Tag: Celebrity

Evangelicalism’s “Come to Jesus” Moment

Jesus and ChildrenI really didn’t think it was time to write this post. I’ve been working toward constructing my take on the future of evangelicalism in a postmodern society and am still reading material that frame those ideas. But after last week’s WorldVision announcement, conflict, and retraction set off  a raft of “end of evangelicalism” posts, I decided it was time to run with what I have and refine it later. As I was telling a friend today via e-mail, blogs aren’t good at nuance because they reflect one’s best thinking to date and there are space limitations. So we’ll consider this another run at the concept. I’ll keep unpacking in future posts, I’m sure.

For more background, I recommend this piece I wrote to summarize my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho four weeks ago. My basic argument is that evangelicalism, between 1990 and 2010, has been focused on boundary maintenance, the protection of position and power, and orthodoxy. That stance has created a backlash among the millennial generation that has caused many to question if they want anything to do with evangelicalism at all, if evangelicalism relates to anyone outside the church, and if we need new models from which to express religious life.

Much of the reasonable response from these millennial bloggers has been somewhat reactionary. They worry about guilt by association with many who pride themselves in the kinds of posturing they grew up with. It reminds me of a conversation I had about my Christian faith when I started graduate school. My fellow students weren’t troubled by my identity as a Christian sociologist. They just wanted an assurance that I wasn’t going to be like “that guy” who chased people around the drink table at parties telling them that they were sinners. In short, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I don’t want it.”

I’ve heard various versions of the “that guy” argument over the years. It happens in Sunday School where someone wants to articulate theological grounding but doesn’t want to sound like their dogmatic cousin. It happens in churches where leaders demand adherence to their positions as a condition of continued affiliation.  It’s not just the young who are having these identification issues.

But I’m not prepared to let the bad behavior of individuals or groups give them control over  the evangelical label. I think it has a unique meaning (albeit one that’s broader than conservative groups or the media seem to allow).

I consider evangelicals as people committed to God’s Story (read N.T. Wright’s When God Became King for an elaboration), who hold to the full expression of Jesus the Christ (incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, kingdom-builder, and Lord), and who believe that the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinful ways, calls us to turn toward the Kingdom around us, and instructs us how to participate in the unfolding of that now-and-not-yet Kingdom.

But living as evangelicals in a complex, diverse, postmodern world calls for a very different stance that we’ve used in past decades. We’ve been enamored with Empire when we should be focused on simply sharing our stories. We have been focused on abstractions and arguments when we should pay attention to the people who cross our paths.

This is why testimony is important. We allow the story of our walk with God, however messy, to intersect with the story of another. This is why the harder stories like those in Jonathan Merritt’s recent book excerpt are so important. They don’t hide behind platitudes but show God at work in the real issues of life. This shouldn’t be news to us. The disciples on the road to Emmaus shared their pain and met Jesus. Philip shares his story with the Ethiopian Eunuch once he’s led by the spirit to one considered unclean. Peter tells the story of his vision and the apostles celebrate Cornelius as a full member of God’s family.

My title today has two meanings. First, it suggests that there are some things that evangelicalism needs to give up, to get straight, to reorient. I’ll make some general suggestions of these and unpack them in future posts. Second, it suggests that we should come as little children when we follow Jesus. Not just in simple faith when believing but in the trust and collaboration that characterizes healthy children at play.

“Coming to Jesus” will require some significant changes to evangelicalism as we’ve known it if it is to ever be true to its potential. We will need to begin with assumptions of diversity instead of unanimity.  I wrote in my last post that faithful religious groups can see things in different ways. We need an evangelicalism that affirms this reality, whether we’re talking to evangelical Episcopalians who have affirmed a gay bishop or talking to a writer who celebrates complementarity. We will have to live with the discomfort of knowing that we differ from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Jesus said that’s what the world would be looking at. We will need to affirm the questions that arise from the lived experience of everyday Christians instead of making our faith about which big pastor-author we follow. That may mean the end of “influential evangelical” lists which would a blessing. We will come to value the voice of an individual blogger as a personal search for authentic faith without looking for litmus tests that are the equivalent of Steven Colbert’s “dead to me” board.  We will need to be looking forward to the Kingdom Jesus is unfolding in our very midst and not looking backward at some glory day when we could assume everyone agreed with our position. I’m convinced that this look backward is really a type of Christian Civil Religion, where we simply assume people have faith because of where they grew up (I’ll unpack this on another day, but it speaks to the issues I raised in this post.) As David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point out in Prodigal Christianity, we must begin by outlining our own position. We will need to practice sacrifice, beginning with our demand that we be proven right. This is a central issue of faith. Rather than demanding our way or the validation of our viewpoint, we will need to put ourselves in the place of the other. This will call us to a position of compassion for others, especially those we think are unlikely. As Matthew 25 reminds us, they might just be Jesus.

In short, we need to come to Jesus as children. Trusting, open, engaging, happy to play well with others. There is a reason that Jesus celebrates their faith. He was trying to teach the disciples an important lesson. They were fighting with themselves about issues of power and dominance (“who will be the greatest?”). Amazingly, one of the key instances of this happens right after they say the transfiguration! They’re believing correctly in terms of who Jesus was didn’t keep them from the power games that were essentially self-serving.

15 And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

Notice that Jesus isn’t rebuking the pharisees here. It’s not the religious and political leaders who needed a “come to Jesus” moment. It was Christ’s followers. It took a long time for them to get it. But the Holy Spirit led them to deeper understandings so that they lived and died as representatives of Christ. By having the faith of a child.

 

 

What’s the deal with Christian Celebrities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.