For most of my conscious life I have listened to other Americans complain about having to drive across Nebraska on I-80. As soon I tell non-Nebraskans that I am a Cornhusker they have two comments: 1. Your football team isn’t what it used to be; 2. I-80 is the most boring part of their drive across the country. Ok, I-80 across Nebraska is a little plain, pun intended. The Eisenhower administration didn’t want exciting interstates. They were as much for winning the Cold War (and landing bombers, if it came to that) as they were about your trip to grandma’s house. 80 follows the Platte River and it is flat. People will often contrast their experience of the mountains, in contrast to the prairies. As a plainsman I appreciate the mountains (who doesn’t?) but I think the Christian life is more like Nebraska than it is like Colorado.
For many Christians the Christian life is the quest for intense, mountain-top emotional experiences. The assumption is that these sublime experiences are the norm and that those less exciting periods of life are abnormal, inferior, disappointing, and perhaps a sign of some spiritual failure. When people say, “we really worshipped today” what they are sometimes saying is, “We had an intense emotional experience during worship.” Since the First Great Awakening (18th century), and particularly since Charles Finney’s (1792–1875) practice of and Lectures on Revival, North American Christians have come to expect the unexpected, an intense emotional experience in worship. That’s what many congregations seem to mean by “revival.” That’s why, in so many services, congregations sing carefully coordinated songs designed to produce a certain affect and effect. Christians sometimes become addicted to the experience of euphoria produced by such use of worship music. When people say, “God seems to have left me” what they may be saying is, “I’m not having the sort of intense experiences I expect a Christian to experience.”
We search for sublime religious experiences in other ways too. That is part of the allure of conferences. There’s nothing wrong with a good conference but a well-organized conference with outstanding speakers and highly skilled, practiced musicians and/or singers is, by definition, unusual. It’s not the norm. A conference is like an all-star team in comparison to your hometown ball team. The all-star shortstop never misses a grounder. He always makes the double play. Your hometown shortstop, however, has lost a step (or maybe he never had it) and he’s in an uncomfortably long hitting slump. The all-star team is only temporary. It’s not meant to be permanent. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The issue isn’t really music and conferences but our dissatisfaction with the ordinary. Does the New Testament promise us that the Christian life is a series of extraordinary emotional experiences? I don’t see it. Yes, there are extraordinary, objective miraculous acts of the Spirit (e.g., in Acts) and there is clear witness to the supernatural work of the Spirit in the apostolic congregations (e.g., 1 Corinthians) but it’s not obvious that we’re supposed to experience the same thing today—I understand that’s a matter of considerable debate but the idea that the NT phenomena are unique is not a revolutionary view in the history of the church—or that those acts by the Spirit, in the church, had a great lot to do with emotional experience. The clearest NT instruction about the nature of the Christian life, which seemed to have the post-apostolic life of the church in view, is, in fact, rather ordinary. Christians are to love God and their neighbors, honor and pray for the king, and fulfill their vocations in this world quietly and pursue godliness. I suppose there’s a sense in which, when Christians do those things, it is extraordinary but now we’re using the word in a different sense.
Our expectation that the Christian life is a series of intense emotional experiences has much more to do with the 19th century than it does with the New Testament, Patristic Christianity, medieval Christianity, Reformation, or post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. In most of those periods, our best writers weren’t generally counseling believers to seek the unusual or the extraordinary. There are exceptions, to be sure, but that’s just it. They were exceptions.
I don’t mean to say that our Christian life must be relentlessly boring. It doesn’t but I do think that we probably need to recalibrate our meters. There is beauty along I-80 in Nebraska. If you look carefully among the trees between the road and the Platte River you will see deer. If you look carefully enough, at the right time of day, you might see quite a few. Deer are beautiful—unless, of course, they run in front of your moving vehicle. I enjoy watching the old barns, Aermotor windmills, and cattle as we go by. The song of the Western Meadowlark has a remarkable way of cutting through the wind and the sound of tires on the pavement. It used to be that near Grand Island one might see a bald eagle. It’s not the dramatic beauty of the Rockies (the mountains not the ball club) but it is beauty. There are striking scenes among the buttes along Nebraska highway 71 between Colorado and Scottsbluff. There are great vistas of canyons, hills, and prairies along US 136 and US 34 in southern Nebraska, just above the Kansas line. It’s there but one has to know where to look for it.
The mountains are breathtaking and memorable but they are more the exception than the rule. The Christian life is more like a quiet state highway on the plains interrupted by quiet small towns, a few stop lights, followed by more highway. It’s occasionally striking but mostly it’s ordinary and that’s fine. Ordinary is alright.
Thanks for this post, Dr. Clark! I think the analogy is very apt (although Kansas is definitely superior to Nebraska 😛 ).
Going to Omaha last year, I 76 to get to I 80 was more boring. Nebraska was green while northeast Colorado seriously looked like a desert. Not sure how it is now.
It can’t be Nebraska, no Psalm singing churches
Dr. Clark — I truly enjoyed this piece. Living in CO, there is no comparison in regard to your analogy. 🙂 Having said that, driving through West Texas is much worse than driving through NE!
Even when one lives in paradise, we still have to live with difficulties: rattlesnakes, bindweed, soil so dry you have to work your tail off to grow anything. But then the view! It’s not really an emotional experience to look out and see Long’s Peak; it’s more that when we look out and see it, we see the handiwork of God a bit more easily, and thus, for a moment, we stop hating the bindweed. 🙂 For just a glimmer, our trials seem to be a little less significant.
I’ve lived in KS — there is beauty everywhere — you just have to look outside of your own box of expectations to see it.
Great post. I agree.
One evening at sunset, I was driving through Kansas. The corn was ripe, the weather perfect, the windows open. I think I can say I have never smelled such a sweet and beautiful smell as that which came from the corn that night.
“Ordinary” does indeed have incredible beauty.
So too… bread and wine.
Nebraska is Protestant. Colorado is Roman Catholic (or Pentecostal).
That makes the decision easy if you have a choice.
Should I leave Nebraska? May it never be.
Call me crazy, but after hearing about how boring it was supposed to be I was pleasantly surprised by the drive through Nebraska on I-80. Truly enjoyed it.
Bingo on conferences–glad someone finally said it out loud.
My grandfather and his family for several generations lived in Wray, Colorado (not far from the Nebraska border) and his opinion of Nebraskans was only slightly higher than his thoughts on the Japanese who kamikazee’d a boat out from underneath of him in the South Pacific.
So my vote goes to Colorado (at least its Northeast corner).
And ditto to the fellow who mentioned at least the home of the Buffaloes has several Psalm-only churches. 🙂
For what it’s worth, I want to see the Sandhills. Have never driven across 80 but doubt I would mind it. And I still root for the Huskers when they’re not playing Michigan State!
Conferences – I’ve read about that. I wouldn’t be much for the large ones, but have no problem with the Alliance’s PCRT which I’ve attended a few years. Coming from a weak church (but hopefully not much longer!), I appreciate the efforts of folks to bring sound doctrine to people who aren’t used to hearing it. I wouldn’t have known about folks like yourselves if it weren’t for folks like them. And I have seen WSC’s table in the bookstore area a few times. Conferences can reassure people like myself that we are neither alone nor insane, by bringing us among like minded believers. I wouldn’t say I’m immune from looking for the extraordinary, but I’ve found the conferences helpful in understanding the wider landscape of Christianity, even meeting some staunchly confessional folk who I might have thought to be suspicious of such gatherings, even if the organization hosting them welcomes believers from various confessional traditions.
You’re ignoring the distinction on which Calvin and the Westminster Divines relied: elements and circumstances.
My favorite I-80 portion is between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada high.
1. Good article. Well said.
2. As a connoisseur of both I-80 and I-90, tell the naysayers to drive back and forth across South Dakota a few times. It will dramatically increase their appreciation of Nebraska.