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Star Wars Church is the Dark Side: “No Reward is Worth This”

by Drew 1 Comment

lack faith

When does engaging popular culture become apostasy?

That’s a big question, but I’ve found at least one example of that line being trampled.  The collection of “Star Wars Church” examples over at Pirate Christian will (read: should) make you laugh, grieve, weep, and lash out at inanimate objects.  In what follows, I present the problem with this trend – uncritically baptizing culture and calling it church – in three classic Star Wars quotes.  I will demonstrate, by the logic of the very narrative that has been appropriated, why this is a false move. (And these quotes are classic because…duh…these are all from the original trilogy before CGI and Jar-Jar killed a beloved franchise.)

This will be “all too easy.”

vader dark side

The logic of making church a mirror of a cultural phenomenon is not a mystery. It goes something like this:

If we can relate the message of the gospel to a beloved story – particularly at a time of international fever over the release of The Force Awakens – we can leverage that pre-existing cultural equity into a connection with the gospel.  A preacher dressed as Hans Solo and a photo opportunity with inter-galactic mass-murdered Darth Vader might not be what those stodgy Episcopalians would do, but that’s just because they aren’t willing to reach people where they are.  If it reaches just one person, isn’t it worth it?

Notice the Vader-like pragmatic logic: if you compromise, you can save your friends.  Perhaps the methods are questionable.  Maybe the aesthetics are troubling.  It doesn’t have the dignity we associate with “traditional” church, but it is damned effective.  And in an era when people are skeptical about all institutions, especially the church, maybe this is exactly the kind of thing we have to do.

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

IT'S_A_TRAP

One problem, though: as Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!”

This is a Devil’s bargain.  There’s a brilliant moment in Episode V when Lando proudly states, “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.”  Of course, it was a trap.  You can’t trust the Empire.  You can’t play with the Dark Side.  “Flee even the appearance of evil,” as we learn in a different canon altogether. (1 Thess. 5:22)

Playing with fire will burn you eventually.  Baptizing popular culture and calling it church is effective.  There’s no doubt about it.

But so is McDonald’s.

So is the Death Star.

I can get my dog to eat his twice-daily pills by coating them in chocolate, but in the long run that is going to create much more serious issues for my dog than the illness that made the pills necessary in the first place.

“Whatever works” is simply not a sufficient metric by which to determine what the church messaging. Why?

no reward

Because the church has other standards of success than those that the market dictates to us.  Growth that is based on kitsch and fluff is neither evangelical nor sustainable.  The church does not make saints by inviting people into a faith community that simply regurgitates culture.  It is easy for children to reach the sugary cereal at eye level at the grocery store, but if you keep letting that child eat the sugary cereal, they may never learn to eat a fine steak or pick out a good head of lettuce.  Cheap grace is easy to sell, but is it really worth any “results” that may come? (Or are the results themselves really just a farce?)

As Han Solo says in Episode IV, “no reward is worth this.”  Turning the church into Comic-Con is fun, Instagram-friendly, and will create headlines.  But God’s people deserve more.  God’s people deserve a church that has something better to do that offer them a photo booth and a Wookie costume.

They don’t need more marketing. The people for whom Christ died don’t need more entertainment.  They will not be moved, much less transformed, by lowest-common-denominator community that makes following Jesus as radical as costume party.  They may show up. But will they leave sanctified?

lightsaber jesus meme

“Take up your lightsaber and follow me” is not something our Lord ever said.

No reward is worth this.  The church, in 1 Peter’s formulation, is “a royal priesthood.” Treat her accordingly. Resist the Dark Side.  Resist baptizing culture and calling it discipleship.  Don’t compromise the beautiful, challenging call to counter-cultural community.

The church is called to offer an alternative to the golden calves and banalities of the world.

Hear me out: I dig Star Wars. I am going to see The Force Awakens opening night.

But I love Jesus Christ and his church more.  The church has her own story to tell, and her own language, culture, and practices.  We don’t need Storm Troopers and X-Wings. We have the incarnation, radical ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

There is no better story. No matter what rewards the Dark Side promises, remember, they are Siren calls. The cheap rewards of cultural prostitution are merely invitations to shipwreck. (Judges 2:17 speaks to this danger.)

Let us have confidence in the story to which God has entrusted us. The martyrs did not give themselves to the flames so that we could have Lightsaber Church.  Thanks be to God.

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Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 5 Comments

Jesus was a refugee from state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

That rings more sharply than I intend. The “Jesus was ____” move is sometimes overplayed and unhelpful (and often not really about Jesus). But in this case, it is simply a fact, not a rhetorical ploy. This insight comes to us straight from Scripture, from the savior’s own story: Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt:

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
-Matthew 2:13-15 (CEB)

There is a plague of fear in our culture. It is not of God, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and because we are commanded everywhere and always to care for the well-being of others as much or more than our own. This anti-gospel is everywhere. Most of us, though, can’t see it. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t know we are in water.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God appears, the first word is, “Do not be afraid.” Everywhere in our world we are told, “Be afraid, be very afraid, and especially be afraid of ____.” In this case, it is refugees (which is really just an extension of the fear of immigrants as a whole, which itself is just the good ol’ fear of difference that easily morphs into hatred and prejudice).

We have been down this God-forsaking road before. In 1939, the US refused entry to nearly 1000 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Some found refuge in Europe, many later died in the demonic machinery of the Holocaust:

In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.

The Good Samaritan was so-named because he helped the man on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, while the good religious people walked on by.

love syriansGod help me – and I mean that literally, because I am not yet perfect – I’d rather be a Good Samaritan than a pious man passing by who is indifferent to suffering out of fear or caution.

Christians are not allowed the luxury of living based on worst-case scenarios and calculations of how many of a given group might wish us harm.

We are called to a holy foolishness that welcomes the stranger in trust and in hope that we may be welcoming an angel unawares. (Heb. 13:2) It was not that long ago that we turned away Jewish refugees from Germany. It is always easier to fear the stranger than it is to welcome them, just as the mire of sin is always more easy and natural than the graced road of sanctification.

American Christians, left and right, are almost to a person slaves to culture; sometimes that culture is all permissiveness and “tolerance,” so-called, and other times it is obsessed with building walls and circling the wagons. By and large Christians reflect these trends rather than offering a gospel-conditioned critique from what is supposed to be an alternative community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, we tend to be thermometers and not thermostats.survey 1938

But Jesus was a refugee, fleeing slaughter in the town of his birth with his family. To reject refugees in our communities and churches now, is nothing less than rejecting Jesus.

As strangers to the world and her ways, Christians should always have a bias towards loving and welcoming the strangers in our midst. This is especially so when those strangers are fleeing violence and chaos. If that bias is not in evidence – and other, less virtuous biases are – the natural question follows: have we even met Jesus?

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The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis [Review]

surprising imaginationA key to understanding the widely-varied C.S. Lewis corpus is to apprehend his astounding use of imagination.  Lewis described himself as chiefly an “imaginative man” in 1955, moreso than a critic or religious writer. Authors Jerry Root and Mark Neal ground their work in this insight in their fascinating new book The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: An Introduction.

Newly published from Abingdon, Root and Neal provide a work that is simultaneously an introduction to Lewis’ major works and a substantive argument about the animating source of his writing.  Their aim is to demonstrate that “through Lewis’s autobiography, children’s stories, science fiction, poetry, religious work…and literary criticism than an intentional use of the imagination is always at work.” (xvii)  Thus there is plenty to chew on here both for the life-long Lewis aficionado and an excellent introduction for those looking for an overview as they begin to treat with the Oxford don.

The authors follow a common pattern throughout. They have selected a handful of Lewis’s most-used forms of imagination and describe them, chapter by chapter, by giving an overview of a representative work and explicating how it uses that particular kind of imagination.  For instance, the authors argue that “shared imagination” is especially evident in Lewis’s apologetic masterpiece, Mere Christianity.  Referring to the famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument regarding the identity of Jesus, Root and Neal point out that Lewis here uses an Augustinian strategy to build his case.  This displays a sense of shared imagination about the basic content of Christian faith (the purposes of Mere Christianity) by using a shared (that is, classic) observation from one of the faith’s great teachers.  In the course of that chapter, the reader is both introduced to the content of Mere Christianity and given a sense of how shared imagination functions within.  This basic flow marks all the other chapters as well.  I especially enjoyed the chapter on The Great Divorce (a personal favorite) and transforming imagination, and found myself wanting to dig into the Space Trilogy after reading the author’s examination of Out of the Silent Planet.

The authors highlight Lewis’s varied uses of imagination throughout, but are quick to point out that their work is only an introduction to something quite pronounced in their subject’s writings.  An appendix includes a large number of other forms of imagining and suggestions about where to find them.  In the end, a nod to Lewis’s children’s literature speaks volumes about the importance of this subject to Lewis and all those who would appreciate his full body of work: “Lewis, by using his imagination,” they note, “brings his readers into other worlds, much like Aslan brought children into his world.” (194)  They point out that Lewis uses imagination with a mastery reminiscent of the earliest Christian exegetes, those Mothers and Fathers who pioneered to analogical reading of Scripture centuries ago.

That insight is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last century, who continues to aid readers both to live and articulate their faith decades after his death.  The Christian imagination has been enriched by the imagination of C.S. Lewis, and this new offering is a delightful exploration of and a helpful introduction to a modern master who will continue to illumine our journey toward God for decades yet to come.

Thanks to Abingdon for providing a copy of this book for review.

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Managing Sin or Following Jesus?

managing sin is not God's intention for us

Willard warned us about the dangers of just managing sin almost two decades ago.

Are we following Jesus, or merely managing sin? Nearly two decades ago, Dallas Willard observed:

“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how we deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 41)

He famously blamed this marginalization of the gospel’s impact on our actual lives on the ascendency of  “gospels of sin management.”

Gospels of sin management focus on sin rather than Jesus; they start with where we have gone wrong, rather than what God has done in Christ out of love and grace.  The result is tragic: rather than living God’s kingdom in its fullness, we manage sin and never really enjoy the kind of life God intends.

The net effect is that we make the gospel about mitigating sin and not about a salvific, lived relationship with God.

If that sounds too much like sophistry, let me go at it another way.  Eric Metaxas summed up the life and teaching of the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

As Willard goes on to point out, when and where God’s will is done, the Kingdom is present. We pray every Sunday for the Kingdom and often don’t think about it: “Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is there, but the Kingdom – God’s will actively being carried out – is central.

Gospels of sin management come to us in two forms, and distort our visions of the Kingdom accordingly. There is a gospel of sin management on the right, and a gospel of sin management on the left. The conservative version of sin management focuses on personal sin: on moral effort towards (for instance) lying less, having fewer lustful thoughts, or being less prideful. On the right, managing sin is about Jesus atoning for my personal faults so that I can go to heaven.

There is a gospel of sin management on the left as well. Instead of focusing on personal sin, it focuses on social and corporate sin, on structural evil. In this progressive variant on managing sin, Jesus came to overturn injustice, he came as an advocate for the marginalized, and is concerned not so much with my stealing or cheating, but about poverty and homelessness and injustice. Jesus came to help us manage society’s sins and if we get right with Jesus there just might be a little less injustice.

Both of these pervert the Kingdom of God based on their particular visions of the gospel. Like the best lies, they rely on a kernel of truth and wrap it up in great falsehood. Now, lest anyone accuse me of antinomianism (being against moral law), hear me out: personal sin is awful, and against God’s will; structural sin is awful, and against God’s will. But if we only aim at managing sin, we miss the One who is our true life.

Personal sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward on the other side of life, removed from real life except for the knowledge of forgiveness. Social sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward in this life for human effort; instead of the fullness of God’s reign, we celebrate a little less evil in society as if it is the ultimate goal of God.

Both of them fail as gospels in the sense that you can buy into them fully and never have an active, living relationship with Jesus Christ.

When I observe Protestant Christianity in North America, I see us managing sin – left and right – all over the place.  I see a lot of Christians fighting over how to alleviate sin, and barely any energy put towards actively following Jesus.

Willard has hit a chord, in my estimation. He was right almost twenty years ago, but we are still getting it wrong.  What say you?

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Of Victims & Bullies

Of Victims & Bullies
Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy Andrevruas, via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy Andrevruas, via Wikimedia Commons.

The short version: sometimes they are the same person.

Growing up, especially in middle school, I was bullied quite a bit.  Bullying is a serious thing.  I still remember the names I was called and the faces who said them. I recall vividly having to restrain myself from retaliation. The kind of overt bullying I experienced is all-too-common for young people in America, and this was before social media.  Now, home is not necessarily a haven, as bullying can continue on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms.  Young people are bullied for a variety of reasons: for looking different, for being attracted to someone of the same gender, for their poverty, or for a disability.  24/7 bullying culture is a serious matter.  Victims of bullying are at an increased likelihood of mental and emotional problems, including temptations to suicide.

Victims deserve our sincere support and empathy.  Christians in particular are called to love the marginalized, outcast, and oppressed. Psalm 34:18 reminds us that God is committed to the cause of all those who are victimized: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted, and saved those crushed in spirit.”  Christians and other citizens who wish to care for the “least of these” simply cannot avoid concern for victims of physical, verbal, or other forms of violence.  Many decent people are quick to come to the defense of victims.

For that reason, some unhealthy personalities will always seek to take advantage of others’ good nature and feign victim status in order to garner attention or gain power.  KickBully.com offers excellent resources for addresses bullying.  On a page dedicated to bullies who claim to be victims, they describe the behavior under three headings:

A bully exaggerates the impact
of your actions on him
– He exaggerates his pain and suffering

– He makes you feel guilty for causing his pain

– He claims you don’t appreciate him

A bully focuses on past
and future victimization
– He frequently reminds you of your past actions that hurt him

– He replays his pain whenever he wants to manipulate you

– He brings up his pain long after the event occurred

– He doesn’t seem to get over things

– He says you will hurt him again if you don’t do what he wants

A bully uses his victimization
to avoid changing his behavior
– He says you must earn back his trust, good will, friendship, support

– He claims his belligerence results from his being treated unfairly

– He becomes angry and indignant when you try to reason with him

– He says he is tired of doing all the compromising

– He says he isn’t going to be so polite in the future

– He suggests that others are ganging up on him

They sum up this phenomenon by describing the behavior simply, “A bully pretends to be a victim in order to manipulate others. Because most people are good and compassionate, this is bullying at its worst. ”

Tim Field of BullyOnline.org attributes this behavior to a “manipulator,” one of a variety of attention-seeking pathological personality types:

“May exploit family, workplace or social club relationships, manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions. While there may be no physical harm involved, people are affected with emotional injury…A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim he or she is being persecuted, victimized, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting she is the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.”

We live at a moment in the modern West where we may begin to see more of this kind of behavior; an insightful new Atlantic piece names a subtle shift starting to take place in our culture that will profoundly impact how we relate to one another.  Pre-modern cultures were largely honor cultures, where disputes would often be settled physically (a fight, or a duel), and requesting aid from third parties would be anathema in the case of an offense.  The 19th and 20th century, particularly in the West, has seen a shift to a “dignity culture,” where insults were seen as less of an affront to personal honor and people are more likely to handle conflicts directly or simply ignore them.  In a dignity culture, people are not totally averse to third party aid, but it is seen as a last resort to be avoided if possible.  But now we are transitioning to a  new kind of culture, described by sociologists thusly:

The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”

Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Poster from the documentary Bully, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This victimhood culture clashes with the dignity culture; slights that would be dismissed or handled reasonable in a dignity culture become fodder for great offense and shame campaigns by those influenced by the culture of victimhood.  This is one aspect of the “suicide of thought” which we’ve examined previously. The sociologists quoted by The Atlantic piece elaborate:

“People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

This helps to explain why we might see a rise in bullies playing the victim.  As the culture shifts – and we are already seeing this in places like college campuses – there is more and more incentive to claim victim status, whether based on legitimate experiences or not.  A good example of this kind of dynamic is the #CancelColbert faux controversy, in which a failed attempt was made to silence a comedian (who hadn’t made the offending tweet) for satirizing racism – which is a form of critique! Sound inane? It was, and the inanity was nicely summed up in this insanely hilarious interview. and Colbert’s mic-drop-worthy response.

The question The Atlantic does not answer, and that I find vexing, is the obvious one: what to do? The nature of claiming victimhood status is that it demands immediate deference; to question it is to risk nebulous but severe charges like insensitivity, harm, and blaming the victim.  Moreover, bullying manipulators can easily turn any criticism or question to further the pretense of victimhood (as the chart above indicates).

The best option may just be to ignore them altogether; by challenging them directly you will likely feed their delusion and simply get roped into their histrionics.  As with other forms of toxic people, the only way to win with faux victims-turned-bullies is to minimize your exposure to them.  Henry Cloud has some excellent thoughts along these lines in this lecture.

In a world that is far from the promised Kingdom, there will be victims and, sadly, those who pretend victimhood to further their own selfish ends.  We must care deeply for the former while being wary of the latter.  Or, as Jesus put it, we are called to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16b, NRSV)

Have you experienced what sociologists are calling “victimhood culture?”  Are there positive aspects to this culture? Are there other helpful ways to deal with it? Leave a comment below! 

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The Gift of Silence in a Wordy World

by Drew 3 Comments
Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Human ear, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Political ads. Music blaring.  Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.

How do we cut the noise?

The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

But stillness and silence are in short supply these days,  This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:

“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)

On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day.  The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.

We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us.  The urgent always demands to be  addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side.  But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.

What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day.  Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset?  Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.

Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.

But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.

How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!

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Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

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Are We Witnessing the “Suicide of Thought”?

chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

-G.K Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought,” in Orthodoxy

Satire is effective because it wraps a kernel of truth in packing that, if well-constructed, is hilarious.  An example of effective satire is this “story” from The Onion:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus. “Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here.”

dissent-is-hateOf course, college campuses are not alone in tending towards a sort of intellectual univocality.  Various corners (or are they cul de sacs?) of the church vie to have their views not only recognized, but made sacrosanct.  We see it also in our wider culture.  I am not among those who thinks that the sky is falling due to the Oberfell ruling; nevertheless, Justice Alito was probably correct in saying this decision will be used against those who will not “assent to the new orthodoxy.” (For all the bleating about “thinking for oneself,” every community has its own orthodoxy, after all.)  He was similarly prophetic in his concern about “those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

But it isn’t merely the reduction of valid viewpoints that is at issue, it is the manner in which those viewpoints are decided.  Another aspect of what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought” is the power play that the injection of a kind of fundamentalist identity politics as brought to contemporary discourse.  In many corners of American intellectual life, what matters is not what one argues but one’s identity which determines (before a word is spoken) the validity of what is proffered.  A self-described liberal college student aptly described the illiberality of such power games in a thought-provoking piece titled, “Social Justice Bullies”:

“But here’s the thing — who I am does not (or should not) have any bearing on facts. The problem with this brand of modern social justice advocacy is that who one is as a person (race, class, gender, etc.) is the be all and end all of their capacity to have a certain viewpoint. A millennial social justice advocate can discount an opinion simply because it is said or written by a group they feel oppresses them. It is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem whereby one attacks the person saying an argument rather than the argument itself. But this logical fallacy has become the primary weapon of the millennial social justice advocate. It is miasma to academia, to critical thinking, and to intellectual honesty. Yet it is the primary mode of operating on college campuses nationwide.”

To be clear, at issue is not the ends to which contemporary “social justice bullies” aim but the means employed (side note: if you are worried you may be a SJB, check here).  Any means that rules out certain thoughts or ideas based solely on the identity of the person who holds them (outside of, say, a KKK or Nation of Islam member, someone who self-describes in a prejudiced way) is the opposite of the liberal ideal, which values exchange of ideas and wrestling for the truth.  Orginos elaborates:

“What I am talking about so far is not meant to discredit feminism or any social justice position that seeks to empower oppressed people or remedy social ills. As I made abundantly clear to begin with, these are fundamentally good and necessary goals. What is the issue here are the tactics used by some from a purported place of moral high ground to immunize themselves from criticism while promoting a close-minded authoritarian vice-grip on society through chillingly sinister tactics.”

It is both disingenuous and counter-productive to demand conversation about serious issues facing our society AND police attempted conversation so tightly that only the pre-determined righteous elite can come to the table.  This is at least part of the reason for the gridlock we currently face; those who set the terms of the debate have done so in a manner that predetermines the outcome, and then shame those who refuse to play their power game as unwilling and backwards.  The faux empathy which demands to settle ahead of time not just what can be said but how it is said  – resulting in the exchange of “one idea,” as The Onion so aptly put it – is regressive in the extreme. Rabbi and systems theorist Edwin Friedman called such gridlock “a failure of nerve”:failure of nerve

“…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive’…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of ’empathy’ into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

It’s tempting to be an alarmist about all this.  But the good news is that the flesh-and-blood people I talk to in my community, or pray with at the church I serve, are more fully-orbed than this.  I worry that, with Chesterton, “We are on the road to producing a race of [people] too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

But most people I know – those not trying to get a book deal or grow their Instagram following – are not like this.  If you pay too much attention to the thought police – the basement bloggers, armchair theorists, and self-obsessed justice tourists – it’s easy to become convinced that truthful speech and honest, vulnerable conversation are at an end in the 21st century West.  But we can do better.  Thought need not be destroyed on the altar of ideology masquerading as empathy.

But fighting this trend will require all of us – left/right/center, libertarian and communitarian, Christians and atheists and agnostics, progressives and traditionalists – to embrace a hermeneutic of charity that will allow us to be more interested in genuine engagement than in scoring points with the home team, more desirous of actually achieving progress than being seen as an expert in demanding it.  Otherwise, we are fated to continue trying to move forward as a church and society while fighting over the few, narrow, pre-determined views.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the suicide of thought? What institutions, places, arenas are there for genuine engagement across the usual battle lines? Leave a comment below.

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Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

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Bishop Spong, the Fundamentalist

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

In our last post, we looked at how fundamentalism is actually a modernist phenomenon, and not its opposite.  As I have continued to read through Billy Abraham’s excellent The Logic of Renewal, he makes these relationships even more explicit.  It’s not only that fundamentalism is representative of modernity, but that the most thorough-going modernists can also be fundamentalists.  Case in point is Bishop John Shelby Spong, the infamous Episcopal bishop (now retired) known for questioning virtually every distinctive Christian belief and yet – somehow – remaining a bishop.  Abraham explains:

“Converted within the boundaries of modern fundamentalism, he has never really recovered from the thinness of its doctrines or the narrowness of its structures. The marks of the former Fundamentalism in his preaching and teaching are obvious.  There is the same sense of alienation from tradition, the same angry self-assurance, the same hunger for intellectual and scholarly recognition, the same boundless evangelistic energy for the cause, the same pretentious self-importance, the same note of apocalyptic urgency, and the same faith in simple, sure-fire arguments that will shoot down the opposition in flames.”

Having spent many years among conservative fundamentalists, I find it pretty easy to recognize that streak among progressive fundies as well.  As Abraham so aptly names, the same tone, methodology, and simplistic world-view is found in the left-wing fundamentalism of Spong as it is in the right-wing fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalism, in other words, is not a matter of the left or the right.  It’s a quintessentially modern habit, found in any faith or faith leader co-opted by its norms and modes of discourse.

Where do you see fundamentalism – right and left-wing – in the church today?

 

Source: William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 40.

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