Monday, January 31, 2005

Approaching Bad Guys

Here's a great picture from an interview with Brother Andrew:

On the other hand, people who naturally have a right to be suspicious of these groups, because of what they've done, might question whether they are just inviting you in for their own purposes.

They don't invite me. I go gatecrashing all the time. Evangelism, by nature, always has to be aggressive. We have deviated from that whole concept of Acts 1:8, and we've reversed the roles and say, "Well, they've got to invite us." No way. Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Where do peacemakers go?

CT titles the interview "Gatecrashing for Jesus." If we Christians read more Brother Andrew maybe we'd be a little less timid.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

More possible good news from North Korea

The regime appears to be coming apart at the seams.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Fantasy and Reality

Joe Katzman at Winds Of Change has an interesting discussion of the role of fantasy and narcisism in modern protest culture. At one point he examines Lee Harris's article about his protest experience during the Vietnam war era. The main idea is that just as some anti-war activists were operating (and happily so!) in the realm of fantasy, so are a variety of activists today, ranging from al Qaeda terrorists to WTO protestors to the Religious Right in America.

The traditional image of the activist has been as someone who sees the Big Picture. He or she sees the world more clearly than others and wants to make a difference - for the good. The ones they protest against are either evil (to some degree) or mindless dupes of the evil ones. The activist's metanarrative allows them to see the evils nes, the dupes, and even themselves for what they are: participants in a larger story.

But in postmodernity we're not supposed to believe in metanarratives anymore. We're supposed to avoid them as tools of the powerful would-be oppressors. Instead, we are to cheer the little stories here and there and work to make no sense of how they all fit together, i.e., to avoid fitting all the little subplots (our lives) into any overarching plot. Instead, I will live my story - or at most our story, where "our" is a few good buddies. We're incredulous toward any greater scheme of meaning, so we'll just live ourselves and try to make the most of it.

If the only alternative is modernity's sort of powerful metanarrative, a story so often of coercion and violence (though often authorized by "responsible parties" in recognized nation states and bureaucratic structures), then maybe the fantasy world of my little story is a decent alternative. As a Christian, I'd like ot think there are other options.

In the story of Jesus - or, more accurately, the story of God and creation that reaches its climax in Jesus - I see a metanarrative that enables me to see my life as counting for something (in the big picture - whta can be bigger than creation andeternity?) while at the same time delivering me from the necessity of enforcing that story on others? Needless to say, plenty of participants in the story (Christians) have seen fit to enforce it on others. That's what Constantinianism is about. But once we stoop to enforcing the story (call it "righteousness" or the like if you want) on others, we have departed from that story. The climax of our story is the self-giving of the most powerful person, a self-giving that led to humiliating suffering and death. Jesus calls us to take up our crosses, not so that we may crucify the recalcitrant, but so that we too may suffer with him.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Handling New People

I'm working my way through Samuel P. Huntington's latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity. Chapter 8 deals with the challenge large scale immigration poses for modern industrialized nations. Huntington identifies three possible responses to the challenge. Nations can restrict immigration, allow immigration but work to assimilate newcomers, or allow immigration and make little effort at assimilation.

This is an important issue not merley for the USA, but is also analogous to the church. We have a mission from Jesus to make disciples of all nations - to help people come to know Jesus. If we have people in our communities that do not know Jesus or who are not living as part of the Body of Christ, we cannot be comfortable with the numbers we now have, since numbers reporesent people. Out of love for God and people we are compelled to seek to add to our number. Thus it would seem that Huntington's first option, limiting new people, is ruled out as an explicit strategy for the church. I say "explicit," because I have seen a large number of churches for whom non-growth has become an implicit strategy. Growth requires work. Growth requires change. Growth, especially in a church, requires that we give up our privileges and include others.

A more commonly chosen option for churches has been bringing in people in. But what do we do with them once they're here? In many UM churches with which I am acquainted, there has been a history of decline. The membership is aging and it appears that the younger generations - if they go anywhere - are going to Baptist & non-denominational churches. Fear sets in. "Will we survive? Who will maintain the church when we're gone?" Fear of the loss of our insitutional future leads us to a stance of encouraging growth without assimilation. Assimilation into national citizenship puts demands on would-be citizens. They have to learn a new language and a new culture. They must learn new ways of doing things. They must meet certain requirements or citizenship is denied to them.

But in the church we are often loath to put requirements on people. We need them so much. Our fear leads us to believe that if we put requirements on them - which effective assimilation strategies will always do - they will not come. So when we hear of churches that do require membership classes or similar assimilatory structures, we gasp in dismay. How could they be closed to grace? How could they be so exclusive?

Ever since its beginning the United Methodist Church and its major predecessor denominations have been unclear as to whether we are a church or a parachurch orgranization when it comes to doctrine. The Methodist movement under Wesley was clearly a variety of what we today call a parachurch movement. Though Wesley and the Methodist majority were Anglicans, they were not exclusively so and sought to include people from a variety of eccesial groups and to bless all, individually and as a nation. As a parachurch movement, Wesley was able to look to the doctrine of the Church of England as his doctrine and the background doctrine of the movement, without enforcing a dogmatic conformity on the movement as a whole.

In the US at least, Methodism is no longer a parachurch movement. We cannot look to other churches for our doctrine. In our Articles of Religion and the Sermons of Wesley we have a body of doctrine identified by the Book of Discipline. In the centuries since Wesley, new challenges have arisen to this basic Christian doctrine, not merely from the world outside, but from within the church itself. I believe that one reason this challenge to our doctrine comes from within the church is that in denying or downplaying our doctrinal identity, we have failed to work toward the doctrinal dimensions of assimilating new people, whether they come from outside the church or are our own children. This lack of doctrinal identity led us to the place where normative doctrinal pluralism became our central operational doctrine, though since the 1988 Discipline is has no longer been the official position of the church.

In the place of a doctrinal identity, Methodists have tended to emphasize life and lifestyle. Methodists are measured not by their doctrines but by their holiness. This important aspect of our identity has also broken down in recent generations. Two factors contribute to this break down. First, the belief that doctrine can be divorced from life - that we can choose the latter while being fluid on the former - just doesn't work. The picture of the Christian life we see in Scripture is rooted in the person and actions of God, especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As pictures of Jesus, God, the Kingdom, etc. change, so do pictures of what holiness looks like and ideas of what it consists in.

Second, we have allowed a hyper-nonjudgmentalism to become central in our belief systems. A combination of the Enlightenment traditions of free-thought and radical individualism, have led us to see the Golden Rule as the best expression of Christian morality, and Jesus' "judge not, lest you be judged" as its most important corollary. When combined wiith a loss of the doctrinal roots of holiness, the result has been a loss of a shared vision of holiness. We now find ourselves in a place where we are reluctant not only to call for people to change their beliefs, but also to change their ways of living.

Just as Huntington sees the centrality of the question of national idenity in our national future, the question of UM - and Christian identity - is central to our future as the church.

Monday, January 24, 2005

"Eat this book"

While driving to and from Houston this weekend, I listened to Eugene Peterson's lecture on the Christian use of Scripture, "Eat this Book." Peterson argues for a recovery of the sovereignty of God in our approach to scripture, rejecting the contemporary sovereignty of self. Just as true God has revealed himself as Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the current view sees the soveriegn self as the trinity of our desires, needs and feelings. As long as scripture must conform to this less-than-holy trinity, we will inevitably fail to read it aright.

Petersone also spends a great deal of time emphasizing that "eating" scripture is something best done in the company of other believers and in the context of obedience. Our initial encounter with scripture is often positve ("sweet in the mouth"), as we sense our needs met and our questions answered. After time, especially if we are reading aright, we will likely discover that we don't like scripture as much ("bitter in the stomach") as it challenges and provokes us. By reading with others in a context of obedience, we gain the stamina to stick with it.

If you're looking for a nuanced evangelical approach to scripture, this is an excellent series to consider.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

"Progressives" and the "Religious Right"

Bruce Bjork of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches says:
We are appalled by the idea that progressives and Christians don’t belong in the same sentence. We need not to limit moral speech but to expand it. The Religious Right has defined moral conversation in this country to include homosexuality and abortion and nothing else. But affordable housing is a moral issue. The environment is a moral issue. Fair public education funding, public health care, all these are moral issues.
Many progressives believe we should have no political relationship with a religion. On the other hand, the Religious Right’s culture demands civic engagement from its people, but limited only to specific areas that involve individual choice. Our task is to create a third social contract, and I don’t think we know what it looks like yet.
Doubtless these two groups think differently about religion and politics. From the point of view of some in the RR, the Progressives have reduced Christianity to social action. From this interview with Bjork, it seems that some Progressives see RRs as reducing Christianity to single-issue politics. As an Evangelical United Methodist, sandwiched between the two worlds, I see both as over simplifications.
First, it is the case that many on the RR make the most public noise about abortion and homosexuality. But public noise does not equal interest or action. I know of plenty of churches that Progressives would associate with the RR that are quietly involved with much hands on work with the poor and oppressed. Their involvement with Habitat for Humanity, homeless shelters, prison ministries, children's programs, etc., is not something they make much public noise about. They just do it. Most commonly they see meeting these kinds of needs as something they themselves are responsible for and not something they should push government to do.
Second, most Americans seem to deal with an impoverished notion of politics. If politics is onlyDemocrat vs. Republican, Liberal vs. Conservative (or "Caring" vs. "Uncaring"), then we miss out on the old fashioned Aristotelian (and biblical) notion of politics as the formation of a people. Given the nature of our "procedural republic" (as Michael Sandel calls our system), it is extremely difficult to do this. We - both RR and Progressive - are committed to individualism and the rights and freedoms it entails (though in different ways). We are equally committed to the coercive powers of the State, though again, in different ways. It will take much work to shift to a substantive notion of the good, develop civil ways of arguing for it, and equip people to live it out.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Momentary Autism" & Knowing Who You Are

Fast Company has a piece about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. I've read Tipping Point, but haven't gotten Blink yet. Here's how their article starts:

"I really like that term 'momentary autism,' " a woman says softly into the mike. She is in the back of the Times Square Studios speaking to a room of some 200 people, and more important, Malcolm Gladwell, who's standing solo onstage. It's the second day of the fifth annual New Yorker Festival, and Gladwell has just finished a detailed reprise of the seven seconds that led to the infamous 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. Minutes before, every eye in the room was locked on him as he unspooled the nanodecisions that misled four New York cops into thinking the innocent Guinean immigrant was an armed criminal, resulting in 41 shots, 19 to the chest.

As the woman repeats the phrase to the crowd, you can hear her digesting it as if it has just become a part of her. It is a term Gladwell introduced to the group only moments earlier when describing what happens when our ability to read people's intentions is paralyzed in high-stress situations. Cocking his hands back in a gunlike position, he had explained in a tone that was part sociologist, part Shakespearean actor, how the cops misread a "terrified" black man for a "terrifying" black man. "They didn't correctly understand his intentions in that moment, and as a result they completely misinterpreted what that social situation was all about," he said. "I call this kind of failure 'momentary autism.' " It's only one of many neatly packaged catchphrases Gladwell sprinkles throughout his new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown, January 2005).

I want to focus on, "how the cops misread a 'terrified' black man for a 'terrifying' black man." Having not read Blinkyet, I don't know if Gladwell deals with this issue or not, but if all we see in this situation is a case of cops misreading a situation - of cops misreading the intentions of a man, then we're missing an important part of situational awareness. Every situation we encounter is not just something "out there." If we are there we are part of the situation. In this particular case, not only was Mr. Diallo a "terrified black man" rather than a "terrifying black man," but the cops themselves turned out to be "terrified armed men" who became, through their lack of situational awareness, "terrifying armed men."

Terror - perhaps it's better to speak of "fear" - mixes horribly with guns. I've read too many stories of people shooting their friends and loved ones because in the moment ("Blink" as Gladwell would say) they interpreted the other as a threat. I'm glad I'm not a cop. I can't imagine daily going into situation where you are afraid for your life and having to make split second decisions on whether to shoot someone. I can understand the need to project the image of "tough, armed, authority figure." But this seems to be a dangerous identity to bear, dangerous not only for people like Mr. Diallo, but for the police themselves.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Good news from North Korea

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Democracy and Religion

Ali at Free Iraqi has a perceptive post on Islam and Democracy. Here's the comment I left on his site.

Ali said :
What I'm trying to say is that no religion in its present form is compatible with democracy and both democracy and religion can only co-exist if that religion is marginalized.
You are correct that questions of the sort, "Is religion X compatible with democracy?" are the wrong kinds of questions. As a Christian pastor, I'd like to see democracy prevail AND see the Christian faith NOT be marginalized. We who are interested in both religion and democracy have a number of problems.

1. Power. People who are leaders in religion think they need to rule, i.e., exercise power over people. Constantine thought that in the 4th century and from what I've read of Islam, "ruling" is intrinsic to at least some interpretations of Islam. Since we're "of God," or so we think, it is righteous to do so - and good for the people whether they know it or not. But power gtes us in trouble. I don't know about Islam, but in Christianity power receives a powerful critique in the cross of Jesus. In Jesus we see one who has God in the flesh most deserves to exercise power over people. Instead he submits to the (evil) powers of the world and is crucified. When we Christians set ourselves up as The Power, we are putting ourselves in the place not of Jesus, but of those who killed him.

2. Democracy. Those who know something about Christianity and Islam know that each of those words represents diverse and complex social movements. If we look at the different manifestations of Islam around the world - and through time - we don't see just one thing. We grossly oversimplify when we think we do. It's the same way with democracy. Democracy is not just one thing. It is a complex set of ideas. Elections alone don't make a democracy - we all know that much. But when we identify democracy as a good to be pursued, we also don't mean everything that can go by that name. Does democracy require radical individualism? Does democracy require the privatization of religion? Does democracy require a divorce between morality and legislation? Does democracy require a "naked public square"? If all these are of the essence of democracy, then I'm not sure it's something I want after all. But I believe there is plenty of evidence in America alone to demonstrate that what we tend to call democracy is much more than what we see in a snapshot of contemporary America (or other western nations). There are, in other words, different ways to practice democracy. And we're still trying to figure out not only which model (or set of models) to pursue, but how to do it well.

Learning from the Army

A powerful piece in the New Yorker discusses the way junior officers in particular are trying to make the Army a learning organization. One of the scholars they feature is Col. Leonard Wong, who I remember from a study he did several years ago.

They are discovering that there are many needed things soldiers cannot learn in their official training. But they are learning, and, more importantly, innovating, as they constantly face new challenges in Iraq. There are plenty of chances for failure - but they can easily tell that success matters for themselves and for many others around them.

When can we in the church learn to offer our people chances to fail? We give them so many canned lessons. Then we expect them to survive in dangerous situations. We need to give more opportunities to fail - in a relatively safe environment. We also need to teach people how to fail - and get up again.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

What American Teenagers Believe

This interview with Christian Smith from Books and Culture highlights his recent research on American teens. Of his work, I've only read The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, a very interesting book. His thesis there is that the secularization we see in our culture is not merely an accident, but in many cases had knowing agents working to make it happen. Secularization theory, he notes, is sort of an apologetic for the strategy of secularizers. I'd been inclined to think that was the case for some time, so it was nice to find some more support.

In this interview Smith tells of American teens who are more religious than he'd anticipated, but on average, not very articulate about their faith.
One way to frame this problem is to think of the language of faith as something like a second language in our culture. And how do you learn a second language? You learn a second language by listening to others who know how to speak it well, and having a chance to practice it yourself. I don't know how much teens are hearing other people speak the language well, and it really struck us in our research that very few teens are getting a chance to practice talking about their faith. We were dumbfounded by the number of teens who told us we were the first adults who had asked them what they believed. One said: "I do not know. No one has ever asked me that before."

In most subjects where we want kids to learn something, we give tests: Math, Science, English, etc. These tests not only measure what the kids have learned, and how well the teacher has taught, but also in forcing the student to articulate knowledge, produce the knowledge itself. Considering the kind of god many believe in (see next paragraph), however, it will be hard to raise the level of expectations.

Based on our findings, I suggest that the de facto religious faith of the majority of American teens is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." God exists. God created the world. God set up some kind of moral structure. God wants me to be nice. He wants me to be pleasant, wants me to get along with people. That's teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone's good.

This sounds like the god I see in many circles in America. This is the god who enjoins us who are church leaders to strive to meet "felt needs" above all. I understand the need to consider felt needs and "relevance" (one of those other gods we bow down to), but I am skeptical that all true needs are accurately felt and identified as needs.
It turns out when you look at the structure of teenagers' lives, and their schedules, religion fits in a very small piece of all that. It's actually amazing to me that religion has any effect in teenagers' lives. Part of the structure, too, is that what really matters to teenagers is their socially significant relationships. If teenagers have socially significant relationships that cross at church, that cross with other families of believers, then that helps out a lot. But many teenagers have their socially significant relationships almost exclusively through school; even if they have friends at church, the youth group is a satellite out there on the fringe of their life, rather than at the center.

Teens are busy. Americans are busy. Nothing new here. It's tough when kids are primarily socialized by their peers. Smith later notes the huge influence parents are on kids - good news - but I think we parents need to pay more attention to helping kids learn to articulate their faith.

One thing we need to do more strategically and systematically is challeneg our kids in a safe environment. When they go off to college their faith will be challenged. They will run into teachers and other elders who will tets them like never before, offering them a new set of answers, usually very different from those offered by the Christian faith. For too many kids this testing during college will be the first serious intellectual testing they receive. Since testing is a teaching tool, the lessons that testing will give them will not be conducive, in many instances, to continuing in the faith. I had the advantage of being aware of the reality of faith-testing before I started college, so I was prepared for the idea that I could (and should) argue with my professors. I had no trainign in HOW to argue, but knowing that I should, spurred me to extra study and learning. Since a truly healthy education process is about making the students hungry for learning and self-feeding at the trough of knowledge, the faith-challenges offered by professors are a good thing. But we in the churches need to equip our kids to handle them. I see no way top do that short of raising our expectations and challenging them ourselves now while we have them.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Two sets of rules - one for clergy, one for laity?

A United Methodist elder currently pastoring in another denomination reflects on the Beth Stroud case:
Further, the message sounded out from the UMC after the Beth mess is this -- you can't be a practicing lesbian and be a United Methodist pastor at the same time, but as a lesbian who is in a committed relationship with another female it is quite acceptable to be an active and involved lay member of the UMC -- which means you can serve on committees in any capacity, including serving as a chairperson! And as previously mentioned, Beth Stroud will likely be a paid staff member at Germantown United Methodist Church.

I'm not surprised that some find this odd. We have discipline for the ordained, but not for the unordained. Originally, Methodists were known as a disciplined people. Under Wesley, continued membership in the Methodist Societies required discipline - recognized by the leaders of the movement. In the past couple of generations, however, discipline has been watered down. We have standards, but they are selectively enforced, if at all.

As to homosexuality, the Book of Discipline declares that its practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." It doesn't say this is the case only for clergy, but for all. At the same time that same Book of Discipline declares that homosexuals are "people of sacred worth", fully deserving of civil rights.

What we are lacking, is the ability to discern sin and what to do with sinners. Our culture generally offers us two options. First, there is violent condemnation - the like of which we see in Fred Phelps's crowd. Second, there is tolerance. Now which would any morally upstanding person choose? Which position seems more loving? Which is more like Jesus? Most people have trouble imaging Jesus shouting "God hates fags." He instead would be tolerant. If these are our only two options the UM position on homosexuality, especially as acted out toward the clergy, is manifestly unfair and unChristlike.

But are these the only two options? I don't have time to look at this in great detail now, but I have one suggestion. Are there any activities that those who emphasize tolerance in relation to the practice of homosexuality think ought not to be tolerated? How ought one to respond to those non-tolerated activities? We've already ruled out the second option - the "nice" option. But do we then take up violent condemnation? "God hates pedophiles!" "God hates embezzlers!" "God hates gossips!" ???? I confess that I haven't seen that option taken up by the tolerant crowd (except by some caught up in PC issues).

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Bad Motivators

As I was putting my youngest daughter to bed tonight we were listening (as is our habit) to an episode of Adventures in Odyssey. In the story Nick, a worker at Whit's End (a ice cream shop & hang out for kids), is confronted about where he was when a certain object was stolen. He wasn't where he was supposed to be, so out of fear he lied. Trying help my daughter learn from the story, we talked for a bit about his motivation for acting.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Almost everyone acts out of fear at least some of the time. But fear is a terrible motivator - it so often leads us wrong. If we are in a position of leadership, i.e., in a position where we need to motivate people, we're often tempted to use fear: "I'll shoot!", " You'll get an F", etc. Many times this strategy works. But only in the short term, and often with negative consequences.

Hannah thought it would be much better to motivate with a lollipop. Instead of, "If you don't do your work, I'll give you an F," try "When you do your work I'll give you a lollipop." This kind of motivation is also quite common. It's better than fear, but I wouldn't rank it too high either.