America

The Remnants of Christendom among Revivalists and Pietists

Recently it has come to light that Holly Hobby Lobby who posed in a photo with automatic riffle in one hand and the bible in the other, proclaiming her love of God, country, guns, and “family values,” had an adulterous affair with a video editor fo the Tea Party News.  hollyfisherI’m not surprised.  Not because I think all Tea Party members and conservatives are hypocrites but because this person’s Christianity is a remnant of common sort of Christianity in Christendom.

More to the point, I’m not surprised because Holly Hobby Lobby’s Christianity, at the height of Christendom, would have been seen by many (including my forebears) at most as a place to begin the call to conversion and repentance. We don’t often talk about how Christendom functioned to keep people in the orbit  of the Church and Gospel (granted with other less positive effects).  Without Christendom revivalist and pietist call to conversion would have been meaningless.

Excursus: “Church” is a tricky term, and discussions of this sort often fail to define the term.  For the purposes of this post I’m combining a sacramental and pietist understanding of Church. Thus Church is both an entity, the Body of Christ, that transcends time and space and made up of the baptized as the body of Christ, and this body of Christ is best identified by those who are truly converted by and to Christ.  And while were at it: I see “Christendom” as the cultural, societal and political space where the religion of Christianity is dominant and provides a cultural and political supportive environment for the Church. I see the case of Holly Hobby Lobby as a way to flesh out these two definitions in a time of post-Christendom.

Let me give an account of Church, Christianity and Christendom, from a pietist perspective, and specifically Lutheran pietism.  In Lutheran Christendom, as in most forms of Christendom, the state made Christendom possible through making citizenship and being Christian equivalent. In Lutheran Christendom to be Christian was to be Lutheran. ( I know your hackles are all up, but lets let this be a lesson in history for now.)  Pietists tell the story of the State sponsored Christianity as a dead Christianity.  Pietism is in part a critique of dead dogma, and lifeless faith.  As we tell it, Pietists came along and brought the vitality of the Gospel and encounter with God into dead Lutheran orthodoxy.  What this early negative evaluation of Christendom doesn’t recognize is the ways in which Christendom and Christianity of  Lutheran Orthodoxy and State church brought people into the orbit of conversion and encounter with Christ, which then the Pietists could offer.  Pietism fails to recognize it’s own dependence upon Christendom.  Because of Christendom (and that means also dead orthodoxy)  Pietist didn’t have to explain who Jesus Christ was, nor who the God of Jesus Christ was and is.  In the Lutheran state churches since to be a citizen was to be a Christian, one had to know the catechism, the creed, and Lords Prayer.  We pietists, to use the tired phrase, brought head knowledge into the heart, but without Christendom, and the role of the state in making it’s citizens Christian, there would have been know mere “head” knowledge of the Gospel, God , and Christ.

 Pietist and other revivalist Christian groups in Christendom assumed and made use of the common cultural religious assumptions of being Christian, and called  conversion what was, from one point of view,  simply a deepening the Christian commitment and faith of the Christian citizens of Christendom.

What happens then when the fabric of cultural assumptions of Christendom are in tatters or non-existent, and a certain group of Christians, and Christian leaders, still seek to claim that to truly be a citizen of a particular state, one should claim a Christian heritage?  My answer is you get people like Holly Hobby Lobby, who through their own actions show they haven’t a clue what being a member of the Church is truly about, let alone what it would mean to follow Jesus Christ or to have the Mind of Christ, as we Pietists might say.

Granted in the United States Christendom was perpetuated and created through less overt political means.  In the U.S. Christendom was the result of cooperation between various Christian groups that came to be understood as denominations.  So, we still need to account for how we went from Revivalists and Pietists calling for deep commitment and conversion to Holly Hobby Lobby’s identity without conversion and change of being and mind.holly-fisher From the revivalist and “evangelical” view the culturally established and powerful denominations represented the domain of dead and nominal Christianity, as long as these “dead” denominations, the “mainline”, were willing to do the work of maintaining Christendom (if one wonders what I’m talking about a remnant of this reality is still found in the denominational affiliations of the United States Congress, and that oaths are still made upon the Bible).*  As the dominant mainline denominations began to embrace a more secular and pluralist view of the U.S. slowly abandoning Christendom (most likely unwittingly, or so puzzlement over their loss of relevance indicates) Revivalist and Pietist denominations were gaining ascendancy and began to take up the mantle of preserving Christendom, that is America as a “Christian nation.”  It’s not surprising then, that some members of these denominations would come to assume Christian identity as a heritage, and not as a break with the dead identity of the Christian citizen.

Revivalist and Pietist Christian language has now been put to use in shoring up Christendom.  Strangely then conversion for some results in being passionately patriotic.  Before the mainline abandoned Christendom, the revivalists and pietist could leave aside the question of Christian identity and American identity. We could call to conversion and new life in Christ, and such calls wouldn’t necessarily call into question ones American Citizenship nor even have to challenge patriotism. Christendom benefited from more vibrant faith as long as such a faith wasn’t too radical in questioning of the equivalence of citizen and Christian (we know such groups as the Anabaptist or the radical reformers, Mennonites, the Brethren and Society of Friends (Quakers) were seen as trouble makers.).  However, the pietist faith didn’t need to couch itself in patriotic trappings, since cultural assumptions of the Christendom had that covered.  If conversion led some to take up activism to correct the ills in society, well these reformers were working for a better Christians society that all tacitly agreed was a good thing (not to deny that these pietist and revivalist reformers were at times opposed, often by members and leaders of the “mainline”.)

Back to Holly Hobby Lobby: Such a form of Christianity comes out of a pietist and revivalist faith become guardian of Christendom. However, as such it is no different from the “dead faith” of Lutheran orthodoxy. My forbears would recognized it for what it is, at best the beginning, the spiritual space in which the call to conversion could take hold, at worst it is a dead, useless, and hypocritical faith.  As such Such a Christianity can hardly be called faith, and can’t claim to know much if anything of the Mind of Christ or the Church.

* Also, I can’t recommend highly enough Martin E. Marty’s book Righteous Empire: the Protestant experience in America for one account of this reality before and during the Modernist/Fundamentalist split and before the Mainline abandoned Christendom to support a more pluralist and secularist societal fabric. 

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

holynativity

 

Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.

Lets Talk Sin and Systems

For a time, as a child in the 1970’s, I lived on or near my grandparents farm.  The farm was forty acres of fruit trees and grapevines in which I, with my sister and cousins, freely roamed and played in.  There were few rules, one of them was that we weren’t to bother or speak to the farm workers.  Our freedom of movement on the farm was largely tied to this rule.  It makes sense when the workers were in the field they were there to do a job and they shouldn’t have to worry about  their boss’s grandchildren getting in their way.  However, the  farm workers were all Mexican migrant workers or Mexican-Americans.  As a child I gave little thought to this, outside of not bothering the farm workers I had Latino friends, we were invited over to  Mexican-American foreman’s home, and he and his family were often in my grandparents home, they were friends.  Years, later in seminary I had a friend who while in seminary was working on campus as part of the janitorial staff.  One day he came up to me and asked “Is everything okay?” I was puzzled. He clarified “Between us…did I do something to offend?” I was even more dumbfounded. He explained ” I saw you yesterday as you were walking to class and I waved, you even looked my direction but you ignored me.”  I had no recollection of this.  Slowly, it dawned on me he was Indian, and when he saw me the day before he was wearing the janitorial uniform. The simple instruction from my childhood had taught me to not see people of color at work.  Even more devastating, was that I also realized that I didn’t ignore another friend who was white when he was wearing the janitor uniform.

The above experience would have been unintelligible to me  had it not been for a College Camp seminar on the system of Racism (lead by a Latino and and an African American). In that seminar I found  illuminating the idea that Racism was structural and systemic. While Racism can be about attitudes and opinions racism is more about the power, privilege, and the participation in racist structure and system.  This was transformative because even at 19 or 20 , I was a ware that the persistence of Racism had to do with more than whether I individually had overt negative feelings and attitudes towards an individual of another race.  It also helped explain why my behavior towards people of color didn’t always match what I felt and believed.  It was liberating because it offered me as a member  of the Church to find in my self where the systems of the World had a hold of me having yet been transformed and illuminated by the Mind of Christ. Because of that seminar I could begin to recognize and seek to route out the ways the system of Racism was influencing me through a childhood rule that hadn’t been racist in intention.

This systemic and structural view of Racism was also helpful, because such an understanding of Racism as structural and systemic and not individual and attitudinal, resonated with certain Pauline themes of the effect of Sin on the humanity and each of us personally.  Such a view of Racism looks very much like the struggle with the Flesh: the sinful system that can cling to one like a body of death.   This allowed me to see Racism as not only about opinions and attitudes that may or may not be based in fact or science or whatever, but part of the system of Sin that, through the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, was now (slowly at least from our perspective) passing away.

We are currently facing, what seems to most of us, the inexplicable persistence of Racism most blatantly seen in the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and in the disparities of the system of mass incarceration.  Although we often speak of Racism as a systemic reality, when I hear expressions of puzzlement of the persistence of racism we are so puzzled either because we think the American system of government and law existed separate from and before an overlay of Racist ideology, and/or we believe that Racism is primarily about individuals holding racist attitudes and opinions and overtly holding to an ideology of racial superiority and purity.  Which means we actually think Racism is about individuals and not systems.

We are having difficulty accounting for the persistence of Racist structures and outcomes without overt racism.  Or more strikingly, when we speak of Racist policing we immediately think that the way to  eradicate racism from policing is to find and remove  racist police officers, or at least curtail the actions of a racist police officer.

As such we then see systems as being grounded in the isolated individuals attitudes and/or actions.  It is offensive and incomprehensible to us that we may act and or be subjected to things we individually don’t intend and individually have no control over.

What I wish to suggest is that Sin and systems function similarly.  For sin and systems to have their power and function they don’t require my overt participation as an individual. Rather the power of sin and systems is to function and dictate our actions depends on my lack of awareness of their effect upon my will and actions.

When we speak of Racism, we aren’t simply speaking of the mere amalgamation of  the actions and attitudes of individuals who think themselves superior to another race and actively and intentionally seek to disenfranchise those seen as members of another race, deemed inferior (though this does occur, and depending on various conditions may or may not be the case).

Granted this thinking runs counter to the idea of the human as an autonomous individual who is the soul source of their self, intentions and actions.

Paul in Romans, speaks of the power of Sin in this way as well, as that which acts upon us often in contradiction and violation of our individual will and desires.  Paul says “What I wish to do I don’t do and that which I don’t want to do I do.”

Racism is part of that reality in which the systems of this world are bound to Sin and Death.

Paul asks who or what will save us from this, his answer Christ Jesus.

Paul’s answer of course requires unpacking,  as well as why the systems of sin and death, like Racism, continue to dominate even among those who have claimed the name of Jesus, and Christian.

Here’s an account from Britney Cooper on experiencing the persistence of Racism.

Longing for Justice in Absence: #StayWokeAdvent

WIN_20141130_143419O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)WIN_20141130_143444

This cry for God to act from the lectionary  for the First Sunday of Advent seems very fitting.  Calling on god to tear open the heavens.  Tear down the barrier between heaven and earth that keeps the kingdom from coming and God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what if this has happened?  What if the heavens have been torn open and God has come down? (As depicted in these depictions of heaven opening up)  In Advent what we wait for, what we are awake to is that God has come in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.WIN_20141130_143332

The tearing of the heavens and God coming in justice happened. It happened in a very strange and nearly imperceptible way.  The nations, the powers, have been shaken.  Yet we can be unaware, live as though all is lost.  Admittedly in times like these, it doesn’t seem like this story has much relevance or meaning.  If true what good has it done for those who continue to suffer injustice, oppression and death.

Isaiah a few verses below the words above, wonders why God doesn’t act as in the time of Egypt and Israels deliverance from the oppression of  Pharaoh and Egypt, the empire and power of the day. But think with me on that story:

Did Israel’s freedom from enslavement and oppression at the hands of the state power and government come because Pharoah gradually made reforms and improved the conditions of the Hebrews?  Did the justice Isaiah recalls and longs for come from Pharaoh, or even with Pharaoh’s help and coöperation?  No, it was wrested from pharaoh by God.

But in a sense God remained a part from humanity and creation in that moment.  God crushes the power of oppression destroying its ability to exact its legal penalties, and it’s justice.  It was fearsome and violent, and at Mount Sinai the Israelites weren’t so sure what to make of all this shaking.

But when we speak of God’s advent, we are no longer speaking of the shock and Awe that Isaiah is longing for in the tearing open of the heavens and God coming down, yet even so the heavens have been torn open and God has come down.

WIN_20141130_143456It is perhaps worth noting that this didn’t happen only once, God tore open the heavens in the incarnation, and then again as the Spirit came upon those followers of Jesus, to form the Church on Pentecost.

Yet, none of this has brought an end to injustice.  The heavens have been torn open and God descends… and then what… disappears?

Christians, perhaps even the Church, are and have been as much a part of oppression and injustice as working for liberation and justice.

There are questions… is something awakening?

We wait in darkness with not much light.  This is Advent and a place of deep longing.

For now lets sit with heavens torn open and God come down, but seemingly little shaken, and ask what is the source of justice and liberation?  What are we looking for and who will provide it?

 

Wake up and Keep Awake: #StayWokeAdvent

I’ve kept mostly silent about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  On Social media I’ve attempted to direct people’s attention to Black and other voices from the margins around what happened and the continued unrest in the wake of the announcement of the grand jury’s decision.

In terms of white voices this post by Geoff Holsclaw is a good response from a position of privilege that is seeking to be open to move beyond privilege.

As the strange juxtaposition of the lit sign of Seasons Greetings and heavily armored police showed we are in the Holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving.  I’ve never particularly seen Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, and the attempts to make it a Christian Holiday have always struck me (even as a child) as strange.  As a child it was one of the few Holidays that my family celebrated that was really just about family.  Christmas and Easter were times for family to gather but they were first feasts of the Church. It’s not that God was absent from the celebration, but I don’t remember ever attending a worship service on or around Thanksgiving.  My Grandmother (on my mother’s side) was the daughter of a Swedish immigrants, My Grandfather (mother’s father )second generation Swedish American.  My father was a naturalized citizen of the United States, his family were refugees and displaced persons after World War II (a story for another post).  As immigrants who had been able to assimilate into White America we were genuinely thankful for the life we were able to lead in the U.S.  As for me as a child the story of Thanksgiving never really touched me.  It’s problematic and racist themes eventually came to mean that mostly Thanksgiving is an excuse and a means to see my family.

I say all this to draw attention to what looms on the horizon on Thanksgiving if one keeps the liturgical calendar of the Church: Advent.  The transition between Thanksgiving and Advent  always felt abrupt and jolting.   The pallid whitewashed soporific mythology of the Pilgrims was in stark contrast to the jarring scriptures of wakefulness and prophetic words anticipating God’s justice come in human flesh.  At Thanksgiving we were full and thankful, on the First Sunday in Advent we were in the dark, empty waiting for fulfillment.  Hopeful, yet aware of things being out of whack.  In Advent we were called to admit our failings and await God’s loving answer to our violence and hatred.  Thanksgiving pretended all was as it should be. Advent said we were still waiting, but the dawning transformation of the world was on its way.  In Advent we were to hunger for the righteous reign of God.

Clearly, the shooting of Michael Brown and now with the failure of a grand jury to indict Daren Wilson has jarred us from the whitewashed and soporific mythology of America that continues to be told on Thanksgiving.  Many of course want things to just calm down to not look at the reality that the system of America is and always has been racist, that since I’m deemed white I have privileges that people of color and certain blacks continue to not have.

We’ve had an Advent moment come before Thanksgiving, don’t be lulled back to sleep, Stay woke.  Being awake isn’t easy.  To open your eyes to the world and the systems we inhabit.  This Thanksgiving to be awake probably means to lament, to grieve and to confess.   Sure there are also reasons to be thankful, but I doubt it is for the reasons that the Thanksgiving mythology wishes us to believe, and the source of that goodness isn’t  from the god of the altar at which we are to burn the incense of our thanksgiving.  But then as a member of the body of Christ our Thanksgiving (Eucharist) isn’t the founding of another principality of the world but in one crucified by the systems of the world.  And this crucified one says wake up, stay awake.

This Advent, I encourage  saying awake by listening and waiting with Theology of Ferguson and Stay Woke Advent.

The Meaning of Decline: Christianity, Religion, and Spirituality

Recently discussion of Lillian Daniel’s essay in 2011 and subsequent book on the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) and the need for institutional religious community, has been appearing in my social media streams and in a few blog posts.  This has dovetailed with two books I’d picked up recently. I wasn’t surprised but, I’m finding that we’ve been anxious about the possible decline of religious institutions and Christianity in the U.S.  for the past 40 years (Most if not all of my lifetime).

The first  book is from 1973, A Fire We Can Light, Martin E. Marty’s prognostications on the state of Christianity in the United States at that time.   Marty writes at a moment of an upsurge in religious fervor and conversion.  However,  Marty reports a lack of commitment to the trappings of religious institutions.  Marty puzzles over this growing interest in Christian faith that doesn’t care about American Christian institutions.  These movements were the Jesus People and what Marty calls new Pentecostals but soon would be called Charismatics.  Marty notes the interesting ways these groups have an unusual relationship to institutions.  The Jesus people are depicted as being unconcerned with doctrines or even consistency in beliefs, Jesus’ divinity, Resurrection and reincarnation are said to coincide in one person.  The new Pentecostals retain denominational identity but are an ecumenical phenomenon.  Marty anticipates both that these “Pentecostals” will have continuing effect in the various denominations (My wife is the daughter of some of these Pentecostals in the Episcopal Church), and that something like but unlike denominations will emerge out of this group, eventually Vineyard and other loose confederation of charismatic congregations (my mother-in-law, is currently in one of these congregations.)  However, Marty is concerned that these groups aren’t going to really contribute to the life of established religious institutions.  Reading A Fire we can Light now it is interesting, for there is an anxiety about decline and yet report on a great deal of dynamism in the religious (we might say now spiritual) landscape in the U.S.

The other book I’m reading is from 1996 (my first year at Fuller Theological Seminary) Robert Wuthnow’s Christianity and Civil Society.   The main thrust of the book is for another post, however, the questions addressed and raised by Wuthnow, are rooted in an anxiety about the relevance of religion in our culture and society.  He’s asking what if anything our religious institutions can or should contribute to Civil Society. In seeking to answer this question Wuthnow doesn’t  know what to do with the seemingly contradictory statistics about the importance of religion in the United States.  Reading this now I say, ah this seeming contradiction is that in the statistics we are seeing the emergence of what we’ve now label SBNR.  Yet scholars like Wuthnow and the writers of surveys hadn’t noticed that a distinction and line was being drawn between spirituality and religion.  Even now if I use the language of Religious Studies, SBNR are religious, just religious outside of traditional institutions. From a Religious Studies standpoint “institutions” aren’t’ the essential component to being religious, though at the same time Religious Studies has been adverse to essential definitions of religion, and have stuck to phenomenological ones.  So I can tell you this is an instance of religion but I can’t tell you why all instances of religion belong to that set.  But I digress, in apart because Wuthnow was well received in Religious Studies as well as Theological circles.  Wuthnow seeks to be upbeat, the most negative reports on religion he feels are exaggerated, because of the continuing reports of belief in God and the practices of prayer etc.  Even so, he can’t deny the decline of the “Mainline”.  From the data Wuthnow sees that Americans don’t seem to be any less religious then we have been especially if one looks over the long-term (and not simply comparing the 1990’s to the 1950’s).  Yet at the same time there does seem to be a decrease in interest in the religious institutions, specifically at this time represented by the decline in the formerly dominant religious institutions of the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.  Even, so Wuthnow seeks to be optimistic about American religious institutions.

Both Wuthnow and Marty can’t quite make sense of the phenomena they are seeing and describing.  At first I just chalked it up to hindsight being 20 x 20.   But I was also intrigued by their difficulty of seeing genuine religious conviction and experience outside of the established institutions or even outside religion as an institution.  That this happens in the thought of Martin Marty a key figure in established Christian religion in the United States is understandable especially in 1973. However, it is more striking in 1996 from Wuthnow a prominent sociologist of religion to miss almost entirely what I already knew as at that time: people were already identifying as spiritual and not religious, it hadn’t become a thing “Spiritual but not Religious”.  Many of my friends and acquaintances were already expressing such sentiments in the late 1980’s, by 1996 to me this was old already simply the landscape in which I lived.  It was already obvious to me that people felt they had religious experience and faith outside of American institutions of religion.

So, what is in decline?  Does it matter?

It matter’s to people whose sense of religion and faith are dependent upon American religious institutions.    It matters because many people who may have named their experiences of transcendence and connection with God as religious and then found their way to Church are now calling that experience “Spiritual” and concluding not only that American religious institutions aren’t necessary to nurture their “spirituality” American Religious institutions (including mainline and progressive ones) stand in the way of nurturing spirituality.  And I think this evaluation is largely correct, and much religious institutional life in the U.S. was either useful in the 1950’s or always about these institutions captivity to values and outlook that have little to do with Church or Christian spirituality.  If so, then what is in decline isn’t religion or the Church or Christianity per se but certain trappings that either were only a very particular cultural adaptation or things set against the very values these institutions claimed to uphold, that is it’s  either dead wood or hypocrisy.  I say let it go, let it decline.

If your religious community is genuine it may shrink in this context, but it won’t disappear.  Sure American religion and the Church in America may not look like it has for the past 50 years (or may not look like, but that’s okay.

We need to embrace what’s happening and let things decline.  If we do, maybe some SBNR may see the Church as the  spiritual institution it is supposed to be.

We need to stop trying to preserve “religion” or “denominations”, but seek to follow Christ and be the Church in our time and place.  Sure that produces anxiety because we may get it wrong, and we don’t know what we are doing any more.  That’s the risk.

I’ll conclude with this anecdote:

This past Saturday I was at a gathering of Church Planters for the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.  In this meeting were African-American and Hispanic church planters.  A few  African-American church planter’s I talked to were coming out of large African-American congregation with programs and large attendance.  These pastors spoke wearily of how these congregations were full of “church people” who only interacted with themselves and of programs once created by these congregations to reach the community and now simply perpetuating themselves with no sense of what was actually going on in the community.  These pastors were becoming church planters because these “church people” and institutions were  a barrier to the Gospel.  A Hispanic pastor spoke of the difficulty of starting a Hispanic church plant in neighborhoods that are diverse and thus missing whole groups of their neighbors because everything they do as a congregation is in Spanish and for Spanish speakers.  This was perceived as a negative limit and not being responsive to the environment in which they as a congregation existed.  These are insiders, those committed to religious life, saying American Religious institution (even those of ethnic immigrants having their separate institutions, denominations and congregations) works against the values of the Church and the Gospel.

Perhaps it’s time for these things to decline and pass away.  Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions, and American Religious institutions don’t need to be saved or preserved.

Minorities and the meaning of Christian, Christendom, and Church

Not long ago I was talking with a colleague in leadership in an African-American congregation.  We were swapping stories of our relationships and encounters with those who don’t attend church.  Our perceptions and experiences had some overlap but also were quite different.  The overlap was that we each of us knew and met those who either knew little about Christianity or who had rejected the  Christianity they were raised in.  We differed in that my colleague assumed that the majority of those he interacted with who weren’t active members of a congregation shared a more or less Christian perspective.  Where as I assume that anyone who isn’t active in a Christian congregation doesn’t share Christian language and perspective.

A question that arose for me was the degree to which in ethnic minority contexts does Christendom still function? I’m wondering what meaning if any might my distinction between Christian, Christendom, and Church have in African-American or ethnic minority contexts?

When my Swedish forebears came to the United States, Swedish Lutheran and Swedish Mission Friend congregations served as not only places for worship and community with other Christians and Swedes but also, a place where one could get help finding a job,  support in illness, or aid while jobless.  Congregations were places of empowerment and mutual support.  This function of congregations seems to be one function Christian congregations have in Christendom in the U.S.  I’ve noticed that some multicultural congregations, most African-American and Hispanic congregations in the evangelical Covenant Church still are such centers of community, mutual support and empowerment for both members of the congregation and for those in the larger community.    Outside of these context congregations don’t function that way.  Also, it seems that once the Swedes in my denomination assimilated and became English-speaking congregations that we developed programs (another aspect of Christendom in the U.S. in my opinion) and ceased to be places of mutual aid and support.

Something is needling me around my own categories and the debates and the anxieties around all the future of Christian institutions in the United States.  Are these problems and anxieties around our institutional life really about loss of dominance and influence, the loss of privilege, thus a “White” problem? (C.F. Tripp Hudgins recent post on seminary education and pastors being middle class.)

The question emerged out of my conversation with my African-American colleague, as I experienced a difference in presupposition rooted  in a difference in the lived experience of congregational life.  The impression I was left with from our conversation was that I engage the world based upon the assumption that Christian faith no longer holds a privileged position in my (White?) contexts.  For me acting as if I could have a shared perspective and language based in Christian presuppositions is to insist on privilege.  I chose to let that go.  From my colleague’s approach to the world was the presupposition that the shared Christian milieu was a means of empowerment and mutual aid and support.  Thus, for him to encourage a return to Church or Christ to those he meets on the street and interact with socially was an invitation into a community of empowerment and mutual aid, and a means to work against injustices.  There are contradictions here since the source of that injustice and oppression is other (White) Christians, which is the reason some my colleague engages outside his congregation is rejection of Christianity as a White religion. An assertion my colleague obviously rejects.  Though it does show that even for my colleague a shared Christian understanding isn’t  monolithic in his context.

Yet, what I’m seeing is that my attempt to make sense of and faithfully respond to our changing context is based upon a presupposition that much of U.S history has been a history of Christendom, and thus privileging of Christianity.  I assume that the way through is let go of the privilege.  However, for my colleague Christendom didn’t offer a privileged status, rather the structures of congregations in Christendom allowed for, in a segregated context, centers of empowerment and mutual aid.

I guess I saying that even as we seek to figure out where we are at and at the same time seek to work for justice that those from privileged places need to accept a loss of privilege while not dictating to those without our privilege how to navigate the changes, and those changes may actually be different in their contexts.

The problem is that it leaves us still separate, segregated even, in the ruins of American Christendom.  I’m not sure what to do with that.  Perhaps, it is finding ways to listen.  Our place of meeting may be that we all need to find ways to carry the reality of the Church, as Body of Christ, into our changing context, while letting go of the trappings of Christendom and Christianity that no longer apply.  We need to do this together but without telling each other how to do it.  It perhaps begins as my colleague and I did sharing and swapping stories of how we minister and live out our faith before the world.

 

Christians Embrace Death and the Particularity and Physicality Of the Gospel

We Christians are anxious about the state of our institutions.  We at the same time want to believe someone has the fix.  So, we make pronouncements.  A number of people including Tony Jones and Brian McLaren have suggested that we are seeing possible end of denominations, others are talking about the decline of particular denominations (such as the Episcopal Church) or groups of denominations (the Mainline), or maybe even the whole kit and caboodle Christianity itself, or even more astounding the Church, is dead or dying.

The reasons given for this  demise are myriad, but they do coalesce around an anxiety that we aren’t or haven’t allowed the Spirit to move and that we are trapped in the institutional and the historical/material manifestations of our faith.  This it seems to me wishing to blame our having bodies, that is those real, actual, physical, architectural manifestations, that aren’t the s{S}pirit.  In a sense what I hear in our anxieties and the various remedies for our demise is the claim that we  are not our bodies.   Which is strange to me.

In college I read Souls and Bodies, a novel about the loss and retention of faith.  As I read it the novels contention was that it was precisely the “spiritual” obsession that denied our bodies that was the reason for the flight from religion.  The characters in the novel longed for cathedral and body to agree in spirituality.    Architecture, institution, body all are spiritual, the crack in our systems of faith and theology is when we dismember ourselves, when our cosmos no longer is imbued with the spiritual.    Religion and faith that can’t bring together body soul and spirit, leave us with corpses and pointless souls wandering in an amorphous and dreary world.  That is at least my impression of the novel 20 years on.  Whether or not it was the author’s intent it is what I took from it, and it spurred me to seek a faith that had form, architecture, institution, and body.

I wonder if our problem is that we are still seeking some essence, some inner spirit that can be decanted into any container.  If this is so then i say we are shrinking from the particularity of God and the church.   It is my conclusion that with all our love for “incarnational” theology we find the actual incarnation of God, in a Jew 2000 years ago, to be a little embarrassing, and possibly just a bit out of date.  We don’t want our future our “destiny” to be tied to that Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know so little about.  We’d rather create a Jesus in our own image, rather than be confined by a Jew who gathered 12 other Jews around him and sent them out into the world to proclaim the reign of God established by a violent and embarrassing death.

We embrace with difficulty that God is now forever human because, God is forever a 1st century Palestinian Jew who was raised from the dead and is seated on the right hand of God.  We also embrace with difficulty that from the moment of the incarnation God has been gathering together a new humanity through union with this one person jesus of Nazareth, through baptism and eating and drinking bread and wine.

American Christianity (liberal or conservative) tends to  prefer a more generic and American triumphalist universalism.   Actually following a crucified Jewish peasant from the first century Palestine is a bit of lunacy.   Doing so isn’t the way to win friends and influence people, its not guaranteed to gain you access the halls of power to influence the power brokers and leaders of the (free) world.  In fact that Jewish peasant tells us we aren’t suppose to seek power and influence and access, but God’s justice and righteousness first.  The problem for both liberal and conservative Christians is that we believe that justice and transformation of society can only come from in the very least having access to and influence over the power brokers.

Should we be surprised that people may find this all a little too incredible.  Should we be surprised that since Christianity has had access to the power centers for so long and yet used that access not to be open to God’s kingdom but to replace God’s kingdom with our vision of freedom and democracy (liberal or conservative), that people will walk away.  Who needs Christianity if it is simply a version of secular ideologies.  Our universalism our reductions of Christianity to principles, or morals or to social justice, leave no need for a Palestinian 1st century Jew.  Or to make this Jew relevant we ask people to believe something even more incredible, that said Jesus of Nazareth was simply an 21st century populist democrat, or  we ask people to believe in a being that died just so you could accept him into your heart and go on your merry way without a care for the world.

We need to embrace it all.  The messiness, the imperfect way Christians are the body of Christ, and the Jewishness of our God.  The particularity of our material existence is the universal spirituality of Christian faith.  We need architecture, we need art, we need what Christ instituted both sacraments and the historical continuity of  the temple that God is building us into.

We will come to know what reflects this holistic particular universal faith not by reductions and seeking the essential nature of the Spirit, but by seeing that the God who became a Jew a little over 2000 years ago is the God of all, who embraces all, and instituted the Church and is building a temple, which is the new humanity.  Such a vision perhaps simply isn’t compatible with the vision of our age.  In part though that is our fault for we have been proclaiming something else, we have lost who we are, we have sought release from our bodies, so that we could have universal spirit that could appeal to everyone.  This is our demise, this is our death. We are the dry bones and we are finding if we are honest that there is no life outside our body.  Mortal can these bones live?  Lord only you know.   May we prophesy that the spirit return to our dried out wasted away bodies.  May God return to us the flesh we have abandoned.  Our bones can witness to the life of God, but we must prophesy to the breath, and accept our particularity, our mortality.

 

Evangelicalism, the Bowe Bergdahl Affair, and the Church

The Bowe Bergdahl affair(I’ve been watching Sherlock Holmes) raises once again the question of the nature and character of evangelical Christianity.    Christianity Today published an interview with the former pastor of Bob and Jani Bergdahl, Phil Proctor, who has also remained a friend of the Bergdahl over the years.  As an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor he is within what is firm conservative theological territory, even “fundamentalist”.  I’m puzzled by  the pastors sense of surprise and disappointment, by the response of conservative Christians and evangelicals, to Bob Bergdahl giving praise to God in Arabic and to the deal that lead to Bowe’s release.  I too find it unchristian, but  I find Proctor’s surprise as puzzling as that World Vision was so poorly prepared for the backlash around their change in policy around same-sex marriage.  The politics of the Religious Right are uncompromising and founded upon the blurring of the values of the Gospel with other cultural and nationalistic agenda.

A couple of months ago I read David Fitch’s book End of Evangelicalism?  One way to paraphrase and summarize Fitche’s book is to say that Evangelicalism has entangled itself in a politic that contradicts it’s central values and that of the Gospel.  Fitch argues for a politic more in keeping with the true nature of Evangelicalism.  I have a number of questions for Fitch around his presentation and argument (in a forthcoming post), but one observation pertains directly to the reactions we are seeing to Bowe Bergdahl and his father’s use of an Arabic blessing and praise to God.  In order to save Evangelicalism from itself Fitch locates its false politic in relatively recent politics of the Religious Right, yet it seems to me that much of that politic is simply the form of Christianity (before the Fundamentalist/Modernist split) in the United States, which functioned to give religious legitimacy and general underpinning of the Manifest Destiny of the United States of America.

The Religious Right has taken what at one point would have been a form of patriotism (with the perquisite of having Protestant Christian religious trappings and language) and turned it into a basic part of the Christian faith.  For many Evangelicals the defense and insistence upon the U.S. being a Christian nation is a matter of dogmatic adherence equal to other more traditional fundamentals. Evangelical Christians who are up in arms about an AWOL soldier (son of Christian parents), possible deserter, and the Arabic words of praise to God are those who have imbibed these American doctrines as essential to being a Christian.

The Phil Proctor is trying to appeal to Gospel values failing to see that his  coreligionists no longer see a distinction between being good patriots and following Jesus Christ and being part of the Body of Christ.  The cultural war between secular and religious right versions of American exceptionalism have brought about a conflation of nationalism with Christian faith.

In the end my surprise is that we can’t see how Christianity in America has always functioned to compromise the Gospel and the reality of the Body of Christ, through its attempts to legitimize the U.S.A.  This politic has always been there, it’s just that at one time one would simply be labeled as unpatriotic if one put being a follower of Jesus before being a citizen of the United States of America, and generally no one cared as long as we weren’t at war, and you weren’t too vocal about it.  Mostly, the sense that Gospel was something other than being a good American citizen was opinion held in immigrant pietistic contexts like the one I grew up in or in other sectarian places in the American landscape ie. among Mennonites, the Brethren and Quakers, or through allegiance to a foreign power the Pope or other radical Christians.

In the reactions from certain sectors of Evangelical Christianity to the Bowe Bergdahl affair we are seeing a form of Christianity with deep roots in the History of the United States, A Christianity that at one time was the dominant form of Christianity and an account of which one can find in Martin E. Marty‘s work  Righteous Empire.  It is American Christianity in which the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ are co-opeted and made subservient to a nationalism and patriotism.  The Religious Right and Conservative Christian insistence  that this is a Christian nation is simply one iteration of this compromising of the Gospel in the service of nationalism.  It is fundamentally a denial of the universality and catholicity of the Church the Body of Christ.

I believe that those who wish to counter this politic must do more than reclaim an Evangelicalism, we must reclaim a robust understanding of the Catholicity of the Body of Christ, and affirm that Baptism has changed our citizenship.  Any form of Christianity that attempts to conflate allegiance to Christ and a nation or nation-state denies the reality of Baptism and of the Church. It is  the fruit of the conflation of allegiance that we are seeing in the reaction of some evangelicals to the Bowe Bergdahl affair.  It is very American and we should not be surprised.