Tag: Andy Crouch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus Workshop

Resurrecting Power: Reflections on Playing God by Andy Crouch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the power that leads to holiness.

“Done” with Church: An Institutional Analysis

Earlier this week I posted a fictional retrospective from December 2015 on what I thought would be the big religious stories of the year. The first of these had to do with the “Rise of the Dones”: those people formerly heavily engaged in church who were now not attending. Over the next three days, my social media feeds seemed to keep sharing stories that affirmed my supposition.

A friend, a Christian college professor like me, shared a Huffington Post piece from late 2013 on “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore” (his mother, who’s my age, affirmed the critique). Another friend shared this reflection by Alece Ronzino, which sounds similar themes to Addie Zierman’s book I reviewed here last year. Benjamin Corey wrote an excellent pair of articles explaining why he wasn’t fully at home with Progressive Christianity or with Evangelical Christianity. Yesterday I received an e-mail update from Univeristy of Northern Colorado sociologist Josh Packard, who has been collecting data on Dones. His site introduced me to Thom Schultz, who manages a website on Dones.

Whenever I see this kind of convergence of stories in a short period of time, I have two reactions. First, I affirm that that there is something here worth attending to. Second, I try to use my “sociological imagination” to see if can dig deeper as to what it going on.

In the midst of this barrage of stories, I was reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God. He builds the caPlaying Godse for a Christian, creative, view of power: one that is not zero-sum but ever expanding the flourishing of all impacted. I’ll write a more thorough review of this excellent book in the next couple of days.

In the middle of the book, Andy does some sociology. In fact, he offers one of the cleanest explanations of the sociological notion of “institution” I’ve ever read. His chapter should be excerpted for every Intro to Sociology text.

Using the image of football, Andy argues that institutions have cultural artifacts, arenas, rules, and roles. In other words, there are things (footballs, helmets, pads) which have a mandated use. There are places where the things are used (stadiums, vacant fields). There are rules which govern behavior (and systems for enforcing that expected behavior — football broadcasts now have “rules experts” that they call on to interpret what referees are thinking when evaluating those rules). Within the context of the artifacts, arenas, and rules, we have the actual roles people play (spectator, quarterback, offensive guard, strong safety, line judge). He also argues that institutionalization takes three generations (each generation is roughly 25 years) to establish, doing some nifty work with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Nearly everyone interested in the Dones is looking for a way to see them re-engage in the life of the church. In fact, so do many of the Dones. I want to see church be a meaningful experience where people draw closer to God in the midst of a supportive community. That’s my church at the top of the page and I have a vested interest to see people in that congregation who are free to be who they are as a part of the Body of Christ.

So it seemed natural to attempt to use Andy’s handles for institutions to try to make sense of what’s going on with the Dones. It’s easy to see how arenas have changed: many follow the megachurch model and have flashy sound systems, projection units, auditorium seating. One can see shifts in artifacts as we move from hymnals to choruses and from Bible studies to popular author video series. However, more fundamental are the changes in the rules and roles.

I wanted to be able to do something really cute with Andy’s three generation hypothesis but I can’t quite make the numbers work. I would still argue that the rules started shifting around 1980 and it may have taken a generation and a half for us to begin to recognize that those rule changes were dysfunctional. Let me quickly explore four changes.

The Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979 and operated throughout the 1980s. In its wake we found a sense that real RefereeChristians were those who held the “right” views (in both meanings of the word). This meant that part of the refereeing involved figuring out who was inside and who was out. If you were one who disagreed with the dominant view, it was a tough place to stay.

Willow Creek began meeting in the mid-1970s with a new set of operations: organizing services around reaching the unchurched. This meant changing the arena and the artifacts to reach a whole new group of “spectators” who were otherwise being missed. This is a commendable goal, but as it expanded to other settings, the role of faithful multi-generational member became harder to identify. (The Wikipedia page linked above lists the age based ministries at the church, the oldest of which is college aged.) As the focus on being “seeker sensitive” expanded, it left less room for the long-time churched.

At about the same period, popular preachers drilled home that being a Christian required absolute discipline (with little instruction on what that meant). I remember sitting in an adult Sunday School class on New Year’s Morning in the mid-80s where the teacher was talking about the discipline shown by football players in bowl games (didn’t talk about their off-field behavior) and challenging us to show that kind of discipline in our faith. All I could think of was that it was New Year’s morning and I was in Sunday School and that wasn’t enough. If the roles defined are beyond normal reach, people will disengage rather than continue to be yelled at. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are a bit of an anomaly but may be the exception that proves the rule — if you want to watch a pastor “tell it like it is” as a spectator, that may work for you but many others will leave.

Pee Wee FooballFinally, the over-professionalization of ministry roles has limited the space for “normal people” to be involved. The preaching pastor has his “teachings”. The worship leader manages the praise team to achieve a desired end. The children’s pastor makes sure that kids are entertained and learn valuable lessons. (It’s tempting to spend time on the death of sandlot football and how they have been replaced by Pee Wee youth leagues — same over-professionalization).

The result of these various shifts in institutional culture over the past generation and a half is that the role of congregant has shrunk in both importance and task. If it feels like people are spectators, it’s because that’s what the rules call for. If we want something else, we’ll need to rethink some institutional arrangements.

Maybe we could begin by making some rule changes that create space for creative engagement on the part of everyday followers of Jesus. If the arena was designed to make them the center of cultural activity perhaps the Dones would realize that they have far more to offer to the Body of Christ.

They haven’t given up. They just don’t want to play in the current arena. We should change it for the better.