“The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels.” – East of Eden

This excerpt from John Steinbeck’s magnum opus begs the question, is there any difference between what the church offers and what the world offers? Are worship and hedonism two sides of the same coin? If we’re all looking for relief from the struggle of daily life, does it actually matter where that relief is found?

The thought is enough to make a Christian nervous. It could make him wonder if he’s been duped into being an uptight moralist. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked, “Are you not scared by seeing that the gypsies are more attractive to us than the apostles?” The man has a point. If Christianity offers freedom and joy then how come said gypsies look like they’re having more fun?

I personally experienced this conundrum when I took a 12-week sabbatical two years ago. After seven years of working full-time at a church, Sunday morning would roll around; my wife and I would sleep in a little, make a nice breakfast, play some backgammon, and go for a walk. And then it occurred to me why someone wouldn’t go to church: a leisurely Sunday morning was actually really nice. At the beginning of the sabbatical, I had planned to visit other churches in order to get my worship fix, but I didn’t end up attending a single church service for 12 weeks straight. As a professional Christian, I had managed to cut church off cold turkey, no problem.

Truly, if the church does not offer something that the world cannot offer itself, then there is nothing special about it. There’s no distinguishing Christianity from anything else that can help you get through life — food, alcohol, exercise, sex. Each of those things offer a little bit of relief. Of course, it doesn’t last, but, from my experience, neither does prayer or church. I’ll go to church and be completely undone by a hymn or a sermon only to turn back into my same old self an hour later, complaining about cleaning up the kitty litter or worrying about money. And, at its worst, the church offers something far worse than any worldly pleasure: fear, shame, judgment, self-seriousness, self-righteousness.

Sadly, the church often sees the world as a threat to its mission rather than as fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of faith. As a result, we easily become Gnostics in an attempt to distinguish ourselves from the world, scorning everything that was actually created by a good and gracious God. Things like wine and food and sex have all been created for the purpose of being enjoyed (since this is Mockingbird, I’ll include movies, songs, and New Yorker articles). Jesus is still Lord of all, including whatever worldly pleasure we turn to for comfort. He is the God of alcohol, the God of sex, the God of money, the God of food, all things that we so easily corrupt. We may turn what is good into something bad; we may visit the modern whorehouses of our time which take us out of our bleakness for a moment or two, but God is with us even there. Try as we might to evade Him, He is not excluded from the blessings we have sullied. For this reason, the world and all its pleasures should not be seen as a threat to the church. After all, both are under God’s dominion and meant to be enjoyed and shared. But, back to the original question: what is the difference between what the church offers and what the world offers?

All too often, the church preaches what the world has already long been preaching: the importance of community, service to others, trying to be a better person. While all of those things are good and well-meaning, none of them are distinguishing factors of Christianity (a religion that is sadly often mistaken for moralism). The single thing that the church offers that the world would never think of is a man on a cross. As Fleming Rutledge so memorably puts it in her book The Crucifixion, “No one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man.” Jesus, the gospel incarnate, is what sets the church apart from the world. Jesus, who enjoyed the pleasures of the world to the point of being branded as a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19), offers us a sense of joy far greater than any worldly pleasure. The friend of tax collectors and whores died and rose to give us a peace as deep as eternity. While the world might take a man out of his bleakness for a time, Jesus’ sacrifice took the world out of its bleakness once for all (Hebrews 10).

Just to be clear, I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for the sinful pleasures of this world. That’s another blog post for another day. The pleasure that comes from a metaphorical whorehouse comes at a cost, of course. When such pleasure becomes one’s focus, it’s easy to lose sight that it comes at the expense of someone else – in the case of the “whorehouse,” it’s someone’s daughter, sister or mother – and that’s not to be taken lightly. Likewise, however, the joy and freedom that one experiences in church comes at a similar cost – the blood of Christ, shed for you.

One more the thing: when we’re able to acknowledge Jesus as the church’s one foundation, it allows us to live all the more freely in the world. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth once wrote, “We can permit ourselves to be more romantic than the romanticists and more humanistic than the humanists. But we must be more precise.” To be as precise as possible, well, “X” (i.e. the Cross) marks the spot.