When politics BECOMES religion

When politics BECOMES religion

Here’s a bold pronouncement:

The fastest growing “religion” in America isn’t Buddhism, Islam, or that age-defying voodoo powder that Tom Brady’s trainer sprinkles in his Gatorade. Not even close. Over the past decade or so, America’s fastest growing religion has been the all-consuming pull of politics.

A recent article in The American Conservative suggests something like this – and it isn’t limited to just the “Right” or “Left.”

Looking back to 2008, Timothy P. Carney argues that one thing many of the chanting, fainting, I-will-never-wash-this-hand-again supporters of Barack Obama had in common with the reddest of “red hats” is that they had abandoned church and transferred their religious fervor to political messiahs.

Politics replaced religion.

Based on research by the Pew Research Center, Carney states that:

The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries […] would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.

They came to Trump seeking what they had lost because they had lost church.

This claim is muddied by the fact that some of these devotees still claimed the label “evangelical,” though they had long since left church. In fact, the subset of Trump voters dubbed “the Preservationists” was the group most likely to say that religion was “very important” to them even while they were least likely to attend religious gatherings.

What meaneth this?

One way of reading the statistic would be to say that for some of these folks, it was not so much a case of politics expressing their faith as it was political fervor becoming their faith. (Read the whole thing here to see if you agree.)

It would be wrong, however, to say that this is just a MAGA phenomenon. My hunch is that something similar could be said of the far Left.

ET TU BERNIE?

It is widely known that this demographic is less likely to attend church regularly, or to claim a religious affiliation. The “Nones” are on the rise, we hear repeatedly. But is “None” really the most accurate religious descriptor for some of the most vocal members of the secular Left?

How many of these marching, chanting, constantly posting anti-Trumpists might also be said to have transferred their “faith” to America’s new national religion?

After all, a quick gander at the leading “news” sites (whether Right or Left) shows a form of ideological purity and boundary-policing that would normally be reserved for the harshest of fundamentalist sects. Heresy is a live category here, as is excommunication and the social media equivalent of burning at the stake.

WHAT IS RELIGION?

The first point to be made in response to my argument is that it would be unfair to accuse all passionate voices (on the Right or Left) of having adopted a new religion.

Theologians like myself should be careful about turning everything into a “religion,” as if my kids’ passion for fruit snacks and animal crackers should be read through the lens of Dionysius and animal sacrifice.

“Some” is the key word above.

Still, I stand by my claim that we sometimes define “faith” and “religion” too narrowly.

In my usage, religion (or “worship”) is the assigning of ultimate, transcendent value to a particular object, person, or idea. Along these lines, even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens have long referred to Soviet Marxism as a de-facto religion. (Hitchens knew this from experience; as a young Communist, he had gone to live in Castro’s Cuba.)

My contention is that we sometimes fail to define “worship” and “religion” broadly enough. As Nietzsche rightly saw, there are more idols in this world than one thinks.

WHAT TO DO?

But what should Christians do in the face of America’s fastest growing quasi-religion?

An initial move should be to examine our own hearts and habits.  How much time do I spend perusing political news versus reading Scripture?  Would a quick scan of my Facebook posts indicate that I am most passionate about?  How often do words like “Left” and “Right” pepper daily my daily vocabulary?  Do I spend hours a week listening to acerbic talk radio or other forms of highly biased political content?

Then, three quick applications for the church at large:

1. Don’t baptize rival kingdoms.

An initial step would be a refusal to baptize the political dog in the ecclesial manger, regardless of the color of its collar.

In American politics, both sides have had tendency to care selectively about certain sins, while conveniently ignoring others. Both sides have tended to “bundle” issues strangely at certain points (e.g., justice for all and abortion on demand). And both sides have found church leaders willing to “baptize” their moves in exchange for access to power. I’ll forgo the examples.

In the words of evangelical historian, Thomas S. Kidd:

we should never want our church leaders to become partisan campaigners, regardless of the party in question. [This move] disrupts the unity of the church, and invariably turns the church into a servant of temporal power rather than the kingdom of God.

2. Don’t retreat to private faith.

On the other hand, it would be equally disastrous to respond to our hyper-politicized moment with a retreat from social engagement altogether.

“Religion as a private matter.”

~Said no one in the Bible, ever.

A “private” faith is an irrelevant invention of the modern world. Thus Christians ought to care about the issues God cares about.

For me, that includes pressing matters of justice like abortion, racial reconciliation, and many others topics.

At the same time, we must be sure to take our cues from Scripture more than from the talking heads of Cable News, or the self-interested bosses of party politics.

3. Don’t lose interest in the “seed” growing slowly.

My sense is that some Christians have simply grown tired or bored with the difficult and unheralded work of soul-care and The Great Commission.

And strange as it sounds, I get it.

On every news site and every social media platform, we are told repeatedly that political realities are the most important, most interesting, and most cringe-worthy aspect of life. Who isn’t tempted to believe it?

Politics is the laser pointer, and we are the frantic cats that jump to and fro at the whims of “owners” after ad revenue. Politics is the fast-moving, shiny object from which you can hardly look away.

By comparison, the “seed” growing slowly beneath the soil doesn’t seem as exciting. If the Kingdom of God is like leaven mixed with dough (doing its work in secret, without headlines, and without a 12-hour news cycle), then politics is like gunpowder. It turns more heads, makes more noise, and sucks up all the oxygen. But that doesn’t mean it’s where the actions is.

The challenge of Christ’s strange kingdom is to trust that the “seed” growing slowly is what really matters.

The gospel is the treasure buried in the field; it is worth selling everything to have; and it is more fulfilling than our new national religion of political fixation.


 

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Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Prophet or punk? (Pt 3)

Here’s the final installment of my “Prophet or punk?” series over at The Wesleyan Church website.

These posts explore the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness in the age of social media.

While part 2 dealt with recovering “lament,” this one deals with the prophetic hallmark of “persistent hope” expressed (perhaps) in some exuberant dances moves.

After all, the first named “prophetess” was Miriam (Exod. 15:20). And when she first steps foot upon the biblical stage to lead God’s people, it is with “with tambourines and dancing.”

Hence:

One is tempted to say that an imperfect litmus test to separate the prophet from punk is whether you can picture that person dancing.

Read the whole thing here.


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Mozart in hell

Mozart in hell

One of the most controversial Christian doctrines concerns the reality of hell.

Yet while almost the whole of the tradition (not least Jesus) maintained belief in a form of post-mortem judgment, there are many different views on what that means.

One of these diverse perspectives comes from North America’s most famous preacher of fire and brimstone: Jonathan Edwards.

jonathanedwards_byjosephbadger_yale_detail-56eabd815f9b581f344de989
Jonathan Edwards, mensch.

In a prior post (here), I was critical of Edwards’ treatment of the subject. But in this piece, I’d like to examine an aspect of his thought that is, at least, intriguing.

For Edwards, hell is the presence of God himself.  And so is heaven.

He builds this view on Scripture.  Revelation 14:10 speaks, for instance, of a torment that takes place “in the presence of the Lamb.”

On the one hand, this portrait could be taken as a macabre depiction of a sadistic Christ who derives pleasure from watching the torture of those who worshipped “the beast.” This makes Jesus look like a rogue CIA agent who begins to enjoy the sight of waterboarded prisoners; or like a mafia goon who gets a thrill from plucking toe-nails from his enemies.  And this Jesus seems hard to square with the merciful Lord who walks the pages of the Gospels.

But there is another way of reading Edwards’ claim that God is the substance of both hell and heaven.

One word: Mozart.

AMADEUS AS THEOLOGY

In the movie Amadeus, we are shown two different reactions to the breathtaking beauty of Mozart’s compositions.

In the audience, there are those who hear this music and experience pleasure, worship, and a moment of transcendent union between the author and the audience. Perhaps you can relate. A concert can be a foretaste of heaven.

Yet in Amadeus, there is another figure in the audience who experiences the music differently.  To Salieri (Mozart’s jealous rival), this same music, in this same theatre, from this same orchestra feels like nothing less than torture. Not because it is terrible, but because it is perfect.

Salieri wants to be Mozart. Or kill him. And in the end, he chooses the latter.

A PARABLE

Amadeus is a parable of hellacious experience.

As sinful humans, we want to be God. Or kill him. And on Golgotha, we chose the latter.

Yet as with Salieri, the music gets louder after its composer dies. It rises from the grave. And the same song strikes us as either ecstasy or torture. Not because it’s terrible, but because it’s perfect.

I have no idea whether this is a good analogy to help one grasp the Christian concept of the afterlife.

I’ve never been dead.

And I don’t listen to Mozart.

It is however, a call to cultivate not only “ears to hear” the music of God’s holy love, but the “taste” to find it beautiful. Heaven is a party thrown for Prodigals, and an invitation to experience the Father’s presence in a way unlike the “tortured” elder brother.


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The silence of our friends

The silence of our friends

Today is MLK day.

And while that means many things, one practical result is that today, of all days, we are more likely to see a plethora of King quotations sprinkled through our Facebook news feeds–if only to show friends that “I” am not a racist jerk.

There are many excellent MLK quotations; yet this is the one that I’ve been pondering:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” (The Trumpet of Conscience, Steeler Lecture, 1967)

The statement dovetails with an insight from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he spoke of what he called the “white moderate.”

There he admitted that

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In other words: The taunts of enemies are less crushing than the silence of “friends.”

Which brings me to me.

A MESSAGE FOR THE SILENT

On what injustices am I tempted to be silent over?

How am I prone to be like that “white moderate” described by King, who was, in fact, a greater stumbling block to justice than the KKK?

1. The resurgent racism of our MAGA moment

One area that I am sorely tempted to be silent over has to do with the rise in nationalism (and sometimes outright racism) that has accompanied our current MAGA moment.

By any metric, certain segments of America have been made more of a “safe space” for white nationalism, as evidenced by a sitting congressman who recently implied that terms like “White supremacist” and “White nationalist” should not be seen as offensive. (Along with a litany of lesser, though related, statements.)

Then, we watched in shocked sadness as an aging Native American man (who was also Vietnam vet) was jeered by a crowd of “Pro-Life” high schoolers as he chanted a peace song during an indigenous peoples march in Washington, D.C.

“Build the wall!” they shouted in his face.

[*See below for update]

chantrally

For the past week, I’ve said nothing about either. Why?

It’s simple: I’m a silent friend.

2. The un-cool connotations of the Pro-Life cause.

My second temptation (like that of Christ) is related to the first.

After all, those ignorant teenagers (a redundancy we should all remember before permanently crucifying them) in MAGA hats were in Washington for the “March for Life.” This is an annual event designed to raise awareness over the atrocity of legally slaughtered babies in America.

It takes place near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

And I said nothing about that either.

Why?

I’m busy. Obviously. But another reason is that the same crowd that praises me for writing occasionally about the resurgent racism of our MAGA moment, often doesn’t think it cool when I talk about the evil of abortion.

And when you’ve already alienated one pre-fab fan-base, the temptation is to keep the other group happy.

Based on our current (nonsensical) partisan arrangement, we are told that we cannot speak out about both problems (#1 and #2).  We must either choose everything from “column A” or everything from “column B.” And if you refuse to bundle your issues in a way that fits the Cable News silos, you will face hostility from both sides.

“Abracadabra: silence.”

3. The stuff that doesn’t qualify as “news”

A third and final area on which I’ve been too silent involves that enormous, cloud-covered mountain of important stuff that doesn’t fit the category of “shiny objects” in our news feeds.

If a tree falls in the forest and it has nothing to do with Trump or Kanye or the NFL playoffs, does it make a sound?  Not usually.

A friend was telling me this morning about the horrendous surge in persecution toward Christians in the world’s two largest countries: China and India. I’ve known about the former, but have I even prayed about it, much less write a blog post?

Not really.

It isn’t shiny enough.

There aren’t many “cool points” there.

I’m a silent friend.

“The root cause of this persecution,” he said, “is actually the same thing we’re seeing all over the world. The rise of nationalism.” It’s an anger towards “outsiders” in an effort to make China more Chinese again; or India more Hindu.

The result is a metaphorical mob of chanting nationalists, surrounding Chinese Christians, as they sing their peace songs.

Will anyone say anthing?

CONCLUSION

Of course, it isn’t possible to speak up on every issue. The world is too big. And “outrage fatigue” is a real thing.

In addition, speaking up is no guarantee of speaking well, since some self-styled “prophets” are just demagogues in church clothes (see here on trying to sort out the difference).

Nevertheless, these are the words that I am pondering today, spoken to me if no one else:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”


Update: After posting this story, new videos and firsthand accounts surfaced that call into question the earlier reports regarding the MAGA high school students in D.C. See here . If these reports are accurate, then it appears that these students are owed an apology from myself and many others.


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“This notebook doesn’t get Netflix”

“This notebook doesn’t get Netflix”

If you’re like me, one of your challenges involves balancing the benefits of our “devices” with their distracting downsides.

Their giant, hairy, screaming downsides.

Toward that end, I’ve begun using a paper notebook again to jot down ideas for book chapters, blog posts, and sermon prep. The shift happened almost by accident. Last month, IVP sent all of their authors a faux-leather journal for a Christmas gift.

my journal2
What you send authors to remind them to write the book they promised instead of mucking around with blog posts.
myjournal1
“Those ideas being ‘Make everyone twins’ and ‘Electric toilet’.” ~Baby Momma

As you can see, mine looks vaguely like it was stolen from a local psych ward. (Seriously, my high school psychology teacher showed us one he had “borrowed” from a friend with paranoid schizophrenia; it looked exactly like this, minus Jonathan Edwards.)

Then, last week, Jon Acuff’s author newsletter detailed why he uses pen and paper.

While at his daughter’s swim meet, Jon jotted down an idea on his notebook, only to be told by an elderly lady that “That’s the first time I’ve seen someone write something down by hand in a long time.”

His response was thus:

            “Paper helps me focus. This notebook doesn’t have Netflix.”

Nuff said.

And while I’m at it, here is a not-at-all-creepy pic I tookof my friend Jake T.

He has notebooks for days. I can smell the spirituality.

jake journal1
Jake T.: Pastor of the deathly hallows.

Make faux-leather great again.

Make everyone twins.

Electric toilet.


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The haunting of David Bazan

The haunting of David Bazan

Hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet can give you a chance to do things you don’t normally have time for – like listening to a long-forgotten album.

On a recent flight to Orlando, I gave a re-hearing to David Bazan’s anguished recording from 2009: “Curse your Branches.”

The whole thing is fantastic. And terrible.

bazan album cover

It was written, according to Bazan, as a breakup letter to God (since he now considers himself an atheist). Yet I learned in a recent interview that Bazan was astonished that Christianity Today named “Curse your Branches” one of their best albums of the year.

They weren’t wrong.

As Bazan admits, the manifesto that he had originally penned as a giant middle finger to God, turns out at key moments to sound almost like an early stanza from the Psalms or Lamentations (with, sadly, no resolution).

And the irony is that for someone who doesn’t believe in God, Bazan spends an awful lot of time talking to him.  In this way, he sounds somewhat like the honest atheist described by Francis Spufford, who says of God: “He doesn’t exist, the bastard.”

To use the imagery of the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, the album is “haunted” by Transcendence. This, says Taylor, is the true mark of a Secular Age. It is not that belief has been vanquished or that most people now sit neutral to the question; it is rather that faith seems so fraught for many tortured souls that they end up like the novelist Julian Barnes, when he writes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

That is precisely the attitude of “Curse Your Branches.”

Even Bazan’s (past) descent into alcoholism is linked to his God-haunted memory. As he puts it:

All this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about You

And the last word trails into a plaintive wail that betrays a capital “Y.”

The most evocative stanza of the album follows:

I might as well admit it, as though I had a choice / The crew have killed the Captain but they still can hear his voice. A shadow on the water / A whisper on the wind / On long walks with my daughter who is lately full of questions about You… (“In Stitches“).

While Bazan is clear that he now rejects all forms of theism, one senses that it is certain kind of theology that seems especially untenable to him: a form of deterministic Calvinism in which God sovereignly causes everything and then blames us.  “Curse your branches” is itself a play on Paul’s metaphorical olive tree from Romans 11, in which some limbs (peoples) have been broken off and others grafted in.

Given this deterministic assumption (God causes everything), the conclusion follows naturally:

“All fallen leaves should curse their branches / For not letting them decide where they should fall / And not letting them refuse to fall at all”

If this were what Paul meant, then I would not disagree.  For in view of David Bentley Hart, determinism does seem to have the strange result of rendering the universe morally intelligible at the cost of a God who is rendered morally loathsome (see here for my most widely read post on that topic). Or as Bazan asks: “Did You push us when we fell?”

Despite his bitterness toward Christianity, Bazan is open about a recurring “temptation” to doubt his doubts and to recant from his “repentance”:

Though I have repented, I’m still tempted I admit / But that’s not what bearing witness is (“Bearing Witness”).

In other words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

SOME TAKEAWAYS

Why write about this album?

Aside from the fact that good art needs no utilitarian justification, I have three reasons:

  1. Christian leaders should listen to “God-haunted” deconversion stories.

For pastors and professors like myself, truly listening to voices like Bazan’s should be a requirement in an age where more and more people find themselves in the “haunted” position that Charles Taylor describes.

Listening well is a pre-requisite for pastoral sensitivity.  But sadly, a survey of our social media feeds shows that many so-called apologists are more known for their ability to “demolish” and “destroy” the opposition.

And to quote Bazan, “That’s not what bearing witness is.”

  1. Ask: “What kind of god don’t you believe in?”

Second, Bazan highlights, at some points, a kind of divinity (and Christianity) that thoughtful believers should be quick to disavow—and not just on the question of determinism.

On this subject, I recall the words of N.T. Wright as he met with UK college students during his time as a university chaplain.  Upon hearing that many did not believe in God, his next words were not a rebuttal but a question.

“What kind of God don’t you believe in?”

The question is important, since Christians sometimes assume that the word “God” has univocal meaning.  It doesn’t.  And upon listening to the student’s answer (See #1), Wright tells how he would often respond with “That’s very good; I don’t believe in that God either. The God I trust is the one embodied perfectly by Jesus Christ.”

  1. Preach to and for the “haunted.”

Lastly, I’ve been incorporating more quotes from folks like Bazan in my sermons (e.g., David Foster Wallace, last Sunday)—not as “strawman” foils to be quickly dispatched, but as opportunities to acknowledge questions, doubts, and fears that are present in the minds of “the faithful”–not just “out there” in the big, bad world.

“Maybe you’ve felt like that,” I try to say.

“Maybe you’ve wondered why an invisible God would even care if humans believed in him, rather than the competition.”

As Bazan asks:

Red and orange; or orange and yellow? / In which of these do you believe? / If you’re not sure right now; please take a moment / ‘Cause I need your signature, before you leave (“Curse your branches”).

In the view of Tim Keller, the ability to anticipate these unvoiced questions and fears is crucial to empathetic preaching (Though I don’t pretend to do it perfectly)–especially when coupled with the “haunting” of the Holy Ghost.

Toward this end, albums like “Curse Your Branches” can actually serve the church, like an Eloi, Eloi… wafting up to 30,000 feet, awaiting answer.

———————

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Till death?

Till death?

On marriage and the resurrection.

As Jonathan Edwards lay dying from a corrupted smallpox serum in 1758, his final words were for his wife.

Near the end, he asked the physician to tell Sarah Pierpont Edwards that their “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that he hoped it would “continue forever.”

Edwards is, undoubtedly, the greatest theologian to ever hail from North America.  His sermons helped to launch The Great Awakening.  And with names like Wesley and Whitefield, he helped create the movement later known as evangelicalism (till its meaning was corrupted by a political “serum”).

To some, however, Edwards’ hope for his “forever” union might seem to clash with something Jesus said.

“WHOSE WIFE WILL SHE BE?”

On one occasion, Christ was asked a loaded question by the Sadducees about a hypothetical widow who had lost not one but seven husbands (speaking of potential poisonings!).

The last six of these marriages were done in fulfillment of an Old Testament law of “Levirate marriage,” a command meant to preserve a husband’s name by having his brother marry the widow (Deut 25:5–10; Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40).

At the end of this imagined narrative, the religious leaders ask the Lord:

“At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Mark 12:23)

To be clear, the Sadducees’ concern was not with marriage at all; their desire was to trap Jesus into admitting one of two unsavory realities. Either:

  1. There is no embodied afterlife at all (the Sadducee position), or
  2. Resurrection entails some Jerry Springer-like disputes.

Not surprisingly, Jesus opts for “Neither, dumb-dumbs.”

“Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24–25). 

The response proved effective (see Luke 20:40)

But to those of us, like Edwards, who deeply love our spouses and our Lord, the statement raises questions.

Why must marriage end completely at the border of this life?

Or, is there another way to understand Christ’s statement?

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS

Alternatives have been suggested.

One option sees Christ not as denying the eternality of all married unions, but only the kind described by the Sadducees: namely, the “Levirate” arrangements that would force an arbitration in the Eschaton about who “gets her” (Oh, the chivalry!).

A second (though related) suggestion sees Jesus as objecting primarily to the “taking” and “being given” part of the scenario, since it might seem to treat women especially like a kind of heavenly property rather than as full-fledged persons (see again the chivalry).

Are these possibilities convincing?

For those of us (myself included) who would love to think of our marriages as lasting forever, both alternatives seem appealing. Which might be the problem. After all, one should usually be wary of adopting an interpretation of an ancient text simply because it “looks nice” and “fits” our modern tastes.

Exegesis isn’t dress shopping.

Or suit shopping.

Or… shopping.

LIKE ANGELS?

A crucial bit of Jesus’ reasoning seems to connect our resurrected life to the current habits of angelic beings, since we “will … be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).

The idea seems to be that since Gabriel’s crew aren’t planning heavenly bridal showers and jockeying for spouses, neither will we.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Yet all this still leaves questions:

Was Edwards wrong (biblically speaking) to expect that his “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that it might “continue forever”?

What about us?

And what about the many wonderful persons who have lost spouses to death and remarried later (a decision Scripture clearly sees as honorable)?

Are such questions merely an engagement in unhelpful speculation (like the Sadducees), or might they be the kind of thoughtful use of biblical imagination that demonstrates a belief that both marriage and the resurrection matter?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

What do you make of Jesus’ words on marriage in the “resurrection”?

(And why does Brianna keep memorizing this one passage from the Gospels?)

Leave a comment below (however tentative or undeveloped).

I may write a second installment to this post in the future, but for now I simply haven’t done the necessary homework.


* Please don’t be a “Sadducee” / Jesus-jerk by critiquing the comments of others.  As you might guess, issues concerning death and marriage are deeply personal.


 

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