Archive for January 2013
Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations by Anthony B. Robinson, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, 199 pp.
Anthony Robinson is among my favorite authors when it comes to explaining the changes facing the world, articulating their impact on the church, and raising the questions that we all need to contemplate in response. In this book, he takes it farther, drawing some conclusions about what mainline congregations need to do to engage with this new era. In Transforming Congregational Culture (one of my favorite guides for leading change in the church), Robinson makes the case for why change is necessary and hints at the kinds of changes that will be required. Changing the Conversation is a tool to help congregations launch the conversations that will engage the work of transformation.
The premise implied in the title is that congregations have been having conversations for the last few decades about whether they are liberal or conservative in their politics, traditional or contemporary in their worship style, emergent or established in their way of life. Robinson labels these conversations ubiquitous, unhelpful and even destructive. (4) The third way moves beyond “either/or” into “both/and.” How can we be about faith formation AND social justice? How can we be about personal transformation AND public transformation? How can we be serious about scripture AND about reason? The path he charts guides congregations around those unhelpful conversations and into new ones, conversations that will move the church forward into a new way of life.
Much of the material was familiar to me, both from Robinson’s other books and from a myriad of authors addressing similar topics, like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, and Gil Rendle. However, this book is unique because it condenses all that material into short, topical chapters that are perfect for discussion with leadership groups in congregations. I ordered copies of this book for every member of my church Council, and we are going to be working through these conversations throughout the coming year, one chapter at a time.
Robinson covers all the major topics that churches should be considering. The first two chapters are titled, “It’s Not About You” and “And Yet…It Is About You.” These two chapters recap his earlier work (which I think is some of the best out there for mainline churches) on the death of Christendom and its implications for the church. The third chapter puts forth the key challenge for mainline churches: moving beyond civic faith to have “a new heart,” passionate about God and following the way of Christ. This chapter reminded me of a line in Martha Grace Reese’s work in Unbinding the Gospel, “You can’t give what you don’t got. Changing the church demands that all of us grow in our faith and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. He imagines four chambers of this new heart:
an encounter with the living God and the message of and about God; the power and purpose of Scripture; evangelism for the “churched”; and reclaiming theology as “wisdom proper to the life of believers.” These are four aspects of one whole transformation, that is, being “formed anew” or “formed over” by the living God. (79)
Subsequent chapters address more specific questions: leadership and governance, vision, purpose, mission and public role, stewardship and faith formation.
One of the most important things for me in this book was the chapter on a church’s purpose. Robinson traces a variety of authors (including each of the Gospel writers) on the purpose of the church, such as making disciples, changing lives, embodying Christ’s way of life in the world, glorifying God. All of these are variations on a theme. In a workshop with Robinson I attended on Sunday, he put it this way, “we’re in the people-making business,” making Christians not just by conversion but by a steady, shaping way of life. I think clarity of purpose is critical for all congregations, because it should shape everything else. Our purpose guides what we do (and what we don’t do), and how we go about it. We need to be clear on it, and reiterate it over and over again in everything we do as a church. For my congregation, this will be our starting place. We developed a purpose a few years ago, but we have not revisited it recently.
While I may have read or heard many of these ideas before at multiple clergy workshops, and while our church has already been doing this conversational work together over the last five years, it will still be new to many of the Council members reading this book throughout the year. For me, it is a reminder that the conversation needs to be ongoing, not just a one-time thing. Most importantly, this book (far more than many others) does not just lament the past or imagine the future in vague and dreamy ways. Robinson’s questions and model of congregational conversations offers a path for practical, local, immediate and meaningful ways for real churches to engage with change. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I finished Changing the Conversation thinking, “we can do this!” I can imagine my church having all these conversations, and, with the help of this book, we will.
Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, drawings by Joel Filartiga, Doubleday Books, 1982, 137 pp.
This book came recommended in connection with my Macedonian Ministries group’s ongoing work on compassion and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. Several of my colleagues have used it as study material for small groups in their churches.
The best description of the book is that it is a deep meditation on compassion in the tradition of Christ. Nouwen, McNeill and Morris begin not with what it means to act compassionately, but with the compassion of God. What does it mean to say that God is compassionate? How is that compassion shown, given the obvious reality of evil and suffering in the world? They contrast compassion with competition. We humans are motivated by competition with one another, but God (and Jesus) are able to show compassion because they are not in competition with us. This realization about competition really struck me. Competition is not just about being better than others, it is also about being distinguished from others. It is when we strive for distinction (in contrast to humility, not sameness) that we move away from compassion. For example, they discuss being a servant:
Service is an expression of the search for God and not just the desire to bring about individual or social change. … As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes we may accomplish, our service cannot last long. (29)
That connects service to obedience to God, because “whenever we separate service from obedience, compassion becomes a form of spiritual stardom.” (36)
After the meditation on the compassion of God, the authors move through the characteristics of a life shaped by compassion.
- Community—a compassionate life is not lived alone, but within a group of others “walking on the same path” (49)
- Displacement—a voluntary response to being called out of our lives, recognizing we are sinners in need of grace
- Togetherness—letting go of our desire to be special so that we can create healing space for others
- Patience—patience provides discipline to the life of compassion, making us open to God’s time and others’ time
- Prayer—opening our hearts to the needs of others, shaping our spirits
- Action—may include confrontation, and emerges from deep joy and gratitude from God, not from a need to be noticed
There are many beautiful expressions and spiritual insights throughout the book, but the chapter on prayer captured one of the best theologies of prayer I have ever heard.
Prayer is not an effort to make contact with God, to bring God to our side. Prayer, as a discipline that strengthens and deepens discipleship, is the effort to remove everything that might prevent the Spirit of God, given to us by Jesus Christ, from speaking freely to us and in us. The discipline of prayer is the discipline by which we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglements in our impatient impulses. It is the way by which we allow God’s Spirit to move freely. (102-103)
I found this book to be rich and moving on a multitude of levels. It address the whole of the spiritual life, not just the “acts of justice and mercy” that are on our spiritual to-do list. I think it could work well in a group, for clergy or laity, for people in various places in their discipleship journey. I anticipate returning to it many times in the future.
In the days since President Obama’s second inaugural, the critics have reached consensus that his speech was a forthright defense of a liberal, progressive agenda. He spoke up for the values of inclusion and equality, government programs to help the poor, and the movement of justice as drawing wider the circle of democracy. He named climate change, marriage equality, health care, equal pay and the end of “perpetual war” as among his second term priorities. It was a laundry list of passionate causes for progressives like me .
For the first time in more than a decade we heard a national politician apart from Ted Kennedy make a public case for these values. My heart soared at the trinitarian invocation of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” three benchmarks in the struggle for equality for women, African-Americans and GLBT people. I am grateful to the president for making the case for a progressive agenda in the face of a reactionary right-wing party, and I pray that his work giving voice to these concerns will translate into action, legislation and real impact in our nation.
This critical analysis of the president’s words is not intended to denigrate his progressiveness as “not good enough,” as measured by some ideal standard. It is not a plea for political correctness. Instead, it is an argument that language matters in the struggle for justice and equality, and an attempt to use the president’s speech to demonstrate how language can include and exclude in the most subtle ways.
Just as there were moments in his speech that made me feel like at last my worldview had a voice in the political arena, there were also moments that left me feeling marginalized and set apart as “other.” Ironically, these were often the moments designed to be inclusive. In these phrases, the president’s words exemplified a common pattern I call “unconscious Othering.” Unconscious Othering happens when attempts to promote equality for historically oppressed groups actually reinscribe their marginality.
Here is the example that set me on edge in the speech:
For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
The president demonstrated his support for equal pay for women and equal marriage for GLBT people–two issues very close to my heart. However, the way he phrased his commitment made me feel sidelined instead of included. Why?
First, the phrase “wives, mothers and daughters.” This rhetoric appeals to men, inviting them to support women’s equality based on their love for the women closest to them, their wives, mothers and daughters. However, in making that appeal to men, women get reduced to their roles as wives, mothers and daughters–shutting off the fullness of our lives as a professionals, creators, agents and full persons outside our place in the family. Men are people first; husbands, fathers and sons secondarily. Women are wives, mothers and daughters first; maybe after that women can also be something else. Women who are not wives and mothers cease to matter outside of a perpetually juvenile status as daughters.
Second, the use of pronouns. The president says “our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” and “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” The pronouns “our” and “their” create a dynamic of “us” and “them.” “Our wives, our mothers and daughters” and “their efforts” imply that the “our” is male, and women are “they.” Women may deserve equal pay, but do not simply belong to the “us” that delivers it. GLBT people may deserve equal marriage, they may even be elevated to treasured status as sisters and brothers, but they are still not part of “us.”
Quite unconsciously, the president’s words on equality have reinforced the idea that women and GLBT people are Other, different, outside the norm of “us.”
Here is another example:
We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
If “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice,” then the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the victims of prejudice are not a part of “us.” They are Others, for whom we must care and provide, but they do not belong to “we, the people.” It is subtle, but this unconscious Othering, even in the name of promoting equality and justice, serves to reinforce existing distinctions and their accompanying discrimination.
The president’s own place as a member of a historically oppressed group added an intriguing dynamic to these remarks. When the president says “we,” he includes himself and all other African-American men in the “us” instead of the “them.” That is a huge step forward, and not to be taken lightly. I was moved to consider the great strides and sacrifices that made it possible for an African-American man to lay claim to the power of that “we.” Yet I also recognize that he could also have claimed the “we” for more of us.
How could the president’s words have done that? Here’s are some sample rewrites.
For our journey is not complete until men and women both earn a living equal to their efforts.
For our journey is not complete until our daughters have the same opportunity as our sons to earn a living equal to their efforts.
Our journey is not complete until the love between a man and a woman, between two women or two men is treated equally under the law…
Our journey is not complete until, gay or straight, our relationships are recognized equally under the law…
We must be a source of hope to one another, when we are poor, or sick, or marginalized, or the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
In the above rewrites, the “we” includes those groups awaiting justice, rather than demanding equality while still drawing the “we” in such a way that they are not a part of it.
This unconscious Othering happens all the time. Its subtle ways of reinforcing privilege can easily go unnoticed. The president’s speech offered such a clear example that I wanted to use it as a chance to illustrate the problem, especially since it came in the context of attempts to be inclusive, not tokenism or attempts to exclude.
Can you think of further examples of unconscious Othering? How can we think more critically about our use of pronouns, and the lines of “us” and “them” we subtly draw in our speech?
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Jossey-Bass, 2011, 200 pp.
It’s difficult to write a review of this book. I was drawn to it, and the Spirit spoke to me through it in some powerful ways. At the same time, I found myself with some large disagreements with the premises and arguments it contains.
Rohr describes the spiritual life in two halves. The first half is about building the container that gives shape to your life–your persona, your career, your family, your identity. The second half of life is about the contents of that vessel, the true stuff of life that can be contained by it. However, he argues, you can only begin to address these second half of life concerns when the vessel begins to fall apart, or at least when you stop believing in the container as your true self and source of strength. He uses the example of Odysseus, who spent 20 years on his famous journey trying to get home. It was a first half of life journey, with conquest and titles and power. But The Odyssey doesn’t end there. In the final two chapters, Odysseus must undertake another journey, which involves traveling inland and letting go of his oar, the tool that delivered him safely home. This was a second half of life journey, a letting go which finally allows him to rest at home.
I connected with Rohr’s work because I am finding myself moving into a different phase of my life. I will be 40 in less than a year. My family and career choices are fairly well settled, and I am happy with both. Yet precisely because so much is now settled, it also feels like there is a new opening in my life, and a desire to live differently and more deeply. Rohr’s book offered several helpful guideposts that pointed me in the right direction for this journey.
In his chapter on the first half of life, he identifies the importance of strong forces to push up against.
Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build-it-yourself” worldviews, in my studied opinion. Here is my conviction: without law, in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)
Rohr’s construction reminded me of Freud’s superego, which holds the law for us. We must eventually move beyond it, but it is an important ingredient in our development. Given that so many people are still in the first half of life journey, it made me ponder the role I play as a pastor. Many people look to me to act as their superego or lawgiver. It is a role I am reluctant to assume, because I generally see more gray than black-and-white. However, I wonder if I need to find ways to be more strident in my nay-saying to the destructive forces around us, and give more structure and form to the faith I teach and preach. It is not an encouragement to me to be more black-and-white, but to be bolder in proclaiming right from wrong, even in the face of resistance.
As he begins to address the second half of life journey, Rohr’s various chapters gave me language to talk about many of the concerns that have been on my heart.
- The Tragic Sense of Life: Life does not move forward in an orderly straight line of progress, but constantly wrestles with sin, failure, tragedy and hardship.
- Stumbling over the Stumbling Stone: We must lose something in order to find it. “There will always be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand.” (68)
- Necessary Suffering: Incarnation leads to suffering. It is all around us, built into creation. Resurrection requires a dying.
- Home and Homesickness: “God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, sacrament, or church.” (95)
- Amnesia and the Big Picture: “Life is about practicing for heaven. We practice by choosing union (with God) freely–ahead of time–and now. Heaven is the state of union both here and later. As now, so will it be then.” (101)
- A Second Simplicity: Similar to Ricouer’s concept of a second naivete, which I have long found insightful. “Simple meaning now suffices, and that becomes in itself a much deeper happiness.” (113)
- A Bright Sadness: Our happiness is more sober, but our sorrow buoyed by a sense of God’s goodness. ”Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have–right now.” (124)
- The Shadowlands: The persona we create in the first half of life comes with a shadow, that which we try to hide or dismiss. The second half of life requires us to acknowledge and confront this shadow side to ourselves, which always humbles us.
I resonated deeply with many of these realities and concerns, and recognized my own need to engage in this kind of spiritual work at this point of my life.
In spite of its helpfulness to me, I also hold some profound arguments with Rohr’s construction. First and foremost, it is very masculine in its orientation. The model of leaving home, conquering and returning is rooted in the masculine hero myth, and women’s journeys can take a very different path. Similarly, Rohr seems to insist that some crisis, failure or falling apart is required to launch the second half of life journey. While I do agree that something must be shaken or cracked in the steady persona in order to launch that journey, I do not think an earth-shattering crisis is a necessary condition for advanced spiritual development. Yes, one must integrate suffering and hardship and tragedy into a sophisticated spiritual life. Yes, one must let go of the relentless pursuit of status and certainty to reach the second stage of the journey. However, I believe that process may not be a single, shattering earthquake. It may be more like a snake shedding its skin—over and over again, as seasons change, we are required to let go of the old in order to grow into the new. It is painful and uncomfortable and ugly to look at, but in the end we are made new. Not once, but many times throughout our lives.
Rohr’s Falling Upward was not unproblematic, but it was also not unhelpful. I recommend it (with the arguments above) to anyone who feels a sense of restlessness even as they should be settling in to the life they have created, to anyone who is interested an a deeper journey, to anyone contemplating mid-life and beyond.
Calico Joe by John Grisham, Doubleday, 2012, 198 pp.
Calico Joe is a story about baseball, about fathers and sons, about sin and forgiveness, about tragedy and overcoming. The narrator is the adult Paul Tracey. His father is Warren Tracey, a former professional baseball player and a nasty jerk. Joe Castle was a rookie phenom in the summer of 1973, and adored by an eleven-year-old Paul Tracey. His short career ended after he was hit in the head by a fastball thrown by Warren Tracey. The pitch left him seriously disabled, and many suspect it was intentional. Only Paul and Warren know the truth.
Calico Joe is about what happens 30 years later, when Warren is dying and Paul tries to somehow forge healing for his own relationship with his estranged father, his childhood hero Calico Joe, and the past they all share.
It’s as simple as that–a good story, told well. Just the thing for a holiday treat.
I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”
The basic thesis is this:
Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.
Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.
As one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.
Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:
Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?
Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.
Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:
If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?
Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)
I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.
Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.
Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.
They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)
Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.
The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.
Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.
One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.
Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.
Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.
Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.