Tag: Diversity

Boze Herrington’s Heartbreaking Story in The Atlantic

This morning I read a stunning piece by Boze Herrington in The Atlantic. Titled “The Seven Signs You’re In a Cult“, it’s a first person account of religious life grown inward, paranoid, and exclusionary. The power of the piece comes from Boze’s initial excitement with being part of this small group who devoted such time to prayer and then seeing that wane as he becomes increasingly concerned with emotional and spiritual abuse going on in the group (prompted by its leader, Tyler). The story opens with the news of the death of Tyler’s wife Bethany (initially claimed as suicide but now investigated as murder).

Reading the piece, I was immediately reminded of Jon Krakauer’s excellent yet unsettling Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer’s book tells of how two brothers, members of a fundamentalist polygamous Mormon group, acted to kill the wife and child of one of them. Even though it’s been years since I read Banner, there were striking parallels to Boze’s story: a tight knit group suspicious of outsiders, special revelations, the prioritization of right belief over all else, and rationalization in light of the cause.

Clearly, the International House of  Prayer (IHOP) isn’t responsible for Tyler’s system of control any more than it is of Bethany’s death. People make choices. And yet in reading Boze’s story I couldn’t help but focus on the systemic issues that indirectly contributed to the situation.

For example, Boze mentions that he was “profoundly impacted by IHOP’s teachings“. I’ve noticed lately how the word “teaching” is used in evangelical circles as somehow distinct from the Gospel (a story last week in Christianity Today referenced a lapsed pastor’s “teachings” being taken down from the webpage). When these theological perspectives or sermon series are elevated, they have an added in-group power that suggests an inside track on “what is really going on“.

Tyler’s “revelations” and “discernment” give him unique control over the rest of the group. They became dependent upon his role and he seemed to relish the control. They seem extreme at times (the anti-intellectualism was particularly problematic while at a university) and Boze and others admit to having serious doubts although it wasn’t safe to share them.

Tyler’s vision of the world and the task he saw before him was shaped in part by a somewhat dystopic vision expressed by IHOP leadership. That is not to say that they intended anyone to take things to extremes, but the manichean understanding of warfare lays a framework. When one is working to save the remnant of “God’s final people“, it can lead to some slippery ethical stances.

To be fair, IHOP had provide some good instruction on what to look for in a cult group.

1. Opposing critical thinking

2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving

3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture

4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders

5. Dishonoring the family unit

6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)

7. Separation from the Church

As it happens, these are very similar to what sociologists like John Lofland discovered in the 1970s investigating conversion to cultic religious group (the Unification Church). The Lofland/Stark conversion model begins with an individual who is feeling personal tension, is seeking some kind of religious answer, who has a pivotal life event, develops extreme internal group ties, cuts off external ties, and has periods of intense interaction.

All of the Lofland/Stark elements show up in Boze’s story. His story is not unusual from anyone who is transplanted to a new location, struggles with meaning or identity, and is surrounded by a small group that provides meaning and worth. Doubt is suppressed, leadership is followed, poor choices are made.

Hawthorne CultThe picture on the left comes from a sociology of religion course I taught over 20 years ago while at Sterling College. I was trying to illustrate the natural growth of a religious group from its founding to successful institutionalization. I had suggested that it was my cult (my class) and we consider what happened each time we increased size from the founding group. We imagined growing from 12 to 24 to 48 to 96 to 198 to 396 and so on. Once we got beyond face to face interaction with the founders (somewhere around 100) we have to start building institutional structures of control: doctrinal orthodoxy, educational processes, ordination, and the like. When I came to class two days later, the whole class was dressed like this (I’m not sure why the hippie garb was necessary). My student Joel in the upper right did a remarkable impersonation in spite of being a few inches taller than me.

The message was that when support of “our group” becomes primary we wind up making a lot of sociological choices that open the door for bad behavior and rationalization of impropriety. This is part of last week’s fracas on the Leadership Journal piece. It’s part of extreme behaviors of near-shunning in other religious groups.

I want to be careful here. I’m not suggesting that IHOP was responsible for Tyler or that the church where the youth minister served encouraged him to abuse a girl in the youth group. But I am suggesting that the very culture and sociological dynamics make it possible for this kind of extreme behavior to occur. (The fact that IHOP taught about recognizing cultic movements may be partly a recognition of this.)

A healthy organization (religious, political, or educational) will recognize the potential for abuse and find ways of monitoring healthy behavior, of encouraging those who feel “something is wrong” to speak up, and to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who think “otherwise”.

Instead, the organization fostered the kind of dichotomous thinking and special dispensation that allows someone like Tyler to take advantage (even if he’s acting on what he thought were Godly motives). Boze puts it well:

It seems to me that our community was not exceptional, given the high-intensity spiritual environment we were part of. Tyler was not an isolated individual, but the product of a phenomenally twisted system….

But it is clear that when Bethany died, she was part of a community shrouded in fear and hatred, a community where those who spoke out were treated as though they didn’t exist. Their loves, desires, opinions, feelings, and whole personalities were invalidated, all in the name of God.

Communities full of fear, distrust, warfare will give rise to people like Tyler. Instead, a broader understanding of the diversity in the Body of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit in our midst is what makes for healthy groups that put the Kingdom of God above their own interests.

 

Pluralism in a Post-Christian Culture: A Defense of Bowdoin

BowdoinI’ve been working on this post for two days and find it’s one of the hardest I’ve dealt with. Probably because the risk of being misunderstood is so high and because readers may feel that I’m being insensitive to their beliefs. But since I haven’t been able to let it go, there’s nothing left but to plow ahead.

 
Monday’s New York Times had this story titled “Colleges and Evangelicals Clash on Bias Policy“. While part of the story was a rehash of issues arising in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court Decision allowing the Hastings College of Law to go forward with anti-discrimination language. But the trigger event for the story was a change at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. A private school of roughly 1800 students, Bowdoin’s Christian Fellowship will be disbanding because of the school’s expectations of student organizations.

In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

The last paragraph certainly captures the sentiments of InterVarsity, which has promoted the story heavily on social media. They have been sending out a quote from a student at Cal State Chico: “We’re not willing to water down our beliefs in order to be accepted.”

While actions like Bowdoin’s raise serious challenges for groups like InterVarsity and a number of other excellent campus ministries, I think the argument “in the eyes of evangelicals” that this is an attack on Christianity is misguided. There is something more significant at play illustrated by the contrast by the two paragraphs quoted above.

I am not alone in writing that we have entered a Post-Christian (I prefer Post-Constantinian) phase of American Society. This has profound implications for how Christians operate within that context, as David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw pointed out in their book. What we’re seeing is a social context operated according to purely secular principles. It’s easy to dismiss this as “political correctness” but  there’s something far deeper going on.

If you go to the Bowdoin web page and search for the rules for student organizations, you find the following:

Clubs cannot discriminate membership or leadership based on race, religion, age, ethnic or national origin, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, or income; exceptions for the gender requirement and physical ability requirement may be made if in direct alignment with the club’s express purpose and mission (emphasis mine).

I don’t know if this language about club charters has been recently changed or just newly enforced. But it is clear that it’s staking out a position that student organizations are for the benefit of all students. As such, no a priori exclusions in terms of leadership are allowed (that’s really the rub in this case). In other words, you can’t bar people from coming to club or applying for leadership roles based on the defined criteria. It doesn’t say that those people MUST be admitted into leadership but that discrimination is banned.

One of the responses I saw on Facebook asked about someone looking to be president of the math club who doesn’t do math. First, math ability isn’t one of the criteria listed. Second, that person is free to pursue leadership but won’t be selected.

InterVarsity also linked to this story about President Alec Hill’s participation in a forum on pluralism held by The Aspen Institute. Summarized in last years’ report, “Principled Pluralism: Report of the Inclusive America Project“, the project attempted to explore the changing nature of pluralism in American society. If you follow through the material, you’ll see that Hill’s presentation on the panel was something of a dissent from the rest of the presenters. The executive summary of the report, written by Madeleine Albright and David Gergen, concludes with this:

In the future, we risk deeper and potentially disastrous fragmentation if we do not remain true to our heritage as a diverse people united around certain core values—including respect for the rights and dignity of every human being.

That statement prioritizes diversity. The report does a good job of outlining a valuable role for religion (thanks to contributions from Eboo Patel, Richard Mouw, David Campbell, Jim Wallis, and a host of others) but it does so within the context of all participants without priveleging any.

Post-Constantinian society marks the end of a presumed privilege for positions of faith. It doesn’t mean that faith isn’t important. But it does mean that faith participates alongside other value systems, including secular small-d democratic principles like dignity, equality, and freedom for all.

This will likely mean that religious ministries at secular institutions may no longer operate as student organizations. It is why, in spite of George Will’s sentiments about collegiate responses to rape, we are paying more attention to the victimization of women. It’s why one-man-one-woman amendments are being struck down by state courts across the country.

In a post-constantian society, issues aren’t being contested on the basis of “belief” but on the basis of fair play and human dignity. There is a vital role for religious groups to play in the society but they will need to learn how to engage the questions being asked instead of the ones that they are comfortable answering.

 

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.