Friday, November 11, 2011

You can't trust the box!

       When I was growing up, there was a saying in our house that "You can't trust the box".   Whether it was at birthdays or the holidays, the caution came out.  A box that might have held copier paper might hold a pair of cufflinks.  Or a shoebox might hold instructions telling the recipient to look in the garage at a new drill press.  That pattern has stayed with me, and my children are learning not to trust the box!
       I remembered this last Sunday when I hear the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts-Shori (the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States) answer questions after presiding at the morning worship at St. John's Cathedral.  In her answer to one question, she made a comment something to the effect of "don't confuse the gift with the package."  The context (if I recall) had to do with traditional religious expressions in a contemporary context.  The general point was that God has given the world multiple gifts.  We end up putting them in boxes.  And, voila, the gift and the box become, for all intents and purposes, one and the same.
      A similar phenomenon was characterized by Max Weber in his classic studies  of the sociology of religion as the "routinization of charisma".   A leader/reformer arises whose (usually anti-traditional) message, as well as his/her passionate, effective presentation of that message, attracts a LOT of attention and followers.   When the leader dies (or even during his/her lifetime), the initial momentum invariably wanes, and a structure is created to keep the movement viable.  Over the course of time, the initial message becomes a bit lost in the doctrines and practices that arise with the structure.  In short, the "charisma" becomes "routinized"; the extraordinary becomes ordinary, routine, perhaps mundane.  It indeed may happen that the evolved structure becomes almost antithetical to the original, captivating, vision of the founder.
     Weber argues that this process is practically inevitable.  Just as is our tendency to confuse the contents of the box with the box itself.  Reformers of all stripes realize this, agitate for change . . . and the process begins again!
      I took Bishop Katherine's challenge to us to be:  "Look closely at your sets of fondly-held beliefs."  Do we hold more tightly to the gift or the box?  Can we distinguish between the two?  Even if we hold tightly to the container, is it the ONLY container that can hold the contents?  Or might new containers -- larger, or smaller, or differently shaped -- cradle the gift equally well?
      And I thought, "You can't trust the box!"


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