Reflections on Evolving Faith 2019

I’m spent this weekend in Denver, attending the second Evolving Faith conference being held in the hockey arena of the University of Denver (which I’m pretty sure is considered sacred space). The conference is the brainchild of Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans. After Rachel’s tragic death this past Spring, it seemed more important than ever to attend especially when the conference fell during our Fall Break. Plus, our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter live in Denver and it gave us an opportunity to visit while I attended the conference.

Meeting in a hockey stadium is a little less intimate than the gathering in the Montreat auditorium last year. Everyone is pretty far way but the messages seemed to resonate with those present.

I have no data to back this up, but the crowd was larger this year and seemed more diverse in terms of age (but still mostly female and white).

The conference opened, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of Rachel’s loss. Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu shared their thoughts. Then Rachel’s husband, Dan, shared his own reflections. He reminded us that Rachel’s writing mantra was “Be Honest, Be Yourself, Be Kind” and then read a passage from her final book which will come out next year.

The first session of the morning was on what it means to be in the wilderness. Sarah Bessey, Eric Barreto, and Barbara Brown Taylor shared some of their own journeys of displacement. Living outside the dynamics of imposed structures is a characteristic of the wilderness journey. Barbara Brown Taylor pointed out how much Jesus didn’t just encourage the wilderness living, he dragged his disciples into danger. It takes deep faith to move beyond the comfortable structures of religious institutions.

It struck me that this may be a common perspective for Evolving Faith folks. Their past religious lives haven’t provided the space to ask questions are take a more complicated, ambiguous, deconstructed view of faith. As frightening as the wilderness is, it appears more authentic than quietly going through church motions.

The second session was on scripture. Pete Enns unpacked the story of Nicodemus in John 3 to illustrate that Nicodemus needs a new perspective, as radical as being physically born again. Pete went on to talk about his own journey and ended with a wonderful analysis of left brain/right brain approaches to faith. While he can do all kinds of deconstruction in the left brain, there is a source of assurance (he didn’t use this term but I’m making the Wesley reference) that shows up in the right brain. Area UMC pastor Jasper Peters filled in for Renita Weems and offered a fascinating re-interpretation on the authority of scripture. Because authority is often used to buttress other power and institutional claims, he affirms instead the power of the scripture in terms of impacting one’s life. This sentiment was underscored by the three speakers as they debriefed the session.

The first afternoon session revolved around themes of life’s struggles and how faith is impacted. Tanya Marlow described her multiple health challenges and how all attempts at theodicy failed. In time, she drew solace in knowing that God was part of her story and she was part of God’s. It wasn’t healing but it was faith affirming in small ways. Blogger and podcaster B. T. Harman described his journey of coming out as a thirty-year-old Southern Baptist. He described how his personal story and the political moment combined to interfere with his art and his faith. He described how he had settled on a discipline of gratitude, giving people space to be who they were, and appreciation as a means of restoring balance. Reflecting on Miriam’s song in Exodus, Cece Jones-Davis reflected on the need to know the key refrains. In the midst of transition, it is important to know what to hang on to and remember that “what the Lord requires also requires the Lord.” The conversation that followed invited the three speakers to reflect on what they hold on to from their more structured religious upbringing. All looked fondly upon those early years for what it contributed to their current journey. A similar question was asked last year with some pushback from those in attendance.

The final set of speakers spoke to important sociological issues of race, decolonization, and structures of assumed power. William Matthews used horror films to describe how we are told the dread that is before us and especially addressed this in terms of racial power dynamics. Listening to the powerless would provide a clearer sense of the challenges that are just around the corner. Kaitlin Cortice spoke of her Potawatami roots through her father’s side and what she has learned about re-appropriating a cultural identity that was taken from her when she was young. She said that American culture prides itself in being a toxic empire. I found this a helpful way to tell the story rather than focusing on individual expressions. Chaneque Walker-Barnes shared her journey of trying to “fit” into a variety of local church expressions that never quite worked. She raised the question of why congregations expected her to shave parts of herself off in order to fit in, deciding instead to take a sabbatical from church to figure out how she worshipped and what part she played before trying to return. In the summary conversation, Jeff Chu pushed the speakers to address the big challenge of the event: we were an overwhelmingly white group meeting at an overly white campus in an overly white city. This in turn led to an important conversation about the ways in which white liberal progressive churches fall well short in terms of addressing structural (rather than personal) issues of race, politics, and justice.

Day one ended with a “grief and lament” service that included Rachel’s sister, Amanda. I didn’t attend since I’m went to dinner with the family.

The second day opened with devotions, Matthew Paul Turner reading his children’s book, and singing “Spirit in the Sky”. Then we split up among varied breakout sessions.

I attended a live taping of the podcastPantsuits and Politics“. Hosts Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland explored the challenges of the Ukraine/impeachment conversations and then moved on to other topics. Much of the hour was spent on discussions of the #MeToo movement, Weinstein, Kavenaugh, and the church. They addressed importance of hearing womens’ stories, but especially those stories told TO women. The immorality and capitalist assumptions of non-discloure agreements that force women to deny their trauma while protecting the powers and structures that sustained the abuse in the first place. The challenges of pushing back on dominant political narratives for those who see politics differently was also a major theme. If you listen to the podcast when it comes out, you can hear me asking a questions about Trump’s claim of a Third Great Awakening and why Franklin Graham supporters in North Carolina supporting the president isn’t news.

The second breakout session I attended was on the enneagram, which is a big deal among young religious folks. Mickey ScottBey Jones led the session describing exactly what she jokingly called “this cult” is all about. I hung out for awhile and even retook an enneagram quiz online (it’s says I’m a 5; last time I was a 3) but I really can’t get into the whole idea.

Over the lunch break, I had a great conversation with Roxanne Stone, now managing editor of Religion News Service and formerly with the Barna group. She was very kind in listening to my ramblings about my book project, evangelicalism, and evolving faith. Watch for an Evolving Faith report from Roxanne in coming days.

The afternoon session was focused on personal testimonies of faith journeys. Musician Jennifer Knapp shared her coming out story and discussed the realities of having people react to her. Jen Hatmaker spoke on Jesus’ parable of the good fruit and bad fruit as part of telling her story of evolving faith (it was very interesting to compare it to last year’s testimony). She spoke at length about the ways in which the religious power structures made the Gospel mostly about themselves and justified the exclusion of others. She called it one of the greatest examples of “gaslighting” to have the bad fruit (LGBTQ exclusion, abuse, celebrity, power) called “good” in the process. Lisa Sharon Harper spoke at length about the centrality of the Image of God throughout our Christian history. The problems of exclusion and dismissal are based on the denial of that central image. Jess Chu wrapped things up with a reflection on water. He opened by describing the morning mists at the Princeton farminary and how moving it was to see things come clear. Drawing from Ezekiel, he described how that fresh water is central to the renewal of all life. He connected that renewal to Ezekiel and the dry bones being given new life.

Sarah Bessey closed out the session by discussing the status of Evolving Faith itself. There was a period after Rachel’s death that she and others thought that maybe they couldn’t go on. But they prayed and talked and realized that there was a need for this group. There is now a mission statement and a set of core values. The 2020 conference has been scheduled for Houston.

The conference closed with communion, with Nadia Bolz-Weber giving the sermon. I left early as I had on Friday so I could have dinner with the family.

So here’s my takeaway. This year’s conference felt different. Some of that was to be expected: Rachel was gone, we were in a hockey arena, the crowd was bigger and slightly older. But the real difference was in tone. Last year the message seemed to be “you’ve left your prior church experience and it’s going to be okay here in the wilderness.” This year still gave permission for people to doubt or question, but it had for me a sense of movement. It was more like “you’re out here in the wilderness and it’s time to do the work to figure out where the path leads.” There is work to be done.

I told a few people about this outlandish prediction I made five years ago. I had argued that there was a coming convergence between progressive evangelicals rethinking boundaries and theologically grounded mainliners seeking to connect their faith in Jesus to a complex culture. Here is how I ended that piece:

I have a friend in Portland who once wrote some wonderful stuff on “confluence”. His metaphor is based on what happens with the Willamette and the Columbia come together. It’s not just that they are flowing the same way. It’s that their waters intermingle and at some point you can no longer tell which water came from which source. The current, however, is still strong.

This is where the future of evangelicalism will be found. It the midst of the stream, following God’s leading into that future he has been building all along.

I can’t say that my prediction was coming to pass in that hockey stadium in Denver, but I could begin to catch the glimmers of it in the mist that Jeff Chu described. Something is happening here and it seems to say a lot about the future of faith in America after we’re done with the politics of the current moment.

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Intellectual Inquiry in the Christian University

Last week Daniel Silliman reported out a fascinating story for Christianity Today. The centerpiece of the story involved research conducted by Southeastern University scholar Jennifer Clark on how students’ faith patterns change during their educational journey. She found that students at evangelical colleges commonly “feel unsettled about spiritual matters, unsure of their beliefs, disillusioned with their religious upbringing, distant from God, or angry with God.” Surprisingly, these doubts occurred not when they arrived at college (which was true for more secular institutions) but later in their college careers.

People outside Christian higher education may find this surprising. They too often assume that Christian universities are indoctrination institutions, where students simply learn the Christian answers. Those of us on the inside recognize that students have selected a Christian university for a variety of reasons (or had it selected for them) but haven’t really thought deeply about what they expect — which may be why admissions viewbooks sell the images of happy Christian community. You can make that mean whatever you want.

If students arrived on our campus this past week as eager Christian learners, what accounts for the faith challenge? There are as many reasons as there are students, but I can make some general suggestions. First, there is the obvious separation from family and home church. No longer being at home and now being challenged to take personal responsibility for one’s positions creates anxiety. Second, there are the classes students take. One of the “liberating” parts of liberal arts is that the students are exposed to ideas and readings that are hard to square with one’s upbringing. (It’s very important not to demonize that upbringing — students have enough challenges on their own.) Third, they take classes from Christian faculty who have walked similar paths. To see a biology or sociology or english faculty member who has engaged the complexity of the world without abandoning faith provides an encouragement to students that confronting that complexity has rewards and that one’s faith is strong enough to handle it. Finally and maybe most importantly, students are shaped by their peers. To discover that students at one’s dinner table are also Christians yet have very different viewpoints from what you grew up with can be disconcerting.

Yesterday The Atlantic posted a piece from the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, on the role of religion in his classroom. As a Wesleyan, I was happy with his acknowledgement of John Wesley’s impact on both personal spirituality and social impact. Yet Roth’s reflections on religion raise questions about the nature of critical engagement in secular institutions (even if formerly religious):

Yet classroom discussions of these very subjects often seem threatening to even students of faith, who tell me they don’t want to be “outed” on campus. These undergrads encounter mostly secular professors who sometimes treat religious believers as somehow intellectually deficient, or as morally compromised by their commitments to traditions that their teachers have left behind.

To be fair, most students at Christian universities are not likely to share their faith challenges in class for exactly the same fear of being “outed” –except reversed. They don’t want professors (and mostly peers) to think that they’ve “lost their way”.

And yet most Christian universities provide the space and climate for students to wrestle even with the most challenging issues: justice, racial animus, sexual orientation, war and peace, and the role of the church in modern society. Silliman’s story shows that many leaders in some fairly conservative evangelical schools are aware of the faith challenges our students face. The parents and donors may not like having that publicly noted, but it is key to the educational journey.

Molly Worthen wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times this weekend exploring conservative concerns over perceived exclusion of conservative voices on college campuses. She does a great job of showing that while the concern of activist groups is overblown, there may be some valid critique:

The conservative boogeyman of the tenured atheist radical who brainwashes innocent undergraduates is more myth than reality. It’s true that academia has long leaned to the left, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and activist professors do exist. But they are a minority. Where professors more commonly fall down, I suspect, is in our failure to grasp how changes in the broader culture — like omnipresent social media and polarized, cruel politics — have made students reluctant to embrace the freedom that we like to believe our classrooms provide.

This is likely true on Christian campuses as well. Increased polarization and expectation that one’s views will simply be affirmed without engagement is a problem to be addressed. In my experience, this usually happens by expecting students to grapple with the implications of their sociological readings while not mandating specific policy outcomes that their author (or their professor) might prefer.

Worthen explores campuses where the ethos of hospitality to ideas is more available than others. She cites Great Books programs and Civil Discourse Clubs as examples. It makes me think that an overarching campus culture that affirms conversation while maintaining the interdependence of its members (faculty, students, and staff) goes a long way toward supporting the kind of inquiry that allows both faith and learning to be affirmed.

As recent analysis has suggested, the road ahead for Christian universities will be a rough one. As the percentage of today’s rising generation is less likely to be evangelical (8% by recent measures), the market for students seeking a Christian university will become much tighter with noticeable winners and losers. Financial pressures from external costs to internal amenities to attract that share of students will be real.

Those pressures are pushing many schools to rethink their curriculum. To pick one significant example, Gordon College announced this year a major shift in their programmatic focus, shrinking some traditional liberal arts majors to create room for other, more vocational, majors. As they explain on their webpage:

Gordon is once again making necessary adjustments to respond to the market realities of today that demand greater affordability and adaptability. The next chapter not only retains the core Christian liberal arts foundation, but makes it more accessible and relevant for what students and families want from college and what employers want from graduates.

The shift of liberal arts education to a core foundation is somehow set against what students, parents, and employers want. As a cabinet member of CCCU institutions over 17 years, I understand the market sensitivity the changes reflect. And yet I fear that the changes reflect a move away from the community orientation of the Christian university toward a balkanized pursuit of personal economic worth.

Where, exactly, will future Christian university students find the support as they work through the faith crises of learning seen as part of the process of affirming both faith and work? I wish I knew the answer.

As I have begun my final year of teaching before retirement, I will work to be acutely aware of the students Jennifer Clark identifies in her research. They will work to navigate the doubts they are confronting and I want to support them in that journey.

Truman Burbank’s “Deconversion”

Fall classes started this week. This semester I’m teaching a section of the second level of SAU’s required core curriculum titled “Community, Place, and Responsibility.” One of the defined objectives for all sections of the course is to “Reflect critically and productively on the main categories of cultural identity, including but not limited to family, nation, race, and sex.” This can be a challenge for students as many grew up in relatively small, homogeneous communities.

I wanted to illustrate the ways in which our individual origin stories are seen as normative — the model against which all others are evaluated. On the first day, I decided to show parts of The Truman Show; especially the sections where Truman first begins to realize that there is something seriously wrong with his world.

Only a few of the students had seen the movie (what’s wrong with you kids today?) and I’m not sure the concept made complete sense to them but we’ll come back to it throughout the course.

Since I’d rented the movie through Amazon, I figured I might as well watch the whole thing again. It really is a terrific film and received multiple nominations for best picture, best actor, best director, best supporting actor, and best screenplay. It allows Jim Carrey to show his quirky side but also to show him as thoughtful and struggling.

If you haven’t seen it (what’s wrong with you kids today?), the premise of the film is that Truman has spent his entire life on a studio set. Everyone he interacts with are actors and extras. Daily conversations turn into options for in-show product placement ads. Storylines are manipulated to maintain the global audience interest and allow drama to build. This premise gets shattered when technical glitches occur on the set. Truman discovers that he is the central character in this artificial drama and sets out to find the answers that might lead to his breaking free.

Because I’ve been immersed in trying to make sense of the sociology of evangelicals for the last several years, I saw parallels everywhere between the Truman Show and the evangelical subculture, especially as millennials have experienced it.

Truman Burbank, while being the central character in the story, has spent his life being sheltered from the world. He is told that it’s better to live in Seahaven Island (which is literally cut off from the world). A fear of the sea was instilled early in his life which prevented him from giving way to his curiosity about broader world (namely, Fiji). He is content to go through the motions of his life, relying on the structures surrounding him (both physical and narrative).

When one of the stars falls from the sky he is curious. When he finds that the radio is reporting on his daily drive, he is unnerved. When he sees his believed-to-be-drowned father on the sidewalk, he enters into a full crisis. Once he discovers that the bank next to where he works is simply a facade, he sets out to leave Seahaven.

Truman realizes that everyone he has come to know and love is in on the charade. They knew they were manipulating him. Overcoming his fears, he sets out to flee the island.

The show’s director, played brilliantly by Ed Harris, is named Christof (a not very subtle move on the screenwriter’s part). He tries to play on Truman’s fear of the water by having his assistant (a young Paul Giamatti) churn up a major storm. When Truman survives the storm, Christof tries to get him to stay, to affirm that love and support he had received his entire life in this fictional community.

Truman’s quest ends (and begins) when the boat reaches the edge of the soundstage. Faced with a decision to stay or go, he walks through the door into the unknown.

The movie occasionally shows scenes of the audience watching The Truman Show. They are enthralled with the action and yet become even bigger fans as Truman makes his escape quest. Once that has happened, they simply move on to see what’s on the other stations in their pursuit of entertainment.

In recent months, multiple evangelical “stars” have made statements about changes in their faith. Most notable among these is Joshua Harris. Emily Miller summarized these shifts in her story yesterday for Religion News Service. Figures like Harris were known in the evangelical community as “influencers” and continue that role as they announce their struggles via social media.

We don’t know all that went into Harris’ decision or those who struggle in similar ways. But my research on millennial evangelical memoirs allows some reasonable guesses.

When one grows up embedded in a highly structured evangelical world, there are a lot of taken-for-granted pieces that are simply accepted. It is the air one breathes. All the self-perpetuating dynamics of apologetics training, youth groups activities, and slightly proud separation from the world can be a remarkable mix.

It’s hard to say what triggers the beginnings of the questions. Perhaps it is realizing that the cool kids at school are just as messed up as everybody else. Or it’s realizing the challenges of purity culture and the double standards present in the church. Maybe it’s a growing awareness that the pastor’s sneakers are really expensive. Or church leaders who require allegiance without room for questions. Or systems that have ignored abuse and moral lapse for years.

Up until that point, perhaps everyone had gone along with the program. Questions are uncomfortable for everybody because they manage to highlight the compliant nature of their faith.

I think a major part of what happens is that the questioners start seeing the structures that make the whole system work. And then it’s no longer like the air one breathes or the water you swim in. Those structures sometimes seem more important to keeping the story moving for the sake of the audience. Questioners are encouraged to keep their thoughts to themselves and just have more faith.

And like Truman Burbank, they start wondering what’s behind all of the structures, who can be trusted, and whether there is a place for them within the structures at all.

So the time comes for them to look for an exit. Like Truman, they battle storms of doubt. At the end of the day, they don’t know where they are headed but prefer the unknown to the artifice they are leaving behind.

As a Facebook friend observed, what they find isn’t really freedom. But it is hope for an authentic faith that can sustain them.

The Challenge of Evangelical Banners

Over the past three weeks, I’ve read three excellent books that created new understandings of our religious world and then tested them in real life settings.

I’ve been following David Fitch’s work since attending a Missio Alliance Learning Commons nearly five years ago. His presentation was based on Prodigal Christianity that he co-wrote with Geoff Holsclaw. I have used the book in my sociology capstone class ever since. The book raises questions about the end of Christendom and makes suggestions on how the church could rethink its stance relative to the broader culture. His next book, Faithful Presence, built upon the ideas in Prodigal as they relate to ministry in a particular local context. As I’ve written here before, Faithful Presence is a concept that James Davison Hunter raised in To Change the World but didn’t expand as much as he could have. David’s work begins to flesh that out in concrete terms.

So when I heard that David’s newest book was dealing with the church in conflict with society (also a theme in Hunter’s book), I eagerly awaited its release date. When The Church of Us Vs. Them arrived in my mailbox, it only took me two days to finish it. I immediately bought copies for a long-term friend in Oregon and for my new pastor, now in her sixth week at our church.

Us Vs. Them is a really important book in light of everything we read in the media, in scholarship, and in commentary regarding evangelicalism in modern society. It has echoes of John Fea’s Believe Me, but adopts an even more useful frame than John’s focus on fear. I will undoubtedly oversimplify what is a complex and interesting argument, but I will try nevertheless.

David adopts the language of political theology and communications in considering how the church has often operated. Central to his argument is the idea that evangelical churches have had a tendency to raise “banners” that separate those who are in (and right) from those who are out (and wrong). This process of creating enemies is important because it breeds in-group solidarity and manages to distance the other.

But the important concept in making this work is that the banner is often a signifier without substance. We know this is the case because no one ever explains precisely what support of the establishment position entails. David uses three primary examples: biblical inerrancy, conversionism, and nationalism — particularly interesting as two of these are components of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (and nationalism is getting close — more below).

Each of the banners serves to create antagonism with those outside the camp. This in turn allows one to caricature the other, minimizing their worth and any value present in their position. One is therefore justified in not engaging with those outside.

These banners are nothing new. The Fundamentalist movement developed in opposition to what the Modernists were up to at the turn of the 20th century. Four decades later, the Evangelical Movement tried to split the difference, claiming the Fundamentalist were too conservative and the Mainliners were liberals who believe in nothing. We’ve always relied on negative referents rather than trying to engage the similarities that exist among the various parts of Christ’s Church (looking at you, Eric Erickson) to say nothing of values we might share with out unchurched neighbors.

When the signifier lacks substance, it is adopted as a component of identity. Decades ago I had a friend in a conservative denomination tell me that if all the rules disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn’t know who he was. I tried to gently ask that if the rules didn’t have meaning beyond in-group identity, then what was the point?

We can see this in recent “apostasy” claims about Josh Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Both have used language that sounds much more like banners than substance. Harris says “based on everything I thought Christianity was about,” he’s not sure he would consider himself a Christian. Sampson’s language is very similar. They find themselves examining assumptions rather than simply adopting the signifier.

The same thing can be seen in recent excellent writing about the challenges of purity culture two decades later. Following the rules and going with the program had consequences for teens and again as they became adults. [It was also big business, but that’s a different post.] When the impacted women began excavating the assumptions that they had absorbed, it created challenges in their view of the evangelical church, their sense of self, and their relationships.

There’s much more I could write about Fitch’s argument that would be more faithful to his book rather than my reactions to his book. But this post is going to be pretty long, so I’ll leave it for now and move on to Lyz Lenz’s God Land.

Lenz’s book came right after I finished David’s book. Her story is a combination of her own personal journey out of an evangelical church and her marriage and her reportorial treatment of religion in the Midwest. The themes from Us Vs. Them show up but not as explicitly. Her challenge with her evangelical church, including the church plant she was part of, was that she dared to ask the deep questions about what was assumed in the banners of the day. She was then seen as a problem to be fixed. Finding her space on her own terms is part of the personal journey of the book.

But the reportorial part of the book deals with banners and the assumptions of difference as well. Central to the book is people’s belief in small town America, especially “fly-over country” as the real America — the backbone of good values. This is opposed to those other parts of the country — liberal coasts and elites (which causes some leaders to delight in the urban decay of coastal cities while ignoring the infrastructure and economic crises in the small towns). In such a context, church stands in for “community values”. Nostalgia is celebrated as normative, even thought it cannot be recaptured.

In the chapters of Lyz’s book, you can find evangelical opposition on culture war issues, muscular Christianity, and an unreflective self-assurance from religious leaders. In the end, she at least finds a Lutheran church where she can worship on her own terms (even though her former church would likely consider that becoming “one of them”).

Immediately after I finished God Land, Angela Denker’s Red State Christians arrived from Amazon. Angela is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who spent a year traveling to the parts of the country where Christians were most fervently in support of Donald Trump both in 2016 and today.

Her travels took her to a variety of settings, many of them big-name churches. She attended a patriotic service in Texas that managed not to mention Jesus once. She was at Joel Osteen’s church and at Rick Warren’s church. She visited Paula White’s church. She was in Appalachia and Orange County and spent time (which freaked me out) at extremely conservative Catholic Thomas More College.

Denker’s book uncovers some of the same exclusionist patterns that Lenz’s and Fitch’s do. While some people were quite pragmatic in their voting (needing things to be shaken up, dislike of Clinton), others were supporting Trump because that’s what “our people” do. Especially when he’s “fighting for you” as Ralph Reed told Julie Zauzmer recently.

The differing banners that groups are using to organize their members become quite problematic in a complex democracy such as ours. While many argue for the need to pay attention to some “mythical middle” in the electorate, it is hard to see that there is any merit in doing so. The oppositional forces Fitch identifies are too strong.

For all my friends who keep arguing that democrats need to reach out to pro-life moderates, I’d observe that there is no reward for doing so. One of the problems with rigid antagonism is that both side are involved in what Amatai Etzioni called “inverted symbiosis”. They each push the other farther away. Any ground given is a betrayal of the cause. The polling data can be spliced six ways to Sunday. But as long as the right claims that liberals want to abort babies after they’re born and the left claims that the conservatives are doing end-runs around Roe, nobody has any need for a middle.

David Fitch offers hope to move beyond these rigid antagonisms. Consistent with his other writings, it requires us to honestly engage those around us. To avoid the tendency to organize around banners and instead to practice being part of the Kingdom of God unfolding all around us. He closes Us Vs. Them with an optimistic and hopeful challenge:

Can my church be this Jesus in my neighborhood? Gifted with a new practice of reading and preaching the Scripture together, a broader and deeper practice of conversion and mission, a thicker and fuller way of thinking about being his church in the world, can we become his reconciling presence in the world full of strife all around us where we live? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14 NIV).

Robert Mueller: The Book and the Movie

“Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985: 87)

I spent yesterday watching former special counsel Robert Mueller testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. It’s often difficult to process events like this. Early responses are superficial. We really won’t know the impact of Mueller’s testimony for several news cycles.

(Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

To be fair to Mueller, he didn’t want to testify. There was a lot of negotiation between the committee leadership and Mueller’s people to find the right balance in the hearing. Mueller didn’t want to be a media figure reading from his report. The Department of Justice issued guidelines steering him away from questions about the investigation’s origins or other ongoing investigative matters. Mueller himself was clear that he wasn’t going to add interpretative gloss, which he had earlier referred to as “going beyond the four corners of the report.”

Last night, California representative Jackie Speier was on Brian Williams’ “Eleventh Hour”. Asked if she was surprised at Mueller’s taciturn and minimalist style, she said she wasn’t. These were the issues the Intelligence Committee had discussed with Mueller’s team and this is what she expected given those limitations.

By the break of the morning session with the Judiciary Committee, NBC’s Chuck Todd had tweeted “On substance, the Democrats got what they wanted: … But on optics, this was a disaster.” Todd was rightfully roasted by the public editor of the Columbia Journalism Review later in the day, but he actually captured most media sentiment.

“The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. ‘Credibility’ here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impressions of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance for it goes to the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.” Postman (102)

So the optics are a disaster because Mueller did not come off as Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. I read a couple of references yesterday to the McCarthy hearings: “At long last, sir, have you no decency?” If there was no such moment, could the hearings be worthwhile?

The notion of verisimilitude being primary provided cover for Republican members to frame their favorite conspiracy theories about Mifsud, FISA warrants, and Fusion GPS. Never mind that my Google searches on some of these items (Simpson had dinner with the Russian lawyer!) only showed right-wing media sites. The inquisitors were pushing their sincere outrage at even being in the hearing while maximizing their messaging (“Excuse me Mr. Mueller, I have a limited amount of time remaining.”).

Not that the Democrats were better, especially in the Judiciary Committee. Their attempt to maintain message discipline by referencing each of the ten obstruction examples and ending with their forced litany “no one is above the law” simply underscored the performative aspect of the day.

One of the aspects of modern popular culture that Neil Postman so accurately foretold three decades ago is our reliance on a Good Story. We affix narrative to daily events and treat them as ongoing seasons in a serial drama. President Trump may be a master at incorporating the tropes of reality television (Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran? “We’ll see what happens“) but that’s only because the culture is so accustomed to the idea.

The news media had been telling the story of this ongoing drama with breathless anticipation and countdown clocks. What will happen when Mueller testifies? What will the president say/tweet? Will this be the pivotal moment this story has been building toward?

It was inevitable that the hearings would fall well short of their advance hype. Real life does not measure up to our dramatized imaginings (does anybody actual live like the women in Big Little Lies?).

At the end of the day, we were left with the same key issues one could glean from reading the actual Mueller Report (as Postman would have encouraged): Russian interference, openness to outside information on the part of the Trump campaign, lies to investigators, reluctance to be forthcoming with information, and attempts to impede or obstruct the investigation. Whether these rise to the level of chargeable offenses — regardless of OLC guidelines or legal standards — does not resolve the matters that were in the report. As Congressman Schiff said at the close of the afternoon, these were moral and ethical breaches even if they fell short of legal violations.

At the lunch break between the Judiciary and Intelligence hearings, MSNBC commentator Chuck Rosenberg, former US Attorney and Counsel to FBI Director Mueller, gave the quote of the day: “Sometimes the book is better than the movie.

Evangelical Influencers and Evangelical Populism

I have begun to question whether writing this blog is an exercise in futility.

Like many others, I attempt to use my sociological imagination to understand what is happening within evangelicalism. However valid my points may be, it seems a Sisyphean task. We all seem to be talking to each other and having very little impact either on the broader culture’s understandings of evangelicals or evangelicalism’s limited powers of self-critique.

Over the past week, my social media feed has been filled with references to Peter Wehner’s Atlantic essay, “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity.” Wehner critiques the evangelical embrace of Republican/Trumpian partisanship that has so dominated evangelical conversation. He suggests — following Saint Ambrose, Francis Fukuyama, and Fuller Seminary’s Mark Labberton — that urgent change is required to restore evangelicalism’s public witness before a tipping point is reached.

The political alignment between evangelicals and conservative politics has gotten so tight that it is almost impossible to separate out the causal forces. Ryan Burge shared data recently supporting an argument I’ve made over the last couple of years that the two factors have merged empirically. In fact, this 2017 article by Melissa Wilde argues that we should stop trying to pull the factors of race, class, and gender apart from religious views.

Wehner’s essay opened with a reference to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in which Reed celebrated the mutual love evangelicals and Trump have for each other. While that certainly does not ring true of the evangelicals in my social media feed, it does for surprising numbers of others who never read what I write.

At the Faith and Freedom gathering, Natalie Harp (above) was brought on stage to tell her story and the ways in which access to experimental treatments enabled by a law signed by Trump allowed her recovery from bone cancer. She went on say that Trump was like the Good Samaritan. To her, the medical establishment and the political establishment left her “by the side of the road” but Trump was the one to come to her aid. He was the outsider who “gave up his own quality of life” to help others.

My academic brain wants to quickly point out that 1) that is not how the Good Samaritan story goes and 2) the “right to try” bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a 91 vote margin — it wasn’t a major Trump initiative.

But that’s not the point. Trump campaigned on “I alone can fix it.” The evangelical culture, long comfortable with strong leaders, took that at face value. This is why evangelical voices like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, David Barton, Eric Metaxis, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. are more influential that any critiques shared by Wehner, Gerson, Moore (Russell or Beth), Wear, Merritt, or me.

There is a strain of populist evangelical culture that is hard to penetrate. Kristin DuMez observed this trend with regard to Hobby Lobby. That populism is the subtext of Ruth Graham’s excellent piece on the “boy who went to heaven” book and its resulting drama — generalized supernaturalism, publishing entities playing on good news stories that support vague presuppositions, and spiritual warfare alarmists.

That populist strain bleeds easily into Christian Nationalism. You can go on a cruise celebrating Christian nation-ism (a distinction without a difference) where one can celebrate our “Judeo-Christian heritage” and “the importance of self-governance”. The stance taken by the organizers allows those participating to strike a blow against the liberal elites seen as society’s opponents.

Even though Republican mega-funder Miriam Adelson is not evangelical, her suggestion that someday the Bible should include a “book of Trump” would be celebrated, not just by those at the weekly Trump rallies but by rank and file evangelicals.

To return to Wehner’s article, the idea that the Christian cruisers, the heaven-experience readers, or the Hobby Lobby enthusiasts would engage in self correction after reading what Fukuyama, Labberton, or Saint Abrose says about the religion and politics is beyond absurd. Those are intellectuals and not “people of faith.”

Ryan Burge’s post ended by asking why the overlap between white evangelicalism and Republican partisanship is so strong.

That leaves us only two answers: the theological messages and social interactions that white evangelicals experience as part of the religious activity has no impact on their political outlook, or that this religious exposure is so intertwined with Republican politics that the two reinforce each other. 

I understand his first answer. It’s what I’ve been writing about for years — the idea that theology should and must shape religious and political views. But that’s exactly what an academic would focus on.

Ryan’s second answer reminds me of an argument made by Amy Sullivan in 2017. In America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicals, Amy argues that cultural dynamics have significantly more influence that we’ve previously thought.

The result is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized not just to complain about department stores that hang “Happy Holidays” banners, but more significantly, in support of politicians like Mr. Trump or Mr. [Roy] Moore — and of virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war.

I’m struggling to find a satisfactory answer to the problem I’m identifying. I’m sure many of my social media followers will find it helpful. But it will do virtually nothing to influence the populist evangelical culture that has become so much of a factor in the public perception of religion in general and evangelicals in particular.

Perhaps we need to abandon all of our thoughtful philosophical, theological, and sociological reflections and invest our time in making counter-cultural memes with funny gifs. Not my strong suit, but I can learn.

Challenging Evangelical Paradigms

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Evangelical World. We lost Rachel Held Evans, Pence gave commencement addresses at Liberty and Taylor about coming evangelical persecution, Beth Moore took on Complementarianism, restrictive state abortion laws were met with some evangelical critique, and, to top it off, James MacDonald was accused of trying to arrange a murder to be carried out on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum.

Somehow, all of this disruption got me thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 1962, Kuhn analyzed how science is transformed over time. For example, he explored how a Ptolemaic view of cosmology gave way to the Copernican view (which was then disrupted by Einstein and then by quantum physics). One of my sociological theory texts from grad school contained this helpful graphic explaining Kuhn’s theory.

Key to understanding Kuhn is the notion of Normal Science. This is what is accepted among scientists as the way a topic is understood. It is characterized by broad consensus and the establishment of institutional power centers (educational institutions, journals) that teach and research around the key questions and dominant understandings. Empirical evidence that doesn’t fit the dominant view (Anomalies) are ignored or explained away. Over time, however, the magnitude of the anomalies reaches a point where they can no longer be fit into the previous paradigm. New attempts to conceptualize the problem develop which better align with the existing empirical evidence. As those prove more effective explanations, the New Paradigm begins to take shape. Eventually, it becomes the dominant understanding of the younger generation and is institutionalized. In relatively short order, it is established as the new Normal Science in which research and teaching are centered.

Here’s how that relates to shifts in evangelicalism in the US. While we aren’t relying on empirical data in the same way as the natural sciences, there is a way in which establishment forms became dominant and were institutionally reinforced. The raw material from which the paradigm is built is through homogeneity of information. This happens through seminaries, denominational bodies, para-church networks, and dominant periodicals. The voices of Normal Evangelicalism don’t explore the questions that are disparate from the “Orthodox” view.

This presumed homogeneity of Normal Evangelicalism has been challenged with the availability of the Internet. Suddenly other voices were focused on those questions and perspectives that the dominant paradigm thinks shouldn’t be raised. These new voices, disproportionally women’s voices, didn’t arise from the establishment — as Tish Warren observed in 2017:

This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium.

In light of Kuhn’s model, it is instructive that Warren refers to these changes as “a crisis”. She’s correct, especially from the perspective of Normal Evangelicalism.

Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and numerous others occupied the space that Warren was describing. They benefitted from the dramatic way in which social media democratizes and deinstitutionalizes communication. They were able to build significant followings precisely because they were willing to wrestle with the anomalies in Normal Evangelicalism.

With Rachel Held Evan’s death two weeks ago, a natural question arises: who will take her place? The Religion News Service’s Emily Miller reflected on this yesterday in a piece titled “Who will be our next Rachel?” It’s an important question, but if I’m right about the democratization of social media, there are a host of people ready to step into that gap. Abby Norman, a recent M.Div. graduate of Candler Theological, wrote as much last week.

The Crisis phase, however, isn’t yet formed into a new Normal. This means that conflict is the story of the day. The Mother’s Day weekend interchange between Beth Moore and Owen Strachen was a perfect illustration. Beth Allison Barr captured well the importance of that exchange:

I think Beth Moore has decided not to be left out of the “divine loop” that means everything for evangelical women. This is our “critical moment.” And Beth Moore has stepped out in front holding her giant-size weight.

What was particularly telling that weekend was the groundswell of voices within evangelical circles who shared and celebrated Beth’s twitter thread. People were eager to weigh in on the need to provide a serious response to the implicit assumptions of too much of complementarian argument.

Voices challenging the Establishment paradigm can be seen in a host of other places as well: the #ChurchToo response to abuse in places like Willow Creek and some SBC congregations, the alignment of evangelicalism with pro-Trump triumphalism, critiques of the purity culture movement, and the recent actions of the United Methodist Church on LGBT issues.

It remains to be seen what is on the other side of the Crisis period.. My best guess, following Kuhn, is that new voices which are addressing tough questions and realistically struggling with them through the lens of vital Christian faith will prevail. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me suggests that the younger generation is eager to engage that struggle.

Building a New Paradigm is hard. The lack of power centers relative to Establishment Evangelicalism makes that more difficult. Yet seeing that develop is the most likely outcome over the long run. I can’t conclude this piece better than Kristin DuMez concluded hers from this morning, so I’ll simply quote her.

It remains to be seen what sort of power Beth Moore and the network of evangelical women she has forged will exert in the face of conservative evangelical networks. It also remains to be seen what will be come of the coalition of progressive Christian women Rachel Held Evans helped forge without Evans herself at its hub. In many ways, however, the future of American evangelicalism will unfold in terms of the relative power struggles within and among such networks and coalitions.