Packaging of the soul

One part of Michael Kinsley's legacy at Slate is an almost predictable fondness for contrarianism. This sometimes results in a bracing departure from pack journalism, such as Kinsley's proposal that all parties in the debate about gay marriage would best be served by removing government from the discussion entirely.

Other times, however, Slate's angle seems little more than contarianism for its own sake, which leads to mere eccentricity or excessive preciousness. Take, for example, Andrew Santella's argument in "The Church Search" that, "while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America."

Santella begins and ends with the Obama family's deliberations on what church to attend, which is becoming one of the most flagellated dead-horse stories on the religion beat. Would some oddsmaker please turn this topic into a wager at Paddy Power so it will become interesting again?

Santella's brief report covers many good bases, including Anthony Sacramone's critique of church shopping. The greatest weakness in Santella's report is his insistence on seeing Americans' church choices merely as another function of the market. Thus, he understands goofy church signs or streaming media as so many recruitment tools rather than efforts, however colloquial, at communication:

That simple marquee in front of a church with the cheerfully homely motto ("Prevent truth decay: Brush up on your Bible") doesn't suffice to recruit worshippers. Web sites stream audio and video of sermons and music to let prospective members shop from home, and consultants help congregations market themselves to the "unchurched" and the merely unsatisfied by deploying focus groups, surveys, product giveaways (free church-branded Frisbees, anyone?), and other tactics borrowed from the commercial realm.

I count three odd assumptions (e.g., "flinty New England Congregationalism" + Jeremiah Wright = diversity) in this one paragraph:

Even within denominations and churches, believers have room to choose. Pope Benedict XVI has made it easier for Catholic parishes to offer Latin Mass as an alternative to the conventional vernacular Mass. President Obama's former denomination, the United Church of Christ, is famously diverse, including both flinty New England Congregationalism descended from the Pilgrims' churches and the huge South Side Chicago ministry once led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas' controversial former pastor. If believers need help keeping track of the many variations in style and substance, they can check out the Zagat-like reviews of church services at the Web site Ship of Fools.

The most annoying sentence, however, is Santella's conclusion, which veers uncomfortably into the realm of Dear Prudence, the advice columnist for Slate: "So, the president shouldn't feel any need to rush into committing to a new church. When you have so many options, it pays to shop around."

I do not care if the Obamas spend the next four years visiting as many congregations as they wish in the nation's capital. Why? I know how challenging it can be to meet two criteria that remain entirely neglected in Santella's paean to an unfettered church marketplace: the search for community, both with like-minded believers and with people different enough to stretch me; and an atmosphere that inspires my soul to slow down, be quiet and worship God.

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