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On “Real” Christians

Last week Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked whether President Obama was a Christian. His response, Walkeraccording to the Washington Post:

I don’t know. I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say that either of you is a Christian?

Another well-known politician, Francis Underwood, would have put it like this:

Some have raised questions about the President’s religion; I couldn’t possibly say.

Walker’s people claim that the governor was really trying to push back at media questions designed to trap or distract potential candidates rather than asking substantive questions about policy or experience. There may be some validity in that.

But Walker’s answer is consistent with the kind of boundary maintenance issues we’re all too familiar with. Even if he doesn’t feel comfortable evaluating the president’s faith statements, lots of other people do. Many people within the overlapping circles of conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics make similar judgments as a matter of course.

This week, Cathleen Falsani shared an interview she’d done with then-State-Senator Barack Obama when she was religion reporter for the Chicago Sun Times in early 2004. This was before his opponent for the Senate race dropped out (to be replaced by Alan Keyes) and months before the DNC speech that made Obama a national name. It’s a very revealing interview. Obama clearly isn’t evangelical and while he does talk about a personal relationship with Jesus that confirmed his grandparent’s religious views, he stops short of calling it an epiphany. He describes an intellectual view of the faith that makes emotional response harder and asks questions many have asked. {For all who like to claim that he grew up in a Muslim country (Indonesia), a usually overlooked fact is that he went to Catholic school where they “studied the Bible and catechism each day”.]

Also this week, Laura Ortberg Turner wrote a very interesting piece on Katy Perry’s pentecostal faith. In spite of her pop-star celebrity and some past distance from her pastor parents, a centrality of faith remains. God is interested in all of the details of her life; from her cup size to her Super Bowl performance. It’s a jarring image given Katy’s public persona. But Laura captures a key element of Katy’s belief system:

Where other denominations, like the Southern Baptists, are most focused on making sure people aren’t heretics, the charismatic church, to put it crudely, wants to make sure that people believe. That is both a cause and result of their conception of God as unconditionally loving, and unconditional love is a prominent theme in Perry’s music.

Yesterday, progressive media figure Anna Marie Cox “came out” as a Christian on the website The Daily Beast (which isn’t a venue for testimonies in the way Christianity Today might be). Here is a political liberal (I loved it when she appeared on Rachel Maddow) who affirms that she’s following Jesus. She writes:

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

I’m sure there are folks who struggle with these confessions of faith. They want to find other markers to confirm the faith that is claimed (Mike Huckabee was very upset at young female Fox News staffers who frequently dropped F-bombs). They want to know if these people “really” believe in Jesus. And if so, how can they be progressives or pop stars?

Of course, I can ask the same questions of others who claim to follow Jesus. Can you follow Jesus and celebrate mistruths at the Conservative Political Action Convention or the Values Voters Forum? Can you ignore calls for institutional repentance in light of the church’s non-action (or actual action) when it comes to issues of race? Can you blindly support military solutions to all problems? Can you seriously demagogue the poor among us?

I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need to ground our faith in identity terms instead of positional terms. We must find ways to telling our real stories, wrestling with the challenges, owning the inconsistencies, and seeking forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Another article this week caught my attention. Published on the Leadership Journal webpage, it was a piece by Tony Kriz called “Seven Lies Christians Tell”. The first one is particularly apt:

We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.

In a funny way, this week makes me think that maybe Scott Walker was more right than we might have thought (and maybe than he intended). Maybe the only way to evaluate who is a Real Christian is to listen to how they describe their relationship with Jesus. It may not match my story but I need to be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, it’s what keeps me from being Francis Underwood.

Frederick Buechner has it right. In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, he tells us about Christians:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anyone else. Just better informed.

The Central Role of Imago Dei: My SAU Workshop on Race Relations

This week was the annual Focus series here at Spring Arbor. Our theme was “What is a person?” There were  no classes on Wednesday and there were extra speakers all week. Christian Smith came from Notre Dame and Cherith Fee Nordling came from Northern Seminary. In addition to the keynoters, several of us gave workshops.

Slide01

My talk built on some things I’d been writing last fall trying to make sense of our responses to issues of Ferguson, Staten Island, Dayton, and Cleveland.

Slide02

I was trying to wrestle with the question of why it’s been so hard for us to have meaningful conversations about the challenges of race, inequality, law enforcement, and culture.

The week before I attended a community meeting here in Jackson. The panel (12 participants) included representatives from four law enforcement jurisdictions, lawyers and judges, and community leaders. There were calls for improved relationship and deepened trust. But it’s still a hard conversation.

Slide03

Conrad Hacket from the Pew Research Center shared a graphic he shown earlier in the year. It contrasted Ferguson news coverage on the cable networks with what was happening on social media during that week in August.

Slide04

The top chart shows new coverage in minutes. The bottom shows the number of mentions on twitter. Before the first half hour of news coverage, there had been one million tweets. By the end of the week, the total hit eight million.

I shared two slides on books about Baltimore. The first comes from a trio of sociologists at Johns Hopkins. It followed a group of first graders through their growing up years (think Boyhood if the characters lived in lower class Baltimore). If the reality of this inequality is so stark, why do we not address it?

Slide05

The other Baltimore book was The Other Wes Moore. It tells the life of Wes Moore, Rhodes scholar and intern to Condileeza Rice. It also tells the story of Wes Moore, who grows up a few blocks away in Baltimore and winds up in prison for armed robbery. What makes the stories so remarkable is that there were a few inflection points where their stories could have gone in opposite directions.

Slide06

As I was organizing my thoughts for the workshop, my social media feeds kept providing further examples of the struggles we face in addressing issues of injustice. The week before my talk, the Equal Justice Initiative released their report on lynchings in America between 1874 and 1950. There were nearly 4000 during those 76 years, which comes out to about one per week if you do the math.

Slide07The day before my talk, Baylor announced that they were holding a symposium on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, where 1.5 million Christians were killed or exiled.

Slide08

As I reflected on our anger, our silence, and our inability to move forward, I came to this recognition:

Slide09

That realization took me back to earlier posts (see here and here) on Anthony Giddens and the sociology of “structuration”. His argument is that structures are both experienced and reproduced through interaction. One key mediating variable in this is language.

Slide10

So if we are to move forward, maybe language is the key. Maybe instead of so much talk about culture or values or crime or fatherlessness or thugs, we need to find new ways of talking.

Slide11

A key element of a new and profoundly Christian discourse is to really grasp what it means for others to be created in the image of God. As I’ve written before, I was decidedly impacted by Andy Crouch’s Playing God, which puts Image Bearing front and center.

Slide12 Slide13Crouch argues that our work as image bearers is to recognize and nurture the image of God being borne in those we meet. To fail to do so allows structures and powers to nullify that image. He writes of parents who have sold their children into labor or sex slavery and seems to echo the point that Antony Giddens would make about power and interactions.

Slide14Beginning with a search for the Imago Dei in the other puts us in a very different position from a lot of folks. Where they would rather go along with a crowd, someone has to stand up and refuse. But as Brian Zahnd argues in A Farewell to Mars, that can be risky.

Slide15

To illustrate, I showed a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird (which had been on my mind). The night before Tom Robinson’s trial, the sheriff moves him back to the county jail. Some townsfolk show up to where Atticus Finch is guarding the door. The YouTube clips only start with the childrens’ arrival and what I wanted was when the men first show up. They tell Atticus to “get away from the door” because “you know what we’re here for”. It’s interesting to me that they never say what they want. The scene ends with Scout rehumanizing Mr. Cunningham (by seeing the Imago Dei in him) and the crowd disperses.

Slide16 Andy Crouch makes clear that the soul of justice isn’t simply improved living conditions but the restoration of the Imago Dei in the other.

Slide17

I returned to Mockingbird to illustrate how Atticus Finch’s closing statement is an attempt to re-humanize Tom Robinson, to celebrate the Image of God present in him. But even the great Atticus affirms Tom’s image bearing by demolishing the image bearing of Tom and Mayella Ewell.

Slide19 Slide20

We take Atticus’ intentions and go one step further. We recognize that all others we interact with are bearing the image of God, however effaced or buried. Not just the victims of injustice. Not just those whose hands are clean. But everyone.

As we adopt image-bearing language about others, we may begin to weaken the structures in which we operate. We may find that the paths to new conversations. Real conversations on important topics. Conversations that may reshape the very social structures we seek to address.

Focus Workshop

What Today’s College Freshmen Think

If you follow higher education stories in the media, if you listen to consultants, or if you hear speeches from university administrators, you know that today’s students are different than those in past generations. They are primarily concerned about jobs more than liberal arts. They are narcissistic and materialistic. In short, they’ve made education a means to an end, so we in higher education simply need to adapt to the new realities or face extinction.

This rhetoric is hard to reconcile with those things we call facts.

HERILast Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (one of the premier sources on university life in the world) released their annual Freshmen survey. As the Chronicle of Higher Education explains, the survey reports on “153,015 first-time, full-time freshmen at 227 baccalaureate institutions”.

The Chronicle story included some interactive charts and linked to more interactive charts here. Naturally, I spent some time yesterday playing with them. What I found paints a much more complicated picture than we normally hear. At the risk of upsetting the Chronicle’s lawyers, I’ve taken some screenshots of the charts to illustrate my point.

So what about the claim that today’s students think college is all about jobs and money? If you look at the one-year cross-sectional data you learn that 82% of today’s freshmen think college is about jobs and 72% think it’s about making more money. But if you look at the longitudinal data, you find that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all.

Better Job  I know the numbers are hard to figure out, but the interactive chart allows you to hover over a column and find out what the exact percentage was for that year. It is true that the percentage of freshmen focused on jobs is now over 80% and has been since the Great Recession (could it be because we’ve been telling them that? — talking to you Mr. Obama!). But it’s been running just above 70% for the life of the survey. There is only one year when that percentage was below 70% (1976 was 67.8%). So while there has been an increase, it’s a matter of degree and not a stark change in ideology.

MoneyIf anything, the college and money connection is even more stable that the jobs data. The percentage agreeing that “making more money” is why you go to college crossed the 70% line in 1988 and hovered either side of that mark for the next 16 years. The post-Recession surveys show a minimally higher percentage but it’s only an increase of less than 5%. It has long been true that a college education increases lifetime earnings and a student needs to be aware of that.

The stability in these two charts is even more remarkable when you consider the increase in the college bound population (measured as a percentage of high school graduates) and the demise of the job market for those with only high school diplomas. It would be reasonable to see an increase in both measures in light of the reality of higher education’s gatekeeping function.

But students today don’t really care about learning, right? They are mostly concerned with gaining a credential they can trade for future success. That’s what the never-ending drumbeat of “is college worth it” posts seem to suggest. Why would there ever be a need for residential liberal arts colleges?

Gen EdThis chart shows the percentage of students agreeing that the purpose of college was “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas”. Not only is it relatively stable, but the data for recent years is higher that it has been since the late 1970s.

I’ve been teaching long enough to know that these attitudes reported at registration don’t always play themselves out in daily practice. But it’s clear that students have a much better grasp on what to expect from college than we credit them with.

One more test of the common wisdom. We often hear that today’s students are interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and that liberal arts are old hat. The HERI survey asked students their intended major (which is not an accurate measure of their final major as many will change along the way).

MajorsThis is called a “stacked column” graph and can be slightly distorted. Because all the percentages must add to 100%, an increase in one area is matched by a decrease in one or more other fields. But it does paint a picture of how things change over time.

Some areas seem to have a more stable presence among students and change fairly slowly. Others show something of a “wave” motion that allows us to see the growth of a popular area and its subsequent decline.

To see this work, I hovered the cursor over various colors and moved left to right. Arts and Humanities shows a strong sense of stability, although falls off slightly in the last couple of years. Social sciences are fairly stable over time, ranging from 10% to 13% over the last 30 years. On the other hand, we can see a burst of interest in Business majors in the late 1980s before it re-establishes at a level about 10% down from its high point. Education shows some significant growth during the 1990s but faces serious losses over the last 5-6 years (which our campus enrollments reflect). There has been a marked increase in Physical and Life Sciences in the last four years but time will tell whether this is a shift or simply a bulge more like Business and Education showed in the past.

It seems to me that students are deeply aware of issues of vocation and calling and not simply chasing the hot new job area. They may be aware of limitations in certain job sectors (e.g., education) but still place a high value on areas of personal strength and interest.

I’m glad that HERI gathers this data each year.

But my takeaway is that if we want to know what today’s college freshmen think: it’s pretty much what college freshmen have thought over the last 40 years.

Maybe the quality of higher education would be easier to demonstrate if we stopped chasing our tails about supposed new trends and paid more attention the students sitting in front of us each day.

The Nature of “Religious Beliefs”: Football and Cakes

I’ve been thinking about the social psychology of belief systems. We can categorize beliefs as being central to personal identity or more peripheral. The more central a set of beliefs, the more it is related to issues of identity and self. As I tried to show in my recent post on cognitive consistency, the central beliefs can be mutually reinforcing and form a system that coheres to provide a means of understanding the world. From a Christian standpoint, what we call theology is an expression of the kinds of systemic patterns that are the basis of discipleship.

Think of the Apostle’s Creed as an example.. To me, the creeds constitute a belief system that becomes central to a Christian’s identity.

But it seems to me that much of what is called “religious beliefs” are more peripheral in nature. They are positions we choose that may be derived in some fashion to a belief in the authority of scripture, but only in a very loose sense. Sometimes those beliefs are so peripheral that there is little attempt to create a cognitive linkage to central belief systems.

Last week I ran across illustrations of both of these peripheral beliefs.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey last week regarding Americans’ attitudes toward various aspects of sports in anticipation of Super Bowlsome big football game coming up this weekend. One question asked if God blesses players of faith. Here’s what PRRI found that just over half of Americans thought this was true but that religious American were more likely to say so:

Roughly two-thirds of Catholics (65%) and minority Protestants (68%) say that God rewards faithful athletes with good health and success. Six-in-ten (60%) white evangelical Protestants and nearly half (49%) of white mainline Protestants also believe faithful athletes are rewarded.

I don’t know what configuration of attitudes makes this work. Clearly, there are athletes of faith who suffer injuries and lose games. They still bow in prayer in the end zone. But this belief “feels” right in a Ben Franklin “God helps those who help themselves” sense.

Not only that, but some belief that God has something to do with the outcome of the game.

Minority Protestants (45%) are more likely than any other religious group to believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event. More than 3-in-10 white evangelical Protestants (32%) and Catholics (31%) believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins a game. Only about 1-in-5 (19%) white mainline Protestants and 9% of the religiously unaffiliated believe God has a hand in the outcome of sporting events.

I’m not sure what to make of nearly 1 in 10 religious nones believing that God is shaping sporting events.

In short, I don’t believe that these reported positions actually reflect belief in the sense that we usually mean the term. They sound much more like superstition that what we’d really think of as belief.

CakeThe same day that the PRRI survey was released, a story broke in Colorado about a man claiming discrimination because a local baker wouldn’t make a cake that said “God Hates Gays” on it. The man says that he was discriminated against because the baker wouldn’t affirm his religious beliefs. (Tobin Grant wrote an excellent analysis of why bakers aren’t involved in freedom of speech issues but are simply providing a service.)

I don’t doubt that the customer holds legitimate religious views. But his position on this issue of social policy seems to be very tangentially related to some centrally held set of beliefs about the Creeds. He has the right to his political view and his personal free speech rights, but his position strikes me as something other than “religious belief”.

It’s fair to call it a political position or a social attitude. He has clear freedom of speech protections to hold his opinions.

But when we call our political disagreements “religious beliefs”, we wind up trying to trump free speech rights with religious freedom rights. And I don’t think they’re the same thing at all.

When we pull out the “religious belief” card, it too often simply stops conversation. We can’t explore dialogue with our neighbor who is of a different faith or no faith at all because we have treated a peripheral, untethered attitude as if it were central to our entire belief system. Where we could explain what we believe and why it’s important, we instead isolate ourselves to those who share those same “religious beliefs”.

On a promotional note, I’ll be discussing this post on “Live From Seattle With Doug Bursch” tonight at 5:00 Pacific Time (8:00 here in Michigan). It’s on 820 AM if you’re in the Seattle area and livestreaming here

Oh, and Doug would want me to say that God wants the Seahawks to win because they are clearly the more spiritual team.

Considering Religion in Post-Constantinian Society

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

One of the defining themes of this blog is the changing nature of religion in modern society. Recent decades have shown us some dramatic changes in terms of base assumptions. The rise of the religious nones, the politicization of the conservative church, the challenges of pluralistic ground rules confronting religious particularities, are but three examples of some of these major shifts. At times, I’ve referred to this as Post-Constantinian Christianity (here’s a post from 18 months ago). Lately, following David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, I’ve been more comfortable with talking about “post-Christendom“.

I recently returned from a week in a literal post-Constantinian society. As a 60th birthday present from my daughter, son-in-law, and grand daughter, Jeralynne and I joined them and Evgeni’s mother for a week in Istanbul. It was a great week. I left with a lot more questions to explore.Europe

I realized how ignorant I am about Eastern Europe. Most of what I learned in 20 years of school was limited to the rectangles on the map to the right. I read up some on issues of Constantinople before and after the trip, but mostly came away with more questions than answers.

Nevertheless, there are some patterns present in both historic Constantinople and present-day Isanbul that provide some hints about the changes we’re experiencing in contemporary religion.

1. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the realm, granting it new legitimacy. He commissioned the Council of Nicaea which worked out details of small-o orthodoxy. In addition to Hagia Sophia (above) he built the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Orthodox church designed to contain relics of all twelve disciples (they never got all the relics). These two issues of policing the borders of orthodoxy and looking to the past are issues our contemporary church know far too well.

2. There was a tendency to see religious expression as a sign of social status. Justinian rebuilt Holy Apostles because it wasn’t “grand enough”. Building great edifices were built partly as personal expression. When he finished Hagia Sophia, he said “I am now greater than Solomon.” This pattern continued, as the mosaics in Hagia Sophia illustrate (the picture below is 11th century Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe giving bags of gold to Jesus in support of the church).

Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe with Jesus

Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe with Jesus

Our contemporary focus on big churches and celebrity pastors has a long history.

3. Schisms and fights over “the real church” are part of this religious history. The tensions between the Orthodox church and “the Latins” (which may have involved much more than religious ideology) resulted in the Massacre of the Latins late in the 12th century. Nearly 60,000 adherents of the Roman church were killed or exiled. Twenty years later, the Fourth Crusade diverted its target from Jerusalem to Constantinople and effectively sacked the city. The resulting weakened empire was incapable of holding off the eventual Turkman invasion, headed by Mehmet II 200 years later. When Mehmet Fatih Mosquecame to power, he replaced most of the churches with mosques (and eventually built the Fatih Mosque on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles).

My takeaway here is that the infighting within the church over who are “real Christians”, who is reformed, who is progressive, who is “Bible-believing”, etc. all weaken the witness of the True Church and leave us at a point where we are weakened in the face of the surrounding culture.

4. Modern Istanbul, especially the part of the city where we were staying, is characterized by secularism. This was part of Attaturk’s intent in creating a secular society. While 99% of Turkey is Muslim and call to prayer is announced from the loudspeakers five times a day, most people seemed somewhat oblivious. I saw a couple of women in traditional dress who turned east at a call to prayer but they were far outnumbered by people simply going about their business. This suggests that there is a strong sense of religious identification that is separate from regular religious practice. If you asked people, you’d learn they were Muslim but it would be hard to tell them from other folks. This pattern of cultural religion is very common to us in America (as my regular rants about polling data illustrate).

In fact, after a week in Istanbul, I came away with the sense that the de facto religion is consumerism. Lots of stores and shops — and don’t get me started on the experience in the Grand Bazaar. But consumerism combined with nationalism may well be a default religion in America (for evidence, just search “Christian responses to American Sniper”).

I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few nuances. And if I were in other parts of the city or the nation, I might have a very different sense of religious diversity. But I’m still struck with the idea that there is much to learn by looking at American religion through the lenses of another culture.

One of my favorite sites was the Chora Church, which had remarkable frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Even though we couldn’t get into the main part of the building, what we saw was stunning. It was some of the clearest illustrations of Christianity’s long theological tradition.

In this illustration of the Trial of Christ, we’re reminded that Jesus stood apart from cultural and political struggles. This is a good lesson for us to remember.

Trial of Jesus
]

My Comments at Spring Arbor’s MLK Day Event

MLK-Day-panel-discussion[I’m on a panel at school tonight. We were asked to give a 3-minute opening statement. Here’s mine.]

One of the challenging things about celebrating MLK day is that we have had a tendency to focus on only the parts of the story that make us comfortable – like the last paragraphs of the “I Have A Dream” speech. One person referred to this as the “Santa Clausification” of King. My twitter feed today was populated by the hashtag #reclaimMLK. I want to think about what that means.

I teach the Senior Capstone course for Spring Arbor. It includes a week on MLK as a central figure and I have my students listen to a sermon King gave at the National Cathedral five days before he was shot.

Titled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution”, it draws upon the story of Rip Van Winkle. The telling part for King is that Rip went to sleep with a picture of King George on the wall and woke up with a picture of George Washington.

MLK says we’ve had a revolution in technology, in weaponry, and in human rights. He calls on his hearers to develop a world perspective: “through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”

He says we must “eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that this is the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.”

Notice that he’s not talking about prejudice or racial insensitive comments. He’s talking about injustice.

He says there are things that stand in the way of making progress on racism. First is the myth that we just need time. He responds that change “comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”

The second myth is an “over reliance on bootstrap philosophy.” He observes that our society was more than willing to provide an economic floor for white European immigrants, provide them with land grant colleges, to help them farm, and to provide subsidies not to farm. “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

In addition to racism, we need to deal with poverty. He tells the story of Abraham and Dives the rich man. In one of my favorite King lines, he says that it wasn’t because Dives was rich. “Dives went to hell because he was a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”

Finally, he addresses militarism and specifically the War in Vietnam. He calls us out for being an “arrogant nation”. War, he argued, was “playing havoc on our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Viet Cong solider…while we spend only fifty-three dollars per year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

But King retains hope because “both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands”.

Reclaiming King in 2015 calls for us to avoid platitudes but instead to wrestle with difficult issues – the very same ones he cited in 1968. But not to fear, because God is at work, “keeping watch over his own”.

Resurrecting Power: Reflections on Playing God by Andy Crouch

At a denominational conference twenty-five years ago, I presented a paper applying sociological theory to the question of conflict within the church. (I was surprised to find that they’ve still got it online.) I wrote the paper because I thought sociologists could help pastors understand the normalcy of conflict. But it got little play. All these years later, we still see conflict expressed as matters of personal disagreement and engage in social media debates about when Matthew 18 is applied.

Playing GodIn reading Andy Crouch’s excellent Playing God last week, it struck me that my efforts to help the church deal with conflict were doomed before they started. Why? Because conflict is the outgrowth of a deeper concern: we don’t know what to do with POWER.

Our inadequacy in conceptualizing power lies underneath competition for scarce resources or control of carpet selection. It keeps us from addressing the inherent challenges in Christian celebrities and makes it nearly impossible to have meaningful conversations about church abuse.

As Andy observes in the first part of his wonderful book, we get in this fix because we’ve only considered one type of power. This form of power, written of by philosophers and social theorists, is a zero-sum vision of power. Because power is exercised to maintain one’s control over a situation (by not allowing someone else a foothold) we cannot show weakness or vulnerability. Opponents have to be squelched and obstacles overcome. With all deference to Jean Luc Picard, Andy call this “make it so” power. It reflects the exertion of force to accomplish a desired end in spite of any opposition that might exist.

Then he states his key premise: God is involved in a very different form of power. Rather than being concerned with managing outcomes, the power is unleashed in ways that open up yet further vistas. Working carefully with the Creation narrative, he observes how often the creativity of God results in teeming — varieties of outcomes flowing from creation in all sorts of wonderful ways. The creative power of God is expressed by setting things free to be. He calls this “let there be” power.

But there is yet another step. This is the power that lets lose human flourishing, what he calls “let us make” power. Two things are important in that little phrase. First, the subject is plural. Creative power in collaborative. Second, the verb involves creating something new that exhibits its own creative capacity. He illustrates this latter form through a long analysis of how he works with his cello teacher (I posted this extended quote on Facebook). Creative power of the “let us make” variety is not zero-sum but is generative: new forms of power arise without demolishing existing forms.

All of our critiques of power (absolute power corrupts absolutely) are based on the “make it so” form of power. One of the sad realities of our culture war history of the last 35 years is that the church has been striving for power to change the world on the world’s terms. We seem to believe that if only we can get “those people” to vote right or agree with us or start buying that product that we will gain the upper hand for our position.

A quick aside: the insufficiency of the “exert power” strategy is shown in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (see this post from November). In that book, Hunter critiques Andy Crouch for focusing on creativity (his first book) without paying attention to the institutional structures that provide levers to power. Instead, Hunter wants us to pursue Faithful Presence (but doesn’t really work out how that happens). In Playing God, Andy manages to make the corrective move Hunter wanted and fleshes out Faithful Presence in the process.

Our pursuit of power, Andy writes, opens us up to the problem of idolatry. We create a god that we hope (pray) will provide what we want but it always disappoints while calling for us to simply try harder next time, to give a little more, to pray a little harder. The power of the idol is strongest when we fear it is slipping away (I can write an entire post on how fears of religious persecution illustrate this key point).

One of the really interesting themes that runs through the book is the linkage between “make-it-so power”, idolatry, and injustice. This is true for those on the bottom of a power hierarchy just as it’s true for those at the top (this point was echoed by Alissa Wilkinson, which is what led me to Andy’s book in the first place).

In place of the power of idols, “let us make” power calls for us all, but especially Christians, to see ourselves as icons that reflect the image of the true image bearer: Jesus Christ.

Ultimately the reason for both the work of evangelism and the work of justice is not simply the relief of suffering, whether present or eternal. It is the restoration of God’s true image in the world, made known in the one true Image and Icon, Jesus Christ , and refracted and reflected in fruitful, multiplying image bearers set free by his death and resurrection to reclaim their true calling. Our mission is not primarily driven by a calculation of which suffering, present or eternal, we need to relieve most urgently; it is the fruit of glorious promises that call us into a new kingdom where the world is full of truth-bearing images (84).

Our work as Jesus followers, then, is to become trustees of the generative power around us. This requires personal actions through spiritual disciplines (solitude, silence, and fasting) and it requires collective actions that reform institutional practices (he focuses on sabbath, sabbatical, and Jubilee)

I’ve provided some very small snippets of what is a very thorough and complex argument. But hopefully it’s enough to begin to imagine what church life might look like that could address what I was critiquing in my previous post.

Perhaps church is the one place where our broken pasts, our continual shortcomings, our doubts in the midst of our certainties, our prejudices that separate us, our fears that tempt us to build walls, and our sometimes shaky faith all come together in the raw material of “let us make” power. Where we each are assisting others, regardless of station, in living more fully into what God has created us for.

This is the power that leads to holiness.

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