Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tellin' me I got to beware....

Enough of Rick Perry; the weekend is over.  We re-start the week with one of Bill Moyers' favorite stories:

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, "Stop, stop, don't do it."
The man on the bridge looks down and asks, "Why not?"
"Well, there's much to live for."
"What for?"
"Well, your faith. Your religion."
"Are you religious?"
"Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?"
"Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?"
Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, "Die, you heretic scum," and pushed him off the bridge.
Keep that in mind because we'll come back to it.  I use it to introduce a discussion of a discussion Lawrence linked me to in comments below.  The discussion I mean is here.  Taking bits and pieces of it (you can read the post at the link if you want the context), we start with this:

From what I’ve seen in my own experience, individual evangelical churches that start closely examining and questioning themselves and making attempts at reform tend to either split or come apart entirely. It seems like we evangelicals can make cosmetic alterations (worship music style, incorporating electronic media, etc.) more easily and quickly than more traditional mainliners. But when it comes to making essential adjustments in the way we see and think about things (like the church, scriptural interpretation, the world around us), we have a real hard time going there. Of course, changes of that sort have and continue to occurr within evangelicalism, but, as far as I can see, it’s mostly an unconscious process. What we can’t seem to do is examine ourselves critically in the present tense. And those few churches that do start looking at themselves through a critical lens tend to come apart from the strain and shock — and from the inevitable conflict between those who want to look even deeper and those who want to change the subject, continue with business as usual, and stick their heads back in the sand.
So, the Church of Meaning and Belonging v. the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging; that paradigm crosses all faith traditions.  The problem is not just the reluctance to sacrifice, but who gets to determine what must be sacrificed.  To be honest the usual request is that you give up something dear to you, while I give up something not quite as dear to me.  It's easier for me to point out you are sticking your head in the sand, than it is for me to accept I'm doing that, too.  Those "essential adjustments in the way we see and think about things" aren't essential unless they go to what each one of us thinks is essential.  And that's when the fur flies.

Overall, I think the analysis of that long quote is pretty sound, but it fails to take into account the distinction in polity between most Protestant denominations and more "evangelical" churches.  The latter tend to be congregationalist in polity, which means each congregation determines for itself what it's practices and doctrines are.  It's never that loose, of course; the Southern Baptist Convention and the UCC are both congregationalist in polity, but congregations from either polity would hardly be welcome in the other, no matter how fiercely independent those congregations might insist they are.  But polity plays a role here:  if evangelicals can make cosmetic alterations more easily and quickly than "traditional mainliners," it's because the two polities uphold very different traditions.  And the congregational polity is precisely why evangelical churches have trouble making essential adjustments.  The Roman church is probably the best at this, although it still allows a few congregations to hold the Mass in Latin (I attended one such service in St. Louis in my seminary days).  But it is far better at imposing order on its churches than the Episcopal church, or the Presbyterians, or the Methodists, etc., etc.

And frankly, no denomination I know of, certainly no congregation, is any good at examining themselves "critically in the present tense."  You want to get good that that, you need to go to a seminary where they make you do it whether you want to or not.  Self-examination is very, very hard to do, and even those of us who submit to it willingly, sure of the value of the process, find it painful and even impossible to complete.

Put a few of these comments together, and you come up with something really interesting:

I have had a particular conversation with my wife so many times that I tremble to reproduce it here. She grew up Catholic but says “she wasn’t a Christian”. She was converted to Pentecostalism in 1978 by a Puerto Rican evangelist who was basically Oral Roberts in a guayabera, but who thankfully remained particularly free of grandstanding and scandal. At any rate, one of the first questions she asks me when we discuss any historical figure is “was he/she a Christian?” I know what she means by this. In her mind, second-wave Pentecostalism was what Paul and Barnabas were preaching on Cyprus in 55AD, and everyone in Church History who Matters, from Augustine down through Gregory Palamas to Friedrich Schleiermacher “Gave Their Lives To Jesus and Was Born Again”.

When I try to explain to her that that model doesn’t fit Christians very well prior to the Cane Ridge meetings (1802?). Previously, Christians were born and baptized into a communion and remained there their whole lives. This was especially true prior to the Non-Conformist acts in the UK in the 18th Century (?). If they were “born again”, it usually meant that they were a particularly good or pious example of their communion. If not, they were just part of the ur-Christian Blodgettry that existed at that time.

What I also try to explain is that what occurred in Protestantism on the American frontier at the cusp of the 19th Century was a “democraticization” and “Enlightenmentization” of Christianity as significant as its “imperialization” and “Hellenization” under Constantine. The difference is that in the 4th Century you were dealing with a mostly intact Church, so that the developments were digested universally [the whole Church as organ of interpretation], whereas in the 19th Century the innovations were restricted to American Protestantism. As the Enlightenment project and its democratic subproject extended their reach, Americanized Protestantism found itself uniquely poised to take advantage of this.

Hold on to that, because I want to connect it to this:

The US is becoming unchurched. That’s the current trend. If that trend continues, eventually most Americans will no longer identify themselves as Christian. We can leave aside the question of what constitutes a true Christian, or if the nation could ever legitimately have been called a Christian nation, because the answer to those questions will no longer be germane. Christians by any measure will be a minority among a national aggregate no longer Christian, and most likely inoculated by cultural experience and memory against the blandishments that formerly swept their ancestors into the Church, and kept them there.

This is the future of the Church in the US and a few other places, and the present of the Church in western Europe. If trends change, all bets are off and nobody here has any idea what will replace the current landscape. There is nothing in any of this for the churches to be sanguine about. Our hope must be beyond optimism, even if it’s only optimism for only our own branches of the Church, which we fondly believe have special qualities to recommend them to future; if our hope is not beyond even this kind of optimism, then it’s nowhere.

I think that's right, but I think that trend is not due to some recent turn of events, but to the "democraticization" and "Enlightenmentization" coming out of the 19th century.  "Unchurched," though, is a term fraught with meaning.  It partly means never having grown up in a church, and so being unfamiliar with the culture of church (be that "church" a synagogue, a temple, a Catholic sanctuary or a Protestant congregation).    That, in turn, can mean children like I encounter regularly, who have no knowledge of even "basic" Biblical stories like Noah, or Daniel in the lion's den, or Jonah and the whale, even David and Goliath.  But it also means when people do come to church, they don't understand what to expect or how to behave; and I don't mean how they conduct themselves during a worship service.

Being a church member has been as much as part of American culture as being an American has been; and yet that portion of the culture is fading, mostly due to the emphasis on personal experience and the importance of the individual uber alles.  Even the concept of "ur-Christian Blodgettry" is one that comes from the 19th century, from post-Romantic Europe.  Kierkegaard (esp.  The Attack Upon 'Christendom') doesn't champion the individual because he is so righteously opposed to Hegel's philosophy of history; he does it because that is the cri de coeur of 19th century Europe, where Young Werther was the ideal figure of the individual against society, where Byron was lionized for his challenge to social mores (no, that wasn't invented by the Beats, or the Hippies, or Rock 'n' Roll singers).  Kierkegaard has good grounds for his emphasis on the person, not the community; but it is not an idea sui generis with Kierkegaard.  But just as Augustine shifted the way we think of ourselves so that we cannot fully appreciate Paul's "robust conscience" today and too easily misread the few personal statements Paul made, so the Romantic movement shifted our attention to the point it's hard not to be critical of Christian communities before the present, and to see all traditions that emphasize the group over the individual as either oppressive or lax (demanding conformity, or allowing just anybody in).

Admittedly, the bias at the article is toward evangelicals; it is concerned with predicting a collapse in that broad movement.  Such collapses are inevitable:  whatever passions stoke the original impulse don't carry long into the next generation.  William Bradford started his history of Plymouth Plantation in Holland, but it ended in America with the community he envisioned falling apart as people became less and less interested in the founding ideal.  The passion for that vision had run out, and a new one commenced with the Great Awakening, which came along about 80 years later.  Of course, that "awakening" was such a seminal moment there have been efforts to describe three others, the most recent from 1960 to 1980 (although having lived through those decades, I have to say it escaped me altogether.  But then, I'm not so sure there was ever a Second and a Third.).  "Awakenings" and "revivals" are not singular events, then, but almost cyclical, because the fruits of the Spirit are always passion and exuberance.

Except when they aren't.

I mention that to put the quotes above in perspective.  Has America ever truly been a "Christian nation"?  And if so, is that only because of the efforts of evangelicals, a term with two distinctly different, almost opposed, meanings, one of which is almost entirely lost to history?  It is clear the "current landscape" has been disappearing since the early 20th century, but it refuses to be entirely swept away even yet.   Small churches are the same way; they are as resilient as cockroaches, which is a carefully chosen metaphor.  The most interesting thing is that, as I think Evelyn Waugh predicted (I read it somewhere, but finding it now would be impossible), the next wave of Christianity may well come to these shores from Africa.  As America becomes even more "unchurched," we may be seen as a mission field.

And it might take hold, too.  One never know, do one?

But I also mention "evangelical" because that word really no longer means what it is supposed to mean:

Her strengths and flaws stemmed from the same evangelical core: she brought conviction and passion and stubbornness and unapologetic focus, all of which worked to build and destroy her public capital.
The "her" there is Michelle Rhee; and the subject is education.  There is nothing in that article that has anything to do with religion or Christianity at all.  And yet "evangelical" has now become a synonym for "zeal."  It no longer refers to the euangelion, the messenger of the good news.  Now it means single-mindedness and solidarity of purpose; now it means determination and conviction and passion and stubbornness.  Which may be good things; but they are not the "good news," and don't have to be the characteristics of the messenger of the good news.

Except when you separate the good news from the messenger, all that's left are the qualities of the messenger; and now any message can make you an evangel.  And make you the problem, as well as the solution.

Is that right?

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  That's the point of the Moyers' story:  if your treasure is in your group, your identity, your boundaries, the closer someone gets to you the further away they actually are.  Your "evangelical core," which is supposedly purity of heart (because purity of heart is to will one thing) is the problem, because "evangelical" no longer means "messenger of the good news," it means "messenger of what motivates you."

Which, yes, has always been the problem; but at the same time, "evangelical" has slipped the surly bonds of Christianity, and escaped into the larger culture.*  And to the extent Protestantism continues to take its cues from the larger culture, that is a foundational problem.  What Protestantism really needs to do is to reclaim some concepts for itself, and treat them again as wholly religious ones.  And we might start doing that by reclaiming concepts of "evangelical."  Because it's not a label, or a denomination, or a group identity; it's a claim.

There is something to be said for Christianity making certain claims; but those claims need to be directed toward Christians.   That is one of the hardest claims of Christianity:  that its claims should be directed toward oneself, and not toward others.

*A patch of ice doth not a winter make, but then I come across this example, also from this morning:

They’re evangelizing faith in the political system and encouraging people to act within established political norms.
It's a little closer to the religious roots because the word "faith" is tossed in there, but again the meaning is "zealous advocacy," not euangelion.   I wonder if this usage is about to break out as a secular meme.


  1. I first heard that story from Emo Philips.

  2. Well, that takes the shine off of it.

    *sips espresso thoughtfully*