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William Sloane Coffin on Atheism’s God

wsc coverImagine a movement to abolish film based only on the work of Adam Sandler, or to abolish the radio because of Justin Bieber.  What if I began a series of blogs arguing for the closing of all art museums because of the laughable efforts of my 5th grade neighbor that aren’t even worthy of a refrigerator magnet?

Most atheists, in rejecting God, are not rejecting a God I recognize.  Having read much of the atheist literature, including some of the prominent voices of the virulent strain of anti-theistic writing called the ‘New Atheism,’ I am often left underwhelmed with the depth of analysis.  William Sloane Coffin, near the end of his life, wrote a great little book called Letters to a Young Doubter.  In it, he imagines a dialogue with a freshman college student and friend named Tom, who is navigating faith and family and studies and doubt as he begins his undergraduate career.  He warn Tom,

“It may, however, be worthwhile to tell you about what I have found to be a common phenomenon in American universities today. Professors judge poetry, novels, art, and music by their very best works. Why then do so many judge religion by the worst examples of it? I used to ask professors, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ I know that 99 chances out of 100 I wouldn’t believe in their kind of God either.”

As Coffin hints at, the New Atheists and their fandom constantly argue against religion by highlighting its worst possible exemplars.  Critical readers will recognize this tactic as arguing against a straw man – a fallacy that is unfortunately as common as it is effective.

Give me Nietzsche any day: an atheist with the intellectual virtue to actually know that which he rejected.  He despised Christianity on its own terms: the life and witness of Jesus was to him disgusting, as it led to the “slave morality” he despised.

At least Nietzsche cared enough to read the source material at its best.  If only today’s atheists would do the same.  Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it thus, with his characteristically sharp quill:

“The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).”

In proving the undesirability of “gods” that no one, perchance for a few extremists,  actually worships, contemporary atheists are not so much making arguments as they are reinforcing the boogeymen of their own imaginations.  And, of course, book sales.  Hysteria always sells, after all.

Sadly, in rejecting out-of-hand what they do not understand and have not critically engaged, the New Atheists and their ilk are mirroring the behavior of those they most despise: religious fundamentalists.  Thus, they become two sides of the same coin.  As we’ve said before, beware what you loathe, because you will become it.

(For more of David Bentley Hart tearing down New Atheist straw men, see video below.)

Source: William Slone Coffin, Letters to a Young Doubter Louisville: WKJ 2005), 17-18.

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How to Recognize Evil

The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We live in an age where the language of good vs. evil is not appreciated.  Hyper-postmodernity would have us believe that every truth claim is merely an assertion of power, so no truth claim holds value.  Bullshit.

Here’s how to recognize evil:

Love unites. Evil divides.  It’s a simple premise that, if you accept it and begin to look for it, you’ll see everywhere.  Churches. Families. Communities. And of course, on to whole nations and regions of the globe.

Love brings things together in ways that are life-affirming.  In marriage, two become “one flesh” and join lives, hearts, and wills.  Communities form when individuals become neighbors.  Countries form when communities come together for the common good.

Evil is the opposite.  Evil makes a marriage a contract between two individuals rather than a covenant bond.  Evil turns community members into bitter, envious, hateful, and prejudiced rivals competing for scarce resources.  Evil turns nation against nation.

As Augustine noted, evil has no force on its own. Evil can only ever be a parasite.  It is a privation of the good only possible wherever the good is found.

God (who is love) became united with humanity for our salvation, to unite us to God and to each other. As St. Maximos the Confessor observed (emphasis mine):

“In His love for man God became man so that He might unite human nature to Himself and stop it from acting evilly towards itself, or rather from being at strife and divided against itself, and from having no rest because of the instability of its will and purpose. Nothing sequent to God is more precious for beings endowed with intellect, or rather is more dear to God, than perfect love; for love unites those who have been divided and is able to create a single identity of will and purpose, free from faction, among many or among all; for the property of love is to produce a single will and purpose in those who seek what pertains to it.  If by nature the good unifies and holds together what has been separated, evil clearly divides and corrupts what has been unified. For evil is by nature dispersive, unstable, multiform and divisive.”

Evil is the power of entropy, the power to corrupt, to rot, to destroy that which God has joined together in love.  Division is the way of the world (it’s no accident that Christians are often enjoined to flee it, after all).  It’s hard for people, even with much in common, to be united in the bond of love; pride and experience and competing narratives all get in the way.

But let’s be clear: God’s will, the ultimate Good, is not for division but for loving unity.  As God has been revealed to us as a unity of persons who are distinct but still united in will, purpose, and love – a mystery we name Trinity – so God’s will for us, His people, is that we might know that same purely other-regarding love in our lives.  A high calling, but one worthy of our best efforts, despite the difficulties and many differences which too easily divide us.

May that effort be found abundantly among us: as wives and husbands, as communities, and particularly as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Body of Christ.  As David Watson has suggested, such unity is not primarily institutional but spiritual. In a world bent on incarnating the evils of division along every possible line, let us resist that tide and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to instead live as Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus:

“…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:2-6, NRSV)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Source: “First Century Various Texts,” from the Philokalia: Volume 2  (London: Faber & Faber 1981), 174.  If the Philokalia is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend it and this helpful interview with the great Orthodox leader Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

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West, Dyson, & the Independent Prophet as False Prophet

by Drew 1 Comment
Cornel West in 2008, by Esther. Courtesy Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

Cornel West in 2008, by Esther. Courtesy Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent public drubbing of Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson laid into the Princeton public intellectual for a variety of reasons in what was both a stringent personal attack and a mournful elegy to a declining mentor.  One of Dyson’s most incisive critiques was that West’s claim to the prophet’s mantle rings hollow, lacking the nuance both of biblical exegesis and ecclesial experience.  Dyson, a Georgetown professor, raises some serious questions here not just of West but of all Christians who would blithely claim the prophetic role for themselves.  Consider the following excerpts (subheadings are my own):

Defining the Prophet

“To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, West may not seek to define a prophet, but he knows one when he sees one, and quite often, they sound just like him. This limp understanding of prophecy plays to his advantage because he can bless or dismiss prophets without answering how we determine who prophets are, who gets to say so, how they are different from social critics, to whom they answer, if they have standing in religious communities, or if God calls them.”

Prophecy Demands Institutional Accountability

“But ordained ministers, and especially pastors, must give account to the congregations or denominations that offer them institutional support and the legitimacy to prophesize. They may face severe consequences—including excommunication, censorship, being defrocked, or even expelled from their parishes—for their acts. The words and prophetic actions of these brave souls impact their ministerial standing and their vocation. West faces no such penalty for his pretense to Christian prophecy.”

“West might argue that not being ordained leaves him free to act on his prophetic instincts and even disagree with the church on social matters. Thus he avoids the negative consequences of ordination while remaining spiritually anchored. That’s fine if you’re a run-of-the-mill Christian, but there is, and should be, a higher standard for prophets. True prophets embrace religious authority and bravely stand up to it in the name of a higher power. The effort to escape responsibility should sound an alarm for those who hold West’s views about how prophets should behave.”

“As a freelancing, itinerant, nonordained, self-anointed prophet, West has only to answer to himself. That may symbolize a grand resistance to institutional authority, but it’s also a failure to acknowledge the institutional responsibilities that religious prophets bear. Most ministers are clerics attending to the needs of the local parish. Only a select few are cut from prophetic cloth. Yet nearly all the religious figures we recognize as prophets—Adam Clayton Powell Jr., King, Jackson, Sharpton—were ordained as ministers. Powell and King were pastors of local churches as well. To be sure, there are prophets who are not ministers or religious figures—especially women whose path to the ministry has been blocked by sexist theologies—but most of them have ties to organizations or institutions that hold them accountable.”

“Prophets, as a rule, don’t have tenure. West gets the benefits of the association with prophecy while bearing none of its burdens. By refusing to take up the cross he urges prophetic Christians to carry, West is preaching courage while seeking to avoid reprisal or suffering. Playing it safe means that West doesn’t qualify for the prophetic role he espouses.”

Is Anything Critical or Counter-Cultural Prophetic?

“What makes West a prophet? Is it his willingness to call out corporate elites and assail the purveyors of injustice and inequality? The actor Russell Brand does that in his book Revolution. Is he a prophet? Is it West’s self-identification with the poor? Tupac Shakur had that on lock. Should we deem him a prophet? Is it West’s self-styled resistance to police brutality, evidenced by his occasional willingness to get arrested in highly staged and camera-ready gestures of civil disobedience, such as in Ferguson last fall?”

Conclusion

Dyson raises crucial questions for any Christians who would blithely ascend to the prophetic office.  Most especially, he reminds us that true prophets are always close enough to the Christian community (by ordination and other relationships) to be held responsible, to be able to receive praise or blame for their actions.  The lone prophet has, by contrast, won his or her mantle cheaply, like a bitter child who buys a championship trophy at a pawn shop and then fancies himself All-State.

Let those with ears, hear.

 

P.S. Given what Dyson has said about prophets not having tenure, I wonder if it possible for United Methodist elders to be prophets in any real sense of the term?

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The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen.  In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down.  He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church.  Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.

C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.)  Of course not.  He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually.  As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences.  Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:

Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]

Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period.  You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”

(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)

Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”  [Spits]

Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy.  Notice the strong division between the  “Old Testament God” and Jesus.  For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President.  This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism.  The definition from Theopedia is helpful:

“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”

Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views.  Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected).  What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today.  Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures.  Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in  loving self-disclosure.

The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative.  There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”

Two Testaments. One God.  Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation.  So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power  and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf.  In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.

To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal.  After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms.  But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?

Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)

At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross.  But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?

I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:

O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

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Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

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Leadership, Stress, & Triangles

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read.  Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership.  The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:

“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”

Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be.  “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.”  So it is with our position in relational systems.

For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities.  Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles.  As you may guess, they are all around us.  Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress).  Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:

“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating.  Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”failure of nerve

In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck.  Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.

Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon.  Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself.  A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.

For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others?  When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary.  But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness.  We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:

“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”

P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:

Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.

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Ritual is Your Friend

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Most people, and many Christians especially, think they dislike ritual.  In reality, we are doing ritual all the time.  Whether we go to the mall, brush our teeth, or go to church, there are almost always elements of ritual, whether recognized or not.  The liturgical and ecumenical theologian Geoffrey Wainwright describes ritual like so:

“It must be made clear form the start that I am not using ‘ritual’ in the pejorative sense of ‘mere ritual’ which it sometimes bears among Protestants. I mean ritual in the descriptive sense of regular patterns of behaviour invested with symbolic significance and efficacy. On my sense of the word, even those communities which pride themselves on their freedom from ‘ritual’ will generally be found to use ritual; only they will not be aware of it, and so will be unable either to enjoy its pleasures to the full or to be properly vigilant about its dangers.  Similarly it may be important to state that liturgy (and, much less often, cult) is here used of the public worship of the Church, with liturgical (and cultic) as convenient adjectives. Liturgy leaves room within itself for those spontaneous or extemporaneous forms of worship which some Protestants favour as an alternative to what they class as ‘liturgical.’ If the word liturgy is allowed to retain from its etymology the sense of ‘the work of the people’,  it hints at the focal place and function which I ascribe to worship in the Christian life as a whole. Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up  in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.”

imagining the kingdomAnother of my intellectual heroes, James K.A. Smith, has given new force to recognizing the power of ritual not just in religious life but in culture as a whole.  In addition to his many books on the subject, his lecture “Redeeming Ritual” is worth your time.

So the question is not a simple, “ritual: yes or no?”  but whether or not we are conscious of the rituals that make up our lives, the liturgies which form us each day.  Charles Duhigg has written of The Power of Habit, which describes how rituals, when made intentional, can create new, healthy patterns of life and behavior.

And that’s what it comes down to with the church.  Are our rituals effectively making us saints, or reinforcing the individualistic, shallow, consumer liturgies to which we are constantly exposed? Ritual is our friend, because there is no escaping its shaping influence in our lives.  But the constant question to ask is: to what end is this liturgy forming us? Because remember, even this is a liturgy:

 

Source: Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

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God is Winning in 2015: The Continued Failure of Secularization

by Drew 2 Comments
The now infamous 1966 cover.  And no, He is very much alive.  I talked to Him this morning.

The now infamous 1966 cover. And no, He is very much alive. I talked to Him this morning.

In 1966, Time magazine famously asked, “Is God Dead?”  For almost 50 years, the geopolitics of the world has indicated a strong and loud “no” to this question.  So argue the editors of a great volume, intended for journalists but a worthwhile read for anyone interested in faith or politics, entitled Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.  At the conclusion of their background article, “God is Winning,” Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft argue,

“Contrary to the influential scholarly theories of the 1950s and 1960s, religion is not dying with modernization. Contrary to conventional wisdom, religion plays an independent and powerful role in how people view themselves and how states conduct their affairs. And, contrary to the assumptions of recent U.S. foreign policy, democracy promotion may only increase the political role of religion – including radical religion – throughout the world, most immediately in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. God is winning in global politics. And modernization, democratization, and globalization have only made him stronger.”

The chorus of New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens [RIP], Harris, Dennett, etc.) continues to argue that religion either will or should go away with advances in modernity and science.  And yet, the exact opposite is happening.  There is a message here for all of us, religious and nonreligious: to understand the world around us, we had best understand our religious neighbors on their own terms, lest we are fated to be ignorant of our world and one of its indefatigable factors.  This has been true since Time‘s infamous cover, and will, in all probability, remain true in this new year – despite what the cultured despisers happen to feel about it.

blind spot book

Source: “God is Winning,” in Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 28.

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Like Midas’ Touch, But in Reverse: Further Reasons to Distrust the Rob Bell/Oprah Vortex

by Drew 4 Comments
Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

The conversation around Rob Bell’s recent career move has been interesting.  Many are fascinated at what the Oprah Machine will turn out.  Some are skeptical, and others are quick to defend.  It seems that Bell has now been “claimed” by the progressive camp, and anyone who questions his sanctity  must be rooted out and destroyed, much like the Inquisition that the progressives (claim to) abhor.  Enter an article published by Relevant under the hysterical title, “What the Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity,” which defends the founder of Mars Hill thus:

“Bell is no fast food, arm-chair theologian, remember.

He’s a Bible geek whose experience with and understanding of the ancient Scriptures was one of the main reasons for his rise in the first place. This wasn’t a guy who skimmed the easy passages. This wasn’t someone who preached from the cozy confines of the Creation story, or the Psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount.”

He also charges that Bell’s critics now are the same as those before: those vile heresy-hunters are now coming out of the woodwork to crucify (side note: I despise these histrionics) Bell all over again.  But not so fast.

I’m a fan of Bell’s, as I established in my previous post.  I never called him a heretic. I still don’t think he is one.  But I seriously question his association with Oprah.  Why? Because she destroys those she touches.  Like Midas, the mythological king who turned what he touched to gold, Oprah turns those she touches to shit.

Consider Dr. Mehmet Oz. A legitimate surgeon before Oprah put her stamp on him, Dr. Oz has faced growing criticism for his seemingly un-scientific, medically-questionable claims.  He’s even had to go before Congress to defend himself.  A new study has found that more than half of his claims have no basis in medical science.  More than half! Just made up.

So it’s not that Bell is some heretic who should be thrown into the outer darkness. It’s that he’s associating with someone who corrupts, someone who brings commercial success at the price of dignity, integrity, and ultimately the truth.

And I, for one, appreciate Bell’s gifts too damn much to be okay with that.

I hope it doesn’t happen. I hope that Rob is able to resist lure of the limelight, the temptation to so popularize one’s message that all credibility is sacrificed.  As a New York doctor said (quoted in the Post article above),

“Mehmet is now an entertainer…And he’s great at it … [But] sometimes Mehmet will entertain wacky ideas — particularly if they are wacky and have entertainment value.”

Will Bell make the most of this opportunity, and use his platform to represent Christian wisdom and charity well, or will he sell out a-la Doctor Oz, dispensing theological prescriptions as corrupt and false as they are easily digestible?

Only time will tell.

Update: A friend passed on this clip from the Rob Bell Show, featured on the OWN website, which seems to indicate that, at least to a degree, Rob is not going to shy away completely from robust Christian themes.

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Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Relevance destroys.  You can sell a lot of burgers, but that makes you McDonalds.  Your album went triple platinum? The Spice Girls have you beat.  I fear that the once-respected evangelical pastor Rob Bell is becoming a spiritual McDonalds, a pop shadow of his former self.  Will he serve billions and billions more? Likely. But a burger made for the masses is neither tasty nor nutritious (nor a burger).

First things first.  I genuinely have affection for Bell.  I showed Nooma videos to my young adults.  I defended him when those with no sense of doctrinal history condemned him for age-old questions asked in Love Wins.  I saw him speak live at Duke and even got my picture taken with him. (He’s much taller than me.)

But I was saddened to read a recent interview with him by RNS.  I can live with controversial, envelope-pushing popular Christian reflection. I can tolerate the hipster glasses and skinny jeans.  But getting in league with Oprah and her army of overhyped pseudo-experts? This is a bridge too far.

Think about the other personalities under Oprah’s corporate umbrella:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw, a straight-talking Texan who dispenses counseling mints to millions of homes a week, making the frightening and deep inner work of therapy look as simple as talking to your local rodeo clown.  While McGraw does have a legitimate doctorate in clinical psychology, he has not been licensed to practice in any state since 1989.  (Imagine me offering advice on the church, pastoral care, and theology if my denomination had severed ties with me over 20 years ago!)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, a leading surgeon whose television success came at the expense of putting  his stamp on all kinds of snake oil backed by psuedo-science.  Some of his claims about phony weight loss products were so egregious that the US Senate got involved (because priorities).

In both instances, their relevance to mass audiences have taken legitimate concerns (physical and mental health) and commodified them to the point of tragicomedy.

A few years ago, I would have thought Bell a poor fit for such company, but now I am less certain.  Perhaps burned from the (admittedly ridiculous) backlash following Love Wins, Bell has essentially abandoned the church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

I wonder what the thousands of people who came to faith under Bell’s ministry at Mars Hill think of this? Personally, I would feel as if I’d been sold a bag of magic beans.  To think of it another way: the guy who so smoothly and confidently convinced you to buy a Honda is now driving a Fiat.

Rob Bell’s obsession with relevance – the desire to “matter” to the concerns and questions of contemporary culture – turns out to have been an invitation to entropy.  Bell is now so relevant that he seems to have little interest in Christianity.  Last year, in a speech at Vanderbilt University, he introduced himself as everything but a pastor, and didn’t mention his former calling until about 20 minutes in.  Moreover, when asked by RNS about working with Oprah, a notorious consumer from and promoter of the buffet of quasi-spiritualities, he responded:

“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”

I have no idea when Jesus talked about “the full divine life,” except when speaking about himself.  If the price of cultural relevance is that the “baggage” of a basic descriptor like ‘Christian’ is too much to palate or the particularity of the Son of God is an embarrassment, then it is time to stop making a fool’s bargain.

Rob spent a church building a career career building a church that was “relevant.”  The threshold for entry was low; it didn’t look, talk, or feel like “church,” and people responded in droves. Bell, in turn, built his brand on identifying with the non-religious and skeptic folks who were turned off by anything too obviously Christian.  But now, it appears, he has gone native.

dr philA pyrrhic victory is one which is too costly to be considered a legitimate win.  Bell’s trajectory shows clearly that the cost of cultural acceptance – the cost of relevance – is too high to pay.  The relevant pastor and the relevant congregation will find much success, as the world defines it.  But in earning that victory, it appears that one becomes so co-opted that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Looking back to the Civil War, we might consider the example of Confederate General Robert E. Lee constantly defeating Ulysses Grant’s attacks with superior tactics, but unable to sustain the campaign in the face of the superior resources of the North, who could afford the losses.  Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach.  Playing to consumerism ends up consuming you.

Rob Bell is our next Dr. Phil, an expert whose expertise has been twisted to relevant, market-driven agenda.  He has gone from a pastor, a guide of souls, a preacher of the gospel, to just another space filler in Oprah’s cubby of spiritual shills.

A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.

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