Saturday, January 23, 2016

Still shouting after all these years....

Just to wipe any bad taste of the Bernie Sanders' ad from everyone's palate

First, I have to say a title like "Refusing Religion, Claiming the Future" is a damned pretentious one, and not least because I heard much the same refrain about the Baby Boomers (remember us?  Remember how we were going to change the world?  What have the Millenials done that compares to the anti-war movement, Woodstock, the civil rights movement (which Boomers supported with their bodies), rock 'n' roll and the invention of the popular music industry, etc., etc,. etc.?  Studs Terkel was right, the Boomers were the "greatest generation" if only because they protested and argued over and fought, however briefly, for some of the right things.  Boomers changed America; Millenials have done....what, exactly?  Then again, what have Boomers done since the '70's except become Yuppies and then Reaganites and then old farts who don't want to pay taxes an who allowed all the gains of the civil rights and anti-war movements to be thoroughly retrenched?  Whatever happened to the radical political change that was gonna happen when 18 year olds got the vote?  Hmmmm?)  Boomers, after all, claimed the future 50 years ago; they also "refused religion" (well, except for the Beatles and the Maharishi, but that was mostly George so it doesn't really count); and absolutely nothing unexpected has happened since.*

The topic of the article is not just Millenials but "nones," the idea that 1/4 of Millenials don't pledge allegiance to any religious faith, and what does that mean for the future?  Well, first, I'd say (AGAIN!) that in 1906 only 41% of Americans declared affiliation with any religion, and yet the republic held and the number declaring a religion more than doubled by the end of the century, going on far too long to have anything to do with the post-war boom that was still being called the "cause" when I was in seminary in the '90's.  I also remember that we Boomers were supposedly leaving church in droves in the '60's, never to return.  Then came the "Jesus Freaks" at the end of that decade, and the rise in church affiliation continued to climb for the next several decades.  Unfortunately for the mainline Protestant denominations, that rise was in other Protestant denominations, not the ones who enjoyed the "boom" after the Second World War.

Any decline now needs to be put in perspective, not isolated so we can freak out about it even more.  But that's old news; this is (slightly) new and different:

Kaya Oakes: I would argue that these things have to be “fixed” on a continuum. Even the most beautiful liturgy is going to be hollow without a central message that is life-giving and inspiring. And even the most enlightened and progressive message at the heart of that liturgy is going to be lost if it doesn’t also get enacted outside of the walls of an institutional religion.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the social movements that have most lit a fire of passionate participation in the last few years have been leaderless. Occupy and Black Lives Matter both exist because people made them happen out of a sense of urgency. Institutions move slowly in comparison, but if any religious tradition were able to pick up on some of the energy and prophetic sensibility in those many-voiced choruses, it might actually be compelling. Can this happen in a loop? Change on the outside/change on the inside. Perhaps that very dichotomy of outside/inside is the problem.
I agree on the liturgy issue, but then again, that's old news:
Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
As for the second paragraph:  for people who in living memory remember Dr. Martin Luther King, it's a bit rich to say that "leaderless" movements are the new wave of change in America.  Occupy, where is it?  And BLM, what legislative agenda does it have?  Dr. King worked for specific change in specific places and, as his movement grew, for change in Washington, D.C.  It was because of him Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights Act which LBJ got passed.  It was because of King that LBJ championed the Voting Rights Act.  What leader stood to defend that Act when the Supreme Court gutted it?  What leader pressed Congress to save the law?

When he died King was working for change for garbage collectors in Atlanta.  Yes, religious traditions could stand to pick up some of this energy and prophetic sensibility, but even the prophets didn't turn their world upside down or change the heart of the king.  Take the story of Jonah as instructive on that point.

Where is Occupy today?  What pressure for real change is BLM bringing to bear?

It is, in short, a lovely thing to say what someone else should do.  As a pastor (in heart if not in fact), I always have to ask:  and what are you doing, besides complaining?  It's powerful to say we must "pick up on some of the energy and prophetic sensibility in those many-voiced choruses."  It is also inchoate, since to say that you must stand apart from that energy and sensibility in order to so carefully identify it and delineate it.  That is, in fact, my primary and ongoing complaint with the United Church of Christ, which ordained me:  it is always talking about doing social justice, and seldom really doing anything about social justice except talking about what a great idea it is.  It is a frustrating failure to serve.

"And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

Not quite as strong a declaration, is it?  Not exactly the tool for telling people what they should do, eh?

Funny, that.  "Perhaps that very dichotomy of outside/inside is the problem."  Perhaps the problem is that you are looking for a solution, instead of enacting one.  It gets better, and even more vague and glittering:

 People just don’t trust authority or large-scale institutions in the same way they did 30 or 40 years ago.

“In the absence of truly democratic policies that provide equitable access to jobs, housing and education, the social and cultural institutions provided by some black churches, both alternative and traditional, represent an antidote to these inequities.”

The causes are likely many, including political corruption (Nixon most publicly), technology (everyone is an expert now, and if I don’t know something I can look it up on my phone), globalization (multiple claims to the same authority coming from incredibly diverse sources), and corporate corruption (you win if you cheat, the little guy gets screwed). This translates into religious and spiritual authority as well, what with sex scandals, health and wealth theologies, and various corrupt religious leaders all demonstrating why we shouldn’t take their religious claims with any sense of authoritative validity.This, coupled with the American cultural values of individual choice in all things, leads to a general dissatisfaction with the available options for religious/spiritual seekers.
Although the speaker says he doesn't know how to work his smartphone any better than I, I can only assume he is much younger than I am; or much more innocent.  People don't trust authority like they did 30 or 40 years ago?  I can only assume the speaker wasn't here 30 or 40 years ago.  Did the Civil Rights Movement arise out of a trust in authority?  Did the anti-war movement arise out of a trust in authority?  The left-wing violence of the '70's?  The right wing violence of the next two decades?  When, in American history at least, did people trust "authority" or "large-scale institutions" in ways they don't today?  Right before Pearl Harbor?  Right before the New Deal (which my father grew up learning to despise, even as it saved the country and, indirectly through the GI bill, sent him to college)?  What kind of blather is this that neatly divides the country into "before" (when everything was lovely) and "after" (i.e., when I became aware that the world is more complicated than I thought it was as a child)?

And when did the country ever have "truly democratic policies that provide equal access to jobs, housing and education," especially for blacks in this country?  Most of that came from LBJ, and most of it has been retrenched ever after.  Brown v. Board is a shell; we pay lip service to its ideal even as we kick the carcass into the gutter and ignore entirely the principle it meant to establish.  Or perhaps the point is that the black church has always tried to provide an antidote to these inequities, because no other institution would.

And the authoritative validity of religious leaders is a skepticism that reaches back to Jefferson and Madison.  We've never been Catholic Ireland where the priests reigned supreme.  There has been, since at least Jefferson took scissors to the New Testament and Franklin started his Poor Richard's Almanac and Roger Penn set up a colony for those who didn't want to be Puritans, a "general dissatisfaction with the available options for religious/spiritual seekers."

So if you take Kaya’s explanations and combine them with my claims, you have a situation where religious organizations—particularly older forms—are operating in a world that increasing numbers of people are not interested in, and are simply irrelevant to their lives.

In other words, we're moving back to 1906, although we've got a very long way to go before we get there.  In other, other words:  same as it ever was.  And yet we are still no closer to an answer that isn't encapsulated in that prayer, which predates 1906.**

But then it turns out this is back to the '60's, and back to that prayer:

Richard Flory: First I think we need to differentiate between those within the “nones” who are unaffiliated with any religious institution but still believe in something, and those who are either “unbelievers” or uninterested in the whole issue of religion, but may maintain some form(s) of belief, however vague that may be. Most of the people that Kaya writes about are those who do not fall in the latter two categories, but instead are on some form of a spiritual or religious quest. They actually believe that something “out there” exists, which they also believe (or hope) will help them find a purpose in their lives.

“I think this is the larger issue that many younger evangelicals are reacting to and against. They aren’t disinterested in Jesus or being a Christian, but they are completely disinterested in the corporate packaging and boundary patrolling that the evangelical industrial complex produces.”

This would all be true of evangelicals as well. There are many who have just left religion and have no interest in returning or pursuing a spiritual/religious quest. Most, I would think, for many of the same reasons that we hear in Kaya’s book. Others are still interested in being Christian, but are completely disinterested in being evangelical. This manifests itself in a small percentage heading for Mainline Protestant or Catholic churches, but most are either sticking it out or forming other kinds of churches
and communities that have a different focus than the churches they grew up in.

I think you’re right Peter, that for this group of evangelicals (mostly younger, but not exclusively so), the issue is less belief per se than their dissatisfaction with the existing church forms that dominate evangelicalism. And, this is related to issues like their greater acceptance of LGBT rights—even if they still may have some questions about that theologically—social issues and politics.
This all sounds painfully familiar to a Boomer.  History doesn't repeat itself, but the more things change, the more they remain the same.  Like this:

Plenty of ministers are scrambling to get their congregations on social media: is it making a difference? I have no idea—the church I attend lately has its own app, but that’s not why I picked that church. I picked it because the pastor actually started a conversation with me the first time I attended, and because it has a social justice message that it actually lives out in the local community through action. So technology might be a great set of tools, but it cannot replace encounter, and many churches are just terrible at that.
Church is really not about who is attending (i.e., how many) but about why they are attending.  And the usual reason is:  because they have a personal interest in it.  I know people in my congregation who came back every Sunday because I was there, and what I had to say, or what I was doing, was something they were interested in.  In the end, of course, churches are political, too, and there weren't enough people there who liked the fact I was there; so it goes.  But when I read about "ministers scrambling to get their congregation on social media" I have to wonder:  why?  To boost attendance?  Probably.   And why is that?

Usually, it's to please some group in the church, a group far less interested in social justice or even in having a conversation with the pastor than they are interested in keeping up with the Joneses.   The dirty little secret of church attendance numbers is that it's far more of a....well, let's call it a "Richard-measuring" contest, than it is anything else.  Which is probably one more reason younger people aren't that interested in attending.

It doesn't attract me, either.  Richard Flory can be read as supporting that point, here; and he makes another one, equally valid:

Richard Flory: I would broaden the point from the distraction caused by all of the technology we carry in our pockets, to how capitalism has colonized every part of our lives such that the requirements of “making it” in a hyper-capitalist society like the U.S. (and increasingly globally) is at odds with any sort of religious or spiritual life.

For example, on a practical level, in my interviews with younger people, many will say that they want to attend religious services more regularly, but they work when services are offered. On a more theoretical/theological level, capitalism tells us to maximize our own individual (or corporate) profit without regard to the consequences for others. This seems to go against what most religious traditions teach.
I encountered this problem with parents who had children playing soccer games on Sunday morning. One of the biggest and most overlooked changes in the culture is the move to "de-sanctify" Sunday.  Stores are open 7 days a week ("capitalism has colonized every part of our lives"), and people who work far more than 40 hours a week (where did that time go?) are busy on the weekends, as are their children.  "Friday Night Lights" may be the small-town football cliche, but outside the glare of those lights there are other activities for schoolchildren, and they don't take Sundays off.

But for Protestants, 11:00 on Sunday morning is so sacrosanct it might as well be somewhere in the gospels.  I suspect some don't want to change that simply because Catholics celebrate Mass at times other than 11:00 a.m. on Sunday.  Most don't want to change it because they are old, and still living on the weekly calendar they grew up with:  Sunday morning is when you go to "church."  Trying to offer that worship at other times for other people invites complaints that the congregation is going to "fragment," that people won't see each other, that the church community will die.

It's not an insubstantial complaint.  I'm not sure, though, the familiar model is a sustainable model.  But that's a far cry from saying the church institution is an unsustainable model.  Declaring that model "dead" is a bit like the "counter-culture" of the '60's enjoying the stability and comforts of American history while declaring itself above and beyond that history.  There is no "counter culture" without a culture to run counter to (not that the alternative to modern culture is a Mad Max apocalypse).  Still, to speak glibly of the decline of the church as if it had never faced any challenge to its hegemony since Constantine died is a bit much.  This isn't exactly the Reformation we're facing, or the Enlightenment, or even the challenge of the Romantic movement and the 19th century.  I'm not even convinced we aren't still riding the wave front of the explosion of the Romantic movement, and we still haven't really caught up with Kierkegaard's "end of 'Christendom'."

I end this, not where I began, but with what I found this morning.  I wanted to link to the original article, but that website kept throwing up a spam message (or whatever the kids call it these days) that I had to close my browser to clear.  So I go with the second hand source, but a direct quote that accurately captures what the original said:

Monthly church attendance by moderately educated whites – defined as those with high school diplomas and maybe some college – has declined to 37 percent from 50 percent, according to the study co-authored by sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University.Church attendance by the least educated whites – defined as those lacking high school diplomas – fell to 23 percent from 38 percent.

“My assumption going into this research was that Middle America was more religious and conservative than more educated America,” said Wilcox, in an interview with MSNBC. “But what is surprising about this is that, when it comes to religion as well as marriage, we find that the college-educated are more conventional in their lifestyle than Middle Americans.”
I read this as a return to an old status quo; or just the return swing of the pendulum, an historical inevitability.  It's dangerous to read too much into that final paragraph, but it's a '60's holdover that a college education maketh radicals of us all.  True, I became a "true radical" (well, as much as I ever will be) in seminary, exposed to people who thought as Brueggemann thinks.  But not all colleges are, or ever were, UC Berkeley in the '60's, and most people going to college, even in the '60's, went there to join the middle class (or to stay in it), not to "disrupt" it.  The Ivy League, after all, has never been interested in anything more than it is interested in being a finishing school for the upper class (it's a fine education, overall, but it's hardly an education in radical schema).

It's interesting that it's the "Middle Americans" who are truly dynamic. leading one to think that money and even education (which, after all, is more indoctrination than it is enlightenment, and that's no accident, either) are what enforce conformity, rather than the other way around (Virginia Woolf may have needed a room of her own, but what if you have no room at all?).  Brueggemann's vision is of a god who puts you truly at the margins of human society, out where the cold wind blows and shelter is scarce.  But is it God who puts you there, or society? And as long as you associate God with society, aren't you in the position of this guy?

A poor man had twelve children and had to work day and night in order just to feed them. Thus when the thirteenth came into the world, not knowing what to do in his need, he ran out into the highway, intending to ask the first person whom he met to be the godfather.

The first person who came his way was our dear God, who already knew what was in his heart, and God said to him, "Poor man, I pity you. I will hold your child at his baptism, and care for him, and make him happy on earth."

The man said, "Who are you?"

"I am God."

"Then I do not wish to have you for a godfather," said the man. "You give to the rich, and let the poor starve." 

Brueggemann's point is, that's not what God does, that's what humankind does; and then we confuse our society with God's will.  And we do this whether we decide churches are failing because we are more "mature" than that as a society, or whether we decide the poor will always be with us because that's what Jesus said (and so we don't really have to care about them).

"And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."  And who decides whether or not you're doing that?  You?  Me?

Or us?

*No, not even the internet, which has only made libraries full of books obsolete, but hasn't added even a groat's worth of wisdom to the world's supply.  Uninformed people are still uninformed, because information requires effort and keyword searches don't supplant the work of education and research and study, it just makes them seem inefficient and unnecessary.  Let be be finale of seem, except it won't be; seem will be the finale of seem, and 'round and 'round we'll go, chasing the assurance that we are all equal in our ignorance.  Which is where we would have been had the internet never been invented at all.

**And I still say the problem is not with the institutions per se, but with the people in the pews.  Sunday morning is not only still the most segregated hour in America by race; increasingly, it's segregated by age.  That's the trend the Boomers started which has continued without halt.  More and more churches are dominated by grey heads (like mine, now).  In my last church I was one of the youngest people in any church gathering (and even the people my age acted like they were of a generation older).  I had young family members with children of their own tell me they were going to another church because the people at the other church were younger, there were more children there, and young families like theirs.  This issue was treated by my denomination as a problem to be overcome ("make your church appeal to young people!") while at the same time you didn't dare antagonize the "old people."  After all, they gave more money than the young people did; and were the majority of your congregation.  It was something of Hobson's choice if you forced it, a Catch-22 if you didn't.

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