Sunday, July 31, 2011

Priorities and Challenges for the 21st Century Church

3)  What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century? 

Answers: Jesus.  Why?

Here, the question is twofold.  Priorities are pressing concerns.  Challenges are those things that materially or conceptually countervail against the norms that govern a person or organization.  For the church in the 21st century, just as the church in the 20th, 13th, 3rd, and First centuries, the teachings and person of Jesus of Nazareth represent both the ultimate goal of the church as a movement and the primary challenge to the church as a human organization or institution.

Teaching the essence of Christ's message needs to be front and center for any gathering of bipedal hominids that claims itself as a church.   Insuring that we're conveying the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and embodying the grace, justice, and mercy of Jesus is the central priority for both the Church with a Capital C and that particular place you go on Sunday.

Yeah, the world has a whole bunch of other things wrong with it.  We're mangling our ecosystem, our society is bleating and baa-ing its way to a globalized oligarchy, and for some reason people keep watching Jersey Shore.   Our culture has become a seething, directionless mess of commodified sexuality and political polarization.  Churches have a prophetic voice about those things, and shouldn't be silent in the face of injustice, but those things themselves are not the gravitic center of our purpose and identity.  

Jesus is.  

And that is where the challenge comes in.  As we attempt to be relevant and engaged within our culture, it becomes really easy for the church to become consumed by the ethos of our environment.   It can become just another reason to justify ancient bigotries and hatreds.  It can become so "relevant" that it stops being the Gospel.  It can become co-opted by political persuasion, to the point at which being a Jesus follower can be just a front for a particular ideological position.  It can become just a light gloss over almost any social interest or group.

A straight-up reading the core teachings of Jesus challenges all of those highly seductive ways of being church-that-is-not-church.  No matter where we are in the arc of human history, no matter what the sociological, cultural, or technological context might be, our assumptions tested, tried, and transformed by our relationship with Him.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Retail Politics and the Tea Party

The relationship between business and politics is an odd one.

On the one hand, politicians are often accused of being in the pockets of business.  Government pork is funneled to contractors.  Industry lobbyists make sure that politicians are kept rolling in campaign donations, just so long as every decision they make favors industry.  It's one of the charges leveled most regularly against elected officials, and one of the things that makes Americans so very very fond of our political culture.

On the other hand, being a competent and capable businessperson is typically seen as a significant asset for an elected official.  If a candidate knows business, and understand the dynamics of running a successful business, it's something that gets trumpeted in every campaign ad.  This is particularly true of the folks on the more conservative side of the political spectrum.

Looking at the imploding spiral of political paralysis that threatens to own-goal collapse the integrity of our financial system, I find myself wondering why it is that while conservatives frequently trumpet business as the model for what is best for America, the most conservative wing of our political sphere seems completely oblivious to the dynamics that make for a successful business.

A good businessperson wants to make a profit, sure.  They want to come out ahead.  But what you don't do in business, not ever, not never, is completely refuse to negotiate or compromise.   If you want to land a contract, or get the best deal from a vendor, you might haggle a bit.  But in the long run, you want to establish a working relationship, and to develop a customer base that views your business as resulting in a mutually satisfactory exchange.  It means occasionally compromising on the absolute bottom line.  It means making sure that people come away from an exchange feeling they've gotten a deal, and wanting to continue the relationship with you in the future.

This is not a Tea Party strength.

I find myself envisioning a Tea Party car salesman, sitting on a lot full of Fords, utterly unwilling to budge for a moment on MSRP, no matter what that guy across town has offered.

I find myself visualizing a Tea Party vendor, who pitches a proposal that is undercut by another vendor offering the same service, but who won't sweeten the deal at all.  The proposal is what it is.  Take it or leave it.

I see a Tea Party CEO who in the face of a flaw in the antenna of their companies' latest smartphone just tells people to suck it up.  You bought it.  You know how to make it work.  You'll get nothing more from us.

A business run by Tea Party standards would go bankrupt.  This does not augur well for America.

The Great Diversity of Our Country and Our Community of Faith

2)  What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?

Answer:  Jesus.  Why?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in the peculiar position inhabited by so many generally progressive but majority Anglo institutions.  We think/write/meet about diversity on an almost pathological basis, wringing our hands about just how flagrantly Anglo Saxon we are in appearance every Sunday.  We commission studies, and create materials, and talk about welcoming the other.  Our pastors wear kente cloth stoles, and occasionally attempt to rap their sermons. "yoyoYO! Jeeeeezus iz in da Hooooows!"  

This rarely goes well.

Our choirs clap arrhythmically and sway awkwardly back and forth against each other as they try to sing gospel.  On World Communion Sunday, we read a few snippets of a lectionary text in mangled pseudo-Chippewa.  We really do try, in a good hearted earnest way.

And yet, institutionally, we're still only margin-of-error more diverse than the Aryan Brotherhood.   

The analogy is painfully close, even more so if the Aryan Brotherhood was entirely comprised of  skinhead septuagenarians, 'cause our efforts to be generationally diverse haven't exactly been radiantly successful, either.  We want to reach out to the young people.  We love the young people.  But they don't show up at our services or come back after college, no matter how earnestly we strum our guitars and talk about the internet.  

Why?  Why are we so bad at diversity?

I think, honestly, that we're over-thinking it.  That's what Presbyterians are best at, after all.

Wait.  Can you think about over thinking?  Doesn't that make it even worse, sort of a meta-analysis paralysis?  Hmmm.  Perhaps we should form a task force to explore it.

If we're to be diverse, then we need to do several things, all of which paradoxically revolve around not obsessing about diversity.

First, churches that are ethnically diverse see Jesus as radically shattering the boundaries of ethnicity.  One of the enduringly frustrating things about the Presbyterian fellowship is our maddening insistence on calling non-Anglo churches "Racial Ethnic" ministries.   They are not.  They are churches, full of disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.   An African American church or a Korean church or a Salvadoran church or a Ghanaian church is no more "racial ethnic" than an entirely Scots-Irish Honkey-American congregation.  

We. Need. To. Stop. Doing. This.

If you want to welcome someone, you seek that thing you have in common.  And what we have in common, if we're in a church, is that we're personally interested in the message of Jesus, and are endeavoring to live our lives in such a way that they reflect his teachings.  That "endeavoring" can take a range of different forms, based on macro- and micro-cultural dynamics, but the essence is the same.  We are following Jesus.   Congregations and denominations that successfully engage diverse perspectives embrace this, and will thrive in the richly pluralistic social ecology of 21st century America.  

Second, our theology should be diverse, multilingual, and rooted in a range of cultural experiences.  As we talk about our relationship with God, we need to be able to bring our full selves into that relation.  

However, if our understanding of our Maker doesn't point us to that paraclete place of spiritual commonality with the Other, then it is an active impediment to diversity.  This is a challenge for Presbyterians, because theologies of particularity are now deeply embedded in the theological academe of the old-line.  By theologies of particularity, I mean that strain of scholastic god-thinking that defines the conversation in neatly compartmentalized segments of gender, sexual orientation, culture, and linguistic structure.  They lead only to fragmentation and irrelevance.

The Tower of Babel was made of ivory, after all.  

Congregations and fellowships that can set aside theologies of particularity and find their way to theologies of inclusion will thrive and grow.  Focusing on Jesus and following the Way?  Guess what?  It does that real good.

Third, our communities need to reconsider the generational dynamics we've unquestioningly folded into the way we "do church."  Ours is the structure of the marketplace, as we neatly chop our fellowships up into age-delimited programming.  Growing up in the church, the faith life and struggles that exist amongst the adults exist outside of the range of our children's vision, across a firewall of youth programming.

That's fine when children are children.  But when children heave themselves through the fires of adolescence towards the adult they are to be, our continued insistence on separating them from adults mirrors not the Gospel, but the way of the world.  The best way to learn how to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is to learn from the struggles and joys of those who are further down that path.  And by that, I don't mean "spiritual superior."  I mean they've lived longer and wrestled longer with their faith.  There is more weight and heft and wisdom in such a life, and when we don't allow our younger folk to be organically connected to the older church, we rob them of it.

Yeah, it ain't how the world works these days.  But since when were we to be entirely of the world?

If we're to be focused on Christ's teachings, then it needs to be clear that we expect the same focus in our younglings.  "Church" is not tae kwon do or SAT camp or soccer or karate.  It's not something you're made to go to as a way to assuage your parents' subconscious consumerist social anxiety.  It's a place that defines your being.  We need to be a tiny bit more intentional about making sure our kids know that.

Does that mean Jesus Camp Christianity?  No, it does not.  A focus on the grace and mercy and justice of the Nazarene, coupled with a willingness to accept struggles and doubts and human failing, well, that's a far cry more robust than glazed eye Jesusbot programming.  

But if we want our kids to stay, to spend their lives as part of our faith communities, and to be...well...Christian...then we need to be more front and center about prioritizing Jesus to 'em.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Church in the 21st Century

I think there's a cross on that necklace.

Question 1)  What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?
Answer:  Jesus.   Why?
There's a strong propensity on the part of folks who like think a great deal about things (read: Presbyterians) to focus intensely on the particularities of a given time or era.  They then assume that because there are differences between that point in human history and other points in human history, there is a significant difference in how Christians need to articulate their faith.
There's some truth in that.  Our culture is radically different now than it was even when I was being confirmed into the church way back in the early nineteen eighties.  Industry and entertainment are now essentially globalized.  The flow of information has increased exponentially, as our ability to communicate through new and interactive media has shifted the dynamics of culture.  With the ascendence of global capitalism, our interactions are increasingly defined by our positions in consumer culture.
As those trends continue and accelerate, it's easy to project out a vision for the character of the church that is radically defined by the changing culture into which it speaks itself.  If you want to succeed and to "grow churches," then you need to be able to articulate yourself into the context of the culture.  The question, though, is whether in seeking contextual relevance we are changing the world, or the world is changing us.
We see this strongly in the rise of the megachurch, as Christian communities structure themselves as corporations.  Like corporations, they seek to appeal to particular demographics, with ministries and worships that, like products, are crafted and packaged to appeal to the self-image every market segment, unified by and marketed as a carefully protected brand.  
We also see this in the intense success of scriptural interpretations that focus on material prosperity.  Self-help, name-it-and-claim-it abundance, getting ahead, and doing well are the goals of the self-made entrepreneur, and that seven-bullet-points-for-highly-successful-whatever approach to faith increasingly define the faith-life and language of Christian communities.
This is where the church is going, and will continue to go as the ethos of the marketplace presses more deeply into the character of our fellowship.  This, if we are to know our vision by the fruit, is clearly the "vision" of the church.
But it is not a vision of Jesus.  The vision of Market Jesus has as little to do with the Gospel as one of those fat prosperity Buddhas you'll find in Chinese restaurants has to with the Noble Eightfold Path.
For those who find the incursion of contemporary market culture into the faith troubling, there is another path.  There is the path that uses new media to communicate, not just with those who fit neatly into our market niche echo chamber.  Instead, that communication is vigorously intentional about boundary crossing and shattering.   This is the path that articulates the identity and person of the Nazarene, who refused to allow gender or socioeconomic status or race to get in the way of his message of the Kingdom of God.
If we are the Way, then it's important to recognize that the Way is not changed by the ever churning ephemera of our culture.  The specific moral and spiritual requirements of being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth articulate themselves in radically similar ways no matter what the cultural context may be.  Kindness and patience and mercy and grace are discernably cut from the same cloth, whether they be blogged or vlogged or tweeted or shown on that treacherous, dusty road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  
That's the particular vision we pursue, and it stands in defining and transformative dialectic with culture, no matter what the century.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Nature of the Church in the 21st Century

Oh.  Wait.  This one's
the Nature of the Church in the 25th Century
As my fading denomination wrassles with ways to become relevant and revitalized, things look a bit on the grim side.  We continue to bleed out members faster than a hemophiliac with a bad case of Ebola.  Our fellowship seems unable to do much more than fight amongst itself, that is, when it's not engaged in long, hard-hitting meetings about the soteriological ramifications of the carpet in the narthex.

What?  You don't know what a narthex is?  You know, come to think of it, I'm not quite sure either.  I think it's next to the thorax, right in between the carburetor and the uvula.

So to get past this, we've done what Presbyterians always do.  We've commissioned a task force to do a study.  Yay!  More study!  Oh, how we loves us some study.

From that task force a series of questions have arisen, to which the task force has invited input and response.   They aren't bad questions to be asking, and while I have no expectation that my inputs will have any impact on the dialogue, it's still worth pitching out there.  So, here are the questions, and some preliminary answers.

1)  What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?  Hmmm.  A tough one, and with complex nuances grounded in the significant sociocultural dynamics of a globalized economy and the shifts in ethos driven by new media.  

I'd me think...Jesus?

2)  What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?  Wow.  Another tough one.  Let me think on this for a moment.  Taking into account the underlying demographic shifts from the most recent census data, I'd have to say that the preponderance of research points to the answer being Jesus.

3)  What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?  Clearly, this is more than one question.  A substantive answer requires us to parse out priorities, which relate first to vision conceptualized generatively and as a radically normative lens.  Second, we approach  challenges, which require us to assess those extrinsic and intrinsic factors that will force us to reconsider the central operating paradigms of our ecclesiology.  

For priorities, clearly, it's Jesus.  And for challenges?  Well, gosh and golly, look, it's Jesus again.

4)  What unique voice to we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and society?  As Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, I think what our unique voice has to offer is clearly יֵשׁוּעַ, although I think we also have to include Ἰησοῦς in any comprehensive answer.  

5)  How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work towards unity in Christ?    As you may have ascertained, just like the 15 Minutes Of Fame Rent-is-Too-Damn-High Guy, I've got pretty much one answer to any question on this topic.  

Once again, how? You said it.  Jesus.

What?  A cop-out, you opine?  Just pitching out sophomoric substanceless Sunday School silliness, you say?

Alrighty then.  Let's unpack each question one at a time.  A blog series it is.  Follow the links on each of the questions, and let's get it done.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Intransigence, Principle, and Faith

As our national legislature bellows and postures its way closer and closer to the edge of fiscal disaster, I find the whole spectacle oddly familiar.

Three years ago, the Korean congregation with which my community was partnered fell into a completely intractable conflict.  The pastor and a group of new members he'd brought in sided up against the old guard of the congregation, meaning the elders and the choir.  I knew and liked folks on both sides, and so I made a point of meeting with both to see if compromise could be reached and healing could occur.

It was an exercise in futility, and even at the time, I knew it.  The pastor was a womanizer and a child abuser, whispered his foes.  The elders were thieves who stole the money of the church to funnel into their businesses, shouted their foes.  Under no circumstances, came the refrain from both sides, could we ever even consider finding common ground.  Why would we give in to them?  We are in the right!  It's a matter of principle!

And so ruin came upon that house.  A seventy-five person congregation became twenty five.  The former pastor's wife still haunts the church, literally, sneaking in and walking the halls like a wraith, unable even after years to spiritually disconnect herself from the fervor and intensity of that conflict.

And as human institutions are in microcosm, so they are in macrocosm.  As gobsmackingly obvious and not-all-that-hard as the solution to our debt crisis is, we just can't get there.  Letting the Bush tax cuts expire, standing our imperial military down to levels appropriate to a constitutional republic, raising the social security retirement age to seventy, a few nips and tucks, and we're pretty much there.

But principle is involved.  For the far right, that principle is that taxes can never, ever, ever be raised.  For the far left, that principle is that benefits can never, ever, ever be cut.  Those two trains may be on the same track, but they're headed right at each other.   So as standing on "principle" leads to trainwreck, the question that pops into mind is:  If this is the end result of clinging absolutely to a principle, does the fault lie with being principled?  If you define yourself completely according to a particular view of the world, and cannot take any actions that violate that view without destroying your sense of integrity, do you interface with those who don't share that governing principle?

More significantly, how do you engage with those people in the public square? In the context of a democracy, the functioning of the society is entirely dependent on individuals and groups being able to reach common ground, to give a bit and take a bit.  Absolutism sabotages the functioning of the system.  Where compromise comes to mean "I give nothing, and you agree with me or else," then a republic can't operate.

Here, I think the challenge is that the principles that drive so much of our debate have become idols.  Instead of looking at one another as fellow citizens...or human beings...or children of God...we only see the thing we have created for ourselves.  We use pledges and political purity litmus tests as the measure of the worth of fellow citizens.  Rather than standing on the one principle that unites, we let our constructs come between us, and that, unfortunately, is the very essence of idolatry.

I find myself lamenting that in all likelihood, those who pastor the folks who are so full of fervor about their own rightness are unlikely to be teaching that from the pulpit.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All the Other Kids Are Doing It

As Presbyterians struggle to figure out the longer term ramifications of our new willingness to be open to full participation by gays and lesbians, there's liable to be some wrangling and worrying about the impacts this decision will have on our connectedness to other strains of Jesus folk.  In particular, there's gonna be worrying about how that decision will impact our fellowship with other Christians, particularly those who live and worship in the Global South.

Along those lines, recently read an interesting article written by a conservative Presbyterian expressing exactly those concerns .  Dr. Ken Bailey was writing for Presbyterians for Renewal, one of the various groups within the denomination that presses for a return to traditional values as a way of revitalizing our faith.

The core argument being made by Dr. Bailey was that American Christianity, and particularly American denominational Christianity, is no longer the defining majority in the faith as a world movement.  This is quite true.  Christianity is far more dynamic and growing in the Global South, in Africa and Latin America and certain portions of Asia.  In those regions, Christian faith also manifests itself in a far more socially conservative form.   For American conservatives, this is viewed as validating a more conservative approach to the faith, rather than as an indication of the socio-cultural dynamics of the societies in which that faith is articulating itself.

Dr. Bailey's argument, from that foundation, is that the Western church is a "mouse" and the church in the Global South is the "elephant."  By choosing to be open and inclusive to gays and lesbians, the "mouse" is acting under the false presumption that it still defines what is Christian, and should be aware that it is jeopardizing its relationship with the broader fellowship.

I get this argument, and understand Bailey's concern.  I don't want to force a disconnect with African and Latin American brothers and sisters, as there is much that we have to offer one another in Christ, and many ways we can serve each other.  A few thoughts, though.

First, by electing to be open to gays and lesbians, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is only defining the terms of our own fellowship.   These terms are not established randomly, or driven by social forces extrinsic to our faith.  Our desire to be inclusive is formed by a fundamentally biblical understanding of what it means to be a child of God, and from a radically orthodox understanding of the nature of sin.   It does not mean we have abandoned covenant principles as radically defining our relationships, or that we reject fidelity as a central ethic for our lives together.  It just means we're in a different place, one that we witness to honestly from the heart of a Christ-centered faith.

Second, that there is not commonality between us on this issue does not a priori mean that we cannot find commonality.    There is so much in the Gospel upon which we can agree.  The entirety of the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind, as does so much of the teaching of the Apostle Paul.  If we're together on core principles, together on the central ethics Jesus taught and equally willing to give his teachings authority over our lives...well...then there's common ground aplenty.

Third, it is perfectly acceptable for those in a minority to disagree with the majority.  Many churches in Africa and South America still struggle with women in leadership as a defining issue.  Some African Christians still see sorcery and witchcraft as a major societal problem.   We do not for a moment have to be defined by that majoritarian view, and certainly not in the context of our own fellowship.  Dr. Bailey takes this desire to "fit in" with others in the Global South to some rather interesting ends, up to and including suggesting that being inclusive to gays and lesbians might jeopardize interfaith relations with conservative Islam.

We shouldn't include gays and lesbians, because it flies in the face of conservative Muslim interpretations of the Qu'ran?  For a conservative Christian, this is a rather interesting argument.

Whichever way, I think those who are committed to inclusion have both the right and the responsibility to articulate their position, and to do so without either fearing or demonizing the majority.   That we are providing a minority report, and significantly so, only heightens our responsibility to remain gracious and firm in our witness.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Publishing to Kindle

I have, as of today, finally fulfilled my new year's resolution.   It's a month or two after I'd projected, but hey.  It's still done.  

That resolution was to e-publish a short kid's novel I wrote waaaaay back in my fourth year at the University of Virginia.

For the last month or two, I've finished up the laborious task of retyping it, after OCR scanning proved a bit too unreliable.  

It's edited...well, edited-ish.  I'm hardly the world's most amazingly detail-oriented editor, as my modus readerani is to inhale text for meaning rather than to notice errant apostrophes.  

But it's better than it was when I first pitched the manuscripts to publishers back in 1990 and 1991.  A few nips and tucks and continuity patches, and it was ready to go.

And now, with pretty much no fanfare whatsoever, Wickersnides is available on Kindle, yours for the low low price of three ninety nine.

I was impressed with just how easy it was getting onto Kindle...really no harder than setting up a blog.  Establishing the copyright claim was considerably more challenging, although I'm not entirely sure how necessary it was in retrospect.  Amazon's crack legal review team seems to have missed that my copyright page legal language included prohibitions against not just republication without permission, but also against "excreting" the book and "throwing it at passing aircraft."  

One of the small pleasures of self-publishing, I guess.

Having re-read it during the process of retyping it, I can safely say that it's not the great American novel.  It tends to be a bit talky at times, a bit silly at others, and is pretty darned short by the standards of modern publishing.  

But then again, neither is it mediocre.  It's an entertaining bit of whimsy, one hundred and twenty entirely readable pages.  For a work written in 1990, the core themes of corporate greed, consumerism and the use of interactive media to manipulate the desires of human beings still holds up pretty well, even while masked by a pretty kid-friendly premise.  A spoonful of sugar, as they say.  

So...if you're looking for a quick summer read for yourself or the kids, yours for the price of a grande mocha frappatappalino, well...look no further.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Worrying About the Wasps

For the last few years, the little patch of turf directly outside of my church office has been a riot of life in the mid-summer.  The air right above the grass is a swirl of menace, filled with dozens and dozens of big black-and-yellow wasps.  By immense, I mean immense by bug standards, as big as the first two joints of your forefinger.

When I first encountered them, I was...well...a bit prone to fretting.  I walk through that patch of grass on my way to change the church sign.  They look scary-huge, and the first monkey-brain response to things that scare us is fight or flight.

Or both, meaning first we run away screaming like a little girl, and then hit Angie's List for a reputable exterminator.

Shortly after I first encountered these critters, I bothered looking at them for identifying markings, and then spending some time researching them.    They were impressive, and I was curious.  What I found was that they aren't hornets, which are really quite dangerous.  Nor are they yellowjackets, those fierce little gangbanger nasties who'll go after you and your kids and your dog if you step onto their turf.  I feel no qualms about going to war with them.  Say hello to my leeettle can...

But these bugs?  They're Eastern Cicada Killers.  And though they look terrifying, they're completely harmless.  The females have a sting, but they don't use it unless you're 1) a cicada or 2) actually in the process of crushing them intentionally with your bare hand.  The males are the territorial ones, but they settle their differences with other males by...wrestling each other to the ground.  They have no sting at all, and they don't bite.  And, yeah, they're big wasps, but I'm reasonably sure I can pin one.  They're as innocuous as ants.  I walk through them, as they go a-swarming, and I feel no fear.

As a matter of fact, these nifty critters are beneficial, as they take out cicadas, which prey on trees.

With only a few months between me and my departure from my congregation, I find myself worrying about the next denizen of my office, who'll be there (God willing) next summer.  When the wasps rise up and tear around looking all ferocious next year, it'd be easy to jump to conclusions.  It'd be easy to panic, and put in the call to exterminate.

So, hey, you!  New pastor person!  Those fearsome creatures, buzzing around your office?  Get to know them.  They're not really as dangerous as they might seem.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mobs, the Media Marketplace, and Justice

America knows Casey is gulity of muder.
I am blissfully ignorant of so much in our popular culture.  Not that I don't attend to it, mind you.  I keep my ear to the ground to listen for the hoofbeats of the rumbling herd.   It makes for better preaching, and better bloggery.  But personally?  I try to remain as emotionally distant as possible from the endless stream of macro-high-school-psychodrama that passes for public discourse in our celebrity culture.

You know of what I speak.  When a tabloid refers to someone by their first name, like they're the popular girl in high school or the girl with the bad reputation, people who you know about but you don't really know?    When we hear the sly whispers about Kim or Rachel or Angie, it's feeding that eternally adolescent self, that self that wants to remain forever fifteen and part of the scuttlebutt.

It generally doesn't bother me, until it starts mattering.  And where it starts mattering is when it starts nosing it's way into the real.   Most recently, I am troubled that my 10 year old knows who Caylee Anthony is.

The recent coverage of the trial of Casey Anthony crossed a line, one that has been crossed and recrossed many times in American history.  That line is the conflation of justice with infotainment, as market-driven media finds the most salacious and outrageous story possible, then drives that narrative to make it a central thread in our collective adolescent chatter.  We like the hum and puzzle and outrage of a good courtroom drama.  So what if it's real?

But our system of justice is not CSI.  It is not Judge Judy.  It's a real thing, one that rests in the hands of 12 jurors and our adversarial system.  When a trial becomes a public event, as this trial has become a public event, we have to ask why.  There are several legitimate reasons.

First, a trial can involve a public figure, someone with prior standing in our culture.  A politician who is corrupt.  A businessperson who is corrupt.  Lindsay Lohan, or potentially, Lindsay Lohan again.  Then, we already have some interest.

Second, a trial can involve a question of constitutional law that will ultimately impact the broader thrust of American jurisprudence.  Like, say, whether a corporation is a "person," or whether the government's right to eminent domain allows it to seize property for the sole purpose of maximizing tax revenues, or whether that white dress is appropriate courtroom wear.   ExxonMobil is just such a hussy.

Third, a trial can involve an act that had significant national ramifications, like the Oklahoma City bombing.

But this trial?  It meets none of those metrics.

Though tragic in the way that any death is tragic, it was a crime of no particular significance.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, had Caylee been African American, we'd not have heard a peep about it.  It's just entertainment, filling the same role in this era of the 24 hour news cycle that soap operas filled in the 1950s.

Worse yet, it unsubtly undercuts our system of jurisprudence.  When a tele-prosecutor aggressively argues a case against an accused in front of the court of public opinion, the actual know, with the real judge, real prosecutor, and more importantly, real defense and real delegitimized.  The measure of reasonable doubt, in which the burden of proof rests strongly on the prosecution, is not something that tee-vee muckrakers feel obliged to attend to.  It doesn't get ratings.  Extreme outrage gets ratings.  And ratings mean revenue.

Supreme Court Justice David Souter once said that for the sake of its integrity, our system of justice must be neither a political institution "...nor part of the entertainment industry."

It's clear, in this new media era, that we're wandering further across that line.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Who's Your Daddy?

In the most recent tempest in the Christian blogosphere teapot, Jesus bloggers have gotten their knickers in a twist about some tweaking of the language in the United Church of Christ bylaws.

The UCC, in the event you don't have your old-line denominations down, is a smallish and very progressive fellowship.  How smallish?  About half the size of the Presbyterian Church USA, putting them at just a niblet over one million members.  How progressive?  It's known within itself, occasionally, as "Unitarians Considering Christ."  It's intellectual, reformed-ish, open and tolerant, and susceptible to all of the foibles and distractions of leftism.   These are congregations that are prone to anguishing about whether the free-range Guatemalan llamas that provided the fair-trade wool for their openly lesbian pastor's rainbow stole were fed an organic diet.

Good people, in other words.

Anyhoo, the UCC recently reworked their bylaws, and in doing so, abandoned the use of gendered language to describe God.  Meaning, no more God the Father.  Instead, they've done a search and replace, with the replace term being "Triune God."   This has apparently set off all manner of alarm bells among people who aren't UCC and like to fulminate.  Not God the Father?!  Apostasy!  Flagrantly unbibley bad things!

It does give bloggers something to write about, I suppose, for which I'm truly thankful.

The progressive obsession with abandoning gendered language has never really caught hold with me.  Having suffered through clumsy efforts within my own home church to talk about God as "God the Parent" or "Mother/Father God,"  I've found most of the re-writing and tweaking too clumsy.  It just sounds forced, in the way that academic progressivism so often sounds forced and scared of it's own shadow.

As a people who find their identity in the story and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians of a liberal persuasion are stuck with two awkward truths.

First, when describing his relationship with the Yuhd-Hey-Vahv-Hey/Creator/Maker/Self-Aware-Reality-Engine-That-Is-The-Ultimate-Ground-of-Being, Jesus consistently used the term Father.

Second, that's OK.

This does not mean that God is male.  Or female, for that matter.  Gender, as a category that describes the reproductive identity of living beings and/or the socio-sexual identity of homo sapiens sapiens, well, it means jack diddly squat when coming to terms with God.  Theological squabbling about maleness and femaleness is as meaningless as arguing about whether the radiance of God's Glory is golden or more sun-yellowish in hue.  The terms are not adequate to the task.

That also does not mean that the traditional understandings of Fatherhood within human cultures are somehow cues to grasping God's nature.  God the Father is not God the Dad Who Goes to Work and Comes Home Late And Expects a Martini Waiting.  God the Father is not the patriarch of your family, who day and night scrambles for a living, feeds a wife and children, says his daily prayers, and as master of the house has the final word at home.  That Jesus used the term Father tells us that Jesus stood in intimate relation with the God of Israel, and that his relationship with God was not that of a vassal to a monarch, but deeper and more personal.  The socio-cultural resonances of the term are of lesser importance.

That also does not mean that your personal relationship with your own father has any bearing on your relationship with God.   The leftist canard is often pitched out that calling God "Father" will drive away people who had a bad relationship with their own father or with male authority figures.   Yeah, and calling God "Mother" is better, 'cause we know that everyone has a healthy and totally functional relationship with their moms and/or the women in their lives.   Human beings who aren't hopelessly trapped in dysfunction have imaginations and the ability to emotionally and rationally understand that just because a particular relationship is bad, it doesn't mean that all relationships are bad.

God is not like your dad.  Or your mom.   Our relationship with God goes well beyond genetics and nurture, down to the foundations of our material existence and up past the heights of our awareness as sentient beings.

But from within the limitations of human language, and the conceptual boundaries of how we understand love and care and authority and rootedness and self, Father works just fine.   Which is probably why Jesus used it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Flag Etiquette

I had a very American fourth.  The family and I spent the weekend off in Hershey, Pennsylvania, enjoying a few days of amusement park/water park/chocolate-gorging indulgence.  We went from bucketing around on mild-concussion-inducing old wooden coasters to being aaaaaaaaieeee launched four stories straight up to walking slowly through a vast garden of roses.  We watched the fireworks display that night from a still-warm parking lot, with a random and rainbow-hued mix of Americans.

It was quite pleasant, although even all that park-walking didn't prevent a slight increase around my midsection.  

As we pulled back into our driveway, there was a small American flag stuck in the ground at the entrance.  It had been left by our local realtor, an "8" by 12" Economy U.S. Flag," a red-white-and-blue reminder that if we're thinking of selling our house, or know anyone who is...well...  

We get these inexpensive bits of Americana now and again, and add them to a collection of flags we keep in our basement, including the several that flew in our front yard along with those in all the yards in our neighborhood during the months after the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.  One house in our subdivision was missing a mom after that day.  

On the new little flag was a set of instructions on flag care and etiquette, which I read just because it was there.  It was standard stuff.  Here are the days to fly the flag.  Here is the Pledge of Allegiance, along with Pledge Protocols.  Nothing unusual.  Until I hit these two sentences:
"The flag is not an inanimate object.  It flies freely with a life force powerful enough to unite an entire nation."
Purple prose above the fruited plain is not uncommon in patriotic literature.  But this was an odd thing, peculiarly animistic to the point of almost sounding mid-20th Century Shinto

Of course the flag is an inanimate object.  If it moves, it is only because the wind moves.  If it has life, it is only because there is a republic of free citizens who wave it.  The American flag that sits forever still on the moon would be meaningless to an alien probe that arrived to explore that rocky world and the asteroid-shattered, lifeless main planet around which it orbited.

It's only two sentences on a card on a mass-produced adflag, so I suppose it matters not.

Still, it needled me.  Perhaps it's just my reflexive Calvinist resistance to any and all forms of idolatry.  Even...and especially...the ones that stir us.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Radical Christian Extremism

Here and there across the interwebs this last week, I've caught whiffs of a recent conference.  It was an event sponsored by Google, in which the participants were all individuals who had either participated in or been directly effected by radical, violent extremism.  They included former violent jihadis, armed militants, skinheads, neo-Nazis, gang members, and other fun folks to have around.

The meeting was in Dublin, Ireland, a nation that has known it's own share of Troubles with those who have radicalized their position to the point where killing and harming others becomes acceptable.   It was an interesting meeting, by all accounts.

What was striking in reading summaries of the meeting were points of commonality that all violent movements or groups share.  Those commonalities are 1) the deep seated human desire for belonging and acceptance; 2) the assumption that anyone "outside" of the group is automatically of lesser value than those "inside," and  3) the creation of an environment in which outsiders or particular groups are demonized, feared, and hated.   These conditions are present across the board, whether a group is ethnic, secular, nationalistic, or based in the teachings of a religious tradition.

Here, of course, I get to thinking about how extremism and radical faith have played out among followers of Jesus of Nazareth.   There has, of course, been plenty of blood spilled putatively in the name of the Prince of Peace.  Between multiple wars in Europe, the Crusades, and the Inquisition, the history of our faith has seen all too many moments when it's been used to justify crushing the unbeliever.  Typically, that unbeliever has property we want, or just so happens to be part of a culture that our government wants to subjugate so they can take their stuff.   Power does work that way.  We've fought over ecclesiastical hierarchy.  We've fought over differences in theology or biblical authority.

When I get down to it, though, I have trouble seeing a radical commitment to the ethos that Jesus actually taught as having any potential to leading to violence in deed or in word.  Extreme commitment to Jesus doesn't look like war, or like terror, or even like writing self-righteously trollish comments on the blog of someone with whom you disagree.

Christian absolutism looks a great deal more like St. Francis than it does Torquemada.  If you're radicalized by Christ's teaching to love your neighbor and your enemy, and view every human being as a potential vessel of the grace of the Spirit, then it's really rather difficult to justify seeking their harm in any way.

It's not always bad to be a radical.