Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Attending the President's Church

It's been nearly a decade since the President of the United States was a regular churchgoer.  It's not a requirement, of course, nor should it be.  But it is a change, a significant shift in the role and place of Christian faith communities in the national discourse.

Barack Obama was a regular churchgoer as a local politician.  But once he was on the national stage, where a congregation is less useful as a social and political community?  Church was no longer necessary, at least as it means participation in a gathering of other Jesus folk.  For all of Obama's unquestionable brilliance in articulating the faith, his subtle expositions on Niebuhr?  Church no longer really mattered enough to put energy into it.

As a DC area pastor who had a professional interest in where the POTUS goes to church, I paid attention to this for eight years.  Church...meaning engagement with a particular faith community...just didn't happen.

It was "inconvenient."  A "security risk for the congregations."  I never bought that.  Abraham Lincoln attended the DC congregation where I grew up.  When war was raging near enough that bodies of dead American soldiers came floating down the Potomac, he was still going to church.  At the height of the Cold War, with hostages held in Iran, Jimmy still taught Sunday School.

Honeychild, church ain't something you skip, not if it matters to you.

One might argue that it is not necessary to participate in a community of disciples to be an authentic follower of Jesus.  "You don't need church to love Jesus," one might say.

Sure.  Uh Huh.   Maybe if you're an anchorite or a desert mystic.  And no, your social isolation and the #twitter wasteland don't count towards that.  But that's another argument for another time.

Our current president is different.  Very, very different.  His Sunday mornings have never been for church.  Both before his election and after, they're for angry tweeting and golfing alone at one of his resorts.  There's not time for Jesus or sabbath, not when you're being the brand 24/7.  Fortunately, there's an alternative in this media-driven era.   So the president participates in church in the same way that he receives his actionable intelligence about the world:  by watching tee vee.

As he flips through the channels having finished shouting along with Tucker Carlson, he'll come across tee vee preachers, those televangelists who fill our cable channels with eager Jesus messages delivered before large and eager crowds.  One in particular stands out as having caught his eye and held his attention:  Pastor Paula White-Cain of Paula White Ministries.

Given our president's well known predilections, it's perhaps not surprising that he might stop for a moment and linger watching Pastor White-Cain.

His connection with her is his "in" with the evangelical community.  She's the pastor who, upon invitation to speak with him, was willing to testify that he'd found the path to Jesus.

She's front and center in this administration now, as the highest profile faith advisor to the White House.  If the president has a church, it's hers.  Not that he goes there any more often than he attends his youngest son's school events.

But he watches it, now and then.

And when he watches, what does he see?

Paula White-Cain has a fascinating, complicated backstory, one I first encountered years ago on one of those days I was feeling particularly riled about Prosperity Preachin'.  She is, of course, part of the name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel movement, and entered into ministry initially as the preaching spouse in a husband and wife pastoring team.  Think Jim and Tammy Faye, with all of the goodness that such an analogy entails.

That marriage was both doomed and complicated.  Meaning, her pastor-partner husband was both unfaithful and abusive.  The stories of his spiritual bullying and bizarre, creative abuse are genuinely horrifying.  Sweet Lord Jesus, what kind of a man does that to his wife?

But she found her strength, and pulled away, and divorced him.  She survived.  She rebuilt her own church...still very much in the "give to the church and you'll be blessed" model...and married the keyboardist/songwriter from Journey.  Honestly, one child of God to another, I'm glad for her.

Now, more than any other religious leader, she has the ear of a president.

So out of curiosity, I pulled up YouTube, and sat through four or five videos from the New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, where Pastor White preaches.

Watching her at work is...peculiar.  Here's a sample, if you're interested.

Her congregation is remarkably diverse.  I mean, it is.  It's majority minority, which probably tracks with her television and online audiences.

The service is stock standard contemporary in feel.  Meaning, screens and praise for forty minutes, followed by a message.  The musicians are competent instrumentalists and vocalists.  Things are generally well done.

Her preaching is...hmmm.  It's not quite as high energy as one might assume.   It's in the style of most contemporary prosperity preachers, meaning anecdote/scripture excerpt/anecdote, on a repeating and semi-thematic cycle.  There's not a whole bunch of exegesis or narrative flow.

But it's also a little flat.  A little distant.  In all of the broadcasts I watched, she just seems kind of tired.

And the preaching always, always, always revolves around money.  I mean, I'll preach on wealth on occasion, and remind my church folk that sharing resources for the common good is a vital part of faith.  But this is on another level.

Need and money, need and money, in an endless cycle of tithing and capital campaigns and planting a seed, all with a remarkable sense of urgency.  She's breaking the chains of financial hardship over your life, all of which will happen when you give generously to her ministry.

And like all frontline Prosperity preachers, Paula does quite well for herself.

It's hard to watch.  Not because it's a bizarre manifestation of AmeriChrist, Incorporated.  Not because it's so transparently grasping and transactional.   Not because it's strangely recursive, raising funds to raise funds to raise funds.  Not because the genuinely Christian things her church does...the front and center acts of incarnate grace and service...go mostly forgotten and unmentioned, like a faded window dressing lost in the ever brightening sparkle of mammon.

But because it''s ultimately kind of dull.  I honestly struggle to track along with the peculiar, looping, aimless requests for funds.  The praise music, while quite competent, all feels by the numbers.

I drift a bit.  I get distracted.  I feel the urge, after about five minutes, to be doing something else.

Which, if you're noodling through the channels in the Oval Office during "executive time," would be so very easy to do.   Get a couple of minutes of health and wealth preaching, and when you get bored?  Click, and you're right back to yelling at CNN.

But hey, at least the president's been to church, right?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The State of the Union

The recent government shutdown did only one good thing. 

It didn't move America any closer to resolving our challenges.  Not even a little bit.  Not even an iota.  All that stress, all that fear inflicted on millions of American workers, for what?  Nothing.  It was colossally, impossibly foolish, yet another display of political malpractice on the part of a "dealmaker" who has no idea how to be the leader of a republic.

But there was that one good thing came of it:  the State of the Union was delayed.   Ideally, it would have been delayed for...well...ever.   But we takes what we can gets.

And it's not just because listening to a semi-illiterate compulsively mendacious serial adulterer clumsily deliver words that have been written down for him is painful, though it surely is.  Sniff.  Sniff. 

It's because the State of the Union is utterly unworthy of our time.  It's a pointless, empty, useless ritual, one that doesn't even feel American.

It's been well over a decade since I've watched the entirety of one.  I stopped early in Dubya's tenure, because as genial as he may be as a person, he isn't exactly a Shakespearian orator.  I listened to about ten minutes of Obama's first attempt, and then gave up, because it was just as terrible.

We all know why.  I mean, sweet Lord Jesus, we all know.  The endless interruptions for applause, which resonate with all of the authenticity of the Party rising before Stalin in those old Soviet speeches.  The "guests" who are carted out like props, to which there's more applause?  The regurgitation of obvious and painfully familiar talking points?

It's stale and empty and false, and that stale, empty falseness just goes on and on and on like a circle of Dante's hell.

As it exists now, it serves our nation poorly.  It tells us nothing we need to know.  More importantly, in the hands of a president whose primary skillset is fomenting division, dissent, and disruption?  It has no chance of uniting a nation in common purpose.

Unless you're a journalist and getting paid to endure it, there is no earthly reason to watch it.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Eight Conservative Thoughts

1) Individuality and personhood are more important than systems, labels and categories.

The good and just society, wherever it has tried to rise, has been based on the rights of human persons.  Respecting an individual's freedom of conscience, speech, and religion (or absence thereof) is absolutely vital to the well being of culture.  This has always been true.

Preserving the rights of the individual against the oppressions of national, ethnic, or religious assumptions is and has always been the struggle of liberalism.

But in the progressive world these days, the individual is not the unit of analysis.  Individuals are agglomerations of intersecting categories, representative of systems and structures, and their unique personhood becomes secondary.

I'm just not there.  Nor do I wish to be there.

I am, therefore, conservative.

2)  Grace is a higher purpose than Justice.

Justice is a fundamental biblical virtue, and the essence of good governance since Hammurabi.  No culture that sneers at or rejects justice can stand.

But I am a Christian.  Jesus defines my existence, and though I struggle daily to live into his teachings, I acknowledge him as the source of all authority in my life.   From that basis, I can do no wholistic assessment of my faith that comes to the conclusion that justice is the ultimate goal, purpose, or method of Jesus.  That purpose, the teleological core of the faith?

It's grace.

What matters is not the quest for perfect balance, for being sure that every wrong is exactly and perfectly righted.  That's not our task.

Grace is the soil from which justice springs.  It is the light that give growth to justice.  Radical agape-love grace is both the essence of the the faith and the nature of God.

And it does not work the other way around.  In that, I'll freely admit to being convinced by Augustine, who...though he was an African man...isn't really well received in non-conservative circles.

I am, therefore, conservative.

3) The Good is a universal, not culturally subjective or personally relative.

As a person of faith, I don't understand the good as culturally mediated.  Cultures and societies all struggle towards the Good.  Sometimes, they get closer than others.  More often than not, they yield to the siren song of power.

But the Good exists, extrinsic to all of our human striving.  It is not socially constructed, but something deeper, something more fundamental, something more essential.  It does not depend on us, on our meat-monkey grasping and peculiar collective solipsisms.

And sure, sure, it's a transcendent mystery, one towards which we must always journey.

And yeas, it's of such mind-warping immensity that it tends to fill our souls with the kind of mortal terror that usually only appears in H.P. Lovecraft novels.

And yeah, I know, that's also almost neoPlatonic.  Seriously old way of thinking.  Technically, it's because I'm mystic, drawing my sense of truth from that deep wellspring of the divine that speaks out of every single faith tradition in human history.

I am not willing to let that go.

But that's what conservatives do.  We hold on to the good.

4)  Deconstruction sabotages progress.

Deconstruction is the method of progressives these days, and there's an irony in that.  Because progress implies growth.  It implies improvement.  It implies movement towards a better future.

And deconstruction, as a methodology?  It can be useful, if used judiciously and wisely.  You cannot make room for the new if you do not take some things apart.  You cannot step away from dark paths in your life unless you take apart those aspects of yourself that hunger for them.

If your eye offends you, as my Rabbi once said.

But unfettered and unbounded, deconstruction does none of those things.  It is nothing more than endless defenestration, as one assumption after another is smashed, and one edifice after another is torn down.  It burns it all down, always.

Nothing can give joy.  Nothing is ever right.  Everything is unworthy.

I mean, that's all that the howling mobverse of #twitter does.   Never was a communications medium so perfectly designed for the pharisee in all of us.

And a worldview that allows nothing to stand has no foundation upon which to build.  It leaves us with nothing but the churning, aimless chaos of self-annihilation, an unformed yawp of no-thingness instead of purpose and hope.

Again, I see no purpose in that, because it has no purpose.

5)  Science has limits

I love science.  I do, and I always have.  Our striving for the stars and our opening up of the fundamental physics of being is a wonder.  I'm right there with Carl Sagan, goggling at the billions and billions of stars.  Even on our fevered, changing world, there is so much beauty and intricacy.  It's a marvel.

But there are boundaries that we seem willing to cross in the name of "science" that trouble my soul.   Because I see human beings as having souls, which, given my profession, is unsurprising.

When I hear talk of how young people can't really make effective choices because their brains are still developing, I shudder a little bit, because that makes them less of a person and more of a "process."  When I hear a parent's love for a child or lover's delight in one another reduced to neurobiology and evolved patterns of response, I similarly balk.

Do not tell me that I love a doggo floof because of any reason other than that it is a doggo floof.  Seriously. Back off, science. You're adding nothing to this moment.

There may be truth in those insights, but it is an immaterial truth, a truth that misses the point of human existence in a fundamental way.  It doesn't deepen us, or grow us.  It just teaches us to view one another as flesh automata, and that is a terrible, terrible path for humankind.

We've walked that way before as a species, during the last century.  It does dark and horrid things.

6)  Friends are better than allies.

The language of progressivism talks about being an "ally."  Be a good ally, they say.  But that's all about power dynamics, about the actualization of self or collective interest as it "intersects" with the power interest of others.

Allyship falls away when interests diverge, or where disagreement arises.  In the zero sum game of the #twoke short attention span activism that defines our poisonous online life, it's become nearly impossible to disagree without it becoming about Not Being an Ally.

Friends don't think that way.  Friends don't care about power dynamics.  They just love you like you're their own flesh and blood.  They are as close to you as your own soul.

You can be completely yourself and unafraid with a friend.  This is not true with an ally.

Among the wisest of the secular ancients, that's why friendship was considered among the highest of the virtues.  Philia, that natural and volitional affinity, was a relationship of complete, freely given trust between one person and another.  Being an ally is a more sterile, formalistic, and self-interested form of relation, one in which lists of rules and trigger-avoidance-protocols define a carefully negotiated exchange.

And as one who follows the Nazarene as their Teacher in all things, the term "ally" sounds with a peculiar dissonance against the radical command to both love and friendship.   "A greater love has no-one than this," says Jesus, as he swore his life to his friends.  Not his "allies."  The Greek word for "ally" does not appear in any of the teachings of Jesus, nor does it occur in any of the Epistles.

It's also challenging, honestly, to integrate the conflict-assumption of the "ally" concept into the radical agape ethic taught by the Nazarene.  Sure, one can have enemies, those ruled by brokenness and the injustices created by our hunger for power. 

But the idea that your calling in existence is to go to war with those who your allies war with?  It stands in tension with the most fundamental ethic of Christian faith.  It is difficult to be authentically Christian and part of that form of binary relation. 

And so, being conservative, I am not.

7)  Marginality confers no moral virtue.

My Teacher loved people who were marginalized.  I do too.  When power presses you down, and dehumanizes you, Jesus is there.

But just because you're on the margins doesn't mean you understand the whole picture.  Marginality conveys no inherent moral benefit.  It is a morally neutral state.  You can be marginal for a reason.  You can have internalized a pattern of thinking or lifeway that is less healthy and/or less lifegiving than others.

There are margins that lead us deeper into madness or farther into hatred.  There are margins that make us more selfish, or that pull us apart as cultures.

It isn't always the "leading edge," in the peculiar consultant speak of my left-leaning denomination.

Sometimes, unless we have the wisdom to know otherwise, the margin is nothing more than a precipice.

8)  Cultural identity is fluid and ever changing.

It's that melting pot thing, that old stodgy Schoolhouse Rock saying about the nature of the American republic...and, writ larger, a globalist view of humanity.

The Left sees the melting pot as an enemy of social identity, as a part of an oppressive system that strips away culture.  "Erasure" is the image, which indeed it does, vanishing the clean boundaries that establish discrete racial and ethnic identity, and that makes it dangerous.  If the deliniation between white and POCs ceases to be meaningful, if race and culture blend and shift and fold into one another, maintaining rigidly distinct identity groups becomes impossible.  Barack Obama, for example, ceases to be cleanly "black,"  and is suddenly something more complex.

And something more real.

That is a place where racism dies.

But reality and ideology mix poorly.

I see the melting pot as both more vibrant, more transformative, and more representative of how human anthropology and social dynamics have always worked.  Cultures shift and change in relation to one another.

Again, this is also how love works, in the most Jesusy sense of that word.

There's that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Spiderverse and Multiversality

Whenever I encounter a film that's gotten nearly universally great reviews, well, I inherently don't trust it.  I've been burned too many times, walking into a theater with great expectations and leaving disappointed.

So when, after much family discussion, we went to see the recent Spiderman/Spiderverse flick?   I'd prepared myself to be disappointed, to find it tedious and by the numbers, talking it down in my mind until, well, I had low expectations.

This proved to be completely unnecessary.  It was an utterly entertaining film, a live action graphic novel of the best sort.   Wonderful art style, excellent primary character voice acting, and a decent plot?  It was a delight.

I particularly enjoyed it because it toyed about with what is now a deeply familiar theme in comic book movies and postmodern narratives generally:  the multiverse.   The parallel universes concept isn't just a convenient conceit for storytellers: it's got cosmological legs.

Which brings me to one of the minor non-spoilery weakness in the film:  character development.  As the various iterations of Spiderman are introduced, there's really only character development for three of them.  The other three are by necessity supporting cast members.  The viewer only gets loose character sketches of them in the movie, and most of their development is as broad-swath comic relief.

If it's a weakness, it's a necessary one.

In a film where a functionally infinite number of Spider-people can exist, we can only focus on so many of them before we'd get overwhelmed.   We have to choose which narratives to engage, because if we don't, we'd be lost.  There'd be nothing to ground us, nothing to give a sense of continuity, just churn and chaos as we lose ourselves in a fractal vortex of variant, dissonant plotlines.

As one of the few Jesus folk who've bothered to take the actual multiverse we inhabit seriously, this is one of the core moral and ethical problems in our reality.   We face a functionally infinite array of moral demands and possible ends.  Every choice leads us down a variant path, each of which is just as real and valid as any other.  If we make the mistake of thinking too much about it, it's dizzying to the point of madness.  It cannot be integrated by human-scale intelligence, nor can the tensions between the infinitely variant paths be resolved.

Even within the timeline of our single universe, we struggle with this.  To cohere as integrated beings, we must choose in ways that create a viable self-narrative.  We have to orient ourselves towards something that gives us purpose, that defines us...or we fall into anxious dissonance.