The last few weeks have been a bit hectic. I hope to resume my "Church for Freaks" series this coming week with some reflections on the nature of the church as a community, and questions of ethics. Watch this space!
Kevin Mattson offers a good analysis of the core difference in foreign policy philosophy between Obama and Romney in the wake of Monday's debate:
For all their seeming consensus, the two candidates represent two distinct political and intellectual traditions that were carved out during our post-World War II past. Obama’s foreign policy touchstone is the work of the Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr. In “The Irony of American History” (1952), Niebuhr presented a vision of America’s role in the world tempered by his doctrine of sin and his deep sense of tragedy. Niebuhr’s central paradox, as his biographer Richard Fox points out, was that “human beings bore responsibility for their actions despite the inevitability of the sins they would commit.” Holding an ironic disposition could force Americans to battle the spread of communism while rejecting naive optimism in favor of a sense of humility and circumspection. It probably comes as no surprise that Niebuhr became an early critic of America’s entry into Vietnam. Overextension of American power was just as dangerous to Niebuhr as denying that we had enemies in the world. Such was the lesson of Niebuhr’s Christian realism.
Obama has ingested his Niebuhr, and it shows in various foreign policy areas. It animates the so-called “lead from behind” doctrine (a term an Obama adviser used in an interview with the New Yorker) and his continued faith that we must hold open discussions even with enemies like Iran. It animates his belief that America should not act alone in the world but build alliances – the sort of alliances his predecessor George W. Bush eschewed. The resultant view of American power is: Yes, America can stand for good abroad but must be cautious and act with a sense of humility. Obama has channeled his inner-Niebuhr ever since he made ending the Iraq War so central to his foreign policy.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, projects a dangerous philosophy that America can reshape history to its liking. Throughout the campaign, Romney has tried to depict Obama as tentative and almost embarrassed by American power. Last night, he reiterated his bizarre charge that Obama went on an “apology tour” in the Middle East. Romney last night talked more about “peace” than about war, but in his key statement on foreign policy, an Oct. 8 address at the Virginia Military Institute, he talked up a president’s right and duty “to use America’s great power to shape history,” and cited the need for “confidence in our cause” and “resolve in our might.”
It’s not true to say that God loves everyone. Certainly not in the same way that He loves His children. And this is perhaps the best way to get at the question and why it’s striking to us. Does God always work for the joy and the happiness and the good of His children? Yes. Does He want to see all of His children come to believe in faith in Him? Yes. Will God in the end see that all of His children believe in Him, rejoice in Him, belong with Him forever? Yes. Are all people God’s children? No.
David tapped his foot nervously as he sat in the wood-paneled office, flanked by his parents. His mother held his hand tightly and stared straight ahead, while his father sat sternly yet calmly, ready to accept whatever news the test brought them.
"I'll just be so glad when this is over and we know that everything is alright," his mother said chattily. Her voice sounded slightly higher than usual to David, and she was speaking quickly. Of course everything would be alright, he thought to himself. Why shouldn't it be? He was one of the elect wasn't he? He had been raised by elect parents, taught right, given the lessons, learned the catechism from the moment of his birth. What's more, he believed it. With all of his heart he believed in God, Christ, and his church. He stood in church and said the creeds with all of the sincerity that anyone could ask for, including God. How could he not be among the elect?
The test would tell. David didn't understand how the technology worked or what exactly was being measured, but the test offered an infallible result, which told the subject whether or not they were in fact marked as the elect of God. Of course, whether you were in fact among the elect was known by God from all eternity, as well as whether you were among the damned. God in his divine providence and foreknowledge chose from all eternity the saved and the damned. Nothing that anyone could do could change God's inexorable judgement. No act, no belief, no prayer or supplication could change one's status as elect or reprobate.
The elect were garaunteed the grace and blessing of God from all eternity. Their lives were expected to be long and successful, their status in society ensured by their exalted status. The best jobs were open to the elect, the best opportunities. The reprobate, on the other hand, were known to be among the damned. This was not a guess. It was a certainty. They were created by God in order to suffer damnation for the sake of God's glory. They were evil, not only by inclination but by intention. God had hardened their hearts in order to make them incapable of hearing and responding to God's grace, so that through their damnation they might demonstrate the justice and wrath of God.
David had heard the statistics: Approximately 10% of the population were among the elect, while the rest were relegated to the ranks of the reprobate. Once you were tested, the result was stamped on your identification, conveyed with all official documentation about you: Your school transcripts, employment information, legal documentation. Every official document that followed you through society marked you as elect or reprobate. For the elect, this smoothed the path to success: Easy access to scholarships, internships, career advancement. The elect received favorable credit ratings, easy access to loans. Exclusive membership in the elite ranks of society.
The reprobate received the opposite treatment. Because they were known to be evil, they were excluded from juries, prevented from working in any official capacity with children, banned from any kind of government or medical work. Of course, with so many reprobate in society, this meant that many thousands within society couldn't find any kind of work, find any kind of shelter, or put down any genuine roots. They revealed their reprobate natures by turning to crime. Incidence of alchoholism and drug abuse were rampant among the reprobate, thus further demonstrating their eternal election to damnation. The sectors in which the reprobate dwelt were known to be violent and impoverished.
David had heard that, before the test, there had been no way to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate. People simply didn't know, and as a result, had no way of ensuring that the elect were given their proper privilaged place in society. As a result, some Christian communities treated everyone as though they were among the elect. Social status had no relationship to one's state of election. Others tried to divine their own state of election through various unscientific methods. This caused a great deal of unnecessary fear and anxiety.
Since the test, things were much clearer, and as a result, people were much happier. Everyone was given the test on their twelfth birthday. From that day one, the elect were expected to live up to their now universally known and acknowledged status as one of God's chosen, while the reprobate were looked on with sadness, and often fear. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen, the reprobate continued to live with their families, who were of course expected to continue to love them as much as was possible with Christian love, and to act toward them with Christ-like compassion. Of course, once their reprobate nature was known, the reprobate often left home quickly, as their evil nature began to present itself openly, and they became a danger to their families.
In some cases, the reprobate were able to cobble together a legitimate living on the lower rungs of society. But they were always viewed with legitimate suspicion, and sometimes with pity.
"David Barker," the attendant called. David rose and entered the testing room.
As their car moved through the streets, David could hear his mother's soft sobs from the front seat. Every so often she'd mutter to herself, "It must be wrong; the test must be wrong. Surely there's some margin for error?"
"There's no margin for error," David's father said. He had remained silent as the technician read the them the test results. Then he stood, and with a contemptuous look at David said, "We're going."
Now he would periodically glance back at David through the rearview mirror. The eyes which had always filled David with a mixture of love and fear when their focus fell on him, were now narrowed with suspicion. It was as though, now that his father knew that David was among the reprobate, his only question was when it would be that David's evil would begin to truly manifest itself.
David wondered the same thing. He was damned. Unrighteous. He was not a child of God but one who was chosen from all eternity for the fire. He had failed his paternity test. The knowledge ate at him. He was now marked for the rest of his life -- for all of eternity! -- as one of the enemies of God, one whom God had rejected, cast aside, created for destruction. How could he live with himself, knowing that?
His mother's sobs deepened. He felt as though he should reach out to her, touch her shoulder, and tell her that everything would be alright. That was how he had been raised. That's what one of the elect would do. But he wasn't among the elect. So how should he behave? He felt hot tears well up from within him. He felt the grief of his loss overcome him, and involuntarily doubled over, wracked with heaving sobs. This cries came from him as though torn from his lungs by some great demonic beast.
He was damned. There was no doubt. At the age of twelve, his fate was sealed, and there was nothing to be done but accept it. Truly, his pastor had once said, it was a worthy thing even to be damned for the glory of God. Even the reprobate should give thanks for their own condemnation if they truly loved God. But David could feel no thankfulness, and could see no glory in the fact of his own damnation. He saw only the pit of eternal torment looming before him. He wanted his ignorance back.
His father gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands. He said nothing to David's mother for the remainder of the drive. As they pulled into the driveway, he turned to her: "We're still young," he said. "We can try again." Then without looking at David he got out of the car and went inside.
His mother turned to him, her red-rimmed eyes took him in. She reached out and put her hand gently on his head. "I loved you. I'm sorry." Then she too got out of the car and went inside.
David sat by himself for a long time. Finally the tears ended. They had to end. He had to steel himself for what was to come. He had to become hard. If he was not to be loved by God, love would have no place in his life. If he was destined to be hated for all time by God, he decided, he would become worthy of God's hate.
Gawker recently published a profile of Reddit "redditor" Violentacrez, who has apparently become well-known in certain corners of the internet world for trucking in the most vile, racist and misogynist kinds of internet trolling. Apparently Gawker's Adrien Chen was able to track down Violentacrez true identity and confront him about his behavior. The result was a deeply disturbing interview with a deeply disturbed individual. Read it at your own risk. It's pretty disgusting.
However, Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress pivots from the Violentacrez story to consider how a certain kind of geek misogyny (which we've seen far too much of in recent months), was pressaged by none other than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, particularly in the person of Warren Meers:
Warren is a decidedly nastier specimen than either Jonathan or Andrew, almost a living incarnation of the more provocative solutions to social insecurity and lack of success with women posited by lonely men online and elsewhere. When we meet Warren, he’s done the magical equivalent of one Reddit user’s suggestion that “one day they’ll bio-engineer a *live* fleshlight. and when it’s not in use, it can be kept in a cage and fed hamster food,” building a robot, April, he uses for sex rather than interacting with a real woman. When he starts dating Katrina, a human woman, he abandons April to run out of batteries, an act tantamount to murder, given that he endowed April with some basic sentience. Later, Warren creates a similar sex robot replica of Buffy that the vampire Spike uses to vent his desire for her—Spike later attempts to assault Buffy, an act of ugly violence that prompts him to reevaluate his life. ...
The Trio’s attacks on Buffy are often manifestations of sexism or sexist desires. They turn her invisible in “Gone,” leaving her voiceless and with limited ability to affect the world around her. They work ugly magical gaslighting on Buffy in “Normal Again,” convincing her that her life and work as a Slayer, the things that make Buffy strong and special, are merely a delusion, a result of severe mental illness that’s left her incarcerated in an institution. And the climactic confrontation between them is sparked when Warren takes steps to address the thing that he hates most about Buffy: that she is more powerful than he is. When Warren fails to equal Buffy magically, he tries to kill her with a handgun, and ends up murdering another woman, Willow’s girlfriend Tara, instead.
Alyssa does a great job tying in the themes that Joss Whedon develops through the character of Warren to the issues of anti-woman geek-ness that have been giving nerddom a bad name these past several months. Her piece is well worth reading.
Today in Religion Dispatches Ira Chernus posts a review of Miko Peled's The General's Son, a memoir of his life as both an Israeli peace activist and the son of one of Israel's most renowned generals.
Although Peled’s autobiography offers these valuable lessons in history, his main message is the story of his own growing friendships with Palestinian activists struggling for independence. The latter chapters of his book, which detail these friendships, offer a rich three-dimensional picture of Palestinian life.
They’re full of vivid details that stick in the mind precisely because they are such ordinary day-to-day occurrences under military occupation: the mother who cannot go out to get water for her six-year-old daughter to drink, and is told by a soldier to let the kid drink dirty dishwater; the resistance leader who is released after years in Israeli prisons, then picked up the very same day and “detained” without charges for another full year; the little girl walking hand in hand with her sister, when her sister suddenly flies away, killed by an Israeli bullet in the head. The girl’s father has become “known for his dedication to reconciliation,” Miko adds, just like Miko’s brother, whose own daughter was killed, and hundreds of other Israelis and Palestinians in the Bereaved Families Forum.
The whole review is well worth reading, and I'm now hoping to pick up the book at my earliest opportunity.
That framework is only sustainable, I think, because our knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. Calvinists know that some few are among the elect, and that Jesus’ atonement is not for all/most. But Calvinists have no way of knowing, with certainty,who the elect might be.
If that knowledge were available — if it were obvious and certain — then Calvinism would not last another generation. It would collapse partly due to ethical incoherence and partly due to ethical horror.
Fred of course has been dealing for years with the pain of inept world-building in his massive review of Left Behind (a task for which there really should be an award of some kind). So the idea of asking how the world would be different if you tweak one dimension of reality is a genuinely interesting prospect.
The best science fiction of course is great because it creates a compelling world in which its characters can dwell. Tweaking it in a theological dimension could yeild some very interesting results.
Objectivists love themselves. And that's not a masturbation joke — they quite literally love the idea of themselves as heroically conquering individuals who owe the world nothing but their own glorious presence. (Rand was also a relentless narcissist who, according to Tobias Wolfe, namedAtlas Shrugged as "the only great American novel.") Rand wrote, “I am done with the monster of ‘we,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame." That's not a particularly pleasant sentiment, ethically speaking. But it's an even uglier sentiment when it comes to sex or love.
He also points toward a dating site geared toward Rand fans:
There's actually an Ayn Rand dating site. They elected not to take the low road (as I would have done) and name it "The Fountainhead," but went with the more restrained "The Atlasphere."Profiles include blurbs like: "You should contact me if you are a skinny woman. If your words are a meaningful progression of concepts rather than a series of vocalizations induced by your spinal cord for the purpose of complementing my tone of voice," and "I am rational, integrated, and effacious. So far, I've never met a person who lives up to the standard I hold for myself." These profiles would be contemptible if they weren't kind of sad, like this guy's: "People see me as a socially inept loner because I tend to avoid superficial conversation but actually I love talking to people who like to think (the problem being I don't know very many)."
I wonder if this gets out if it will do more damage to the popularity of Rand's philosophy than her metaphysical incoherence and moral bankruptcy
One concern I have about my thinking about what kind of community I envison to church to be is that I may just be asking for the church to conform to my own cultral and aesthetic sensibilities, rather than to whatever ones they currently happen to adhere to.
The focus for this concern is the degree to which Christian worship often feels moribund and listless to me, as though the people in the pews aren't really connected to the experience of worship but rather are simply "going through the motions" for the sake of appearances.
Obviously I am referring to the experience of a white Christian in a predominantly white mainline protestant denomination. Things are quite different if you examine the African American tradition of worship, or the more liturgically rich traditions of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and are different yet again if you turn toward the Quakers.
But within predominantly white protestant circles, the options are few: There is the more traditional protestant worship service with roots going back to the Reformation era, and music often going back at least as far, or there is the evangelical praise service, with more informal liturgy and contemporary music.
While there is part of me that appreciates and honors the traditional reformed style worship service, and recognizes the enduring value of traditional hymnody, I can't help but notice how little impact it seems to make in most churches. It doesn't seem to speak to the lived spiritual experience of the congregation, and that's of concern to me.
On the other hand, the "contemporary praise and worship" model is absolutely repugnant to me. The problem isn't so much that I disagree with the theology that underlies it (which I often do), but that it strikes me as being culturally and aesthethically shallow, with prayer that seldom reaches to the depths of human experience and genuinely horrible music. This aesthetic vulgarity actually often seem to extend to the entirety of the evangelical worship experience, whether it is the church buildings that are actually stadiums or re-pourposed warehouses, with enormous parking lots and Starbucks coffee for sale in the narthex, or the kind of kitchy artistic sensibility that views Thomas Kincade as being an artist of note.
I acknowledge that I'm being merciless here, and far more critical of the evangelicals than of the mainline. I suppose this reflects my own background as much as anything else. But any way you slice it, both models are in trouble. And they are in trouble for related reasons: The one refuses to give up traditional models of worship and aesthetic sensibilities while the other is happy to embrace the new, but has no sense of taste, style, or beauty that enables it to discern what is or isn't worthy of adoption for purposes of worship or conveying the meaning of the Christian message.
Having said all of this, I come back to my primary concern: Am I not really just complaining that I have a different cultural and aestheic sensibility than most Christian churches? And if so, why should they change for my sake? So let me cop to the possibility: I may indeed simply be projecting my own sense of taste on what I think is important for the church. That said, I don't think that's the whole of it.
Anyone who's attended a deadeningly dull mainline church service knows that these churches need to change precisely because what they are doing is not in any way spiritually enlivening. On the contrary, these churches are dying a slow death by neglect. On the other hand, many evangelical churches are growing, but they are doing so by appealing to the lowest common denominator of aesthetic sense. This art doesn't challenge or draw us into a deeper understanding of the Christian message or its meaning.
It ought to be possible, in ways that appeal to a wide variety of cultural sensibilities, to construct a Christian cultural aesthetic that can take into account my perhaps eccentric desire to hear the Mountain Goats' music sung as part of worship, and the desire of those who wish to hear more traditional hymns. It ought to be possible find art and music and styles of worship that reflect the best of culture, and not the best of another culture that was meaningful to another time, and not the worst of our contemporary culture.
But there is another dimension to this, that pertains once again to my desire to think of the church as the community of and for outsiders: The degree to which cultural eccentricity can be not only accepted but embraced. Where there is no dress code (either formal or informal), where the pierced and tatooed can be welcomed and embraced, and where those who have no where else to go and no way else to express themselves spiritually can find a home and feel that they belong. I am still feeling my way toward what this might mean, and it pertains a great deal to what I hope to discuss in my next post, namely the nature of the church as a particular, and peculiar, community.
Yesterday I started chipping away at this idea that I had, Church for Freaks, and suggested that I needed to spend some time unpacking it, since most of what I was able to say constructively about it was that it was something other than what I generally experience church as being today.
When I first began to think about this, I was initially of the mind that such a church, to truly be what I had in mind, would have to put theology to the side, since the goal would be to attract people to a community that wasn't laden with all the baggage that traditional mainline and evangelical churches carry with them. But, perhaps because I am a theologian by training and my mind recoils from the idea, I realized that this wouldn't do. Church, if it is to be church, needs to be rooted in some theological self-conception, but the question is: What kind of self-conception should that be?
One could go minimalist, and a few of my friends suggested that I should check out the Unitarians. Of course, I'm familiar with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and appreciate much of what they bring to the conversation, but that struck me as too minimalist. One could go maximalist, and choose a fairly elaborate set of theological doctrines that are rooted in a particular confessional tradition. Something like the Presbyterian Book of Order or the Lutheran confessions of faith. But that struck me as going too far in the other direction.
At core, the theology I'm suggesting is rooted in the principle I laid out yesterday: That the church is understood first and foremost as the community of those who follow Jesus. What that means is that the church needs to be on the one hand radically Christocentric in its theology. All thinking about God and the human condition spring from and return to Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, there is, to crib from Brian McClarran's writing on this topic, a "generous orthodoxy" in terms of how we think about the Christocentric character of faith.
A theology that begins from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, engages in reflection rooted in the history of Christian thinking about Christ, and attempts to understand its meaning in light of the present situation can arrive at multiple answers to the question of how and why the life and teaching of Jesus Christ are significant. Of course, 2,000 years of Christian thought has produces a rather massive corpus of thought on the issue, and one may find oneself landing in any number of different places along the spectrum of opinion about the matter. What I think would have to be the constant touchstone however is the idea that the church teaches that in Jesus Christ God is in some sense definitively revealed.
There may be better and worse reasons to embrace different perspectives on how God is revealed in Christ, and my own preferences definitely fall toward the traditionally orthodox end of the spectrum, as embodied in the work of thinkers like Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltamann (who are themselves very different from one another, yet have both influenced me deeply).
But there is more to theology than just the question of its starting point. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, "nothing is more incredible than the answer to an unasked question." So if Jesus is the answer, what exactly is the question?
Here is where I think the issue of what would motivate freaks like myself to want to show up for worship at a place like the one I'm describing. The heart of Christian theology is and always must be about the grace of God. In Christ, the grace of God is revealed to us in the midst of our brokenness and woundedness. Certainly its true that there can't be grace without some sense of judgement, nevertheless it has to be the case that the preaching and theology of the church should be rooted in the idea that what is revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ is the grace and love of God.
What the mainline churches so often leave out in their preaching and teaching is the importance of a strongly articulated Christocentric theology. I have been frustrated by the degree to which mainline churches fail to root the preaching and teaching of the church within a well developed theological tradition that begins and ends with Jesus Christ. But to push it further, the main problem with the mainline church is its refusal to deal with Jesus Christ crucified. In other words, it is Christ on the cross, not simply Christ the teacher or Christ the prophet or Christ the incarnation of God, that is at the heart of the Christian message.
In Christ's crucifixion we see both the reflection of our brokenness and the consequence of our brokenness, since in our woundedness we wound in return. We as broken creatures harm those who are least worthy of harm, and bring to grief those towards whom we owe the greatest love. And in the cross, this reality is made manifest to us. At the same time, we've been wounded in our turn, and in Christ we see the reflection of a God who is with us in our woundedness, who suffers both for us and because of us, and in whom our hope therefore must rest.
But if the mainline churches have forgotten about the crucified Christ who testifies to our brokenness and to judgement, the evangelical churches have forgotten about grace. Most particularly, they have forgotten about the radical character of grace. The idea that we are accepted without remainder, in the midst of our woundedness and in spite of our propsensity to harm others. That God through Christ overlooks the worst that is in us, and sees instead the image of Christ within us.
This truth applies to every aspect of the human condition. And because of that we need not trouble ourselves too much about passing judgment on others. We are all freaks. We are all broken. The straight and the gay, the banker and the heroin addict, the politician and the prostitute. The fundamental message of the Christian faith is: You are accepted, freaks! You don't need to stop being a freak! You are welcome here! We want freaks! We need freaks! Don't fear to be a freak! Being a freak will not exclude you from the kingdom of God!