Thursday, August 25, 2011

Past Division and Towards Unity in Christ

5)  How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work towards unity in Christ?    

Here, the answer is flagrantly Jesus.   The issues that divide us and fragment our denomination are many.  We argue about homosexuality, and about how to approach people who are not Christian.  We squabble about what it means for the bible to have authority in our lives together.  We go at each other over pretty much everything and anything, because we're chasing after different priorities and different goals.

Absent a clear sense of shared and common purpose, any organization or group will tear itself to pieces.  Diversity of focus and emphasis can exist just fine within such a group, but if it's not absolutely clear that a community of human beings has a unifying purpose, that community will come apart at the seams.

Here, the oldline denominational churches face a much mightier challenge than the new mainstream nondenominational churches.  Nondenoms function pretty much the same way that a corporation functions, meaning they're organized around a single core product or service, with identity focused on a single board and a single iconic CEO...I mean, pastor.  Establishing identity is really straightforward.  Just listen to pastor-slash-brand.  That holds true right up until that pastor leaves/dies/resigns after canoodling.    

In the oldline, we function much more like a political system.  There's mess and disagreement and difference of opinion.  This comes naturally to democratic systems of governance, but it doesn't give univocal organizational certainty.

For that, well, we have Jesus.  The question arises, of course...which Jesus?  Is it the Jesus of the evangelical right, oozing plasma and corpuscles for our salvation, wrapped in Old Glory, and takin' down Satan with his FNH F2000 with a 4X ACOG sight?   Or the transgendered person of color Jesus of Queer Theology?  

Then again, there's also the Jesus whose ethos and teaching can be fairly easily established from a plain-text reading of the Gospels.  The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain lay out an ethic of self-giving, transformative love that's radical and cohesive.  The nature of the Kingdom he proclaimed is pretty clear, particularly when you get into the implications of that Kingdom for how we are supposed to live together.

When we wander outside of the synoptics into the witness of John's Gospel, we have a distinct but harmonic vision of the relationship Jesus had with God, and the relationship he expected his disciples to have with one another.

This is the Jesus...formed by and speaking into the ethos of first century Jewish apocalyptic thought, while simultaneously subverting and transcending it...that pops up if you set aside your presuppositions and cultural biases.  The teachings of this Jesus, if we give them authority over our lives, have the power to unite us.

We resist that Jesus, of course.  He's not us.  He doesn't neatly fit into either side of our squabbles, and instead demands that we love those we disagree with, to the point of forgiving them even if they crucify us.

If we can follow that guy?  We'll still be different, of course.  We won't always agree.  But though different, we won't be divided.  Not in the way that causes pain and brokenness.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

World Mission Society Church of God: When Church is Not Church

For reasons relating to some recent conversations I've been having, today's bit of bloggery will revolve around the difference between being part of a faith community and being a member of a cult.

Cult is a rather unpleasant bit of verbiage, one that progressive Christians may feel a bit awkward using.  It feels rather less than tolerant, and seems judgmental about what another person believes.

"Don't go hatin!" we say.  What right do we have in this pluralistic and open society to make value statements about what another holds dear?

I generally don't do this myself.  I find threads and interwoven patterns of God's grace and truth in many of the world's faith traditions.  If you're another flava of Christian, cool.  Let's talk and mingle and grow deeper in Christ through that exchange.  If you're a Jew or a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, well, fine.  Let's find the Creator's handiwork in one another, and if you can hear goodness and grace in what I'm saying about what I believe, then cool.  Into crystals and incantations?  So long as you don't distract me by walking into my church sky clad, we're copacetic.

But I have boundaries, and those boundaries tend to involve fundamentalism and cults.  Fundamentalism we know from its pathological rigidity and inability to move beyond idolatrous worship of texts.  That, plus a frightening willingness to do unpleasant things to those who don't agree with it.

But what is a cult?  Today's poster child, which is pretty much the Platonic Form for Cult, is the World Mission Society Church of God.

Why is this a cult and not faith?  Well, let's look at two key defining features.

1)  External Incoherence.  Cults score very, very high on this scale.  Granted, many atheists would argue there is no meaningful difference between a group that claims its leader is God now and a group that follows a figure from millenia ago.  But Christianity is a comprehensible extension of Judaism understood from an objective historical critical perpective.  It carries on many of the core assertions about YHWH and builds upon the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people and the dynamics of first century messianic expectation.  It makes sense in historical context, whether you agree with it or not.

The World Mission Society Church of God, on the other hand, is what one might fairly call a great steaming bucket of crazy.  While claiming to be completely defined by the Bible, its interpretation of the Bible involves all of the teachings of those Hebrew texts from the Ancient Near East pointing to God being both God the Creator Korean lady.  God's feminine aspect is none other than Ms. Zhang Gil-Ah, God the Mother, spiritual founder of the World Mission Society Church of God.  According to the WMSCG, the Bible clearly says so.

To which an objective historical critical scholar of the development of the texts of the Tanakh might say, HHHHHWWWWAAAT?

The "logic" behind that assertion lies in a carefully constructed set of proof texts.  WMSCG folks claim that early Torah texts seem to use the plural term "Elohim" to describe God, which means, of course, that God is both male and female, with the Guy God being YHWH and the Female God being the aforementioned smiling Korean lady.  Here, a tiny bit of truth creeps in.

The primal precursor of the worship of YHWH in the Ancient Near East was polytheistic, which gives us the residual plural.  Objective history and the texts of the Bible themselves tell us that for many who worshipped YHWH, there was the assumption of a divine consort, a female fertility counterpart.  For our culty friends, though, there's a problem.  The name of that goddess was Asherah.  She was not a Korean lady.

Equally problematic for WMSCG are the relentless assertions of God's unitary identity in the Bible.  The ancient Hebrew conception of Adonai radically resisted the idea that there was more than one god.  It's a central tenet of Torah, which is ferociously defended by the prophets.  Asherah worship itself was actively resisted as a threat to that radical monotheism.

If you're a Hindu, then be polytheistic.  You go, Parvati-avatar-girl!  But if you are claiming to be "rooted in the bible," and then claiming there are multiple gods, your belief system has no rational or theological coherence in the context of that textual foundation.

WMSCG folks also claim that the prophet Isaiah clearly pointed to the Korean founder of their church as the savior of all people, because he kept going on about a leader who would rise up in the east.  Again, there's a tiny bit of truth in that.  Isaiah, a brilliant poet and a keen observer of the dynamics of the Ancient Near East, did make a series of statements pointing to the liberation of Israel as founded in the East.  But by "East" he meant Persia.  Namely, Cyrus of Persia, the wise emperor whose gracious policy of liberation and return made his conquest of imperial Babylon so appealing to the peoples Babylon had enslaved.

There's also much made about the the importance of worshipping on certain festival days, and on avoiding Christmas and Easter as pagan accretions.  This is proclaimed the key to being saved. problem lies in the fact that the Christian Bible taken as a whole makes it pretty clear that demanding cultic practice on certain days as opposed to others just ain't something we should do.  The particulars of that stuff just don't ultimately matter.

These are just a few entertaining examples of how the WoMiSoChoG (It's name in the Lovecraftian universe) manages to decouple texts from their context and stitch them back together into a shambling flesh-golem of a belief system.

So how do people believe this stuff?

2)  Internal Control.  Propping up the external incoherence of cults are a ferociously defended series of self-reinforcing proofs.   Those proofs are reinforced through an endless series of push-studies, in which a single pattern of thinking is repeated, over and over and over again.    Highly emotional group events are typically used to generate a sense of collective fervor.  This is done, repeated, and done again.  The teachings will frequently move from the more accessible to the more esoteric, as the new initiate is drawn further and further into a particular cultic worldview.  With each new "level" or teaching, the secret knowledge that is conveyed reinforces a sense of specialness and inclusion.  That it is not externally coherent no longer matters.  Scientology, anyone?

The group begins to consume every waking moment of the life of the cultic devotee.  Worship follows study follows gathering, and time for other relationships grows less and less.  The bonds of connection outside of the group begin to fray and become crowded out.  External relationships are increasingly difficult, as the patterns of in-group thinking make relating to family and former friends harder and harder.  Existence becomes increasingly defined in terms of the cultic experience.

It's a stock standard way of maintaining internal control within such a system.  In its practice of this pattern of control, the WoMiSoChoG is hardly unique.  There are groups that have nested within many of the world's faith traditions that use very similar methodologies.  The more charismatic forms of Jesus-faith often wander dangerously close to that level of manipulation.

A cult seeks to annihilate the identity of the devotee.  It is memetically hegemonic, meaning it permits the existence of nothing but itself in the believer.

Where cults...and frankly, fundamentalism as well...step outside of the bounds of my considerable tolerance is in their incapacity to stand in relationship to anything but themselves.  They demand that you be them.  They don't want to relate to you.  They want to devour you...your every moment, your every thought.

Faith is different.  As a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, I am nonetheless myself.  I can interface with those who are not me.  While I am ethically and spiritually governed by my belief, it permits...heck, it demands... healthy and mutually respectful external relationships.  Faith defines, but gives permission and space for a rich, differentiated, and multifaceted self.  That self is suffused with faith, but remains functionally free within it.

The WoMiSoChog offers no such liberty.   It is not a church, in the sense that it has no connection whatsoever with "church" as a term that refers to a group that engages in Jesus-following in any of its forms.  It is also not faith.  In its assertion of absolute authority in a single human being, external incoherence, and hegemonic internal control systems, it neatly checks every cultic box.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Unique Presbyterian Voice Regarding Vital Ministry

4)  What unique voice to we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and society? 

Answer:  Jesus.  As Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, let me deepen that a little bit.  I think what our unique voice has to offer is  יֵשׁוּעַ, with a side order of Ἰησοῦς 

What that means, put a bit less coyly, is that what Presbyterians have to offer in this coming century goes well beyond seminars on how to run the most agonizingly complicated possible process for bringing a pastor to your church, or books entitled The Seven Ways Robert's Rules of Order Can Spice up Your Love Life.

Oh, wait.  That's still coy.  Let's take another swing at it.  

This is an era in which history has been forgotten.  In this age of the interwebs and the 24 hour infotainment cycle, what pours through us from that big data pipe is the right now.  It's immediate, lizard-brain amygdala data, gratifying our desire for gossip and sex and violence and tension and kittens, sometimes all at once.  It affirms that we are wonderful, the center of everything, and that even given the wonderful thing we are, there are all manner of electronics and pharmaceuticals that would make us even more amazing.

It is not a deeply literate era, or an era that sees past itself and its own immediate hungers.  That impacts how Jesus is interpreted and understood in ways that is increasingly driving the majority of Christians away from the essence of his teachings.   Christianity, as it exists within the realm of our globalized society, is increasingly focused on matters that pertain not at all to the core teachings and ethos of the Gospel.

We come to Jesus so we can be successful and live lives filled with an abundance of material prosperity.  The Gospel of Health and Wealth is easily the biggest growth market for AmeriChrist, Inc. and its international subsidiaries. We come to Jesus to affirm our political positions, particularly as it pertains to those uppity hoe-moe-seckshals.  We expect Jesus to embrace the binary conflict dynamics of our culture, and pay no attention to what he told us was the core decision point against which we either stand or fall.  We want a neatly packaged, soundbite faith, and so chop the great story of redemption and reconciliation into verse-by-verse prooftexts that meet that basic human desire to not think, not imagine, and not understand. It's just easier that way.

In coming to Jesus with those things front and center on our shopping list of demands, we walk away from our interaction with the Nazarene precisely the same as we were when we walked towards him.

We want a commodified, packaged, and marketable Jesus, one who meets our needs and gets us what we deserve.  And Lord knows, we get what we deserve.

In the face of this dominant cultural approach to Christianity, what Presbyterians have to offer is countercultural.  We remember.  As Reformed Christians, we pay attention, not just to the now, but the great arc of history.  We understand the nature of what the church has been, how it has moved across languages and cultures, how it has stumbled from being in the thrall of the state to being a pitchman for the market.

We understand the character of the sacred texts that guide us, and the forces that formed them from outside the crucible of the Right Now.  That may mean that we're no longer front and center as a force in cultural Christianity.  But as cultural Christianity pitches out consumerist treacle, pop psychology pablum, and literalist straw men, what the Reformed Tradition offers is a sentient Christianity.

Not all will want that.  But it is what makes our witness unique and valuable.  It's our gift, and we should both cherish it, develop it, and be willing to make the case for it to those who are disaffected by the  spiritually self-evident failings of marketized and politicized Christianity.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Creating Jobs for Commie Robots

Yesterday, in perusing the business news, one little tidbit stuck out for me as I sought relief from the endless coverage of the debt-ceiling hoo-hah.

That tidbit had to do with the manufacture of the Apple products that seem to pervade my home.  The iPods and iPhones and MacBooks and even the iMac upon which this is currently being typed are all designed by folks on the West Coast, but are assembled by FoxConn in China.

That's where all the jobs created by our vaunted  "job creators" go these days.  Well, there or Mexico, or Vietnam, or Burma.  

But yesterday, Foxconn announced that it is going to be letting go hundreds of thousands of workers over the next three years.  It appears that with the growth of their economy, the Chinese who have so diligently performed for next to nothing on the assembly lines are now starting to expect better pay and some protections in the workplace.  Even though they're making a small fraction of what American workers used to make, it's still too much.  It's biting into profit margins.

So in the name of efficiency and improving profitability, Foxconn has announced that it will replace those line workers with around 300,000 robots.  Remaining workers will be "higher up the value chain."   Profits will be retained.  Your iPhone 5 will be a marvelous, magical wonderment, assembled with the help of our Chinese robot friends.

Here's what I just don't get about this.  Within the context of our global economy, we appear to have reached the point where even the most marginally compensated human labor is an impediment to profitability.  Providing wages to line workers is, even in the context of the Chinese economy, now a greater drain on capital than the purchase, energy, and maintenance costs for robotic production.   When you add in the outrageous demands that Chinese workers make...for four hours of fitful sleep a night, a few morsels of kung pao rodent, and a chance to urinate more than once a day without their pay being's clear that where Foxconn goes, so ultimately goes most production.

But here, the pursuit of profit ultimately is a spiral into economic oblivion.  If workers are no longer necessary in factories, and robot harvesters and combines are the future of profitable agriculture, the question does capitalism survive its own governing ethos?  If there are no workers to buy the products that are produced by the robots, then the pursuit of profit margins will have poisoned the economic ecology.  You'll have lots of product, cheaply made, but no global base of salaried workers to consume that product.

Capitalism becomes the serpent consuming its own tail, a system doomed to fail as it devours itself.

Such odd creatures, we humans are.