Thursday, March 26, 2015

One More Time.

I'm not sure when we'll figure this out, but I'm about ready to give up. I try not to repeat things over and over again here (at least not too often), but this business in Indiana just makes me sad. They've now got a law on the books allowing people to deny service for "religious reasons," which, in practicality, just means gay people. I'm sure it's already law in other places as well. It's just sad.

It used to make me mad. I used to get upset, frustrated. And I suppose, if I wanted to, I could work up that anger again. I'm just not sure what the point would be. The people I should be angry at are my own people; it's evangelical Christians spurring this sort of thing. It's not as though the general public looks at a law like this and goes, "Makes sense to me;" it's widely derided. People recognize the logical holes in an argument like this. They recognize the broad swaths of humanity who can now be legally and publicly discriminated against (what if my faith forbids tattoos or your clothes are too revealing for my moral liking).

It's an issue of people, my people, being afraid and confused and it makes me sad.

It's not about homosexuality or whatever your faith believes on such things. People think it's about that, but for Christians that's not a concern. We're called to love no matter what - to treat everyone as better than ourselves - to embrace and celebrate the humanity in everyone, no matter who they are, what they look like or what they do. Our call is to love people even when they hurt us or kill us or do us harm. The Christian call is one of suffering.

This sort of thing is the exact opposite of what we're called to do. It's a shame and an embarrassment and a violation of the name of Christ. Plain and simple.

Lots of organizations who use Indianapolis for conventions are talking about changing venues. Indy's a pretty popular spot for big conventions. They do it well. One part of me wishes my own denomination would make such a statement (although we're so hopelessly intertwined with Republican politics and self-righteous legalism, we're likely to celebrate this kind of thing). But I'm not sure a boycott would be any better than the law itself. It's the same response - shunning someone you disagree with.

It would be great for someone like The Church of the Nazarene, a conservative evangelical denomination, with a very traditional stance on marriage and sex, to denounce this law, express regret, and urge more compassion from the lawmakers in Indiana. Then hold the event anyway, because boycotts just aren't the way of Christ.

But, when measured against reality, that notion seems even sillier and more far-fetched than a law like this getting passed in the first place. I could never see it happening.

We care too much about reputation and power and influence and money.

There's no one right way to be human - it's a lesson the evangelical community has a hard time learning. There are certainly a lot of wrong ways to be human, though - and we're real good about picking those out everywhere but in the mirror.

This stinks. I'm sad.

Do better.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Prophetic Voice of Evangelical America

In the preface to his revised edition of The Prophetic Imagination (circa 2000), Walter Brueggemann sets out four prerequisites for a prophetic community. These are the elements he believes necessary for a community to produce a prophet or a prophetic voice: a long memory that is available and accessible to the community, a sense of real communal pain, an active practice of hope, and an effective mode of discourse. As I was reading, I couldn't help but realize our present Evangelical America, at least in the form we allow to speak for us, lacks all of these.

We tend to have a short memory. Our traditions stretch back 100 years, if we're lucky - less than 5% of Christian history. We've all-consumingly bought in to the immediacy of the consumer culture in which we're enmeshed. This shows up in our consumer and entrepreneurial approaches to corporate worship and purpose. We want to be the biggest, flashiest, most impressive thing; we want to be new. We have no memory and, even if we did, no means by which to access it. Conservative may be fine for us, traditional, even (in our own strange definition of traditional), but they must be packaged as new or next. We recycle fads and remain oblivious to context because we have to memory and no way to relive or interpret those memories which might be accessible.

Evangelical America is so thoroughly embedded in the dominant culture there is no possibility of pain. We are largely affluent and white. We are used to controlling the levers of power, be they political or economic. The fact that this may no longer be as true as it once way brings on a sense of false pain. This is not the kind of pain Brueggemann speaks about, a dehumanizing sort of identity loss that can speak for itself to all humanity. This contrived pain, in the form of "religious persecution," is manipulative and self-justifying, an obvious smoke-screen to the outside world. We have no pain, save that to our ego.

We have words of hope (heaven, escape), but those translate into a practice of fear and mourning. This hatred of the world is utterly hopeless. We cannot simply say, "things are bad, but one day we'll escape." This is not prophetic, it's a socially-accepted version of the doomsday cult. We cannot isolate ourselves from the world in expectation of an imminent cosmic evacuation. We see the world around us through a divisive lens, in which we're locked in a battle with "them" for control of our souls. There is no hope here. Even if we claim confidence in a bright future someday, it manifests itself in fear and uncertainty this day.

The way we speak leaves no room for error. The world is entirely black and white, right and wrong, with no room for overlap, no consideration of bias. Our communication is irrelational and depersonalizing, labeling challengers as enemies, worthy of nothing more than vitriol and marginalization. For us, the end justifies the means.

Evangelical America doesn't call the world to an alternative reality, quite the contrary, Evangelical America wants to eliminate the possibility of alternative reality. In this, you can replace "Evangelical America" with "totalitarian power," "unfettered capitalism," "socialism" or "militant Islam." The role of power, whatever kind of power (and saying these forces are after the same thing does not make them equal in value, simply in purpose), is to maintain power. A prophetic voice, a voice of true alternative, cannot speak from a position of power. It can't arise from power or be nurtured through power. It's simply not possible.

Evangelical America, along with the other examples - and many more, represent attempt to control the dominant narrative, not attempts to write a new one. They are not challenges to power, but attempts to co-opt power with a specific set of underlying morals. This will not produce real change, only superficial. The underlying problems remain; the dominant narrative continues.

Brueggemann's contention, then, is that until God's people (or any people) see the world and live in the world in fundamentally different ways it is not possible to live differently or speak prophetically.

If Evangelical America is to ever have a truly prophetic voice (and I'm still a believer that it can), we must build a community capable of nurturing a prophetic voice.

We have to reclaim our memory, both the good and the bad, and not just cling to a convenient narrative we've created to simplify our lives and allow us to fit in. We have to act in hope, re-membering with our lives and actions that all people are God's people, that there is no "us and them," that God loves this world and calls it good, that redemption is our future, not escape. Thus we must also speak redemptively, as if we really believe we're all in this together and peaceful coexistence is possible. We must seek to understand, listen, and love.

We must also embrace pain. I'm a relatively affluent white male. I'm not going to encounter real pain, even if I am entirely committed to living alternatively in the midst of the world (and I'm clearly not always committed). It's essential Evangelical America to stand with those who suffer pain. Even if it challenges our moral perspective, our comfort level, or our "common sense." We have to suffer with those who suffer, those who are left out of the system we've tried to hard to control. This means more than starting charities and volunteering with organizations (although that's a start). Our community must embrace what it means to suffer, we must move into the neighborhood, make ourselves dependent on those who suffer so it becomes our suffering.

Too often we take only those risks we can unwind. I am more than guilty of this. For us to truly have a prophetic voice, pain is essential. It is from pain that hope and a better vision for the future arises. Prisoners, addicts, women, racial minorities, the LGBT community - those who encounter difficulty and marginalization. Those stories must be our stories. That pain must be ours - again, not as tourists, but as people.

The world around us is comprised of people - all good, all broken - engaged in a variety of activities, helpful and hurtful, unifying and isolating, honoring and embarrassing, loving and neglectful. These people are no different than us. But until that sentiment is more than words, until it is backed up with a concrete reality, there will be no prophetic voice for Evangelical America.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick

I really don't like doing things that everyone else is doing. I'm am not someone who ever felt pressure to fit in. If anything, I felt the opposite. If everyone is doing it or there's some cultural expectation of conformity, you can pretty much count me out. It takes some real discipline and an activity of unimpeachable importance for me to just "go along." That's just one of the joys of knowing me, I guess (full sarcasm in effect).

Which brings me to St. Patrick's Day. There are a lot of those "Real Saint Patrick" videos circulating on the internets today, so I'm not sure I need to go into any real detail about how the celebration of this day in the US has almost nothing to do with the man himself. I actually have a ton of respect for St. Patrick. He gave up his life to serve people who treated him badly. He responded to hatred with love. Plus he (and his legacy) managed to maintain a mystical and authentic alternative Christianity alive throughout the corruption and capitulation of the Roman and Medieval periods of European History.

The dude was pretty cool.

But I'm not Irish (although my ancestors did manage a brief decade or two stopover on the way from Scotland to Canada) and I'm not a big drinker. I have developed a love of green clothes recently, but I'm not pulling them out today. Conformity is the last thing Patrick would have endorsed. He spent his life doing the opposite of everyone around him precisely because he thought there was a better way. I like to be the guy with the alternative script, the different perspective, the "yeah... but." I've never gotten the whole, "I'll exercise my freedom by looking and acting like everyone else," thing. It's just not me.

As much as that's true, however, there is still a part of me that is contrary just to be contrary. I mean I like the notion of reminding people that difference perspectives exist. I think it's helpful to the world to challenge commonly-held assumptions and perspectives. There's another part of me that just wants to be different.

Maybe it's because I often feel invisible or forgettable; maybe I'm just a jerk.

I do wish everyone a happy Saint Patrick's Day. I like green food and mint chocolate cupcakes. I fully endorse parades and celebration. I just don't want anyone telling me how I should dress or what I should do.

(And as for this pinching thing, I think it meets the basic definition of misdemeanor battery, so think it through.)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Scary Close by Donald Miller

I've read a lot of Donald Miller's books. I read Blue Like Jazz when it got popular, along with every other Christian College student at the time. I needed to read it. It met me where I was. It was really helpful. Miller is a wonderful writer, supremely talented. He's witty and funny and, as he says in Scary Close, he works incredibly hard to make his prose seem casual and effortless. I went back to read Blue Like Jazz a year or so ago. It's not where I am anymore. It doesn't resonate with me the same way it did, but it's still damn good writing. I read To Own a Dragon, his book on growing up without a father. I have a father - a pretty good one - Miller's book was still fantastic. I have never laughed harder or more often reading a book (and that's a good thing, despite the subject matter).

So when the BookLook program offered Miller's new book, I was pretty happy.* I was less happy when I saw it was only available for review as an ebook. I've never had an ebook before. I had to download a program on my laptop even to read one. I like his writing enough and wanted to read this book enough, I did all of that. I read the whole thing on my computer today. It was ok. What wasn't ok was that thirty pages in I wanted to share it with my wife and my therapist and a million other people who all struggle or walk with people through troubles in relationships and intimacy... but I couldn't, because it's an ebook.

Scary Close is real. It's honest on a level that one wouldn't expect from another human being - even one, like Miller, known for being honest. He uses personal stories from friends (semi-famous friends) and uses their real names (presumably with permission). In its very honesty, it is a scary challenge for the reader to embrace honesty.

It's a beautiful book. The writing is superb, as always, and, as the book discusses, it doesn't feel like Miller is writing "in character" or with the mask that subtly seems to fuel his other work. Halfway through I had to stop and look up "behind the scenes" info on Miller - since this book is so blatantly up front about life. I ran across this short interview that helps as a companion to the reader.

It's tough to say this book is "life changing" since I only finished reading it 27 minutes ago, but I saw enough of myself here - scratch that, I saw myself on nearly every page, in such honest and loving and difficult ways, I'm not sure there's any response but to use it in my life. I, and hopefully everyone reading this, am always desirous to improve my relationships. I've been married ten years now and it's often tough. Even when it's good and right and awesome it's tough. I think there are a lot of tools, stories, ideas, honesty, whatever, in Scary Close, to help anyone along that journey towards health and growth and wholeness (or as close as we're ever going to get to those things).

I found myself saying, "yeah, but" to a lot of stuff and Miller certainly does come off a little bit as the "Self-help" character the interview I liked to above halfheartedly claims him to be - at the same time, the familiarity I see and feel between the words on the page and the reality of my life rings far more true than the reputation of Donald Miller could ever hope to present. It's easy to resonate with something because it's presented well and comes from a familiar source; I found a deeper resonance here.

This may be largely emotion talking and I'll be more sane and less gushing in the morning. Who knows? I hope not. I do think it's a well written book with a courageous amount of honesty that could really help all of us think through the important relationships in our lives. I won't say "everyone should read it," because that comes off less than genuine. I do think, however, that absolutely everyone could benefit from reading it. Do with that what you will.

I'll even let you borrow it... oh wait, it's an ebook.

*I didn't put my typical disclaimer on this post mostly because it doesn't feel like a typical post. Yes, I was given this book in exchange for a review. No, the publisher did not influence my review in any way. At the same time it doesn't feel like every other review I've done. This was a profound and personal experience and one I didn't want to cheapen with the standard disclaimer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ummmm... Really?

For the record, I could care less about who uses what email and when they use them and what they might've said. To me this is all a giant waste of time. But, this whole Hillary Clinton email thing has brought up some interesting points of fact that might otherwise be overlooked. The very fact that it was "routine" for high level government officials to use private email accounts for their jobs? Really? This was happening through 2010? Were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney planning Iraq strategy via AOL accounts? I mean, I get that someone joins an organization from the outside, they're used to one system, they want to keep it. But this isn't McCarthy & Sons Funeral Home, she was the Secretary of State!

In a way, I like it. The fact that government officials weren't using secure email at the same time Justin Beiber was cute-famous and not yet creepy famous just goes to show us all that things aren't as perfect as we imagine. Our government isn't any more high tech or on the ball than the place you work. We're all just people - even those people who pretend to be the most important people in the world.

Speaking of them. Lindsey Graham comes out commenting on this whole thing by admitting he's never sent an email!! He also said he doesn't have an email address. I'm pretty sure that's a lie - he might not know what it is or who answers it, but he's got one - unless of course the government's IT department is woefully behind the times... oh, right... Hillary Clinton was sending top secret emails through a server in the basement of her Westchester home. Awesome. Maybe Lindsey really doesn't have an email address.

Still, bragging about it doesn't seem to be any better. With email, even a strange, unsecure, private email, there's a record of conversations. Lindsey might have some sort of paper trail, but likely everything he's doing is out loud and in person, what kind of historical record is that? Also, this guy is one of the more powerful Senators in the US. Shouldn't his job require some measure of access to that's become a life necessity even for the Bushmen of the Kalahari? Maybe?

The odd think-tanker and occasional sports commentator Gregg Easterbrook used to go on and on about CEOs and minor political officials traveling with huge security details to make themselves look and feel important. Perhaps we've got the same thing going on in Congress? "No, I don't need to use email, I have ipads and things I keep track of stuff on and people I tell to do things for me." They don't write (or read) their own bills, they don't have to actual fillibuster anything anymore (just tell someone they're thinking about it and the wheels of the greatest representative democracy in the history of the earth come to a screeching halt), they don't even have to walk on the street like normal people (looking at you, private underground congressional monorail). Perhaps this is a sign of being just a little bit out of touch?

People get into politics to reinforce their sense of self-importance, I get that, at the same time, you'd think they might be a little better at hiding that ego from the general public? Then again, maybe the machines of money, gerrymandering, and ad-men really have made elections obsolete and Lindsey is laughing his way to the bank (because he still has to go to the bank, you know, since he doesn't do email).