Archive for April, 2020

Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House: a Review Essay

April 18, 2020

Schuurman, Peter, The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2019)

There are a number of ways to describe the focus of The Subversive Evangelical. The book is a sociological study of a particular church, The Meeting House (TMH), founded by Bruxy Cavey in 1996. The technical term for this kind of study is an “ethnography,” a report based on an immersion in the subculture of TMH in order to understand it from the inside (p. 245). Peter Schuurman spent two years as a participant observer at various large events, with one full year as a regular attender of TMH. He visited five different small groups known as “Home Churches” which are seen as a vital aspect of TMH and which meet weekly. His research also included interviewing staff, collecting data from surveys, analysing media and sermons, and reviewing some secondary materials (see appendix, pp. 245-50). Apart from a masters thesis written in 2007, this is the first major study of Cavey and TMH (p.247).

TMH is treated as a representative of a good number of megachurches that have evolved in the world in the last few decades. So this is also a study of the megachurch phenomenon. Even more broadly, this is a sociological study of religious trends in the world today. How does the church reach out to those living in today’s postmodern culture? What roles do irony and satire play in religion today? At a more particular level, this book is also a study of charismatic leadership, primarily in the church, though not limited to the religious context.

My essay has two purposes. It is a review of Schuurman’s careful study of Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House. As well, I will be including some of my own evaluative comments of Cavey and TMH based on the ethnographical data given in Schuurman’s book. Here I will be going beyond the few evaluative comments that Schuurman himself makes. These are kept to a minimum in The Subversive Evangelical because Schuurman’s central purpose is not to evaluate but to do a sociological case study of Cavey and TMH as a evidence of religious change in North America.

In 2019 Bruxy Cavey’s TMH had 19 regional sites in Ontario, meeting typically in theatres, and gathering a total of about 5,500 people each Sunday (p.13). About 45% of these attendees also attend one of 200 of TMH’s “Home Churches” during the week. “The church is founded on the paradox of aspiring to be a church for people who are not ‘into’ church,” a phrase that Schuurman often uses to characterize Cavey’s aim for TMH (e.g. pp. 5, 29, 136). The title of Cavey’s 2007 bestseller gives you another clue as to Cavey’s approach to church, The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus (p. 9). Indeed, Cavey sees his church as “anti-religious,” even devoting a teaching series in 2013 advertised as “Wrecking Religion: How Jesus Ruins Everything” (p. 9, ch.3).

There is one interesting detail about Bruxy Cavey himself which further illustrates his approach to Christianity and spreading the message of Christ (pp. 5-6). Cavey has a tattoo on his arm which simply reads “Leviticus 19:28.” Now if you bother to look up this verse in the bible you will find the following words, “Do not … put tattoo marks on yourself. I am the LORD.” Surely ironic, but Cavey is a champion of irony, and Schuurman’s book devotes an entire chapter to showing how irony is in fact part of the liturgy of TMH (ch.4). But there is more than just irony here – Cavey is also making a theological point with this tattoo. Later in the book, Cavey is described as openly musing about putting another tattoo on his arm, Hebrews 8:13, which talks about a new covenant (p. 223). In other words, what Cavey is trying to highlight with his ironical tattoo is that the rules of the Old Testament are null and void after Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Old Testament is viewed as “religious” and Cavey is into rejecting anything that smells of legalistic religion, both ancient and modern.

Schuurman sums up the book in his Epilogue: “At the heart of TMH is Cavey’s body, an icon of the retro-hippie culture, and branded with his ironic tattoo. He is the unclerical pastor leading a movie theatre-based church in a subversive mission to eradicate ‘religion’” (p. 224).

There are a number of problems here, the first being theological. Is there justification for contrasting the Old Testament as legalistic religion and describing Jesus and the New Testament as giving us something entirely new, a covenant of grace? I find a lot of grace in the Old Testament and a strong emphasis on moral norms and rules in the New Testament. After all, Jesus himself said he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets and he condemned anyone who breaks one of the least of the Old Testament commandments and teaches others to do the same (Matt 5:17-20). Of course these references to Law and commandments require careful exegesis but they certainly don’t deserve Cavey’s dismissive irony.

Of course Cavey’s use of “satirical humour” to attack “religion” is part of his overall strategy of “busting up stereotypes” (pp. 162, 15). By constantly criticizing religion he is also catering to the widespread cultural understanding of religion as oppressive, evil, violent and hypocritical (p. 233). Indeed, Cavey labels himself as spiritual-but-not-religious (p. 68). But should we as Christians be in the business of criticizing “religion”? And is it not rather hypocritical? After all TMH is obviously another expression of religion. Indeed, there are rules and regulations that good members of TMH dare not violate (p. 136). And besides, as Schuurman points out, there is much that is good in religion (p. 234). In his Epilogue, Schuurman makes this astute observation. “To the degree that reflexive evangelicals (like Cavey) deny their religious and institutional character, they lean to a negative identity, a countercultural stereotype and short-sighted neglect for structures that can be a scaffold for human flourishing” (p. 236).

There is another aspect to Cavey’s use of irony that deserves brief exploration. Cavey also uses irony to distance himself from the evangelical church which is facing an identity crisis in North America (p. xiii). Of course here Cavey joins many evangelicals who find themselves increasingly embarrassed about the evangelical label, who “are weary of being caricatured as legalistic, judgmental and politically motivated” (p. 13). It is this “spoiled identity” that has led many evangelicals to call themselves the “new evangelicals” or “emerging evangelicals (pp. xiv, xiii). Schuurman prefers to call them “reflexive evangelicals” because they are trying to escape between the horns of a dilemma – being committed to an evangelical lifestyle, and having to face the increasing stigmatization of an evangelical identity (p. xiii). Cavey’s approach to this dilemma is to adopt a deconstructionist mindset, questioning and problematizing everything that is conventional (pp. 12, 75). Indeed, in a 2015 interview Cavey describes his distancing from evangelicals in the strongest terms possible: “When we’re starting to make religious conservatives uneasy we’re probably starting to live like Jesus” (p. 87).

I too find the evangelical label embarrassing in today’s religious and political climate. I too cannot understand how any evangelical can support Trump. I too find that many evangelicals are too legalistic, too judgmental and too certain about their convictions. But how should an evangelical Christian respond to the spoiled identity of evangelicals? How does one relate to Christians and the church which have their faults? Here I would remind Cavey and other reflexive evangelicals that we are to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, even though they may be flawed. Paul dared to call the members of a deeply flawed church in Corinth “saints” and he continued to pray for them. John in his letters to the seven churches finds fault with each of them but reminds them that Christ is still walking in their midst. There is something very wrong with the hyper-critical and cynical attitudes of Cavey and other emergent evangelicals who see themselves as superior to flawed evangelicals. We are all flawed and we are all in need of grace. Jesus said we would be known by our love for one another. Cavey and his emergent friends need to love their fellow Christians, including evangelical Christians.

There is another problem with Cavey’s trying to overcome the embarrassment of the evangelical label. Doing so requires that he cater to the Zeitgeist of our time. Meeting in theatres is simply one example of the same. But as Schuurman points out, “Meeting in a movie theatre carries and nurtures unintended meanings and practices” (p. 236). It allows the attender to avoid the embarrassment of being seen as going to a “church.” One can continue drinking expensive lattes while being entertained. Cavey’s catering to the Zeitgeist of our time also allows the attender to continue to indulge in the cynicism, hyper-criticism, and skepticism about truth that is so characteristic of postmodernism. One final comment about the use of deconstructive irony. Schuurman quotes David Foster Wallace who argues that irony and ridicule, when overused, become agents of despair, ending up by becoming incoherent, tiresome, cynical, and even nihilistic (p. 226). This no doubt explains why there is a huge turnover rate at TMH (p. 237). Attendance seems to have plateaued (p. 239). I am not as optimistic as is Schuurman about the sustainability of TMH in the long run.

Schuurman also explores the nature of charisma in trying to understand Bruxy Cavey. Early in the book he identifies three different meanings of charisma: (a) the biblical notion of gifts of the Spirit; (b) Max Weber’s notion of charisma as a form of authority, as a certain quality of an individual personality which sets him apart and makes followers look up to him as superhuman; (c) the artificially engineered charisma of the celebrity figure which ultimately is hollow and illusory (pp. 30-39). Schuurman sees all three meanings as applying to Cavey. He is certainly recognized as having the spiritual gift of teaching. The most common answer attendees give for joining TMH is the appeal of Cavey’s teaching (p. 139). But is there not a problem with having one person who does most of the teaching at TMH, as is the case in most megachurches?
Cavey also has a core following who look up to him as an authority. Indeed, we find here all the makings of a personality cult, despite efforts on the part of Cavey’s staff to try to counter this by using humor (pp. 143-8, 195-9). A worrisome example of Cavey seeming to have excessive charismatic authority is that all eleven members of one of TMH’s Home Churches got inked with the same tattoo as their pastor (p.7).

Cavey is also a celebrity figure, thus exemplifying the third aspect of charisma. His public persona is carefully managed by a team of seven staff (full and part-time) which include a website coordinator, video production manager, video storyteller, graphics designer, social media coordinator, marketing manager, and administrator. Their job, is to promote the identity and programs of TMH, with Cavey as its icon and key spokesman (p. 143). While a welcome DVD says, “We don’t take ourselves seriously; we just take Jesus seriously” (p. 163), I’m not so sure. Jesus certainly didn’t have such a marketing and communications department and I doubt very much that Jesus would approve of Cavey’s carefully engineered celebrity status. Jesus came as a humble servant and his persona wasn’t a sham.

The Subversive Evangelical is also a book about megachurches. Studies show that there are 1,800 megachurches in North America, of which TMH, one of the largest Protestant churches in Canada, is one example (pp. 7, 64). Schuurman is also trying to counter some of the prevailing stereotypes of megachurches. His aim is to “offer a new understanding of megachurches as more than personality cults or religious Walmarts” (p. 17). He maintains that criticisms of megachurches as functioning only as a religious extension of capitalism, or that they are merely “McDonaldized, Disneyized, or Walmart religion” are reductionistic in nature and hence unwarranted (p. 166). He worries about readers coming to the erroneous conclusion that megachurches are “just a show” or just involved in manipulation (p. 227). His aim is to show that reflexive megachurches like TMH “offer a third space, a playful, liminal space … that offers opportunity for personal transformation … towards the image of the subversive, peace-loving Jesus that Cavey preaches” (p. 228).

I was particularly intrigued with Schuurman’s analysis of playfulness in religion. He devotes an entire chapter to this topic – “The ‘Irreligious’ Paradox: The Playful Production of Ironic Evangelicalism” (ch. 7). Schuurman gives us a brief “History of Evangelical Joy,” maintaining that American evangelicalism has often included entertainment (p. 160). TMH too sponsors grand parties with Bruxy Cavey as the DJ (pp. xiv, 169-81). Faith and fun are meant to coexist according to Cavey (p. 16). Schuurman also reviews scholars who have defended the importance of joyfulness and play in religion (pp.181-4). Agreeing with them Schuurman maintains that religion “at heart, must refresh people for the ordinary work of their lives” (p. 240). In all this, Schuurman is also trying to deconstruct the “seriousness fallacy” which is all too common in scholarly treatments of religion, and perhaps also among Christians themselves (pp. 162, 182). It is all to easy to assume that religion ought to be serious and sombre and strict, and that any expression of religious enjoyment entails a betrayal of religion and further involves capitulation to consumer entertainment and marketing culture (pp. 167, 173). Schuurman even dares to suggest that comparisons of megachurch joyfulness with corporate giants of popular culture “are simply put-downs or snobbish condescension” (p. 242). Of course, there are dangers in mixing faith and fun and Schuurman would agree that TMH and megachurches sometimes get it right and sometimes wrong (p. 227). But we must not rule out the possibility that there can be a healthy dialectic between seriousness and playfulness (p. 174).

As might be expected, there are critics of Cavey and TMH, and Schuurman provides a short summary of these outside critics (pp. 209-12). There are also those within his church who disagree with Cavey on some points (p.196). Then there are those who leave TMH because they become disillusioned with Cavey and the church (pp. 115-21). Indeed, the turnover rate at TMH is “high” (p. 68). In his Epilogue Schuurman offers some carefully worded criticisms but is quick to add that TMH and megachurches, like all religious institutions are a mix of good and bad (ch. 9). But there is no denying that these reflexive churches have been a place of healing for many (p. 233). But healing from what? Healing for “many who are disaffected with Christianity and the church,” Schuurman adds. Indeed, as Schuurman points out earlier in his book, “most of the people who attend TMH come with some church experience” (p. 69). So TMH is in the main catering to disillusioned churchgoers – “refugees, and those who empathize with the refugees” (p. 68). Less than 1% of attendees per year are new converts.

Does TMH change people? This was a standard question that Schuurman asked in his interviews (p. 228). Responses varied and were both positive and negative. When asked whether attendees were coming to identify as Anabaptist or pacifist, “the most common answer was in the negative,” though a member of the executive leadership team hoped that attendees would somehow “unconsciously carry” some of the values of simplicity, peace and community they were being taught (p. 229). A frequent response was that TMH had taught attendees to “completely debunk religion,” which would suggest that Cavey’s negative message is getting through (p. 229).

To his credit, Schuurman gives us a fair and compassionate account of Bruxy Cavey and TMH. Although there is some critical evaluation this tends to be muted. This is no doubt because Schuurman’s main purpose is to be descriptive. The Subversive Evangelical is after all an academic and sociological study of a religious phenomenon in North America. Schuurman ends with a rather moving section in which he describes Cavey as a “holy fool” for Jesus, and perhaps a needed prophetic voice for our time (pp. 239-44). I’m not so sure. The Old Testament prophets were in the main quite serious in their critique of established religion and pagan empires. I simply cannot see Jesus as a playful fool and ironist.

The Subversive Evangelical grows out of a dissertation that Schuurman wrote as part of his doctoral program in religious studies at the University of Waterloo (p. xxii). Unfortunately, this book still reads too much like a Ph.D. dissertation. I write as one who made the same mistake with my first book, Teaching for Commitment, also published by McGill-Queens University Press in 1993. It is very hard to transform a dissertation into a book. A 59 page bibliography might be appropriate for a dissertation but not for most books. All too often I found references to various scholars interrupting the flow of the argument or the first hand description being given. Thankfully there is still much to be gained by focussing on the ethnography of Bruxy Cavey and TMH as found in The Subversive Evangelical. Schuurman’s analysis deserves to be widely read, but I fear this book will be mainly read and consulted by a few academics. My hope is that this short summary and admittedly incomplete review will serve to make this book more accessible to a few more readers.