Friday, May 29, 2015

What should Christians do with their brains?

Not to replicate the caricature of the world: this is what we should do with our brain. To refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion.
Catherine Malabou
To cancel the fluxes, to lower our self-controlling guard, to accept exploding from time to time: this is what we should do with our brains. It is time to remember that some explosions are not in fact terrorist--explosions of rage, for example. Perhaps we ought to relearn how to enrage ourselves, to explode against a certain culture of docility, of amenity, of the effacement of all conflict even as we live in a state of permanent war. It is not because the struggle has changed form, it is not because it is no longer really possible to fight a boss, owner, or father that there is no struggle to wage against exploitation. To ask "What should we do with our brain?" is above all to visualize the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile. (What Should We Do With Our Brain?, 78-79)

Malabou's thesis is simple: recent science has given us a new basic description of the brain and how it functions, but our lack of awareness of this neurological (plastic) understanding of the brain controls us precisely by our lack of awareness.

We know the brain is massively plastic. Increasingly neuroscience informs the drugs we take, the decisions we make, the way we map the world and understand the world.

And yet..

A while back in an article for Word & World,  I took a stab at exploring the practice of idiosyncrasy as an aspect of resurrection in Christ, an analysis of Pauline theological and Christological motifs in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I continue fascinated by the role of holy fools and prophets in the life of faith.

Consider also that the higher one rises, the more authority one gains, the less freedom one has. Musicians who seek broad, popular appeal have to shrug off their distinctive stylings. Mumford & Sons drops their banjo. Taylor Swift loses her twang. Taylor Swift seems to have found herself a bit more in the process. Mumford, sadly, have lost themselves completely.

But you know what I mean, regardless of medium. Principled politicians race to the middle in order to get elected. Academics who take on administrative roles temper their academic freedom. Prophetic pastors dampen their advocacy for justice in order to appease disparate groups in their congregations. Middle children attempt, often successfully but to the detriment of their own psyche, not to self-differentiate too much.

You could make a rather convincing case for Jesus' crucifixion resulting from his unwillingness to conform to the rigid demands of society to be plastic, and instead Jesus "visualized the possibility of saying no to an afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile."

To be conscious of the plasticity of one's brain is to give oneself the means to say no. (Marc Jeannerod)

Jesus' brain kept his head up, until it killed him. Jesus was remarkable precisely in his freedom to say no.

Holy saints and fools of every age have followed suit, from stylites to anchorites to Óscar Romero. They have not allowed the world to take advantage of the plasticity of their brains. Instead they have, with self-differentiating stability, exploded on the stage with quietly massive plasticity.

If you don't quite believe me, just experiment with not doing something basically everyone else does. Don't say the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. I don't. Ever. Watch the world expect you, with overwhelming rigidity, to be more malleable, conform to the norm.

Perhaps this is a bad example, even a dangerous one. Any attempt at saying "no" to plastic demands will be qualified by self-doubts and re-appraisals. But idiosyncracy carries on. It plays the banjo even though there are less album sales. It remains libertarian and so fails to secure the presidency. It remains faithful in ways the world perceives as rigid, strange, perhaps even perverse.

It's an awkward path, and the prophetic can easily tip over into the provocative. Not every "no" is free. Sometimes we say "no" out of a strange type of negative conformity.

Self-differentiation is no easy achievement. It is an exercise for a life-time. Perhaps the mark of a self-differentiated brain that is free to say "no" to the demands of a culture that expects plasticity is one additional, but essential thing. It is a brain that can say "no" while at ease, with no anxiety. It is the calm at the center of a storm, except in this case, the eye of the storm is not a symptom of it, but rather the beginning of its overcoming.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Pew Forum's Cat of Religious Uncertainty

Religion in the United States is more robust, stable, and healthy than ever before.

There is no decline. There are only a variety of apocalyptic mis-interpretations of polls.

Many self-defined "nones" attend church every Sunday.

Surveys don't measure what we think they measure.

As one friend writes, "If we don't have studies, how can we have panicked overreactions to things?"

In most surveys, respondents have to fit into the specific categories and methodologies of the survey.

In the recent Pew study, respondents were required to report just one religion. But many people are multi-religious.

Many of us complete surveys aspirationally, describing ourselves as how we hope to be.

Many of us complete surveys strategically, describing ourselves the way we want to be perceived.

Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors.

“The facts are that the world is probably much more religious than it was a century ago,” Stark stated. “It may in fact be more religious than it ever was.”
The number of "nones" in our culture has been dramatically inflated.
We like to describe religion in America in apocalyptic terms. Voltaire thought religion would be dead by the end of the 19th century. This is the story we are still telling. Over and over. Ad nauseum.

In point of fact, religion in America is quite stable.

The "state" of religion is always super positional and only becomes known when the observer measures the "state" and defines positions. Like the famous cat in the box. In some ways, though different, like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

In other words, much of the press on the Pew religious life survey may create heat, generate click-throughs, gather attention and benefit advertising revenue.

It just won't be true.

For more, and theological reflections on polls, see
 Most people want to know what is going on in their societies, communities, and cultures.  The worst way to do this is a poll.  Polls, unless crafted very carefully and subjected to considerable interpretation, make remarkable assumptions about the way that human beings perceive themselves.  First, polls (as opposed to extended interviews and observations) presume that I, when taking a poll, am transparent to myself.  We hardly are aware of all of our motivations and the various ways in which our self-reflective observations are self-deceptions and half-truths.  We need help to understand ourselves and our families and situations.  The short account we give of ourselves in a poll does not disclose much. 
Second, polls threaten religious claims directly because they skew what people think is true based upon their situation, no matter whether they are conscious of it or not.  Polls are sometimes thought to generate or reveal what is generally plausible or believable in a society.  They are thought to present to us what are called "plausibility structures."  A person usually appeals to what is plausible by appealing to a general sense of what a society accepts as true.  For instance, many Americans can imagine environmental disaster.  What they cannot imagine is a world governed otherwise than by a free-market capitalist economy.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Texting the Faith | Salvation and Christianity Explained

Yes, this whole conversation occurred via text messaging. Yes, it is the best conversation on the Christian faith I've ever had.

Zelda: What if it really does all boil down to biology? Sometimes I think my sister got the religious gene and I got the atheist gene... but I want the religious gene, so I settled for agnostic theism instead.

Me: "I believe Lord... help my unbelief." Desire is a form of faith. Even the desire for faith itself. And of course biology plays a role. We were created with biological bodies after all.

Zelda: I agree with that. But that still doesn't mean I believe in Jesus... What makes a person a Christian? What makes someone a Christian, per se?

Me: Jesus' belief in you. :)

Zelda: So if Jesus believes in everyone, are we all Christians? Is a Muslim extremist a Christian?

Me: Hmmm... well, what makes you a Christian is baptism, sermons, receiving faith as a gift, from outside ourselves. Which is why you should come to church more... ;)

Zelda: I try... sometimes. I really struggle with the social aspect of it. I don't have social anxiety but being social is exhausting to me--I'm an extreme introvert. And weekends are when I rest and try to pull myself together for the coming week. I do like church, and am there in spirit quite a bit.

Me: I do understand. You are not alone in your need to be alone.

Zelda: It's an odd thing sometimes... I go to church online a lot--I love your ministry that way. I wasn't trying to be a smarts with the Muslim extremist question. But I did think it was funny... but also serious question at the same time. There's an interesting book Anatomy of Violence that is about the neurobiology behind the criminal mind. It asks a lot of great questions about the roles of biology and personal responsibility.

What if I did believe but was never baptized? Christian or no?

Me: What if you are asking the wrong question?

Zelda: There are no wrong questions.

Me: Yes, there are. For example: "Why are you such an asshole?" :) What I mean though is this... What if trying to define what makes you a Christian is coming at the topic from a less optimal direction.

Zelda: BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHA!!!! I have to get to work. I've been at the DMV all morning. I will chew on that and get back to you. This is awesome... :)

Just got off work, so I'm just now getting back to this:

I'm not necessary trying to define Christianity only for myself but also as a whole. It seems to me like a Christian--as a definition--would have to be someone who has at least some belief in, relationship with, or allegiance to, Jesus/the Christ. If Jesus/Christ is not a part of it, it doesn't seem much like "Christianity" to me Does that make sense?

To me, honesty is incredibly important. Trying to say/pretend one is a Christian when there is no real belief in Jesus seems deceitful to me. However, I may be wrong, but I think most people equate Christianity with some semblance (or internal belief) of being a follower of Christ--now, what that 'follower of Christ' looks like can vary widely (from Fred Phelps to Pope Benedict to Barak Obama to ...)... but all of them claim to be Christians/Christ followers. So, then is the Lutheran belief of faith as a gift baffles the shit out of me from a former/recovering-Baptist perspective. I understand Lutherans believe that it's faith and not works, but you either stand for something/believe in Jesus or you don't. And if it's Jesus believing in us, then we are all automatically Christians (this rings vaguely of Rob Bell... pun intended.)

God/Creator makes sense to me. Science and reason make sense to me.

Bible? No.
Jesus? Not a clue.

Just because I have faith in a greater power doesn't mean I'm a Christian. It could just mean I'm a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

By the way, I'm not trying to be difficult or confrontational--that is never my intention--so please don't take it that way. These are just truly the things that roll around my mind in the quiet evenings... And sometimes I take them out and bounce them against the walls and see if they change.

I sometimes wonder, as I gaze out those beautiful windows I sit close to at church, if all of this isn't just something humans constructed to appease our fear of death. The cremains we now have out there in the garden only added to that line of thought... My mother and grandmother follow a religion of guilt that is tempered with a fear of death, served with a side of claiming to be followers of Jesus. And sometimes I wonder if that's really all they have... and what is that, exactly?

Me: Here is what I think. There are two separate questions. One is, "Am I a Christian?" Meaning, "Am I saved?"

Zelda: I can't wait to hear this... I was hoping you'd say something [note this entire correspondence takes place over the course of three days]

Me: The other question is, "Am I a Christian?" Meaning, "Do I follow Jesus?" When you asked what makes the minimum for a Christian I thought you meant for salvation. Then my answer is the thing about Jesus believing in you.

But if it is about following Jesus then I have a different answer. Then you either are or you aren't... That's Kierkegaardian I think... The Muslim extremist can be saved but may not be following Jesus.

Zelda: Let me make sure I understand: You're saying salvation equates to Jesus believing in us... so does that mean everyone is "saved"? Even the Muslim extremist? But secondly you're saying that doesn't mean everyone is following Jesus...

Me: I am kind of like a universalist, but not exactly. So yea I'd say you have summarized my position well.

Zelda: Okay. I'm in the realm of universalist as well. Very much so...

To be honest, I've watched and listened to you closely for a long time. By the standards of many so-called Christians I have met, they'd say you aren't a Christian... and I've thought that for a very long time. I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just a neutral observation I've made coming from a fundamentalist/legalistic point of view.

Me: Because of my morals?

Zelda: No, because of the way you think. I've stayed at GSLC because of the way you lead seems Universalist... and yes, even though I'm not frequently there, I consider myself at GSLC.

Me: I'm not surprised they don't think I'm Christian. What's funny, though, is I actually think I'm more orthodox than they are.

Zelda: Well, the robes definitely suit you. :) You're very much into orthodoxy. Did you know you are the first pastor who hasn't condemned me to hell, put me down, belittled or basically called me a heathen or trouble maker for what I said earlier? My intention has never been to stir the pot. My intention has always been seeking Truth, the Divine and asking lots of questions. The previous have all been offended or intimidated when neither has ever been my intent. Thank you... even though you did call me an asshole this morning... ;)


So is Jesus a requirement for salvation? But it's his belief in us that is the requirement, not our belief in him?

Me: Yes. We are saved by the faith OF Christ. His faith in us.

Zelda: Okay. That is interesting, but makes sense. I struggled with the 'help me with my unbelief thing' for years. Never worked for me... I still don't believe.

However, I see now more what the Lutheran position on faith from God is. I just thought he was holding out on me and making me wait around for some reason. I was hoping I wouldn't die in the interim. I will save these texts to refer back to and think on.

I'm saved, you're saved, my atheist friends is saved, the Muslim extremist is saved... but then the next--but very separate thing--is whether we are following: Clint is trying to follow. I'm spinning in circles. My atheist friend is just standing there. The Muslim extremist is running the other way... but can't outrun the grace of God. Is that what you meant?

Actually, my atheist friend is also running the other way, but not with weapons.

All of this makes more sense (well, as much as Christianity can)--and put the pieces together in a more complete way than I have ever heard.

What you are talking about makes the true 'freedom in Christ' that Paul talks about actually make sense. Previously, that always seemed to wildly contradict what other professing Christians today say with their rules, petty splitting of hairs, and condemnation.

It is also a different Jesus. I don't think I've met that one... but that one seems to line up more with the God I hope to meet.

God is a shackled birthing mother

A Review of Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner

Winner promises to surprise us with "overlooked" ways of meeting God, and she does not disappoint. In fact, she goes one step further, and surprises us with new ways to actually understanding God. It's really remarkable. A couple of chapters approach metaphors in a way somewhat common among liturgical faith communities, on clothes, bread, and wine. These chapters are still very rich.

But what really stand out are chapters on "Laboring Women," "Smell," "Flame," and a concluding postscript on her ministry in a women's prison. In these chapters, I found myself reading about God and encountering God in ways I literally hadn't before, not because they had been unavailable to me (they are, after all, in my personal experience and in theological literature) but because I had overlooked them. Literally.

As just one example, Winner spends much of the chapter on "Laboring Women" actually describing the birth process, and recognizing the shift that has occurred in our culture where more men than ever are present at births, but also more women than ever don't know the personal experience of birthing because, for a variety of reasons, they aren't having children. But then Winner goes on to look at Trinitarian language for God, offering one such image--Mother, Baby, Midwife--I had never considered, even though one is able to find language for this analogy in Scripture itself, and all over the patristic and medieval writings.

This is the other surprise of Winner's book, all the wonderful short quotes she pulls from throughout Christian history. Her book is already powerful enough as it is. The quotes make for a faith compendium I will be returning to over and over to inspire me.

Finally, Winner offers a variety of challenges in the book that will change how I act. For example, did you know that many incarcerated women who are pregnant are actually shackled during the birth of their child, including chains wrapped around their torso and bodies. Not only is this dangerous for the baby, it is inhumane and against international law. Winner's deep identification with incarcerated women wends its way through the whole book, and makes it not just a memoir, but a call to justice. You really need to read it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mainline Self-Loathing | mainlinedecline | Mainline Protestant gaze©

Thesis: Mainline Protestants as a group have terribly low self-esteem, verging on self-loathing. Our self-regard is so low that we actually enjoy reading article after article about what Martin Marty has taught us to call mainlinedecline.

No cattail whips or hair shirts for us, instead we take our self-flagellation in logorrheic doses. We especially like statistics. Show us how bad we are in real numbers, via long pdf downloads.

I was reminded of this again today because of the release of the most recent study from the Pew Research Center, America's Changing Religious Landscape.

I probably am complicit in the self-loathing I'm outlining here. I apologize. I feel bad about it. And this post probably contributes to it. I feel even worse about that. I'm sorry.

These exhaustive, massive studies (35,000 congregations surveyed!), funded by four trusts of the children of that wealthy oil baron Presbyterian Joseph N. Pew, frequently seem to emphasize results centered around how mainline Protestants are performing (statistically) in our nation.

So, we only make up 14.7% of the population in 2014, down from 17.8% in 2007. In the meantime, unaffiliated folks have soared from 16.1 to 22.8% of the population. Evangelical Protestants remain on top (a group I'll come back around to in a bit).

We look at these numbers, and immediately begin to offer explanations. We hope to discover causation. Perhaps we are lukewarm, too liberal, not having enough babies, too inwardly focused, boring, irrelevant, too relevant, apostate, old, void of the Holy Spirit.

Then we wait for the prognosticators to emerge to help us understand these numbers better. Pew itself offers lots and lots of material for us to read, so we can feel even worse about ourselves than we already do.

So what's wrong with this picture?

Well, notice that to begin with, mainline Protestants only make up about 14.7% of the population. What about the other 85.3%? Should we pay any attention to them?

If we did, we'd find out how strangely Pew has lumped these groups. The evangelical Protestants include, if you can believe this:
Southern Baptist Convention
Assemblies of God
Churches of Christ
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
Presbyterian Church in America
All evangelical churches and many non-denominational ones
Has anyone informed Missouri synod folks and SBC folks that they are basically the same tradition? How about Churches of Christ and PCA?

It almost makes you wonder if these faith traditions have been grouped based on what I'd like to call "mainline Protestant gaze." Mainline Protestant gaze© theory is, mutatis mutandi, like male gaze theory. Mainline Protestant gaze© happens when an article or study puts the readers in the perspective of a mainline Protestant person.

Who else other than mainline Protestants would assume that you can lump Churches of Christ with Southern Baptism Convention and Assemblies of God?

You'd think, at the very least, that pentecostals and charismatics would get their own category, given that according to other Pew studies, they make up about 23% of the United States population.

Further proof is the unaffiliated category. Once a religious group includes 56 million people, 22.8% of the population, it's time to come up with a taxonomically richer way of describing them, don't you think? Unless, of course, mainline Protestant gaze is at work, and all these folks are "religiously unaffiliated" because at some time, if we weren't so boring, irrelevant, lukewarm, spirit-less, liberal, and inwardly focused, heck, they might come join us and halt our decline.

Also, of incredible interest but seldom noticed, historically black churches have seen some growth during this same period, rather than decline. So why not more articles about stability in historically black Protestant traditions?

Having said all of this, admittedly written by reading the first copy that came to hand, the initial published results, I decided to burrow down into the actual full report from Pew. It was here that I discovered the Pew researchers are, as you might expect, savvy and forward thinking.

First of all, they're aware of the need for a richer and more subtle approach to the "unaffiliated" category.

Good to know! I promise, as a self-loathing mainline Protestant, I'll definitely read that report to learn where all our people are going, and what they're like!
Appendix B also intrigued me, so I scrolled to the bottom of the pdf to read it. It's kind of hard to find, so I paste it here:

Call outs on this. Notice that a couple of groups you'd think would clearly fall into one category get split in two, Pentecostals being the most notable. Also, notice that 38% of Protestants gave a vague denominational identity, necessitating the use of their race or their born-again status to categorize them into one of the three major Protestant traditions.
Well, that's kind of interesting all by itself, given that the denominational marker for many Christians in the United States would be Spirit-baptism rather than born-again-ness, and if 38% of Protestants gave a vague answer, it could have been fun to create a whole new category of religious affiliation for the study--Vaguers.

All of which is to illustrate how much more endlessly interesting the religious landscape in America is than we might surmise in our navel-gazing self-loathing. Mainline Protestant gaze© is, if my thesis is correct, at least one contributing factor. 

The antidote is rather simple. We should heed Hamlet, and his words to a classmate in Wittenberg (of all places, speaking of Protestantism!):
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
It's a wild world out there, after all, far and away more fascinating than we are often aware. If you've made it this far in the blog, let me offer a prescription that might cure your/our self-loathing.

1. Stop letting pundits tell you why you're failing. Attempts at defining causation are notoriously problematic. Correlation is not causation, and false cause is false cause. The growth of "unaffiliated" is happening at basically every single demographic level, rich/poor, married/single, educated or not, ethnicities of all kinds. Blaming shifts in religious affiliation on [blank] in mainline Protestantism is a fairly obvious example of Mainline Protestant gaze©.

2. Do your own ethnographic research. All these statistics from Pew are great, I love to dig into them as much as the next person. But your neighbor across the street might teach you more about the shifting religious identity of Americans more than any study. You might find out, like I did, why being non-religious makes life far easier in many ways. You might meet a Zoroastrian. You might discover the layered complexity of pastiche spirituality. You might meet yourself.

3. Pick one main religious tradition in North America that isn't your own, and go meet it. For example, I knew almost nothing about Church of Christ before I moved to Arkansas. I still don't know as much as I could. Yet it is a large religious movement with a fascinating "indigenous" sensibility. 

4. Read the Pew study and teach me something about it, point out something I didn't notice. This stuff is pretty fun. The folks who do this research are geeks of a very high order. Dig in.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why I'm Embarrassed on Behalf of Keith Anderson and Tony Jones

Rarely does misdirected bloviation rise to such amazing heights as two recent posts by Keith Anderson and Tony Jones (update: Tony deletes and bans comments on his blog if they offer any kind of substantive disagreement or critique. Although the host of Keith's post, Elizabeth Drescher, does not delete comments, she did instruct Keith not to reply to critical comments. So much for dialogue these days).

Both bloggers appear to be riding the coattails of Rachel Held Evans, whose recent book and Washington Post articles captured plenty of deserved attention. Although surfing the wave created by others is not an untypical bloggish activity, something else is notable.

Unfortunately, both men seem completely unaware of their gross gender-bias. Tony Jones engages the classic trope, saying that Evans "plays the scold." Keith Anderson's approach, though a bit more subtle, is typical "mansplaining," a man (Keith) explaining to a woman (Rachel) what she really "means."

Let me summarize each post.

Keith: "RHE just published this book, but I don't really want to talk about the book. Instead, I want to talk about the Washington Post article she wrote. Except I'm not really interested in the Post article either, really I want to explain to all of you that Rachel's point, as nice as it is, will be misunderstood by some white male mainline Protestant pastors, and they will post some status updates on Facebook celebrating the fact that Millennials are now coming 'back' to the mainline. Oh, and by the way, mainline Protestant worship is boring, domesticated, and safe (with the exception of a few Emergent churches I've visited, which are kind of cool). But really the focus shouldn't be on worship, it should be on breaking ourselves open to be missional. I mean, it's kind of sweet that Rachel is interested in our stuff, but our stuff is pretty much crap, and people are already living sacramental lives of deep complexity out in the world. But I don't have time in this post to actually explain what sacramental richness is out in the world, because I'm too busy scolding my mainline Protestant colleagues for being uber-earnest, over-articulating presiders at bad liturgies that aren't emergent enough and then posting stuff about it online. So read my blog instead, and maybe my book, about the digital cathedral."

So friend Tony chimes in a couple of days later with his own post: "Yeah, what Keith said. Rachel did just publish a book, but really the first person to write about this stuff was way back in 1985 and his name is Robert Webber. And me, I was there too, everybody, look at me! [Now, please watch me ignore the fact that RHE is writing a poignant first-person account of her journey to sacramental liturgy] But the thing is, mainline Protestants have a big problem because they don't know what the gospel is. So if all these mainliners get the wrong message from Rachel [notice I don't actually know that much about what Rachel's message really is, and I take no time to actually attend to it], that will be a big problem, everybody! So read my blog instead, and maybe my book about the gospel."

In the meantime, I don't really know why Keith and Tony write this kind of stuff. I wonder if they assume mainline Protestants have such low self-esteem that when they get slapped around like this: You don't know the gospel! Your worship is trivial and boring and you pay too much attention to it! they just lay down and scream, More, more, yes, please, hit me again, I like it! You are so right!

And I really wonder who all these straw people are out there who are chilling out the rest of the week in their parish, confident that all these evangelicals are going to just pour into mainline churches, because, as Tony writes, "Evangelicals make great mainliners."

I certainly don't know any clergy who are doing that. I don't know anybody whose doing that, actually. Quite the opposite, the majority of clergy I know are slugging away at parish ministry, and continue to be worried by what they are told is "mainline decline." So why put up the straw man to tear down?

Unless, of course, you like to get a lot of attention from folks who like to be told how bad they really are.

In the meantime, the book RHE wrote, which many mainline Protestants I know are reading and loving, gets very little if any actual attention. I don't know whether or not Keith or Tony have read the book, but you certainly can't tell from their posts.

If they had read it, they would know that RHE is a brilliant observer, and has already intuited their concern before they ever bloviated about it:
"I'm often asked to speak to church leaders about why young adults are leaving the church. One could write volumes around that question, and indeed, many have. I can't speak exhaustively about the social and historical currents that shape American religious life or about the forces that draw so many of my peers away from faith altogether. The issues that haunt American evangelicalism are different than those that haunt mainline Protestants, which are different than those that affect Catholic and Episcopal parishes, which are different than those influencing Christianity in the parts of the world where it is actually flourishing--namely, the global South and East. But I can tell my own story, which studies suggest is an increasingly common one. I can talk about growing up evangelical, about doubting everything I believed about God, about loving, leaving, and long for church, about searching for it and finding it in unexpected places. And I can share the stories of my friends and readers, people young and old whose comments, letters, and e-mails read like postcards from their own spiritual journeys, dispatches from America's post-Christian frontier. I can't provide the solutions church leaders are looking for, but I can articulate the questions that many in my generation are asking I can translate some of their angst, some of their hope."
That's what both Keith and Tony miss. Rachel is telling her own story, and the story of the many she has been listening to. In the meantime, Keith and Tony are pontificating about generalizations, and generalizations that apply to a very, very narrow subset of Christians, if in fact they apply to anyone at all.

The thing is, Rachel just has a bigger vision. She's both very willing to share from her own perspective and acknowledge it, and she listens widely to those who speak to her.

Keith and Tony completely miss this, and are the poorer for it.

I'm embarrassed for them, but there's still hope. Both of them could have a do-over. In fact, I'll assign them the do-over, and see if they'll give it a try. Here it is:

1) Read Rachel's book from cover to cover, slowly, twice.
2) Write a humble and generous review of it. Pay close attention to what RHE actually writes.
3) Keith, instead of telling all mainline Protestant churches how sad their worship is, and how narrow their mission, tell us about your worship, and your mission, specifically, Upper Dublin Lutheran, and analyze it according to your own criterion.
4) Tony, answer your own question. What is the gospel? And don't tell us the mainline church doesn't know the gospel, because I've sat in churches my whole life, and I've heard the gospel over and over and over again, sometimes from those at the top, and sometimes in the most surprising places.

I plan to give myself this assignment also, since I've offered such strong pushback to their blogs, writing a generous review of her book and one other that arrived in the mail this week by a wonderful writer I also believe is sharing a story of the journey forward into church and God. I'd like to be drawn into the bigger vision.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Take a vacation from church!

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did churches start reducing programming in the summer because people take a break from church and head for the pool, or do people take a break from church because churches reduce programming?

Mike Breen's 3DM Semi-Circle
Probably the answer is: Yes.

However, there is another way to think about sabbath and renewal other than as a "break." Mike Breen, whose life shapes I find useful for discipleship conversations, uses a semi-circle image to illustrate the balance between abiding and fruitfulness, resting and working.

In Breen's model, a congregation might reduce programs for a season in order to abide and rest. But one thing that would not lessen through that season would be regular worship, because worship is an integral part of abiding in God.

Reducing programs allows one type of movement illustrated on the semi-circle, the movement of pruning. Participants in faith communities can prune away some parts of their church life that have become overly hectic, less fruitful than they had hoped.

The pruning then allows space for the growth and nurture of more fruitful activity.

To me, this would be renewed focus on "right" worship. More time to read Scripture. More time devoted to prayer as preparation for communal worship.

It could also mean rested space in order to nurture faith relationships in other ways outside of programmed activities. There might not be Sunday school, but there is now time to meet at the park with friends, and as part of play at the park, huddle briefly for prayer. There might not be a mid-week Wednesday event, but instead a group of families cooks casserole and brings it over to a neighbor in need.

Not to mention the fact that if churchgoing Christians are going to have even half a chance of fulfilling the Great Commission and make disciples of all nations, they're going to have to be less busy at church so they can actually spend time among "the nations."

If I could "prescribe" a pattern for the summer in our own faith community, it would look like: Commit to weekly worship and daily prayer... don't miss worship; visit friends and neighbors and strengthen them, making sure especially that those at risk of being neglected or left out are included; give some time over to study, and some time over to advocating for justice. Use the abiding time to reframe all your non-church time as still abiding in God time.

Lots of people also travel in the summer. Did you know it is easy to find an ELCA congregation wherever you travel?

The Dude Lives, in his unperturbable
state of dudeness, somewhere.
Sometimes there is no better way to abide than to rest in God among people new to you. Worshipping away from home and gathered with others gives perspective.

Even if you can't find a church, abiding in these summer months can mean designing your own family worship. You can even worship on the road. Our family has sung camp songs, read Scripture, and prayed while driving.

The main thing is, to abide, rather than just break. What does it means to rest in God?

For myself, as a pastor, it means discovering that I don't just worship when I have to. Over time, I have learned how much abiding happens when I worship while on vacation. It's the time I "get to" be in worship. I don't not worship as a break from my work. Instead, I worship as part of my resting from work.

The lectionary text for this Sunday includes Jesus' proclamation: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love (John 15:9).

But the word abide isn't much in use today, other than in The Big Lebowski. It is in need of recovery, because it is such a beautiful word. To abide is to stay, to continue in place, to rest, to dwell, to sojourn, to pause, to wait, to continue, to wait for, to be prepared for, to endure, sustain, submit, to bear with, to even stand the consequences of...

Abiding is not dead passivity, but rather active anticipation. To abide through these summer months is to actively prune to make space for what is coming, what's next. To abide in God is to rest during the pruning, trusting in God to provide, trusting that God is the very anticipated, God is both in our anticipation and the anticipated One.

If we approach summer "break" as time to abide, it will "break" open a whole new way for worship and life together.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Race, Reparations, Restoration and Reconciliation

This summer in our congregational life we anticipate space to breathe, to reflect on our spring Journeying Together Faithfully study (an intentional conversation our congregation has hosted around matters of human sexuality and faith), and to begin implementation of recommendations from Healthier Church, and simply to rest in God's creation, enjoying summer.

We also know many of us feel called and inspired by God to continue conversations around matters of importance. So we invite you to join a core team for a summer long conversation on issues of race, community violence, and criminal justice. As our nation and culture struggles mightily with these issues, our goal is to nurture a fall congregational and community space to host a civil conversation for faith-based reflection leading to advocacy and action.

During the summer months, our core team will read background articles and blogs and books, perhaps do some field trips or interview community leaders, and share insights. This team will "practice" what we will then host in the fall. If you're interested in helping design publicity, lead small group discussions in the fall, or more, please gather with us for our first conversation Sunday May 31st during the 10 a.m. education hour. Feel free also to adapt this model for your own congregational context.

Possible fall Sunday study topics:

I. The ELCA Race, Ethnicity and Culture social statement
II. Guest panel with leaders of the recent peace march inSpringdale
 by Elizabeth Goffman
IV. How can we do more than just talk? (individually)
V. Break for social time and fellowship
VI. Guest panel with African-American leaders in Fayetteville
VII. The ELCA Criminal Justice social statement
 by Jennifer Harvey
IX. How can we do more than just talk? (congregationally)
X. ELCA Social Message on Community Violence
XI. Guest panel with police officers/prosecuting attorneys
XIII. How can we do more than just talk? (communally)

The "how can we do more than just talk?" sessions will be an integral part of this study process, so that collectively we develop strategies for working for peace and justice in God's world, thereby fulfilling the promises made in our baptism.


Saturday, May 02, 2015

Girl in a Band: Inspiration for "No Wave" Christianity -or- Toys Break When You Give Them a Goal

A Sonic Memoir

I just finished reading Kim Gordon's fantastic new book, Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Gordon and Thurston Moore, two of my rock heroes, fronted Sonic Youth for over a 30 year stretch, and have become without a doubt one of our more iconic bands. They are so seminal in the world of rock & roll that, in a way, they ARE a genre rather than easily pigeon-holed into a genre. They had their start in the No Wave movement in New York City, a movement that attempted, in punk subculture fashion, to fight against commercialization and another movement of music of the period, New Wave, the most famous band of which was the Talking Heads (which is a whole other story, because David Byrne, also a New Yorker, frontman for the Talking Heads, is as much a creative hero of mine as Kim Gordon).

Gordon is a heroine of rock for many reasons, including, as she recognizes in the title of her memoir, that in that early period of punk and rock history, it was simply remarkable (unfortunately) for a woman to be on stage singing and playing bass.

But here is what is intriguing about Kim Gordon--she wasn't a musician, really didn't even think of herself as a musician. Like Arcade Fire and other big name bands, she kind of fell into the band scene out of a more general interest in performance art.

It's worth reading the memoir for this part of her story. She offers a short version of it in her interview on NPR with Terry Gross:
GROSS: You've always loved music, but you didn't know how to play. And you write you've never considered yourself a musician. So what inspired you to actually start playing? 
GORDON: It began with this artist friend of mine, Dan Graham, who had a performance piece. And he wanted to do the piece with an all-girl band. So he asked me if I wanted to participate. And that was kind of how it started. But, you know, the whole atmosphere of - this was like post-punk era, in a sense - 1981. But something about punk rock - I was just talking with someone about this - how it kind of set people off on this course, and you didn't know where it was going. And it wasn't about being a musician. It was just kind of this almost social phenomena that was happening. But it was happening through music, whereas everything had been fairly staid in mainstream music and also the culture. And so it kind of almost, like, set up this context where anyone could kind of participate. So it was this whole other avenue that was opened up. And it kind of pulled you along with it. 
GROSS: Do you have a lot more technique now than you did then? 
GORDON: (Laughter) I suppose I do, but it's hard to describe. Like, I have a vocabulary of sound and, you know, I have a pretty good sense of space (laughter) and rhythm. But, you know, again, now I play mostly improv music. And, you know, it's not really about playing conventional chords, and it never was in Sonic Youth. It was - the guitars were always tuned in different tunings. The base was tuned in regular - a regular tuning. So we didn't really talk in terms of chords so much and, you know, I almost felt like I had to work against learning how to play, because there was kind of a skill in that, really.
I find one sentence in there mind-blowing. "I almost felt like I had to work against learning how to play, because there was a kind of skill in that, really." Now, to get a sense of what she means by that, I'd suggest you watch this video of a live performance.

After you watch that one, then watch Gordon perform with Sonic Youth on the David Letterman show when she was 8.5 months pregnant, an event she describes with some poignancy in her book:

Towards Sonic Preaching

Here's what I ponder... do more of us allow ourselves to be open to creativity that is beyond constricted creativity? Do we allow our assumptions about how things should be to keep us from creating what is? Gordon didn't let her lack of traditional musical knowledge keep her from singing and playing bass. Instead, she actually cultivated it as its own kind of skill.

I think, for example, of the art of preaching. So many preachers preach the way they think somebody should preach. It becomes a kind of constraining and trapping and derivative performance. So what if preachers could tap into the kind of punk framing Gordon clearly taps into for her sonic explorations? 

Here, watch one more video if you have time. This one is a song Gordon wrote after reading William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition, about Cayce Pollard, a "cool hunter":

I am not here arguing for mediocrity in our creative pursuits. There is far too much of that. But true creativity is killed as much by goals and guidelines as it is by middling dullness.

Okay, if you've been willing to go this far down the rabbit hole with me, will you go one step further. Pause in your reading of this blog post, and go read this post about Videogames As Broken Toys. It's a fascinating meditation on gaming and design theory, not unrelated to a couple of chapters in my book Mediating Faith

Burgun defines the terms this way: 
Here's a quick primer on my four prescriptive interactive forms (read more here): the base interactive system with no goals is a "toy". Add an objective/solution and you get a puzzle. Add measurement and you get a contest. Obfuscate game information (allowing for decisions to exist), and you get a game (a contest of decision-making).)
A fully functional lego turntable
More and more of our toys have been given goals, and so they are increasingly broken. A prime example of this are Legos. Legos used to be interactive with no goals, like the big starter set I played with as a kid. Now, increasingly Legos are only issued with a specific design to build. Of course you can build other things, and so ignore the goals, but the fact that kits are designed for specific stories, looks, and brands "breaks" them to an extension. 

Many games are breaking not because they fail at obfuscating game information, but because they are too goal-oriented. This is Burgun's complaint about many video games. Some video games are incredibly open, and so achieve something much closer to a no goal environment (one of the more famous recent games of this type was Elderscrolls V: Skyrim), but to be a true toy in Burgun's sense means a certain kind of purity that most video games, with the exception of perhaps Minecraft and Burgun's own Auro, lack. 

All of this seems like an opportunity for Christians in particular to consider a greater level of open creativity and confidence in all of our crafts. If we consider much of Christian art, from Christian novels to Christian music, the general insipidity that characterizes much of it is, I believe, connected either to a failure of confidence in the way Kim Gordon confidently transcends the very art she performs, or a narrowing of art by the application of overly constraining goals.

Very few Christian musicians or artists have found a way to transcend these constraints, and when they do, they are typically ostracized from the "guild." Think, for example, of Sufjan Stevens.


First, learn to go punk without going punk. The point of punk isn't to be punk. The point of punk is the discovery of the creative that resides within deconstruction. Nobody can discover a new (spirit-led) direction if they are simply striving harder and harder to perfect the given order. Yes, you can learn how to sing by learning how to sing. But you can also learn to sing by learning how not to sing.

There's a version of this rule made famous by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Yorke, mid-career, started wondering whether he should learn to read music. Jonny Greenwood, his handmade, basically said, no way! Don't learn to read music now, it will suck out all your creativity. Once you learn how to do something, it is hard to unlearn it. Unlearnedness is a gift.

Then consider gaming. Perhaps we are less aware than we should be of how much of our life is actually an RPG. Joseph Laycock's recent book illustrates this point well. "the claims of the moral entrepreneurs [a coalition against the rise of RPGs in the 80s], in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds."

In all of this, there is an invitation to get back to the sandbox, to deconstruct some of the rules and goals that have accreted over the particular sandbox we inhabit, and to live in the open space a true sandbox offers. Anything can be built, and it is all there, given, as a gift. Just don't try to make the sand castle durable, as if waves don't come along with the rising tide.