Saturday, January 30, 2016

So heavy a focus on this earthly life

What's up with the progressive spiritual tradition's almost dogmatic focus on this earthly life? As much as focus on heavenly things leads to lessened commitment to liberative action in this world, I sympathize with a focus on such things as the fulness of life, human flourishing, grounding in this world, lessons in "how to be here." 

But I wonder if this "spiritual materialism" has become the new dogmatism, worth a bit of pushback. Notice the great teachers of progressive spirituality are all hammering home the notion that it is this life, and only this life, that is to be our primary focus as Christians. You've got, at least, and these are only the most recent and most popular, the following recent publications:

I'm reminded of one of Marx's theses on Feuerbach: The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society. Marx likely meant something like an analytical philosophy of action (remember that his eleventh and most famous thesis was: Die Philosopher haven die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern).

I've always been intrigued by, attracted to, contemplative materialism. It's a worthy approach to the phenomenology of what is. And it is the case that quite frequently, a Christian orientation towards the afterlife justifies less than life-giving action in the present moment, or at the very least fails to fund the imagination for such.

But as much as I sympathize with what might be called a secular spiritually vibrating with the earthly life of Jesus and the world as we know it, I'm sorely tempted of late to start preaching a series on how we can be so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good.

By this, I do not mean that I'm going to revert to a strangely judgmental Calvinism, making strident and confident claims for who is saved, and who is not, and how one accomplishes a (highly individual and grossly narrow) form of salvation. 

I love a majority of correctives that have come from progressive theology that critique the highly constricted soteriologies we have received. Scripture and Christian faith are completely directed towards love of neighbor, and God's spirited presence in this mortal plain. 

That being said, Paul did famously remark in 1 Cor. 15.19, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." And this was not a minority statement of Paul's. Paul hopes for another life, a life after this one, and believes his trust in Christ moves in this direction.

Returning to small examples from each of the books mentioned above. Moltmann's work is an attempt to correct a truncated, impoverished definition of life by reference to the living God and that God's immersion in this world, remaining open to transcendence. But this transcendence, which Moltmann as much as any living theologian has evoked in all his work, is still in the end transcendence in reference to the festival of this earthly life. 

This is an immanence-directed transcendence. Heaven, whatever it is, refers back to this life.

Similarly, Volf's book explores religions in global perspective with an eye towards the ways in which they can contribute to flourishing over against nihilism.

Or Bass's book, which explores the emerging shift in contemporary religiosity that shifts away from notions of a distant God and towards the discovery of God's sacred presence "grounded" in this world. For Bass, God is now less vertical, and instead horizontal, in natural habitats and human geography "above all."

Or Bell's book, which I'm going to suggest is on a slightly different level from the others, because as far as I can tell, it's just a progressive warmed-over and hipsterized evangelical appropriation of Joel Osteen and his best life now philosophy. This right here is all there is, and if you're upper middle class and can pursue your artistic dreams, heck, this life right here ain't half bad.

So why does this matter? Well, once I'm alerted to groupthink (and I'm not always alert, because that's how groupthink works), I tend to find myself allergic to it. When the leading voices in the tradition I inhabit all start speaking and writing in these ways, my itchy nose says, "What's missing here? Why so strong a push in this one comfortable direction?"

And I am not offering a negative evaluation of any of these books (with the possible exception of Bell, who I think has jumped the ship). The continuing presence of hurtful and antiquated soteriologies needs a voice over against. We need people to say in no uncertain terms that the fundamentalist notions of heaven and hell, and the TULIP Calvinist confidence in knowing who goes there, runs against not only Scripture itself, and the teachings of Jesus; it also simply does not comport with what we know of this world, and can imagine based on our current cosmologies.

Let's take those in turn. In Scripture, you have a fundamental hermeneutics of suspicion of any kind of over-confidence about our position vis-à-vis God (Psa. 19.12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. )

As far as salvation is concerned, Jesus and Paul team up for a very high level of clarity. In Matthew 19:25 we have, "When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”  But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”"

And in Paul, in his definitive statement concerning the salvation of Jews and Gentiles:
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.   
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 
“Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

In other words, salvation in the end is only a God thing, and we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling only in the sense that we have to let go of it and hand it to God.

Progressive theologians might argue, if this is the case, that there is no reason to worry about salvation, the life after, because it's all in God's hands anyway. Yet this is not at all what Paul and Jesus are actually teaching. What is important is God's action, God's impossible possibility, and this (im)possibility is a state, a promise, a place, a gift, a doxology. It is so capacious that Paul finally can't speak of it other than through praise.

And he ends with, "For from him and through him and to him are all things." Which is to say that this life, as beautiful as it might be, is lived in reference to God, and not because that makes this life better, but because all of this life will in the end be gathered up into God.

Part of the reason I have begun to care about this so much is this: I believe the progressive Christian over-focus on secular materialism as itself a spirituality, concedes an imagination for the salvation of the whole world over to those whose vision is clouded by their heretical self-righteous delusions.

In their brave attempts to speak a liberative word, a corrective to Christian faith that retains the prophetic dimensions of neighbor love, especially God's love and so our love for the marginalized and poor, they have failed to articulate a vision of the future in consonance with the Christian faith that imagines a cosmological eschatology gathered up into God.

The result is predictable and in many ways boring. You have fundamentalist Christians of various sorts hammering out medieval notions of heaven and hell, or evangelical Christians with their shorts in a knot over minute differences concerning obsessive millennialism. And in the secular world, all you get are dystopias.

As great as so much science fiction is, and much of it really is great, it's almost always conservative warning, depressing destabilization.

Nobody seems to know how to write a utopia anymore. And I think the reason is because progressive religiosity has put all its eggs in one basket, thinking that small political or social fixes now are all there is. Heaven is a place on earth. Of course it is. But that's because it is on its way here from somewhere else. And that "somewhere else" is what I think progressive Christianity has lost sight of
(2 Corinthians 4:18).

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Explaining the Creeds (and a bit about Coriolanus and the Republicans)

I spent a portion of the night reading Shakespeare's Coriolanus, in place of watching the debates, because the struggle around republicanism in that tragedy has compelling resonances with our current national politics. But I'm engaging Shakespeare slowly, so now a break.

In the break, I fielded a call tonight about the creeds. I think this may interest folks. First, we talked about how less compelling the creeds are to many of the Christians we know, ourselves included. This isn't to say there isn't content to our faith, but creedal Christianity seems strangely foreign. I still say the creeds, confess the creeds, believe the creeds, but they just lack a je ne sais quois.

As a Lutheran pastor I've had to know a bit about the creeds. They are the foundation of our confessions, central to our connection to Trinitarian theology. So what is the difference between the Nicene and Apostles' creeds? Well, you could say the Apostles' is liturgical, and the Nicene is conciliar. The Apostle's creed is a confession of faith, centered in the liturgy of baptism. We say it at baptisms. It's what you're supposed to believe as someone being baptized.

The Nicene creed is different, and was worked out and adopted by theologians and church leaders at an ecumenical council in Nicea in the patristic era of the church. It's we language, committing a community of people to a shared faith, and resolving disputed issues about the nature of God, the connection between Christ's death and resurrection and salvation, Christ's "natures," and more.

I mentioned in the phone conversation two things I think were left out of the creeds that I think would make them more compelling today. First, there's not much in the creeds at all about Christ's life, his ministry. It's all about his conception, death, and resurrection. It passes over what is so central to many of us contemporary Christians, his life. Second, there's nothing in the creeds about Israel. It skips straight from creator God to Jesus Christ. This is unfortunate, because it opens space for all kinds of Marcionite-like heresies disconnecting Jesus, the church, and Christian faith, from God's covenantal history with the people of Israel.

All of that being said, ultimately the creeds are confessed in order to witness to the unity Christians have not only through a meal, through baptism, through our love... but also through what they believe. Christianity does have noetic content. There are things to be believed, content to learn. That's not a bad thing. One working definition of a Christian is someone who can say, "Credo." And then keep going.

Monday, January 25, 2016

On self-differentiation: This blog post may save your church, your career, and your marriage

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Edwin Friedman. Seabury Books, 2007.

Imagine a stack of books, a coffee table, a coffee shop, and this reviewer seated in an Ikea Poäng gazing out the windows at a winter haze. I'm hard at work re-reading Friedman's posthumous classic, underlining long sections, when in walks one of my favorite people in the world, a neighbor and missionary and evangelical church elder.

My friend has been through a lot. He lost his young daughter in a tragic car accident about seven years ago. It has been devastating for his whole family. They are forever changed. The grief of losing a child is different than other grief. It can increase in intensity for years.

John came over to my table and started paging through the stack of books near my feet. He told me he was building his reading list for 2016. I asked him what he was reading. He told me he was splitting his time this year 50/50, half of his time reading new works, half re-reading things he'd read before.

On the top of his list for re-reading was Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. On the top of the new works he mentioned Rescuing theGospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss. I told him one of my new reads for the year was The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. We both agreed Coates's book was essential. I was glad to learn of Twiss's work, having never heard of the book before.

Then I held up Edwin Friedman's book, A Failure of Nerve, and said I was reviewing it for this journal. John looked at me, startled, and said, "You've never read it?" My answer: "Of course, many times. But Mark Throntveit wanted a new review of it because it is an oldie but goodie so essential for our 'troops'."

So then John says, "Let me tell you a story about that book." Apparently he heard the call to seminary after his daughter's death, so when he arrived at seminary, he was a mess of emotions. He was reading all of his assigned coursework, lots of it evangelical literature that rubbed him the wrong way, and then he was assigned A Failure of Nerve in a class.

He liked the book even less than the others. Couldn't stand it. So he approach the professor and said, "Why are we reading this book? This book argues against empathy, and empathy has really been helping me through my grief after the death of my daughter?" He waited, she looked him up and down, and then she responded, "Well, John, some people just aren't cut out for seminary." Then turned and walked away.

We both agreed this is embodied Edwin Friedman. In one sentence, one paradoxical turn, she lived this book.

Here is where things get tricky. From this one anecdote, you as a reader of the review might have an emotional response to the story, and come to the conclusion that Edwin Friedman was a cold-hearted man, lacking basic empathy and emotional intelligence. Perhaps you think this is a terrible story, that the professor was a terrible person. Perhaps you feel bad for John. So it is helpful to know first of all that John found the professor's blunt response liberating. It set him free to finish seminary.

Second, just because you come to a conclusion about the teachings of Friedman on this one story doesn't mean you actually understand what Friedman is trying to teach. Your emotional response to his teachings is not the same thing as the teachings themselves.

I have found this to be a rule when reading Friedman, that often my initial emotional response to his insights gets in the way of actually understanding him. This is an essential insight, I think, not just in reading Friedman, but engaging Bowen Family Systems theory more generally. You don't just read Friedman and get it. Instead, like the process of differentiation itself, "it is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than seventy percent there" (183).

There are many ways into this project, many ways of gaining greater clarity on anxiety and societal regression, and the failure of leadership that in all likelihood exacerbates such evolutionary decline.

In an anxious age, people often confuse a well-defined stand for coercion. Their emotional response to perceived coercion is protest and sabotage. Most pastors experience this with some regularity, if they are in fact leading at all. In response to the sabotage or protest, clergy will often look for solutions, methods, data. This, Friedman argues, is the wrong direction, and is an anxious response to an anxious system.

Instead, leaders who wish to lead well in an anxious age will focus "on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than techniques for manipulating or motivating others" (13). This is the lodestone to which any reader of Friedman should return. Whenever we are prone to interpret his work as a set of techniques, or assume we totally and finally "get" what he is saying, we are to be reminded that what his work is really about is an ongoing invitation and challenge to focus on our own presence as a leader within emotional systems.

Friedman says of his own work, "Let the reader beware how subtly radical some of the ideas that follow may be. Perhaps subversive is a better word, though not in an obviously confrontational way. Readers may find that the ideas here conflict with what they have always assumed to be the eternal truths of their profession, their politics, their understanding of life, or, sometimes (and perhaps most disturbing), their therapy. Some of the concepts that I will present--particularly with regard to how empathy has become a power tool, the totalitarian effects of consensus, the exaggerated importance of being informed, and the colossal failure of insight to bring change--will also be as jarring to 'common sense' as Copernicus's notions were to even the most learned medieval mind" (28).

So fair warning, the reactivity of the reader to this work may leave them misappropriating Friedman's concepts if they too quickly shift to implementing the insights as techniques, or confusing their reaction to Friedman's ideas with their actual content. Friedman's theses on self-differentiation, anxious systems, and leadership, are isomorphic and iterative in their implications, not static or singular. That is, they scale both up and down in their application, applying even to the solutions that emerge for their first application.

This is why you need to read Friedman more than once, and you need to read him slowly. Only through such reading and contemplation does a leader have a chance to break out of anxious systems and focus on their own presence rather than the system itself.

Friedman believes his insights into systems are of such wide-ranging consequence the insights apply (and/or he gains the insights from) the study not only of family systems, but also neuroscience and evolutionary biology. In fact, the chapters that delve into systems theory as it relates to cellular structure the function of the brain are particularly fascinating, and worth the time.

Why would you want to read Friedman over and over? Well, here's a list of the principles of leadership Friedman values. If you at all align with these, then Friedman's book is the very best possible book on the market that can assist you in continuing the journey to leading in these ways. For Friedman, well-defined leadership has:

-the capacity to separate oneself from surrounding emotional processes;
-the capacity to obtain clarity about one's principles and vision;
-the willingness to be exposed and to be vulnerable;
-persistence in the face of inertial resistance; and
-self-regulation in the face of reactive sabotage.

By comparison, poorly defined leaders:

-lack the distance to think out their vision clearly;
-are led hither and yon by crisis after crisis.
-are reluctant to take well-defined stands, if they have any convictions at all.
-are selected who lack the maturity and sense of self to deal with sabotage.

This kind of work is not the kind of work one can do once for all, and be done with it. Anyone who tells you, "I studied Friedman in seminary. I get it, don't need to study it anymore," absolutely does not get it, because the work of self within relational systems, and the differentiation necessary to lead well, is a lifelong task.

While I was reading Friedman's book, I couldn't help but think that what is really needed from his work is a commonplaces collection. There are simply so many felicitous sentences, so many paragraphs worth memorizing. So after you go read Friedman, or re-read him, here's my Friedman commonplace book. May it work something salutary in those who read it.


"The absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression" (64).

Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from “going the other way.” (33)

"For, whether we are considering a family, a work system, or an entire nation, the resistance that sabotages a leader’s initiative usually has less to do with the “issue” that ensues than with the fact that the leader took initiative."

"A group of clergy came to me from one of the major religious denominations in our society and said, "We are about to start a project that will raise fifty million dollars for our five hundred most troubled ministers. How would you spend it?" I responded, "Why would you put the fifty million into your five hundred most troubled? You will advance your denomination and our society far more if you put it into your five hundred best." They answered, "But we could never raise the money for that." (72)

"the most important ramification of the herding phenomenon for leadership is its counter-evolutionary effect. In order to be 'inclusive,' the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy towards its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers."

"Therapy has shifted its focus from the presence of the therapist to the problem of the day" (109).

"Emotions do not simply modify thinking, reasoning, or decision-making processes; they are part and parcel of the process of reasoning" (117).

"To be effective, a 'head' must find a way to be present in the body it is leading, but that presence does not have to be communicated by a chain of command. Second, the nature of that presence is felt through its impact, not its messages" (126). 

"The 'old world' view separates data from emotional process and focuses leaders on the 'talking heads' of others, while the 'new world' view focuses leaders on the nature of their own presence" (129).

"The 'catch-22' of emotional processes is this: in order to be able to identify those processes, one must be able to think differently in the first place. The capacity to 'hear' new ideas in a family, in an institution, or in an entire civilization thus depends to a large extent on the capacity to avoid being automatically regulated by that system's emotional processes. And the more reactive the surrounding climate, the more that society in its anxious efforts to seek certainty will reify its models and eventually confuse them with reality itself" (131).

"Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength in a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature.... it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality. There is an alternative that is both caring and self-preserving--one that frees healers, leaders, and parents... it is promoting responsibility for self in another through challenge" (135).

"All entities that are destructive to other entities share one major characteristic that is totally unresponsive to empathy: they are not capable of self-regulation. This is an absolutely universal rule of life in this galaxy" (138).

"Nurturing growth always follows two principles. One is: Stay out of its way; you cannot 'grow' another by will or technique. But the second is: Do not let it 'overgrow' you" (144). 

"The twin problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of overly strong self but of weak or no self. There certainly is reason to guard against capricious, irrational, autocratic, vainglorious leadership in any form of organized life. But democratic institutions have far more to fear from lack of self in their leaders and the license this gives to factionalism (which is not the same as dissent) than from too much strength in the executive power. Indeed, that is precisely one of the major advantages of democratically based institutions: they can reap the benefits of imaginative, aggressive, energetic leadership far less perilously than totalitarian societies driven by unbridled autocracy. This was precisely the view of both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison when they wrote the Federalist Papers to support the 'colonization' of the thirteen colonies, arguing that the integrity of a community is assured only when it can preserve the integrity of its leader" (163).

"The struggle between individuality and togetherness exists in every relationship system, and is a far more basic issue for compatibility in relationships than any other (social science) difference" (172).

"It is only when self is valued that leaders can be less at the mercy of the data/technique deluge, no less its addictive properties. It is only when leaders value self that their cortex can be kept from the service of the reptilian brain and their cerebration can be true thinking. It is only when leaders value self that they can recognize the importance of making their own self-definition more crucial than feeling for others. It is only when leaders value self that in times of crisis they can emphasize the response of the organism rather than the conditions of the environment. It is only when leaders value self that they can prevent it from being eroded by the chronic anxiety of a society in regression. It is only when leaders value self that they can muster the self-regulation necessary for countering the sabotage that will greet them, ironically, in direct relation to the extent that they value and express their self. It is this latter conundrum that so often takes leaders unawares and throws them off course, just when they are functioning best" (174).

"The major relational problem for our species is not getting together; protoplasm loves to join. The problem is preserving self in a close relationship. No human on planet Earth does that well... I know how to teach any family or organizatonal member, regardless of size, how to make another member of that system dysfunctional. I would simply teach them how to overfunction in the other's space" (181).

"How does ones go with the flow and still take the lead? Answer: by positioning oneself in such a way that the natural forces of emotional life carry one in the right direction. They to that positioning is the leader's own self-differentiation, by which I mean his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader's own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers" (230).

"Anyone can remain non-anxious if they also try to be non-present. The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously" (233).

"Having spelled out throughout this book the value of self-differentiation, a caveat must now be added. Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. This is the aspect of leadership that is not emphasized enough, if at all, by most leadership theories that focus on vision, team-building, and so forth. It differs from other kinds of crisis in that it is systemic in nature. The tendency of any leader when faced with this kind of crisis is to cease doing all that which had gone into differentiation... if there is a moment of truth in leadership, it is amid this type of crisis... Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful... lest this sound too hostile, however, what needs to be added is that most sabotaging initiatives are mindless" (247). 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Finnish Lutherans and Pope Francis For the Full Communion Win

Some thoughts on the major implications of Finnish Lutherans receiving communion at the Vatican last week.
1) This simply proves what we all already know, that Finns are awesome, as is Henry of Uppsala.

2) The fact that it was communion for an ecumenical delegation working on full communion between the Orthodox, Catholics and Lutherans makes it even more momentous.

3) Lutherans of our "type," by which I mean Lutherans who subscribe to the confessions of the church but understand them as being open to ecumenical engagement and a move towards full communion with the pieces of a divided church, will celebrate this move, and probably initiate many local conversations inspired by the practice.

4) This will also give implicit permission to a regular practice I have experienced all over Roman Catholicism--openness to widening who can receive the meal at Christ's table.

5) What a lot of people don't know is that Roman Catholics and Lutherans are already in fundamental agreement about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Lutherans, unlike some other Protestants, do not believe in a symbolic presence. We believe Christ is truly present in, with, and under the bread and the wine.

6) Theologians, based on a faulty interpretation of 1 Corinthians, have sometimes taught that you have to believe the right things in order to receive communion. Churches that believe this practice "closed" communion available only to those who adhere to the correct doctrinal beliefs. Catholics do not believe this, exactly. Instead, more important to Catholics is that people not be living in sin, that they be in a "state of grace" when communing. In other words, true repentance is a prerequisite of reception.

7) More contemporary readings of 1 Corinthians 11 argue that when Paul says we eat and drink condemnation to ourselves when we do not discern the body in the meal, he wasn't speaking of right doctrinal belief, but rather injustices based on economic and other kinds of divisions in the church in Corinth. 

8) In other words, it may be the case that the condemnation so many fear is most likely to happen by closing the table to others for the wrong reasons, and not recognizing the unity all Christians share in Christ, through baptism, in the Spirit.

9) All of which is to say it is baptism that centers the Eucharist and access to it, not doctrine, not sin, not sentiment. It is the Spirit that draws us into this unity. The pope is acting "in Christ" when he opens the table, because he is extending the table the way Christ extended it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why is Christian art so bad?

Columbus's voyage was a hinge in time. It swung open a door barely ajar, and for the next hundred years after 1493, no significant cathedral, unless previously planned, was begun. The effect of America's discovery on the European imagination was as though God had been hiding a piece of land bigger than the known world since the dawn of creation. The great lesson of this turnaround is that when any relationship system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem. Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. (Edwin Friedman)
“Wait? I didn’t know you were like a good artist. When you told me you were a Christian,
I thought you just painted pictures of Jesus holding sheep and stuff.
Why is Christian art so kitsch? Whether it's music, or film, or literature, much of what counts for Christian creativity is derivative, saccharine, or propagandist. Much of it is just plain awful.

This hasn't always been the case, and certainly, there are creative Christian artists today, but by and large, ever since Christian became a genre rather than an inspiration, we have witnessed a decline in true creativity from a Christian perspective, so much so that we might say it is the secular that now lays claim to true creativity.

It is the role of faith to be art.

Anyone attending to Christianity and creativity has known for quite some time that Christianity has lost its creative edge. Walk through any art museum and you can witness the turn. True artists remain committed to the beautiful, but increasingly this becomes disconnected from the faith.

Now, I am not lamenting the creation of great secular art. The majority of art today that truly inspires me arises from the secular milieu, and I'm just fine with that. Nor am I saying that the secular doesn't also produce loads and loads of kitsch. Of course it does. 

What I am saying is that the secular produces particularly fine art, genius art, at rates that far exceed anything coming out of what used to be the dominant religious tradition of the West, and this puzzles and to a certain degree concerns me. I am especially curious why my own tradition, my own denomination, so infrequently inspires and funds great artistic creation.

Terraforming Mars

Certain things happen in the world that so jar the imagination that nothing remains the same. Edwin Friedman claims that one such event in Western civilization was Columbus's voyage. Cathedrals, the premier artistic creation of the medieval era, waned. Instead, creativity was directed elsewhere. 

I think the same could be said for Christian art more generally, but the cause of that shift was not a new discovery, but rather the rise of modernity. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age argues that the emergence of the secular is not actually a decline in religiosity, but rather the multiplication of options, so that the conditions for the existence either of religious or secular worldviews have shifted, and both secular and religious options are available.

I think Christian art has declined ever since. Although there was an initial flowering of Christian art after Columbus's voyage (Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, El Greco, to name a few), the High Renaissance was the beginning of the end in some ways for what we might call distinctively Christian art.

The Expanse
I think today of the art that is truly inspiring. I think of the levels of meaning, the grandeur of creation, that so captivate us. A couple of examples. Jessica Jones, which is simply one installment in the Marvel comic universe, explores the human experience of PTSD and rape culture so that viewers have increased empathy and love for suffering humanity. The Expanse, about the human settlement of this solar system, puts on the screen the real science of space exploration. It is nothing short of operatic in its scope and execution. Or the multi-valence and profundity of Fargo

And all of that is just television. The mostly secular creatives engaged in developing these shows are reflecting back to us what it means to be human, what counts as the beautiful, in ways Christian communities aren't. It's no wonder, then, that increasing numbers of people find Christian faith and church community superfluous. If you can plum the depths of human beauty more frequently outside of the faith than in it, why bother?

Yet when I watch these shows, I often think to myself, I wish Christian theology could influence them a bit more, because they'd be all the richer for it. Last season's Daredevil, another Marvel creation on Netflix, the protagonist is a Catholic, and his agonized conversations with his priest are so very poignant, and might be even more rich if a creative theologian had the opportunity to connect actual penitential practice to the scenes. 

Or the best movie of last year, Spotlight, which depicted the power and influence of investigative journalism, not to mention the importance of self-differentiated leadership in the face of sabotage, knew the human side of reporting very, very well, not to mention the human culture of cover-up, and the urban life of Boston. 

But imagine if the church could make a movie like that about itself, from the inside. In the secular era, with a multiplicity of approaches to religiosity and secularity, we as much need a secular look at the church as we do a religious look at secular reporting. 

Right before Christmas, those of us who follow advances in space science watched footage of Elon Musk landing a rocket. One friend wrote at that time:
I am so excited. Yesterday we made a tremendous advance in space flight and it went mostly unnoticed. We now have a proof-of-concept for technology that could reduce the cost of space flight to 10% or even less of what it costs today. 
This is a critical step to becoming a multi-planetary species. I am anxiously awaiting the details of Elon Musk's Mars Colonial Transporter, the plans for which are due any day. In about a decade, we will be sending manned missions to Mars. A new epoch is upon us.
I am guessing whenever we do start sending missions to Mars, there will be another shift in our cultural imagination comparable to the shift that occurred after Columbus. In the meantime, I wonder what kind of shift might shock us out of our complacency in the present moment, or if anything can.

Patronizing the Fellowship

There are hints here and there of immense creativity from Christians. Of course, there's the continuing influence of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose creative works still can teach us much about Christian creativity that isn't "about" Christianity but rather embodies it. We need more of this.

Today, when I think of Christian creativity I'd like to emulate, top of the list is the Myst video game, which was created by two Christian designers, but is really a beautiful open-world immersive puzzler. Or, although not Christian, certainly more theologically rich than almost any other artistic creation of the 21st century, Bioshock.

If we are going to have more of this, we need publishing houses and patrons who "get" that creative Christianity is not creative because it is "about" the church, or faith, or Christianity, but because it embodies it. Most everything else tends towards dogmatic portrayals of what the artist thinks Christianity should be, and any propaganda of this sort is always only beautiful by accident (just think of art from the Soviet era, for example). 

I think we need more leaders in the Christian arts who get that creatives need a community, and they need patronage. One of my favorite thought-leaders on this is Amanda Palmer. No, she's not a Christian. I think she is solidly in the secular camp. But her process and forms of creativity can inspire us, I believe, and she is totally the leader on crowd-sourcing and funding. She recently helped launch Patreon, which is a web-based platform for funding creatives.

I am not yet sure what our Columbus will be, or if there will be one. I'd like to imagine it will be this simple news, that table-top board games raised more money on Kickstarter last year than video games. Maybe progressive Christians will leap into game design. I don't know. 

Or maybe it will be the real freedom Christians now have precisely because they are no longer the majority in most of the Western world. Perhaps the shift that needs to happen is to stop thinking of Christian faith as that which colonizes the arts, but rather joins and enhances it.

No matter how we look at this, the point remains. Christians want to help one another and the world be more deeply and creatively human. We have a lot to learn from creative seculars about how to have Christian faith do this, rather than its opposite.

"The Church needs to get back into the work of the Beautiful. It needs to get back into the work of subsidizing and training and mentoring artists and guilds.  It needs to feed people who can sing and write music, and commission their works.  In a previous day, we would have commissioned statues and paintings. Today’s Church should commission novels and movies and screenplays."

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Three Quotes and a Speech | Martin Luther King Jr. Breaking the Silence

"Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans. White America would have liked to believe that in the past ten years a mechanism had somehow been created that needed only orderly and smooth tending for the painless accomplishment of change. Yet this is precisely what has not been achieved. [….] These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash."

"Why is equality to assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself , and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity."

“The thing wrong with America is white racism. White folks are not right…It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks.”

Anti-Refugee Vote This Week--Urge Your Senators to Vote No

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Urge your Senators to vote NO on the "American SAFE Act". Share this letter from hundreds of faith leaders.
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Call and urge your Senators to oppose the ''American SAFE Act'': 1-866-961-4293. Stand for renewed hope not renewed hate. #StandForWelcome
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Dear Clint,

We hope you are well-rested from your Christmas and New Year celebrations because we need your help! Urge your Senators to vote with compassion next week on a bill that would cripple the United States' refugee program’s ability to protect the most vulnerable.

On Wednesday, January 20th, the United States Senate votes to decide if the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015” (H.R. 4038)—that already passed through the House of Representatives—will advance in the Senate. The vote is expected to be extremely close. If this bill were signed into law, it would become nearly impossible to welcome certain refugees. Further, the bill subjects Syrian and Iraqi refugees to differential treatment and intense scrutiny as a means of preventing their resettlement in the United States.

This reactionary bill passed the House of Representatives just days after the tragic attacks in Paris, displaying a lack of understanding of the robust and secure vetting process before a refugee is admitted to the United States. In fact, many Representatives who initially voted for the bill signaled regret later.

LIRS believes, based on over 75 years of experience resettling refugees, that our resettlement system must not be foreclosed to the most vulnerable, including Syrians and Iraqis who themselves are fleeing the terror of ISIS. As The Rev. Roger R. Gustafson, bishop of the Central States Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reminds us, “[b]y refusing to allow those fleeing for their lives to find shelter on safer shores, we would be making them double victims: victims of the persecution [from which they are fleeing] and victims because they are now being villainized for atrocities in which they had no part.” This bill will tell the world that the American people have no interest in protecting victims of violence in Syria and Iraq.

To prevent this detrimental piece of legislation from blocking relief from tens of thousands of refugees, your Senator needs to hear from you today and every day until the vote occurs. Urge your Senators today to protect refugees! Here are a few ways to do so:
  • Call your Senators using the Congressional switchboard: 1-866-961-4293 and urge them to vote NO on the American SAFE Act on Wednesday. 
  • Send a written message here urging your Senators to oppose any Congressional action that would limit vulnerable refugees’ access to protection.
  • Share with your Senators this letter from faith leaders nationwide opposing the bill and ask your family and friends to do the same.
Make certain that in 2016 America stands for renewed hope not renewed hate. As people of faith, we are committed to protecting the world’s most vulnerable and to seeing the face of God in our neighbor. Thank you for your compassion, and as always, thank you for standing for welcome.

In Peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy