Tag: Faithful Presence

Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

When I wrote last month’s post on “pro-choice” evangelicals, some commenters on Facebook claimed I was arguing that Christians shouldn’t make moral choices but instead adopt an “anything goes” mentality to get along in pluralistic society. I tried to explain in comments and e-mails that I was arguing that we have had a tendency to oversimplify our rhetoric which makes moral positions harder to explain. The problem was not moral choice but how that choice gets characterized by listeners we are trying to influence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of moral argument in a complex, diverse, post-modern, post-Christendom culture. It’s been one of the overarching themes of my blogging over the last six months. I’ve written before about the impact of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (which I’m using in my social science of religion class this semester). Hunter, who had written earlier pieces on Culture Wars (1992) now suggests that we evangelicals have been too concerned about leveraging power to create cultural change. In the newer book, he calls for what he labels Faithful Presence.

While discussing the difficulties of cultural engagement with a colleague this week, I was suddenly struck with an image from my childhood: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It became a way of explaining the problem with conflict-based cultural engagement that has characterized so much of the Culture War debates.

If you ever saw Disney’s Song of the South (known for introducing “Zippity-Do-Dah” to the American songbook), you know it’s way too close to a minstrel show. The happy slave Uncle Remus tells stories in broken dialect to the owner’s young son. The Tar Baby is characterized in the stories and by Disney animators as an insolent black child. But there is a lesson for us in the story valuable enough to make me repeat part of the tale (I found a version without the dialect). In the story, Brer Fox places a Tar Baby in the road as a way to trick Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit greets the Tar Baby who says nothing (being a bunch of Tar shaped like a person).

Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabyBrer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad. “Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said ‘HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laugher. His plan was working perfectly! “Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn’t dare laugh out loud. “I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared in the debate. Regardless of what other good is done, including the desire to reach others for Christ, the tar remains. The culture warrior gets stuck in all the mess and seems unable to move in any way at all. And whatever he or she does, the tar remains behind. Just to name one example among many possible, even though Gordon College has attempted to explain the purpose of the Executive Order letter this summer, groups continue to separate from them (this week it was a school district). The tar is stickier than we imagine.

The difficulty, as Hunter tells us, is that power is a fickle weapon. It’s always dependent upon someone else exerting power from another side. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that power within empire always has a strong element of fear of scarcity. The power must be exercised to protect one against loss.

I was reviewing Brueggemann’s argument in class Thursday night. I had a chart on the board illustrating the connection between Empire, Pharaoh, and Pilate (see chapter one of Truth Speaks to Power). The center of my Empire column was Power. Then, using Brueggemann’s analysis, I contrasted that with the Kingdom of God. What Yahweh, Moses, Jesus all share is a different starting point — a negation of power. We explored what would be in the center of that column. Students suggested Love, Grace, Sacrifice.

I told them that my word in the center is Kenosis. It is the emptying act of the Incarnation that establishes all of Kingdom thinking. As the Philippians passages tell us, this is the concept that was in Christ’s mind that is also to be in ours.

KenosisIf we begin mirroring the Incarnation, we don’t strike out at others. We try instead to enter their space and see things from their perspective. By showing sacrificial love from within that authentic place, we have the opportunity to demonstrate Faithful Presence.

I had two friends illustrate exactly this form of incarnational living in the past few days. Both of them happened into it accidentally, but quickly discovered what it means to incarnate another’s place. My colleague Eric told a story of how he had gone running on a warm Michigan day and had tied up his slightly longish (yet fashionable) hair in what he calls a “snork-like” pony-tail. When completing his run, a car of young men come up behind him and gave a catcall (thinking they were dealing with a woman). In that quick moment before the men realized their mistake, Eric knew the evil of sexism. He had occupied that space with others.

My friend Karen was asked to be on a radio program to discuss Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What she didn’t know was that the show was organized around calling out all whites for the evils of racism (which the host called “White Supremacy”). A white woman from Virginia got to try to identify with structural racism for a couple of hours. Having listened to the interview, I can say she did a great job under the circumstances. She wasn’t defensive and when she couldn’t fully identify with the host or a caller, she said so. She validated their experiences, fears, and concerns while being clear in her own place as a white Christian academic. That she spoke so consistently of the evils of structural racism and why it must be exposed was as incarnational as I think one could be under the circumstances.

On Friday, Alastair Roberts wrote a fabulous piece for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form“, it analyzed some of the cultural challenges of evangelicals in the postmodern age. But it ended in a hopeful place; one that I think aligns well with an Incarnational Faithful Presence within the culture:

 Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is buttressed by a more internal challenge: the cognitive frameworks defined by the idea of Worldview. Fifteen years ago, Christian Smith argued in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998) that evangelicalism developed a subcultural identity based on being under assault from secularism and liberal Protestantism. In fact, too much of evangelicalism’s history has been a struggle to define itself as “not those other people.” This cognitive strategy is a never-ending effort at managing the boundaries that I wrote about in my last post. There’s always another group. to contrast. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. Christian higher education has been particularly susceptible to such definitions of other. However, it is a tenuous position. As Hunter observed in his book on Evangelicals sixteen years earlier, the realities of the modern world and the desire for acceptance or influence make separatism harder to maintain. Hunter had argued that modernity presented a quandary for evangelicals as we deal with diversity and become educated and successful. I’d go even farther. Our very success as power-brokers and cultural-influencers has changed our cognitive identity from being misunderstood or marginalized to believing we know best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Power and the Power of Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is buttressed by a more internal challenge: the cognitive frameworks defined by the idea of Worldview. Fifteen years ago, Christian Smith argued in American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998) that evangelicalism developed a subcultural identity based on being under assault from secularism and liberal Protestantism. I’d suggest that this attempt to remain separate relies on specific forms of scriptural argument and educational philosophy. However, it is a tenuous position. As Hunter observed in his book on Evangelicals sixteen years earlier, the realities of the modern world and the desire for acceptance or influence make separatism harder to maintain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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