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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

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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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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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Our Hope for #UMC General Conference 2016

GC 2016 banner

                      The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;                  she is his new creation by water and the Word.
       From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
                   with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.                        – “The Church’s One Foundation”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II

Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference.  I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media.  I read the reports and stories.  I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left.  But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock.  Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.

A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist.  The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation.  This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong.  The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused.  We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing.  The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters.  I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me.  But I couldn’t be quiet any longer.  Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist.  Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.

Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me.  At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)  With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot.  In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland.  Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying.  I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead.  But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.

I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry.  This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative.  I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.”  R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:

“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)

All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort.  There is no sense in pretending otherwise.  We have competing visions.  That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ.  That’s how a vision becomes an idol:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)

Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether.  But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.

“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)

Distance is tempting.  But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go?  Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey.  That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God.  We neglect this too often.  Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:bonhoeffer lt

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)

If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace.  The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community.  That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ.  Again, Bonhoeffer notes,

“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)

As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis.  I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.

My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.

“Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;                                                       their cry goes up: ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

Brokenness and discord are perishing.  They have no future in God’s Kingdom.  One way or another, God’s church will endure.  Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere.  Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.

I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.

This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Sources:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).

R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

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Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.

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