Tag: Frederick Buechner

On “Real” Christians

Last week Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked whether President Obama was a Christian. His response, Walkeraccording to the Washington Post:

I don’t know. I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say that either of you is a Christian?

Another well-known politician, Francis Underwood, would have put it like this:

Some have raised questions about the President’s religion; I couldn’t possibly say.

Walker’s people claim that the governor was really trying to push back at media questions designed to trap or distract potential candidates rather than asking substantive questions about policy or experience. There may be some validity in that.

But Walker’s answer is consistent with the kind of boundary maintenance issues we’re all too familiar with. Even if he doesn’t feel comfortable evaluating the president’s faith statements, lots of other people do. Many people within the overlapping circles of conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics make similar judgments as a matter of course.

This week, Cathleen Falsani shared an interview she’d done with then-State-Senator Barack Obama when she was religion reporter for the Chicago Sun Times in early 2004. This was before his opponent for the Senate race dropped out (to be replaced by Alan Keyes) and months before the DNC speech that made Obama a national name. It’s a very revealing interview. Obama clearly isn’t evangelical and while he does talk about a personal relationship with Jesus that confirmed his grandparent’s religious views, he stops short of calling it an epiphany. He describes an intellectual view of the faith that makes emotional response harder and asks questions many have asked. {For all who like to claim that he grew up in a Muslim country (Indonesia), a usually overlooked fact is that he went to Catholic school where they “studied the Bible and catechism each day”.]

Also this week, Laura Ortberg Turner wrote a very interesting piece on Katy Perry’s pentecostal faith. In spite of her pop-star celebrity and some past distance from her pastor parents, a centrality of faith remains. God is interested in all of the details of her life; from her cup size to her Super Bowl performance. It’s a jarring image given Katy’s public persona. But Laura captures a key element of Katy’s belief system:

Where other denominations, like the Southern Baptists, are most focused on making sure people aren’t heretics, the charismatic church, to put it crudely, wants to make sure that people believe. That is both a cause and result of their conception of God as unconditionally loving, and unconditional love is a prominent theme in Perry’s music.

Yesterday, progressive media figure Anna Marie Cox “came out” as a Christian on the website The Daily Beast (which isn’t a venue for testimonies in the way Christianity Today might be). Here is a political liberal (I loved it when she appeared on Rachel Maddow) who affirms that she’s following Jesus. She writes:

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

I’m sure there are folks who struggle with these confessions of faith. They want to find other markers to confirm the faith that is claimed (Mike Huckabee was very upset at young female Fox News staffers who frequently dropped F-bombs). They want to know if these people “really” believe in Jesus. And if so, how can they be progressives or pop stars?

Of course, I can ask the same questions of others who claim to follow Jesus. Can you follow Jesus and celebrate mistruths at the Conservative Political Action Convention or the Values Voters Forum? Can you ignore calls for institutional repentance in light of the church’s non-action (or actual action) when it comes to issues of race? Can you blindly support military solutions to all problems? Can you seriously demagogue the poor among us?

I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need to ground our faith in identity terms instead of positional terms. We must find ways to telling our real stories, wrestling with the challenges, owning the inconsistencies, and seeking forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Another article this week caught my attention. Published on the Leadership Journal webpage, it was a piece by Tony Kriz called “Seven Lies Christians Tell”. The first one is particularly apt:

We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.

In a funny way, this week makes me think that maybe Scott Walker was more right than we might have thought (and maybe than he intended). Maybe the only way to evaluate who is a Real Christian is to listen to how they describe their relationship with Jesus. It may not match my story but I need to be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, it’s what keeps me from being Francis Underwood.

Frederick Buechner has it right. In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, he tells us about Christians:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anyone else. Just better informed.

A Voice In Ramah: Power, Protest, and Presence

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

(Matthew 2:18)

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThis passage from Matthew is a response to horrific injustice. King Herod, learning from the Wise Men that the King had been born, is unable to locate the specific child that represented a threat to his Power. So to play it safe, he draws a circle on his map around Bethlehem and uses the legitimate authority of his government to execute all boys under two within that circle.

It’s understandable that Christmas pageants end with the arrival of the Wise Men. It makes a nice conclusion to the story. Very Important People “traverse afar” to acknowledge the King and humble themselves before Him. Clearly, power bends in the face of the Incarnate God.

But that’s not the whole story. Power is also used to exterminate innocents. Undeserving others who happened to be born in the wrong neck of the woods. Who couldn’t have possibly have been born just six months earlier so that they’d be over two when that horrific order came down.

Thursday night we finished my “Spirituality, Faith, and Justice” class. The students recognized that power and our response to it was a central theme to all of our readings. (They also rightly pointed out that I probably intended that since I picked the books and ordered the readings.) By the end of all of our books, a quest for power had given way to something else. Michael Sandel was calling for a communitarian response to the common good. Christena Cleveland calls us to a broader circle of identity and a commitment to serve others in response to Christ’s model. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw call us to practice Incarnational Pluralism, where we engage the communities in which we live to bear witness to the Kingdom.

Walter Brueggemann provides the best deconstruction of the role of power. He sees that Truth undermines power in remarkable and unpredictable ways; not of our acting but because God is already intervening in pursuit of Justice. Here are some passages from the last few pages of When Truth Speaks to Power:

I have no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system. Except to notice that the present concentration of power and wealth among us, the collusion of much of the media, and the alliance of the courts make it possible to think that totalizing is ready at hand among us. Those of us who attend to and mean to adhere to the testimony of truth in the biblical tradition are left with the quite practical question concerning the performance of truth that concerns emancipation and transformation in a context that does not intend any emancipation from dominant ideology and that intends transformation only inside that system. The wonderment among us is that there are agents of truth who find daring, risky ways out beyond the totalism. Sometimes (many times?) the church colludes with the totalism and blesses it, to its own considerable benefit. But sometimes the church— in feeble or in daring ways, in conventional or in imaginative ways—has an alternative say….It is finally the God of all truth who breaks the grip of totalism, who confounds the imperial governor, and who makes all things new … here and there … now and then.

A society that has lost its way may indeed be ready for serious discipleship that informs citizenship. Such deep obedience to the truth that marks discipleship does not aim, in citizenship, to transpose the body politic into the church or into a theocracy. It aims rather to insist that the holy truth voices gifts and commands that matter in a society that depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair.

It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. … The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power.

Naturally, all of this thinking about issues of power leads me to reflect on Ferguson and Staten Island. How can grand juries fail to indict bad behavior? If we think about the totalizing aspects of power, it would be naive to expect an indictment. That would require the entities of power ruling against the agents of power. Sure, we can find cases where “bad apples” are isolated and removed, but that does little to disrupt the power involved.

The protests in the streets across the nation has been a fascinating display that people think “something is wrong”. But some of those protests have been designed to compete within power domains. Perhaps, they seem to suggest, if we disrupt shopping malls or traffic patterns, then change will come. But often that simply turns into an invitation for contesting power that plays into the hands of those who wield it most effectively and who have more structural resources upon which to draw.

So where does that leave us? If power is not the coin of the Kingdom, how do we nurture change and justice? Again, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in the midst of lament. As I’ve noted before, Brueggemann suggests that when the Israelite slaves cry out in their Egyptian oppression, God acts — even though they don’t ask God for deliverance. Our presence and participation in the pain of others is more of a testament to Truth than dozens of organizations or twitter hashtags.

God is also present in the suffering. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the perrennial question of theodicy: where is God in suffering? Her answer is remarkably simple: he is on the cross. He is incarnationally present in the midst of the pain.

One of my favorite parts of Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking comes as he’s discussing Job’s suffering. Buechner suggests that we often want explanations of how these bad things happen. Who is to blame? What is the point? He also suggests that God is simply present in the pain.

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee” (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

The Truth is that God’s Presence is there in the midst of the crowds in Ferguson and Staten Island and everywhere else. He has not abandoned the world. And we in the church, acting as the Body of Christ, are similarly present. We are vicariously suffering the loss of lives and the pain of incredulity that such things happen.

It’s worth looking back at the Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes following the Slaughter of the Innocents. The very next verses, Jeremiah 31: 16-17 say that God is aware of the suffering and that things will soon be different.

The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
17 There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!

Maybe we need to include Herod in the Christmas pageants somehow. Maybe it would let us stay aware that we’re not about trusting in power, even when it’s ours to exercise. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves every year that Truth is playing on a very different level than simple Power.

I’ve often wanted a different ending to the second chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men are “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. I kind of want them to go back and then refuse to tell where they find the Child. It would have cost them, but maybe would have saved those children.

But it’s not my story to write. It’s God’s. And as one of his ambassadors, maybe it’s enough for me to live in the tension and pain of loss. To suggest that there is another way. That one day, hopefully soon, we will all be returning home from the totalizing power of Empire into the reward of the Kingdom of God.

To New Freshmen at Christian Universities

[Adapted from the talk I gave to the incoming Freshmen at Northwest Nazarene University August 27, 2014]

You are in the midst of the second of four major life transitions. As a sociologist, I think about things like transitions and rights of passage. I’m going to look quickly at four such transitions. Today marks the start of the second transition but I’m going to push your focus to the fourth.

Many of you had the first transition at least 13 years ago right about now. If you went to kindergarten, there was a time when your parents explained that you were about to go to this thing called “school”. School is a place where somebody else controls your time, people evaluate your achievement, and someone not your parents has authority to tell you what to do. If you went to pre-school, you got an early introduction to these lessons. If you were homeschooled, you’re jamming the first two transitions into one big change.

You just came through orientation, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time on the second transition. Still, this is a huge transition. You don’t have parents checking up on you, you get to meet folks you’ve never met before, you become responsible for your learning. There is a tremendous tension between your newfound freedom and the discipline necessary to be successful. Remember, everyone else who started with you is on a steep learning curve. If they seem to have it together, they’re just better at pretending.

The third transition is the other bookend to what you are currently going through. For most of you, in three years and nine months, you’ll put on gowns and celebrate your launch into the world beyond college. It’s not “the real world”. This is all real. But it is a matter of moving from a supportive community where you are known and people have your back to a world where you will make your own way. You’ll find a job (the first of many) and begin to sort out what real adulthood looks like (which may take another 6-8 years).

The fourth transition is one that we don’t talk a lot about because it doesn’t have the same defining markers as the others. There is no special recognition and no ceremony. You won’t put pictures on whatever social media is by then. But it is the point where you have fully grasped your sense of calling and purpose. This may not come until you are between 35 and 50. But it is the point when you’re contribution to the larger world is established. Frederick Buechner calls it “the place where your great gladness meets the world’s deepest need.”

The Christian University Journey is aimed at the fourth transition. This is the heart of Christian liberal arts education. We are concerned with not just what you can do but with who you are when doing it. We want you not just to know how to do a job but how to process what to do when the rules of the game change. We want you not just to tell people you love Jesus but to see your understanding of what it means to be a Disciple to be the plumb line that gives you stability in a changing world.

It is tempting to focus on what needs to happen to meet graduation requirements. We in Higher Education worry far too much about checklists and majors and requirements. If there’s a bad guy in my book, this is it. To blindly follow the checklists, make sure you check the right boxes, but not to take away important lessons from the experiences you have is to waste a lot of time and a bunch of money. If you focus on checking off the boxes, it means that you only need to get C grades and do minimums. If you are really committed to what college offers you and stay in communication with others, you’ll cover the checklists along the way.

Over the last decade in Christian Higher Education, we’ve had many more conversation about jobs. This is something your parents were concerned about. They certainly don’t want you to spend all this money for college and then move home to live in their basement and play video games. Actually, that image of you in the basement is highly offensive and doesn’t do justice to either you or your school. The stories of unemployed college graduates are largely overblown and based on anecdote. It may not be the career job, but people in your generation are willing to be patient while looking for the “right” position. The actual data shows that you not only will find work but that you will make over $800,000 more than someone who didn’t go to college. Some of that is because the economy has tanked for those with only a HS diploma. But it’s also because you develop valuable skills and orientations. The job canard is just like the degree one. Focus your attention on your own growth and learn how to explain that to others and jobs will follow.

Instead, take an active stance toward your learning. Let me give you a hint about laptops and cell phones. Your professors know when you are taking notes and when you aren’t. Classes have a natural rhythm and points are evenly spaced. When you are looking at your screen and clicking away out of rhythm, it’s clear that you’re on the internet. But the more general issue is to bring all of your attention to class. Seriously try to do the reading before class. Even if you didn’t get all of it, familiarize yourself. Ask yourself questions. Make mental connections to other things you’ve read. Talk to your faculty member after class. In short, invest your time in your classes and it will pay dividends. Even classes you aren’t crazy about will be the source of connections you’ll use later in other classes or papers.

When you look at your educational experience as something that’s preparing you for the long term, you take a different approach. You may not keep all of your textbooks (they are expensive, after all). But the ones that were especially meaningful should be part of your ongoing library. You’ll find yourself returning to them in future years. Think about what you learn in each of your classes that you want to hang on to. Connect the dots as if you had strands of yarn that show the significant linkages discovered along the way. If you can practice describing those linkages and what they meant to you, graduation and jobs are a natural byproduct.

You are key to the future of Christian Colleges. The world is changing and your generation is key to what’s going on. So while you are on a journey, so is the rest of Christian Higher Education. If you follow the news and check on the internet, you know that we’ve entered a Post-Christian period. No longer are we in a culture that presumes Christian guideposts as the default position.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, has said that your generation is “discontinuously different” from earlier generations. There are many sources in sociology that confirm his data. Your generation is constantly connected, keeps friends from diverse backgrounds, has grown up with values of tolerance, and is frustrated with business as usual. You have remarkably potent hypocrisy detectors.

You look for authenticity and community while struggling with your own personal identity questions. You’ve grown up in a world very different than the one I grew up in. These are hard questions for your grandparents and maybe your parents. But much less hard for you.

In spite of all the challenges of the economy, jobs, government, the church, and culture, your generation is remarkably optimistic. Far more so than earlier generations. You see the culture as improving and opportunities as expanding .

All of that gives you insights into what is going on that your Christian University needs to hear. As I’ve written before, you are the canaries in the coal mine of our culture. You represent modes of thinking that will be dominant over the next twenty years. Christian colleges need to hear from you but recognize that they will change far slower than you might want. Resist the temptation to disengage. Have honest conversations with school leaders recognizing that change can be hard for everyone. It’s critically important.

We are all part of the tapestry of God’s Kingdom. So what does it mean for all of us, students and professors alike, to be pursuing God’s leading in our lives academically, socially, and spiritually? It means that we aren’t alone. We impact each other. That’s why settling for box-checking or job-hunting is so disappointing. It’s not just you that get’s shortchanged. It’s all of us.

Toy StoryThink about the Toy Story movies, for example. Woody and Buzz may look like the stars, but they are all influence by each other. And that influence means that they are all responsible for what happens to each one. That’s the heart of Christian Liberal Arts education. While working on your own stuff, you are bringing others along. You are figuratively holding hands, just like at the end of Toy Story 3.

That means that God’s Kingdom is built by people being obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we engage each other’s stories in order to help them become what God has implanted. Together we are working on God’s behalf, not only to pursue our own goals and dreams, but to advance his Kingdom wherever we find it.

Welcome to the first step in this exciting journey we call Christian Liberal Arts. You’re in for a wonderful ride!

 

 

 

A Way Forward (Part Three): Resisting Labels

My argument began with a call for us to separate Christian Faith from the cultural baggage we’ve assumed, whether that is the syncretism of political dynamics or the sacralization of cultural patterns. The second leg of the argument privileged religious practice, regardless of denominational affiliation, over issues of self-identification. These two components lead to a third part of the argument: the labels we toss around in our intra-Christianity fights are counterproductive and need to go.

It’s not uncommon for sociologists like me to try to make distinctions between forms of religious groups. We have labels like Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline, Spiritual But Not Religious, and Religious “Nones”. We are more likely than theologians to define these in terms people actually use rather than through some pedigree of intellectual history. But such definitions are as varied as the people who use them.

In fact, I’m coming to believe that the primary function of these labels is negative. Decades ago, Richard Quebedeaux said Evangelicals were “polite fundamentalists”. As I’ve written, certain mainliners want people to know that they aren’t like “those evangelicals with all their political stances”. Evangelicals distinguish themselves from mainliners who hold an “anything goes” mentality. The SNBR folks say that faith is important but don’t want anything to do with the corruptions of organized religion.

If I’m correct that the labels operate as negative referents, then we wind up doing serious damage to the way the church is viewed within larger social discourse. It’s easy to pick out extremists, to caricature positions, and write blog posts castigating others (or others as they exist in the author’s imagination).

For a long time, my social media feeds have been the window through which I could see these label battles play out. Someone will post something, others will respond, the initial poster or a supporter will write on what’s wrong with the responders, and the whole thing goes on ad infinitum. I’m not casting stones, here, just making sociological observations — I’m guilty of this as my next post is a direct response to things written about millennials. Mystery of faith

But today, my social media feeds don’t allow me to distinguish between labels. Today, Easter Sunday, the communications are all about what the liturgies refer to as the Great Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Facebook is full of call and response: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!” In these historic sentiments, as well as in the creeds, we get the heart of the church as both theological and sociological expression. We believe in God, creator of heaven and earth. In Christ’s incarnation, passion, and emerging reign. In the Spirt who brings together “the holy catholic church”. In the mystery of the trinity, where all this is caught up together in the Godhead that I cannot begin to fathom.

As I was working on this post, Scott Emery posted the text of an Easter sermon N.T. Wright gave four years ago.  I recognize that many of the themes therein were related to the ideas Wright later developed in When God Became King. The entire sermon is worth reading, but this passage stood out to me.

The resurrection points the way to a new sort of life, a new way of life, a way which is neither the brittle pseudo-correctness of a church out of touch with the people, nor the cloying pseudo-righteousness of a pontificating press, but the humble yet clear testimony that though we are foolish and ignorant, God is all wise and all knowing; that though we get it badly wrong, when we face up and say ‘Sorry’ God forgives us because of the cross of Jesus Christ and shows us how to live out the implications of that costly forgiveness; that though death, corruption and deceit appear to have the last word, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Too much of the church’s history and the church’s present has been caught up in determining who was in and who was out. But the focus has primarily been on those on the outside of the circles we draw. This may stem from old-fashioned status anxiety — if we can define right belief and practice by separating from some others we can feel more confident in our standing with God.

But this is a a snare. The more I look for reasons to think I’m more faithful (because I reject the idea of labels as all good Christians should) then I’ve shifted the grounds for my salvation from the mystery of the resurrection to my own efforts, commitments, and arguments.

What binds us together as people of faith are these simple declarations. He is Risen Indeed! Nothing more than that. To be sure, the farther we walk in faith, the more complicated the implications Wright addresses become. But we are walking together in this journey of faith. We don’t stand in superiority to others, looking down on them from our certainty. We didn’t win some cosmic battle with white hats and black hats. We are pilgrims walking by faith. Frederick Buechner puts it like this:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.

This is the embrace of what C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, called The Deep Magic. The recognition that we have all benefitted from a truly incredible act. One that brings us together and allows us to live into the New Kingdom.

One of my all-time favorite sociology quotes is from Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology, written in 1963. Berger wrote: “Only he who understands the rules is in a position to cheat.” This sentence summarizes why I study sociology.

It also summarizes what it means to walk in a community of faith with people with varied theological presuppositions. We understand that we are connected to the reality of God’s plan as expressed in creation, covenant, exodus, diaspora, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, and emerging reign. We know the story and that allows us to live as brothers and sisters instead of competing factions.

Sharing that story without condescension will provide a bright path forward for faithful Christians in a world where religion holds less of a central role. That’s Good News for all of us.

 

Doing Unto You Before You Do Unto Me

http://shop.lego.com/en-US/King-s-Castle-70404
http://shop.lego.com/en-US/King-s-Castle-70404

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to explore some sociological dynamics of evangelical structure. I offered a summary of that argument in my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho. I’ve been doing a lot with wall metaphors: both in terms of how we construct isolating barriers and how we might tear them down.

Since I got back from Idaho, I’ve been pondering another implication of the wall metaphor. I think it helps explain the Industry Evangelicalism patterns I’ve been writing about. It also may explain a lot about how we do discourse within contemporary society. Whenever I get one of these ideas in my head, it feels like I’m constantly reading stuff on Facebook and Twitter that connect to the current hypothesis. The may be mistaken interpretation on my part, but it might just allow for a more careful unpacking of the social psychology at play within our varied group identities.

The picture above is Lego’s King’s Castle Siege. It illustrates how battlements were created to protect townspeople and nobles against the onslaughts of outsiders. But here’s what I notice: the construction of defensive positions actually allow offensive actions to be taken against the marauders. The rhetoric of defense is such that it winds up justifying first-strike capabilities.

This was true because the actual damage from a siege doesn’t involve battle but rather starvation. The point of the siege isn’t necessarily to overrun the walls but to cut off supply lines and isolate the kingdom. This results in two driving dynamics: demonizing the enemy and acting first before they gain a foothold on the walls.

Once the battlements are built, the kingdom is isolated from potential enemies. That brings safety but also allows one to imagine the worst possible motives of those enemies. Social psychologists refer to this as “fundamental attribution error” — I know my motives but yours are suspect. In fact, it’s likely that I’m imputing my darkest motives onto you because that’s how I imagine what you’d do if successful. This imputation then justifies any action I might decide to take because your imagined attack would be so much worse than my actual actions.

As I said, there are lots of other illustrations in social media of how this plays out. Alan Noble wrote this on Facebook today:

Theory: when someone becomes the face/ symbol/leader/figure of a radical movement which perceives itself to be oppressed, that person has very strong incentives to becoming increasingly radical in language, rhetoric, and position. To the point of absurdity.

He had a particular example in mind (Richard Dawkins) but one could easily put other players in the same position. In fact, Alan has previously done some wonderful work calling out the exaggerations of Todd Starnes and others who delight in cherry-picking isolated infringements on religion as illustrations of “what the world is coming to”. In a recent twitter exchange with Laura Ortberg Turner, I reflected on the linkage between persecution and prosecution — that somehow people will be arrested for their religious convictions. As I write this, Westboro Baptist minister Fred Phelps is near death. His particular form of striking aggressively to stop the visigoths approaching the gates has become legend (even though Christians have seen this as too extreme).

We see the same thing in the political realm. Jon Stewart’s continued takedown of Fox News imputing the worst possible motives to food stamp recipients shows the same pattern. One must imagine the takers and then strike out against them. But the motives imputed only characterize a tiny percentage of those affected.

Joshua Dubois, author of The President’s Devotional, wrote a fascinating piece today about Dr. Ben Carlson. Joshua describes the important role model Dr. Carlson provided for young black men for a generation and how that got transformed into a voice that justified outrageous comment in support of partisan position. It’s an example of how staying inside the battlements provides self-justifying rationales but at the price of the potential positive impact on all those outside the walls.

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland devotes early chapters to how easy it is for us to demonize out-groups and describes the rich (and depressing) social psychological experimental research that illustrates the tendency. As I wrote in the tearing down walls piece, she ends her book with solid insights on how to reverse those patterns.

As I was working on this post, Frederich Buechner (or at least the people that run his Facebook page) posted this quote from Brian McClaren’s 2012 book.

Yes, something good still shines from the heart of our religions – a saving drive toward peace, goodness, self-control, integrity, charity, beauty, duty. And something shadowy struggles to overcome that luminosity – a hostile drive, dangerous, resilient, and deeply ingrained, a black hole in our identity that needs an enemy to help us know who we are and how good we are.

My point is that building battlements has certain predictable results. Once we’ve got the walls, we begin to imagine who might be lingering outside. We worry about what they might do. Then we act to prevent them from doing that thing we imagined. We’re self-justified in the process — just imagine what might have happened had we done nothing!

But we imagined the impending attack. It kept us behind the parapets. It stopped us from engaging with those different than ourselves. That’s true whether it’s conservatives in the walls afraid of what liberals might do or liberals worried about conservative rhetorical attacks. It’s true whether we’re conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals imagining what will be on The Cosmos tonight or the scientific community worried about creationist legislators.

This week Christ & Pop Culture had a piece by Bradford William Davis titled “Why We Argue Like Jerks“. He points out that we don’t like asking good questions, that we do not seek to understand, and that we don’t like risking being wrong. In short, we fail to deal with the other as he/she really is but instead how we imagine him/her to be. We do battle in our imaginations, feeling victorious because we once again held our imagined foe at bay.

Maybe it’s the building of battlements (great for ages 7-12!) that’s the real problem. If we didn’t have battlements, we wouldn’t fear the siege. We wouldn’t imagine the enemy over the hill. We wouldn’t imagine the awful things they intended. We wouldn’t demonize them and look for means of attack (defensively, of course).

We might just get that Golden Rule right.

 

This is not about Duck Dynasty

McDuck

The picture is the result of a humorous tweet Thursday making reference to the Duck Dynasty news with reference to Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool of money. As I wrote on Facebook, I’ve never seen the show. In fact, I avoid “Reality Television”. So for all I knew, it might have well been a throwback to Duck Tales.

But now I know about the “controversy”: How Phil Robertson gave an interview to GQ, in which he shared his views about homosexuality and race relations. In sharing his opinions, he was brash and inconsiderate. How A&E took offense at his comments about homosexuality (but, somehow as Jonathan Merritt observed, not about race) and indefinitely suspended him from further episodes of DD. The public response to the banishment was quick and loud. On the one hand, twitter was aflame with those criticizing Robertson’s comments. On the other, there were thousands and thousands taking to Facebook to complain about how he was being punished for holding to Biblical standards.

But as my title says, I’m not really interested in the specifics of this situation. Somehow it blends together with the Paula Deen controversy over racial language, the Chick-Fil-A row over the owner’s interview regarding same-sex marriage, and the never-ending War on Christmas. Add in random ACLU actions, an isolated teacher who won’t let a child write about Jesus, and Atheist Billboards and the result in a near-permanent sense of outrage on the part of good Christian folks everywhere.

I’ve been wondering why this happens with such regularity and why we seem unable to build the bridges that will allow evangelicals to be faithful witnesses that helps the broader society understand the Gospel of Christ’s Kingdom. Friday, Tobin Grant wrote this wonderful piece for Religion News Service drawing on the work of sociologists James Davison Hunter and Christian Smith to suggest that evangelicalism has historically needed to be under attack as part of its cultural identity.

I addressed the same argument in my recent post on the Future of Evangelicalism:

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.

As I reflect on this shifting relationship between evangelicalism and the broader culture, I’m struck with a couple of things. First, the boundaries between church and culture are increasingly porous. It’s not just that conservative Christians seem to watch a lot of reality television (and situation comedies and police procedurals and bed-hopping dramas). It’s that we evangelicals simultaneously critique the culture while seeming to be fully immersed in it. I’m not suggesting that cultural isolation is to be preferred. Instead, there is a need to develop a better sense of discernment. How can we handle contemporary culture that maintains a distance between full engagement and isolation? When do we enjoy the top situation comedy and yet still maintain a Kingdom critique?

Second, I realize how much the outrage is not just predictable but quite likely manipulated by external forces. I’ve been wondering if A&E knew the Robertson was going to give the GQ interview. How could they not? Don’t they have publicists who manage things like that? Aren’t there contractual relationships involved? So how were they “shocked” when the Duck Commander said outrageous things?

This begins to really feed my cynical side. It’s not hard to imagine that A&E allowed the interview, took offense at the comment, and made themselves the center of the universe for a few days. As I reflect on the ongoing raft of outrages, I can find similar winners benefitting from the pain of others.

I’m reminded of Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. He argues that conservatives in Kansas sided with Republicans in opposition to their own economic interests over concerns about moral issues. But the trick, he suggested, was that nothing ever changed on the moral issues. The solution was just around the corner, which kept the Kansans voting Republican.

I’m not making a political argument here. But the basic analogy holds. There are forces at work trying to maintain a sense of outrage. They may be what we call principalities and powers. They may be economic interests. They may be the result of an evangelical search for power and prestige. They may be the result of religious celebrities who maintain their audience by being offended at slippery slope arguments about the nature of modern society.

So what do we do? Perhaps the first thing is to find a new sense of balance. Let’s decide that we won’t immediately react to every situation that is suggested on cable news, Christian websites, and Facebook pages. Maybe we can say, “there may be more to this story”. Or “maybe this can’t possibly be true”. Or “that one thing was outrageous but it’s not a broad trend”.

The second thing is to engage in some critical thinking: who benefits from this outrage? Does outrage move us toward the Kingdom of God or delay its arrival?

Finally, we need to ask what it means to live as Christians in a world that is not exclusively Christian. Those who hear us will not share our vocabulary or scripture references or church traditions. We must be working on telling our stories in ways that are inviting to others, that tell the truth, and that don’t demonize others in the process.

In the movie Network, anchorman Howard Beale screams “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” His rant led to great ratings, so he had to keep it up. Eventually, he began criticizing the structures at the network so they had to find a way to eliminate him without damaging their power. Howard teaches us that anger cannot be sustained. Eventually it either gives way to complacency or it leads to more important questions. Maybe the answer is to lessen our anger. After all, when Jesus equates anger and murder in Matthew 5:22, he doesn’t have an exemption for being angry at cultural figures or political leaders. He just says to guard our anger.

Frederick Buechner writes this about anger in Wishful Thinking:

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel, both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

No Doubt About It: The Problem with Civil Religion

I’ve been pondering the whole “War on Christmas” discussion for some time now. I haven’t been able to quite get my head around it. To my sociological brain, the whole idea of saying “Happy Holidays” came from two sources: 1) the mashing together of shopping seasons from September through February, and 2) a recognition that religious pluralism means that I can’t assume everybody is like me.

Holiday InnReason one reminded me of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Fred Astaire owns an Inn that only opens for Holidays and does Broadway-type shows. It makes lousy business sense but it gave lots of excuses for song and dance numbers involving Fred, Bing, Marjorie Reynolds, and Virginia Dale. It predates White Christmas, but uses the same house and Bing sings The Song here first. (If you watch it, be forewarned, there’s a pretty offensive blackface number somehow celebrating Lincoln’s birthday).

But I still wonder why people would travel to this quaint Inn to see the song-and-dance. Why do we care so much about our holidays and what they’re called? Why do we privilege OUR holidays and minimize other people’s holidays? Why is Rosh Hashanah on my monthly calendar if it’s somebody else’s celebration?

See, a recognition of pluralism would mean that we’d acknowledge that there are other views alongside our own. We know that immigration from a variety of nations has increased our awareness of other celebrations. In fact, we can even interpret the rise in “religious nones” to be an expression of that very diversity.

Even before Megyn Kelley’s “terrible horrible no good very bad day” yesterday, there were forces pushing back against recognition of diversity. Monday, the Oklahoma legislature introduced a “Merry Christmas bill” that would allow schools to have Christmas parties and Christmas trees (as opposed to those dreaded Holiday events). They express the kind of sentiment Jon Stewart skewered last week: How can I enjoy my Christmas when I know that somewhere a little Jewish boy is not being forced to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?

There are plenty of similar stories. Also in Oklahoma, a private group paid to display the Ten Commandments in a public square. Looked like a neat end-run around establishment clause issues. Then a group of satanists said that they were going to have a private group put their own monument up. I learned last night that someone put up a Seinfeld Festivus pole in Florida (I guess that got Gretchen Carlson going). Today, a federal judge (who is a graduate of Pasadena Nazarene College and a conservative) ruled that the cross at the Mount Soledad cemetery has to come down. It’s bound to launch all kinds of rants about liberal justices destroying the Christian foundations of our society (which, according to James Dobson, is somehow related to Sandy Hook).

In the midst of my struggle to make sense of holidays and pluralism, a tweet by Rachel Held Evans gave me one of those “light bulb” moments of clarity. Responding to the whole “of course Santa and Jesus were white” discussion, Rachel’s tweet said that the critics were people “for whom civil religion has become an idol they force everyone to bow to.” It’s a great Daniel reference, but my realization was that all this stuff about “Merry Christmas” is less about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” as it is about protecting our national sterilized religion of exceptionalism, providence, and manifest destiny.

Robert Bellah introduced the idea of civil religion in the late 1960s, drawing attention to the ways in which national identity operated in ways similar to traditional religion but without much content. In fact, his original essay includes this famous quote by Eisenhower: Our nation makes no sense unless it’s based on a deeply held religious faith, and I don’t care what that is (emphasis mine). In that quote rests the heart of civil religion: a vague idea that cannot be examined because the minute we seriously interrogate it, it vanishes in a puff of smoke.

This is a major difference between Christian faith and civil religion. As we have proved in the church over and over and over again, we debate differences in theology, practice, polity, liturgy, baptism, creation, and biblical interpretation. We blog and write books and have conferences that support our position against the other guy (or girl). But on our best days, we are still aware of the concept of the Church as the Bride of Christ. We hold to our positions and the reasons for holding them but we operate from faith not from certainty.

That’s what allows me to have friends from a variety of theological traditions. We can see things differently and engage in our twitter fights and critique each other’s strategies or political positions, but at the end of the day we retain a commitment to the Invisible Church. Because we live by faith. As Frederick Buechner says, “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith”.

This comfort with doubt is what’s missing in civil religion. Because it exists at such a generalized level, it can’t be argued. We can’t find ways of parsing the different strands and still holding to commonality. The mythology of agreement (like a notion that Santa is white or that Jefferson was an evangelical) MUST be maintained because without the mythology we have nothing.

If we admit that these other holiday traditions are valuable or even that people can go through life and not celebrate ANY holidays, then what can we take for granted as a society? We’d be forced to confront our differences and learn from each other.

But those risks are too great, so the celebrants of civil religion (politicians, pundits, and some preachers) can’t allow anyone to stray from the party line. It’s not a belief system as such. Just an affirmation held together in brightly colored tissue paper.

When that paper tears, as it will like all the Christmas (or Hanukkah and Kwanza) wrapping, what then? Then, just maybe we in the Christian church can teach our  fellow citizens how to explore differences without abandoning faith. To show them that there is something deeper and richer and more real than what they’re trying to hold onto. That change isn’t scary when faith abides.

We don’t always get that right. But I think at the root of our faith, we understand that doubt isn’t a scary thing. It actually takes us to the places we needed to go.