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I was pleased this weekend to see that my friend Alan Noble had an article posted in The Atlantic titled “Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?” It’s a very interesting piece that speaks to the complications of religious identity in a changing society. It does a good job of diagnosing the tensions surrounding Hobby Lobby v. Burwell or various issues related to legalities of same-sex marriage. But I found myself wanting to engage a bit more and explore the options facing evangelicalism in a postmodern society. So I asked Alan if he was willing to engage in dialogue on my blog (instead of simply writing inflammatory comments on the article like those who won’t engage his basic points). Thankfully, he was willing to engage.
Alan is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University starting this fall. He is managing editor and c0-creator of Christ and Pop Culture and a prolific critic of popular culture. He fights a never ending battle against conservative extremist memes, commenting on sites in an attempt to show a conservative voice that isn’t irrational. He recently earned a PhD in English from Baylor University, writing on “manifestations of transcendence in twentieth century American fiction”. He and his wife have two adorable children (almost as cute as my granddaughter).
Alan’s argument is well crafted. After summarizing a variety of pieces challenging evangelicals, he rightly identifies the central challenge:
Behind all of these charges is the suspicion that evangelicals are simply refusing to accept contemporary American mores; they are privileging their faith over the moral spirit of the age. But for many evangelicals, these beliefs are not actually a sign of retreat from public life. Instead, there is a fear that in an increasingly secularized society, there will be less tolerance for people who wish to act upon their deeply held religious beliefs, except in narrowly defined, privatized spaces. This is a fundamentally American concern: Will I have the right to serve God as I believe I am obligated to?
This fear isn’t just personal. As laws on issues like same-sex marriage and contraception have changed, there’s a growing fear that public policy will become more and more in conflict with evangelical morality. This, according to many conservative Christians, is what these tensions are about: being legally required to perform acts that you sincerely and deeply believe are immoral.
He argues that a focus on autonomous individualism has shifted moral conversation to issues of rights. This shift to rights is difficult for some evangelicals as they fee forced to violate their own sense of obedience to God in order to participate in modern society. He attempts to speak to the diversity present in evangelicalism that is missed by those responding only to extremism.
If the evangelical worldview is deemed invalid in the public sphere, then the public sphere loses the value of being public. American discourse will be marked by paranoid conformity, rather than principled and earnest disagreement. And our ability to prophetically speak to one another and to our nation’s troubles will be restrained.
The right framework here is one of pluralism: the ability of many different kinds of people to live out their faith in public with and among those who deeply disagree with them. This is no easy challenge; it’s painful and ugly and hard. But the alternative to is a thin, univocal culture, one in which the only disagreements we have are trivial. And that would be a shame.
That’s the summary. Now for the dialogue:
John: Evangelicalism has a long history of trying to separate from culture. It’s part of why the institutions we teach at were created. That sentiment of separatism has persisted in the evangelical subculture. We have our own schools, publishers, music groups, movies, and internet favorites. That insularity keeps us talking to each other without engaging the broader culture. It also feeds a suspicion of those “outside”. So our attempt at remaining separate has created a situation where we are cut off from larger social debates and afraid of those having them. Would you agree? How might we overcome this isolation in the pluralism you suggest?
Alan: Yes, I think that’s right to some degree. Evangelicals have long had their own subculture and it has led in many cases to isolationism and a failure to love our neighbor properly because we simply don’t understand our neighbor. That said, I also believe that evangelicalism is not much different in this regard than any other major subculture in the US. With the disintegration of local communities, interest-based subcultures are what we are left with, whether it is extreme sports, online gaming, DYI home improvement, or evangelicalism. So, I think this is a part of a larger problem we have in the US of dialogue in a nation without unifying, deep institutions and ideologies.
And not all this separation is bad. I’m excited at the prospect of being able to pray with my students at OBU. The separation that a Christian university provides allows me to explore a vision of faith as integral to the whole of life that a “secular” institution simply could not allow me. There’s value in both kinds of institutions. Where I believe we get into trouble is when we cease to value evangelical culture for its unique positive contributions and we begin to think of it as merely an alternative culture to flee to. And that is where we can start moving out of isolationism, by seeing that the purpose of these evangelical institutions and cultural works is not to offer an escape from the world, but to model a better way for the world and to minister to us more fully as humans.
John: In my own response to the Hobby Lobby decision, I pondered how we define religious belief. In addition to core tenets from the Apostle’s Creed, evangelicals hold a variety of second-level positions as central to religious belief. It’s not same-sex marriage per se, it’s how a position on scripture is tied up with that topic. So giving ground isn’t a matter of civil discourse but abandoning a belief in “God’s Word”. This is a very difficult position to maintain in pluralistic exchange because casual observers are aware of other situations where we accommodate shifts from what scriptural authority would suggest (e.g., Divorce). Do you think we need to narrow our claims of religious privilege in order to engage the critical issues of the day?
Alan: So much of the discussion surrounding the Hobby Lobby case has dealt with the legal and social aspects, that I think evangelicals have often skipped over the theological assumptions. And I understand this leap. I do not believe Hobby Lobby should be legally required to cover contraceptives which they are convinced cause abortions (particularly because, as the SCOTUS ruled, there are likely other ways to cover those contraceptives which don’t create this religious conflict). But theologically and scientifically, I’m not convinced, yet, that Hobby Lobby is morally culpable if they are forced to pay. The impulse for many evangelicals is to merely defend Hobby Lobby because we are concerned about religious liberties being restrained. But we need to also have this hard theological conversation about the idea of culpability in this situation. Ethical training needs to be more a part of our discipleship. Because issues like the contraceptive mandate are complex, and evangelicals need to be able to tackle them fairly and carefully. Doing so, I believe, will help us sort out the problems you raise: our double standards on things like divorce and greed and other less popular sins. I don’t think we need to narrow our claims of religious rights, but I do think we need to be able to articulate what our rights are and why a particular issue matters in a way that is winsome and understandable to the world.
John: In spite of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, the conflating of personal belief and business practice seems problematic. There is a way for Christian bakeries (whatever that really means) to make cakes that are not seen as endorsements. In fact, making cakes may be a means to engage in dialogue regarding moral behavior (if it can be done in non-combative terms). If God can instruct Hosea to marry a prostitute, maybe wedding cakes are a symbol of prophetic witness. Can one make a consistent claim not to do business with those who fall outside Biblical mandates?
Alan: It’s important to note that in these various cases where Christian businesses have refused to provide a service for a gay wedding, the issue, as I understand it, is not that the costumer is a sinner. The issue is that they are being asked to do a creative act to celebrate something (a wedding) which they believe is fundamentally immoral. I suppose this is the same problem Christian copywriters face: can I create something with the explicit purpose of promoting some thing which I know to be sin? If I’m an Anabaptist ad designer, can I design an ad for a fighter jet, or does it make me morally culpable?
To some extent, for private businesses, these questions are easy to deal with. Photographers, for example, can already legally turn down jobs which they are not comfortable with, even for moral reasons. If a photographer refuses to shoot a pornographic scene because she believes that the act itself is immoral, she is within her rights. The difference here is that in same-sex weddings, the moral objection is related to the costumers’ sexual orientation.
Please understand that my point here is to explain the reasoning of these evangelical business owners. I quite understand that for the same-sex couples who are facing this discrimination (I mean that in a literal, non-pejorative sense), it is experienced as personal rejection based on sexual orientation. I understand their frustration and objections, as much as I can, at least. But to answer your question about how evangelicals should do business and why some are refusing to, I needed to present their perspective.
As for using these opportunities as prophetic moments, while I think that is a positive and Kingdom oriented approach, I have grave doubts that same-sex couples in this situations would be open to having a moral dialogue about their behavior. But perhaps I’m mistaken.
John: One of the challenges arising from the first three points is that evangelicals haven’t been good at using civil means to pursue their ends. Some have used courts and legislatures to keep mosques from establishing or banning Sharia law. Now we worry about the civil authorities stepping in and mandating contraception coverage or non-discrimination and we cry foul. I found the recent “letter about the executive order” to be troubling. I understand the intent of the proponents, but it is seen by those outside as a request to stay outside the social contract impacting the rest of society. How do we respect beliefs and play well with others?
Alan: Love them. Desire the best for them. Work towards that good while knowing that you cannot force anyone to be righteous. You can’t even force yourself to be righteous. It is through Christ that we are saved. That Gospel reality can allow us to live with this tension, to live in a world filled with sinners like ourselves who will act in ways we believe are foolish or wrong or silly or deeply immoral. It will keep us from the self-righteousness that turns love for neighbor into abuse of neighbor. And also from the self-absorption which turns tolerance for our neighbor into indifference.
I’m sorry that’s all vague, but it’s a big question, and an important one. Thanks for asking me to do this.
Thanks, Alan, for your willingness to engage the questions. There’s much to consider in this back-and forth. We may have to do this again. I invite others to engage as well.
I wanted to wait to comment on the Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) until I had a chance to review the actual decision after returning from my weekend in Chicago (a delightful Choral Festival at Fourth Presbyterian). In many ways, the outcome was fairly predictable given the Court’s prior position in Citizens United. Having granted bill of rights protections to corporations, it was likely that the conservative majority would be consistent. [In spite of some of what I've read, this wasn't a First Amendment case on free expression but relied instead on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.]
When I saw tweets that Justice Alito had written for the majority, it was also clear how the argument would be structured. Others have observed the sharp distinctions between the arguments of the majority and the dissent. It was almost as if they heard two different cases since their rhetorical focus seemed so different. As I did a summary read on the decision yesterday, I came away with three critical reflections.
1. The Central Claim was one of Truthiness
Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of “truthiness” the night he launched his satirical news show. His point was the facts didn’t matter because he depended on his gut to tell him what was true. It was the Merriam Webster “word of the year” for 2006, beating out the word “google”. If something feels a certain way, then that’s what matters.
At the heart of the dispute over the contraceptive mandate is a concern over four forms of contraceptives that the plaintiffs “believed” caused abortions. The mandate is actually in implementation language written by the HHS in response to amendment to the Affordable Care Act dealing with women’s preventative health. [The dissent makes clear than a religious exemption amendment failed during the ACA debate.] As the case was moving its way through the courts, I kept waiting for someone to address the central belief. There are many news reports that attempt to explore the claim that the four types (mainly IUDs and “morning after pills”) cause abortion rather than preventing ovulation. While not conclusive, my reading of the science leans toward the ovulation argument, but I’m not a definitive source. It seemed to me that someone would need to address this along the way.
I was quietly stunned in reading the oral arguments that both sides emphasized that the plaintiffs “sincerely believed” that the methods caused abortions which was a violation of their religious beliefs. But nobody addressed the scientific claim. I remember reading that social science data on young girls and dolls was an important part of the Brown v. Board deliberation, so it seemed appropriate.
This is important because Justice Alito based part of his support on the idea that there were less restrictive options available. The federal government could pay for those disputed contraceptive methods. But one can’t do so without addressing the science. If it turns out that these methods are, in fact, abortifacients, the Hyde Amendment and the Stupak amendment to the ACA would preclude any federal funds being used. It’s stunning that Alito would suggest such a strategy unless he believed the science was on the ovulation side. [He does argue that the government has a legitimate interest in providing all 20 forms of contraception.]
2. The Nature of Belief
There are volumes written in theology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy on the nature of belief. The RFRA was written to protect a religious group from laws that infringe on their first amendment protections. The Wikipedia description quotes the act as follows: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
The Hobby Lobby argument is that their belief that “life begins at conception” is a religious belief and that the mandate infringes on that belief with regard to the four contested contraception methods. Personally, I struggle with the application of language on “free exercise” of religion with a particular moral belief. There is a big difference between Native American peyote practice (the case behind the RFRA) and a specific belief.
There are Christians firmly committed to Young Earth Creationism or that women should not have authority over men. Do these positions constitute the central place of religious belief? It’s not the same as being at risk for believing that Christ is the Son of God and Redeemer. For a society that seems to adopt a smorgasbord approach to religious belief [the Catholic Bishops just accepted the fact that 95% of Catholics disagree with the official position on birth control], how do we navigate if every set of beliefs is privileged by law?
3. Whose Story?
The Court determined that “closely held corporations” were protected by the RFRA. In other words, corporations that form around family enterprises (but not publicly traded companies) could have religious positions that must be considered. But as many have observed, Hobby Lobby as a company doesn’t appear to be organized around religious ends (except for being closed on Sunday). Many have pointed out that there are practices the company engages in that are hard to characterize as “Christian” (e.g., Jonathan Merritt’s piece in The Week).
But the court’s argument seems to be that the values of the Green family extend to the rest of the corporation. This strikes me as problematic on a number of levels. We often attempt to distinguish one’s personal commitments from one’s corporate stance. This was the argument made around the Chick-fil-a CEO last year. But if one’s beliefs and story extend over all else, then how do we make decisions?
This struck me the other night when I was watching Rising Star on ABC. I don’t normally watch these music competition shows, but a choir member’s niece was on when I was in Chicago so we all watched it together. What struck me was that the judges seemed less focused on musical ability or technique as on the back story. So the baseball pitcher who was blinded by a hit ball could now try to sing. The focus was on how much he’d overcome and what dedication he showed. People were commended on how they “brought it”, overcame nerves, or how their stories touched the judges.
There’s a parallel in a focus on stories that show dedication, sincerity, and Christian commitment within the political sphere. The argument becomes about the ways in which the Greens live out their commitments of faith. But our stories are part of what got us to the current point of discussion not the be-all-and-end-all. And we need to figure out how our stories intersect with the stories of others.
All of the justices were privileging story but they were privileging different stories. The majority focused on the Greens and the dissent focused on female employees of Hobby Lobby.
At the end of the day, I can affirm Hobby Lobby’s interest in pursuing legal remedies available to them but I keep thinking that there was a stronger opportunity for a faith witness in not insisting on their way.
These reflections can no doubt be challenged and I may modify my own thinking over time. For now, it seems like a decision that left a lot unexplored. We will no doubt be revisiting this case and others like it in the future.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to explore some sociological dynamics of evangelical structure. I offered a summary of that argument in my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho. I’ve been doing a lot with wall metaphors: both in terms of how we construct isolating barriers and how we might tear them down.
Since I got back from Idaho, I’ve been pondering another implication of the wall metaphor. I think it helps explain the Industry Evangelicalism patterns I’ve been writing about. It also may explain a lot about how we do discourse within contemporary society. Whenever I get one of these ideas in my head, it feels like I’m constantly reading stuff on Facebook and Twitter that connect to the current hypothesis. The may be mistaken interpretation on my part, but it might just allow for a more careful unpacking of the social psychology at play within our varied group identities.
The picture above is Lego’s King’s Castle Siege. It illustrates how battlements were created to protect townspeople and nobles against the onslaughts of outsiders. But here’s what I notice: the construction of defensive positions actually allow offensive actions to be taken against the marauders. The rhetoric of defense is such that it winds up justifying first-strike capabilities.
This was true because the actual damage from a siege doesn’t involve battle but rather starvation. The point of the siege isn’t necessarily to overrun the walls but to cut off supply lines and isolate the kingdom. This results in two driving dynamics: demonizing the enemy and acting first before they gain a foothold on the walls.
Once the battlements are built, the kingdom is isolated from potential enemies. That brings safety but also allows one to imagine the worst possible motives of those enemies. Social psychologists refer to this as “fundamental attribution error” — I know my motives but yours are suspect. In fact, it’s likely that I’m imputing my darkest motives onto you because that’s how I imagine what you’d do if successful. This imputation then justifies any action I might decide to take because your imagined attack would be so much worse than my actual actions.
As I said, there are lots of other illustrations in social media of how this plays out. Alan Noble wrote this on Facebook today:
Theory: when someone becomes the face/ symbol/leader/figure of a radical movement which perceives itself to be oppressed, that person has very strong incentives to becoming increasingly radical in language, rhetoric, and position. To the point of absurdity.
He had a particular example in mind (Richard Dawkins) but one could easily put other players in the same position. In fact, Alan has previously done some wonderful work calling out the exaggerations of Todd Starnes and others who delight in cherry-picking isolated infringements on religion as illustrations of “what the world is coming to”. In a recent twitter exchange with Laura Ortberg Turner, I reflected on the linkage between persecution and prosecution — that somehow people will be arrested for their religious convictions. As I write this, Westboro Baptist minister Fred Phelps is near death. His particular form of striking aggressively to stop the visigoths approaching the gates has become legend (even though Christians have seen this as too extreme).
We see the same thing in the political realm. Jon Stewart’s continued takedown of Fox News imputing the worst possible motives to food stamp recipients shows the same pattern. One must imagine the takers and then strike out against them. But the motives imputed only characterize a tiny percentage of those affected.
Joshua Dubois, author of The President’s Devotional, wrote a fascinating piece today about Dr. Ben Carlson. Joshua describes the important role model Dr. Carlson provided for young black men for a generation and how that got transformed into a voice that justified outrageous comment in support of partisan position. It’s an example of how staying inside the battlements provides self-justifying rationales but at the price of the potential positive impact on all those outside the walls.
In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland devotes early chapters to how easy it is for us to demonize out-groups and describes the rich (and depressing) social psychological experimental research that illustrates the tendency. As I wrote in the tearing down walls piece, she ends her book with solid insights on how to reverse those patterns.
As I was working on this post, Frederich Buechner (or at least the people that run his Facebook page) posted this quote from Brian McClaren’s 2012 book.
Yes, something good still shines from the heart of our religions – a saving drive toward peace, goodness, self-control, integrity, charity, beauty, duty. And something shadowy struggles to overcome that luminosity – a hostile drive, dangerous, resilient, and deeply ingrained, a black hole in our identity that needs an enemy to help us know who we are and how good we are.
My point is that building battlements has certain predictable results. Once we’ve got the walls, we begin to imagine who might be lingering outside. We worry about what they might do. Then we act to prevent them from doing that thing we imagined. We’re self-justified in the process — just imagine what might have happened had we done nothing!
But we imagined the impending attack. It kept us behind the parapets. It stopped us from engaging with those different than ourselves. That’s true whether it’s conservatives in the walls afraid of what liberals might do or liberals worried about conservative rhetorical attacks. It’s true whether we’re conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals imagining what will be on The Cosmos tonight or the scientific community worried about creationist legislators.
This week Christ & Pop Culture had a piece by Bradford William Davis titled “Why We Argue Like Jerks“. He points out that we don’t like asking good questions, that we do not seek to understand, and that we don’t like risking being wrong. In short, we fail to deal with the other as he/she really is but instead how we imagine him/her to be. We do battle in our imaginations, feeling victorious because we once again held our imagined foe at bay.
Maybe it’s the building of battlements (great for ages 7-12!) that’s the real problem. If we didn’t have battlements, we wouldn’t fear the siege. We wouldn’t imagine the enemy over the hill. We wouldn’t imagine the awful things they intended. We wouldn’t demonize them and look for means of attack (defensively, of course).
We might just get that Golden Rule right.
Between the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections and the summer before the 2012 presidential election, I maintained a blog on politics and media called the ninth commandment. It explored the nature of civil discourse and questioned why it had become culturally acceptable to lie as a means of argument. In my first post in that blog, I wondered why we paid attention to anything Politifact scored below “mostly true“. In my ideal world, once a statement is debunked it should be retired from circulation.
Recent events have me returning to this theme. It’s not just political figures using social media to denounce the president as they were heading to the State of the Union. It’s evangelical leaders looking for reasons to be offended by the broader culture. It’s progressive evangelicals who caricature other christians, questioning their motives or intelligence or biases. It’s conservative christians attacking other christians just for asking challenging questions.
Many, including me, have opined on the Duck Dynasty controversy where Phil Robertson got in trouble with A&E for his comments about homosexuality in a GQ interview. A&E banned him, then reinstated him (after enjoying a week of press), and now things are kind of back where they were albeit with reduced ratings for DD.
But what gets my attention is not Robertson’s beliefs about how homosexuality fits his “biblical worldview” (see Micah Murray’s interesting analysis here). I have no problem with him arguing that he can’t reconcile scripture and modern social changes. The problem comes when he knowingly links homosexuality with bestiality. In spite of his backwoods image, he must know that this is patently false. So why does he say it? Furthermore, why do evangelicals jump on the bandwagon to defend a patently false statement?
Alan Noble (PhD!) has done a masterful job of deconstructing claims certain media segments put forth of anti-Christian bias (see an example here). For his efforts at gathering what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story“, he got chastised in comments from other evangelical Christians for not following Matthew 18 in confronting a brother in Christian love. But why is it acceptable for evangelical Christians (even if they are Fox News commentators) to misrepresent the real story? And why do other evangelical Christians swarm to the defense of the misrepresentation?
This week, Rachel Held Evans tried to address the complexity of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, best characterized by the Hobby Lobby case. Hobby Lobby and others claim that being required to have insurance policies that provide contraceptive coverage to their employees is a violation of religious freedom. They object, as a story in Christianity Today puts it, “to the mandate’s requirement that employers provide employees with emergency contraceptives that many evangelicals consider to be abortifacients (emphasis mine).” This sentence is telling — a factual question is couched in the phrase “many evangelicals consider”. It takes a scientific question and guards it in a shell of religious belief. Curiously, Christianity Today had written this piece last April that primarily answers the scientific question at least about one of the emergency medications (see also here and here for similar stories from other sources). So why isn’t that in every piece of reporting they do? Why is the “many evangelicals believe” reference the go-to point?
For trying to address these questions, Rachel became the subject of this piece in First Things, published by the Institute for Religion and Public Life. The third paragraph begins, “Readers may be surprised to learn that Evans identifies herself as a pro-life Christian.” The story continues to let the readers know that this cannot be the case according to their definitions. Failing to address the honest questions Rachel had asked, it was far easier to dismiss her points as insufficiently adherent to the party line. This required argument by extremes, putting words in Rachel’s mouth, and asserting motives they cannot possible know. These are evangelical and Catholic writers responding to an honest piece written by another evangelical writer. Once they opened the door, then less kind distortions and mendacious remarks would follow: many of these also from evangelicals. Rachel shared on twitter just some of the names she was called in comments or tweets (don’t know what her questions had to do with witchcraft!).
Disagreement on policy is legitimate. Defamation is not. Looking at evidence and its policy implications can result in civil discussion (as Rachel and Karen Swallow Prior demonstrated in a long twitter discussion last night). Distorting positions and mis-stating the evidence is not. As Rachel cogently posted yesterday: “Christians: If all truth is God’s truth, then tell it. Tell the truth. Don’t lie about science or history to promote your ideology.”
Here’s one more example in the making. A surprising piece on the internet recently said that a song written by evangelical Joni Eareckson Tada was nominated for the best song Oscar. It is the title song from the movie Alone, But Not Alone. It was a surprising nomination because it’s a small production that nobody had ever heard of (details here). As the story explains, the nomination was withdrawn because of accusations of undue influence by the promoter. Many people in coming days will treat the story as an infringement on religious values, as Christianity Today points out. But even the CT story seems to offer a retelling of the story in favor of the value argument. The headline asks “What Message did the Academy Send?“. The implication, supported by the people quoted in the opening paragraphs, is that this is another example of Christians being shunned by Hollywood. But this is not the case. As the film studies experts who have solid evangelical credential point out, this is a simple example of someone breaking the rules. To characterize is as anything else is simply untrue.
Why is there such a strong tendency for Christians to grab partial truths or outright lies and use them to argue with others? In part, it may be due to a belief that we can’t engage in civil conversations that express our values without compromise. We don’t want compromise because that devalues our long-held positions.
I worry that it has much more to do with the fact that we’re afraid. We’re afraid that our positions won’t stand up to scrutiny in civil discourse.
We’re afraid that our past overstatements, misstatements, and misrepresentations will be exposed and the Christian church will be damaged as a result. This is a completely rational fear. We know that we’ve often violated that ninth commandment and don’t really know how to repent and ask forgiveness.
What I can say for sure is that holding to party lines and calling out dissenters weakens the witness of the church. Zack Hunt made that point extremely well in this post yesterday. He cogently writes:
We’ve been asked for a reason for the hope that is in us, but instead of incarnating that hope through acts of love for those in need, we offer compassionless rhetoric and a sales pitch. And so people leave and search for hope elsewhere.
We are working to be the Body of Christ in society, to be the first fruits of the Kingdom that is here and yet not arrived. How we go about that is critically important, not simply as expressions of our character and discipleship, but to the very mission of Christ’s Church.
So for God’s sake, if not for yours, Tell the Truth.
The end of the year is when everybody seems to be reflecting on their favorite blog posts. I’ve had my own favorites (often not the ones that drew many page views), but it was more interesting to see how the blog shifted over the year. At the beginning of the year, I was writing exclusively on Christian Higher Education because I was writing a book on the topic (coming this spring from Wipf & Stock). Then I spent time focused on millennials and the way they get treated in the media. As I worked on a class in race and ethnic relations, I added issues of race and oppression. Because I was writing on the Respectful Conversation project, I began focusing on evangelicalism as it impacts the larger world.
As the year turns, I find myself focused on some broader sociological questions that frame all these other conversations. I touched on this in my Duck Dynasty post ten days ago, but I’ve been pondering it more deeply in recent days. Issues of celebrity plagiarism, twitter fights, Wars on Christmas/Christianity, reality television and Facebook “likes” all share some similar issues in terms of how we engage culture. Somehow, contemporary society needs to learn better means of discernment so as to avoid living in continual outrage.
It’s been sixty years since Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451. In his dystopian world when books were outlawed, people spent their evenings watching wall-sized televisions that ran the latest exploits of The Family: a group of actors who provided a vicarious outlet for the otherwise humdrum characteristics of life. The Family was more important to the Herzog’s wife than anything else (except for the pills she took so that she’d be slim enough for social standards).
Bradbury died in 2012, but it would be fascinating to know his reaction to our media saturated world. His analysis of a world without books is simply too prescient. Who in 1953 would have thought that we’d hang 70 inch televisions on our walls so that passersby on the street could see what we were watching?
For all the folks putting their ten life-changing books on Facebook, information for a great many people doesn’t involve books. Research by Pew Interest in 2012 found that the median number (the 50% point of a distribution) of books read by respondents came in at 8. In more recent surveys, they found that nearly 15% of college graduates had never been to a library.
In a world without books, factoids and opinion become the coin of the realm. We have no ability to separate what is relevant from what is merely a passing claim. Everyone who encourages friends to use Snopes more to verify “can-you-believe-this-outrage” Facebook posts, the number of isolated conversations seems to increase.
Which brings me back to the entire “reality show” problem. These shows operate as semi-scripted entertainment. They don’t reflect real people with real lives. Do you know anybody who shares the lifestyle of the Real Housewives of Wherever? Are “normal” people selected for competition shows? (Early seasons of The Apprentice answered that question for us in the negative.) How is it that characters from a show about Teenage Mothers wind up as known quantities (at least for some) on supermarket check-out magazines? I saw a piece online this week about how Jon Gosselin was mad at Kate again — who cares? Even when their show was popular, I mean, Really?
Add to this the problem of continual perceived persecution. As we identify with characters, whether Phil Robertson or Mark Driscoll or Ted Cruz or Shane Claiborne or Rachel Held Evans or whoever is your favorite, we find the need to defend them against attack. As if somehow when they are criticized (even for being less than careful in their remarks), our entire belief system is being called into question. It’s simply not. They might not be concerned about comments made about them (it goes with being in the public eye) so why do we get so enraged?
Partly, this is because the people behind all these communications are not interested in exploring issues or interesting people — they are trying to run a business enterprise. That depends upon keeping their product in the public eye through any means possible. I’m not the only person not surprised that A&E reversed themselves on banning Phil Robertson. They’d gotten their week of outrage. They will undoubtedly run higher ratings in the spring when DD returns and be able to charge higher advertising rates.
Others keep our focus on outrage because it’s key to their brand. Alan Noble illustrated how this works with Fox personality Todd Starnes. (Disclaimer: I engaged in defense of Alan’s point on Facebook this morning so I’m less than objective.) The methodology of outrage is to pick an isolated instance of Christianity not getting automatic privilege, ignore some key details, and make the instance look like some major social trend. Then they put out the distorted story on a Facebook page and ask you to share if you are outraged. And, surprise!, you do.
There are some very negative effects of these media distortions. First, our attention shifts from our own lives and those around us to these supposedly “real” people. We become alienated from our own environment, just as Herzog’s wife did. Second, we see lives of people Very Different than us. One of the byproducts of reality shows like Duck Dynasty or the Duggars (19 kids and counting) is that it creates an impression that folks who take Christian faith seriously are backwoods folks who have lots of kids and live off the land. Third, believing we are seeing “reality” keeps us from addressing real issues. If we watch the Teen Mother show, does it make us think about support for teen mothers, contraceptives, or adoption agencies? Or does it make us focus on the latest drama between this girl and that other girl (I simply don’t want to know their names)?
We treat these “reality shows” just like The Family. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. Truman Burbank has lived his entire life on camera and is the only person who doesn’t know his “reality” isn’t real. Everyone watches the show: in bars, in hair salons, at home. If it was made today, we’d watch it on our phones. But the point of the movie is that Truman has to break free and live his own life. There’s an underground concerned with what “reality” is doing to Truman. In the end (spoilers, skip to next paragraph), he gets away and must make his own decisions out of the eye of a loving audience.
Bradbury didn’t foresee the impact of social media like Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think he find it healthy. Zach Hoag wrote a wonderful piece Sunday he titled “Resolved: Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014“. He speaks accurately about the way in which our various forms of outrage have created divisions when the Church should be a collective witness to the Kingdom. I think Zach is on the right track.
I’d go a step farther. I want us to stop identifying with celebrities and reality show characters. If you want outrage, write about when you were personally wronged. Better yet, get to know the very real people down the street or those you pass at the mall. They’re way more important than those faces on television or images on the internet. They are the Very Real folks created in the Image of the Creator God.
The picture is the result of a humorous tweet Thursday making reference to the Duck Dynasty news with reference to Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool of money. As I wrote on Facebook, I’ve never seen the show. In fact, I avoid “Reality Television”. So for all I knew, it might have well been a throwback to Duck Tales.
But now I know about the “controversy”: How Phil Robertson gave an interview to GQ, in which he shared his views about homosexuality and race relations. In sharing his opinions, he was brash and inconsiderate. How A&E took offense at his comments about homosexuality (but, somehow as Jonathan Merritt observed, not about race) and indefinitely suspended him from further episodes of DD. The public response to the banishment was quick and loud. On the one hand, twitter was aflame with those criticizing Robertson’s comments. On the other, there were thousands and thousands taking to Facebook to complain about how he was being punished for holding to Biblical standards.
But as my title says, I’m not really interested in the specifics of this situation. Somehow it blends together with the Paula Deen controversy over racial language, the Chick-Fil-A row over the owner’s interview regarding same-sex marriage, and the never-ending War on Christmas. Add in random ACLU actions, an isolated teacher who won’t let a child write about Jesus, and Atheist Billboards and the result in a near-permanent sense of outrage on the part of good Christian folks everywhere.
I’ve been wondering why this happens with such regularity and why we seem unable to build the bridges that will allow evangelicals to be faithful witnesses that helps the broader society understand the Gospel of Christ’s Kingdom. Friday, Tobin Grant wrote this wonderful piece for Religion News Service drawing on the work of sociologists James Davison Hunter and Christian Smith to suggest that evangelicalism has historically needed to be under attack as part of its cultural identity.
I addressed the same argument in my recent post on the Future of Evangelicalism:
This is buttressed by a more internal challenge: the cognitive frameworks defined by the idea of Worldview. Fifteen years ago, Christian Smith argued in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998) that evangelicalism developed a subcultural identity based on being under assault from secularism and liberal Protestantism. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. However, it is a tenuous position. As Hunter observed in his book on Evangelicals sixteen years earlier, the realities of the modern world and the desire for acceptance or influence make separatism harder to maintain.
As I reflect on this shifting relationship between evangelicalism and the broader culture, I’m struck with a couple of things. First, the boundaries between church and culture are increasingly porous. It’s not just that conservative Christians seem to watch a lot of reality television (and situation comedies and police procedurals and bed-hopping dramas). It’s that we evangelicals simultaneously critique the culture while seeming to be fully immersed in it. I’m not suggesting that cultural isolation is to be preferred. Instead, there is a need to develop a better sense of discernment. How can we handle contemporary culture that maintains a distance between full engagement and isolation? When do we enjoy the top situation comedy and yet still maintain a Kingdom critique?
Second, I realize how much the outrage is not just predictable but quite likely manipulated by external forces. I’ve been wondering if A&E knew the Robertson was going to give the GQ interview. How could they not? Don’t they have publicists who manage things like that? Aren’t there contractual relationships involved? So how were they “shocked” when the Duck Commander said outrageous things?
This begins to really feed my cynical side. It’s not hard to imagine that A&E allowed the interview, took offense at the comment, and made themselves the center of the universe for a few days. As I reflect on the ongoing raft of outrages, I can find similar winners benefitting from the pain of others.
I’m reminded of Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. He argues that conservatives in Kansas sided with Republicans in opposition to their own economic interests over concerns about moral issues. But the trick, he suggested, was that nothing ever changed on the moral issues. The solution was just around the corner, which kept the Kansans voting Republican.
I’m not making a political argument here. But the basic analogy holds. There are forces at work trying to maintain a sense of outrage. They may be what we call principalities and powers. They may be economic interests. They may be the result of an evangelical search for power and prestige. They may be the result of religious celebrities who maintain their audience by being offended at slippery slope arguments about the nature of modern society.
So what do we do? Perhaps the first thing is to find a new sense of balance. Let’s decide that we won’t immediately react to every situation that is suggested on cable news, Christian websites, and Facebook pages. Maybe we can say, “there may be more to this story”. Or “maybe this can’t possibly be true”. Or “that one thing was outrageous but it’s not a broad trend”.
The second thing is to engage in some critical thinking: who benefits from this outrage? Does outrage move us toward the Kingdom of God or delay its arrival?
Finally, we need to ask what it means to live as Christians in a world that is not exclusively Christian. Those who hear us will not share our vocabulary or scripture references or church traditions. We must be working on telling our stories in ways that are inviting to others, that tell the truth, and that don’t demonize others in the process.
In the movie Network, anchorman Howard Beale screams “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” His rant led to great ratings, so he had to keep it up. Eventually, he began criticizing the structures at the network so they had to find a way to eliminate him without damaging their power. Howard teaches us that anger cannot be sustained. Eventually it either gives way to complacency or it leads to more important questions. Maybe the answer is to lessen our anger. After all, when Jesus equates anger and murder in Matthew 5:22, he doesn’t have an exemption for being angry at cultural figures or political leaders. He just says to guard our anger.
Frederick Buechner writes this about anger in Wishful Thinking:
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel, both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
I’ve been pondering the whole “War on Christmas” discussion for some time now. I haven’t been able to quite get my head around it. To my sociological brain, the whole idea of saying “Happy Holidays” came from two sources: 1) the mashing together of shopping seasons from September through February, and 2) a recognition that religious pluralism means that I can’t assume everybody is like me.
Reason one reminded me of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Fred Astaire owns an Inn that only opens for Holidays and does Broadway-type shows. It makes lousy business sense but it gave lots of excuses for song and dance numbers involving Fred, Bing, Marjorie Reynolds, and Virginia Dale. It predates White Christmas, but uses the same house and Bing sings The Song here first. (If you watch it, be forewarned, there’s a pretty offensive blackface number somehow celebrating Lincoln’s birthday).
But I still wonder why people would travel to this quaint Inn to see the song-and-dance. Why do we care so much about our holidays and what they’re called? Why do we privilege OUR holidays and minimize other people’s holidays? Why is Rosh Hashanah on my monthly calendar if it’s somebody else’s celebration?
See, a recognition of pluralism would mean that we’d acknowledge that there are other views alongside our own. We know that immigration from a variety of nations has increased our awareness of other celebrations. In fact, we can even interpret the rise in “religious nones” to be an expression of that very diversity.
Even before Megyn Kelley’s “terrible horrible no good very bad day” yesterday, there were forces pushing back against recognition of diversity. Monday, the Oklahoma legislature introduced a “Merry Christmas bill” that would allow schools to have Christmas parties and Christmas trees (as opposed to those dreaded Holiday events). They express the kind of sentiment Jon Stewart skewered last week: How can I enjoy my Christmas when I know that somewhere a little Jewish boy is not being forced to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?
There are plenty of similar stories. Also in Oklahoma, a private group paid to display the Ten Commandments in a public square. Looked like a neat end-run around establishment clause issues. Then a group of satanists said that they were going to have a private group put their own monument up. I learned last night that someone put up a Seinfeld Festivus pole in Florida (I guess that got Gretchen Carlson going). Today, a federal judge (who is a graduate of Pasadena Nazarene College and a conservative) ruled that the cross at the Mount Soledad cemetery has to come down. It’s bound to launch all kinds of rants about liberal justices destroying the Christian foundations of our society (which, according to James Dobson, is somehow related to Sandy Hook).
In the midst of my struggle to make sense of holidays and pluralism, a tweet by Rachel Held Evans gave me one of those “light bulb” moments of clarity. Responding to the whole “of course Santa and Jesus were white” discussion, Rachel’s tweet said that the critics were people “for whom civil religion has become an idol they force everyone to bow to.” It’s a great Daniel reference, but my realization was that all this stuff about “Merry Christmas” is less about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” as it is about protecting our national sterilized religion of exceptionalism, providence, and manifest destiny.
Robert Bellah introduced the idea of civil religion in the late 1960s, drawing attention to the ways in which national identity operated in ways similar to traditional religion but without much content. In fact, his original essay includes this famous quote by Eisenhower: Our nation makes no sense unless it’s based on a deeply held religious faith, and I don’t care what that is (emphasis mine). In that quote rests the heart of civil religion: a vague idea that cannot be examined because the minute we seriously interrogate it, it vanishes in a puff of smoke.
This is a major difference between Christian faith and civil religion. As we have proved in the church over and over and over again, we debate differences in theology, practice, polity, liturgy, baptism, creation, and biblical interpretation. We blog and write books and have conferences that support our position against the other guy (or girl). But on our best days, we are still aware of the concept of the Church as the Bride of Christ. We hold to our positions and the reasons for holding them but we operate from faith not from certainty.
That’s what allows me to have friends from a variety of theological traditions. We can see things differently and engage in our twitter fights and critique each other’s strategies or political positions, but at the end of the day we retain a commitment to the Invisible Church. Because we live by faith. As Frederick Buechner says, “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith”.
This comfort with doubt is what’s missing in civil religion. Because it exists at such a generalized level, it can’t be argued. We can’t find ways of parsing the different strands and still holding to commonality. The mythology of agreement (like a notion that Santa is white or that Jefferson was an evangelical) MUST be maintained because without the mythology we have nothing.
If we admit that these other holiday traditions are valuable or even that people can go through life and not celebrate ANY holidays, then what can we take for granted as a society? We’d be forced to confront our differences and learn from each other.
But those risks are too great, so the celebrants of civil religion (politicians, pundits, and some preachers) can’t allow anyone to stray from the party line. It’s not a belief system as such. Just an affirmation held together in brightly colored tissue paper.
When that paper tears, as it will like all the Christmas (or Hanukkah and Kwanza) wrapping, what then? Then, just maybe we in the Christian church can teach our fellow citizens how to explore differences without abandoning faith. To show them that there is something deeper and richer and more real than what they’re trying to hold onto. That change isn’t scary when faith abides.
We don’t always get that right. But I think at the root of our faith, we understand that doubt isn’t a scary thing. It actually takes us to the places we needed to go.