Thursday, April 07, 2016

Dancing About Architecture

Slate puts me back on my hobby horse:

At the Sanders rally, I asked 25-year-old writer Jenna Steckel about his long odds, and she immediately cited “media bias.” While this idea is being stoked by the candidate, among his supporters it comes from a place much deeper than pure disbelief that Sanders might lose an election. “My generation grew up during the war on terror and skyrocketing unemployment rates,” Steckel said. “We’ve seen a lot of things, and the collapse of our trust is pretty shaky in a lot of institutions.” Other young Sanders supporters I spoke with echoed this sentiment. David Green, a black 33-year-old musician who voted for Obama twice and sees racism as one reason for the level of Republican obstruction during his presidency, cited MSNBC as being particularly “out of touch” in its coverage of Sanders. “Them saying he should cash in early is just an emphasis on how bad the news media is approaching this,” Green said. Last year, a Harvard survey of 18- to 29-year-olds showed trust in the media among young people had reached an all-time low of 11 percent.
No, I'm not interested in what this says about Sanders and his supporters; I'm interested in the sentiment about institutions.  Because this is where the decline in church attendance and general interest in religion comes from:  not some well-thought out intellectual dismissal of religious beliefs (if you can call what Dawkins and Harris & Co. do "well thought out"), but from a general distrust of, and disinterest in, institutions.

The same argument that the Democratic primaries are "front-loaded" to favor conservatives over progressives (and thus indicate why Sanders is so far behind in the delegate count he probably can't catch up) can be levied against churches which, being institutions, have seen a collapse in trust of them, too.

Partly this is the "big news" stuff like the child-rapist priests (let's face it, it's rape if you have sex with an underage child; period), or the scandals that plague "mega-churches," from the "old scandals" of the TV evangelists who disgraced themselves (the Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggart, etc.) to the hucksters like Rick Warren (whatever happened to him?  Never sold another best-seller, did he?) and Joel Osteen (ditto).*  Warren and Osteen seemed to be in it only for the publicity, which makes them little better than Ke$ha, in the long run.  Not sterling examples of Christian humility and practice, to say the least.

And then there's the still repeated meme that the "liberal" Christians should be shouting down the conservative ones, and if they don't, it's their fault the face of Christianity is Franklin Graham.  This is a curious argument, made by people who don't want to be part of the institutional church (any more than they want to be part of an institutional political party), but still want it to dance to their tune.  And there's where the problem really lies.

Is there really a collapse in trust?  Or is there a disinterest in anything that requires effort on my part, without any immediate payoff?

Churches can be stultifying institutions; this has been true since my youth.  There was a perceived exodus of young people from the church when I was young; but "vulture theology" (more accurately, I suppose, ecclesiology) argued that the youth would return as young adults with families, anxious to raise their children in an atmosphere that would at least teach some morality.  And that more or less worked out, so there was some basis for it.  Still, as the population has aged, churches have ossified.  The old grey heads in the pews are staying longer and longer, and insisting more and more on being in control of things, of keeping things the way they are comfortable with, and I don't mean just music and liturgies (or the lack thereof).  Some congregations are open to new approaches to the scriptures and doctrines; some are not.  But almost all have their way of doing things:  who gets to serve the meals at church gatherings, who gets to put out what Christmas decorations, who gets to arrange the lilies and where they are placed at Easter; etc., etc., etc.  The tiniest things can provoke the biggest wars, and young people who have no interest in fighting such battles and who are made to feel like children in the face of elderly intransigence (who do, indeed, address anyone younger than them as if they were a child, or at least expected to obey; I speak from experience as a middle-aged (then) pastor among gray haired congregation members), also have no reason to hang around.

We can look at this broadly, as part of the "Bowling Alone" syndrome; but we can also look at it concretely.  And for every congregation which insists "we don't do that!," look at your worship service and ask where the young people are.  If they aren't there, and they don't want to come back, maybe you do.

I had young church members with children, the most prized cohort in church demographics (yes, that exists; sadly), tell me they were going to other churches where the families, in general, were younger.  Who could blame them?  People like to associate with people their own age.  Most groups insist on that kind of homogeneity.  So in large part churches are segregating by age, the same way they segregate by race and/or language.  But that kind of segregation points to another fact:  it is easier than ever to associate only with those who agree with us, and to do it with minimal effort.**

We used to be joined by what we saw on TV.  Everybody watched the most popular shows, and even if we didn't talk about them at the water cooler (I strain to think of my father discussing "The Andy Griffith Show" or "The Carol Burnett Show" with his professional colleagues), it was still a shared experience (albeit shared in separated living rooms across the country).  At least we told ourselves it was shared.  It wasn't, really.  It was common, but it was also necessity:  with three broadcast networks, you took what they offered.  Then cable came along, which offered more choices, or seemed to.  As Bruce Springsteen sang, "57 channels and nothing on."  Except now that number is closer to 257; and some of us watch FoxNews, and some of us watch MSNBC, and some of us watch "The Daily Show."

And some of us rely on Netflix, or just take what comes on broadcast (which, thanks to digital broadcast, is now 150+ channels in Houston.  Who needs cable?).

And maybe there's still a common experience, but it's the experience of binge-watching the latest episodes, or catching one of the many broadcasts of the latest episode on HBO, or viewing on TiVO (is there still a TiVO?), but the point is not the "common experience," the point is the personal convenience.

Time was, if you weren't home to watch the broadcast, you didn't see the show.  Now you can watch re-runs of TV shows on broadcast television and if you miss a favorite episode, wait a few weeks, it will be on again.  The shows are run repeatedly; as soon as they last episode airs, the first one begins again the next night, and this goes on 7 days a week.  Or you have the video collection, or it's on Netflix/Hulu/what have you.  Convenience is the watchword, and one thing about institutions is: they aren't set up for your convenience.

And there is another point, if you'll allow me to borrow some language from an article on yet another topic:  the point being, matters are usually far more complex than we allow.

As a legion of contemporary scholars (e.g., Talal Asad, José Casanova, Charles Taylor, Saba Mahmood, and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd) have argued, the delimitation of the social spheres of religion and politics, and the boundary between them, is socially-constituted, variable, and constantly contested.

This does not mean that “there is no such thing” as religion or politics, or that one term can simply be collapsed into the other; it means that what counts as religion and politics will vary from one time period or culture to another, certainly, but also among diverse groups within a common culture or political state.

Analysts decrying “politicized religion” fail to recognize that what one group might view as narrowly political and non-religious (or even irreligious) might well be considered a part of religion by another.
To put that in this context, what seems like a decline in religious interest may actually be a shift in religious emphasis.  What constitutes "religious," in other words, could be changing.  Not changing fundamentally, but changing in ways some might (those with the most vested interest in maintaining the status quo) see as fundamental.

This is, in other words, not a major shift in human consciousness; it is simply the usual contest over boundaries common in human societies.  Let's say, by way of example, we want a church that truly challenges the culture of the world; a church as Walter Brueggemann describes it:

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: Well, I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it's a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn't matter whether you talk about the over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian, that's what we have to talk about. So preachers are really put in a very difficult fix of having been entrusted to talk about that stuff.

MS. TIPPETT: And they also belong to this culture.

MR. BRUEGGEMANN: That's right.

The problem is not only that the pastors of such a church would belong to "this culture," but so does the congregation.  It's often remarked that Jesus spoke of the basiliea tou theou and the nature of God and faith and devotion and obligation in terms familiar to the people he spoke to:  prodigal sons and Good Samaritans and mustard seeds and so on.  But he also put some very, very difficult teachings in those parables.  When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the basiliea tou theou, he wasn't being metaphorical or referring to some narrow gate in Jerusalem (the explanation I was given in church in my youth).  He meant a needle, the kind you sew with.  You literally (Archer!) can't get a camel through the eye of a needle; so Jesus was saying it was impossible for the rich to enter the basiliea.  The rich, in Brueggemann's terms, in Jesus' metaphor, had chosen the path of death (which is another reason the gospels talk about "life into the ages."  They don't mean in the sweet bye-and-bye; we've narcotized that over the centuries, too.)

Just saying that much, just trying to reinterpret millennia of exegesis can be like scraping all the accumulated dirt off the Sistine Chapel:  we're so used to the dirty version the bright, colorful, vibrant version seems like heresy.  We're comfortable with the "kingdom of God" being some metaphysical, post-death destination.  We like thinking we can get there while still being at least materially comfortable, if not actually rich (and we constantly move the goalposts on "actually rich," the better to suit ourselves).  It's better to imagine the "eye of the needle" as a narrow gate which allows you to take some of your stuff, just not all of it.  It's our culture.  And now you're going to tell people that's actually the path of death?

Do you remember what they did to Jesus?

Not to mention that, when you start drawing these clear lines of demarcation, you cut Peter off from Paul.  (Go back and read Acts; they never really reconciled.)  Brueggemann's vision is absolutely radical; it's more radical than any vision I know.  It's also absolutely right.

And it's also absolutely impossible.  

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

Pastor Dan recently had an interesting insight into a congregation he pastored, one he labeled "Trump  Supporters."  Part of his description of them is relevant here:

If you listened carefully below the spite and anger (which was not always easy to do), a worldview began to emerge. They believed in a social order. More important, they believed that if everyone knew their position in that order and stuck to it, the world would work much better. They didn’t hate all black people, or Puerto Ricans. In fact, many of them really did have black or Hispanic friends and neighbors they spoke highly of. But they didn’t have much use for someone who didn’t know which neighborhood they were “supposed” to live in, or for someone who objected to social discrimination. That was stepping out of line, and my people had been taught that the highest values in life were staying in line, keeping your nose to the grindstone and not asking for any favors.

The same was true for gays and lesbians. They all knew who was straight and who wasn’t. But as long as the gay folk were willing to go along with the fiction that they were “roommates,” everything was fine. Anything else would have violated the immutable Way Things Are Supposed To Be, and would have been intolerable. Ditto pastors who wanted them to learn songs from that new hymnal. They really, literally believed there was an objective, unchangeable pecking order in society, and they really, literally, believed that it had God’s blessing on it for the good of humanity. America’s Problem Child would absolutely have been their guy.
Now, if you go listen to all the rabid supporters of Bernie Sanders (who, admittedly, are coloring my view of the good Senator), you'll find the same sense of spite and anger, even thought most of them seem to be young people who's only grievance is that college costs too much and jobs playing good salaries (back to the "rich" v. "well off" problem we can never solve) are not plentiful enough.  In short, they feel they've been shortchanged by free trade and the "Establishment" and a social order which was supposed to be fair and just but isn't because they don't see it that way.  Something, in other words, has "violated the immutable Way Things Are Supposed To Be," and they are having none of it!  Hillary is evil and the system is rigged and they are going to take back the power and remake it in their image.  And they not only don't want to learn songs from that new hymnal, they want to burn the hymnals.  The Church, after all, is part of the problem.

Well, everything that is not them is part of the problem.  But how is that different from the congregation Pastor Dan describes?  He pulls the church into this problem, by the way:

The American church, of course, had a hand in creating this situation. Even where Christians didn’t embrace a repressive social hierarchy, they were enthusiastic builders of the social order, and all that entailed. My congregation was the hub of its neighborhood, providing education, opportunities to mingle and network, sometimes financial assistance. But that warm embrace all took place in a closed system. As the community dispersed and found new sources of support, the church wasn’t able to expand its vision of who it should serve and why. Like so many congregations, it wound up strangling itself with its commitment to the old social order. These days, it’s only a shell of what it used to be. The kids of the people I knew have mostly wandered away from the church, sensing that it had little to offer them anymore.
But what is the church except the people, and how do the people live except by the culture they have been raised in?  Churches do strangle with their commitment to the old social order; especially Protestant churches, which are more particularly tied to that social order than the Catholic churches are.  (The latter creates its own culture in crucial ways; the former, birthed by German Princes for Luther or in Geneva for Calvin (essentially) are much more tied to local culture than to a culture of the institution.  The difference is telling.)  Which is not to say the Catholic church sits apart from the culture Brueggemann describes; I've seen Joan Didion's best movie, I understand the accuracy of the portrait.  But the problem is you can no more separate the church from the culture than you can separate the dancer from the dance.

At this point I should go back and say a shaky collapse of trust is not a collapse of trust at all; it's actually the usual wavering of youth as it accepts adulthood.  And perhaps ultimately the problem is this concept of "adolescence" we've taken on, this idea that one is a child, then a "teenager," which is a child with adult powers, and then one finally is an adult.  Much of the complaining of "young people" I read seems more and more like children who don't want to grow up, because they're beginning to see the adult world, and they don't like the responsibility in it.  Oddly, more and more responsibility is being portrayed as the consequence of having children yourself (it's the major theme of the most recent season of "Archer" on Netflix):  you can't be a child and raise children, now you have to be the adult.

It has nothing, you see, to do with chronology; and you have to accept the responsibility, or you truly are an immature person.  But prior to that?  Hey, laissez les bon temps roulez!  Well, for cartoon characters, anyway.

A collapse of trust can't be shaky; it's total, or it's not a collapse.  A shaky trust is normal; if the trust is total, you're either a saint or delusional (two conditions that often appear alike). I'd go further, and argue that if it isn't shaky, you aren't doing it right; you aren't taking it seriously.  And that means things shouldn't be set up for your convenience; which makes me an old crank.

I used to tell my congregation that worship was not for re-charging their spiritual batteries; it was the opposite.  You didn't come to church on Sunday morning to escape the world and get the energy to face it again.  You came to church to experience the presence of God, and to see the rest of your week in that context:  having come into the presence of the living God, the Creator of the Universe, what kind of perspective on the world would you have now?  The week should be a picnic in paradise after that awesome experience.  So we went back to the world to enjoy God's creation; we didn't escape from the world once a week to be able to face it all again for 6 more hard-to-endure days.

It was not as popular a message as I would have supposed.  Maybe because the underlying premise was that the world practiced a culture of death, and the right way to see it, the Christian way to see it, was to put God at the center, and not just in your corner; to make God the reason for existing, not the ability to endure your existence; to make God what was most important, and arrange everything else around that.  No, most people wanted God to help them in the world, not to reset the world as God's footstool.  (That's a powerful image, when you think about it from the right direction.)

"Life is messy," as my Pastoral Care teacher loved to remind us; and that means everything is messy. It also means trying to clean it up is messy, and best laid attempts to do so also gang aft agley.  Doesn't mean you have to stop trying. 

*Osteen still has his huge church, Warren probably has his; but as national media figures, they're last year's news.

**This concern with church demographics and church membership?  Reinhold Niebuhr writes about it in the 1910's and '20's as a young pastor in Detroit.  Even then it was a concern; there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

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