I’m here in Idaho for the annual meetings of the Wesleyan Theological Society. Yesterday, Northwest Nazarene hosted a pre-conference event titled “WESLEYTALKS” (using the model of TED Talks). In addition to a number of video presentations and discussions, we had a series of afternoon workshops.
I made back-to-back presentations of the Industry Evangelicalism and Testimony Evangelicalism distinction I’ve been blogging about. I wasn’t sure how it would be received because it was the first time I’d unpacked these ideas when people could actually see me, challenge the presentation, and ask questions.
My presentation was built around a series of geologic metaphors. My overall point was that there is a massive shift going on in evangelicalism. It is a move from Industry Evangelicalism, based on structures both physical and sociological, to Testimony Evangelicalism, based on authenticity and interpersonal engagement. Just as the movement of tectonic plates gives rise to volcanic eruptions and earthquake activity, the shift in evangelicalism’s tectonic plates gives rise to various crises, conflicts, and concerns.
In other words, the visible activity is a result of the underlying movement. To understand the volcanic eruption, we need to understand the underlying geology. To understand the latest evangelical twitter fight, we need to look beneath the surface.
The presentation wove together a number of sources I’ve written on before but never tied together quite as well. I worked through the component parts of Industry Evangelicalism, based on boundaries, structures, charismatic leadership, conformity of followers, and a general combative stance with the broader culture. This is part of what Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace spoke to and is also reflected in much of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. Putnam and Campbell describe the building of evangelical infrastructure as the first aftershock (another geology reference) to the earthquake that was the 1960s. While Worthen’s timeframe starts earlier than that, her book similarly places the expansion of evangelical visibility in the same era.
But earthquakes and aftershocks create damage. That damage results in instability. And in some cases, the best we can do is to construct complicated scaffolding to protect the institution from further damage. I used the pictures below as an illustration. This shows the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. following the August 2011 earthquake.
Part of the damage done by Industry Evangelicalism is seen in declining percentages of Americans identifying with evangelicalism in national polls and the dramatic rise in religious “nones” among the millennial population.
I suggested that Testimony Evangelicalism is the emerging understanding that subsumes the Industry tectonic plate. Testimony Evangelism, as I’ve written before, is based on story and interpersonal engagement. It affirms contact over boundaries and puts a priority on authentic and ongoing relationship.
Here is the image I’ve adopted to represent Testimony Evangelicalism.
There’s just something about Ned Flanders. He may be one of the most clearly evangelical characters on television. Sure, he can be kind of nerdy and Homer and Bart enjoy picking on him.
But Ned never goes away. He keeps building that relationship with Homer and the family. He tries to enter into their lives even if they don’t fully understand his. I observed that Ned’s approach is in sharp contrast with Rev. Lovejoy, the other expression of a person of faith (there’s another blog post in here for sure).
When I reviewed the Worthen book, I observed that there were always alternative voices to those building Industry Evangelicalism. Because I was at a Nazarene school, I especially celebrated the role of H. Orton Wiley and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop. They were forerunners of my Testimony approach.
Putnam and Campbell see the rise of the religious nones, especially among the millennials, as a response to the organizational structures of Industry Evangelicalism (watch Jeff Bethke’s “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”). This is consistent with the argument David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons make in You Lost Me.
I suggested that we could begin to see how Testimony Evangelicalism could work if we simply took Kinnaman’s themes describing the estrangement of millennials and reversed them. Instead of being over-protective, it would be known as a place of trust. Instead of focusing on pat answers, it would wrestle with complexity and tolerate ambiguity. Instead of being concerned about science or societal changes, it would give freedom for hard conversations.
In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that there have been three dominant styles the evangelical church has used to engage culture. The first is “defensive against”, which sees culture as an enemy bringing siege to the battlements. This is the response of Industry Evangelicalism. The second is “relevant to”, which embraces culture and simply folds it into the church. While it’s easy to pick on historic mainlines, the consumerism of seeker sensitivity and the prosperity gospel both fit this form. The third is “purity from”, which describes the Amish and some Holiness groups. Culture should be avoided to avoid infection. Hunter sets these up to talk of a fourth style: Faithful Presence:
Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer; we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives toward the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love.
This is the style best representing Testimony Evangelicalism.
I had a good crowd in both sessions. Most of those attending were pastors and lay leaders from the region. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But I was absolutely thrilled by the response both in the discussion period that followed by presentation and conversations I’ve had over the past 24 hours. Church leaders, at least those who opted to spend some time at a theology conference, saw this shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimony Evangelicalism as a sign of hope within their ministries. I was asked what we could do to get denominational leaders to pay attention to the argument, but there was also a recognition that this just might be the old form of the question.
One of the most encouraging moments happened at dinner last night. Bob, a senior pastor in Washington, told his district superintendent pretty much the entire presentation and recommended it as a topic for future meetings. More important, he told me he wished he was just starting his 40 year career today because the opportunities are so bright. It’s what happens when we faithfully give people the opportunity to speak authentically.
As Ned would say, “Hi-dilly-ho, neighborinos!”
A number of books have significantly helped me as I’ve attempted to imagine how the evangelical church operates without building walls cutting us off from the broader culture, thereby talking primarily to ourselves. One of these I mentioned recently is Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts Into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.
I met David and Geoff at a Missio Alliance gathering in the west suburbs of Chicago last October. I attended the meeting because what I had read of the gathering resonated with what I had been thinking about shifting forms of evangelicalism in post-modern America. So sometime after the meeting, I bought a copy of their book (I’m ashamed to admit it was one of those add-ons to get free shipping from Amazon; but it was more significant than the primary book I was buying!).
It’s not hard to see the driving motif of the book. The Prodigal Son goes into the Far Country. But in this case, drawing on Karl Barth, it’s not the wayward son going forth to riotous living. Rather, it is the Incarnate Son coming into the present world. It becomes one of those Philippians 2 moments, celebrating how Jesus gave up what he had to enter where we are. If we take that seriously, David and Geoff say, our mission as Christians both individually and congregationally is but to do the same.
While intrigued by the engagement offered by the emergent church movement on the one hand, and encouraged by the certainty of the neo-Reformed movement on the other, they find neither quite gets to the Far Country. So they suggest ten signposts that might lead the way. I’ll summarize those mixed in with my own sociological gloss.
Signpost One: Post-Christendom. While debate can be engaged as to whether we were ever a fully Christian nation, it is clear that we’ve entered a period where Christianity is not the default position taken within society. Society, they say, is post-attractioal, post-propositional, and post-universal. These are all byproducts of forms of postmodernism, where my values are right for me but unintelligible to you. The response to this is to be local, to be present, to be incarnational. To be real. To engage. Too much of the Big Issues in evangelicalism take place as abstractions that never quite touch were real people live. This is why David hangs out regularly at McDonalds. He becomes known.
Signpost Two: Missio-Dei. This is a recognition that God is at work reconciling His Kingdom. We should be about the same. It begins with an affirmation that God is currently working. Dave tells a wonderful story of how he played a nearly insignificant role in helping one of the McDonald’s guys deal with a dental issue. It wasn’t about what Dave did but about what God was doing that Dave got to be a piece of. But realizing that God was working might have been more revolutionary for Dave than the guy with the tooth problem.
Signpost Three: Incarnation. Here is a surprising shift. While being at McDonald’s sounds incarnational, it is not Dave and Geoff called to be that. It is the church. Because the church is the Body of Christ, it is continuing the incarnational presence into the broader world, into families that hurt, into people who are confused (even those in the church). This is a profound theological and social psychological understanding that eliminates the need for walls. We really are all in this together.
Signpost Four: Witness. This is one of my favorite chapters and speaks directly to what I’ve been working on. Witness occurs when disciples tell what they have seen, through the guidance of the Spirit. It’s not about answers. It’s about sharing the reasons for faith. It giving testimony that there is something bigger going on that others may not see. Not that Christians know the secret handshake or anything. We become practiced at knowing where to look and tell others what we see. We don’t hold the secret close and tell ourselves how lucky we are to have it. We give testimony to those we meet along the road. Like shepherds or a woman by a well.
Signpost Five: Scripture. Going into the Far Country requires one to have a sense of the Big Story. Not easy proof texts or four spiritual laws but a story of God’s intention, faithfulness, sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing work of reconciliation and restoration. This is the Good News. That story of intention, salvation, reconciliation, and restoration speaks into the lives of those we meet along the way. The problem with our past efforts at bibliocentrism is that those stories don’t impact the lives of people in the Far Country (signpost one). Story matters and when people see that God’s story encompasses their story, things begin to change even if just a little.
Signpost Six: Gospel. This signpost builds heavily on great work by Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright (how can one go wrong with that?). But the Gospel isn’t simply about going to heaven after you die. It’s about the reconciliation of relationships. It’s about seeing that there is Something at work in the world. It’s about how sin isn’t crippling. And it’s about how we all have a role to play with dignity. In short, it repairs lives in the here and now, which makes the imaginings of the life to come possible.
Signpost Seven: Church. This chapter draws heavily upon the ministry experiences of Life on the Vine, the congregation Dave and Geoff pastored (Geoff still does). Wesley called these practices Means of Grace and they are important. Communion and hospitality are central, as are discernment, baptism, reconciliation, and inclusion (expressed in intact families rather than isolating ministries). It is where the church embodies the Body of Christ in order to be Christ in the world (paraphrasing the Methodist Communion liturgy).
Signpost Eight: Welcoming and Transforming Church. This chapter was very interesting and I’m still not sure what all I think about it. The American fascination with, involvement in, and avoidance of, sexuality sits at the center of this signpost. While dismissing an easy accommodation of say, same-sex relationships, on the one hand and a dogmatic exclusion on the other, they call for the Church to be a place where we wrestle with real issues. Where we wind up being authentic with struggles, challenges, and victories in a quest for honest engagement rather than point making. I’ll need to re-read this one and see what similar applications offer.
Signpost Nine: Prodigal Relationships. This chapter speaks to issues of justice and inequality. Raising concerns about political identification (from left or right) as inadequate roles for the Embodied Church, they instead focus on issues that are local and real. Justice is done in our surroundings, from the celebration of presence that requires humility, and by affirming Christ’s work in restoration. It’s not our work. It’s Gods. We are but instruments, as that other Francis said.
Signpost Ten: Diversity. Interestingly, this last signpost closes the circle to the first one. It outlines how the church works in a non-Christendom environment. Not making walls, through pronouncements of whose views are approved and whose are heresies. But neither it is a “whatever you believe as long as you’re sincere”, as Linus would say. Combining all that has gone before, the church becomes a vehicle for witnessing to the work of God in the world. It sounds remarkably like that “see how they love one another” stuff without the risk of insularity. And it rejects the means-ends efficiency that has dominated Western society. The outcome is God’s through the work of the Spirit and the ascended Christ.
Actually, I meant to keep my gloss much more separate from my interpretation of their argument and instead I interwove things a bit. Nevertheless, Prodigal Christianity is a powerful book for anyone interested in seriously engaging a postmodern, complex, post-Christendom culture in ways that bring glory and honor to God. Buy a copy for your church and study it.
I’m on my way to Nampa, Idaho for the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings. Tomorrow I’m doing a workshop on my distinction between Industry Evangelicalism and Testimony Evangelicalism. My last two posts have also been related to this theme. Last month I wrote on the Tower of Babel and the motivations for building towers and walls. Sunday I used Christena Cleveland’s book to explore how we might live without walls.
And then the news came out that Bryan College was “clarifying” the doctrinal stands that faculty and trustees are expected to endorse. Clarifying is in quotes because it takes some serious mental gymnastics to not see the new statement as a major change. The earlier statement is couched in theological terms (God created, there was sin, death resulted) while the clarification is in biblical scientism terms (there was a literal Adam and Eve, all humans descend from this couple).
Others have written with deep concern on the news (here are three: Peter Enns, Brandon Withrow, and Frank Viola), All raise important questions about nature of academic inquiry, the challenges for student preparation, the anxieties created for faculty. Some go so far as to presume that there were big money donors who demanded change (or that these changes might attract donors). All of these issues have some degree of merit, I’m sure. But I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to be in those board rooms or on the frantic conference calls. What’s the motivation for building new walls even higher than those that already existed? (It’s not like Bryan College was being viewed as a vanguard of liberal thought in Christian Higher Education!)
If I imagine myself sitting with a group of trustees, I can hear concerns about religious persecution and a secular society that minimizes people of faith. I can hear them express alarm at the ridicule that accompanied the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” (which was as much a debate as presidential debates; more like sequential monologues). I can hear the dog-tired meme of Harvard losing its way because it shifted Capital T truth for small t truth.
I understand why it’s tempting to build walls taller and thicker. I get the value of sitting inside the inclosure complaining about what’s happening outside (or maybe I’m just sick and tired of the snow and cold and am transferring).
But it’s still a mistake. It’s a mistake because anytime we trade the security of imagined certainty for the engagement with risky unknowns, we suffer. We suffer because in our bones we know it’s more complicated than we make it out to be. And that inauthenticity spills out in surprising ways.
It’s a mistake because it sacrifices the public dialogue to the secular voices. If evangelical Christians don’t engage the dialogue, even if not winning the final argument, then that voice becomes irrelevant to more and more people. It may be safe inside the walls but without new people entering, demographics work against you.
It’s a mistake because it doesn’t prepare the school’s graduates for what happens when they graduate. Once they meet up with folks outside the walls who 1) aren’t ogres and 2) make cogent arguments, the risk is that they will abandon faith altogether.
It’s a mistake because it does damage to the very ethos of the institution. I’ve written before about Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson’s history of the Scopes trial. It was an eye-opening book for me. It showed me that the Scopes trial was a far more complicated issue that Inherit the Wind made it appear. Furthermore, William Jennings Bryan, the college’s namesake, was a far more complicated man than we realize. He could handle complexity, could be progressive, and understood the impact of decisions on the common person. He was a populist who had a suspicion of elites. Sure, he was opposed to aspects of Darwinism (although the social implications bothered him as much as the biological ones).
In short, it’s a mistake because Bryan wouldn’t have endorsed the “clarifications” at the college.
Instead of focusing on William Jennings Bryan, it seems that those trustees want to keep relitigating the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy the Scopes Trial embodied. They forget the outcome: public ridicule, an unenforceable law, and a biology teacher who didn’t even go to jail. But the idea of the Great Conflict is appealing. It fits those issues of Pride and Fear that I’ve been addressing in these posts.
Far better to engage in the mission of the Gospel. To affirm that God is at work in His world. To recognize that there is literally nothing we can study — in science, in historical criticism, in sociology — that surpasses God’s knowledge and truth. If we affirm that God is sovereign, is building His Kingdom, and is active in the world through his Spirit, then we resist the temptation to build walls.
Maybe this is what it means to take up your cross, to suffer, to become a servant, to be Christ-like. Maybe wall building is exactly the kind of thing we should give up for Lent.
My previous post explored the challenges of the Tower of Babel. Drawing upon the work of Brent Strawn, who argued that the motivation for the tower-builders was a combination of pride and fear, I suggested that contemporary issues within evangelicalism represent walled enclaves created for the same two reasons.
I had hoped to get this post up earlier, but was held up by two factors. First, I wanted to finish Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, so that I could apply her lessons about overcoming social psychological barriers to intergroup interactions. Second, MY BOOK CAME OUT. So I was a little distracted.
In this post, I want to take my argument from the last one a little farther. I ended that piece echoing Reagan’s call to “tear down those walls”. Now I want to explore how we might do that.
Christena’s book, while speaking to issues of multi-cultural worship, looks much more deeply at issues of divisions across groups. These may be racial or ethnic groups. They may be separations between evangelicals or mainliners. They may be divisions between one group of evangelicals and another group of evangelicals (the central theme of my twitter feed lately). They may be separations among groups of high school kids (all the other divisions may simply be grown-up high school antics!).
It is not simply a critique of the “homogeneous church principle”, although that is there. It’s really an examination of why that principle works so well. The truth is that it depends entirely upon what we social psychologists consider to be errors in classification. These errors encourage us to overvalue those like us and undervalue those who are different.
After introducing the problems created by division, Christena works her way through dozens of social psychological studies. While these don’t deal directly with contemporary religious groups (that research needs to be done!), they are informative just the same. She shows how groups misjudge those outside the group by assuming that “they’re all alike” (while recognizing individuality within our groups). She writes of the tendency for groups to exaggerate their own abilities or orthodoxy (the Gold Standard effect). She shows how group interactions impact our sense of identity, introducing great concepts of BIRG (Basking In Reflected Glory) and CORF (Cutting Off Reflected Failure). There is a chapter on cultural conflict, which suggests that competition over cultural dynamics results in fear and ambiguity (always a problem in social psychology).
In a myriad of ways, social psychological processes solidify the very walls that I wrote about in the previous post. And it is easy to see both pride and fear present throughout her argument.
She closes the book with solid recommendations on how to begin the hard work of bridging the barriers we create. First, she suggests that cross-cultural contact is essential. Individuals from different groups that can connect around common interests can find more similarity that they might expect. Second, leaders are critical in providing an understanding of why we need to bridge our separations. Key to this process is giving a biblical and theological foundation that shifts our focus to common identity issues. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is an excellent guide for where we find identity. Third, a commitment to justice for all parties is essential and will require privileged groups to go the second mile (that’s part of the definition of privilege). Finally, Christians need to embrace the interdependence Paul describes in his body imagery in Romans and Corinthians. We simply cannot operate without each other.
I also deal with issues of community in my book, though mine is not as research grounded as Christena’s. I argue that we must see our differences as the issues that provide strength. But drawing heavily on Scott Peck, I acknowledge that confronting those differences is painful and stress producing. It gets worse before it gets better, sometimes lots worse. But the other side of what he calls Chaos is Emptiness. In Parker Palmer’s words, we quit trying to fix each other. We don’t brush our differences aside but we make them the raw material for new discovery. We are not alone in this process: the Holy Spirit is working in our midst to allow us to see from another’s perspective. Only when we stop the fighting do we discover what commonality and community mean.
Bonhoeffer says that we cannot MAKE community happen. It is a gift from God. While he was talking about living in the monastery with Christian brothers, the general point still holds. We can find ways of living with difference that don’t require the construction and maintenance of walls.
What does this look like in real life? How do we avoid being driven by pride and fear? What can we do so that every issue isn’t a test between my group (upon which my identity rests) and your group (which is threatening that identity)? How can I focus on our commonalities rather than our differences?
For most of the past two weeks, my social media streams have been dominated by laws proposed in Kansas and Arizona regarding businesses and service to same-sex couples. If I reflect on the various stories (many of which were very well done), they still fell victim to the kinds of issues Christena discusses. One side sees a threat to religious freedom. Another group sees bigotry and bias. Other groups call out hypocrisy in selective enforcement.
But none of these dealt with the full range of the issues. First, it’s interesting that in both states the legislation did not become law. Maybe it would be best for us not to fight about the prospects of something happening until it was actually happening. Second, it’s important to acknowledge that civilly recognized same-sex marriages are uncomfortable for some people as they work through their own thought processes. Third, recent data shows that knowing same-sex couples significantly changes viewpoints toward marriage equality. So there is something about seeing the other as a real person instead of a stereotype that changes things. Fourth, it is important that we listen to the Holy Spirit to recognize the Image of God in the other; whether than other is the bakery owner or the couple buying the wedding cake.
At the end of the day, bridging walls comes because our trust in Almighty God is greater than our trust in our own Brickmasons.
The picture to the left is Bruegel the Elder’s take on the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel. In the scripture, we’re told that there was only one language and the people came together to build a city with a great tower that would reach to the heavens. In response, the LORD comes down to check it out and confuses their languages and scatters the people across the nations.
I’m not a biblical scholar — I’m a sociologist. So my first inclination is to treat this story as a cosmological allegory of “why the people down the road don’t talk like us”. It’s the kind of story that fits within an oral tradition explaining to children why things are the way they are.
But I did do some quick internet research and was pleased to find this entry from the Oxford Bible Studies Online. I was pleased for several reasons. First, the author is Brent Strawn from Candler Seminary at Emory and I’ve been friends with his father and brother for several years. Second, because the piece also used the Bruegel painting as illustration. And Third, because Brent’s analysis is directly applicable to the issue of religious group boundaries I’ve been exploring for several months.
Brent suggests that there are two interpretations of why the tower was a problem. One option is that it has something to do with pride. Building a huge edifice would let everyone know that these were cool people who had things together. He goes on to say that this chapter stands in stark contrast to the calling of Abram; there it is God who does great things through people. The second option Brent explores is the role of fear. They needed the city to protect them from being scattered across the earth (as was God’s plan). The “hunkering down” as he calls it, is in resistance to the world as they found it.
As I said, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which evangelical groups build artifices to separate those on the inside from those on the outside (for samples, see here and here). And I’ve come to a useful image that helps explain the process.
We tore down the Tower of Babel and then used the self same bricks to build enclaves of our own desiring.
And we did it for the same two reasons the Tower was built in the first place: Pride and Fear.
Pride comes in when we attract hordes of followers to show that we are right. Zack Hoag has consistently exposed the ways in which the evangelical church (both conservative and progressive) have been seduced by the culture of celebrity. I am not immune. I want page views, retweets, Facebook likes, and recognition. I want people to tell each other about my writing. I want to have access to publishing empires that turns a lecture series into a book and a set of DVDs.
We build our enclaves because it allows us to sit inside our secure walls and lob critiques at those walled enclaves down the block. We hope that doing so will prove how smart we are, how right we are, how close to God we are. Especially if we can demonstrate that by comparison to those wrong-headed folks next door.
Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece today discussing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the critiques lobbed over the wall. It’s a story of hurt and misunderstanding, of false accusation and presumption. But it also contains some deep introspection to make sure that parallel assumptions don’t result about other groups.
I’ve been reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. It’s a wonderful book (not surprisingly, it’s chock full of good social psychology!). I’m only partway through, but already the implications are powerful. We find comfort and identity through our groups within our walls. But that very comfort and identification contributes to our misreading and misunderstanding the other groups. Our pride causes us to overstate our own position and not really listen to others.
If pride makes us overstate our correctness, fear calls us to demonize all opposition even if we can’t name them. We build our walls so high that we don’t know what’s out there. We just know it can’t be good because it’s not what we have in here.
This post was prompted by one shared by Peter Enns over the weekend. It was about a conference announcement about a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The brochure is titled “The Liberal Seepage into the Evangelical Culture” and shows a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’ll let the word “seepage” go for now (sounds like a medical problem). But the very identification of “evangelical culture” as a thing is the very essence of wall-building. See, THEY are infiltrating into the space WE have created for ourselves. Even if our concerns about them are based on irrationality and exaggeration.
In the words of Elmer Fudd, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid.
Fear take us funny places. It makes it easy to do things or say things about brothers and sisters we would not otherwise do or say. Because somebody has to. Otherwise, how would we protect the walls from intruders? Don’t you know what the stakes are?
Christians aren’t motivated by pride. Christians aren’t directed by fear.
We are following in the way of the Christ who sacrificed his status and position to inaugurate a new way of living through death on the cross and launching of a Kingdom at hand. We have an assurance running throughout scripture that we are not alone but have the very God of the universe with us.
What happens if we tear down our walls? I’m still working on this but I think we find that we are able to engage those around us. We find them reasonable people who ask interesting questions, who have fascinating life stories, who have real struggles. In short, we find them to be people created in the image of God. People who, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, are both representatives of Christ and perhaps unaware Kingdom-builders (“When did we do that?”).
In short, trusting Christ and his Kingdom journey means that we don’t need walls and boundaries. Because God is already at work building the Kingdom. We’re just along for the ride to offer water when asked.
I’m also reading Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Their writing both resonates with my thinking and makes me feel like they’ve already said it better. The central thesis of their book is the God went into the Far Country (where we live) and we are called to do likewise.
Going into the Far Country requires trust in God and deep courage. In that way it becomes a matter of testimony to the Greater Story of which we are all apart.
As Mr. Reagan said to Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down Those Walls!
Sometimes the internet takes me interesting places. I’m just sitting here, trying to think of how to structure this piece that’s important to me. As I try to find graphics to illustrate my thinking, I happen across one of the serendipitous moments that brings together everything I was thinking.
Honestly, I just wanted a picture that communicated fearlessness. But the picture at the left led me to the website of the Case Foundation (chaired by Steve and Jean Case, formerly of AOL Time-Warner) and their Fearless initiative. Looking deeper, I discover that they had just given $100,000 to Georgetown’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative. But that led me to a new story about the creation of The Beeck Institute for Social Impact and Innovation and its new director, Sonal Shah. Two twitter friends had happily posted of Shah’s appointment but the import was lost on me when I read it this afternoon.
I’m happy for Georgetown. I really am. But the instruction to be fearless, take risks, be bold, fail forward are things Christian Universities can and should take seriously. Consider this quote from Jean Case from the Washington Post story linked above:
“When the millennials look at the world, they see daunting challenges that have dogged us for a long time,” she said. “This generation says, ‘wow, these are big problems, what’s the best way to find new solutions?’ And they don’t think in the old-style ways.”
She’s right, of course. This generation is looking to engage the broader culture in ways that are markedly different from prior generations. As I’ve written before, it is incumbent on Christian Universities to take bold steps, to risk conflict and criticism in order to free up our students to address the key questions that lie before the evangelical church.
One of the challenges of Christian Higher Education is that the academic sphere can often take a back seat to other elements of university life. Its not anti-intellectualism per se. It has more to do with the historic difficulty of competing with our research peers. We had fewer PhDs, hardly any research support, too many classes, few graduate programs, and so on. So the positioning of the university often seemed to involve life-long friendships, possible mates, rousing chapel services, and floor Bible studies. Yes we have classes too but we didn’t know how to talk about those.
Not surprisingly, that has made us overly defensive about tuition costs and student loans. We’ve tried to avoid the fact that the kind of transformation that Jean Case is calling for requires risk. There are those who claim the risk isn’t worth it, that degrees are overhyped, or that college degrees are interchangeable. That’s why a recent study sponsored by the American Association of Schools and Colleges was so important. They found that over the long run, liberal arts graduates outperformed their more technically oriented colleagues in both earnings and positional authority. Any gaps that existed in the short term were overcome due to the stronger critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills of the liberal arts grads.
Last week was Marx week in my sociological theory class. We were talking about alienation as the separation of work from meaning. Naturally, I turned the conversation to student learning and explored the ways in which the structure of higher education isolates student creativity (because the means of production favor mastery). Moving from that to a liberated approach to learning (as in liberal arts) requires upsetting the powers-that-be.
In another class this week, we spent a little time debriefing the Ham-on-Nye debate. It provided a sharp contrast to how G.K. Chesterton engaged those atheist friends like H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw who disagreed with him on faith matters. He maintained friendship but was willing to banter on important issues. I think the class got the point — they generally saw the Creation Museum debate as a sideshow that didn’t lead anywhere.
A conversation with another group of students illustrated the need for fearlessness. The topic was a perennial one I’ve heard since I started teaching three decades ago: open hours. The students weren’t asking new questions, but they were asking with new insights. Who were the donors or trustees that were afraid of dealing with issues of romantic relationships? What generation were they from? There was a political tone (in terms of leveraging positive change) that was eye-opening.
Read the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Education and you come across the same arguments over and over. We need to move to competency-based education. The future is in non-traditional students. Three year degrees will be the rage. More vocational-technical training is called for. Lower costs and forgive debts. More adjunct instructors. Fewer administrators.
In my judgment, none of these take us very far because they ignore the central questions. How have we prepared students to engage the issues they’ve inherited from us? What factors contribute to their growth? How have they learned to deal with complex issues that are politically fraught?
Last week, Kent Barnds, an administrator at Augustana College in Illinois wrote this intriguing piece in Inside Higher Ed. Frankly, I think his prescription could have gone much farther but his diagnosis is in line with my search for fearlessness. He asks some good questions:
We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.
For my money, he makes too much of the inside-outside distinction of the classroom. The real issue, as I see it, is to empower the students themselves to ask the right kinds of questions and for the institution to be brave, to risk failure, and to engage messiness just to see where that takes us. I think that’s what the Case Foundation means by failing forward.
I’m still working this out, but I think I can begin a list of questions students would engage if we’d let them. I hope my readers will add to my list.
1. How do we engage questions of sexuality in this complex world? More pledges and platitudes are not sufficient for a generation that has sexuality permeating the culture. “Just wait” will be an increasing challenge for these students who, if they follow trends, won’t marry for another 5 years after graduation.
2. How do we have conversations about alcohol? Can we dispense with slippery slope arguments and acknowledge the normality of alcohol in the evangelical world? What steps can we take so that students uncover the space between teetotaling and binge drinking?
3. How do we engage complex political questions? What can our students teach us about how they view issues of poverty and human trafficking? Why are they so much more engaged and passionate about the topic?
4. How do we reconcile a vibrant faith with scientific literacy? What’s the role of technology? Is everything progress?
5. What does a simple lifestyle look like? Why are my students attracted to intentional community and what does that suggest about a consumerist society they engage?
In each of these questions and many others we could suggest, the key will be for us to have the courage to let them explore their answers. If we’re bold enough, they just might lead us to where we all wanted to go in the first place.
Between the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections and the summer before the 2012 presidential election, I maintained a blog on politics and media called the ninth commandment. It explored the nature of civil discourse and questioned why it had become culturally acceptable to lie as a means of argument. In my first post in that blog, I wondered why we paid attention to anything Politifact scored below “mostly true“. In my ideal world, once a statement is debunked it should be retired from circulation.
Recent events have me returning to this theme. It’s not just political figures using social media to denounce the president as they were heading to the State of the Union. It’s evangelical leaders looking for reasons to be offended by the broader culture. It’s progressive evangelicals who caricature other christians, questioning their motives or intelligence or biases. It’s conservative christians attacking other christians just for asking challenging questions.
Many, including me, have opined on the Duck Dynasty controversy where Phil Robertson got in trouble with A&E for his comments about homosexuality in a GQ interview. A&E banned him, then reinstated him (after enjoying a week of press), and now things are kind of back where they were albeit with reduced ratings for DD.
But what gets my attention is not Robertson’s beliefs about how homosexuality fits his “biblical worldview” (see Micah Murray’s interesting analysis here). I have no problem with him arguing that he can’t reconcile scripture and modern social changes. The problem comes when he knowingly links homosexuality with bestiality. In spite of his backwoods image, he must know that this is patently false. So why does he say it? Furthermore, why do evangelicals jump on the bandwagon to defend a patently false statement?
Alan Noble (PhD!) has done a masterful job of deconstructing claims certain media segments put forth of anti-Christian bias (see an example here). For his efforts at gathering what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story“, he got chastised in comments from other evangelical Christians for not following Matthew 18 in confronting a brother in Christian love. But why is it acceptable for evangelical Christians (even if they are Fox News commentators) to misrepresent the real story? And why do other evangelical Christians swarm to the defense of the misrepresentation?
This week, Rachel Held Evans tried to address the complexity of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, best characterized by the Hobby Lobby case. Hobby Lobby and others claim that being required to have insurance policies that provide contraceptive coverage to their employees is a violation of religious freedom. They object, as a story in Christianity Today puts it, “to the mandate’s requirement that employers provide employees with emergency contraceptives that many evangelicals consider to be abortifacients (emphasis mine).” This sentence is telling — a factual question is couched in the phrase “many evangelicals consider”. It takes a scientific question and guards it in a shell of religious belief. Curiously, Christianity Today had written this piece last April that primarily answers the scientific question at least about one of the emergency medications (see also here and here for similar stories from other sources). So why isn’t that in every piece of reporting they do? Why is the “many evangelicals believe” reference the go-to point?
For trying to address these questions, Rachel became the subject of this piece in First Things, published by the Institute for Religion and Public Life. The third paragraph begins, “Readers may be surprised to learn that Evans identifies herself as a pro-life Christian.” The story continues to let the readers know that this cannot be the case according to their definitions. Failing to address the honest questions Rachel had asked, it was far easier to dismiss her points as insufficiently adherent to the party line. This required argument by extremes, putting words in Rachel’s mouth, and asserting motives they cannot possible know. These are evangelical and Catholic writers responding to an honest piece written by another evangelical writer. Once they opened the door, then less kind distortions and mendacious remarks would follow: many of these also from evangelicals. Rachel shared on twitter just some of the names she was called in comments or tweets (don’t know what her questions had to do with witchcraft!).
Disagreement on policy is legitimate. Defamation is not. Looking at evidence and its policy implications can result in civil discussion (as Rachel and Karen Swallow Prior demonstrated in a long twitter discussion last night). Distorting positions and mis-stating the evidence is not. As Rachel cogently posted yesterday: “Christians: If all truth is God’s truth, then tell it. Tell the truth. Don’t lie about science or history to promote your ideology.”
Here’s one more example in the making. A surprising piece on the internet recently said that a song written by evangelical Joni Eareckson Tada was nominated for the best song Oscar. It is the title song from the movie Alone, But Not Alone. It was a surprising nomination because it’s a small production that nobody had ever heard of (details here). As the story explains, the nomination was withdrawn because of accusations of undue influence by the promoter. Many people in coming days will treat the story as an infringement on religious values, as Christianity Today points out. But even the CT story seems to offer a retelling of the story in favor of the value argument. The headline asks “What Message did the Academy Send?“. The implication, supported by the people quoted in the opening paragraphs, is that this is another example of Christians being shunned by Hollywood. But this is not the case. As the film studies experts who have solid evangelical credential point out, this is a simple example of someone breaking the rules. To characterize is as anything else is simply untrue.
Why is there such a strong tendency for Christians to grab partial truths or outright lies and use them to argue with others? In part, it may be due to a belief that we can’t engage in civil conversations that express our values without compromise. We don’t want compromise because that devalues our long-held positions.
I worry that it has much more to do with the fact that we’re afraid. We’re afraid that our positions won’t stand up to scrutiny in civil discourse.
We’re afraid that our past overstatements, misstatements, and misrepresentations will be exposed and the Christian church will be damaged as a result. This is a completely rational fear. We know that we’ve often violated that ninth commandment and don’t really know how to repent and ask forgiveness.
What I can say for sure is that holding to party lines and calling out dissenters weakens the witness of the church. Zack Hunt made that point extremely well in this post yesterday. He cogently writes:
We’ve been asked for a reason for the hope that is in us, but instead of incarnating that hope through acts of love for those in need, we offer compassionless rhetoric and a sales pitch. And so people leave and search for hope elsewhere.
We are working to be the Body of Christ in society, to be the first fruits of the Kingdom that is here and yet not arrived. How we go about that is critically important, not simply as expressions of our character and discipleship, but to the very mission of Christ’s Church.
So for God’s sake, if not for yours, Tell the Truth.