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Trying to Make Sense of Making Sense: Christians, Cognitive Consistency, and Colbert

I’m having a cognitive crisis.

Not because I spent three days in marathon grading mode wrapping up the fall semester. Not because of the incongruity of Christmas shopping and the season of Advent preparation.

My crisis arises because I’m an academic. More specifically a social psychologist who studies contemporary American religion. I have long held to a core principle is social psychology: that human beings strive for consistency in their attitudes and behaviors. That lack of consistency or coherence is an uncomfortable situation that motivates people to change in order to alleviate the inconsistency.

I keep running across data that is hard to reconcile with a cognitive consistency approach. It would appear from some of the data that people just aren’t very reflective about the positions they hold. In short, they don’t think deeply about contrasts between Christian theology and support for torture by the American government according a survey by the Washington Post. If they’re aware of the inconsistency, it seems fairly easy to ignore.

Academics and journalists have a much higher commitment to cognitive consistency and strive to uncover the linkages that will explain the responses on the surveys. Perhaps, theologians argue, that belief in the efficacy of torture is naturally congruent with the assumptions of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (the theory that God had to punish the innocent Jesus who was voluntarily taking the punishment for our sins).

Perhaps, a sociologist might argue (disclaimer — it was me Monday on Facebook), people maintain a mythic structure that supports belief in the basic Linus Van Pelt version of Christmas story regardless of their actual Christian commitments in response to this year’s Pew Survey about the Christmas story (I wrote about this last December.)

Or maybe they just aren’t into cognitive consistency. Maybe after twenty-plus years of talking points and litmus tests, we respond in predictable ways as we think we’re supposed to without cognitively reflecting on how these responses align with other positions we hold, especially those that define us as Christians. But the social psychologist in me says that this isn’t normal and needs to be repaired.

That, in summary, is the source of my crisis. Let me now try to expand my struggle.

The Theoretical Perspective

I distinctly remember learning the dominant views of cognitive consistency in my first social psych class. In fact, I decided to share this mini-lecture with my wife on our first date (she still remembers).

Fritz Heider’s Balance Theory attempted to show how we can be placed in a position of inconsistency and feel great pressure to adjust. He used interpersonal relationship as an example. Balance TheoryIn his telling (shown on the right), a Person P has an attitude toward some object X. P also has attitudes toward another person O. If P doesn’t like X and O does, then P should not like O. If P likes O and finds out that they have different ideas toward X, P feels pressure to either change his attitude toward X or find another friend. Heider explains that this is overly simplified. Nobody does this with a single X — but if you imagine large numbers of Os and Xs, you can see how balance is maintained. Fritz would have absolutely loved Facebook and Twitter. It’s his theory in daily practice.

Osgood and Tannenbaum had a slightly more nuanced version of Balance Theory that they called Congruity Theory. It also focused on both attitudes toward people and objects but it added a more refined measure: the salience of the position held. They suggested that some attitudes are stronger than others and therefore more impervious to change. But incongruity is still a difficult condition and must be resolved. But both attitudes affected will shift toward some common position. It’s reminiscent of the old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me for a member”. CongruityHere’s how it works. Attitudes toward things or people are scaled from negative to positive and from 0 to 3. So +3 and -3 have equivalent salience but in opposite directions. For the sake of example, let’s suppose someone has a mildly negative attitude toward President Obama (-1) and an off-the-charts positive attitude toward A Charlie Brown Christmas (+3).  Then Obama tells everyone that Charlie Brown Christmas is the most important part of the family Christmas celebration. Charlie Brown Christmas can’t be that great anymore because the Obama family likes it. Obama can’t be as awful because he likes Charlie Brown Christmas. Notice that the more weakly held position moves further as congruence is restored.

Then there’s Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. As most people know, when there is a conflict between two attitudes or an attitude and a behavior it creates dissonance that must be resolved by shifting one of the elements. The nice thing about dissonance theory is that it adds the possibility of eliminating the dissonance by adding a new element to the system (the way dissonant chords in music resolve when the right tone is added).

The Crisis

Issues of the last several years — politics, media, religion — seem impervious to cognitive reshuffling. People on all sides hold to their pre-existing positions without any regard to new information. What factors contribute to this?

One possibility is that there isn’t really a problem at all, but the inconsistent/incongruent/dissonant patterns are really methodological artifacts. For example, it’s possible that the evangelical-torture connection isn’t a rational linkage but a spurious correlation with party identification (especially in the south). If people in southern red states are more likely to vote Republican and more likely to hold to evangelical self-identifications, then their support of government policy on enhanced interrogation may have more to do with pro-nationalism related to party than with theological stance. Relatedly, what we’re seeing might be an artifact of the questions asked.  A friend recently examined some data on gun control and showed how the framing of the question creates differential outcomes. It’s quite likely that similar things are happening when Pew asks people if they believe the Christmas story. More nuanced questions might come closer to the mental constructs people actually possess.

Another possibility is that we’ve overplayed the monolithic nature of religion. Perhaps there are such diverse views present among American Christians that their different views cancel each other out. This recent piece by Cathy Grossman of Religion News Service tries to give voice to the diversity of religious thought.  She quotes David Kinnaman from the Barna Group that no more than 7% of Americans are “theologically by-the-book evangelicals”. (I’ve written Kinnaman looking for the source data but haven’t heard back yet.) If this is legitimate, then a lack of congruence between theology and politics is not surprising. In fact, finding congruence or consonance would be the unusual thing.

A third possibility, and the one that troubles me most, is that after decades of talking point arguments in our political and religious spheres, we have come to place less importance on holding complex yet coherent positions. That somehow, it’s important to maintain our univocal positions despite disagreement, to talk in our closed networks on social media, and to see any equivocation as a sign of weakness. Yesterday, Ed Stetzer shared summaries from the Time to Speak conference on racial reconciliation. He included this quotation:

Albert Tate, pastor of Fellowship Monrovia in Monrovia, Calif., also called on Christians to think biblically rather than politically: “Our disciples sound more like the disciples of Fox News and CNN than they do the disciples of Jesus Christ.”

This becomes surprising when we consider how much Worldview language shows up in Christian rhetoric. For example, this week the folks behind YouVersion of the Bible released their most shared verses for the 2014.  This year’s winner is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”.

But renewing the mind requires work and change. It makes us think and reorganize our mental processes.

Unless we don’t.

Last night marked the end of The Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert satirized the talking point world by taking it to its natural extremes. In his opening spot last night in his classic segment The Word, he argued that he’d gone nine years without changing.

And while I’ve always reminded you to be afraid, folks, I don’t want you to worry. You see, on my very first show I told you truth doesn’t come from your head, it comes from your gut. And back then, my gut made you a promise. “I know some of you might not trust your gut yet, but with my help, you will.” And you did.

Maybe Colbert come on the scene with an awareness that something had shifted in American society. That we didn’t rely on logic and coherence. The irony is that the devoutly Christian Colbert (the man not the character) probably has the most cognitively consistent view of the world one can find. Hopefully, he will continue to teach us much.

Deconstructing Choice, Culture, and Structure: Campus Sexual Assault, Ferguson, and Staten Island

As I’ve followed the news over recent weeks and seen it dissected in social media, I’ve become aware of the way in which we continually shift our understandings of circumstances. Some people see everything as a matter of individual choice and want to mete out “just desserts” to the offender (for example, “if you don’t want to get shot, obey the police”). Others like to make cultural arguments that focus on a deficit of values as the driving force (for example, “it’s the absence of father figures in the black community that is to blame”). Still fewer want to couch the argument in terms of the more sociological structural dynamics of power and inequality (for example, “there has been a systematic school to prison pipeline that traps urban young men”).

Two observations arise from this. First, people in options one and three don’t seem to be able to talk to each other. I have seen countless Facebook treads where someone tries to articulate option three and a friend (hopefully still a friend) takes offense that we are either excusing individual behavior or calling the speaker a racist. Second, we’re not consistent in the application of the options across situations. I’ve seen social media posts from people blaming Ferguson on the cultural dynamics of inadequate socialization (fathers again) who simultaneously think the campus sexual assault is a matter of poor choices by isolated individuals (both the man and the woman) and that notion of a broader “rape culture” is a media creation (looking at you, George Will!).

The sociological reality is that these three levels of analysis are interdependent. I’m not a fan of Talcott Parsons, but this was the insight of his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1939). He attempted to show how voluntary choice was shaped by cultural values as well as by the structures of society (his later work focused only on the latter). Choosing to focus on one aspect of the broader system didn’t negate the impacts of the others.

There are individual level choices that distinguish between those who break the law and those who don’t. I was reminded Wes Mooreof this recently, when a Facebook friend commented on The Other Wes Moore. That book tells the story about two kids named Wes Moore who grew up in Baltimore. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar and the other is serving a life sentence in prison. But change a couple of “inflection points” and their situations reverse. If the author hadn’t moved in with his aunt, he would have stayed on the street and bad things would likely result. If the “other Wes” had been able to stay with the job corps, he might not have fallen back in with his brother.

There are also cultural factors in play. Certain tropes are held up in society as models of success, masculinity, or prestige.Die Hard For example, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argued that the “hard-boiled detective” was the prototypic character in American Rugged Individualism. Culture is much more complex than that, but it will serve as an indicator for now. If John McClane is an image of what it means to solve problems, it’s not hard to understand how this translates into militarized police strategy or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read “torture”).

Finally, we have larger structural variables, primarily associated with issues of economics, power, and institutional control. In general, these structural inequities arise not from someone’s conspiratorial decisions but because of “natural” change over time. The patterns we see there are the result of actions taken and not taken over literally decades.

Consider for example this report the Pew Research Center FT_14.12.11_wealthGap2released yesterday on wealth inequality (wealth is a measure of total net worth — assets minus liabilities — and far more critical to inequality than simple income). The Pew folks were trying to show how racial/ethnic differences played out in post-financial crisis statistics. But what caught my attention was that the “most equitable” measure of white to black or hispanic net wealth favored whites by a factor of six. There are all kinds of historic and contemporary reasons for these differences: owning rather than renting, savings rates, retirement plans, incarceration rates, residential segregation, and so on. The fact is that the middle white household (that’s the median) is in a far better position than the middle black or hispanic household.

These three types of variables — individual, cultural, and structural — all come into play in our contemporary discussions. I’ll try to illustrate using campus sexual assault and the situations in Ferguson and Staten Island. One could make a similar argument around the release of the terrorism report, but I’ll save that for another day.

College Rape Culture: The last couple of weeks showed us something of the complexity of the issues involved in responding to issues of sexual assault. Rolling Stone published a harrowing first person account of how Jackie had been gang-raped by some fraternity members at the University of Virginia. The president of UVA (a sociologist, by the way) suspended all UVA fraternity events, because she wanted an exploration of the cultural dynamics that made such events possible. Over the last ten days, the Washington Post investigated Rolling Stone’s reporting techniques (or lack thereof) that called the original story into question and caused RS to apologize. As a result, many have decided that Jackie must have made up her story (read her roommate’s statement that disputes that claim).

But to understand and respond to campus rape culture, we have to pay far more attention to variables beyond the individual level (here’s an excellent piece that appeared in Christianity Today this week). At the cultural level, the allure of a party culture is primary. One can find lots of concerned stories about binge drinking on college campuses, but our concerns can quickly be contrasted with our common social expectations. Let’s look again at media tropes to get a glimpseAnimal House of the value set that sets the context for an incident. Show the picture to the right to just about anyone over 15 and they’ll recognize the kingpin of Delta Tau Chi. Images of toga parties, hook-ups, and outrageous behavior will quickly come to mind. That’s not to suggest that all of Greek life looks like Animal House — I knew some guys at “Farm House” at Purdue and it was one of the most straight-laced, studious group of guys you could fine — but nobody makes movies about a group of fraternity brothers living together, pursuing their studies, and forming community.

It’s not just party expectations that are involved. The status of women in the broader society is another part of the story. The differential power structures that can result in male entitlement runs throughout our thinking about rape culture. First, the woman is at a disadvantage when going to the party. Second, how we respond to her story of assault is conditioned by assumptions of personal responsibility (for her, not for them). Third, we seem overly worried about men being “wrongfully accused” — why is it so hard to believe that an overly masculine social setting, fueled by alcohol and hormones, would be seriously vulnerable to abusive behavior?

The higher the patriarchy in the culture, the harder it is to respond to sexual assault. Consider the GRACE report on assault at Bob Jones University that was released on Thursday. One of the most telling pieces of the 300+ page report is in this graph (highlight is mine):

Bob Jones report

Over half the respondents in the sample felt “blamed and disparaged” after reporting their sexual assault with another quarter reporting an indifferent response. This is institutional in character, as the recommendations section of the report makes clear.

It’s true that campus sexual assault happens because of bad actors. But that’s an incomplete story without considering our cultural expectations of campus social life and the larger issues of sexism and access to power within the institution and the broader society.

Ferguson and Staten Island: Much has been written about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so I’ll skim the surface a little bit. From the individual level, we can think about how Brown and Garner got into the situation they were in. They bear personal responsibility for their choices but the choices weren’t unusual — it was the response that was unusual. Other teens shoplift. Other adults traffic in black market goods. It doesn’t result in death. They aren’t seen as threatening figures that must be subdued by authorities. If we stay at the individual level we are left with unanswerable questions, why were these men different? What was in the minds of the officers who respond? We’re left to build post-hoc explanations of what they were thinking or what actions potentially meant.

The cultural level informs the individual choices. Consider the two pictures to the left. One of these is Gangstersfrom the film Menace II Society and shows a young gang of black men. The other is Denzell Washington in American Gangster (the story of a heroin kingpin). I’d argue that law enforcement would think very differently about the guys on the left than the guy on the right. It’s intriguing to think about how a Denzell figure might be more of a “menace to society” but we’ll approve of his fine clothes and family values. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how John McClane would respond to the young toughs — because our movies and television are full of those images.

The drug connection takes us to the societal level. The economic instability mentioned above makes the underground drug industry a rational response to lack of opportunity. This was one of the primary insights of Robert Merton’s strain theory of deviance, which arose out of Parson’s analysis.

The “other” Wes Moore starts as a drug lookout at a young age because it allowed him access to a nice stereo and good shoes when there were few other opportunities (and his brother was already connected). For all of those who question “what about black on black crime?”, we should be asking “why is the drug trade a major avenue to economic advancement, even though it is fraught with intergroup violence?” and “what can we do to develop real economic opportunities in the inner city?”


The answer to these questions is tied up in the history of segregation, denial of opportunity, school inequality, social policy, and a host of other issues at the structural level. We can talk all day about the individual motivations or cultural expectations but until we begin to address the structural concerns we will continue to be frustrated as a society.

A Voice In Ramah: Power, Protest, and Presence

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

(Matthew 2:18)

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThis passage from Matthew is a response to horrific injustice. King Herod, learning from the Wise Men that the King had been born, is unable to locate the specific child that represented a threat to his Power. So to play it safe, he draws a circle on his map around Bethlehem and uses the legitimate authority of his government to execute all boys under two within that circle.

It’s understandable that Christmas pageants end with the arrival of the Wise Men. It makes a nice conclusion to the story. Very Important People “traverse afar” to acknowledge the King and humble themselves before Him. Clearly, power bends in the face of the Incarnate God.

But that’s not the whole story. Power is also used to exterminate innocents. Undeserving others who happened to be born in the wrong neck of the woods. Who couldn’t have possibly have been born just six months earlier so that they’d be over two when that horrific order came down.

Thursday night we finished my “Spirituality, Faith, and Justice” class. The students recognized that power and our response to it was a central theme to all of our readings. (They also rightly pointed out that I probably intended that since I picked the books and ordered the readings.) By the end of all of our books, a quest for power had given way to something else. Michael Sandel was calling for a communitarian response to the common good. Christena Cleveland calls us to a broader circle of identity and a commitment to serve others in response to Christ’s model. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw call us to practice Incarnational Pluralism, where we engage the communities in which we live to bear witness to the Kingdom.

Walter Brueggemann provides the best deconstruction of the role of power. He sees that Truth undermines power in remarkable and unpredictable ways; not of our acting but because God is already intervening in pursuit of Justice. Here are some passages from the last few pages of When Truth Speaks to Power:

I have no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system. Except to notice that the present concentration of power and wealth among us, the collusion of much of the media, and the alliance of the courts make it possible to think that totalizing is ready at hand among us. Those of us who attend to and mean to adhere to the testimony of truth in the biblical tradition are left with the quite practical question concerning the performance of truth that concerns emancipation and transformation in a context that does not intend any emancipation from dominant ideology and that intends transformation only inside that system. The wonderment among us is that there are agents of truth who find daring, risky ways out beyond the totalism. Sometimes (many times?) the church colludes with the totalism and blesses it, to its own considerable benefit. But sometimes the church— in feeble or in daring ways, in conventional or in imaginative ways—has an alternative say….It is finally the God of all truth who breaks the grip of totalism, who confounds the imperial governor, and who makes all things new … here and there … now and then.

A society that has lost its way may indeed be ready for serious discipleship that informs citizenship. Such deep obedience to the truth that marks discipleship does not aim, in citizenship, to transpose the body politic into the church or into a theocracy. It aims rather to insist that the holy truth voices gifts and commands that matter in a society that depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair.

It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. … The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power.

Naturally, all of this thinking about issues of power leads me to reflect on Ferguson and Staten Island. How can grand juries fail to indict bad behavior? If we think about the totalizing aspects of power, it would be naive to expect an indictment. That would require the entities of power ruling against the agents of power. Sure, we can find cases where “bad apples” are isolated and removed, but that does little to disrupt the power involved.

The protests in the streets across the nation has been a fascinating display that people think “something is wrong”. But some of those protests have been designed to compete within power domains. Perhaps, they seem to suggest, if we disrupt shopping malls or traffic patterns, then change will come. But often that simply turns into an invitation for contesting power that plays into the hands of those who wield it most effectively and who have more structural resources upon which to draw.

So where does that leave us? If power is not the coin of the Kingdom, how do we nurture change and justice? Again, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in the midst of lament. As I’ve noted before, Brueggemann suggests that when the Israelite slaves cry out in their Egyptian oppression, God acts — even though they don’t ask God for deliverance. Our presence and participation in the pain of others is more of a testament to Truth than dozens of organizations or twitter hashtags.

God is also present in the suffering. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the perrennial question of theodicy: where is God in suffering? Her answer is remarkably simple: he is on the cross. He is incarnationally present in the midst of the pain.

One of my favorite parts of Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking comes as he’s discussing Job’s suffering. Buechner suggests that we often want explanations of how these bad things happen. Who is to blame? What is the point? He also suggests that God is simply present in the pain.

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee” (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

The Truth is that God’s Presence is there in the midst of the crowds in Ferguson and Staten Island and everywhere else. He has not abandoned the world. And we in the church, acting as the Body of Christ, are similarly present. We are vicariously suffering the loss of lives and the pain of incredulity that such things happen.

It’s worth looking back at the Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes following the Slaughter of the Innocents. The very next verses, Jeremiah 31: 16-17 say that God is aware of the suffering and that things will soon be different.

The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
17 There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!

Maybe we need to include Herod in the Christmas pageants somehow. Maybe it would let us stay aware that we’re not about trusting in power, even when it’s ours to exercise. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves every year that Truth is playing on a very different level than simple Power.

I’ve often wanted a different ending to the second chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men are “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. I kind of want them to go back and then refuse to tell where they find the Child. It would have cost them, but maybe would have saved those children.

But it’s not my story to write. It’s God’s. And as one of his ambassadors, maybe it’s enough for me to live in the tension and pain of loss. To suggest that there is another way. That one day, hopefully soon, we will all be returning home from the totalizing power of Empire into the reward of the Kingdom of God.

Illustrating “Recursive Discourse”: How Our Stories Solidify Racial and Class Structures

When I was working on my previous blog post about how Sir Anthony Gidden’s Theory of Structuration helped me link individual and structural sin, I ran a draft past my friend Ryan Thomas Neace. He had asked me (along with others) to read an early draft of his post about what it means to be in one’s debt (you can read the final here). So as I was putting my thoughts together, I sent a copy to Ryan. His response didn’t come until after I had published (I got impatient) but one comment of his really struck home. Ryan liked the post but thought I needed to do much more with a technical concept like “Recursive Discourse”.

What Giddens means by Recursive Discourse is that we are aware of how we are using language to construct social understandings. That language arises from prior social understandings and comes already freighted with meaning. When we use the language we’ve inherited about issues like class or race or gender, we are aware that we are incorporating structural conditions into our definition of the world around us. The Discourse is the focus on story. The Recursive is about the ways in which we are simultaneously creating and being created by the story. That’s the image I was trying capture with the hair salon mirrors (repeated to the right).Recursivenss

So while I was thinking about how to explain this complicated concept, two blog posts related to the Ferguson conversations appeared which give me the handle I was looking for.

The first was another marvelous post by Thabiti Anyabwile at The Gospel Coalition. Thabiti’s post shares significant details of his upbringing: family circumstances, a brush with the law as a teen, some issues with illegal substances, pictures in a hoodie showing “dueces”. All features that the media might have used to show him as a thug if he’d been the one shot.

He also talks of being an excellent student. He has two degrees from North Carolina State. And yet the stories he tells of being suspected of suspicious behavior just because he met the profile wind up reinforcing how others see him and cause him to respond accordingly. When the campus police hold him so that an assault victim could see if he was her assailant even though he had been playing basketball with faculty members, it reinforces that large black men are likely assailants and that police officers will take advantage of their power in the face of your relative powerlessness. Just in recounting this story, Thabiti no doubt relived the structural sin that was present in that moment.

When I shared Thabiti’s piece on Twitter, I got a response from Christine Scheller. She shared this piece she wrote last week, painfully titled “Thanksgiving Thoughts on the Eve of My Late Black Son’s 30th Birthday”. She told of how she and the family had moved out of their racist town because of the comments that were already coming to her third grade son (told he should put a white mask on his face). She tells of how life developed in a more stable environment in New Jersey until her son enrolled at Wheaton College. At the point he faced a barrage of racial jokes and accusations. Wheaton is not responsible for his suicide but it was part of the contributing factors.

How does a young black man learn to manage in an environment that allows marginalization of his very identity, whether in third grade or as a freshman in college? How do jokes and comments, video images, or people crossing the street with you approach on the sidewalk become part of your story? In every encounter, the structured inequality is reproduced and performed in speech.

Christine goes on to share some remarkable parts of her own upbringing. Of how she had her own troubles with the law, arising out of some family circumstances and reckless behavior. But her story does not completely reproduce structure because she’s a white woman, educated, and has a blog.

Nevertheless, the very telling of the stories she shares whether of her or her son seem to reimage racial and social class disparity. Just as Thabithi’s stories reproduce structures. In the moment of telling, he’s in the back of that police car. In sharing, she is reproducing her childhood social status.

If this is true for Thabithi and Christine, who have moved far beyond their original circumstances, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Michael Brown and his friends relived these structural inequalities in the midst of daily interactions. It became part of their story and reminded them of their powerlessness every day.

Yes, Brown bears a degree of responsibility for his actions on the day in August. But that’s not the full telling.

Thabiit closes his post correctly arguing that the real structural sin is not racism or police abuse of authority but the failure to recognize the Image of God as being present in the Other. I fully agree and would only add that restructuring our discourse to creating justice makes seeing the Imago Dei in the Other a truly sacrificial act. One that might just break the narrative structures that are so common in the air around us.

If we have the courage to tell a different story. One that affirms God’s creative and redemptive acts in our midst and the indwelling of His Spirit to birth the Kingdom of God. Just imagine the recursive power of that story!

The Sociology of Sin: Reflections on Ferguson Commentaries

Even though it’s Thanksgiving week and I’ve been blessed with family visits, good food, and a break from classes, the impact of Monday’s Ferguson grand jury announcement has been lingering just below the surface. I’ve tried to keep abreast of developments and not chase down too many rabbit trails but I’ve still had the sensation that we were missing something important.

I came across the expected social media pronouncements: Voddie Baucham announced that Michael Brown simply reaped what he sowed; the key to not getting shot is to obey police officers’ instructions, according to Rod Dreher and others. Then there were those creating Facebook groups that called Darren Wilson a murderer.

Neither of these approaches are helpful nor true to the facts of the case as generally understood. There is nothing about stealing some cigarillos that draws a straight line to a shooting. Even if there had been an indictment, there is nothing about Wilson’s decisions that would support a verdict of murder.

We seem stuck between a Progressive view focused on systemic injustice and a Conservative view focused on individual action. Somehow, we need to spend more time trying to work through the linkages between these ideas without simply positioning one against the other.

Evangelicals seem far more comfortable focusing on individuals. The most reasoned of these arguments decries the systemic issues but sees them as expressions of individual sin. Al Mohler’s fine response addresses larger concerns (media, politics, racial tension) yet ends up here:

But intelligent Christians operating out of a biblical worldview know that this is not just a problem for Ferguson. It is the problem of the human heart.

The NFL’s Benjamin Watson wrote a marvelous piece describing a range of emotions in light of the decision yet ended up saying that “this is not a SKIN problem but a SIN problem”.But it’s usually from individual out (Mohler, problem of human heart, NFL player, individual forgiveness).

Not all have pursued this overly individualized perspective. The last few days have seen excellent responses from Thabiti Anyabwile and Alan Noble. Thabiti reminds us, “To say ‘It’s not racism; it’s sin’ is to fail to understand both racism and sin.” Alan adds:

Of course, Bauchman is right to point out that everyone who commits abuse of some kind is a sinner, but it’s not clear, nor is it at all substantiated in this article, why a cop who racially profiles a black man is not a part of a larger system of abuse.

Watching all this unfold got me thinking that our view of sin has been distorted by the rugged individualism of our culture and the crisis decision approach to evangelism. What need a more robust sociological linkage between the individual and systemic level of thinking about sin. We’d have better responses if we could envision how this process works.

Sociology isn’t particularly good at issues like sin. Maybe that’s the concern that recognizing social contextualization opens the door to moral relativism. But there are real issues of human nature at play. One of the fascinating things about teaching sociological theory in a Christian university is introducing students to Karl Marx’s naive view of human nature. He believed that people were essentially good and that systems corrupted them. If they could throw off those constraints they’d be free to act morally. While Marx’s view of human nature is hard to square theologically and experientially, his observations on the impact of the systems in which we’re imbedded weren’t completely wrong.

Back in May I wrote about Antony Giddens’ Theory of Structuration. The central thrust of his argument is that structure and identity are not dichotomies to sort out. They actually form a duality, two sides of the same coin.

RecursivenssThe processes operating systemically are reproduced at the level of individual choice and behavior. The processes of individual choice and behavior shape and legitimize the structural contexts in which they occur. This happens through a process of Recursive Discourse, in which we use shared language to define our choices and contingencies and act through that linguistic structure in interaction, thereby replicating the structures along the way.

This is saying much more than “one affects the other”. Like the barbershop mirrors in the picture, one cannot separate the never-ending recursive loop in play.

Seeing this process recursively has some interesting dynamics when it comes to wrestling with our understanding of sin. John Wesley defined sin as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God.” We tend to see this as individually based; Wesley most likely did. But the structure of the phrase is interesting. Voluntary. Known. Law. God.

What does it mean to act voluntarily? When is context so oppressive that is renders one’s choices so limited that the full meaning of volition is distorted? Are there times when we are reacting to a situation without considering alternatives or consequences?

Which laws receive prominence? Old testament strictures? Love your neighbor as yourself? The Sermon on the Mount?

Then there’s the risk that we’ll substitute civil law for the Law of God. We like to quote “your ways are above our ways” but we often seem to elevate our ways to heavenly status when defining what is sin.

All these questions bang around in my head as I try to make sense of what happened in Ferguson in August. The more I read of the grand jury evidence, the more I see recursive discourse in play. Given the context of racial profiling, what does a young black man think when a police car goes by, stops, and rapidly backs up to make lone contact? What does a police officer think about a robbery suspect he heard about on the radio, especially one he sees as larger than average.

Consider the ways in which that interaction is both framed by and constructive of a lack of trust between community and law enforcement. Everything said, every action, is a reproduction of the larger systemic sin and a personal act that reinforces the reality of that sin. The very first recognition from Davis that a police car was stopping involves a systemic memory of power imbalances between police officers and others in the African American community. The radio report that someone had robbed the convenience store creates a context where Wilson anticipates the Hulk Hogan interaction.

All of this reproduces the sin in the situation and translates it from potential action to personal choice. The personal act then justifies the legitimacy of the social imaginary. The sin is not solely present in the individuals but is transmitted through them and by them in tangible ways.

The Wesley definition of sin comes from his sermon “On Perfection“, delivered in 1872. It’s a sermon in response to the critics who said that perfection of life and heart were not possible. He argues that God is at work in the individual, but I think he’s also saying that God is at work perfecting the larger social imagination.

Wesley asks a poignant question about why his hearers might choose to continue in sin.

And why should you be afraid of, or averse to, what is naturally implied in this; namely, the offering up all our thoughts, and words, and actions, as a spiritual sacrifice to God, acceptable to him through the blood and intercession of his well-beloved Son. Surely you cannot deny that this is good and profitable to men, as well as pleasing to God. Should you not then devoutly pray that both you and all mankind may thus worship him in spirit and in truth

I think this passage also speaks to the larger social conditions through which sin is shaped. God is willing to heal both the individual and the structural. It only requires us to break the discursive narratives that allow us to replicate structural injustice while justifying personal action.

Both require forgiveness but we say that God’s grace is greater than our sin. When the scripture says, “whatsoever things are true…think on these things”, it may be the key to rewriting the structural and personal narratives. We call that repentance.

On Being “Faithfully Present”: Social Change and Thoughts about Ferguson

My “Religion, Self, and Society” class just finished four days immersed in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010, Oxford University Press). It was a great read and the students said it was their favorite book of the semester. As I worked through my daily summaries, I was struck with the timeliness of Hunter’s argument and the vibrancy of his critique of how the church (and, I would add, the larger culture) have misunderstood the dynamics of social change.

Hunter begins the book examining the ways in which evangelicals have attempted to change the world over the years. This approach has focused heavily on “Values” and working to get people to believe “right things”. The popular evangelical focus on Christian Worldview is a good example of this strategy. Citing writings from Chuck Colson and a dozen other evangelical figures, he shows how this inside-out sense of change is articulated. If we can change individuals, we can change the world.

The problem, as Hunter clearly demonstrates, is that such a view is based on a remarkably naive view of social structure, power, and culture. Such an effort has created subcultural dynamics in which evangelicals have worked in small-scale cultural creation that mimics the larger culture but with evangelical focus. The result is an insularity from broader culture which makes social change harder to achieve. Furthermore, power is embedded in institutional forms that call for Christians to engage in political activity not as voting blocks but as those attentive to the levers that can create change.

Hunter reviews and critiques efforts by the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists for being insufficiently distrusting of Constantinian forms of power. The Right, acting in a stance he calls “Defensive Against”, attempts to gain the state levers of power to bring about moral change. Moral outrage and a sense of victimization (which he calls “ressentiment”) is central to the moral challenge. The Left, “Relevant To”, attempts to organize legal frameworks to eliminate suffering and inequality. The Neo-Anabaptists (in his telling — I’m reserving judgment) want to maintain “Purity From” power but in that negation they allow power to be exercised in normal institutional ways.

Instead of these limited approaches, Hunter calls for a new approach, which he calls “Faithful Presence Within”. Building upon a theology of creation and incarnation, he argues that we should be present “to each other”, “to our tasks”, and “within our spheres of influence”. At the heart of this is a specific understanding of engagement:

[F]aithful presence is a theology of commitment and promise. The commitment is “covenantal.” It is a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, in the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and it is all oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us (261).

Beyond being a good in its own right, there are at least two reasons why Christians must move in this direction. The first is a political reason: Christians cannot demand for themselves what they would deny others…The second is a cultural reason: the very plausibility and persuasiveness of the Christian faith depend on a cultural context in which meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging are possible (263).

This is an older wisdom, but in the situation in which Christians find themselves today, it holds the markings of a new paradigm. A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. This is a vision for the entire church (278).

Finishing the discussion of Hunter’s book while awaiting the grand jury announcement in Missouri was pretty surreal. It got even more surreal as I started seeing social media posts following the announcement. As I’ve written, I wasn’t expecting an indictment for all kinds of reasons having to do with burden of proof, demonstration of intent, and a systemic bias in favor of law enforcement.

I’m still trying to make sense of things a day later. I’m somewhat disconcerted by the attitudes and complexities involved in a situation like Ferguson. So all I can do at this point is ask some questions.

1. How can we affirm the reality of black distrust of law enforcement without people assuming we’re supporting lawbreakers? There are real, demonstrable, and indisputable facts regarding patterns of traffic stops, searches, and arrests that put African Americans at a disproportionate risk of negative law enforcement contact. Comments about “black on black” crime are insensitive and distancing and are not involved in Faithful Presence.

2. What does it mean to be faithfully present with law enforcement officials? It may be too soon to go here and there are a number of serious questions raised by Officer Wilson’s released testimony. But faithful presence seems to mean that we’d put ourselves in the space of the officer in an uncertain situation. Maybe it means that we’d not leave isolated individuals to make snap judgments on their own but use the nature of collective wisdom to recast situations. Rather than rush to the side of an officer involved in a shooting and looking for rationales from a distance, we need to enter into the ambiguous space. That might mitigate against the situations where every toy gun is seen as an immediately threat.

3. How can the church maintain covenantal relationship with those it has deemed to be “other”? It is telling that our congregations are too white, too middle-class, too law-abiding. We have communicated that “right believers” belong inside the church (conversion stories accepted) and then there is “the world”. Engagement requires physical presence and personal engagement. In short, Incarnation. I’m the first to confess that I have not turned this commitment into action. I working on repenting, on changing my practices.

4. How can we focus our witness on the Imago Dei of all participants? There aren’t bad apples or racist cops or thugs or looters. There are children of God and our call is to be invested in their flourishing, especially when they don’t look and act like “my people”. This requires us to avoid the crass categorizations that are the substance of both cable news coverage and social media feeds. The one thing that the prosecutor got right last night was that there was a tragic event that cost a young man his life. We should all feel that pain, whether he stole cigarillos or not.


In the end, we approach a situation like Ferguson as an opportunity to be with people who hurt, to do good work in their midst, to seek their flourishing, and to represent God’s Kingdom breaking in their midst. It’s not about protecting our values or simply making political changes (even if those are needed). It’s being in relationship representing God’s work in His world.

Here is Hunter’s last paragraph:

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help make the world a little bit better (286).


Evangelism in Post-Christian Culture

MLCLast weekend I drove to the Chicago area to participate in the Missio Alliance Missional Learning Commons in Westmont, IL. The theme this year was on evangelism and brought together pastors, parachurch leaders, theologians, and ministry professors. I’m pretty sure I was the only sociologist in attendance. I was curious to see how the nature of evangelism might be shifting in the context of a post-Christendom culture and whether my ideas about Identity Evangelicalism would resonate at all.

While it’s tempting to explore the differing rhetorical and analytical styles between pastors, theologians, and sociologists, I’ll leave that one alone (feel free to write me for my comments!). I’m really most interested in aligning what I heard with what we think we know about coming to faith and sustaining it within an ambivalent culture.

Friday night’s session featured James Chambers from InterVarsity. His perspective was closest to what I would consider as classical evangelism: the need to show the Gospel in word, deed, and signs. He was quick to admit that the culture is not receptive to the message but still called for confident action on the part of believers to share their faith wherever possible. Saturday morning opened with David Fitch (theologian at Northern Seminary), who suggested that our post-secular culture has shifted power dynamics. David’s focus was on the importance of Presence, Proclamation, and Power (the order is very important). It is when we are present with others that we can share the claims of the Gospel and then rely on the Spirit’s power to make change. Rick Richardson, professor of evangelism at Wheaton, did a great job of summarizing the sociological literature on millennials and faith (while dampening some of the extremist language). He said that we often over-react to previous models of ministry and we need to be careful not to jump ship “just because”. Still, he affirmed that belonging seems to be preceding believing so that it’s important to hear other people’s story in the midst of actual engagement. Rather than seeing evangelism as being about individual we look to build connections with “people of peace” and allow the Spirit to work through them. Jason Smith is a Vineyard pastor from Ohio and told of the ways in which he has found opportunity to engage others in the everyday work of the life of the church. His premise is that asking to pray for others while expecting the movement of the spirit is what brings about life change. Tim Catchim of the V3 Movement spoke last. He constructed a two dimensional model: the horizontal axis contrasted  process change (Road to Emmaus) with crisis change (Road to Damascus)  while the vertical access moved up from Presence to Proclamation. He suggested that our traditional model of evangelism could be found most often in the upper right corner (Crisis Proclamation) but that many other options exist that often get ignored.

As I listened to the presentations, I found myself thinking a lot about John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s model of conversion. This work, based on studies of the Unification Church before it was famous, provides a model of how people convert to deviant religious groups. But it also applies to non-deviant groups. In fact, James’ presentation Friday night had a slide remarkably similar to the Lofland/Stark model (I took a bad picture or I’d share).

Here’s what Lofland came up with in analyzing the Moonies:




The model begins with persons feeling a sense of tension in daily life. Lots of people sense tension but don’t move further than counseling. But those with a religious problem solving perspective turn toward spirituality in search of solutions for the tensions. If they feel comfortable beyond just dabbling, they adopt a form of seekership, which makes them open to new ideas or worldviews. Following a sense of crisis, they turn more seriously toward the religious group. The religious group embraces the new initiate with what Lofland called “love bombing” — massive interaction at a retreat far away. Over time, the new group becomes the “in-group” while family and friends represent a past way of life. Once the member is inside, the intensive interaction continues, keeping the new group member committed.

The Lofland/Stark model faces some challenges in contemporary society.

First, people aren’t really sensing existential tension. Given the general nature of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in society, a generalized belief in being “a good person” dilutes a sense of potential crisis.

Second, in post-Christendom society, people may be much less likely to be looking to religious worldviews for solutions. The old “if you were to die tonight, do you know you’d go to Heaven?” question works if people believe that there is a heaven and that there is a serious risk that they wouldn’t be going there. The nature of apologetics becomes problematic because it may be providing answers to questions that people don’t have.

And yet, it still makes sense to look at the model.

I’d suggest that we start with Lofland’s third step. We have people in the midst of challenge. And in the midst of that challenge, other people come alongside that represent support that is not dependent upon first solving the challenge. This is what David Fitch means by “presence”. It’s why Rick Richardson goes to Burning Man (one of the stereotype-exploding facts of the weekend!). It’s why Jason Smith lets the homeless guy down the block mow his grass. Out of the engagement within challenge, the person senses that someone actually cares. That belonging is real.

Such a modified model of evangelism leads us back to the presence and process model described by Tim Catchim. As he says, it’s not that there aren’t people impacted by other strategies. But evangelism in a post-Christendom, post-modern, complex culture may take on a very different form. We’d still want converts to maintain past connections as long as they are still involved in the discipling process that comes with ongoing meaningful interactions.

Belonging lies at the heart of the post-modern search and will open the door through which the Holy Spirit will do his work.


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