-religious approach to death out of the closet and into the new mainstream.

Given the state of religion in our country, that may not be an entirely bad thing. It does, however, signal the need for an entirely new approach to the church’s witness. We must, of course, cultivate biblical religion all the more, showing by example what godly religion is supposed to be. But at the same time, we must finally accept that we cannot depend on the old cultural advantages of religion. We must approach our witness as a minority group, concentrating on gospel clarity, our own character, and expressing God’s common grace to our society.