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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But I deleted it

But I deleted it

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus lately as I’m been under a deadline to get a book manuscript polished up and sent back to the editor (Yes, Katya, I am working on it!).

But I took time last week to type up what I thought was a pithy response to a particular hot-button cultural issue that had been nagging me.

I wrote it; I rewrote it; and I even had some friends weigh in.

Then, after all that work, I deleted the whole thing. (Which was really hard because it had a corny joke about a “salvation” that is seen as coming sola Twittera–by social media alone.)

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had an inkling of discernment (which is all I ever have…) that the last thing the world needed was one more pontification on something that I actually don’t know very much about.

On that note, I’ve found the following eight insights helpful for those times that I am tempted to think that I must always open my mouth/keyboard.

These come from the evangelical-Anglican and Baylor English professor, Alan Jacobs.

In his words:

Going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice.

What ‘s more:

that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of [My] Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet . . . or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

But must I always weigh in on every hot-button issue?

As Jacobs reminds himself:

  1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

None of this means, of course, that I will stop writing on issues that matter–even when they’re considered controversial.  I come, after all, from a theological tradition (Wesleyanism) that refused to shut up on things like slavery and women’s rights, even they had been dubbed “too radical” for respectable Christians to weigh-in on.

So once I’m not buried under a book manuscript (which should be sometime in the next decade) I plan to keep thinking in public with what I hope is a mix of grace and truth–or at the least “grammar.”

And I hope other thoughtful people do too.

Still, it is freeing to recall occasionally that the world’s salvation does not come sola Twittera.  Or in my more long-winded case: sola blogos. 


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Rethinking Roe v. Wade

Rethinking Roe v. Wade

The Ministry of Magic has fallen.”

That’s the apocalyptic phrase that a good friend of mine used yesterday to convey to me the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement.

If you don’t speak “Potter,” it’s a quote that signals the totality of the Dark Lord’s takeover of all branches of Government.

And according to CNN, my friend was right—especially when it comes to “Abortion Rights.”

with kennedy gone
Screengrab, CNN.com

According to Jeffrey Toobin, “Roe v. Wade is doomed” because of Kennedy’s departure.

And while I wish that were true, I’m not so sure.

ROE v. WADE

My aim here is not to evaluate the full scope of Kennedy’s influence, or even the net gain or loss because of his departure on other legal matters.  If you’re interested in that discussion, please see the comments section on my MySpace page.

My interest here is narrow.

It is merely to explain (without hyperbole or divisive WWE-inspired rhetoric) why young, Pro-Life Christians like myself think it would be a good thing if Roe v. Wade were overturned—despite the fact that I am about the furthest thing from a so-called “Court Evangelical” as is imaginable.

Here is the basic line of reasoning:

  1. All human beings have basic human rights.

In this way, my reason for opposing Roe v. Wade is the same as my reason for opposing slavery, Jim Crow, the Nazi holocaust, human trafficking, sexual assault, and the “ripping” of small children from their immigrant mothers to create a psychological deterrent bolstered by some out-of-context Bible verses (see here).[1]

It’s about “human rights”—not merely “reproductive rights.”

  1. Unborn children are human beings.

This, of course, is the sticking point.

It is not that my friends who disagree with me on abortion are “moral monsters” who want to murder kids.  The issue is that they differ with me on what constitutes a “human being.”

This is where the conversation must take place, because this is the point on which the whole validity of Roe hinges.

And let’s be honest, if one looks at an embryo shortly after sperm and egg unite, it is not hard to differentiate between that zygote and, say, my one-year-old son.

They look very different.

But the problem is that even if one grants this point, almost all abortions take place after this very early stage.  They take place later, when it is often quite obvious that the unborn child is, indeed, a human life.

With the advent of, say, 3D ultrasound technology, it is now far more difficult to speak of a fetus as “just a lump of tissue.”  Hence many women who are contemplating abortion change their minds upon sight of an ultrasound.

We are talking about babies with heartbeats, some of which can recoil from pain, and some of which can even respond to the sound of their own mother’s voice.

Heartbeat – 3 wks.

Hear sounds – 16 wks.

Recoil from pain – 20 wks.

Roe v. Wade says that killing those babies is permissible. I disagree.

The reason, however, is not because I want to tell women what to do with “their bodies,” but because of a conviction over the baby’s right to live.

  1. Current law is inconsistent.

As it stands now, the dividing line between “human” and “not human” is determined, in some cases, by whether one wants the child. 

And this position is inconsistent with other laws.

Case in point: If a pregnant mother is hit by a drunk driver en route to an abortion clinic, the guilty driver can legally be convicted of the “homicide” (sometimes called “fetal homicide”) of the unborn child.

Yet if the mother arrives safely, the same death of the same fetus is now fully legal.

The problem here is that human rights are not determined merely by the question of whether someone wants you to exist.

And while we may forfeit our rights, say, by committing a crime and going to jail, a fetus has done nothing of the sort.

  1. No one has unfettered rights over “their own” body.

One of the more common arguments in favor of abortion is that a woman ought to be allowed to do what she wants with her own body.  And in many cases, I agree. One of the great values of the #MeToo movement is its reminder of how frequently (and violently) women have been deprived of basic bodily respect.

Yet having said that, no one gets to do whatever they want with their body. No one. That’s actually what laws do—they regulate what you can and cannot do with your physical “self.”

Every law does that: from traffic violations, to burglary, to criminal assault.  You can’t do certain things with your body; and the most basic thing you cannot do is to unduly deprive another “body” of their right to be (See #2).

The mere fact that a baby is inside its mother does not erase the child’s unique humanity (See #3).  The unborn child has her own heartbeat, her own fingerprints, and her own right to go unmolested by others (See #1).

CONCLUSION

Of course, none of the these arguments would eliminate abortion in the extreme case that a mother’s life is in grave danger. Nor do they give Pro-Lifers permission to fight violence with violence.

Many women contemplating abortion have been placed in a terrible position.

Hence Christians especially should be known for responding to all pregnant moms (and indeed all people) with grace and truth.

Nothing hurts the Pro-Life cause more than the sense that its adherents are suspiciously selective in deciding which “lives” deserve love, respect, and hospitality (See this fantastic piece by Karen Swallow Prior).

Still, my argument does mean that Roe v. Wade should go.

If it did, it would not end abortion, but rather throw the decision back to the states (and the people) to decide which persons are worthy of protection.

And for many of us, the decision would be very difficult. Not because the “Ministry of Magic” is fallen—but because we are.

 

 


Notes:

[1] In case it’s not obvious, I’m not equating every violation in that list as equally heinous.

 


 

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Beyond outrage

Beyond outrage

It is by now cliche to note that we live in an “outrage culture.”

And there are obvious drivers:

  • partisan politics,
  • social media (see here),
  • the satisfaction I receive from virtue signaling,
  • And (of course) the financial incentives that some have to keep us in a constant state of amygdala agitation.

On that last point, see below for a humorous look at how Facebook in particular makes a fortune this way (warning: some profanity).

 

In light of all this, I’m considering drafting an illustrated children’s book in which tiny, anthropomorphized logos of Twitter, CNN, and Fox News hold a frenzied footrace to the bottom of the brainstem.

Working titles include: “3, 2, 1… Civil War” and “The fast and the furious-er.”

(It will be a sequel to my classic children’s tale on bias: “Everybody skews” [see here].)

THE RIGHT KIND OF OUTRAGE

But there is also another reason for outrage, and we must not forget it.

That is, some things are genuinely outrageous.

Some things are simply wrong.

And if those things fail to bother us, then the problem is not an “outrage culture” or “the social media mob,” but our own callousness, and the fact that our allegiances have been coopted by rival kings and rival kingdoms.

THE PHOTO BY THE WINDOW

Perhaps the ultimate example of such callous compartmentalization is relayed by the British spy, John Weitz (here), who helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Upon approaching the gas chamber where countless families had been slaughtered, Weitz noticed a photograph of young German children taped next to the window that looked in upon the death room.

A Nazi father had apparently taped the photo there, by his “work station,” so he could gaze fondly on his own children while remaining unmoved by the wanton evil being done to “theirs.”

He was a loving dad – no outrage here.

THIS PAST WEEK

So this past week, I added my own voice to thousands of others (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) calling for a halt to using kids as pawns in a dispute regarding immigration—especially by way of out-of-context Bible verses.

Then, to my surprise, something happened: it worked. Kind of.

Public outcry brought a change (Thank God!), albeit an incomplete one since many children remain separated from their parents and there is some question over if and when they will ever be reunited. Apparently the whole process was pretty chaotic [*resists further comment and keeps moving].

Nonetheless, this good change raises an important question:

What next?

What comes after an initial spike in outrage achieves a portion of its goal?

BEYOND OUTRAGE

My interest here is not just with this particular issue (though it is important), but with a “meta-phenomenon” — that is, what outrage does well and what it does more poorly.

Here then is my tentative conclusion:

In some cases, the same traits that are needed in a crisis can be counterproductive to crafting long-term solutions.

I say this because long-term solutions require compromise, listening, and the ability to ratchet down the rhetoric in search of common ground.

Hence the problem is not that outrage is unwarranted, but that it is incomplete on its own. We need more. In the aftermath of crisis, we need to transfer some energy from the amygdala to the other parts of the brain.

We all know this in other areas, I think.

  • The person you want next to you in the Zombie apocalypse may not be the one you want running your company, chairing the school board, or leading your marriage counseling.
  • The skills needed to facedown Hitler may not be the ones that make for a successful peacetime leader (Read a Churchill biography; or a Stalin one).
  • And the recipe for alerting the masses (amygdala!) may not be the same as that required to solve complex problems with the prefrontal cortex.

My fear, however, is that we are far better at the former than the latter — I know I am.

So here’s to wisdom on how to translate righteous zeal into Christian justice, and on how to going beyond outrage to thoughtful long-term solutions.

 


On the subject of immigration reform and border security in particular, I am particularly thankful for the statement set forth recently by my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church (see here).


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The cult of evangelical celebrity

The cult of evangelical celebrity

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god, for a little while.”

I still remember hearing that line from the lips of a well-known Christian pastor.

It has truth to it. I’ve felt it in rare moments. And he meant it as a warning.

To be a person’s “god” is to be the proverbial frog in boiling water: The hot tub is luxurious, until it cooks you.

In a few months, this same famous pastor would resign amid a cloud of scandal.

In his case (unlike some recent ones), the charges were not of sexual misconduct, but of ego run amok, a lack of accountability for someone deemed “too big to fail,” and a tendency to use celebrity as a “Find and Replace” for integrity when the cameras were switched off.

On second thought, perhaps it’s not so different from the recent sexual scandals involving well-known church leaders.

A common denominator (to misquote Eisenhower) is what I’d like to christen as “The (evangelical) celebrity industrial complex.”

A MUST-READ

In one of the more important blog posts of the year, Andy Crouch submits that it’s time for evangelicals especially to reckon with the insidious danger of celebrity power (Read here).

The reason for the “reckoning” is noted in his Introduction.

In three separate cases [this week] in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds.

All three were […] seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation.

Since the article, still more allegations have surfaced against the most famous of these leaders—and he has since resigned while not admitting guilt.

Several of these charges come from high-profile female leaders, one a former CEO of Zondervan, alleging that the well-known pastor pressured them to bring wine and meet alone with him on his private jet, his private yacht, and his private beachside vacation home.

Like Crouch, I choose not to name the leader for at least two reasons. First, I do not know if the allegations are true.  And secondly, to focus on the “Name” may be to perpetuate one aspect of our problem: a fixation on the famous people and their escapades: their yachts, their private jets, their beachside villas.

It sounds like a Jay-Z song.

Like it or not, the church is hardly different than the culture in its celebrity addiction. And the culture is rife with it.

One need look no further than the contexts from which we now choose our leaders–The Apprentice, The Terminator, The Oprah.

Crouch again:

In the Oval Office of our country sits a man [… who] is simply brilliant at manipulating the power of celebrity.

He has colonized all of our imaginations—above all, one suspects, the imaginations of those who most hate him, who cannot go an hour in a day without thinking about him.

HOW CELEBRITY POWER IS UNIQUE

But wait a minute; aren’t all forms of authority prone to such corruption?  “Power corrupts,” said Lord Acton, “and absolut… [yada, yada, yada].”

True enough. Yet Crouch makes a key distinction between institutional and celebrity power, especially as the latter is now driven by technology and social media.

Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy. 

It is the power of the one-shot (the face filling the frame), the close mic (the voice dropped to a lover’s whisper), the memoir (the disclosures that had never been discussed with the author’s pastor, parents, or sometimes even lover or spouse, before they were published), the tweet, the selfie, the insta, the snap. All of it gives us the ability to seem to know someone—without in fact knowing much about them at all, since in the end we know only what they, and the systems of power that grow up around them, choose for us to know.

Crouch’s claim is that “institutions” of power have been largely replaced by individuals—celebrity leaders—whose charisma is both branded and broadcast (via technology) in order to achieve an illusion of intimacy with millions of followers.

Yet in this process, we create idols who behave like monsters—in part, because they both crave and (ironically) resent the fame now thrust upon them.

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god, for a little while.”

“DEAR BROTHERS” ~BETH MOORE

As proof, note how the problem with sexism (and sexual misconduct) often interfaces with the cult of celebrity within the evangelical world, as in others.

Hear the powerful words of the conservative Bible teacher Beth Moore on the subject (here):

About a year ago I had an opportunity to meet a theologian I’d long respected. I’d read virtually every book he’d written. I’d looked so forward to getting to share a meal with him and talk theology. The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, “You are better looking than ____________________.” He didn’t leave it blank. He filled it in with the name of another woman Bible teacher.

While this sounds almost tame compared to the exploits of Weinstein and Cosby, it still raises questions for the average, decent person.

“Who talks like this!?  What kind of person thinks this is an appropriate way to begin a conversation, let alone with a woman, let alone with a preacher, let alone with a female preacher you have never met!?”

Answer: a celebrity.

Because part of the business of fame is the conscious and unconscious learning that you get special treatment.

“When you’re a celebrity they let you do it. Grab them by the __________.”

ANOTHER KIND OF POWER

There are exceptions of course.

Not all celebrities leverage fame toward abusive or destructive ends. And it’s easy to be critical  from the cheap-seats. After all, who’s to say how celebrity would affect me?

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god,” until it isn’t.

One point, however, is how different this pursuit of fame and famous people differs from the way of Jesus. At various points in the Gospels, Christ was thrust onto the very cusp of (ancient) celebrity.

In John, after feeding five thousand people, we learn that the crowds had decided to “make him king by force” (Jn. 6.15).

This, after all, is one way celebrities are minted—almost without the permission of the one cast into the limelight. In some cases, a gifted and talented individual wakes up to find (almost to their chagrin) that they have been made into the “face” of an industry or movement overnight, without ever intending to be.

“I never asked for this,” they think – “I was just trying to speak truth, make art, or craft music.”

Too bad.

You’ve been made “king” by force. And the only way off the ride is to push the self-destruct button.

Or is it?

Christ chose a different path. He didn’t self-destruct exactly, but he did intentionally put the kibosh on the celebrity sausage-maker (a very unkosher metaphor).

After this same miracle, he says the following:

I am the bread that has come down from heaven. […] Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part in me.

The publicists stopped calling after that one.

And the next time they “made him king by force,” it involved a crown of thorns.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus flees the crush of the adoring crowds in order to pursue more meaningful relationships, to pray, and to reenter the region of obscurity. Prophets are made in the wilderness, after all, not on the red carpet, and not in the Twitter-verse.

Crouch:

The visible image of the invisible God left no portrait. The one time he wrote, he wrote in the dust (Jn. 8.6). He had a different way of using power in the world, a way that turned out to outlast all the emperors, including the Christian ones.

He offered no false intimacy—his biographer John said that he entrusted himself to no one, because he knew what was in every person’s heart (Jn. 2.24 –25) —but he kept no distance, either.

He let the children come to him. He let Mary sit at his feet and let another Mary wash his feet with her tears. Hanging naked on a cross, he forgave, blessed, and made sure that yet another Mary would still have a son.

His power, truly, was not of this world.

If there is a solution to the evangelical celebrity industrial complex, it’s in reclaiming this strange kind of power.

Flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism

Flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism

But take the real “evangel” with you.

When I typed up a quick blog post yesterday, I did so assuming that Roy Moore was about to win the Alabama Senate seat.

I was wrong.

Thank God.

To some, that may sound rather strange.  After all, I am precisely the sort of person that was supposed to carry Judge Roy to victory: I am Pro-Life, white, and evangelical in my theology.

According to the media, I am supposed to belong to that very “base” that was going to make the difference–despite no fewer than nine allegations of sexually predatory behavior toward children.

And despite Moore’s claim that “many problems would be solved” if we scrapped all constitutional amendments after the 10th one (Just so we’re clear: the 13th ended slavery; the 15th gave all races the vote; and the 19th gave votes to women).

Well, I do not belong to that “evangelical base”–because, in some cases, there’s nothing evangelical about it.

 

REQUIUM FOR “EVANGELICAL”

As some news outlets have been quick to trumpet, Moore’s strongest support came from the self-styled “evangelical” voter.

The most vexing evidence for such logic, came in a poll showing that a plurality of Alabama “evangelicals” reported being “more likely” to support him after numerous allegations of child sexual misconduct than before.

This left many of us scratching our heads.

Who could possibly be “more likely” to support someone “after” reports that he repeatedly stalked underage girls at the local mall while dressed like the cartoon sheriff from the movie Toy Story?

NOT SO FAST…

As many have pointed out, however, such polls should be viewed with suspicion (see here).

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 9.09.07 AM

According the Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs: In parts of the country, “evangelical” has become synonymous with “whites who watch Fox News and consider themselves [vaguely] religious”–regardless of church attendance, Bible reading, or basic theological beliefs.

And while I love those people, that is not what the word means.

Evang. venn diagram

In short, the label has been corrupted.

In Roy Moore’s case, it was equated with the worst elements of partisan politics—hence it hangs like an albatross around the neck of many faithful and devoted Christ-followers.

(For what it’s worth, it also hurts the Pro-Life movement in the long run–like making Bull Connor the face of your anti-human trafficking campaign.)

Yet while many of us grieve the (earned) destruction of the “evangelical” label, we also worry that to look back longingly at the smoking ruins is to risk being turned into a pillar of insipid salt.

What, then, should one do with this beautiful but now corrupted label?

THE YEAR IS 1955

It bears noting that in 1955, Billy Graham faced a similar decision.

He had once been a self-identifying “fundamentalist,” back when that word was not synonymous with backwardness and bigotry. In its origin, the term had stood for the fundamentals of the faith. As did Graham.

Yet in 1955, he decided to drop the albatross for reasons that sound eerily familiar: it had been irrevocably tainted by un-Christlike beliefs and behaviors.

Even good words can be turned it seems—like raw oysters in the Alabama sun.

So Graham followed Jesus – out of “fundamentalism” in order to stay true to Scripture and the gospel (the “evangel”).

Or as cowboy Roy might say: “When your horse dies, get off.”

HOPPING OFF THE PENDULUM

What one does next, however, is important.

The temptation for many is simply to flee one rival kingdom for another.

If Roy Moore’s “evangelicalism” has turned a blind eye to egregious sexual and racial sins, one simply runs hard in the opposite direction.  After all, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg once remarked:

            The true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum.

But what if…?

What if it is partly our love of pendulums that caused this very mess?

NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS 

My suggestion, then, is rather different: flee Roy Moore’s evangelicalism, but take the real “evangel” (i.e., gospel) with you

Because the real “evangel” is alive and well.

Just don’t look for it primarily in the halls of power.

That’s the same mistake we’ve been making for two thousand years: we long for thrones and forget to check the manger.

“I sent you prophets,” says Christ, “but you wanted lobbyists.”

“I sent you shepherds, but you wanted merchants of outrage.”

If you want the real evangel, here is some advice:

Look to the local homeless shelter, where Christ’s hands and feet are serving dinner to the other (equally valuable) members of his body.

Look to the recovery ministry meeting nightly in the church basement, sans cufflinks and news coverage.

Look to the crisis pregnancy center, where women who’ve been there reach out to women who are there.

Look to the high school football star (John) who takes my college Bible class even though it won’t count for credit at his eventual State school–he takes it because he loves Jesus.

Look to the college women (that I know) who spend their Spring Break fighting human trafficking in a Southeast Asia, rather than partying on some sandy beach in Destin.

Look to the group of older Christian women (the godly grandmas) who gather to encourage my young wife with wisdom gained from generations of parenting.

Look to the African-American couple serving faithfully in a predominantly white church, because they believe that the journey toward multi-ethnic community is worth it, even if it’s difficult.

And look to the Catholic nun, kneeling peacefully in the cold rain outside an abortion clinic, praying for the souls inside (doctors, mothers, and babies).

This is the REAL “evangel.”

It’s alive and well.

And in that sense, I don’t give a flying flip what happens to the Roy Moore version.

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax is asking whether Christians should consider “pulling the plug” on an increasingly unsanctified form of television entertainment.

No, it’s not the racy or gratuitously violent scenes on “Skinamax” or other channels— it’s cable news.

Cable News

Here’s the money quote:

In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.

(Read the full thing here.)

 

Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”

It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.

He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.

Here they are:

  1. The Disappearing Aim of Journalism

While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.

The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”

  1. The Disappearing Desire for Truth

Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care.  We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.

  1. The Rise of News as Show

Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished.  What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.

On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:

Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.

In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.

WAIT A MINUTE

But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?

Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.

As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels.  And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”

Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.

Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.

The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.

In the recent words of David Brooks:

[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.

A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES

As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.

In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.

They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.

In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.

It changes us in subtle ways.  And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.

We form our media; then our media form us.

Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair.  Hypothetically.

BEYOND LEGALISM

After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”

In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:

“Do you own a television?”

“No,” replied my grandfather.

“Good; we throw those in the river!”

Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.

Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.

Oh be careful little eyes…