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Truth and Power: Looking at Evangelical Crises

[I just submitted this piece for The Antioch Session, where it should appear next month.)

I’ve started many posts on my blog with a similar phrase: “there was an interesting debate going on in evangelical social media this week.” But lately, this sentiment comes off as trite. It feels like every day we’ve got multiple twitter fights going among evangelical groups: progressives calling folks out for being abusive, conservatives writing on false prophets, people being called heretics over pronoun usage, others confronted over misuse of scripture. Frankly, it’s hard to keep it all straight and figure out where it will all settle out. We cannot continue like this over the long haul. A more robust understanding of the diversity of Christ’s Church is a necessity.

I’ve been trying to explore the factors beneath all this animus. Why are boundaries so important that we’d throw around accusations of heresy? Why isn’t Paul’s body imagery in Corinthians our go-to text and guiding principle? And, to continue the theme of one of the recent twitter fights, what does Jesus tell us in terms of his engagement with diversity?

BrueggemannWhile continuing to ponder these questions, I read Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power (2013). I’ve always loved Brueggemann but this one was special. Probably because it tapped three images important to me: sociological processes, countercultural action, and the invisible kingdom.

As he does in most of his books, Brueggemann unpacks a familiar biblical narrative and then follows with a much more careful reading. The second reading pays attention to shifts in the narrative and the ways in which the text itself illustrates major conceptual shifts going on beneath the surface.

He opens the book with an examination of the Exodus story. Pharaoh has enslaved the people of Israel and has them working in impossible situations that grow worse by the day. Pharaoh is motivated be fear of scarcity in the midst of his abundance. He believes that the only way to protect his position is to maximize his power position. It is an essentially defensive move, although it creates great offense. The people cry out in the midst of their suffering they cry out and God hears, who then calls Moses to act on their behalf. (Brueggemann notes that the text doesn’t say that the people cried out to God, just that he heard their cries.) The balance of the story is the tension between Pharaoh’s dependence on the Power of Empire set against the Truth of pain and suffering. Brueggemann writes:

Power must now acknowledge truth. The truth that meets power here is the combination of attentive divine resolve and the bodily assertion of the slaves who suffer out loud. Pharaoh, the last to catch on, now knows that his exploitative power has no future. (35)

In reading this section, I was struck that some of the evangelical crises fall in the category of concern over scarcity. There is a dominant motif in some quarters that religious monopoly is fracturing. The fear of the potential loss creates a stance where people find it easier to exploit others. It’s what must be done to protect against “the coming cataclysm”.

Brueggemann’s message here is that God is paying attention. In the end, power is defeated because shalom is emerging.

The second section of the book looks at King Solomon. This is a particularly interesting section given the way we’ve adopted the image of the wise King who finds the baby’s mother and writes wise sayings. Mining the biblical narratives, Brueggemann identifies the problems with Solomon’s rise to power. He lists all the ways in which Solomon uses power to gain military might, economic wealth, political alliances, and women. In the heart of the story is the tension between following God and building Empire. In a remarkable passage, Brueggemann observes that passages describing the opulence of Solomon’s temple should be read ironically:

It is more likely, for that reason, that what may appear on the surface to be gloating over Solomon’s success should be taken ironically. Such irony was designed to expose the extravagant self-indulgence of the royal entourage that is quite inappropriate in the midst of peasant realism. Thus the reader may decide if the narrative of accumulation is to be read as congratulations or as ironic exposé. (58)

The Truth of Shalom calls us away from accumulation of power and things. Brueggemann boldly suggests that Jesus’ mention of “the fool” who built barns was a reference to Solomon (“consider the lilies of the field..”)

Here is the lesson for evangelical crises. We have been far too concerned with issues of power and counting folks as being “with us”. We have been tempted to adopt the rhetorical devices of power-maintenance that work in cable news for the truth of being God’s people. When we find ourselves defending turf or, heaven forbid, market dominance it’s a clear sign that we’re following in Solomon’s footsteps.

I’ll treat the third and fourth section of the book together since they pick up some similar themes. The third section is about Elisha, who shows up in the middle of the stories of kings and dynasties. He has no official power but through the mantle he inherits from Elijah he performs miracles and confronts power. Brueggemann suggests that it is the contrast between the Kings and the Prophet that is the heart of the story. The Prophet aligns with a deep truth that is stronger and more lasting than that of the powers that be. His work with children, widows, and foreigners stands in contrast to Empire building. Josiah the King is the exception to the normal King narratives. He finds an ancient scroll that calls him and his people to repentence. He tears his garments, repents, and seems to establish a new form of leadership based on obedience to the scripture. Unfortunately for Israel and Judah, subsequent kings did not follow Josiah’s lead.

Two takeaways from these sections. First, the perspective of truth comes more often from ordinary people called to speak than from leaders defending power. Not that every utterance from every blogger is treated equal, but those that ask honest questions and authentically search for Truth should be acknowledged and not attacked. Second, Josiah is not as much interested in defending scripture in the abstract as in doing what it says. Many others have written about the elevation of scripture as an abstraction to be defended instead of an avenue to discipleship (today’s Missio Alliance post by Mark Moore is a great illustration of this distinction.)

One final thought. The sections of scripture that Brueggemann writes about are not about foreign lands or secular governments. They involve the life of God’s people who are forming a new type of society. It’s become far too easy for today’s evangelicals to apply scriptural passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14 as a judgment on the secular nation-state. But the context of the scripture is really about God’s people who are to “humber themselves and turn from their wicked ways” in search of healing.

Maybe this is the tactic the evangelical church should try next.

What’s the deal with Christian Celebrities?

LovejoyI’ve commented before about some excellent work Zach Hoag, Ben Howard, and others have done in pointing out the challenges of celebrity within evangelical circles. Recent revelations regarding Mark Driscoll’s marketing expenditures have brought the question back to the forefront. So have the reactions to Steve Furtick’s “spontaneous baptisms” (and, more importantly, the assumptions behind the Furtick coloring book!).

Last week, I suggested that Ned Flanders gave us an image of what Testimony Evangelicalism might look like. So the conflation of various media stories made this a good time to follow up on the guy up front in Springfield’s favorite church.

One story that crossed my twitter feed this afternoon was this one by Ruth Graham. I was struck by her opening line:  “By any measure, pastor Mark Driscoll is wildly successful in the contemporary evangelical world.” As we enter the Lenten season and the story of Christ’s passion, the idea that someone would be “wildly successful” as an evangelical seems really out of place.

Here’s another cute story from today’s twitter feed. At On Pop Theology, Rebekah Mays created a quiz to parallel all the “which character are you” internet sites but predicts Christian celebrities. Depending upon the answers to a range of questions, you could wind up as the guy from the nudist church in Virginia (you really didn’t want the link), Joel Osteen (before they lost all that money), Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Rachel Held Evans, or Pope Francis. (Having seen Rachel last night, I loved that she was runner up to the Pope!).

A third piece on my twitter feed today (in fact, I keep getting distracted by updates about it) was this graphic that attempts to show the historical development of neo-calvinism. I’m not sure of the categories the authors use (my distractions involve discussion about the “race” column). While I haven’t read all these people or tracked with the musical developments, my sociological instincts tell me that we move from a series of influential authors in the 80s and 90s (which I keep identifying as the period of evangelical apex) to a focus on institutional development in the 90s and 00s. The timeline suggests that organizational vibrancy is far more significant than new scholarship in that period. (Paradoxically, the emergent movement may have an anti-institutional bias which keeps it from moving beyond the authorial phase.) As I’ve written before, the Putnam and Campbell “second aftershock” is the reaction of millennials against the institutionalization of the previous decades.

So…what’s the deal with Reverend Lovejoy? Why is he such a contrast to the gentle fumbling sincerity of Ned Flanders? This is probably oversimplistic, but I think it’s because Lovejoy sees himself as representing the organizational entity we call church. He’s the figurehead and much of his identity is tied up in the visible role he plays (especially when he has to confront his own doubts and would much rather play with his train set). Even the way he speaks betrays “that tone” that must come from some special voice class at seminary!

Yesterday on Facebook, Zach Hoag posted the question, “Are we in the last days…of Mark Driscoll’s ministry?” Without fulling knowing this post was floating around in my brain, I wrote this:

Surprisingly, I hope not. As you keep pointing out, evangelicalism’s fascination with celebrity can be scary. If we individualize Driscoll’s issues so that he takes a healing sabbatical, another celebrity pastor will take his place. Somehow we need to come to terms with the way Evangelicaldom (I made that up) is complicit in creating the conditions that allow Driscoll’s missteps.

So I’m trying to figure out why many evangelicals are drawn to circle around Christian celebrities. Why do we look for champions and then line up behind them (even if we don’t have Elevation coloring books)? Why do we stay on the lookout for those who criticize the celebrity and then rush to denounce the attacker? Why do we hang on to hope in the celebrity long after most of the world has moved on? Why are we so reticent to admit the failings of those we put up on such high pedestals, waiting all the way until the final moment of disgrace before reluctantly admitting something was wrong (see Bill Gothard for only the most recent example)?

As evangelical Christians we come upon the season of the year when we become most acutely aware of how Empire put the Son of God to death. We recognize the value of that death (I just spent two days with a bunch of theologians talking about atonement!) and the incredible power of the resurrection.

But in reality, the secret to this crucial season of the Christian calendar is that this is when all that changed. This is when the Kingdom of God breaks in upon us to free us from concerns of power and might. It is the Kingdom that tells us that we aren’t to amass followers or book lists or mighty works of baptisms. It is the Kingdom that tells us that we are to lay down our lives for others.

That’s a proposition as scary as it is costly. We would much rather build institutions that show we are right in our thinking, that we know what the answers are, and that we have Our Guy up there in front (I’m not being sexist, I’m accurately representing the leadership as it is — that’s part of the problem).

If we put a celebrity up front, or in the podcast, or on the cable news interview, we have someone who represents us. He can be the one we identify with. We can say, “yeah, what he said” and feel we’ve participated in the Gospel. But we didn’t. We just sat passively; vicariously experiencing someone else’s position.

If Reverend Lovejoy tells us anything, it’s that he doesn’t like being put in that position. He can’t be a real Christian to the faithful in Springfield because that would make us uncomfortable. He has to be a caricature of himself because that’s how we want it.

On the other hand, once the Gospel narrative gets past the crowds with palm branches (which it does very quickly), we see a Suffering Servant marching slowly toward the sacrifice that changes everything.

Maybe that’s the kind of leader we all really need. And need to be.

Ripping Down Towers of Babel

Brueghel-tower-of-babelThe 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!

The Kingdom of God is at Starbucks

New Starbucks

I drove to the Chicago suburbs on Friday to attend a Mission Alliance conference. The program posed the question: “How do we lead the church into our local neighborhood/context and what do we actually do when we get there?” It was a great time interacting with theology professors, church planters, mainline pastors, seminary students, and community organizers.

We started Friday night by eating dinner at Bishops, a lovely little chili joint in Westmont that has been in the same family since 1925. We didn’t tell them we were coming, but they were great nevertheless. The owner modeled the kinds of things we talk about in terms of servanthood in spite of a room full of conferency folks who didn’t know what they were doing.

After dinner, we went back to the church plant where we were meeting and heard the opening session from Chris Smith on the story of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. For a variety of reasons, the church was in need of healthy dialogue about what bound them together and how they’d articulate their shared identity. That has allowed them to build bridges into the broader Englewood community to partner with various agencies in addressing social needs. You can read more here on your Kindle device for only $2.99.

As I listened to Chris’ presentation, I kept thinking about our assumptions about how the congregation related to the broader community. It seemed like the goal was to work through “issues” in the congregation in preparation for engaging those “out there”. Then new people would come in and we could bring them up to speed on what had transpired over time. But I wondered, why couldn’t we let those “out there” see us in our messiness? Why do we have to clean ourselves up before we engage? Does such an assumption push us into putting on our Halloween masks all year long?

If we do that, it seems that two things result. First, we lose the ability to be authentic with others because we’ve spent so much energy in making sure our masks fit. Second, those “outside” may have serious concerns about their ability to measure up to us (mostly because we didn’t tell them where the mask store is located!).

I’ve played around before with how much energy evangelicals expend in boundary maintenance. Sitting in a church in a western Chicago suburb, I returned to those same questions. How does the church engage? Can we do that without having to persuade others of the superiority of our position? Can we simply connect and leave the convicting and demonstrating to the Holy Spirit?

Saturday morning began at Starbucks as I connected with Michelle Van Loon, who I’ve written about as an internet buddy but hadn’t met. Meeting Michelle proved that the “othering” of the internet still can allow for personal connection. The Holy Spirit had gone before and allowed us to find great commonalities in spite of very diverse backgrounds.

Back at the meeting, David Fitch opened the day by suggesting that we think of the Kingdom  “out there” as a material reality and not a theological possibility. We connect in the authority of the Holy Spirit who is already working in the neighborhood before we get there. David contrasted an approach based on projects with those based on presence. We don’t just do stuff — we are. We relate. He told a story about his connection with one of the guys who is a regular at the McDonald’s he goes to (I don’t like McD’s coffee, so therefore Starbucks is in the title of this piece). The guy was in need and David was able to offer his connectional resources as an investment into the person’s life. It was a Kingdom moment even though nobody talked religion (yet).

The next session dealt with issues of reconciliation, but I was still bothered by the us-them language that showed up in that context. First we separate, then we repent of the separation and look for bridges. Part of that discussion involved the confrontation passages in Matthew 18. Go to the sibling who has wronged you, then take some friends, and finally treat the person as a sinner or tax collector. That sounds like inside/outside language describing what to do when people are out of line. The final stage is be put outside the group. But in the small group discussions, several of us recognized that Jesus gave us a model for dealing with the sinners and tax collectors. He ate with them.

So they weren’t excluded from our company. They were still connected. Their lives are important and significant.

Lunch was catered from a wonderful restaurant down the block from the church (where church folks were regularly engaged, including waitressing there). We gathered around tables in the lower level of the church. Interestingly, the village of Westmont held their annual Halloween walk on Saturday. While we were eating, I could see children in costume and their families walking by the casement windows. All of a sudden I realized how much better the church would be at engaging the neighborhood if we had glass walls on our churches. We could  see the neighbors engaging their lives, they could see us with the messiness of being a community of Grace. Maybe Robert Schuller had part of a good idea. Don’t build a Chrystal Cathedral with sunlight and birds. But find a way to let others see in and for you to see out.

That set up the final session. Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw presented on what it means to Proclaim the Gospel. This Gospel isn’t solely the focus on Sin-Salvation-Service of past evangelism. This is the Gospel but not the complete Gospel. Cyd reflected on Luke 4 and how we are “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor“. When we confront people in need, people who are hurting, people who are fearful, people who despair, we are really telling them: “It isn’t supposed to be like this“. God is restoring his creation in our midst even when we can’t see it.

Geoff followed up with a wonderful illustration of a guy at Starbucks. Someone who struck up a regular conversation, much like David’s McDonald’s friend. Geoff took the opportunity to engage, to explain his own work and commitments. That opened the possibility for the other guy’s life struggles to be authentically shared. The story doesn’t end with a marvelous conversion tableau that can be shared in conferences. It is just the illustration of connecting to another in Jesus’ name. Geoff didn’t have to take the Kingdom to Starbucks because the Kingdom was already there.

I went to the conference to try out an idea I have about how evangelicals can engage a broader culture that doesn’t agree, doesn’t understand, and likely doesn’t care. My thinking is that if we can simply be present and tell our story about God’s Grace, we’d still be playing a vital role in society.

I came away revising my thinking considerably. We don’t begin by being ready to witness. We begin by being aware of the Kingdom around us. Then we find that the stories “out there” aren’t any different than the stories “in here”.

Which was really the Gospel we were trying to Proclaim anyway.

Sorry About That…

Cartoon thanks to David Hartman (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2013/10/what-my-wife-says-when-i-apologize-like-rick-warren/)

Thanks to David Hartman for this cartoon at his NakedPastor page. It a reference, of course, to Rick Warren’s recent tweet using images of the Red Army, which prompted an understandable reaction aimed at the Saddleback pastor. Warren responded as shown in the pre-edited text.  As David explains (through lessons learned from his wife), apology doesn’t really require qualification.

Apology seems to be in the air. This month Ed Stetzer reported on LifeWay research showing that half of all Americans surveyed regret choices they’ve made. Forty-seven percent agree that “I am dealing with the consequences of a bad decision.”  Over 8 in 10 believe God gives second chances. The figure for evangelicals, not surprisingly, goes up to near unanimity.

This echos work being done by my blogging buddy Michelle Van Loon. Michelle reposted Ed’s Christianity Today piece this morning, which led me to ask her why we seem more comfortable looking for apologies at the individual level but don’t seem to address harm done institutionally.

Churches, colleges, congresses, companies all make decisions that can harm others. Where is it that institutions “regret bad decisions”? If a congregation has conflict resulting in a split, is there an apology to all affected? When a family is estranged from fellowship, do we come forth and say sorry? Do we acknowledge that we can collectively do bad things? How do we atone for those?

We’re reading about Reinhold Niebuhr in one of my classes. He wrote a book in 1932 called Moral Man and Immoral Society. He suggests that individuals are capable of moral choice but collectives are not. I think Niebuhr is too pessimistic, but the inability to apologize and instead to defend  choices as just and right may be part of the challenge. The aftermath of the partial government shutdown has led to lots of finger pointing and complaints about the efficacy of poor strategy, but nobody has come forth even to say “My Bad”.

This got me wondering if our inability to apologize for past institutional action is related to a number of problems in contemporary society. Is it possible that the disaffection of millennials from the established church is, at least in part, because they are longing for the church to take responsibility for her past insensitivity and judgmentalism? Is the anger of the Tea Party due, at least in part, to an inability of the Congress over the last 30 years to take responsibility for its lack of long-range thinking? Is our economic crisis in part a reaction to the inability of the mortgage lenders to own up to the fact that they gamed the system and almost destroyed the economy?

I’m a fan of institutions. I’m a sociologist, for goodness sake. It’s my stock in trade. On top of that, I was in administration for half my career, so institutional management is what I did every day.

I agree with Jamie Smith that “We believe in Institutions“. Or to quote the late Robert Bellah and his team from The Good Society (sequel to Habits of the Heart), “Democracy means paying attention”. In other words, our collective life matters. It shapes our present circumstances, feeds our depressions, limits our imaginations.

Maybe we need to be more aware of the impacts we have institutionally and take ownership of them.

To recognize that they did real damage.

To apologize.

Last week’s Ethnic Relations class was one of the most depressing classes I’ve ever had. We were covering Native Americans and I showed this TED Talk from Aaron Huey. He recounts the horrific history of the forced migration of Native Americans, the violation of treaty after treaty, and the decimation of a people. We spent a long time after the video trying to explore “what to do” in response. How do you make this right? Can you turn back time? Pay reparations? Give back the Black Hills?

None of that seemed satisfactory. Maybe what we really need is to authentically apologize. Not just explain our rationale in the context of the day or through claims of manifest destiny or false paternalism. Maybe what we really need to say is

We’re Truly Sorry.

Forgive Us.

Maybe then the God of second chances can show us some miraculous healing.

Wake Me When the Revolution is Over

[My October contribution to the Respectful Conversation project on science and religion]

When I think about issues of science and religion, which frames this month’s respectful conversation, my thoughts go in two directions. One direction goes to dinner with Francis Collins. The other direction invoves Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

One of the highpoints in my career came in the Spring of 2008 when Francis Collins came to the school where I was. He gave a public talk on Friday night, spent all day Saturday in an undergraduate biology seminar, and then joined a small group of us for dinner conversation that night. I’d  had the joy of sitting across from him at dinner both nights. It wasn’t a long conversation but it was enough to gather a sense of how a man of faith wrestled with his scientific expertise without crisis. He was done with his stint as director of the Human Genome Process and it was before President Obama named him director of the NIH.

Dr. Collins was warm, engaging, sincere, intelligent, funny, and musical (look up the YouTube videos). He was launching BioLogos at the time to explore fruitful conversations between science and religion (he had to give up leadership with the NIH gig came along). I was actually looking forward to another dinner after church on Sunday (he came to our church) but that didn’t happen. He may not remember me, but I think of him as a friend who taught me much about science and about religion.

I never met Thomas Kuhn, but his analysis has been a part of my thinking since graduate school (sociologists like paradigms). A philosopher of science, he outlined the ways in which scientific developments occur. My grad school theory text summarizes his argument in this figure:

The key focus of the process is from “Normal Science” to “Revolution”. Once an establishment understanding has developed, certain patterns are discovered that don’t fit the established theoretical framework. These anomalies are the source of puzzlement and are often thought to be a matter of methodological or theoretical challenge. But soon, there are too many anomalies to explain away. Faith in the prior paradigm begins to weaken and alternative theories better suited to include the so-called anomalies are developed. As the new paradigm begins to be institutionalized, younger generations and selected pioneers begin to articulate the comparative advance the new paradigm brings. Over time, it actually becomes the new Establishment Paradigm which wrestles with anomalies, new models, and so forth.

So when I read the great posts this month by Amos Yong, Kyle Roberts, and Peter Enns, I see them with eyes of Collins and Kuhn.

Peter observes that there are natural conflicts between evolution and evangelicalism. He says there is a high price of “not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work” of reconciling faith and science in adequate ways. That’s what has motivated Peter in his own work as a biblical scholar, even when (maybe especially when) that work means unpacking the anomalies that don’t fit the establishment paradigm. He ends his piece with a call for trust in God in the midst of uncertainty.

Kyle’s piece on seminary education picks up similar themes. He rightly suggests that one of the drivers of the whole “millennials are leaving the church” phenomenon is partially related to an inability to resolve the faith and science issue. His call for an intenal apologetic can be thougth of as the latter part of Kuhn’s crisis stage as a new paradigm begins to emerge.

As I think about this, I recognize that it might have been good to have brought up Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions in the July conversation about Scripture. Because there is not only a revoluton that happens in science but one in religion as well. As we approach and/or embrace postmodernity, we find ourselves having to engage new questions in new ways. The anomalies are many. But many folks still want to hold tightly to the Establishment phase and denounce the anomalies as errors instead of opportunity for new Paradigms. It is a remarkable fact that segments of the evangelical church are using essentially modernist argument to support scriptural postions at exactly the time when many in science (if you ignore the neo-athiests) are asking serious questions about the assumptions of scientism.

Which is the point I think Amos is trying to make. Both the rigid modernist biblical hermeneutic and the supposedly pristine scientific strategy are incomplete. There is a need to find space of supernaturalism within the context of inquiry. It’s an unfinished process and involves seeing through a glass darkly. But as Amos suggests, “those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in thei way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors.”

Which brings me back to dinner with Francis Collins. What we need in the midst of these paradigmatic shifts are people of faithful character who neither duck the hard questions, settling for pat answers, nor abandon their faith because the answer is uncertain. Rather, they press on toward the mark in pursuit of the new Paradigm that brings some measure of reconciliation, at least until the next anomalies come along.

Changing Our Conversation

I’ve been wrestling with the ideas in this post for over a week. I knew what I wanted to say but was struggling over whether it was worth saying, if it had already been said much better by others, or if anybody cared if it was said. Yet the ideas wouldn’t stop spinning in my head so it seems the only way to organize my thinking is to say what’s in there.

For some time, I’ve been pondering the relationship between the evangelical church and the surrounding culture. I’ve read the material about the growth of religious nones and written about that. I’ve focused on millennials and the different questions they’ve been asking. I’ve looked at the options facing Christian higher education in light of these and other changes.

Looking around the blogosphere, I find lots of sources talking about a post-Christian society. I, along with others, have preferred the term post-Constantinian to denote the disentangling of the church from the power structures of the society. Others have suggested the term post-Christendom as a way of explaining the same shifts.

The partial government shutdown and the threat of a debt ceiling breach have prompted other posts about how the church (especially among the young) is turned off by the past blending of political and religious ideology. From the last two days alone I can point to pieces by Morgan Guyton, Ben Howard, and Jonathan Merritt.

Clearly, things are changing. Past assumptions are being called into question. Some people try to draw rigid boundaries to protect against the onslaught of change. Others are welcoming the changing context and calling the rest to find the courage to deal with the change around us.

Last night I realized that one of our real problems was trying to label the church in relationship to culture at all. Post-christian denotes a time when the society was Christian. Post-Constantinian suggests a changed relationship with the powers that be. What I’ve coming to recognize is that the church is never supposed to be defined in relationship to anything other than the Godhead. We are simply to BE the church and thereby a living witness to God’s Grace breaking into the world.

Change may be a problem for a church connecting to or reacting against existing power structures because change represents a realignment of the structures themselves. But the church isn’t about Power. It’s about witness. Once we start worrying about winning arguments, proving the superiority of our own positions, gaining access to important people, or becoming power brokers ourselves, we’ve forgotten who we are and why we exist.

Post-modernity provides an opportunity to tell our story with confidence, authenticity, and complexity. It allows us to admit that the world is messy without giving up our belief that God is doing his creative work in ways we can’t even see. Our words and stances may not persuade others, but perhaps that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Ours is to be faithful.

As I said, these aren’t new ideas. I recently came across a wonderful book by Rodney Clapp, “A Peculiar People: The Church in a Post-Christian Society”. Rodney wrote the book 17 years ago, before we were worrying about post-Christian labels. His point is that we weren’t supposed to be connected to society at all. He writes:

For radicals, postmodern pluralism is a social condition in which the Constantinianism that has always been a theological dead end now becomes a political and sociological dead end. There is a place for Christians in the postmodern world, not as typically decent human beings but as unapologetic followers of the Way. (32)

Other sources lately have led me to similar conclusions. Geoff Holsclaw’s work on the scandal of evangelical memory touches similar points as have several posts by David Fitch (they co-wrote Prodigal Christianity). I’m looking forward to being with them in two weeks for a Missional Commons gathering in Chicago.  I’ve enjoyed some e-mail conversations with Dr. Amos Yong, a fellow participant in the respectful conversations project.

The Church wasn’t bothered by change when Peter had that vision in Joppa. It wasn’t upset when Paul engaged the Greeks on Mars Hill. It wasn’t bothered by change at many points in modern history, even when the church got caught up in the wrong stuff. Somehow, it finds a way to simply be the church.

In class tonight, I spent some time unpacking the difference between contract and covenant. The former depends on power and is always worried that one party will take advantage of the other (which is why we have “binding” agreements and lots of lawyers). Covenant is based on relationship and rests in simple faithfulness.

As Abraham often learned, picking the wrong path didn’t break the covenant. It’s a lesson the Church would do well to embrace. It may be precisely what society needs in the midst of such major social change.

The Borg, The Force, and Maddie Weston: Thoughts on Principalities and Powers

Most of my classes last week dealt with the large issues of social structure and power. The Race and Ethnic Relations class was my 400 years of history. The criminology class wrapped up social disorganization theories. Spirituality, Faith, and Justice was, well about Justice from a Christian perspective. I spent today reading Paolo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which explores the nature of oppression and what is required to create alternative possibilities.

Of course, in the broader social context, we’ve been preparing for government shutdown, debt ceiling votes, and implementation of ObamaCare. Contrasting the national news with my courses has led me to reflect on some larger issues of why we can’t deal with the large-scale issues facing us as a society.

For some reason, my mind went to some popular culture references. Two references are old science fiction pieces (geek alert) and the other from the end of Burn Notice. If I wanted to be truly relevant, I’d be blogging about Breaking Bad but I haven’t gotten into it (yet).

borg

I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not so much as to watch reruns all the time, but enough to like the story lines. One of the greatest antagonists in all of television were the Borg. An interconnected web of consciousness, the Borg continually learned from experience and adapted almost immediately. Any creative response made by the Enterprise crew worked for a short time until the Borg adjusted. It seemed to be a logical advantage that was theoretically unbeatable.

This is a common technique in drama. The enemy is all powerful but through some small quirk in the otherwise flawless development, the good guys can prevail. I first read it in War of the Worlds, when the Martians proved allergic to salt.

There’s another movie technique we like. Through some individual’s purity of thought or special ability, the otherwise infallible foe gets beaten. Most famously is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting system and taking Obi Wan Kenobi’s advice to “trust the force”. So he fires the torpedo down the shaft “the size of a womp rat”, blows up the Death Star, and seriously damages the Empire.

But even then, I’m stuck with my Borg problem (I know, Star Wars happened first). The bad guys are just too powerful that it takes tons of suspending disbelief to allow the good guys to win.

I think that Borg and the Emperor are more accurate versions of what Paul called Principalities and Powers. Those sources of oppression addressed by Friere’s Brazil, America’s racial history, contemporary economic injustice, and the alignment of religious and political power. These forces are bigger than our planning, our elected officials, our academics, and our theologians.

Which brings me to Maddie Weston. If you weren’t a Burn Notice fan, it’s hard to summarize seven seasons in a paragraph. Michael Weston and his team are always battling principalities and powers without never knowing who is pulling the strings. Michael’s mother Maddie winds up drawn deeper and deeper into their schemes and strategies. At the end of the series, the bad guys are coming and will kill Michael and troupe, but especially Maddie’s young grandson. (Spoiler alert) Maddie determines that the only way to allow everyone to have a fighting chance is to detonate explosives that will get the seemingly invincible bad guys but kill herself in the process. Her sacrifice, her abandonment of personal security for those she loves, is the only thing that makes the plan work and saves her loved ones.

It strikes me that too often the evangelical church has attempted to deal with principalities and powers with the mistaken belief that if we could just get enough power, then we could do God’s work in society. But then we become just another one of the principalities. Or we hope that some influential individual will have the right combination of gifts to make a persuasive case for good. But when we do that we wind up putting our gifted spokesman (normally a man) against those of the other side. We wind up arguing talking points and points of evidence and want special consideration because of our faith.

What Maddie Weston understood is the true source of power the church possesses. In fact, this is the trump card of the Gospel. It is when we sacrifice our power on behalf of the powerless, the sinful, and the underdeserving, that the principalities begin to fail. They really aren’t versed at sacrifice. In fact, sacrifice undermines the entire social structure.

Imagine the role a sacrificial church could have played in fostering racial equality, in promoting economic justice, or in supporting medical care for the needy.

It reminds me of that famous G.K Chesterton quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Reflections on Christena Cleveland’s “Black to School” Series

For the past three weeks, Christena Cleveland has been running a series she has called “Black to School”.  She invited black students to reflect on their experiences interacting with predominantly white classmates.

I’ve found the series fascinating for two critical reasons. First, I’m teaching Race and Ethnic Relations this semester. Second, and much more importantly, the students had all attended Christian colleges.Students

She started with an unnamed student from a Christian college in the suburban Midwest. The second was from DeLisa who attended George Fox. Rashad was at Geneva. Nikkita from Seattle Pacific. Drew from an unnamed Christian college in Pennsylvania (I could make some good guesses on which one). Joy from Westmont.  Finally, there was Jelani who transported from Portland (“the whitest major city in America”) to North Park in Chicago. Their stories are unique to them and yet cut across institutions. Some of their experiences result from the homogeneity of the evangelical populations that feed the colleges. Lack of exposure to difference causes insensitivity (which is why students felt it was okay to touch Joy’s hair).

Other experiences reflect less defensible patterns. To assume that black males must be musical or athletic. To assume that black students are experts at hip hop or dance. To isolate black students in class or make insensitive remarks. To joke about perceived threats from athletic black men.

The stories from these students break my heart. I can’t imagine asking any student to deny a part of identity. The sense of isolation they feel in the midst of Christian community is devastating. How can this be the case when we’re committed to a vision of Church that makes no separations (Galatians 3:28)?

Christian colleges have long recognized the need to become more welcoming to diverse populations. We create diversity task forces and focus on recruiting minorities. We take pride in seeing our percentage non-white increase over the years. These are good things, but the focus on demographics doesn’t address the issues of institutional culture.

The reality is that we’ve set the bar too low. We look at histories in which students of color were discouraged from attending at all or where interracial dating was seen as norm violating.

Pew conducted a recent study on racial progress. In general, they found that whites felt that progress was being made on racial issues because past injustices were past. We take pride in not having separate bathrooms or poll taxes or segregated schools. It lets us think that because we don’t do those things anymore we’re making great progress.

The Black to School stories remind me that the bar is really much higher. But it’s not those students who have to clear the higher bar.

It’s me and folks like me.

At a CCCU Sociology gathering nearly 25 years ago, I heard a remarkable presentation by Ray DeVries, then of St. Olaf  and now of University of Michigan medical school. He spoke on Structural Evil, but quickly shifted from large scale issues like poverty or racism to the small-scale issues. The small-scale issues were the patterns of interaction that reinforced advantage for some and disadvantage for others. It’s easy to avoid being seen as racist. It’s hard to be open and welcoming to all we contact.

Here’s where my Race and Ethnic Relations class comes in. I agreed to pick up the class about a month ago, but I’ve taught it several times before. This time, however, the class feels strange to me.

When I lived in San Diego, we went to the Safari Park run by the San Diego Zoo. You got to ride around in little vans and look at animals in their “natural” habitat (if you ignore the fences that kept the lions from the zebras and so on).

And now we come to the hyenas. Here are the giraffes! There’s a herd of gazelle!

Most Race and Ethic books work like the Safari vans. After some introductory theoretical material, we look chapter by chapter at different racial or ethnic groups. Here are the Hispanics. There are the Asians. Here are the Blacks. Over there are the Native Americans!

Each chapter looks at some historic patterns and then shifts to contemporary challenges for each group. But this runs the risk of setting that bar low again.

It’s awful what we did to Native Americans. But we no longer relocate people from their native lands, do we?. We seriously exploited Chinese immigrants when we build the western railroads. Isn’t it great that we don’t do that anymore? Can you imagine what it was like to have segregated schools? Thank God, now all we have are schools characterized by residential isolation (sarcasm font needed).

We then look at the patterns of economic achievement (or lack thereof), prison incarceration (or the avoidance thereof), family patterns, educational prospects, etc. We become aware that there are major gaps between whites and either hispanics or blacks. But we seem unaware of how those impacts play out.

We set the bar too low because we don’t pay enough attention to the stories like those that Christena brought forth. Or this testimony this morning from Osheta Moore. Or this heartbreaking story from Grace Sandra.

I’ve been trying to avoid reading comments on blog posts lately. The insensitivity of those denying someone’s story (maybe you could tell that differently, maybe you’re making too much of that slight) is hard to take. It’s as if these stories of being isolated, misunderstood, abused, or taken for granted don’t count. As it only the big stuff matters.

This is where Ray DeVries’ talk messes with me after a quarter of a century. I know that I can’t ignore those stories without diminishing the experience of real people. What other definition of structural evil can there be?

All this causes me to think deeply about this course I’m teaching this semester. The Race and Ethnic Relations course seems to invite consideration of Racial or Ethnic groups as reified structures. It’s as if we’d call the course RACE and ETHNIC Relations. I’m coming to see that we must, especially in Christian colleges,  come to see the course as Race and Ethnic RELATIONS. If it’s the latter, there’s no way I’m off the hook. It would make me responsible, either directly or indirectly, for every one of the stories shared by Christena’s friends.

And that’s as it should be.

Because I am.

And Liberty and Justice for All

[My September submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month's topic is on Evangelicalism and Politics.]

An introductory comment: A reader responding to a recent post asked if I (and other writers in this series) saw any future in evangelicalism at all because he read the posts as attacking evangelical positions. I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks and realize that I could be clearer on my intent. I’m raising concerns about some aspects of evangelical culture in an attempt to call out the latent consequences those pieces may have — especially in terms of the broader culture hearing the heart of evangelicalism as it shares the love of Christ in prophetic ways to the broader society. After the critique, I’ll try to do a better job of speaking to the positive future.

It was the fall of 1981 and I was teaching my very first Introduction to Sociology class. I’d been a TA for the course in grad school but now I was responsible for the lectures myself. When I got to the broad institutional areas (of which Politics is one), I contrasted different views of governance: town hall democracy, Jeffersonian government by elites, oligarchy, and special interests. As I finished giving the lecture, I suggested that many in the church had adopted special interest tactics and that I was worried that the Body of Christ would be seen as simply another advocacy group.

The Moral Majority had been formally established just two years prior and CNN the year after that. Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell could regularly be found on the new cable news outlet speaking on political issues on behalf of Christians. It had been eight years since the Roe v. Wade decision but was still five years away from the formation of Operation Rescue.

Sociology professors talking to undergraduates are  not prophets. Yet in my own small way, I was trying to be a voice about something that could prove problematic. Maybe if my undergrads paid attention and acted differently as a result, we’d find a better way of engaging the political realm.

The last three decades have seen my meager warnings come to full flower. We now have major political organizations organized around Christian themes (e.g., Family Research Council). Or are they Christian organizations organized around political themes (e.g., The Family Leader)? When political candidates flock to the  Value Voters Summit (“Faith, Family, and Opportunity for All”) to prove their conservative credential to a room full of Christian delegates, the lines between religion and politics seem to disappear.

The impact of “evangelical as special interest group” has been well documented. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? suggested about a decade ago that evangelical voters were enticed into voting for political candidates on promises to address social issues like abortion and prayer in schools but those issues didn’t remain important to the candidates after the election. He argues quite cynically (Frank is really good at cynicism) that if the issues were addressed, the voters might return to their economic interests as a basis for voting. Perversely, one of the outcomes of the special interest approach is that the establishment keeps the issue on the table to maintain funding and voter participation but doesn’t create the desired social change.

The dynamics of the special interest approach show up in the midst of the “millennials leaving church” argument. The Barna Group’s data suggests that at least some of the disaffection of today’s young people comes from seeing church leaders as overly strident on social issues, being anti-science, anti-homosexual. In short, it’s about being known for what one is against and not what one is for.

Listen to any news program discuss what “evangelical voters” care about. Sure, they’ll take about their concerns over abortion or traditional definitions of marriage. But you’re just as likely to hear them decry Obamacare, support lower taxes and limited government, and favor a strong military. This is another outgrowth of the special interest approach — parties build “big tents” of various special interests and those coalitions start to bleed over into common talking points.

Evangelicals may have access to varied outlets in television, radio, or internet, but it doesn’t change the basic principle of electoral politics: numbers. Consider the following chart produced by UConn sociologist Bradley Wright from General Social Survey data. It’s his estimate of the percentage of Americans who can be classified as evangelicals.

Wright Evangels-in-US

The GSS data suggests that evangelical strength peaked in about 1990 and has been slowly waning since. Other data suggests it’s waning even more rapidly among the young with the percentage evangelical for those under 30 falling to 17% in 2010. This means that evangelicals cannot shape public policy without significant assistance from non-evangelicals. That 24% of the public may be strident and therefore more likely to vote than the average citizen, but elections are likely to follow demographic trends similar to the 2012 election.

Here ends the negative griping. What is the alternative going forward? Let me suggest three strategies.

First, we should recognize the difference between what is scriptural priority (to some eyes) and what makes for public policy solutions. If evangelicals are only a quarter of the population, we’ll need to find better ways of engaging with those who don’t share our faith perspectives. It means being willing to influence those things we can while not fighting over the things we can’t. For example, there is interesting data from a recent Baylor Religion study suggesting that a segment of the evangelical public isn’t fighting gay marriage as a matter of social policy. A debate is brewing among some Christian bloggers about whether this represents caving to liberalism or crafting a “messy middle” My read of the report suggests the latter. The correlation data suggests that these Ambivalent Evangelicals (really needs a new label) share few if any characteristics with liberals. (I’m in conversation with the Baylor sociology folks to get a better read on the data and may update this as that comes together.)

Second, regardless of one’s view of Christian America rhetoric (there are a vast number of good Christian history sources laying the claim to rest, but it survives in spite of it), we need to craft an understanding of the country based on the current realities. Let’s not fight over Jefferson’s views on religion or the church memberships of the signers of the Declaration. We live in a culture that is marked by demographic diversity. We are surrounded by ideological diversity. We need to engage that discussion on the basis of guiding values and not on claims of superiority. It will require much patience, careful listening, and far less pronouncing. While 24% of the public isn’t majority language, it’s worth being heard as evangelicals.

Third, evangelicals are at our best when we’re advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. This has been the heart of the pro-life movement. But it goes beyond that. It means that we are passionate about justice — not just in a narrow partisan sense but in the “least of these” sense. Let’s worry less about political party orientation and think together with non-evangelicals about how we speak on behalf of those without voice. The poor, the broken, the abandoned, the hurting, the addicted, the dispirited. As people reflecting God who gave himself up for us, we cannot be guilty of a self-interested approach to democracy. It’s not about us. We already received more than we could possible imaging.

It’s about “liberty and justice for all”. There’s a reason the pledge ends with that line. It’s the hope of the nation and evangelicals have a unique role in seeing that hope come to fruition.

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