Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age Part II: In which Evangelicals Lost By Winning

In Part I, I briefly detailed the history of American Evangelicalism, tracing its roots to the 2nd Great Awakening and the contemporary emergence of a post-Christian society.

Before delving further into our exploration of how Evangelicals might move forward in this post-Christian world, it is important to acknowledge their triumphs in the previous one. I mentioned earlier that the Evangelical movement was a movement for reform of society and of the men in it. It aimed for a transformation of impious, irreligious nominalism into a devout, serious minded faith. It aimed further for the culture itself to be ‘renewed’; for reform in labour laws, for the abolition of slavery, for a deep change in the understanding of marriage, for the raw mercantile capitalism of the day to be tamed, and on and on.

 Well the gocathedralod news is that it largely worked. Gradually, locally and then more systematically, the reforms of manners and customs that evangelicals championed were enacted. Within the US context for example, abolition of slavery was preceded by a change in the terms of argument employed by opponents of abolition; it had now to be justified as being more beneficial and humanitarian than the alternatives, whereas previously it was justified simply by its profitability. In hindsight it is an utterly unconvincing argument, but the fact that it was even put forth as an argument at all shows the power of the society wide change that was taking place under evangelical Christian influence. Eventually of course, slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Labour rights were secured. Public drunkenness, rampant gambling and other ‘vices’ became taboo in polite society. And finally, in what might eventually be seen as the last great flourish of the evangelically inspired reformist movement, legalised racial oppression was struck down.

Now some of these reforms were backed by liberals and others by conservatives and some were opposed by them, but they were all products of the Evangelical Revival and each were making their case on the terms of Christian commitment to a ‘Christian’ society that shared, at least theoretically, those same commitments.

What is all the more striking is that the soteriological framework of Evangelical thought, complete with its focus on crisis, awareness of guilt for sin, recognition of the need for external aid, emotional & spiritual responsiveness, etc., has become the framework by which Americans generally understand social or personal change. This obtains whether they are Christian or not, and indeed even if they are intentionally aggressively anti-Christian. The so-called new atheists (who are generally much less interesting than the old ones) describe their embrace of atheism in ways that would not be out of place in an old time fundamentalist revival meeting. The same is true for gays as well, with ‘coming out’ absorbing the abandoned space of testimony of salvation, except in this case it is usually a testimony of deliverance from the false life of lying to oneself and ones family before finally surrendering to the higher truth of their identity and finding hope and acceptance within a new LGBT community.

In other ways too Evangelicalism won. We take for granted the calm that stalks our city streets, the absence of widespread and open bribery of public officials, the assumptions of trustworthiness that lubricates our business and social interactions, the fact that children are not openly abused or sold into servitude. Yet none of these could have been taken for granted in the rough and tumble, money obsessed days just prior to the Great Awakening. Britain for example was awash in cheap gin, with the concomitant social problems that entailed. The American South, where slavery was common, was a veritable wasteland of irreligion and impiety with most people concerned about little more than profit taking and the enjoyment of life at whatever cost. New Englanders, steeped in a hypocrisy that belied their Puritan heritage, mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of trafficked slaves from whom they derived the vast profits that drove their mercantile enterprises. In other words, virtually all the ‘normalcy’ of American life that we now enjoy is light years away from what was normal at the nation’s founding and is largely the result of the long shadow of the evangelical movement.

The Evangelicals in some ways won much of the culture, but because they were a movement birthed in revolt against the institutional structures of ‘Christendom’, they tended to disregard the need to control or substantively reform the structures of society, seeing this as superfluous and perhaps even harmful to their project of societal transformation. What mattered was the heart and the Christendom model, wherein the institutional structures of society were under the control of the church, had mostly failed in their estimation to bring about real social and personal reform. Consequently the institutional structures of society, such as the arts, media, universities, and government among other things, which for a long time maintained their ‘Christian’ character as a hold-over of the Christendom ideal, eventually were taken captive by antichristian forces.

Over time Evangelicals, both of the liberal and conservative stripe, mostly ignored these institutions. The liberals did not generally see them as a threat and even applauded at times as they were subverted, seeing in their evolution away from ‘Christendom’ something to be celebrated; a further liberation from the old prejudices and inadequacies of the past. The conservatives mostly saw them as irredeemably corrupt and thus avoid entering them altogether, while occasionally using their declining social influence to rail against this or that excess. The commanding heights of the culture were thus secured by the non-Christian and anti-Christian heirs of the Enlightenment; it was only a matter of time before the rest of society would fall.

Why yes. Your skirt is too short… and other thoughts on modesty

Modesty. For many Christians, especially in the US, the word conjures up unwelcome images of unfashionable and uncomfortable clothing choices imposed and monitored by strict and legalistic preachers.   For others, it is seen as a way of controlling womens’ sexuality and of enforcing the ‘Madonna – whore’ dichotomy that someone (probably in a ‘studies’ programme) decided is a patriarchal meme that validates the suppression / oppression of women. There are ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ and ‘good girls’ don’t dress like that. Such a bifurcated view of female sexuality is rejected by sex-positive feminists as being inherently oppressive of women.

Now to be honest, I am not too familiar with the various shades of meanings attached to these terms. I was fortunately spared having to go through any ‘studies’ programme at university and am consequently delightfully ignorant of a great many things. I first read the ‘Madonna-whore’ dichotomy mentioned in the comments section of some article I read (which I cannot now find), but which basically was railing against something called ‘purity culture’. An article by Sarah Bessey  and a sympathetic response by Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today were part of the discussion.   Then there was this article that dealt specifically with the question of modesty and the Christian woman..

Taken all together with a number of other recent articles, books, and blogposts, a picture begins to emerge of Christian women revolting against certain assumed norms of behaviour that seem to be part and parcel of the evangelical sub-culture and the double-standard that obtains for men and women.

What to make of all this? Well, I cannot really answer all the questions surrounding purity cultures and virgin-whore dichotomies, but I can say that, all protestations to the contrary – your skirt is probably too short. Let me explain.

Working on college campuses, I’ve watched as women have embraced fashion trends that make simply walking through campus akin to perusing soft-core porn. I’ve seen women embrace styles and trends that were formerly seen only on prostitutes. I’ve read men describe church services as the ‘Sunday morning night-club’ because of what women wear there. I’ve counselled Christian men who dread the coming of warm weather because of the barrage of temptation with which they will inevitably be faced, and the guilt and shame heaped on them for not ‘guarding their eyes’ or for somehow ‘making women responsible for their lust’. And I’ve scratched my head in wonder that I have to advise Christian women going for short-term mission that skin tight jeans and skirts half-way up their thighs are not appropriate dress.

At the same time, I’ve listened to and read how many countless times of the need for Christian women to not ‘cause their brother’s to stumble’ by their dress. I’ve also read of the frustration many women feel about this, as they (rightfully) point to the responsibilities men have to manage their own sexuality and take responsibility for their own choices.

In all of this, the discussion has almost always revolved around the male response to female sexuality. I have rarely seen anything about what I believe lies closer to the heart of issues of modesty in dress – vanity.

In almost every case wide numbers of women have embraced these styles of clothing because of the fact that it appeals to their sinful nature and their vanity.

(Cue howls of protest from the gallery)

Yes, yes I know I know. I’m a misogynist patriarchal sexist who wants to utilise religion to subvert and suppress women.

So what do I mean? Well simply put women generally like to dress in ways that enhance their visual / sexual appeal. Women want to be seen as desirable and attractive to men (that is to men they like and/or deem to be an attractive catch. Other men not so much). Women like to look pretty, and it usually makes them feel good to look good. And as far as I can tell this is a universal trait, equally apparent among ‘decadent westerners’ and ‘conservative Muslims’ (if you doubt it then you’ve never really observed Muslim women, covered nearly from head to toe in swaths of fabric manage to somehow rock a runway-worthy fashion sense while not showing a stitch of skin beyond their hands and face.)

I don’t have any problem with this and I think it is a good thing; a God given thing even. Women like to look good and be appealing. Wonderful.

Like all good things however this one has been warped and twisted by the Fall. So what was a good gift has become a nightmare. The result is women caught in a never-ending vanity arms (and legs, and thighs, and mid-drift…) race with other women, mostly falsely projected images of idealised women, that they can never meet and that leaves them dissatisfied and perpetually unhappy and looking for someone to blame.

The advert comes out, the skirts on the rack are shorter this year and vanity kicks in. One doesn’t want to be unappealing and wearing a longer skirt would be unappealing and to be appealing is to be ‘sexy’ and to show more and more skin and well everyone else is wearing it and it really can’t be so bad if that is what everyone else is wearing and who wants to look like an old woman (because old women aren’t sexy whatever else they might be) and it’s the sexist patriarchy that is responsible for all this and, and and…

Annnd you know what? It isn’t men or the ‘patriarchy’ that drives the immodest clothing arms race. Its other women. The women that women compare themselves to in the media, among their network of friends, and the woman in their heads that tell them that to be appealing or beautiful or desirable is to do this to wear that.

And the church comes in with teaching that generally is more harmful than helpful by deflecting the issue into one of women being responsible somehow for men’s sins – a stance which simultaneously infantilises and dehumanises men by making them little more than walking gonads AND avoids dealing substantively with women’s sins and sexual power. It fails to address the fact that yes, women who are seen to be ‘sexy’ have power; power that is used to extract unearned privileges that men and unattractive or older women do not have. It neglects the fact that women have and do often use sex, sexiness and the male attention it generates for their own advantage. It forgets that women are sinners and that the admonition to modest dress in the Bible is made without any reference at all to men, but is made in reference to holiness and prayerfulness, watchfulness and submission.

So yes, when you pour yourself into that pair of skin-tight jeans don’t deluded yourself into thinking it’s because they are comfortable. They aren’t and besides, – there are plenty of comfortable clothes that don’t allow me to trace every part of your figure so closely that I can see the outline of the birthmark on your upper left thigh. And when you put on that super short skirt, please don’t pretend that it’s because it’s hot since the men all around you are equally hot and they don’t wear things like that and the only men who do so are gay men and they’re wearing them for the same reason you really are. Admit the truth of how it appeals to your vanity and your carnal nature. Admit it and repent.

 

Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral
An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

Eat the Cake

Courtesy of http://cdn.madamenoire.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/eat-the-cake-anna-mae.jpg
You know you want the cake!

There is a scene in the movie What’s Love Got to Do with It? where Ike tries to force Tina (Anna Mae is her ‘real’ name) to eat a piece of cake that she doesn’t want.  Here’s a quick run-down of  the scene courtesy of Hollie McNish of the Mirror:

Tina Turner, real name Anna Mae Bullock, has just released her own music single and two kids come up to her at a diner asking for her autograph. Not her husband Ike’s. Ike is jealous. He tells her to “eat the cake” so they can celebrate her new and independent success. She doesn’t want any. He says “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” and when she refuses, he stands up, shoves it in her mouth and across her face. Her friend and backing vocalist tries to stop him. Ike threatens her, beats her and she runs away shouting to Tina Turner, “You are dead if you stay with him.”

The scene has become iconic because of its vivid portrayal of the humiliation of domestic abuse.  (That the phrase has now become fodder for a Beyonce song is problematic in itself, which is McNish’s point, and beyond the scope of my current concern.)

Well, it seems we have now have progressed to a kind of ‘eat the cake’ scenario in American society. Well, more like bake the cake.  As everybody who pays attention to these kinds of things knows, there have been lawsuits about bakers who refuse, because of their tender Christian consciences, to bake cakes for same-sex nuptials.  There have been laws passed, vetoed, hysterics, etc. all around but for many it seems to be a totally irrelevant issue. After all it is just cake right?

Of course we are fortunate to have author and social commentator Rachel Evans to elucidate for us just the exact nature of the problem.  In a recent post, Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination and ‘Religious Freedom’, she informs her readers and the listening public:

We have become known as a group of people who sees themselves perpetually under attack, perpetually victimized, and perpetually entitled, a group who, ironically, often responds to these imagined disadvantages by advancing legislation that restricts the civil liberties of other people.

Leaving for a moment any consideration of whether Evans can plausibly include herself in the ‘We’ of evangelicalism, we note that she advances this statement partially in relation to the supposed rally of evangelicals in favour of ‘injustices in Russia and Uganda’. ( Of course, it cannot possibly be that Russians and Ugandans have ideas of their own about how to order their societies; it must be because of ‘evangelicals’ that they have chosen to advance such legislation.)  More importantly though, and more central to her thesis is her suggestion that evangelicals are advancing legislation that restricts civil liberties of other people.

This statement betrays a lack of understanding of both the recent legislation and the very notion of what constitutes a ‘civil liberty’ – which doesn’t, last I checked, include the right to have someone bake you a cake.

But the heart of her argument is this:

As Christians, our most “deeply held religious belief” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death.

So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. 

Interesting.  But it isn’t just Evans that has this view. And it comes up whether we’re talking about insurance mandates under the Affordable Care Act, or Hobby Lobby, or Chik-Fil-A or whatever.   I have seen it elsewhere as people have likened the issue of meat sacrificed to idols in the New Testament, or of washing the feet in service to our neighbors, or of Jesus serving Judas who he knew was going to betray him, or, or, or…

Just eat bake the damn cake! It’s really not a big deal and I don’t understand why you’re making a big deal of it.

My thoughts on this turn rather to our forebears in the faith who lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural empire of Rome.  An Empire that was actually quite tolerant of different religious and who had, because of the oddness of their customs, even created a carve-out for the Jews.  All that was required of a subject of Rome was a simple acknowledgment of the supremacy of Caesar.  The Romans did not ask you to forsake your religious worship, they did not ask you to stop your sacrifices to your own gods. In fact they did not even ask you to believe in the divinity of the Roman Emperor.  Heck most of them didn’t likely believe in it, least of all the emperors themselves!

They didn’t want or need your belief.  They needed your compliance.

And Christians, the ones who would go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give water and food to their enemies, render to Caesar what was his, willingly, painfully, horrifically died rather than perform a simple, likely meaningless, ceremony.

Just like eating cake at a party.

What Evans is advocating is exactly what was portrayed in the film.  Anna Mae is perceived as being disrespectful because she doesn’t want to eat the cake.  It is taken by Ike to be a personal affront, something no ‘good woman’ would do.  If Anna Mae really wanted to serve and be like Jesus she would simply shut-up and eat the damn cake already! 

And  according to Evans if these objectors were really Christian they would just go ahead and bake it.  After all, isn’t that what Jesus would do?

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether the martyr dies for their faith or is merely driven out of business, or  shamed, or simply derided as an ignorant bigot – the substantive issue is the same and no amount of clever internet snark can change that.  Simply put, it isn’t about just baking pastries for gay people.  It isn’t just questioning whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols.  It is requiring people under force of law to supply goods for and participate in something they view as abhorrent and intrinsically immoral.

Only One Life: Some theological reflections on the death of Nelson Mandela

I remember when I was a child reading on some placard or poster somewhere in the home of a relative the proverbial saying, ‘Only one Life; it will soon be past.  Only what’s done for Christ will Last’.  I haven’t thought of that placard for many years but was reminded of it today as my pastor mentioned the passing of Mr Mandela in his sermon.

He said that Mandela was, by all human measurements, a great man. This sentiment is one shared by most people.  His passing was noted, lamented, and mourned by people from various spots on the political spectrum – and rightfully so.  From his origins as a firebrand freedom fighter, jailed for his terrorist activities against the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela emerged early three decades later as a man who would pursue peace with reconciliation.  The bloodbath that many thought to be inevitable upon the collapse of the apartheid regime was forestalled in large measure by Mandela’s efforts to work for reconciliation.

Some ten years after the end of apartheid, I travelled to South Africa, where I engaged with and learned from many of those who had served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been set up to deal with the demons of South Africans’ past.  I also learned about the history of the Boers – later and better known as the Afrikaners who were nearly themselves ethnically and culturally destroyed during the Boer War – one of the most brutal wars in modern history – and how the development of apartheid was at least partially in response to that tragedy as the Arikaners sought a ‘never again’ solution to the disaster that had nearly overtaken them.   I learned how the church in South Africa both fought against apartheid, and supported it, in either case overlooking either some critically important parts of scripture to justify their support or opposition.  In any case, the South Africa of 2004 was moving ahead – a rainbow nation seeking to build a national identity cognizant of the wounds of the past, yet not captive to them.

Mandela was key to that.

And yet… as my pastor so inconveniently reminded me this morning, even as he expressed his hope that perhaps Mandela had come to know Jesus, it is ultimately not the applause or commendation of men that matters.  However great Mandela may have been, and as men count greatness, he was indeed a great man, what matters is our heart towards God.

This tension lies at the heart of the evangelical, indeed the broader Christian dilemma.  For we see many people who wear the badge of Christ as an ornament; something that merely decorates their life and deflects criticism, but whose lives are much less honourable than that of the late Mr Mandela.  And there are many who know not Christ, and yet who publicly at least live in ways that are consonant with Christ – perhaps not following in measure, but rhyming at least with his ethics and his principles.

On the one hand the easy evangelical thing to do is to search out for some particular moment of conversion; a crisis event of decision wherein a man like Mandela ‘made his peace with God’, for such a moment would remove the shadow hanging over any celebration of the good things he was able to do.

On the other hand (and increasingly common) is the temptation to simply place the actions of the man in the balance and declare them not just good enough, but exceptional, and thereby to say of men like Mandela, ‘well done good and faithful servant’.

In both cases, the desire is to claim such good people for ourselves – to co-opt their good work and append them to our own theological systems in order to validate our own frames of thought concerning salvation; a desire rooted perhaps (at least partially) in the fear that maybe those in the other camp may be right and we might be wrong.

The tension is not however intrinsic to Christianity.  It is, I believe, a feature of Christianity that has been sieved through a long Western history of engagement with the Christian philosophical commitment, and more immediately, through a world wherein ‘Christianity’ is the frame in which everyone operates.  In such a world, ironically, the sense of the immediacy of God is usually lacking, and Divine Sovereignty, while acknowledged theoretically, is relegated practically to the far outskirts of the consciousness of most Christians.  Consequently God takes a back seat to our theologizing about governance and about the governors themselves.

The world of the Bible, and indeed of much of the contemporary world, is not such a world.  The Christians of the early church would find no such tension in the celebration or mourning of a leader like Mandela.  They were highly conscious of the immediacy of God and read every action through the lens of the unfolding of his sovereignty through history.  A leader, whether thoroughly pagan or God-fearing, was seen and interpreted and vetted, as it were, through that lens.  His righteousness or unrighteousness, or the consequences of his policies were seen in every case as tools through which and by which God himself was operating to effect his purposes in history, which purposes included always that purification and sanctification of his people.  While they did not pray for persecution, and understood the ills of it, they also well knew the history of the people of God, and prayed that they would be worthy to stand the testing of the Lord that was being manifest through the persecution.  When the leader was benevolent towards them, they saw it as a grace from God and an opportunity.  In every case, they viewed themselves as pilgrims, as aliens, as sojourners to earth whose real citizenship was heavenly.

Which brings me back to Mandela and his death.  So far much of what I’ve seen and read even by Christians on his death, hark to what he did for South Africa and the example he set for the world.  These are not to be discounted.  But little that I’ve read has hearkened to the question of what did Mandela do for Christ for – whether personally Christian or not – the value of his life and the applause of it are measured ultimately by their utility to the service of the sovereign Lord.  The temporal and ephemeral nature of our world (and especially of the 24 hour news cycle) lends itself to a dismissal of the court of the heavenly king, before which we all must appear and receive from his hands the judgment due.    Mandela was great, as men count greatness, yet Mandela too is a servant – a clay pot in the hand of the eternal potter, and it is before that master that his determination as an object or mercy or of wrath is determined.  The accolades and applause of men are meaningless in that eternal trial and our works, whatsoever they be, will be tried by fire and if found wanting, they will be consumed.  We too, if found wanting, will likewise be consumed.  As my mother would say, there is no big ‘I’ and little ‘you’ before God.  Mandela will stand on the same ground to be judged as you and I, as the pope, and the president.

History is, academically speaking, my first love – a fact that gives me perhaps a melancholic view of life.  Seen through the long span of time, a thousand years hence, Mandela will probably not merit even a passing mention in any history book.  After all how many people aside professional historians know of King Pepin the Short or Gustavus Adolphus?   But what is done that merits the applause of Christ, that which passes his judgment, and receives his commendation, will last eternally.

My response to my Friends response to Rachel Held Evans response to Dave Ramsey (or reason No. 145 why RHE annoys me…)

My friend and former ministry colleague Grace Biskie recently penned an angry rant-y, hot-mess response to Dave Ramsey getting lambasted by Christians.  The lambastation (that’s not a word I know) first came to my attention via a link to something Rachel Held Evans wrote in response to a post Dave Ramsey had on his website.

(Edit:  Grace has made it clear that her post was not in response to RHE.  I’m not suggesting that it was…)

My reaction to the critique of Ramsey was not quite as rage-filled as Grace, but it was strong… very strong.  Grace writes of Dave Ramsey:

FOR GOD’S SAKE PEOPLE, he is NOTHING like Joel Olsteen and why I can’t think of any single comparison for the ENTIRE LAST YEAR that has offended me so terribly much.  And how I think the people who have made that comparison have very little experience with ACTUAL prosperity preachers or have had to sit and trenches with or disciple people trying to break free from the EVIL of prosperity preaching & false gospels in general. And how if they had, they WOULD NEVER compare a man like Dave Ramsey who FREE’S people from the bondage of poverty & bankruptcy compare those two…or Dave Ramsey to ANY prosperity preacher.  As someone who’s discipled countless students away from the bondage of prosperity preaching I am repulsed by this unhelpful comparison.  REPULSED.

I feel you.  I was pissed too, and not just because I personally have benefited from Ramsey’s principles (though I have) and not just because the critique lodged against him were shallow, uncharitable, and unfair (they were.  In fact her second line, “he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.” is a flat-out lie, but anyway…).  It is because I think I ‘get’ Dave Ramsey and his ministry.  I ‘get’ his sarcastic humor.  Let me explain.

In a strange way Dave Ramsey is living the life I envisioned for myself.  He and I are both Tennesseans.  We both went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and both majored in Finance.  Dave made a fortune in real estate, which was exactly my life plan.  Dave lives in my hometown.  If I wanted to, I could go to church with him.  I know how to get to Financial Peace Plaza without looking it up on Google Maps.  And like Dave is doing now, I had hoped to get rich and also find a way to help people (especially low and middle income people) manage their money.  Dave and I are also both fluent in sarcasm.  God however, called me in a different direction.

But there is something else besides.  Dave taps into something that I think is at least part of why Grace reacted so strongly, and also something that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Dave understands, like Grace understands, and like I understand that there is a kind of poverty of spirit that traps people in a pernicious web.  He and she and I understand that a person can be so degraded, worn out, and worn down by their circumstances – whether circumstance of financial mismanagement, of family history, of abuse, of dysfunction – that ALL your sense of personal agency is destroyed. You feel powerless, hopeless, trapped, scared.

And then someone like Dave Ramsey comes along and meets you, as Dave says, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, and tells you the hard truth, ‘Yep you screwed up.  Yep, someone else messed you up.  Yep, the system is stacked against you. Yep, that was a stupid decision.  But you know what? You don’t have to live there.  There is a better option. YOU have power.  YOU have choices.  YOU have agency.

And the sarcasm?  The snarkiness?  It shocks your system.  It shocks you because almost all the people who have come to help you before don’t talk like that.  They listen to you, let you cry on their shoulder, sympathise with you, and agree with you that, yeah you were done wrong, and that’s about it.  Why isn’t Dave more sympathetic?  He’s so mean, etc., etc.

And then after you get over the shock at his approach, and the anger, and the frustration, and poking out your lip, you realize he’s right. That while you can’t do everything, you can do something.  You realize that your life really doesn’t have to be one of failure, of despair, of constrained choices, of inevitability, of abuse, of dysfunction.  And you wipe your tears, and you start where you are.  And people like Dave and Grace and others hold your trembling hand and walk you through it.  It’s ain’t about getting rich.

If you’ve never been there, or you don’t personally know people who live there, you probably have a hard time understanding that. I know those people. Some of them are my relatives.  People who take their children on vacation only to come back to the lights being shut off.  People who are afraid to answer the phone because of debt collectors hounding them.  People who have never known what it is to have money left over at the end of the month or to have a savings account with more than the $25 minimum required to keep it open.  People who make enough, but never have enough and so spend recklessly because they figure that they never will have anything so they may as well enjoy life while they can.  Or so that they can forget.

I’m not sure folks like RHE who so easily critique Ramsey understand really what it feels like to live in a world where money is your master and not your servant.  Where prosperity preaching is appealing in exactly the same way that the lottery is: because it offers a false hope.  Where you are enslaved to habits of materialism and consumerism and yet you are afraid to even open your bank statement, much less reconcile your check book.  Where debt collectors hound you morning and night for money that you have no idea how to pay back.  Where the biblical statement that the borrower is slave to the lender doesn’t feel at all theoretical, but real.

The thing is, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have to do what he does.  He’s rich.  He’s a financial whiz.  He’s made money, lost money, and made it again in real estate.  He doesn’t need this gig. And he understands that it isn’t really about money anyway, because the ‘only way to have real financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.’

A Story About the Cost of Discipleship

There was a group of young minority men who were among the best and brightest in society.  Not only had they been top of their class, they were athletically fit, and good looking besides.  They represented the whole package and consequently were selected to be a part of an elite government internship that only the very best could hope to be admitted to.  Needless to say, they were very excited about the opportunity, but they were also somewhat nervous.  It was not a very common practice for minorities to rise into  such positions of influence, and they were concerned to make a good impression.  At the same time however, they felt a lot of pressure to not “sell out” their identity in order to secure a position.  It was  delicate balancing act, but being friends, they worked hard to keep each other accountable and to encourage each other.

For the most part, they did well, but one day the internship director informed them that in order to advance in the program, they would need to sign some documents and agree to participate in some things that normally would be against their religion. “It’s all just a formality,” they were assured, but these young friends were a bit nervous and didn’t want to sign.  The internship director told them that he’d give them a chance to think about it, but it really wasn’t an option — and he couldn’t figure what the big deal was anyway.  Talking about it later on in their room, the friends decided that they really couldn’t sign it, and certainly couldn’t participate, but they knew it would only make it hard on the internship director, whom they all liked.

Somehow  the next day they convinced him to let them continue the program on a trial basis, without signing, and promised him that if anything didn’t go right, they would go ahead with the full program.  The director reluctantly agreed, and at the end of the program, well everything worked out for them.  They were able to graduate and all of them got excellent government positions.  The internship director wrote the references himself, something he rarely did.

Fast forward a few years and our young men are all still friends, well paid, and enjoying the good life.  They spent their days in high level meetings and their nights out on the town enjoying the diverse and exciting night life befitting the capital of the most powerful country in the world.  The petty troubles of their internship years were far behind them.  They were still some of the few minorities working in such high levels of government to be sure, but they lived in enlightened times.  No one bothered them much about their odd customs, other than to make the occasional joke, or the puzzled look when their friends found out that they observed such quaint religious rituals.  “To each his own,” their friends would say, “as long as you don’t try to impose it on others, I think it’s fine.”  And it was fine, mostly.

Until one day when the large packet packet detailing all the requirements of recent passed legislation landed on the desk of one of the friends.  He almost didn’t see it at first, as he lazily scanned the pages and pages of arcane legal language that was the most dull part of his day.  But there it was, plain as day – “all employees shall…, failure to abide by this regulation…, this policy will be applied without exception….”  He stopped reading, speechless.  Usually regulations like this always contained some policy exemption, some language that provided a loophole here or there, but there was none.

Down the hall he ran, not bothering to knock but burst in on his friend.  The others were already there. “So you heard?” he asked, but no answer was needed.  They had.

Days and weeks went by; meeting after meeting was held.  Promises of conciliation and assurances of good faith were given, but no, the policy would not be changing.  “You don’t understand,” they pleaded at desk after desk, higher and higher up the chain of management.  Whose policy is this anyway? Surely they don’t mean to implement this.  The questions swirled faster and faster but the conclusion was always the same.

The city lights sparkled in the distance. Soft music played while the smell of exquisite food being prepared in the courtyard below wafted in.  The spacious apartment decorated in the latest style and filled with the finest decor was a far cry from the cramped dorm room.  But the luxurious surroundings and fine wine could not hide the heaviness in the room.  Their appeals were exhausted, and so it seemed were they.  “Maybe if we just…”  “No that wouldn’t work.”  “Do you think if we talked to…”  Sentences half finished and never answered.  They knew the answer already.  “We knew it might come to this some day.  We’ve had a good ride so far.  God’s been good to us, so we can’t really complain.”  Muffled sighs of agreement and resignation answered.  It was true.  They had known; they’d always known.  “Well,” he spoke, standing and lifting his glass as for a toast, “we cannot know if the LORD will save us from destruction tomorrow or not, but whether he does or not, we will not bow.”  The others lifted their glasses to the toast and drank the last in silence.