Tag: Zach Hoag

The Future of Evangelicalism: A Follow Up

It’s been a little over a week since my post at Patheos on The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I appreciate the questions and comments. This week, Patheos added The Future of Progressive Christianity. While the new responses were as varied as last week’s, there is some fascinating synergy here worth watching.

Updates on My Post

First, some reflections on my own piece. Some have suggested that I was arguing that evangelicalism was more fragmented than at any point in the past. I don’t think I ever said that but I can understand the implication.

Let me clarify a few things. First, as a sociologist, my time frame was limited to the past 75 years — the period from the foundation of the National Association of Evangelicals to the present. That is why I referenced Molly Worthen’s history of what I call Industry Evangelicalism — the organizational dynamics that defined what we think of as “evangelical” in the popular realm. As Molly points out, there was significant variability among religious groups in the broad Evangelical umbrella, but there was a “mainstream evangelicalism” (a term often evoked to demonstrate someone is outside that stream). Those focused on defining mainstream are the ones that Putnam and Campbell identified as the source of their “second aftershock” of millennials becoming disillusioned with institutional faith (a pattern David Kinnaman has documented well).

Second, the fragmentation today is taking place in a remarkably different social context than any past fragmentation. This is well documented in the Pew Religious Landscape Report. We have seen a remarkable decline in Cultural Christianity because the social sanctions for not being religious have basically disappeared. Business owners no longer suffer in their local environments for not being members in good standing of the local Presbyterian Church. Furthermore, as a variety of institutional figures have found themselves on the wrong side of social media, abuse claims, or authoritarian personalities, it has coincided with a general anti-institutionalism within the society. In an age of social media, there is a democratization of viewpoints that would not have been present in the past. These changes in the social context, along with others, exacerbate the fragmentation that is present and makes consensus building much more difficult.

Finally, my call for an embrace of big-tent Bebbington definitions isn’t an “anything-goes” invitation. It’s a recognition that even evangelicals who disagree on social issues or come from different generational perspectives are all holding the scripture in high authority. They may not use the scripture in the same way in their positions, but they are trying to ascertain the meaning of the Word of God as best they can. The same can be said of the importance of Jesus Christ as the means to salvation and the desire to spread the Gospel to all who will hear. Their methodology may differ but their commitment is the same. If we can find ways of acknowledging the legitimacy of those commitments, even if we disagree with the interpretations arising from them, we can find some very solid ground for the future.

The Future of Progressive Christianity

When the next phase of the Patheos series came out this week, I was struck by a post by Kyle Roberts. Titled Will Progressive Christians Become More Evangelical?, it explores the same Pew data and makes use of the Putnam and Campbell book. Kyle suggests that as some evangelicals have found their way to mainline churches, the mainlines need to adapt. This raises the possibility for some healthy convergence. As I’ve written before, when you compare regularly attending mainliners and evangelicals, the differences are not as stark as our standard portrayals would assume. And Kyle finds a hopeful synthesis very close to what I was suggesting in my Bebbington paragraph:

We’re are seeing more experiments of faith, which might involve not only ecumenical Christian communities and initiatives, but inter-religious ones as well. And we’ll see more progressive evangelicals and former evangelicals (post-evangelicals)  joining up with mainline Protestants, progressive/liberal Catholics, and people of other faiths (or no particular institutional faith at all) in bringing a little more hope, peace, and gospel to their neighborhoods.  These progressive/post evangelicals are bringing with them a heart for the gospel, a deep respect for the Bible, and a “missionary” (or better: missional) view of the vocation of the Christian.

Today, Zach Hoag wrote a post aligning my fragmentation post with one from University of Washington sociologist Jim Wellman. Jim had argued that progressive Christianity lacks the infrastructure to be able to survive. As Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope documented in Church Refugees, those “done” with Church will find other institutional means of pursuing social justice concerns. Because too many progressive leaders are more likely to be isolates rather than part of broad networks, they run the risk of simply fading from sight over time.

Zach encourages us to explore the “messy middle lane”. He calls us to “rethinking and reforming” our religious institutions.

I think this is absolutely right. We need to find ways that the institutional church is an expression of the Body of Christ, is a place where people find authentic purpose in relationship with God and others (see this by Roger Olson), and is capable of speaking in Kingdom language to a post-Christendom culture.

More on what this might look like in my next post.

Community and Conflict: My take on Schism and United Methodists

UMCI’ve been indebted to my Texas friend Richard Heyduck, who is not only reading my book, but periodically sharing bits of it on social media. This week, he pulled a passage out of chapter six which deals with community. The chapter is intended to articulate for students the complexities of building the kind of true community characterized in Paul’s writings. It borrows heavily from Scott Peck’s work (especially The Different Drum from 1987). Peck distinguishes between “Pseudocommunity” and the conflicting stages that lead to developing True Community. Richard shared this passage from the pseudocummunity section:

Surprisingly, a focus on emotionality, warmth, and belonging can actually inhibit the development of community. In a close setting, the primary focus of all members of the group is to smooth over differences by keeping them inside, avoiding conflict, and staying close to those others who already agree. The primary motivation is to maintain politeness.

Richard then pondered how this description could be applied to issues facing the United Methodist Church (news reports on potential schism or not are here, here, here, and here). The news stories describe how 80 United Methodist leaders from all five jurisdictions had released a statement saying schism was inevitable. This was followed by a larger group who signed a “Way Forwarddocument. The Book of Discipline makes clear that ministers officiating at same-sex marriages will be brought up on charges. This happened to Rev. Frank Schaeffer when he officiated at his son’s wedding (he was defrocked after a church trial). Following that case, other jurisdictions have announced that they will not bring charges in the future.

I am not a member of the clergy so some of these conflicts offer more sociological than personal interest. I defer to others who are attempting to find a way to handle the serious questions of same sex marriage in ways that take scripture seriously while offering compassion to all who seek after God. Two of my UMC social media friends have attempted to lay out paths forward (see Morgan Guyton and Zach Hoag).

But Richard’s original question has me thinking more carefully about Peck’s community stages. Pseudocommunity breaks in the face of what he calls Chaos. This is the stage where real differences come to light and where entrenched positions become exposed.

It is the most uncomfortable stage of community building. We find ourselves having to travel through the muck as a means of getting to better ground. If we persist, we move to what he calls Emptiness. In the words of Parker Palmer, “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” It is only when we give up trying to control things that Community begins to emerge.

My chapter goes on to explore Bonhoeffer’s ideas in Life Together. Bonhoeffer makes clear that Community is God’s work and not ours. He suggests that building our idealized form of community is doomed to failure because we will force others into our ideal.

It strikes me that Peck’s approach to community, like that of Palmer and Bonhoeffer, is best illustrated by small groups with the possibility for interaction. While Peck does attempt to broaden his approach to large-scale organizations and even nation states in a later book, it becomes much harder to visualize than with small groups.

So how does this work for denominations? What does it mean to be part of an international association of churches organized around particular theological and ecclesiastical priorities?

I still think there is value in Peck’s four stages. But too often denominational groups (as well as churches, but that’s another post) see Chaos as the enemy. They want to find ways of maintaining Order and Control and do so in ways that run counter to Christian community.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies wrote that the major shift occurring in modernity was a move from social organization based on community (gemeinschaft)  to that based on contract (gesellschaft). In the former, we knew people in the town and the family and assumed the best of each other. In the latter, we need written agreements to insure proper behavior. The differences are profound. Community presumes that people will stay connected. Contracts are written to explain what happens in the case of breach.

General Assemblies are exercises in Gesellschaft. They stipulate procedures and protocols that are enacted by votes by majorities of representatives. Those become binding across the denomination. They are (relatively) successful in controlling behavior to insure Discipline (it’s the title of the manual, for goodness sake).

How else could denominations and churches proceed? Perhaps we could risk Chaos. Perhaps entering into Chaos allows the Spirit to move upon the waters. Yesterday, Karina Kreminski wrote a wonderful piece on the Missio Alliance blog titled “Taking the Spirit Seriously“. She writes:

Often the Spirit will lead us to places that we don’t want to go, teach us surprising things about God, turn our theology around, and give us experiences that we would perhaps rather not have. Have we domesticated the Spirit to the extent that we do not experience his ‘wild’ character in our lives and in our theology? The Holy Spirit does not bring us discomfort and disorientation for the sake of it, instead he turns us inside out so that we might be more aligned with the mission of God in our world. God knows how addicted humanity is to control and self direction, so the Spirit functions in our lives to bring us into line with God’s good purposes for us.

Brandon Robertson raised similar issues in his Revangelical blog. His piece is titled “Loving our (Theological) Enemies” and speaks to the difficulty of managing disagreements. In my terms, he’s writing about being willing to risk Chaos. His words echo Karina’s:

Because when we chose to love, fear is dispelled. When we chose to love, our hurts can be healed. When we chose to love, we humanize the “other” and see them as who they truly are- image bearers of God who are earnestly seeking to follow Him and proclaim truth. And when you begin to see your theological other like that, everything changes. If all of us chose to follow the Spirits calling and love our theological enemies, can you imagine the power? After all, if we believe that we do have the right perspective, then the way to make a convert certainly isn’t through condemnation. It’s to love.

Bonhoeffer argues that the very basis for community arises not from our politics and plans, our book of Discipline, or even our Orthodoxy. It comes, he says, from Jesus Christ:

We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another. He who looks upon his brother [sister] should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ. Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ.

So the challenge of avoiding schism doesn’t come from some accommodation or power moves or allowing regional variation. It comes from attending to the Spirit who is leading us to become that which Christ has called us to be. It’s hard, of course, but that’s what Jesus told the disciples the way forward looks like.

Another take on Testimony Evangelicalism

I’ve joined another writing collective, The Antioch Session, moderated by internet friends Zach Hoag and Scott Emery. This week, they published a revised version of my earlier “Testimony Evangelicalism” piece. The original is here and the AC version is here.

I’m pleased to be part of this group and was thrilled that we earned a mention on today’s “Sunday Superlatives” from Rachel Held Evans (along with some other really great stuff, check it out here)!

Yesterday was commencement Saturday at Spring Arbor. As a quasi-administrator, I was asked to be at both ceremonies. The morning speaker for the traditional students was all about culture wars and an antagonistic culture. The afternoon speaker for the non-traditional students shared his personal story of  following God’s leading into new and surprising places that impacted Washington, D.C. It was one of the sharpest contrasts of my “two evangelicalisms” thesis I could hope to find.

 

What’s the deal with Christian Celebrities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ripping Down Towers of Babel

Brueghel-tower-of-babelThe picture to the left is Bruegel the Elder’s take on the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel. In the scripture, we’re told that there was only one language and the people came together to build a city with a great tower that would reach to the heavens. In response, the LORD comes down to check it out and confuses their languages and scatters the people across the nations.

I’m not a biblical scholar — I’m a sociologist. So my first inclination is to treat this story as a cosmological allegory of “why the people down the road don’t talk like us”. It’s the kind of story that fits within an oral tradition explaining to children why things are the way they are.

But I did do some quick internet research and was pleased to find this entry from the Oxford Bible Studies Online. I was pleased for several reasons. First, the author is Brent Strawn from Candler Seminary at Emory and I’ve been friends with his father and brother for several years. Second, because the piece also used the Bruegel painting as illustration. And Third, because Brent’s analysis is directly applicable to the issue of religious group boundaries I’ve been exploring for several months.

Brent suggests that there are two interpretations of why the tower was a problem. One option is that it has something to do with pride. Building a huge edifice would let everyone know that these were cool people who had things together. He goes on to say that this chapter stands in stark contrast to the calling of Abram; there it is God who does great things through people. The second option Brent explores is the role of fear. They needed the city to protect them from being scattered across the earth (as was God’s plan). The “hunkering down” as he calls it, is in resistance to the world as they found it.

As I said, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which evangelical groups build artifices to separate those on the inside from those on the outside (for samples, see here and here). And I’ve come to a useful image that helps explain the process.

We tore down the Tower of Babel and then used the self same bricks to build enclaves of our own desiring.

And we did it for the same two reasons the Tower was built in the first place: Pride and Fear.

Pride comes in when we attract hordes of followers to show that we are right. Zack Hoag has consistently exposed the ways in which the evangelical church (both conservative and progressive) have been seduced by the culture of celebrity. I am not immune. I want page views, retweets, Facebook likes, and recognition. I want people to tell each other about my writing. I want to have access to publishing empires that turns a lecture series into a book and a set of DVDs.

We build our enclaves because it allows us to sit inside our secure walls and lob critiques at those walled enclaves down the block. We hope that doing so will prove how smart we are, how right we are, how close to God we are. Especially if we can demonstrate that by comparison to those wrong-headed folks next door.

Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece today discussing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the critiques lobbed over the wall. It’s a story of hurt and misunderstanding, of false accusation and presumption. But it also contains some deep introspection to make sure that parallel assumptions don’t result about other groups.

I’ve been reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. It’s a wonderful book (not surprisingly, it’s chock full of good social psychology!). I’m only partway through, but already the implications are powerful. We find comfort and identity through our groups within our walls. But that very comfort and identification contributes to our misreading and misunderstanding the other groups. Our pride causes us to overstate our own position and not really listen to others.

If pride makes us overstate our correctness, fear calls us to demonize all opposition even if we can’t name them. We build our walls so high that we don’t know what’s out there. We just know it can’t be good because it’s not what we have in here.

This post was prompted by one shared by Peter Enns over the weekend. It was about a conference announcement about a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The brochure is titled “The Liberal Seepage into the Evangelical Culture” and shows a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’ll let the word “seepage” go for now (sounds like a medical problem). But the very identification of “evangelical culture” as a thing is the very essence of wall-building. See, THEY are infiltrating into the space WE have created for ourselves. Even if our concerns about them are based on irrationality and exaggeration.

In the words of Elmer Fudd, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid.

Fear take us funny places. It makes it easy to do things or say things about brothers and sisters we would not otherwise do or say. Because somebody has to. Otherwise, how would we protect the walls from intruders? Don’t you know what the stakes are?

Christians aren’t motivated by pride. Christians aren’t directed by fear.

We are following in the way of the Christ who sacrificed his status and position to inaugurate a new way of living through death on the cross and launching of a Kingdom at hand. We have an assurance running throughout scripture that we are not alone but have the very God of the universe with us.

What happens if we tear down our walls? I’m still working on this but I think we find that we are able to engage those around us. We find them reasonable people who ask interesting questions, who have fascinating life stories, who have real struggles. In short, we find them to be people created in the image of God. People who, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, are both representatives of Christ and perhaps unaware Kingdom-builders (“When did we do that?”).

In short, trusting Christ and his Kingdom journey means that we don’t need walls and boundaries. Because God is already at work building the Kingdom. We’re just along for the ride to offer water when asked.

I’m also reading Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Their writing both resonates with my thinking and makes me feel like they’ve already said it better. The central thesis of their book is the God went into the Far Country (where we live) and we are called to do likewise.

Going into the Far Country requires trust in God and deep courage. In that way it becomes a matter of testimony to the Greater Story of which we are all apart.

As Mr. Reagan said to Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down Those Walls!

The Family on Parlor Walls: Ray Bradbury and Modern Media

Source imdb.com
Source imdb.com

The end of the year is when everybody seems to be reflecting on their favorite blog posts. I’ve had my own favorites (often not the ones that drew many page views), but it was more interesting to see how the blog shifted over the year. At the beginning of the year, I was writing exclusively on Christian Higher Education because I was writing a book on the topic (coming this spring from Wipf & Stock). Then I spent time focused on millennials and the way they get treated in the media. As I worked on a class in race and ethnic relations, I added issues of race and oppression. Because I was writing on the Respectful Conversation project, I began focusing on evangelicalism as it impacts the larger world. 

As the year turns, I find myself focused on some broader sociological questions that frame all these other conversations. I touched on this in my Duck Dynasty post ten days ago, but I’ve been pondering it more deeply in recent days. Issues of celebrity plagiarism, twitter fights, Wars on Christmas/Christianity, reality television and Facebook “likes” all share some similar issues in terms of how we engage culture. Somehow, contemporary society needs to learn better means of discernment so as to avoid living in continual outrage.

It’s been sixty years since Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451. In his dystopian world when books were outlawed, people spent their evenings watching wall-sized televisions that ran the latest exploits of The Family: a group of actors who provided a vicarious outlet for the otherwise humdrum characteristics of life. The Family was more important to the Herzog’s wife than anything else (except for the pills she took so that she’d be slim enough for social standards).

Bradbury died in 2012, but it would be fascinating to know his reaction to our media saturated world. His analysis of a world without books is simply too prescient. Who in 1953 would have thought that we’d hang 70 inch televisions on our walls so that passersby on the street could see what we were watching?

For all the folks putting their ten life-changing books on Facebook, information for a great many people doesn’t involve books. Research by Pew Interest in 2012 found that the median number (the 50% point of a distribution) of books read by respondents came in at 8. In more recent surveys, they found that nearly 15% of college graduates had never been to a library.

In a world without books, factoids and opinion become the coin of the realm. We have no ability to separate what is relevant from what is merely a passing claim. Everyone who encourages friends to use Snopes more to verify “can-you-believe-this-outrage” Facebook posts, the number of isolated conversations seems to increase.

Which brings me back to the entire “reality show” problem. These shows operate as semi-scripted entertainment. They don’t reflect real people with real lives. Do you know anybody who shares the lifestyle of the Real Housewives of Wherever? Are “normal” people selected for competition shows? (Early seasons of The Apprentice answered that question for us in the negative.) How is it that characters from a show about Teenage Mothers wind up as known quantities (at least for some) on supermarket check-out magazines? I saw a piece online this week about how Jon Gosselin was mad at Kate again — who cares? Even when their show was popular, I mean, Really?

Add to this the problem of continual perceived persecution. As we identify with characters, whether Phil Robertson or Mark Driscoll or Ted Cruz or Shane Claiborne or Rachel Held Evans or whoever is your favorite, we find the need to defend them against attack. As if somehow when they are criticized (even for being less than careful in their remarks), our entire belief system is being called into question. It’s simply not. They might not be concerned about comments made about them (it goes with being in the public eye) so why do we get so enraged?

Partly, this is because the people behind all these communications are not interested in exploring issues or interesting people — they are trying to run a business enterprise. That depends upon keeping their product in the public eye through any means possible. I’m not the only person not surprised that A&E reversed themselves on banning Phil Robertson. They’d gotten their week of outrage. They will undoubtedly run higher ratings in the spring when DD returns and be able to charge higher advertising rates.

Others keep our focus on outrage because it’s key to their brand. Alan Noble illustrated how this works with Fox personality Todd Starnes. (Disclaimer: I engaged in defense of Alan’s point on Facebook this morning so I’m less than objective.)  The methodology of outrage is to pick an isolated instance of Christianity not getting automatic privilege, ignore some key details, and make the instance look like some major social trend. Then they put out the distorted story on a Facebook page and ask you to share if you are outraged. And, surprise!, you do.

There are some very negative effects of these media distortions. First, our attention shifts from our own lives and those around us to these supposedly “real” people. We become alienated from our own environment, just as Herzog’s wife did. Second, we see lives of people Very Different than us. One of the byproducts of reality shows like Duck Dynasty or the Duggars (19 kids and counting) is that it creates an impression that folks who take Christian faith seriously are backwoods folks who have lots of kids and live off the land. Third, believing we are seeing “reality” keeps us from addressing real issues. If we watch the Teen Mother show, does it make us think about support for teen mothers, contraceptives, or adoption agencies? Or does it make us focus on the latest drama between this girl and that other girl (I simply don’t want to know their names)?

We treat these “reality shows” just like The Family. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. Truman Burbank has lived his entire life on camera and is the only person who doesn’t know his “reality” isn’t real. Everyone watches the show: in bars, in hair salons, at home. If it was made today, we’d watch it on our phones. But the point of the movie is that Truman has to break free and live his own life. There’s an underground concerned with what “reality” is doing to Truman. In the end (spoilers, skip to next paragraph), he gets away and must make his own decisions out of the eye of a loving audience.

Bradbury didn’t foresee the impact of social media like Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think he find it healthy. Zach Hoag wrote a wonderful piece Sunday he titled “Resolved: Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014“. He speaks accurately about the way in which our various forms of outrage have created divisions when the Church should be a collective witness to the Kingdom. I think Zach is on the right track.

I’d go a step farther. I want us to stop identifying with celebrities and reality show characters. If you want outrage, write about when you were personally wronged. Better yet, get to know the very real people down the street or those you pass at the mall. They’re way more important than those faces on television or images on the internet. They are the Very Real folks created in the Image of the Creator God.

There is No Spoon: Christian Boundary Maintenance

I have been fascinated with the idea of social networks since taking a great course in grad school when social network analysis was just beginning. In some ways, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a connecting thread that runs across my career.

My dissertation was on people who regularly attend church but never join (I saw them as boundary poachers, although the findings proved more complicated than that). I used network analysis to study three congregations and their relationship patterns in the early 90s (but I didn’t pay enough attention to bridging capital — more later).

Perhaps that research is what led me to be so critical of the effort we put into maintaining boundaries. I distinctly remember hearing a Focus on the Family broadcast telling of a group of school children playing at a newly constructed playground. Well-intentioned psychologists, it was argued, believed that they didn’t want to limit the childrens’ sense of adventure and so didn’t put fences around the school yard. The children, not knowing where the edges were, huddled anxiously in a clump being afraid to venture out. The chagrined psychologists had fences put up and then the children played happily in their new playground.

Parenthetically, I once put my university library staff along with the psych department to work to locate the original source. It appears to be apocryphal but is regularly repeated in blogs, sermons, and parenting articles. (A google scholar search just now came up pretty empty.)

trafalgar

Anyway, when I heard the report I knew what was wrong. They were looking in the wrong direction for meaning. It’s not at the edges but it’s in the center. I suggested to a friend (as I have repeated for years) that the solution isn’t to focus on the fences but the build a monolith in the center of the playground and tell the children they can play where ever they want as long as they can see the statue. This picture of Trafalgar square is as close as I’ve come to capturing what I had in mind.

The same ideas apply to Christian identity. If we spend all our time exploring the edges that separate us from others, we’re investing in creating and maintaining boundaries that function to that end. If this boundary weakens, we have to go and repair it right away like a rancher keeping the cattle in.

Instead, we can rest in the New Testament image of the Shepherd who knows the sheep and walks in their midst. They listen for him and move when he moves.

But we keep trying to build fences. I think this is a normal sociological process. We like to be with people like us. So we spend our energies creating points of separation that keep the outsiders out (and the insiders in). It’s an effective form of social control and identity marking, but it is a far cry from the outreach of the Gospel.

Spend just a few days reading Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see this in operation. We find things about which to be offended: how dare you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Women can teach Sunday School but not preach (there was a great blog but I lost it). We have church trials surrounding a Methodist minister who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. We separate the Wesleyans from the Calvinists. We separate over science and faith. Don’t get me started on the Christians engaged in political fights on Facebook, calling each other out for not being True Christians.

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class Thursday night, we were discussing the role of narrative in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This combined readings from Michael Sandel’s Justice and Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. Attending to story can bind us together. The real task, paraphrasing Brueggemann, is to reconstruct community is such a way as not not privilege one group over another but validate all stories.

weakties

I was attempting to illustrate this by drawing on the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. In that context, I returned to a classic piece of modern sociology — Mark Grannovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. Grannovetter argued that tightly bonded groups are good for social support but bad at building connections. For that, we need weak ties — the acquaintanceships that tell us about job prospects or allow information to be tested against reality.

For a quick explanation, check out this link from Information Week (where I got the graphic). The implication of the graph is that the energy in a strong tie group is expended inward. This provides a clear sense of who is in and who is out. The energy of a weak tie group is always expended outward — one never knows which of the surrounding circles is the source of potential contacts or information.

In the context of the class discussion, i was attempting to connect this to my prior work on millennials. One of the reasons they are concerned about the church is because they’ve maintained connections through social media with a diverse group of folks from different spheres of their lives. In short, they live in a weak-tie world.

This weekend Zach Hoag filled in on Zack Hunt’s blog (Zack has a cute new baby, but I’m a little biased about smart and beautiful babies since my granddaughter was born). Hoag wrote about the false fronts that are involved in our never-ending search for niceness. We stay away from the real messiness of the world because we’re maintaining face. Erving Goffman was a pioneer in exploring the ways in which we manage cues and props to create and maintain impressions. Boundary maintenance is another outcome of the same process.

One can find people who are less concerned about boundaries. Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Daily Beast that defies membership in a single group (while acknowledging the danger of creating yet another Christian celebrity). In any case, Bolz-Weber fits a weak-ties model of social capital.

When I was talking to my class last week explaining the notion of social networks, I was struck by a new insight.

The notion of inside and outside are fictions. They’re helpful fictions and we find them comfortable. But they are fictions nonetheless.

There_is_no_SpoonI felt compelled to start quoting The Matrix (I’d already done a riff on Life of Brian). I found myself thinking of the boy Neo meets when he visits the Prophet. The boy can bend a spoon with his mind. Then Neo is told “There is no spoon“.

That made me think again about the Weak Ties diagram. The notion that we have all these little circles we’re part of isn’t true. It’s one big circle. And we’re all part of it.

God’s circle is bigger than we imagine and is not bounded by time or space much less by simple distinctions on who gets to preach or who gets to marry or who reads which science books.

What would happen if the evangelical church caught a vision of the bigger circle and the ways in which our stories are being co-written with each of us as influencers in every other story. Yes, I really liked the Day of the Doctors! What if all the energy we expend on separateness was spent building linkages to those different than ourselves?

It’s a great narrative — a storyline that starts at creation and runs throughout history to the restoration of that creation on earth as it is in heaven.