Tag: Christianity Today

Intellectual Inquiry in the Christian University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back: Religion in 2015

December 2015

I spent some time looking over what I’d posted on this blog over the past 12 months in anticipation of one of those “best of” posts everyone is doing. I did learn how much the three themes of evangelicalism, higher education, and sociological theory showed up on the blog and how some of each were among my most viewed posts.

Then I thought about doing one of those “most important stories of 2014” especially after reading this post from Christianity Today. It asked four figures to list their pick for “best news” of 2014 that would shape evangelical life. Their responses were relations between evangelicals and Catholics (Geoff Tunnicliffe), WorldVision abandoning their same-sex marriage policy (Eric Teetsel), Ebola doctors and We are N awareness (Sarah Pulliam Bailey), and persecution breaking the reins of prosperity gospel (Russell Moore).

While I don’t have major quibbles with most of these (I have a hard time with the WorldVision thing), I immediately wondered what else was missing. What would others have responded? How would they articulate their choice? What sort of factors played into their perspective of what constituted “best news”?

Rather than adding my retrospective on what was important, which has the kind of safety found in Newsroom scripts retelling events long past, I thought I’d stick my neck out and write next year’s retrospective a year early. So, following in the tradition of Edward Bellamy, I pretended it was December 2015 and I could reflect on the major change stories in religion (especially American religion as it’s what I know best).

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. The Rise of the Dones: While much of the focus in recent years has been on why millennials have fallen away from church in somewhat large numbers, this was the year when the evangelical church really woke up to those previously faithful members who just stopped participating. This was captured in research by Josh Packard and colleagues. These are individuals who are theologically orthodox and would show up as highly religious on a number of survey questions, but simply don’t attend church much anymore. They’ve heard it before and are pursuing other avenues for spiritual fulfillment. This group helps explain the significant gap between religious identification and church attendance in America as well as the increasing financial challenges for local congregations.

2. Pope Francis make life more difficult for Evangelicals:  His Holiness continued the housecleaning begun late in 2014, shaking up the internal organization of the Vatican and calling those in leadership not to see themselves as better than others in their flocks. This included some extremely strong words about the embrace of materialism and what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. Suddenly, the evangelical pastor asking for heightened levels of loyalty, a huge staff, lots of speaking opportunities, and large houses wound up in stark contrast to public images of what it means to be truly Christian. In addition, the pope’s openness to dialogue on the role of women, treatment of those outside the faith, and embrace of science made it increasingly difficult to take hard-line stances on social issues (even where simply quoting scripture worked in the past) unless one was willing to denounce an immensely popular spiritual leader as being an accommodationist.

3. Concerns over Race in America bridged theological barriers: As 2014 ended with sharp divisions on issues of race, it was religious figures from across the theological spectrum who began to seriously address the key questions. Prior separations between Calvinists and Arminians, between millennial bloggers and evangelical figureheads, between mainliners and evangelicals began to break down, at least for a time. There was a strong sentiment from African-American conservatives and young white progressives that one’s station in society shouldn’t be dictated by race and class. There was a dramatic increase in the number of voices willing to admit that something was wrong and that we needed intense theological and sociological conversations. This change put the evangelical church in the center of significant social change based not simply on secular values but imbued with a strong vision of God’s Kingdom at work.

4. Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage allowed real dialogue within denominations on marriage: With more states taking steps to institutionalize same-sex marriage on purely secular grounds, it created the situation where denominational groups could no longer treat the topic as an abstract proposition. Increasingly, people within local congregations were in same-sex marriages recognized by the state (and their employers). Churches held fast to self-determination on marriages within the church and there remain stark differences on the role of married, sexually active, gay clergy. But the societal shifts allow for real dialogue within major denominational groupings. While the year ended without any particular working consensus, earlier concerns about schism seemed to be avoided. One of the interesting positive outcomes of the shift was a real discussion about the role of family, commitment, fidelity, and affirmation of the image of God in all that had been sorely missed in “traditional family” discussions.

5. The splintering of the Evangelical voting block: As the pre-primary campaigns began to take shape in mid-2015 in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, the old value-voters block of conservative evangelicals didn’t materialize to the extent that it had in the previous three presidential cycles. This was a result of three factors: more millennials involved in the political process, the inability of leading presidential candidates to speak to evangelical theological concerns, and shifts in major political issues from social concerns to economic concerns. Issues of abortion and treatment of the elderly were still highly valued, but other issues of immigration, family policy, minimum wage, and the social contract showed significant diversity of thought even among evangelicals. Candidates could no longer simply depend upon Christian voters guides carrying the day.

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Some of this may be simply pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part. On the other hand, all five of my scenarios are based on a reasonable sociological reading of things already in play in late 2014. I invite you to tag this and come back to it in twelve months — I’m sure I will.

For God’s Sake, Tell The Truth!

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Between the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections and the summer before the 2012 presidential election, I maintained a blog on politics and media called the ninth commandment. It explored the nature of civil discourse and questioned why it had become culturally acceptable to lie as a means of argument. In my first post in that blog, I wondered why we paid attention to anything Politifact scored below “mostly true“. In my ideal world, once a statement is debunked it should be retired from circulation.

Recent events have me returning to this theme. It’s not just political figures using social media to denounce the president as they were heading to the State of the Union. It’s evangelical leaders looking for reasons to be offended by the broader culture. It’s progressive evangelicals who caricature other christians, questioning their motives or intelligence or biases. It’s conservative christians attacking other christians just for asking challenging questions.

Many, including me, have opined on the Duck Dynasty controversy where Phil Robertson got in trouble with A&E for his comments about homosexuality in a GQ interview. A&E banned him, then reinstated him (after enjoying a week of press), and now things are kind of back where they were albeit with reduced ratings for DD.

But what gets my attention is not Robertson’s beliefs about how homosexuality fits his “biblical worldview” (see Micah Murray’s interesting analysis here). I have no problem with him arguing that he can’t reconcile scripture and modern social changes. The problem comes when he knowingly links homosexuality with bestiality. In spite of his backwoods image, he must know that this is patently false. So why does he say it? Furthermore, why do evangelicals jump on the bandwagon to defend a patently false statement?

Alan Noble (PhD!) has done a masterful job of deconstructing claims certain media segments put forth of anti-Christian bias (see an example here). For his efforts at gathering what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story“, he got chastised in comments from other evangelical Christians for not following Matthew 18 in confronting a brother in Christian love. But why is it acceptable for evangelical Christians (even if they are Fox News commentators) to misrepresent the real story? And why do other evangelical Christians swarm to the defense of the misrepresentation?

This week, Rachel Held Evans tried to address the complexity of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, best characterized by the Hobby Lobby case. Hobby Lobby and others claim that being required to have insurance policies that provide contraceptive coverage to their employees is a violation of religious freedom. They object, as a story in Christianity Today puts it, “to the mandate’s requirement that employers provide employees with emergency contraceptives that many evangelicals consider to be abortifacients (emphasis mine).” This sentence is telling — a factual question is couched in the phrase “many evangelicals consider”. It takes a scientific question and guards it in a shell of religious belief. Curiously, Christianity Today had written this piece last April that primarily answers the scientific question at least about one of the emergency medications (see also here and here for similar stories from other sources). So why isn’t that in every piece of reporting they do? Why is the “many evangelicals believe” reference the go-to point?

For trying to address these questions, Rachel became the subject of this piece in First Things, published by the Institute for Religion and Public Life. The third paragraph begins, “Readers may be surprised to learn that Evans identifies herself as a pro-life Christian.” The story continues to let the readers know that this cannot be the case according to their definitions. Failing to address the honest questions Rachel had asked, it was far easier to dismiss her points as insufficiently adherent to the party line. This required argument by extremes, putting words in Rachel’s mouth, and asserting motives they cannot possible know. These are evangelical and Catholic writers responding to an honest piece written by another evangelical writer. Once they opened the door, then less kind distortions and mendacious remarks would follow: many of these also from evangelicals. Rachel shared on twitter just some of the names she was called in comments or tweets (don’t know what her questions had to do with witchcraft!).

Disagreement on policy is legitimate. Defamation is not. Looking at evidence and its policy implications can result in civil discussion (as Rachel and Karen Swallow Prior demonstrated in a long twitter discussion last night). Distorting positions and mis-stating the evidence is not. As Rachel cogently posted yesterday: “Christians: If all truth is God’s truth, then tell it. Tell the truth. Don’t lie about science or history to promote your ideology.”

Here’s one more example in the making. A surprising piece on the internet recently said that a song written by evangelical Joni Eareckson Tada was nominated for the best song Oscar. It is the title song from the movie Alone, But Not Alone. It was a surprising nomination because it’s a small production that nobody had ever heard of (details here). As the story explains, the nomination was withdrawn because of accusations of undue influence by the promoter. Many people in coming days will treat the story as an infringement on religious values, as Christianity Today points out. But even the CT story seems to offer a retelling of the story in favor of the value argument. The headline asks “What Message did the Academy Send?“. The implication, supported by the people quoted in the opening paragraphs, is that this is another example of Christians being shunned by Hollywood. But this is not the case. As the film studies experts who have solid evangelical credential point out, this is a simple example of someone breaking the rules. To characterize is as anything else is simply untrue.

Why is there such a strong tendency for Christians to grab partial truths or outright lies and use them to argue with others? In part, it may be due to a belief that we can’t engage in civil conversations that express our values without compromise. We don’t want compromise because that devalues our long-held positions.

I worry that it has much more to do with the fact that we’re afraid. We’re afraid that our positions won’t stand up to scrutiny in civil discourse.

We’re afraid that our past overstatements, misstatements, and misrepresentations will be exposed and the Christian church will be damaged as a result. This is a completely rational fear. We know that we’ve often violated that ninth commandment and don’t really know how to repent and ask forgiveness.

What I can say for sure is that holding to party lines and calling out dissenters weakens the witness of the church. Zack Hunt made that point extremely well in this post yesterday. He cogently writes:

We’ve been asked for a reason for the hope that is in us, but instead of incarnating that hope through acts of love for those in need, we offer compassionless rhetoric and a sales pitch. And so people leave and search for hope elsewhere.

We are working to be the Body of Christ in society, to be the first fruits of the Kingdom that is here and yet not arrived. How we go about that is critically important, not simply as expressions of our character and discipleship, but to the very mission of Christ’s Church.

So for God’s sake, if not for yours, Tell the Truth.

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.

One More Time: It’s Not ABOUT Millennials!

Here’s the problem with the blogosphere: it’s simply too easy to put your ideas out there. If there’s a hot topic under consideration, you can jump in at any point and share your two cents (or less). You don’t have to follow the thread of the previous arguments. It’s easy enough to pick out an isolated phrase from some viral post, contrast it with your own experience, and explain why “that’s just not so”.

In saying all this, I realize I’m engaged in self-incrimination. I’ve tried to stay balanced and focused on the big issues instead of the reactionary posts. Maybe my ideas don’t hold up to scrutiny any more than anyone else’s. But I’ve tried to keep unpacking an important sociological point.

I have spent the last 15 months on a book written to freshmen entering Christian universities. I’m one more major edit from submitting it to the publishers. But the book isn’t just about millennial freshmen. It’s a book about how we go about Christian higher education. The millennials simply make it clear that we can’t continue “business as usual” in a complex, postmodern, world.

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When I wrote the Millennial Canaries post last week, I was thrilled to connect with a larger conversation and hopefully offer some balance. I’m grateful for those who linked it in their blogs or shared it on Facebook. I’m overwhelmed by the number of views it received. I won’t take the space here to review the range of discussion since Rachel Held Evans posted her CNN piece 12 days ago.

My point in that post, as in my book, is that we need to pay attention to Millennials not because they’re narcissistic and consumer driven and tech savvy. We pay attention because our ability to relate to them is an indicator of how we relate to a society in which Christianity is “an” option but not “the” option. In other words, the growth of the religiously unaffiliated and the anti-religious creates a context in which the church can’t assume an a priori privilege of voice. We have to learn how to speak to a world that doesn’t presume our presuppositions.

Today, Christianity Today posted this on Her-meneutics. Titled “The Myth of the Perfect Millennial Church” it gives the reactions from three women on the RHE posts. The takeaway for me was 1) some people were estranged from church in their 20s but returned when they had kids (this is a standard sociology of life cycle argument), 2) some people are disillusioned with their church of origin and look for difference, either more liturgical or more evangelical, and 3) church isn’t about meeting our needs but about following God as faithful Christians.

As I was writing this, a tweet sent me to this wonderful piece by Jonathan Fitzgerald. He points out that we’ve come to use personal anecdotes in the place of the Grand Stories, particularly from scripture. My mind quickly went to dozens of anecdotes shared as sermon intros (often anecdotes that happened to an entirely different person). But more often than not, the response to the anecdote is to wonder what it is about that person’s situation that we should listen to. Why is their story important? How is my situation similar to or different from theirs? Does the story hold water?

There are any number of responses that we can make to the changing context of religion in American society. Yes, we need more cross-generational conversation. Yes, we need to pray for the church as it is and not the church we wish we had. Yes, we need to be the church God calls us to be.

But sharing personal story is not what this conversation is about. What the original RHE post shared was a set of data from a variety of sources outlining some significant shifts in the religious landscape. These are things the church (or the Christian university) must deal with.

I have been arguing that we need to begin with millennials in this re-thinking because they are the cutting edge of change. They are also, as I wrote in my last post, the key to figuring out postmodern cultural engagement.

But focusing on millennials isn’t the end of the story. It’s barely the beginning. We need to stay engaged with the seniors who make up such a large segment of our congregations. We need to rethink family ministry so that we don’t idolize young couples and isolate those that don’t fit. We need youth ministries that support the complexity of the postmodern world without creating insular subcultures providing a place of escape without engagement.

It’s NOT ABOUT millennials. It’s about the Kingdom of God in contemporary society. The more we mess around with “that’s not true for me”, the less we’ll be able to respond to the sociological shifts already happening.

We’re All Detroiters Now

The big news this afternoon is that the Emergency Manager of Detroit, Kevin Orr, has received authorization from Governor Snyder to pursue a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing (the most recent story from the Detroit News is here.) Orr has been EM since March 1 and has been trying to restructure Detroit’s debts with limited success.

Chapter 9 only applies to municipalities. It’s similar to other forms of bankruptcy. It puts creditors’ claims on hold while working out some unusual plans to restructure the organization. According to Wikipedia, in Chapter 9

Municipalities’ ability to re-write collective bargaining agreements is much greater than in a corporate Chapter 11 bankruptcy and can trump state labor protections, allowing cities to renegotiate unsustainable pension or other benefits packages negotiated in flush times.

This is a key factor. The story in the News includes the following:

Unsecured creditors could take the biggest hit in bankruptcy court. Orr wants them to share a $2 billion payout on approximately $11.5 billion worth of debt, which includes an estimated $9.2 billion in health and pension benefits and $530 million in general-obligation bonds.

The story describes how some corporate creditors have agreed to take 75 cents on the dollar for what they are owed. That’s a significantly better deal than the 17 cents on the dollar the unsecured creditors may face.

Yesterday, driving from Kansas City to Indianapolis, we listened to Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy. It’s a tough story. My wife was asking hard questions about why it’s so depressing to teach social problems. LeDuff looks at Detroit through the lens of someone who grew up in the city proper and not in the affluent suburbs. He recounts difficulties with economics, lack of support for the above-mentioned civil servants who depend upon collective bargaining, corruption among civic leaders too often replaced by other corrupt civil leaders, drug culture, decline of the manufacturing base, white flight to the suburbs, corporate decision making (or lack thereof), and the failure of the press to address any of these issues. Many of these issues are explored through the vantage point of LeDuff’s family or his reporting, but he still touches on all the right issues. While he observes that the city motto speaks to “rising from the ashes”, the litany of concerns raises questions about how that will occur this time.

LeDuff spends a great deal of time on the story of a particular fire station. Underfunded, they make do with equipment that doesn’t work (the alarm has been jerry-rigged for when calls come in). They are mostly ignored by department bureaucrats and are disciplined when it’s learned that they described their situation to a reporter. But when one dies in an arson fire in one of the hundreds of houses they deal with, he is a hero. No recognition at all of the neglect that contributed to the firefighter’s death.

Charlie also does a good job of unpacking the city’s growth and eventual decline. The growth comes from Ford’s $5 per day minimum wage, the Great Migration  of the Southern blacks and Appalachian whites, and the dominance of the auto industry. But the seeds of difficulty were already there: Long term racial issues, corporate economics, the impact of the auto on urban sprawl and resulting suburbanization, and government corruption. The suburbanization of the late 60s, helped by white flight response to the 67 riots (meticulously kept as an urban problem within the Detroit city limits), is followed by the construction of McMansion suburbs far removed from Detroit’s urban challenges (which still benefit from the limited cultural and economic life).

Last year, on another drive, I listened to the audiobook of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. I didn’t like it, as I explained here. Murray, the author of such gems as The Bell Curve and Losing Ground. He follows his normal libertarian stance but part of his argument is worth attention. He observes that the richest segments of society are becoming increasingly separate from the poor. He mistakenly puts too much emphasis on value deficits of the poor while failing to examine the structural correlates of those issues. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the residential and cultural segmentation of the upper and middle classes lead directly to a declining tax base and reduced civic services. Those left behind in this new migration are those with limited options in terms of jobs, family, mobility, and even grocery stores. Let’s call it the Great Abandonment.

Two years ago, I wrote this piece the day Newt Gingrich announced he was running for president. As part of his announcement, he said this: “I know how to get the whole country to resemble Texas,” he said. “President Obama knows how to get the whole country to resemble Detroit.”  As I wrote at the time, Texas was seeing purported economic growth by driving down wages, lessening safety net supports, and limited educational programming.

While Detroit’s crisis is real, it’s the natural outgrowth of poor economic planning, residential segregation, political gerrymandering, and an inability to address issues of racial inequality.

Sound familiar? All of these issues remain the real issues confronting America in the 21st century. I wish I had an example of a major metropolitan area that could be our model going forward, but nothing comes to mind.

Over the last 35 years, sociologist William Julius Wilson has been arguing that we need to address the concerns of the underclass. Outmigration would increase economic isolation, the black middle class would abandon their extended families, economic opportunities would drive up, and a group of people would give up on the American dream. I worry that Detroit is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

If it is that canary, we can expect more problems at firehouses, more fights over pensions, more inner city crime. As I’ve been writing this, Christianity Today has posted a story about Christians working in Detroit. I haven’t read it yet but I appreciate their efforts. Identification with the problem is better than finger-pointing. Because we’ve all got an interest in Detroit. It might just be our national future.

Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

[Written as my July contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on “Evangelicals and the Modern Study of Scripture.“]

My fellow essayists this month have raised some interesting questions. What are the logical limitations of inerrancy? Are these important? What makes many evangelicals skittish about modern biblical scholarship? Are there valuable lessons to learn? What does it mean to “stand under” the text? Why is understanding original language important? How do we recognize the role of culture in biblical text while guarding against the tendency to read scripture only through our own cultural lenses?

This essay will explore the ways in which many evangelicals use scripture as a rhetorical weapon. In short, scripture is too often used as a conversation-ender and not a means of hearing God speak to all listeners. This rhetorical stance is relatively new in Church history and has distorted the meaning of scriptural authority. In the process, the scripture has become a tool to use on behalf of a position rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper understandings.

The title of my post comes from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (NASB).” This verse, along with others I’ll explore, provides insights into how evangelicals USE the scripture. I have often heard people quote this verse as a declaration of the Bible’s authority. Never mind that commentaries describe the broader Hebrews 4 passage as being about sabbath-keeping as instructed in the Law. The phase “word of God” becomes synonymous with the Bible and any verse is then a tool used to divide soul and spirit or judge hearts.

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted this story announcing that YouVersion had achieved the 100 million mark in downloads of this popular bible-based mobile app. They also released their newest list of the most popular verses sent via text or twitter or posted as a Facebook status. CT expressed concern that John 3:16 didn’t make the list. The most popular verses were Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

First of all, the very idea of something called YouVersion is the absolute epitome of the Extreme Individualism which has so colored American Evangelicalism. The scriptures thereby become MY possession, readily available for me to use as necessary. It is just that much easier for my to take these verses and make them about promises TO ME.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future (NIV).”  In spite of all the gifts we give to high school graduates anticipating college and beyond, this verse is written to the people of Israel collectively. Too often, we take the verse as a stand-alone tool to give comfort in anxiety or to somehow make prosper into a guarantee of riches to those who are obedient.

Biblical scholarship would have us recognize the specific role Jeremiah’s words of comfort played to the exiled Israelites. It’s a promise to God’s people collectively not to me individually. As Andre the Giant says in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that means what you think it means.

The YouVersion list illustrates something very important about evangelicals’ use of scripture. We really don’t know much about the Bible at all. That has been regularly demonstrated in research by Stephen Prothero and many others. Modern biblical scholarship that looks for the context of the biblical narrative isn’t particularly interesting to the folks who’d be attracted to YouVersion.

I’ve often joked that it would be interesting to put together the list of verses most often repeated by evangelicals (so I guess I should thank the YouVersion people). It’s an easy list — Proverbs 3:4-5 (used by Nic Wallenda in walking across the Grand Canyon), Psalm 139:13, Romans 8:28, Romans 5:23, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 5:22, Isaiah 6, Revelation 3:20, and many others including the verses mentioned above. I figure I could publish the Real Evangelical Version is about 22 pages!

So where does this approach to scripture come from? I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of biblical authority combined with a utilitarian view of evangelistic argument.

The latter is a direct expression of enlightenment era rationality. It’s caught up in the phrases”evidence that demands a verdict” and “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” In this sense, scripture is a tool to use. Because it’s God’s Word, it automatically trumps any other appeals. A sword is valuable when it is used, either offensively or defensively.

Fundamentalism has reset definitions so that the only view of biblical authority seems to require a belief in inerrancy. This was a point of conflict at one of my colleges when we thought we’d done a good thing by emphasizing the commitment to the authority of scripture as core institutional values. The immediate response from students and other conservative critics was that we ought to immediately fire the non-creationist faculty members because that’s what authority demands.

Justin Barnard’s post makes great use of C. S. Lewis. I was already thinking about how different Lewis’ rhetorical style in Mere Christianity is from the style of modern apologists. How many scriptures are cited in MC? Why doesn’t his argument include the obvious top ten list from YouVersion?

Not to make C.S. Lewis the model for evangelical rhetoric. Many others have observed his own limitations. But it’s striking that we use that sword as a tool that makes folks in Game of Thrones seem passive.

John’s gospel recounts how Peter responded at the point of Jesus’s arrest. Peter draws a sword and attacks the guard. Jesus rebukes Peter and restores the ear. Shortly thereafter, as he is being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place (John 1:36 NIV).

As Amos Young observes, maybe attentiveness to the Spirit can lead to a new rhetorical style, one that seeks to engage the other rather than winning argument. I’m reminded of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. They knew their scriptures and had a means of understanding them leading them to believe their side was winning. Now Jesus was dead and their understanding was shattered. When they encounter Jesus on the road, they stop worrying about what they thought. He leads them to understand all of scripture in a new way. Not only are they restored, but they reverse course and return to the scary place that was Jerusalem.

As they follow the Spirit’s lead, the wind up not needing a sword after all. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, they don’t have a need to fight. Modern biblical scholarship, in this view, is not a threat but another means through which the Holy Spirit bears witness.