Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

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Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

Brief Reflections on an Historic Election

Today is Election Day and I am NOT watching the returns on TV. I cast my vote during early voting and am just waiting to find out who will take the job of president for the next four years, barring any unforeseen circumstances. I am however grateful that this long election cycle has come to an end.

I have ling been an avid follower of politics and this year has been no exception. I have always voted and consider myself well informed as to the issues. I am also interested in the political game itself, and have some personal reflections on things that have happened this cycle which are somewhat disturbing to me as a believer.

Race – It must be said that racial politics have loomed exceedingly large in this election. Many people are intrigued by Obama’s campaign and the symbolic nature of electing a Black man (really bi-racial) to the White House. It seems to me though that he and his campaign have brought this issue up (along with the media) far more than his opponents, which may complicate race relations going forward. Electing a Black man as president does not magically address issues of economic disparity among the Black populace in this country.

Gender – I have for the first time in my Black life had my eyes opened to the prevalence of gender discrimination and bias on a wide scale. First against Hillary Clinton I watched and heard people disparage her campaign for reasons only tangentially related to politics, and then in more personal contexts, I have seen people justify a vote for Obama on the “issues” when he and Sen. Clinton have similar policy platforms. Some of these same people are choking over the prospect of Gov. Palin being VP due to a perceived lack of “experience” though Obama has less experience than she does. This is alongside all kinds of other slights, insults, subtle put downs and blatant stereotyping that has gone largely unreported and un-commented on by the media.

Media – the American media is the vaunted fourth branch of government and is supposed to present information so that American voters can make informed decisions about candidates. This year, people on many sides of the political spectrum and independent analysis has demonstrated a blatant disregard for journalistic integrity from the major media outlets. Gotcha journalism has replaced investigation and politicians are permitted to make randomly erroneous statements without the least challenge from the media. It was clear in 2000 and even more clear today that media are not interested in effective journalism, but in what will sell and in promoting their own biases and narratives as “fact” to the American public. This is a danger to our democracy as we are dependent upon an independent and objective media in order to effectively participate in our political system.

Finally I can say that I am fairly disappointed overall. The election season that was supposed to be above the usual political fray has been the most divisive in my memory. Irresponsible charges of racism, unreported instances of misogyny, electoral and voter fraud, sexist and racist paraphernalia have proliferated and I do not believe this will be easily mended, though I think it could have if:

– both candidates had stuck to their commitment to receive public financing, thereby reducing the role of money and the appearance of “buying” the election
– both campaigns early and often condemned and restrained irresponsible race baiting and sexism
– both campaigns gave full disclosure to their histories and associations rather than lying or seeking to explain away uncomfortable facts.
– the media recognized and reported on the reality that the election will be historic no matter who wins; it is a HUGE deal that a woman could be VP, but that has been consistently downplayed.

Resumes, Record, References and Rhetoric

It is not an easy task to make an informed decision when it comes to hiring someone, especially in a ministry field such as my own. There are so many competing issues with which to contend, not the least of which is the notion that all such applicants have that God has led them to apply for the position. Hiring, supervising, and firing people seems such an easier thing in a secular context where personal feelings and question of faith need not be given much (if any) consideration. Certainly when I was laid off from my position in the insurance industry some years ago, no one in management seemed especially concerned about the impact of that decision on my faith. (Ironically, it was wonderfully providential as it afforded me the necessary space and time to transition smoothly into my current work).

However, there are clearly some issues that translate into a secular construct, as I’ve laid out in my title. These four: resume, record, references, and rhetoric (I love alliteration!!) are the key things I examine when weighing in on a hiring decision and I believe that these four things are important to examine in the context of politics.

Resume: The resume is quite simply a candidates (job or political) history of relevant experiences and education. When hiring, it is very important to examine, because experience in a similar type job can tell you a lot about whether a person has the requisite understanding of what the job they’re applying for entails. In ministry it means that youth or missions work relates more easily to campus work than say, parish work with the elderly. In politics it means that executive leadership (governorships, business executive) translates more directly to president than does legislative work — which is why we don’t typically elect senators to the presidency. Legislators rarely have experience running anything other than their mouth.

Record: The record is what person has actually accomplished in their previous work. When I hire someone, the fact that they’ve achieved certain demonstrable goals, or accomplished certain objectives counts for a lot. In politics it should be the same: examination of the actual policy changes achieved or bipartisanship, or significant legislation, or initiatives accomplished matter a great deal.

References: Usually I don’t let references make or break a hiring decision, but they can be the difference between a solid yes and a strong maybe; sometimes they bring me to a full NO! References give insight to the kind of people and relationships a person cultivates. In politics, references are best not done through the lens of endorsements, because the endorsing parties have too much to gain, but by examining the kinds of people, institutions, and associations a politician has. One or two oddities are forgivable; three or four ought to give SERIOUS pause.

Rhetoric: I say rhetoric just because it starts with R, but I mean the interview. This is the least important part of the process for me, because the interviewee is doing all he or she can to impress me and answer the questions the right way. All an interview can really do is give me a face to face sense of the person, or perhaps give them an opportunity to clear up anything that seems untoward from the other 3 things. In politics, the election campaign is the interview, so I don’t put much stock in anything the candidates say about what they’re going to do. They are just interviewing for the job and will tell me exactly what I want to hear.

Of these four, the record counts the most. If the rhetoric matches the record, then it is believable. If not, the person is not honest. So if a candidate claims to be a unifier, look for evidence in their record, their resume, and their references. If a candidate claims to be bipartisan or wants to work in a bipartisan way – examine the record. If he/she has done it before, then believe them. Otherwise they’re lying. If a candidate has lots of bad references and associations, question their judgment and disregard their rhetoric. It really doesn’t matter how well a person interviews / campaigns if everything else about them doesn’t add up. Likewise no matter how poor someone interviews, if the rest of the things stack up, hire them.

Our current president interviewed /campaigned very well, as a compassionate conservative and a unifying figure, but his resume showed a track record of minimal accomplishment, cronyism, partisanship, and pretty poor executive experience. Is it any wonder that his administration has been so thoroughly unaccomplished, and plagued with cronyism, excessive partisanship and horribly administration? The administration of the next president will not reflect his rhetoric, but his record; of that you can be sure.

Annnnnnd… the dominoes start to fall – CT recognizes same sex marriage

Just reported a little while ago, the Supreme Court of the state of Connecticut reversed a lower court ruling against the recognition of same sex marriage. Connecticut is the third such state to move in this direction, though NY state’s supreme court has already ruled that they must recognize same sex marriages that have been performed in other states.

Gay rights, especially same sex marriage rights, are THE civil rights issue of our time, or at least that is how the issue is largely presented in the media. In the course of my adult life, homosexuality has moved quite rapidly into the conscience of mainstream America as an acceptable, though not necessarily welcomed, reality. Most people are still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality and even more are opposed to gay marriage, though notably they often lack a sustainable moral philosophy to underlie their opposition. Mostly it comes down to a kind of “ick”‘ factor and some sense that it just isn’t quite right. Inundated as we have been as a society in the last twenty years with the normalcy and acceptability of homosexuality, most people really aren’t quite sure why they’re opposed to gay rights, and at minimum self censor lest they be thought to be homophobic. Certainly most people haven’t really thought through the issue in any way other than the bare minimum required to get on with their lives. This is most especially obvious among our youth for whom homosexuality is regarded as one reality of a diverse society among many, without any particular morality attached to it.

Due to the nature of the controversy, the same sex marriage issue is unlikely to be quickly resolved at the state level before it is kicked upstairs to the federal courts. Both candidates Obama and McCain are ostensibly opposed to gay marriage or want to leave it to the states, but it is very unlikely that either will have the luxury of maintaining their default position if elected to the presidency. This issue is not going away. The Defense of Marriage Act is unlikely to remained unchallenged, though the Supreme Court has heretofore turned down opportunities to take it up. It remains a controversial piece of legislation.

Christians have a different set of concerns as the church (and I speak broadly here) is currently convulsed with controversy over the issue. Few churches openly embrace homosexual practice as valid from a scriptural or historic point of view, and even those churches which are most “liberal” have not gone so far as to accept homosexuality entirely. Unlike politicians, pastors do not have the luxury of remaining uncommitted on this issue as it directly affects the pastoral, priestly, and prophetic roles of the church. Contrary to the beliefs of some, most evangelicals are not unconcerned about the impact of their theology on the lives of those within and without the congregation who are gay, nor are they especially homophobic — which is a word that is thrown around far too easily these days. They, and all Christians who hold to historic Christian orthodoxy on issues of sexual ethics, tread uneasy ground and the convulsions of a social earthquake shift the landscape around them.

Many Christians, having “failed” to act quickly during the Civil Rights era, do not know want to be seen as being on the “wrong side of history” and yet also want to remain faithful to scripture. Others believe that their embrace of gay rights is being faithful to scripture. Caught in the very center of this vortex are those Christians and their families who are themselves gay and seek to live with integrity and in obedience to Jesus.

All of this brings to mind the scripture from Psalms 11.3: If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The foundations of societal consensus on the meaning of life, what marriage is, the ethics that ought to govern social relations, and the role and function of the family have all been consistently undermined over the past 80 years with remarkably predictable results.

From the sexual revolution (the real one in the twenties, not the fake one of the sixties) onward, churches have been consistent in first actively fighting, then passively resisting, then grudgingly accepting and finally actively endorsing social change. The path from the acceptance of artificial birth control as a right to the normalization of divorce, straight through to women’s liberation (which has happened in ALL the churches complementarian and otherwise) is clear and will likely lead, inexorably to an embrace of homosexuality as a valid practice. The link between all of these seemingly disparate matters is clear as Mary Eberstadt says in First Things:

Before 1930, no Christian Church permitted the use of contraception, but that year’s Lambeth Conference, with its approval of contraceptive intercourse, was the beginning of the end. “If a church cannot tell its flock ‘what to do with my body,’ as the saying goes, with regard to contraception,” writes Eberstadt, “then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.” In short, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity will—and did—quickly follow.

And so it is. Are the foundations destroyed? If so, what can the righteous do?

Embracing Death

Death is an unpopular topic in the blogosphere, in politics, and in church. We are as a society consumed with life and with youth. Death is only discussed as a bludgeon to frighten or to cajole others into action, as in politics (John McCain will die at any minute!!!) or in churches (if you die today do you know where you will spend eternity?). Other than that, we don’t think about death and we do all we can to push the reality of our own mortality out of our minds and away from our conversation. Death is something we whisper about, lie to our children about, and hedge about with euphemisms designed to “soften the blow” that that which is will no longer be.

This tendency to avoid death is obvious in how we go about church and about theological reflection; indeed it is obvious in everything we do, and for good reason. Death is singularly unpleasant, yet it is also universal. It is one of two universal human experiences: birth and death. Everything else is, well… everything else. And we spend most of our time on the everything else, pausing only when forced by the intrusion of death into our lives to deal with mortality. Otherwise we go on our way, and new emerging theologians go on about how the church has focused too much on the life to come and not enough on the here and now. Denominations split over questions of ordination, marriage and divorce but all agree that death is a bad thing and we shouldn’t talk about it too much less we drive people away.

It is a singularly modern thing that we can so easily avoid talking about or dealing with death, or that our theologians and pastors get away with unsatisfying answers and flat avoidance of the issue. Our children can easily be shielded from the reality of death. When I ask my age peers how many funerals they have attended in their lives, they can usually count them on one hand. I’ve lost track of how many funerals I’ve attended through the years. So few of us ever see death up close and personal. Death is something that happens to the old and to the distant — almost always away from home, in hospitals, in nursing homes, and in tragedies half the world away.

This is all new. For most of human history, death was something with which people, even children, were intimately familiar. Mothers died in childbirth, grandfathers keeled over while chopping wood, and playmates drowned in creeks and rivers with alarming regularity. No one was pleased to have death visit them, but we were better equipped to deal with it when it came. Not only that, but the closeness of death meant that we were better able to deal with life.

In a world where death was not invisible, age was more respected. The absence of grandfathers wisdom around the dinner table was felt as an actual loss, and the foolishness of the young is much more evident when the consequences of their foolishness was more immediate and less theoretical. Likewise the present theological (and political) obsession with youth and with changing the world NOW would be tempered by a more visceral understanding that NOW is not all there is; that death comes to us all and that in death there is a reckoning more final than any other. Death makes life more dear and precious, and makes choices more stark. Our forefathers didn’t have time for the navel gazing adulthood delaying indecision that marks the current generation.

And this last piece is really the point of this post. All of life really is a negotiation with death. The brevity of our life is belied by the expansiveness of our choices in a post modern world. My students, fifteen years my junior, do not realize that those fifteen years senior to me are staring down the last twenty five to thirty years of life. Nor do they recognize that every choice they now make is a decision to let some other option die. As much as the current “yes we can” mantra of preachers and politicians resounds to the contrary, the reality is “no we can’t.” No, we can’t be both fireman and lawyers, and doctors and astronauts as we imagined when we were in elementary school. No we can’t eliminate poverty and injustice as many in college and beyond believe. No we can’t defy without consequences the biological restraints that constrain the vocational and familial choices of men and women. No we can’t reverse the fundamental reality of human depravity by changing the social structures that surround us.

Growing to maturity in faith as in everything else is a process of embracing death; the death of foolish dreams and good dreams alike, the death of choices, the death of opportunity, the death of friendships, of careers, of ideas we have about ourselves, of hopes we have for our families, and the death of those most close to us. This embrace of death gives us a certain sobriety about life, and wisdom. It is the wisdom of those who know that they alone will not change the world, and that society will not be healed by virtue of voting for the right candidate or planting the right church or having the right ideas. It is an embrace of death that frees us from the tyranny of relevancy, because we know that what is most important is always relevant and that presentation is much less important than substance. In short, embracing death gives us the freedom to be human and delivers us from our pretensions of god-hood. It reminds us that being human is quite good enough, thank you very much, and is really all that is expected of us.

Minority majority

In the midst of an election campaign one of the most significant areas of interested to the general public is that of immigration. My hometown is currently embroiled in a rather (I think) inane controversy stemming from this very issue to make English the official language of city government. Having been vetoed by the former mayor, the intrepid councilman has submitted the measure to the public as an addition to the charter of the city government. It is currently held up in legalities, but I am certain that if it passes the hurdles being thrown up by the election commission and others, it will pass. It is to me extraneous legislation, since the official language of the state of Tennessee is already English, but oh well. The chamber of commerce has come out against it (it’s bad for business and makes us look like hicks) while the hicks themselves are all for it in the mistaken belief perhaps that it will force all the “fer’ners” to learn English or go home. I for one am embarrassed. Illegal immigrants of the brown type seem to be a convenient outlet for all the virulent racial hatred that is no longer publicly acceptable to vent towards Blacks. It is made easier by the fact that they are, well, illegal.

The larger issue of immigration though is one which our society is being confronted with in a much more significant way than we have had to in the last several decades. Despite the influx of Asian immigrants from the late sixties onwards, the current immigration boom is new for many, and frightening. A recent census bureau report indicates that soon the US will be “majority minority” a phrase I find particularly interesting. Interesting because it has only been fairly recently that Hispanics (or Latinos if you prefer) have been counted separately. Interesting because they are only minorities in that they are not White. The last great immigration boom, around the turn of the 20th century, saw many millions of European immigrants come to the US. There was great debate at the time over whether they would properly assimilate into what was a clearer dominant Anglo culture.

Successive waves of immigrants each dealt with the baggage if you will of not being White enough. First the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, the Russians… all the eastern Europeans. Most of these White ethnics settled in enclaves on the east coast and upper midwest where they were accused of the same sorts of things that Hispanic immigrants are now accused of. Of course in time they assimilated, intermarried, and largely became White. Being White in America mainly meant not being Black or Yellow (no offense to my Asian American readers, just using the lingo of the times). Many people don’t realize that many of the soldiers that went to fight in WW2 spoke a language other than English at home as their first language; maybe as many as 1/3.

Nowadays now one really is focused on the many illegal Irish or even Asian immigrants in the country. No one is going door to door at Korean cleaners and checking how much under the table cash is being doled out to someone’s cousin’s sisters brother in law. Those immigrants aren’t scary, and they aren’t brown.

What should be the Christian response to the challenges of immigration? On the one hand it is easy to assert that we should be treat the foreigner and alien as neighbor, since that is what God commanded Israel. At the same time, how do we apply that principle meaningfully in a nation whose laws we are called to obey? What is our priority? And what is the true face of the immigration debate that is tearing our society up? John Lamb, a somewhat acquaintance who I’ve never officially met but admire nonetheless is doing a talk on this issue tomorrow at Vanderbilt. If anyone knows what he’s talking about, its John.