Category: Just Plain Sociology

Two Modes of Evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism

This is a follow-up piece on last week’s post that connected Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the changing nature of American Evangelicalism. It also builds off of the post I wrote for the Respectful Conversations dialogue on the future of evangelicalism. Finally, it’s informed by my reading of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason on the early years of evangelical establishment.

To be fair, this is still a work in progress (isn’t that what blogs are for?). I’m trying to wrestle with some distinctions that can align with some of what we’re seeing in a number of areas in both the sociology of religion and contemporary evangelicalism. I want to contrast two forms of evangelical expression: Industry Evangelicalism and Testimonial Evangelicalism.

WeberFrom a purely sociological perspective, I’m using what Max Weber called “ideal types”. These are ideal only in the sense that they don’t exist in real life. In fact, the differentiation between the forms may exaggerate characteristics in ways that border on caricature. But that’s still useful from a theoretical standpoint. Weber was able to contrast real-world situations with his ideal types to understand the social dynamics in operation. Two of his most famous analyses based on idea types are his examination of economic systems (the Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and his church-sect typology.

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is based on the authentic sharing of story. It is based on interpersonal relationships. Any power that is involved is the social psychological power of personal story. The story is authentic because it rings true. It avoids pat answers and mischaracterization. It is willing to risk holding contradictory positions and tolerating ambiguity. In short, it is best expressed in John 9:25: when asked how Jesus had healed him, the blind man said “I don’t know: what I do know is that once I was blind and now I see.

What I am suggesting is that we’re seeing a shift from Industry Evangelicalism to Testimonial Evangelicalism. This is an important distinction. What many see as a decline in Christian commitment within society is not a decline but is a transformation. This is always the way God’s church has remained fresh and vital in the midst of a society prone to the syncretism of combining religious perspectives and affirmation of distinctive cultural values.

I’ll unpack the theoretical implications of Testimonial Evangelicalism in my next post. First, it’s necessary to explore Industry Evangelicalism.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argued that one of the contributing factors for the growth of religious “nones” is the dogmatism and harsh stances of evangelical leaders. Younger generations found public comments and harsh tones to be a bridge too far, essentially saying “if this is what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.” This pattern is replicated in work on millennial questions about evangelicalism. I’d also suggest that the gulf between evangelical churches and mainline churches is as much this matter of tone and dogmatism as it is about theology.

There are a host of examples of Industry Evangelicalism. I’ll ignore the Duck Dynasty controversy here because I’ve already addressed it except to wonder who put out those Facebook pages about “standing with Phil Robertson“. Were these put up by some individual DD viewer? Probably not. It is far more likely that organizations that search for religious conflict put together these Facebook pages and asked Christians to “like” them. If I were really cynical, I’d think that “liking” got you on some mailing list. I’m sure that happens in the political arena and fear that the same models are being used in Industry Evangelicalism.

This week offered some concrete examples of the ideal type. I don’t have all the details behind these examples, which is where Weber’s approach is useful. They offer some indicators even if they aren’t perfect matches to the ideal type.

A group of Baptist college and seminary presidents raised concerns over the role of biblical inerrancy espoused (or not espoused) by their faculty. In the process, they raised concerns about academic freedom as generally understood within the academy. Peter Enns, reflecting on the article today, suggests “There is no hope here of reasoned, learned, discourse. Only circling the wagon and protecting turf.” Circling wagons and protecting the institutional turf reflects the prioritization of “our position” above all else.

Christianity Today had an interesting article this week on changing ties between Christian colleges and their sponsoring denominations. It’s a good piece and reflects the tensions present between attempting to build an inclusive enrollment (the article connects to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity) while the alumni and trustees are denominationally connected. The article observes that denominational giving is down compared to years past. While Union University president David Dockery does a good job of connecting these changes to non-denominationalism, he’s quoted at the end of the article expressing concern that loss of denominational structure “will likely lead to a weakening of the college’s Christian identity.” There is a presumption that it is organizational form and control that protects identity and that a college’s ethos (and the commitment of its faculty) is not strong enough to maintain identity. The impression this gives, while softer than the Baptist presidents above, still privileges institutional form above exploration and authentic dialogue.

Also this week Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and seen on thousands of television screens each week, released advanced information from his new book in which he says that President Obama is setting the stage for the Antichrist. It may be progress that he doesn’t think the president IS the antichrist but it still reflects a conflictual style that takes a legitimate disagreement (same-sex marriage) and puts it in the starkest possible context. It will sell books for sure. More importantly, to be called out in the Huffington Post is exactly what Industry Evangelicalism needs for success. The HP folks will ridicule the position taken by Pastor Jefress and he (and his folks) will take great solace in being disliked and misunderstood by HP. It’s good for the “brand”. (The similarity between this strategy and political structures is particularly disconcerting).

Yesterday Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle (and subject of lots of questions about the originality of his books) tweeted “If you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. It’s not unkind to say that. It’s unkind not to say that.” I’m not really trying to explore the theology of universalism. I was really trying to figure out what prompted the tweet in the first place. Driscoll’s followers wouldn’t be surprised at the tweet. His detractors would be outraged. Was he hoping for push back on what he saw as unquestionably Christian orthodoxy? Or, as my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wondered, is it about the need to present a simply constructed worldview where answers are easy and uncomplicated?  Again, I’d argue that the tweet operates to keep the organizational position consistent in the face of complexity.

A consistent theme in Apostles of Reason is the development of evangelical infrastructures against supposed critics and pitfalls from outside. While there are major stories of accommodation to cultural changes (I just finished the chapter about Christian colleges pursing secular accreditation), those are always seen as pragmatic moves that must be watched closely to protect the institution from outside interference.

In short, then, I’d offer three keys to knowing if we’re dealing with Industry Evangelicalism: 1) is maintaining the status quo necessary to protect institutional power; 2) is there money to be made or followers to be developed through the immediate controversy; and 3) do the players hyperbolize their position and exaggerate their victimhood?

As I’ll argue in my next post, Testimonial Evangelicalism offers an entirely different set of characteristics that are more reflective of life in a complex, postmodern, messy, diverse culture. It’s not less Christian. It’s a different expression of the Truth of the Gospel.

Please Don’t Go…We Need You

Something curious has been happening in my social media feeds. Some of the young evangelical writers I follow are frustrated. Many are tired of the constant combativeness when they try to express concerns about past positions. Others simply find it too hard to be part of a church that focuses on Duck Dynasty, Chick-fil-A, Paula Dean, Mark Driscoll, Ken Hamm, and so on. They are naturally reacting to name-calling, vitriol, and trash-talking on behalf of “bible-believing Christians”.

I’ve seen a confluence of writers put together pieces about new year’s resolutions to avoid getting sucked in to the back and forth. Even those get attacked for being wishy-washy. I fear that this weariness of combativeness and the focus on the wrong issues (like calling Pope Francis a communist), will simply encourage young-ish leaders to give up on the evangelical movement.

Last night, I saw a series of tweets on why these leaders are giving up on evangelicalism. The Duck Dynasty controversy (I still think it was contrived) brought out folks who were willing to support “biblical values” while tolerating racially insensitive (at best) speech and implausible and inelegant connections between homosexuality and bestiality. And those leaders I’m thinking about said, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I’m out”.

I’ve written before about the  evangelicals focus on boundary maintenance that will bridge no quarter when it comes to defending favorite positions. It’s easy to see. Rhetoric falls back to simply “Defending the Bible”. I was part of a thread today on how young people respond to evolution and was troubled that some folks weren’t even willing to engage the discussion without saying that the young people were at fault for not holding to “the foolishness of God” against “the wisdom of the world”. Such talk simply adds to the tendency for young people to leave the evangelical fold (and I fear, faith altogether). But my purpose tonight isn’t to address those evangelicals manning the barricades. I want to speak to those who are feeling pushed outside the walls.

My message is in the title: Don’t Go…We Need You.

It is your discomfort with the status quo that will promote change. It is your asking questions and making clear that you won’t put up with this past behavior that is a prophetic voice.

I’m not saying you have to attend the church with the worship band and the fog machine and listen to the sermon-series-soon-to-be-a-book (when the staff finishes it). Feel free to go to the mainline church for awhile if you want some structure without all the name-calling.

But don’t give up on the evangelical movement. You’re too important. The future of evangelicalism depends upon those who are able to testify to faith in Christ in the midst of a complex, postmodern, pluralistic world. We’ll need people who are articulate about their concerns, who can see multiple sides of an issue, who are willing to tolerate some ambiguity, and can help craft answers that are scripturally sound (in the grand arc of scripture) and contextually appropriate.

I’ve been reading Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. I’m a little late to the game as a number of other bloggers have done a wonderful job of responding to the book. I’m only a third of the way in, but I find it right on target in terms of evangelical institutionalization. In the part that I’ve read, two things stand out in stark relief.

First, the convergence of a biblicism and Americanism have roots in the very foundations of the evangelical infrastructure as it formed 50 years ago. I had always known that Harold Lindzell had written a book on the biblical defense of the free enterprise system, but I hadn’t know how much anti-communism and economics were a part of the early story. As N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and many others, have pointed out such a focus on power is an expression of Empire when Christ set about to build a New Kingdom.

You young evangelicals who were not raised during the cold war can speak to the worldview assumptions that framed the development of evangelicalism. It’s not part of the Gospel. It’s what my former pastor called “Jesus with condiments” – take some Jesus and add whatever you like. We need voices that will say, “Wait a minute here! We’re not celebrating the Kingdom; we’re celebrating the American middle class values of the 1960s!” (which is why I’ve been returning to Bellah’s civil religion in the last month).

A second takeaway from the first third of Worthen’s book: alternative voices were always present during evangelical institutionalization. Certainly too many of them may have been too focused on their own denominational issues. But there was NEVER “one way to be an evangelical”. Wesleyans, Anabaptists, Restorationists, Pentecostals, and others have always been trying to express a less-combative style. It would have been better if they had been included in the initial organizational circles and it’s true that they may have rightly felt pushed out of the conversation. But there is not a monolithic voice of evangelicalism with a “take it or leave it” response required.

I want my evangelical colleagues who are wavering to recognize that there are many others who have been trying to reframe evangelicalism in ways that allow us to address today’s pressing issues (pretty much Kinnaman’s list of millennial concern: science, same-sex marriage, dialogue, doubt, tone, and patriarchy). We need your voices to stay engaged because it is your work that will help shape the coming generation.

Kuhn's RevolutionsI shared this image in October. It is an graphic showing Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It shows that what looked like a dominant paradigm is regularly challenged by new ways of thinking. The establishment is not nice to those making the challenge. But over time, as new evidence emerges, it becomes clear that the new paradigm is more elegant, more correct, more reflective of reality than the previous framework. It becomes the new paradigm and things start over.

You, my Facebook and Twitter friends, are the voices that have challenged the dominant paradigm. It’s hard for them to put up with your criticisms and concerns. (Unfortunately, the people who have written that they are going to try and be kinder are NOT from the dominant paradigm).

But you must continue to work out what it means to be evangelical in these complex times. If you don’t, all we’ve got is the combativeness and insensitivity that we’ve had for too long. Then the witness of the church as the Body of Christ is at risk.

If you leave because of your concerns about the dominant paradigm , you run the same risk that faced the dominant group with concerns over public schools. If public schools were secular and people of faith left, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hang in there. We need your voices in the mix.

One final thought. All of us closer to my age have a responsibility to run interference for these younger voices. We must find ways of legitimizing their questions and calling out those trolls and leaders who make sport of demonizing them. For those around sixty who’ve been part of the evangelical movement for years, we need you too.

Together we can find the new paradigm while maintaining faith commitments in ways that are responsive to contemporary society. And celebrate the Kingdom of God in the process.

 

The Family on Parlor Walls: Ray Bradbury and Modern Media

Source imdb.com
Source imdb.com

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.

This is not about Duck Dynasty

McDuck

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.”

Christmas by the Numbers

34th

In my last post I explored the confusions we have about Christmas, Santa Claus, and Jesus, suggesting that we’re really dealing with issues of civil religion rather than deeply held rational argument. It’s why an isolated teacher at some school or a municipality’s decision about the public square generates intense feelings of persecution and an idea that the whole thing is slipping away.

Last night we watched Miracle on 34th Street with one of my graduates and her husband. Miracle is in second place of my favorite Christmas movies, behind It’s A Wonderful Life and in front of A Christmas Story. I really like the movie a lot. It’s engaging, with stories of victimization and power, and John Payne (Kris Kringle) and Natalie Wood (Suzie) are delightful to watch.

But watching the movie after thinking about the celebrations of civil religion made me see it differently. (If somehow you’ve not see it, there are spoilers in this paragraph!) I was aware of the times that Kris is told that “we believe in what you stand for, kindness, joy, etc.” It was striking how much capitalism plays center stage, with stores embracing customer service because it could bring more profit. (Helper Alfred says, “of all the isms in the world, one of the worst is commercialism.”) It was great to see the Republican district attorney stipulate his admiration for government agencies (they had to ruin the remake because the post office was no longer part of the government). I also noticed that whenever Santa told a child that he would get his request, he told the parent where to buy it. No elves making toys — just parents running out after work to purchase the desired item. Even at the closing scene, where Suzy finds her house, Fred and Doris discuss the need to buy the house that Santa “provided”.

I’m sure I could deconstruct all of our favorite Christmas movies and make myself less popular that the judge at Kris Kringle’s sanity hearing (I already played around with A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Alan Noble of Christ and Pop Culture wrote this interesting piece on Wonderful Life. I’ll probably get around to A Christmas Story before next week and find other hidden meaning (besides the centrality of a particular gun to the plot).

I’m still trying to make sense of what people are really celebrating when they watch these movies. Yes, there are Christmas Carols played (in 34th Street, Good King Wenceslas is playing at the old folks home Christmas party and Hark the Herald Angels closes both Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown). But the content (except for the Linus speech) doesn’t quite line up.

In the midst of my pondering today,  two  reports of Christmas surveys came across my twitter feed. Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project did a poll on how people celebrate Christmas, how they think of the holiday, and a bunch of other stuff. Then the Public Religion Research Institute released their data on similar questions.

christmas2013-5The Pew Survey asked respondents if Christmas was Religious or Cultural. As the table shows, slightly over half see it in religious terms with about a third seeing it as a cultural celebration. Notice that the under 30 crowd reflects the same general trends away from religion I’ve explored numerous times before. But it’s fair to summarize the data as saying that a plurality see Christmas as religious with a sizable minority seeing it as only cultural.

Maybe this diversity is why the PRRI folks found that nearly half of their respondents favored having shopkeepers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. It’s just not worth upsetting the non-religious folks. (Evangelicals differed greatly from the general pattern with 80% favoring “Merry Christmas”.)

The Pew survey also found out that just over half of their respondents said they would attend church services. Curiously, this is true regardless of their beliefs about the nature of the holiday. Sure, nearly 3/4 of those who see Christmas as religious plan to attend this year, but so do 30% of the cultural Christmas group and a quarter of those who say they don’t celebrate Christmas! Now, as a good sociologist who teaches research methods I need to point out the possibility of social desirability — answering questions as you think you’re supposed to answer. Call me scrooge, but I don’t think one out of every two adults will be in church services next week (even if you count children’s pageants).

Here’s another interesting tidbit that shows up in both surveys: People like Linus’s explanation of “what Christmas is all about”. The Pew survey asked if people believed in the virgin birth and found just under 3/4 agreeing, including over half of those who think Christmas is just a cultural tradition!

Similarly, the PRRI survey asked if people believed the “historical story” of the birth of Jesus (virgin birth, angels, shepherds, wise men). Nearly half of Americans report that they believe the story while 40% say it’s only a theological story. The PRRI reports a pretty significant shift away from the historical account over the last decade (down 18% since 2004).

All this data brings me back to issues of holidays of civil religion. I think it’s likely that the traditional Christmas story has become one of the strands of the civil celebration of Christmas. We dress up and go to the Christmas Eve service. We recite the story (or listen to Linus do it). But it all gets mashed up with Santa and presents and candy and trees. It becomes part of the general celebration.

But as I wrote last time, it may lack depth. This is why other surveys by these groups show a surprising lack on knowledge about the scriptures, theology, and the Good News. If we were really celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, maybe it would be more of a season of reflection. Maybe we’d say less about greetings people use and say more about the mystery of Incarnation.

In fact, if Jesus can give up Divine Majesty to become a human baby (Phil 2), maybe I can give up being offended if people say Happy Holidays. Paradoxically, it I modeled the emptying (known as Kenosis) that is the heart of the Christmas Story, maybe I’d be a better Witness to the Gospel.

No Doubt About It: The Problem with Civil Religion

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.

Holiday InnReason 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.

The Story of Power and the Power of Story (Director’s Cut)

[My final contribution to the Respectful Conversation project in which we each have to stake our own positions on “The Future of Evangelicalism”. I had to cut things out and leave things unsaid to fit the 1200 word limit. Following a trend from DVD’s where the director puts back scenes cut for time, here’s an expanded version. Additions are in red.]

Being part of this Respectful Conversation over the past seven months has been invigorating. It’s required me to look for themes in the writings of my collaborators and commenters, to uncover where the defining questions lie, and to apply my sociological imagination toward making sense of contemporary American Evangelicalism. The process has required me to reflect on my own argument as I imagined others reading it and to be far more attentive to major shifts in contemporary religious discourse. Knowing that I had to stake my personal claim in December hopefully sharpened my thinking.

1. What is your vision for the future of American Evangelicalism?

My June post made reference to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in which he contrasts differing views of connections between evangelicals and the broader society. After reviewing “Purity From”, “Relevant To”, and “Defensive Against” (which was my reference), he ends by calling for “Faithful Presence”. This simple notion is profound in its implications. He says that Faithful Presence “is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

While there are a variety of voices competing for dominance in American Evangelicalism (and religion more broadly), I believe that the next decade will see an outbreak of Faithful Presence over more combative views of faith and culture. Some of this stems from changes we’re seeing in the faith of millennials. Even those who haven’t left the church are seeing the faith-culture relationship in very different ways than their parents and grandparents. They are far more aware of their identity as strangers in a foreign land who are trying to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

These shifts are not limited to the young. There is a parallel shift happening in the lives of many senior citizens. Looking back on the harshness of their culture war rhetoric and legalism, they now wonder if it was worth it. You won’t find such reflection in those whose living depends upon being firm and dogmatic, but you will find them in nearly every congregation.

It’s entirely possible that the short term will see more combative language from many quarters. To quote former Vice President Cheney (though he was overly optimistic), “we’re seeing the last throes of the insurgency”. If the past four decades of American Evangelicalism has been defined by the power dynamics of culture wars, it’s going to be hard for major players (and their intellectual heirs) to simply give up the fight.

Over the long run, however, the posturing and argumentation of the former style will prove no match for the honesty and humility of Faithful Presence. This is because the Defensive Against posture must rely on overstatement, generalization, and politicization while Faithful Presence depends on old-fashioned testimony. To tell one’s story of faith in the midst of complexity yields an authenticity that is beyond reproach. In an age suspicious of posturing and hungry for relationship, one’s story has a power very different from the kind we’ve been chasing in the past. The power of story speaks out of experience in the midst of complexity and uncertainty. It says, “I believe even though it’s not always easy”.

Such storytelling has the potential for building community because I don’t stop with simply telling my story. I listen to yours as well. And together we listen to a third. Along the way, we become aware of our own uniqueness but that it is set against the backdrop of the Larger Narrative that includes us all.

2. What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities we face?

There are two major challenges to my vision of an evangelical future: one external and one internal. The external challenge is the legacy of Christendom and Constantinianism. A belief that somehow America and Christianity were co-mingled often has led us to believing that our task was to promote a particular form of society. These attempts created a perception of Christianity as pursuing a religiously oriented vision of a moral society gained through the influence of political power. The attempts to control outcomes become trigger events for pushback from secular audiences with accusations of superstition and desire for theocracy that cut across the ethos of a pluralistic culture. These issues become part of the larger drama of charges and countercharges between evangelical public figures on the one hand and neo-atheists on the other. In fact, both groups thrive on such charges. That’s why we make news from the isolated school principal who bans Christmas Carols. It’s why we fight zoning decisions on the proper citing of mosques. It’s why we fight over civil decisions regarding conditions for marriage.

Somehow, we need to gain a better sense of perspective. At the very least, we need to pick battles more carefully. Every request for a Facebook “like” don’t need to be liked. Every e-mail claiming outrage isn’t of the same weight. We need to let stuff go to break the hold of Christendom — because it’s had far more impact on evangelicals themselves than it has had on the broader society.

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. In fact, too much of evangelicalism’s history has been a struggle to define itself as “not those other people.” This cognitive strategy is a never-ending effort at managing the boundaries that I wrote about in my last post. There’s always another group. to contrast. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. Christian higher education has been particularly susceptible to such definitions of other. 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. Hunter had argued that modernity presented a quandary for evangelicals as we deal with diversity and become educated and successful. I’d go even farther. Our very success as power-brokers and cultural-influencers has changed our cognitive identity from being misunderstood or marginalized to believing we know best.

These two conditions are especially threatened by the dynamics of social change. The political vision is expressed in concerns over loss of control (even if control had never really been in reach). The worldview vision sees every shift in attitude or new interpretation as the beginning of the slippery slope toward worldliness. Both of these get caught up in concerns about secularization, the idea that we are seeing religion removed from the public sphere. This view was popular in sociology 50 years ago, thinking that religion would fall away (there’s some leftover Comte in that). But research in the sociology of religion over the last half century shows the secularization thesis generally unsupported. 

But much has changed in the last two decades. The younger generation seems more willing to maintain diverse views due to their connection to social media. They have not left their past friends behind in pursuit of Christian enclaves. They’ve wrestled with diverse positions their who lives. Some expressions of postmodernism allow a focus on dialogue arising from one’s clear values without arguing that values are social constructions. Increased concern for those who are powerless (the poor, the trafficked, the innocent) prioritizes compassion over being right and separate. There is a sense of pragmatism that persists. Heightened levels of education within evangelicalism have allowed a more complex view of engagement with those outside the subculture.

All of these shifts present an opportunity to rethink cultural engagement that allows faithful Christian testimony while avoiding the political name-calling of the Christendom argument or the isolation of the worldview argument. Rather than adopting the incorrect assumptions of secularization, it actually creates a tremendous opening for Faithful Presence.

3. What steps should American evangelical Christians take to respond to these challenges and opportunities?

One key changes necessary is to learn to be honest about our real situation. In recent months, Missio Alliance has posted a series of blogs about “The Scandal of Evangelical Memory”. These point out the ways in which we’ve told ourselves a history that isn’t complete. Two related points of argument come from careful histories, which separate our imaginings from what really happened. Consider two examples of how telling the real story frees us up to engage in new ways. Edward Larsen’s Summer for the Gods (1997) documents how the Scopes trial unfolded in ways very different from how we’ve told the story.  Dayton’s reply to an ACLU ad looking for a test case (with Scopes at the table) was one of the biggest surprises for me. Bryan’s views would cause trouble for young-earth creationists. To be able to tell the real, complex story keeps us from creating shibboleths that fit on bumper stickers or Facebook memes. An even timelier example is found in Robert McKenzie’s excellent new book about The First Thanksgiving, which documents both the real history of the Pilgrim settlers and the ways the fictional communal dinner was used to support later American values. It’s important to know that the Pilgrims didn’t come to America primarily for religious freedom (they had it in the Netherlands). They came as part of economic development that fit their own needs. The big dinner with the Native Americans is largely a creation of historical fiction (McKenzie observes that they didn’t have tables, or forks, or serving plates, and probably didn’t eat the fast-running wild turkeys). We layered  a set of American individualistic assumptions on top of little-known historical events and used the fiction for our own ends.

A second key is found in changing the way we use scripture as a point of argument. Ken Schenck argues that there is great value in focusing on the broad common themes of the scriptural story rather than on the verses that divide. This is a very Wesleyan approach to scripture and has much to commend it against proof-texting. Schenck correctly argues that we pick contentious verses as argument-enders instead of advancing the full Gospel story. Rather than focusing on a radical message that gender and status aren’t important in the New Kingdom (a theme running throughout the New Testament), we pick out a verse about women’s roles in leadership and allow that single verse to trump all else. We need a better narrative of scripture.

A third key is related to the history piece. We must take responsibility for harm we’ve done both institutionally and individually. The evangelical church has taken stances in the past that were on the wrong side of history. In other times, we may have been right but caused harm when doing so (I’m thinking of the shaming of women at abortion clinics who were already suffering enough). Then there’s the impact of our strong-armed evangelistic tactics. I’ve been amazed over the years at the high percentage of people who’ve had an overzealous cousin confront them over eternal destiny while waiting at Grandma’s buffet table to get more stuffing. Some people carry deep scars from what the church institutionally and individually has done to them. Most are not longer in the church. Those that are still there present an under-developed faith because they never want to be mistaken for Cousin Tony. To pursue the vision I’m proposing, we have to find a way to acknowledge, repent, and atone for the harms done. It may not be as dramatic as the Reed College scene in Blue Like Jazz when Don Miller and friends apologize for the church’s actions, but it’s in the right direction. 

A fourth key relates to Christian Colleges and Universities. Guarding against secularism and secularization aren’t our key reason for being. What is far more important is to stand with our students as they figure out their stories, informed by history, literature, biology, physiology, or sociology, and add those stories to the rich mix that is modern society. As I’ve written before, we have a unique ability to see faith and learning as wholes and not as enemies. We must help our students live that out if we are to have fewer of them carrying deep scars and/or leaving the church at the end of their four years of school. We can and must help them (and their parents and pastors) navigate this complex postmodern culture.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to find our way to trust the Holy Spirit to lead. This is part of the public’s interest in the recent actions and statements of Pope Francis. Hardly a day goes by that Francis doesn’t say or do something that seems to reflect a paradigmatic shift in the entire Roman Catholic establishment. If this is happening in an institution as complex and tradition-bound as the Roman Catholic Church, it can certainly happen in Evangelicalism if we’re open to it. On Weekend Edition Saturday, Father James Martin was on NPR talking about the pope. Scott Simon asked if the College of Cardinals were expecting these changes from Francis. Father Martin responded, “it shows you once again the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit wants to do.”

There is no better hope for the future of evangelicalism than that.

The Story of Power and the Power of Story

[My final contribution to the Respectful Conversation project in which we each have to stake our own positions on “The Future of Evangelicalism”.]

Being part of this Respectful Conversation over the past seven months has been invigorating. It’s required me to look for themes in the writings of my collaborators and commenters, to uncover where the defining questions lie, and to apply my sociological imagination toward making sense of contemporary American Evangelicalism. The process has required me to reflect on my own argument as I imagined others reading it and to be far more attentive to major shifts in contemporary religious discourse. Knowing that I had to stake my personal claim in December hopefully sharpened my thinking.

1. What is your vision for the future of American Evangelicalism?

My June post made reference to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in which he contrasts differing views of connections between evangelicals and the broader society. After reviewing “Purity From”, “Relevant To”, and “Defensive Against” (which was my reference), he ends by calling for “Faithful Presence”. This simple notion is profound in its implications. He says that Faithful Presence “is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

While there are a variety of voices competing for dominance in American Evangelicalism (and religion more broadly), I believe that the next decade will see an outbreak of Faithful Presence over more combative views of faith and culture. Some of this stems from changes we’re seeing in the faith of millennials. Even those who haven’t left the church are seeing the faith-culture relationship in very different ways than their parents and grandparents. They are far more aware of their identity as strangers in a foreign land who are trying to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

It’s entirely possible that the short term will see more combative language from many quarters. To quote former Vice President Cheney (though he was overly optimistic), “we’re seeing the last throes of the insurgency”. If the past four decades of American Evangelicalism has been defined by the power dynamics of culture wars, it’s going to be hard for major players (and their intellectual heirs) to simply give up the fight.

Over the long run, however, the posturing and argumentation of the former style will prove no match for the honesty and humility of Faithful Presence. This is because the Defensive Against posture must rely on overstatement, generalization, and politicization while Faithful Presence depends on old-fashioned testimony. To tell one’s story of faith in the midst of complexity yields an authenticity that is beyond reproach. In an age suspicious of posturing and hungry for relationship, one’s story has a power very different from the kind we’ve been chasing in the past.

2. What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities we face?

There are two major challenges to my vision of an evangelical future: one external and one internal. The external challenge is the legacy of Christendom. We’ve created a perception of Christianity as pursuing a religiously oriented vision of a moral society gained through the influence of political power. The attempts to control outcomes become trigger events for pushback from secular audiences. These issues become part of the larger drama of charges and countercharges between evangelical public figures on the one hand and neo-atheists on the other.

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.

These two conditions are especially threatened by the dynamics of social change. The political vision is expressed in concerns over loss of control (even if control had never really been in reach). The worldview vision sees every shift in attitude or new interpretation as the beginning of the slippery slope toward worldliness.

But much has changed in the last two decades. The younger generation seems more willing to maintain diverse views due to their connection to social media. Some expressions of postmodernism allow a focus on dialogue arising from one’s clear values. Increased concern for those who are powerless (the poor, the trafficked, the innocent) prioritizes compassion over being right and separate. Heightened levels of education within evangelicalism have allowed a more complex view of engagement with those outside the subculture.

All of these shifts present an opportunity to rethink cultural engagement that allows faithful Christian testimony while avoiding the political name-calling of the Christendom argument or the isolation of the worldview argument. Rather than adopting the incorrect assumptions of secularization, it actually creates a tremendous opening for Faithful Presence.

3. What steps should American evangelical Christians take to respond to these challenges and opportunities?

One key changes necessary is to learn to be honest about our real situation. In recent months, Missio Alliance has posted a series of blogs about “The Scandal of Evangelical Memory”. These point out the ways in which we’ve told ourselves a history that isn’t complete. Two related points of argument come from careful histories, which separate our imaginings from what really happened. Edward Larsen’s Summer for the Gods (1997) documents how the Scopes trial unfolded in ways very different from how we’ve told the story (the town’s reply to an ACLU ad was one of the biggest surprises for me). An even timelier example is found in Robert McKenzie’s excellent new book about The First Thanksgiving, which documents both the real history of the Pilgrim settlers and the ways the fictional communal dinner was used to support later American values.

A second key is found in changing the way we use scripture as a point of argument. Ken Schenck argues that there is great value in focusing on the broad common themes of the scriptural story rather than on the verses that divide. He correctly argues that we pick contentious verses as argument-enders instead of advancing the full Gospel story.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to find our way to trust the Holy Spirit to lead. This is part of the public’s interest in the recent actions and statements of Pope Francis. This morning, Father James Martin was on NPR talking about the pope. Scott Simon asked if the College of Cardinals were expecting these changes from Francis. Father Martin responded, “it shows you once again the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit wants to do.”

There is no better hope for the future of evangelicalism than that.

There is No Spoon: Christian Boundary Maintenance

I have been fascinated with the idea of social networks since taking a great course in grad school when social network analysis was just beginning. In some ways, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a connecting thread that runs across my career.

My dissertation was on people who regularly attend church but never join (I saw them as boundary poachers, although the findings proved more complicated than that). I used network analysis to study three congregations and their relationship patterns in the early 90s (but I didn’t pay enough attention to bridging capital — more later).

Perhaps that research is what led me to be so critical of the effort we put into maintaining boundaries. I distinctly remember hearing a Focus on the Family broadcast telling of a group of school children playing at a newly constructed playground. Well-intentioned psychologists, it was argued, believed that they didn’t want to limit the childrens’ sense of adventure and so didn’t put fences around the school yard. The children, not knowing where the edges were, huddled anxiously in a clump being afraid to venture out. The chagrined psychologists had fences put up and then the children played happily in their new playground.

Parenthetically, I once put my university library staff along with the psych department to work to locate the original source. It appears to be apocryphal but is regularly repeated in blogs, sermons, and parenting articles. (A google scholar search just now came up pretty empty.)

trafalgar

Anyway, when I heard the report I knew what was wrong. They were looking in the wrong direction for meaning. It’s not at the edges but it’s in the center. I suggested to a friend (as I have repeated for years) that the solution isn’t to focus on the fences but the build a monolith in the center of the playground and tell the children they can play where ever they want as long as they can see the statue. This picture of Trafalgar square is as close as I’ve come to capturing what I had in mind.

The same ideas apply to Christian identity. If we spend all our time exploring the edges that separate us from others, we’re investing in creating and maintaining boundaries that function to that end. If this boundary weakens, we have to go and repair it right away like a rancher keeping the cattle in.

Instead, we can rest in the New Testament image of the Shepherd who knows the sheep and walks in their midst. They listen for him and move when he moves.

But we keep trying to build fences. I think this is a normal sociological process. We like to be with people like us. So we spend our energies creating points of separation that keep the outsiders out (and the insiders in). It’s an effective form of social control and identity marking, but it is a far cry from the outreach of the Gospel.

Spend just a few days reading Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see this in operation. We find things about which to be offended: how dare you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Women can teach Sunday School but not preach (there was a great blog but I lost it). We have church trials surrounding a Methodist minister who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. We separate the Wesleyans from the Calvinists. We separate over science and faith. Don’t get me started on the Christians engaged in political fights on Facebook, calling each other out for not being True Christians.

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class Thursday night, we were discussing the role of narrative in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This combined readings from Michael Sandel’s Justice and Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. Attending to story can bind us together. The real task, paraphrasing Brueggemann, is to reconstruct community is such a way as not not privilege one group over another but validate all stories.

weakties

I was attempting to illustrate this by drawing on the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. In that context, I returned to a classic piece of modern sociology — Mark Grannovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. Grannovetter argued that tightly bonded groups are good for social support but bad at building connections. For that, we need weak ties — the acquaintanceships that tell us about job prospects or allow information to be tested against reality.

For a quick explanation, check out this link from Information Week (where I got the graphic). The implication of the graph is that the energy in a strong tie group is expended inward. This provides a clear sense of who is in and who is out. The energy of a weak tie group is always expended outward — one never knows which of the surrounding circles is the source of potential contacts or information.

In the context of the class discussion, i was attempting to connect this to my prior work on millennials. One of the reasons they are concerned about the church is because they’ve maintained connections through social media with a diverse group of folks from different spheres of their lives. In short, they live in a weak-tie world.

This weekend Zach Hoag filled in on Zack Hunt’s blog (Zack has a cute new baby, but I’m a little biased about smart and beautiful babies since my granddaughter was born). Hoag wrote about the false fronts that are involved in our never-ending search for niceness. We stay away from the real messiness of the world because we’re maintaining face. Erving Goffman was a pioneer in exploring the ways in which we manage cues and props to create and maintain impressions. Boundary maintenance is another outcome of the same process.

One can find people who are less concerned about boundaries. Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Daily Beast that defies membership in a single group (while acknowledging the danger of creating yet another Christian celebrity). In any case, Bolz-Weber fits a weak-ties model of social capital.

When I was talking to my class last week explaining the notion of social networks, I was struck by a new insight.

The notion of inside and outside are fictions. They’re helpful fictions and we find them comfortable. But they are fictions nonetheless.

There_is_no_SpoonI felt compelled to start quoting The Matrix (I’d already done a riff on Life of Brian). I found myself thinking of the boy Neo meets when he visits the Prophet. The boy can bend a spoon with his mind. Then Neo is told “There is no spoon“.

That made me think again about the Weak Ties diagram. The notion that we have all these little circles we’re part of isn’t true. It’s one big circle. And we’re all part of it.

God’s circle is bigger than we imagine and is not bounded by time or space much less by simple distinctions on who gets to preach or who gets to marry or who reads which science books.

What would happen if the evangelical church caught a vision of the bigger circle and the ways in which our stories are being co-written with each of us as influencers in every other story. Yes, I really liked the Day of the Doctors! What if all the energy we expend on separateness was spent building linkages to those different than ourselves?

It’s a great narrative — a storyline that starts at creation and runs throughout history to the restoration of that creation on earth as it is in heaven.

Troubling the House

ITWThis weekend, the Spring Arbor drama department presented a reader’s theater production of Inherit the Wind. The play, written in 1955, uses the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” as a vehicle to explore certainty, rationalism, doubt, science, faith, celebrity, and cynicism.

Following the play, there was a panel discussion with five of my colleagues. The panel featured a communication professor (who explored the vast differences between the play and the real trial — read Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods for more), a philosopher, a theologian, a chemist, and a microbiologist.

It was a fascinating presentation. They explored the complexities of the theological explanations of creation and the purposes of Genesis. They talked about the challenges of crafting hybrid positions. They explored the traditions of interpretation from early church fathers to the present. They discussed the age of the universe (related to automobile decay). They considered the converging patterns coming from various strands of science that are consonant with Darwin’s major themes. They collectively stated their faith in the God of Creation.

It was a great celebration of the best of Christian Higher Education. It was interdisciplinary, careful, faithful, and most importantly, was not afraid of leaving listeners wrestling with the complexity of life’s major questions.This exercise in liberal arts stood in stark contract to four aspects of the play itself, which I want to unpack a bit.

First, a minor character in the play is E.K. Hornbeck, a writer for the Baltimore Sun, who treats the whole thing as a farce. It’s just endless entertainment and his cynicism is unquenchable. There is nothing he respects and no one he takes seriously. Based on H.L. Menken, who had his own unique brand of attack, the journalist (played in the movie by a nearly unlikable Gene Kelly) represents our modern dismissal of authenticity. It’s a belief that everyone’s got an angle and can’t possible believe what they’re saying.

Second, there is a scene at the start of the play where people are gathering in an almost carnival setting. They are using the coming arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) as a moment of great celebration. A great celebrity is coming to their little town and it’s become an EVENT. Critical thinking goes out the window because Brady is in town. His power and might is all that is needed. Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) gets to be the defender of free thinking but he’s pretty abusive in doing so. Today we need a quiet celebration of rationality that neither demonizes thought nor lionizes it.

Third, there is the banner hanging in the courthouse (seen in the picture above): READ YOUR BIBLE. The banner, as well as the local pastor (who is somehow even less likable than Hornbeck), seem to suggest that anyone who doesn’t agree with their position is morally flawed and more or less hopeless. There’s a fascinating speech where the pastor goes too far in his rhetorical flourish and thankfully gets called down by Brady. We’d be in far better shape as a society if we could avoid such demonization and if today’s celebrities could denounce it when it happens.

Finally, I was struck with the reason for the title of the play. Brady quotes Proverbs 11:29: “He who troubles his own house inherits the wind and the foolish will be servant to the wise.” The playwrights intend the “troubling the house” to be calling out McCarthy and colleagues in the 1950s. But I see it playing out today within dynamics of the house of faith. When we spend all our energies fighting internal battles, we accomplish little. It’s carnival and cynicism and demonization and fear. And we look foolish.

I’ve written before about the tendency of Facebook to balkanize arguments. But Twitter is the vehicle for troubling the house. It’s fast and allows no complexity. It invites bandwagon effects as people jump to one side or another of the twitter-fight. At the end of a day or two, either there is an attempt to quiet the tension or to simply file it away and move on to the next event.

I’m not sure exactly who Solomon thinks are the “wise” who will be served. But I’m thinking that my colleagues on the panel come pretty close. They were honest, had authenticity, heard each other, and modeled what faithful presence means in the midst of others.

A Christian church that could do that on a regular basis will impact the world. Not through carnivals and celebrities and catcalls. But through wrestling with real ideas, loving people who think differently, and taking the risk of being authentic.

No amount of cynicism can stand against it.