“The lower classes smell”

“The lower classes smell”

Why our ideas matter less than we think.

Back in 1937, George Orwell claimed this about the divisions within British society:

The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: The lower classes smell (~Road to Wigan Pier).

The statement sounds offensive and reductionistic. Perhaps it is.

Yet Orwell’s goal was actually to challenge his fellow highbrow socialists on whether their ideas about dismantling the class structure were actually strong enough to work in the field—where people live, and sniff.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Wigan Pier):

Orwell’s point is that the root of class distinctions in England is not intellectual but olfactory.  The habits and rhythms of the system are not so much cerebral as visceral; they are rooted in a bodily orientation to the world that eludes theoretical articulation, which is why theoretical tirades also fail to displace it. … “For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.”

In other words, you cannot solve a gut-level problem with a philosophy.

The visceral trumps the voluntary; fundamental dispositions are more caught than taught; and the “nose” (now speaking metaphorically) is mightier than the brain.

Now the kicker:

Almost every other kind of discrimination could be countered theoretically, with the weapons of facts, ideas, and information, “But physical repulsion cannot.”

What does this have to do with us?

Just this:

In America, we seem to have entered a cultural-political climate in which both sides are “physically repulsed” by one another. Sickened, even.

And sometimes for good reason.

Yet if this is so, then one should strongly question our ability to bridge the gap with education, rational discourse, or (gasp) blog posts. Orwell’s point is this: revulsion trumps reason every time—try as we might to overcome it.

In short, our “ideas” are not nearly as important for the way we engage the world as we would like to think.

As Smith argues, we are not primarily “thinking things” as Descartes posited. Nor even “believing things” as much of Christian culture claims. Even demons believe (Jms. 2.19).

For Smith, both of these mistaken anthropologies place too much emphasis upon the cognitive realm (“ideas”), whereas the Bible focuses more upon reforming the heart, the gut, or even “the bowels.”  (Even the biblical references to renewal of the “mind” are not given in a Cartesian sense.)

We are primarily loving-desiring beings.

And as such, much of our behavior is the product of pre-cognitive, affective, gut-level, and visceral reactions.

“The lower classes smell.”

But how does one disciple the olfactory senses?

How do “the bowels” get redeemed?

Next time.

 


See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (here). For a less academic version of Smith’s argument, see You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (here).

Jesus + Wine

Jesus + Wine

I’ve been behind on blogging lately as I’ve been working on other writing projects (more on that soon!).

As a partial remedy, here is a sermon that I preached Sunday on one of my favorite passages: Jesus turning water into what would have amounted to 757 bottles (do the math) of the choicest wine (Jn. 2).

Contrary to popular portrayals of Christianity–both by detractors and adherents–one takeaway is this: The pursuit of Christ (and holiness) is simultaneously the pursuit of Joy. 

Jesus is not the celestial equivalent of Ned Flanders; he is not a cosmic killjoy.

He is Lord of the Feast, and the bringer of overflowing life.

The wedding feast at Cana proves this, along with many other fascinating things.

As I note in the message, the outline takes cues from Tim Keller’s fantastic sermon: “Lord of the Wine.” Also, for more of the Bacchus / C.S. Lewis connection, see my prior post (here: “Saving Bacchus”).

Hope everyone is having a feast-worthy week!

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

“How many children do you have?”

That was the seemingly innocuous question that I asked my new acquaintance as we sat around the chips and salsa at our local Chili’s.

Like most parents, he answered with a number. Then he said the part that I had not expected:

“We had two miscarriages. And we always count those.”

While I responded with empathy, I recall thinking that most of us (myself included) do not publically number our children to include the little lives that never made it to delivery.

And on many levels, that is understandable.

We all deal with grief differently.  And it would be wrong to force one way of processing a failed pregnancy on others.

OUR MISCARRIAGE

About a year and a half ago Brianna and I walked through our own experience of miscarriage. And while it was sad for me, at the time, I was primarily concerned for her well-being.

After hearing a noise in our house, I came into our bedroom to find Brianna unconsciousness from blood loss.  I panicked.  Then I phoned my mom to watch our kids; I carried Brianna’s (now) semi-conscious body to the car, did my best to place her inside, and then drove us to the hospital.

Thankfully, she was soon okay.

But the baby had been deceased for several days.

Later, as some readers can relate, there was the awkward reality of having already told some folks that we were pregnant, and now having to explain.  Partly because of this, Brianna chose to share publically that she had lost a pregnancy.  And soon after, she was overwhelmed by the many friends and family who then confided their own stories–some far more traumatic than our own.

It happens often.  But that doesn’t make it nothing.

CONSISTENTLY PRO-LIFE

In Christian circles, one hears much about the need to be “Pro-Life,” and rightly so.

While the issue of abortion is polarizing, my own view leans on both Scripture and science to conclude that an unborn child is indeed a sacred human life, however small.

Even so, the consistent application of my “Pro-Life” stance involves much more than just abortion. It is a virtue that spans from womb to tomb, and sweeps up everything from welfare to warfare within its complicated wake.

I aim to be consistently Pro-Life.

Yet this too raises questions as to how I “count” our miscarriage.

WORDSWORTH OVER CHIPS AND SALSA

In a slightly different vein, something like my Chili’s conversation also happens in a classic poem by William Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”; pub. 1798).

Its verses recount an exchange between a traveler and a simple peasant girl.

The traveler asks:

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, / How many may you be?”

“How many? Seven in all,” she said, / And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.” / She answered, “Seven are we; / And two of us at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie, / My sister and my brother; / And, in the church-yard cottage, I / Dwell near them with my mother.”

Yet this statement brings confusion to the traveler: “I thought that you said seven.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea, / Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, / Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

The misunderstanding, of course, involves the girl’s counting of her two dead siblings (“who in the church-yard lie”) as present members of her family.

Unfortunately, the mathematical modern adult doesn’t get it:

“You run about, my little Maid, / Your limbs they are alive; / If two are in the church-yard laid, / Then ye are only five.”

WE ARE SEVEN

As I read the poem recently (outside, on a nice morning, as is legally required of Wordsworth), it struck me that perhaps the number “seven” reflects our family too.

For if I were to begin consciously “counting” the child that we lost to miscarriage, then we would indeed be Seven. –(1) Brianna, (2) Josh, (3) Lucy, (4) Penny, (5) Ewan, (6) Baby unnamed, (7) Teddy.

And while I have no plans to begin saying this whenever someone asks about my children, perhaps it is a more consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves “Pro-Life.”

After all, the weight of Wordsworth’s poem lies in the child’s stubborn insistence that death does not erase a child from the family roll.

To live at all is to be woven forever into the fabric of “present personhood.” We are eternal.

For to use Donne’s metaphor, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” And while death is powerful and grievous, it cannot tear out words and pages from this book.  It can only translate them–if they be written in Christ’s blood–“into a better language.”

The trouble, however—as my two-year-old reminds me daily—is that children learn new “languages” far easier than grown-ups.

Thus even our ostensibly “Christian” thinking about miscarriage can often leave us thinking as only slightly more cordial versions of Wordsworth’s adult traveler, in need of child-like wisdom:

“How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” / Quick was the little Maid’s reply, / “O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” / ’Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will, / And said, “Nay, we are seven!

 

Coyote America

Coyote America

In the Latino communities of the American southwest, there is a saying:

            The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.

And while we car-driving, blog-writing humans may take issue with this claim, just ask yourself this question:

How many coyotes have you seen holding fidget spinners?

I sat rapt recently as I listened to the nature historian Dan Flores talk about his recent book: Coyote America. 

It is essentially a biography of America’s most adaptive underdog.

And it is also a strange topic for a blog on faith and culture.

So we should probably address that weirdness.

A DEFICIT OF AWE

You may not know it, but coyotes are not exactly “click-generators” in the world of social media. They do not wear bikinis; they have no thoughts on Donald Trump; and (unlike cats) they do not appear on Youtube playing the piano. (I checked.)

So why write about them?

Two words: unexpected awe.

While there are many problems in the modern world, among the least acknowledged may be our loss of wonder.  Despite all our technological marvels, most of us are far too rarely dazzled.

So while we are awash with entertainment, we have a deficit of awe.

And from this evil Amazon.com cannot deliver us.

This state of disenchantment presents a problem for the church, because a capacity for wonder may be a prerequisite for what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis—our sense of the divine.

INTO THE WILD

In the Bible, such awe comes often out-of-doors–though not exclusively.

It presents itself in burning bushes; in stars that mark descendants; and in a grappling angel by a brook.

In such wild places, our sense of wonder is refreshed.

And this brings us back to the coyote.

ETERNAL UNDERDOG

While Flores’ book starts in prehistoric times, its most interesting parts reveal how the coyote flourished while other species were decimated by the settling of the American West–a period that brought perhaps the swiftest destruction of wildlife in world history.

Yet despite an all-out war on coyotes starting around 1915, the only noticeable result has been that they continue to spread like wildfire.

While first inhabiting only a portion of North America, the animals now stretch from beyond the arctic circle down into South America.  And what’s more, they now inhabit every major city in the United States.

The reason for their flourishing has something to do with what the apostle Paul identified as “power perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9).

Because coyotes adapted as the smaller, frailer cousin of the wolf, they could not rely on brute force to stay alive.  Instead, they had to lean into their wits and learn to leverage weakness.

Case in point: their use of howls and hormones.

COYOTE TINDER

According to Flores, when the female coyote howls (or yips) each night, one purpose is to take the roll of the respective mates within her group.

If a male does not respond—say, because he was trapped or shot or mauled—it triggers a chemical reaction within the alpha female that does two things, both of which are awe-inducing:

First, it sends her prematurely into heat; and second, it causes the ensuing litter to be larger than normal.

You might want to read that again. The mere absence of an answering “yip” both triggers heat and makes the litter larger than they would be otherwise.

Most likely, this adaptation emerged from a history of weakness and inferiority in the face of larger predators. Yet somehow, this tendency to get killed-off by bigger animals coincided with a freakish adaptation that gave coyotes an advantage.

Example number two:

FRAGILE PACKS 

While wolves tend to stay almost perpetually in tight-knit groups, coyotes are what Flores calls a “fragile pack” animal. This means that when they face pressure from their enemies, they tend to splinter into smaller groups and then cast about in search of new territory.

Because grey wolves group more rigidly, the killing of a single wolf often leads to the killing of the entire pack—sometimes aided by the use of the original hide as a way to lure others to an ambush. For such reasons, wolves were almost eliminated from the American West, while coyotes spread rapidly in all directions.

“They tried to scatter us,” you can almost hear them howling, “They didn’t realize we were seeds” (cf. D. Christianopoulos).

RESISTING APPLICATION

Okay, okay… so coyotes have some crazy adaptations that have led to flourishing – but what do we do with this?

The tendency, for preachers like myself, would be a move to application: something like, The Coyote Principle (Now available for $12.99!).

After all, the book of Proverbs tells us to “Consider the ant” in order to be wise. And if Solomon were relocated to the Sierra Madres, perhaps the text would read “Consider the coyote.”

To be sure, there are lessons to be gained from such creaturely longevity.

For instance:

  1. Weakness does not have to be a weakness. And:
  2. Scattering can be a form of conquest.

Yet the too-quick drive to application can be a fault of teachers like myself. And in some cases it borders on a sacrilege–what Kierkegaard called “pillaging the holy.”

Because while we may benefit from life-lessons, sometimes we have a deeper need to marvel merely at the wonders made by the Creator.

As Donald Miller writes in Through Painted Deserts:

I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can’t find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all this to dazzle us? 

In sum: application is no substitute for awe.

THAT SUCH THINGS SHOULD BE

A related point is made beautifully in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

In one scene, two ragged “okie” boys slide into a roadside gas station as their family migrates west in search of food and better fortunes. In patched overalls and dirt-streaked faces, the children halt suddenly before the candy case. There they stared

not with craving or with hope or even with desire but just with a kind of wonder that such things should be.

Perhaps this tells us something of how Christians ought to look at nature, at coyotes, at oceans, at eclipses, and even at our fellow man—not with craving or with quests for application, but with naked wonder that such things should be.

The Eclipse of Evangelicalism?

The Eclipse of Evangelicalism?

Just in time for today’s solar eclipse, David Drury (of Wesleyan HQ) has written a pointed piece on what he terms “The Eclipse of Evangelicalism.”

His claim is that, as a movement, evangelicals have seen their core convictions eclipsed by other aims and ends; hence he even argues that, as a movement, evangelicalism is “dead.”

While I don’t have time for a full critique here, I appreciate the call to repentance and a reclaiming of our core-convictions.

While “dead” may seem too-strong a word to many; I’m glad that Resurrection is even stronger.

Here it is.


The Eclipse of Evangelicalism

Repentance Upon the Death of a Movement 

By David Drury

As of this day, August 21, 2017, I believe that the evangelical movement is dead. At least, it appears to be dead. As a movement, evangelicalism is no longer effective in its original aims in the West. The movement has shirked its persistent values, and has quit practicing the core convictions that made it relevant and necessary. Even if evangelicals still claim to believe the core values, they do not practice them. Evangelicalism still exists as a category of people today—but it no longer is an actual movement in the kingdom of God.

Today Americans gather to watch one of the most unique sights the skies produce: a total eclipse. The moon is passing directly between the earth and the sun, blocking its rays, but for a corona of subtle light exuding from the dark circle, a faint reminder that the sun is still there, obscured for a time. Visible from coast to coast, the eclipse shown on a map looks like an arcing brush stroke swept from Oregon to South Carolina. The last time the sun was eclipsed like this (what they call a “totality”) in America was June 8, 1918. Much has changed in the 99 years since the last total eclipse, particularly for evangelicals.

In the last century, but particularly in the last decade or two, the core of what it means to be evangelical has been eclipsed by other priorities. The shining truths have been obscured by other moons, which have come between evangelicals and their core identity. In the process of this eclipse, a darkness has come across the land of evangelicalism, and even though it happened slowly, it has happened surely to this day, where a near totality has been reached.

Evangelicalism has a long history that can be told in a variety of ways. Finding its source in revivals and awakenings as well as Methodism and pietism. Whitefield and Wesley, Ockenga and Graham, Finney and Stott, Edwards and von Zinzendorf: they all could be seen, in their own way, as founders from different eras of the evangelical movement. Most agree that evangelicalism, as a movement, reflected a core set of values, which were…

  1. Conversion-oriented
  2. Bible-following
  3. Cross-focused
  4. Culture-transforming

These are the classic four core values affirmed by many in evangelicalism, including the National Association of Evangelicals.

Let’s examine each of these characteristics of evangelicalism and how they have been eclipsed:

Conversion-oriented                                                                                      

Evangelicals not only believed but behaved in a way that being “born-again by the transforming work of Jesus Christ” was critical. They shared their love of Christ to others and people “came to Jesus.” Was it messy? Yes. Did it all add up like a theology text-book? No. But because of this passion for conversion millions entered into a life-long process of following Jesus in fits and starts. This meant that disciples were called out to “follow me” and enter discipleship.

Today the conversion-oriented activity of evangelicals has now been eclipsed by the love of entertainment.

Bible-following – More than merely Bible-believing, evangelicals were a Bible-living sort of people. They followed the Bible and obeyed its teachings. They gave scripture a higher authority over any other source. Some might have valued reason, tradition, and experience, but even those critical elements were subject to the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. The pietistic, revivalist, and holiness streams of evangelicalism ensured that the people called evangelical were not just evangelistic, but also discipled to live differently by obedience to this gospel.

Today the Bible-following lifestyle of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of self.

Cross-focused – Core to being an evangelical was a cross-focused way of life. The evangelical was living by the mantra: Christ has done it on the cross. The evangelical was all about the forgiveness attainable by the sacrifice of the perfect God-man on the cross, making possible the redemption of all humanity. Evangelicalism believed in the incarnation, the teaching of Jesus, the miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension, and return of Christ—but central to it all was the crucifixion as the event and doorway into the rest of its three values. This brought the movement a potency and clarity in focus where all things began and ended with Jesus.

Today the cross-focused nature of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of power.

Culture-transforming – Evangelicalism was missionary and activist in an inter-dependent manner. Evangelicals cared about the souls living down the street and around the world, so they sought to share the gospel with them in innovative ways, and advocated for changes in the economy and government in a way that would help those who were voiceless or oppressed. Abolitionists, suffragists, and pro-lifers all found a home in this paradigm. To a lesser extent, the civil rights movement found a home in this paradigm as well (although largely in the Black Evangelical church, more on that later). They all sought to see people come to Christ worldwide and to, as a result, transform entire societies as the holy witness of Jesus spread across the land.

Today the culture-transforming mission of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of money.

You might see the a theme evident in the phrasing above, but one of the things that has had a frog-in-the-kettle effect for this change in evangelicalism is that long ago we stopped actively measuring the actual activity attached to these values, and instead merely treated them as beliefs one would check off like a creed. Evangelicals were decidedly not a creed-oriented people, so this is out of character, but these four values became something to help us discover the answer to the question: “who is an evangelical?”

Surveys began to ask questions discerning how much someone believed statements like: “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe,” or: “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” It is quite difficult to measure the actual behavior of people, and easier to do a survey of what they say they believe. Further, it may be important for younger readers who have come of age during a partial eclipse of evangelicalism, that evangelicals of days gone by didn’t just say they believed these things, they actually lived differently than their non-evangelical neighbors because of them.

Some have attempted to redefine evangelicals or categorize them to make a distinction for those who actually go to church, or engage in other practices. These attempts are noble, but have for the most part shown disappointing trends all the same.

I say “we” in the next sections because I am part of the problem I will outline. I repent of each of these choices, for I have my part in them, particularly since I am a leader in a denomination, and have responsibility for not only my own actions but for the behavior of my people. I am convicted in each of these areas, and write them through tears, grieving for the eclipse of one of the most important and Christ-honoring movements in the history of Christianity.

The Eclipse of Conversion by Entertainment

We choose entertainment over evangelism every day of our lives. We evangelicals care more deeply about the characters on our favorite Netflix show than the neighbors in the homes next to us. We value news as entertaining commentary and conflict more than the world full of those who need Jesus. We choose to value attendance at our churches far more than conversions in our services, much less in our conversations. We have even ceded the worship of God over to an entertainment-driven cycle, one where our Church teams and staffs are continually required to top what they did last week to continue to attract us and entertain us as the “audience.” Our churches accidentally become a part of the menu of Sunday entertainment choices the suburbs have before them, where people wonder: “should I exercise, watch news shows or football, sleep in, take the kids to soccer practice, mow the lawn, or go to Church today?” This is all propagated by an evangelical culture that chooses to feed off the entertaining rush that comes through mostly socio-political conflict with strangers, and even our friends, in comment sections and social media. We care little for the souls of these people we interact with—we demonstrate that we only care that our ideas win the argument, and that we look smarter than our opponents while doing so. We need lessons in civility at a 101 level, to say nothing for the lack of holiness displayed. We no longer love our enemies for the sake of the gospel, we don’t even build bridges our friends if they disagree with us. Evangelicals have “un-friended” the world in the process, as if the gospel of Jesus Christ and possible conversion of these acquaintances is worth nothing to us.

But, before I depress us overmuch, I need to say that I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that conversion of the lost is more important than all the entertainment of this world. Everything will change when we engage more devoutly in our own converted discipleship journey—updating the simple, millennia-old practices of our faith, by meeting as handfuls of believers in living rooms and coffee shops, reading the Bible and praying for each other, interceding over names of lost people, and serving together in our communities. We must repent of our idolization of comfort over conversion, knowing that only Jesus saves us.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to conversion-orientation, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed entertainment to eclipse the importance of conversion, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of entertainment and comfort which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Pray for the lost
  • Share my faith
  • Eliminate excessive entertainment & consumption
  • Engage in uncomfortable conversations
  • Converse with civility and redemption in mind online and in person

The Eclipse of the Bible by Self

We choose ourselves over the core convictions of the Bible routinely, so we are bereft of anything resembling the fruit of the Spirit. It has gotten so bad that mainline liberals who we think don’t even believe in the authority of scripture in their lives are better at actually obeying most of the commands of Jesus than we are. This is a profound indictment for us who purportedly have the blood of Jesus covering our sin. Jesus has called out a holy people, a royal priesthood of all believers, and instead we choose whatever our own selfish desires want. Instead of contextualizing the gospel, we rationalize our behavior. We think less of what the world needs to next hear, or what the gospel claims for our actions, and we think more of what backs up our actions in scripture. When we are challenged by anyone we do a google search of scriptures that might somehow be negotiated into backing up our behavior, rather than engaging in the word in such a way that it actually challenges us and our obedience to it any longer. We attack the world primarily over matters of sex, while being no more holy than we were a decade ago ourselves. We are stuck in our sins and believe in the authority of the Bible only in as much as it gives us the authority of self-expression of our evangelical political concepts over others. We don’t actually give the Bible authority over our own daily walk, we use it as a pseudo-authority over others, thus turning the living word of God into an idolatry of selfish aims.

But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the Word of God is more important than any one of us in this world. If we return to the beautiful life-giving way of scripture-living people the movement may rebirth in us. If our neighbors see us actually living differently than them, instead of just putting a different political sign in our yards than them, we will have begun to change this trend. May we repent of our sins and go back to Scripture in our quiet moments each week, worshipping God in our every step, confessing and repenting when we err, and becoming a people that are admired for our devotion to living as Christ taught, rather than as hypocrites who always point out the sins of others, never taking care to confess our own.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to Bible-following, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed authority of the self to eclipse the authority of the Bible, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of self which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Read my Bible in a way that it convicts me about my behavior and attitude
  • Allow others to truly keep me accountable to live in a holy way
  • Live with conviction under the authority of Scripture
  • Eliminate hypocrisy from my life
  • Selflessly admit I could be wrong

The Eclipse of the Cross by Power

We choose the power of the world over the power of the cross, preferring to chase the halls of power in Washington D.C. through political machinations rather than to rely on the work of Jesu Christ. We would prefer to put a picture of ourselves with our favorite politician on our wall than the cross of Jesus Christ. We leaders point to our likes and shares and platform, all symbols of our powerful status, rather than point to the cross of Jesus, boasting only in him. We would rather invite a politician into our pulpit, literally between the congregation and the cross in our buildings, to curry favor and let fame rub off on us than to call people to the forgiveness of Jesus Christ at the cross. All too often this power we desire has actually had overtones of white power with a strident denial of any white privilege. We have allowed those with vaguely white supremacist views to not only take refuge in our churches and go unchallenged from the pulpit, but also to allow a neo-supremacist view of race to cultivate even among our educated and influential leaders. As this has happened, the idea of a Black Evangelical and a White Evangelical has become even more distinct, and the already deep divisions and darkest days of evangelical separatism have re-emerged, threatening the unity that God commanded of us in a more direct way than at any time since the Civil Rights era, when we likewise largely failed at the challenge set before us by God. Some have hoped that revival would come and then magically end our problems of race, providing unity. It could be that God is waiting upon our true repentance from the lust for power and the subtly supportive practices of racism to allow revival to come. We may have his priorities out of order, since confession often precedes and sparks revival, rather than coming after it.

But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the cross is more powerful than the powers of this world. If we begin to see how the Holy Spirit might bring us together, across race and ethnicity, and to truly listen to the concerns of our brothers and sisters of color, we can reverse this trend. If we repent of our chasing after the power of the world, and begin to chase after the power of God, we will find a greater statesmanship, and a credibility to actually speak into the public square that we have somewhere along the way lost. When we think of our identity, we can regain a sense of movement only by pointing to the cross of Christ, by pointing to the party of the lamb, rather than advocating for the party of the donkey or the elephant, chasing after the permanent power of heaven, rather than temporary power of this earth.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to cross-focus because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed power to eclipse the cross of Christ, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of power which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Fix my eyes on Jesus and his cross
  • Ask others to question ways in which I seek power
  • Eliminate partisanship from my faith convictions, demoting party affiliation to a preference
  • Ask open ended questions of people of color, receiving and follow their counsel
  • Doing the hard work of reconciliation that actually costs me something more than words

The Eclipse of Transformation by Money

We choose money over missions and over the transformation of cultures and societies. We calculate the cost of every move so we never say anything that might too sharply challenge anyone, we have ceded the prophetic high ground of biblical justice in our churches to ensure the steady flow of resources to make sure we meet budget and build buildings. We have lost the urgency to send anyone to reach the billions and billions who are lost worldwide, and evangelicalism is no longer the mission sending movement it was designed to be. Evangelicals from the global south now send droves of missionaries to North America to reach those we miss in our back yard, and nine other countries now send a higher percentage of their members as missionaries than we do. Church boards act more like money managers of missionary funds than the classical evangelicals who gathered in days gone by, shedding tears, praying prayers, and paying the way for those to reach entire countries dying without Christ. They sent their own sons and daughters for the cause, while we obsess about a rate of return on our investment like bankers instead of believers. Likewise, we care not for the actual transformation of our neighborhoods and cities at home. Evangelicals largely see immigrants and refugees as only a threat to our fiscal security, rather than people that we might reach for the sake of the gospel, or when they are Christians (as is often the case) seeing them as partners we can learn from and work with. This erosion of transformative motive has made tapping into the xenophobia of evangelicals a sure-fire election issue for politicians. We choose where to live and where to have our children educated with only a concern for our financial well-being and protection. Propagating our financial security and growth is the unspoken but constant aim of our decisions, and we cannot transform the souls and systems of society when the goal is our own greed.

But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the transformation of our culture is more valuable than all the money in this world. We can restore what we once were by fostering a zeal for the world’s salvation, a sense of loving the whole world like our Father does, sending his own Son to save it and offer his transformative way of life to all. We can regain what God wants for us if we look at our culture as a whole, and find cross-cultural ways to bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven, whether that means a loving connection to the immigrant new to our neighborhood, or the lost land in another hemisphere that needs us to rekindle the fires of missionary impulse.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to this kind of missionary culture-transformation, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed money to eclipse the transformation of culture, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of money which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Live on dramatically less and spend more wisely
  • Give a greater amount of my income to supporting missionaries
  • Pray for worldwide evangelism daily
  • Consider which areas of systemic injustice require my sacrificial investment
  • Eliminate ways I contribute to injustice and risks my white privilege to defend the oppressed

Four out of Five White Evangelicals

Now we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Much has been made of the data showing that White Evangelicals in the US voted for Donald Trump at a rate of 4 out of 5. You may not like me bringing this up in the context of this treatise which is more about the state of the church and theological matters, but like or not, as evangelicalism reaches total eclipse, it comes at a moment when we are associated quite directly with the President we largely helped achieve power. It is notable that many prominent evangelicals were silent about politics in the past few years, but many supported and continue to support Trump vocally. As a full disclosure on my part, two of the most notable public evangelical detractors of Trump include two great leaders I worked for directly in the last decade, Jo Anne Lyon and Max Lucado.

So as we consider evangelical identity in its age of eclipse it is pertinent to ask ourselves: is Trump an evangelical? I am tempted to say no, based on the above classical components of evangelical belief and life, Trump is not a classic evangelical. However, he may in fact roughly match the reality of evangelicalism in eclipse. He juggles these four factors like a court jester of Washington DC, giving little if any respect or attention to the values evangelicals have said they care about for hundreds of years.

He has experienced no personal conversion personally, claiming to have never even asked God for forgiveness and defending his faith as an entirely private matter, but he values entertainment over most anything, devoting most of his business life to it. Even those that cannot stand our president must admit that he is a highly entertaining sort. No one has ever accused the man of being boring. He is not Bible-following, in belief or practice, as is patently evident in his behavior and words. He is not cross-focused, never bringing to bear the concepts of redemption or the reconciling grace made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross. Nor is he culture-transforming, as his isolationist values make no room for the longstanding moral and Christian influence of our nation worldwide, something that evangelicals have perhaps even over-stated in the past, in their drive to be a witness to the world.

Some hoping to gain through his candidacy have written these things off as the beliefs and practices of a “baby Christian,” or a “man with flaws but a good heart.” I am not here to talk about politics. My aim is not to convince you to object to Trump as I and my mentors have, or to support him. Instead, my claim is that Donald Trump may in fact be a mirror to hold up to show evangelicals what they actually look like now. Whether you have a politically calculated toleration for Trump, or a revulsion to his policies and behavior, he is us, reflecting in the mirror all our lost glory as evangelicals.

Donald Trump is what we evangelicals already are, or at least are becoming. It explains why he is so supported among us. Even after a cavalcade of circus-like activity coming from the White House since his inauguration, he still retains his support. Why? Why not, I say, if he matches what we actual value. We love entertainment, ourselves, power, and money. Trump gives us those things. We need to admit it. We love these values even more than the Son of God they obscure behind them. We might fill out surveys and claim differently, but we don’t live that way.

Next Evangelicalism

In this treatise I have claimed that like the eclipse of the sun by the moon, evangelicalism has been eclipsed internally by other priorities and idolatry. Repentance is needed by we evangelicals, and a return to the core values that made evangelicalism purposeful for God in the first place. Evangelicalism was never perfect, but it was used by God, and perhaps this eclipse will pass if we each as individuals recommit to do our part to the core tenants that made evangelicalism work for Jesus. We may need to throw out the term. We may need to join a Christian identity that will emerge and be created by young people tomorrow that we cannot clearly see today. But whatever the case, may we again become those who value:

  1. Individual lives converted by Christ and made new…
  2. The Bible as the true guide for actually living differently than we used to live…
  3. The cross of Christ as the actual crux of history, which provides the only persistent power worth aligning ourselves with, and…
  4. The missionary transformation of cultures and communities, found here and nearby, and in the hard and faraway places likewise.

May all this be made possible by the Him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or even dream of, Jesus Christ.


 

David Drury is author of ten books, including God is for Real, Transforming Presence, Being Dad, and SoulShift. He serves at the chief of staff for The Wesleyan Church headquarters. The Eclipse of Evangelicalism may be re-published in any format provided these lines are included. © 2017 by David Drury

 

 

 

Christians and Climate Change

Christians and Climate Change

My Interview with a real-life Climate Scientist

Jim Norwine is a unicorn.

A few years ago I met Jim as he audited my university New Testament class.

For the unfamiliar, auditing means attending my lectures simply for the fun of it, rather than for college credit. (Needless to say, some of my traditional students find this very odd.)

Nevertheless, Jim and I became friends.  And I then learned that he is a PhD scientist, specializing in Climate Change, and having taught for years in the Geosciences at Texas A&M.

Jim is a scholar.

Yet he is also an evangelical Christian, living in the Bible-belt — which brings us to the opening line about his almost “mythical” status. As he admits, evangelical climate scientists (with actual PhDs in the field) are somewhat rare.

EVANGELICALS AND CLIMATE SCIENCE

Manmade global warming, while accepted as an empirical fact in many places, is often controversial in the Bible-belt (though not for theological reasons).

And like everything else, it is highly politicized.

Even so, the command to be good stewards of our earth is a mandate for all Christians. And the need to listen to actual experts on such subjects (rather than unqualified bloggers like myself!) seems wise.

So whether you “believe” in manmade climate change or not, I hope you’ll enjoy the interview I did with Jim.

THE GIST

In it, he attempts to explain:

  1. How warming happens;
  2. Why he can be quite certain it is both real and human-caused; and
  3. How his treatment of the topic differs from some others as it comes from a Christian concern for the “least of these,” and an acknowledgement of the imago Dei.

You can access the conversation, in two formats.

First, there is an audio conversation shown below, and secondly (further down) there is an email response from Jim in which he responds to some questions on Christians and climate change.

Enjoy!

EMAIL Q&A WITH JIM NORWINE

Q: How do we know that man made global warming is real?

Oh boy. How to answer that in a few sentences….?

First, we know nothing with absolute certainty other than our selves, and even that could be a projection by some external whatever. (The latter is the ancient philosophy of solipsism, “I am the only reality,” which is impossible to refute…but which most of us choose to ignore in order to get on with “our”—we hope–lives.)

Seems obvious when you think about it but in fact even very educated folks often seem to think we are eating into the corpus of ignorance and soon will have digested the whole enchilada. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge is by its nature finite. Ignorance is infinite.

Think of the former as standing on a new and still-rising volcanic mountain on an island in the middle of the sea. Every day you are higher and higher, see (know) more and more.   So easy to think, what a smart boy am I! And true up to a point. But: every day the horizon recedes further and further. This is the point of the folk, and scholar’s, wisdom, “the more I know the greater my ignorance.”

So I suppose one could say there is one kind of “certain” knowledge, that of apprehending the limits inherent in being embodied createds.

Second, as to knowing in a scientific sense, there are levels. One may know in the sense of a law, like that of gravity. Near-“certain” because of so many repeated demonstrations and observations. (Still never really certain because a law, like that of gravity, is not the reality, just the best description one has at the moment.   And in fact the law of gravity has been overturned: Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein and so on.)

The next level of knowledge in science is that of theory. You might think of a successful theory as a sort of baby or not-quite-yet law. High confidence again due to verification by testing and testing and still more testing. The theory of evolution is a good example. When folks hear the phrase they often confuse theory with hypothesis. The latter is the educated guess with which one begins the practice of the scientific method. Hypothesis is merely square one on the Monopoly board of science; theory is at the very opposite end of the practice, one half-step short of law.

Anthropogenic warming is in, or at least close to, the latter category, in terms of the broad relation between CO2 levels (and those of other greenhouse gases) and planetary temperature. Our studies of Earth’s climate history provide robust evidence of CO2 level as one of the 4 principal causes of climate change over many thousands, even millions, of years, along with the astronomical cycle (3 cycles in Earth’s orbital geometry), volcanic activity, and solar output.

To wit, warm epochs in the past were periods of high CO2 and vice versa.   It is true that important details remain open to question, such as the rate of future warming. Our mathematical models are impressive but again they are only simulations of the vastly more complex real deal so always open to improvement.

Backing up a bit, I should have mentioned that speculation about the thermal effect of emissions from fossil fuels dates to the late 1900s. This “educated guess” was based on a by-then clear understanding that Earth is only inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect.

Quickie short course: the sun is so hot it emits extremely short-wave radiation, energy which zips through our atmosphere like the proverbial knife through butter. However, the Earth is much, much cooler, so that it re-radiates the energy outward in the form of long-wave length “heat” that CO2, methane, ozone and other gases are able to trap in the lower atmosphere with great efficiency. (This “extra” leaks out to space at night so over time Earth usually remains in heat balance.) Consider Mars and Venus by comparison. Both have mostly CO2 atmospheres, but Mars has such a thin atmosphere it lacks the “blanket” needed to trap the outgoing energy near the surface and hence is cold, while Venus has a thick atmosphere with a super9efficient greenhouse effect, hence mean temps of 800-900F.

Q: How do you, as a Christian (and, I think, as a fairly conservative guy) think about this issue differently than some of your colleagues in climate science.

Another toughie to answer briefly.

First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.)

But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”

Another reason for conservative dubiety is they intuit, correctly, that they have been lied to by advocates. I.e., “leaving fossil fuels behind won’t be that hard.” Complete and profoundly disingenuous nonsense. (Sort of like “you can keep your doctor, it won’t cost more, etc.” with health care.) Elites think that ordinary folks are so stupid and selfish that they can’t be told the truth about sacrifice.

Fossil fuels were the most transformation discovery in human history since fire itself. The challenge of moving away from their use even done gradually will be immense, something on the order of the Great Depression, WWII, and Europe’s Black Death plagues.

Another common theme from advocates: “we are all in this together.” Yeah, right. Folks see Al Gore and Bill Gates in their vast estates gobbling up energy, and elites with few if any kids living in huge homes, taking jetliner flights to climate conferences–each of which has a greater environmental footprint that a redneck family for a year—all smug in their confidence that by a. recycling and driving hybrids—behaviors that don’t inconvenience them one iota–, and b. preaching to nobodies about how awful they are to drive gas guzzlers, they are sorting with the angels.

And of course they also almost universally support policies like “cap and trade,” which will double or treble energy cost. Again, no big problem, merely some modest tweaking of lifestyle (fewer trips to Cabo, etc.)…but try to imagine the impact of a summertime monthly electricity bill of $800 or $1,000 for someone of modest means living in an older home or trailer.

All the above have unfortunately contributed to many traditional losing sight of our No. 2 marching order: the well-being of the least of these. Opting out of the conversation is consequential, because by participating they could hugely influence new policies and regs, which are surely coming one way or the other. For instance, to lobby for James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan, which would raise energy costs enough to cut back emissions but would all be rebated to individuals/families at year’s end. (Progs mostly hate fee and dividend because all the taxes in cap and trade go to the state. As in California now, and Australia earlier, neither of which effectively cut CO2.)

Q: What would you say to those who think manmade climate change is basically a ploy driven by some other political or ideological agenda?

Guess I sort of answered this above: “First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.) But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”

But Let me know if you want further clarification.

To recognize that there is a problem with climate change is one thing… but what can the global community actually do about it at this point?

I should have already stressed this point: we can do nothing about the warming from the emissions already done. And frankly not much in terms of actually “fixing” the problem anytime soon. We are going to have to adapt to a warmer world. The key question is how much warmer. The toughest aspect of doing that is that those who sacrifice now will not live to experience any of the benefits.

James Hansen leads the so-called 350 movement, That is, to get CO2 back to 350 ppm from the current 410 or so. (~275 at the start of the Industrial Rev.) Very unlikely methinks, at least without massive economic disruption, with most disastrous impacts on the world’s nobodies. I believe that a doable objective (doable, anything but easy) is to get the level stabilized at or below 450 and then by ~2100 with luck, hard work and sacrificeback down to around where it is currently. That means something like a 5F rise by century’s end. A big challenge, but nothing like the 10F or more which could well present an existential threat if we if we don’t begin to flatten the rate of increase.

Returning to your question, if we could go back in time 20 years I would say that candor would have made a big difference. A forthright message of the need for shared sacrifice like ML King Jr.’s Christian-morality based movement. Recall his own personal example of sacrifice writing from the jailhouse, etc. Maybe too late for that now.   In a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, post-modernity, evidence along no longer persuades many unless it bolsters what they already believed. (And new studies make it clear that is as true of liberals as conservatives.)

Maybe if a Francis Collins led a movement of traditional evangelicals….? Perhaps somehow combined with Ron Dreher’s “Benedict Option”…in which we do retreat in some manner to spiritual “sanctuaries”—living as we do in an alien and ever more hostile post-theistic world—but reach out from them to that world, kind of ala Jeremiah’s concern for the pagans.

 

 

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

Should a Christian ever say “America First”?

In the second century Letter to Diognetus, there is this description of the early church:

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.

The point of the passage—aside from the bit on marriage beds—is that while the first Christians were good citizens, they saw themselves as “foreigners” within their “fatherlands.”

They rejected nationalism, because they believed that they belonged to a Kingdom that transcended earthly borders.

I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (“When patriotism goes too far”).

Yet here I want to ask a more specific question:

Is it ever okay for a Christian to utter the now-resurgent slogan “America First”?

AN INITIAL ANSWER

In pondering the question, my initial answer was a quick and solid “Nope.”

America, despite my gratitude for her, is not first.

God is.

And Christ’s Kingdom knows no borders, tribes, or nationalities.

Beyond this, Christ’s Kingdom will endure long after America is a forgotten footnote in the dusty book of human history–alongside Rome, Byzantium, and others.

As Isaiah states:

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket

they are regarded as dust on the scales (Isa. 40.15).

All this is true.

Unfortunately, “Nope” is not a very lengthy blog post.

And, to be honest, I have considered one qualified(!) sense in which it might be okay for a Christian to put “America First”—though I will not be saying it.

Still, I’ll start with the massive problem with the phrase.

A “NOPE” TO NATIONALISM

If the expression “America First!” carries even a hint of nationalism (as opposed to gracious patriotism), it is quite obvious that a Christian should not say it.

As Ryan Hamm defines it:

  • Patriotism is a love of one’s country (which may be good).
  • Nationalism is a love of country at the expense, or disrespect, of other nations.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very notion of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.

It is a form of syncretism that verges on idolatry as much as stacking plastic Baals and Buddhas on the altar at one’s local church.

A less academic term for syncretism (the mixing of gods) is what I call a “Ricky Bobby religion”—as evidenced by his heartfelt plea from inside an imaginary fire in the movie, Talladega Nights:

Help me Jesus! Help me Jewish God! Help me Allah! AAAAAHHH! Help me Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off me!

giphy

On a more serious note, it was a plea for national allegiance (from religious leaders) that led finally to Christ’s murder, which may make nationalism the first heresy.

“If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19.12).

Hence the twinge of pain emitted by the satirical July 4th headline on the Babylon Bee:

  • “Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service” (here).

The exaggeration only drives home the danger of a more subtle syncretism.

In sum: Nationalism is a cancer to the Kingdom, and one often senses it—like a poorly hidden accent—beneath the chanting of “America First!”

“YES” TO STEWARDSHIP 

Even so, I am trying lately to read the claims of others (and especially those I disagree with) in the most charitable way possible. We need that discipline these days especially.

As I’ve said before, I’m thankful for America; and I think a gracious patriotism may be rooted in gratitude instead of nationalism.

So while things like “charity” and “nuance” are Kryptonite to “blog-clicks,” here goes…

Perhaps, in some cases, it is possible to view the words merely as a call to take responsibility for one’s own “household” before moving on to others.

After all, as a father, if I claim to put my family “first,” I need not be implying that others don’t matter, or that my family is more important than my faith. In this case, the words may simply function as a reminder of, say, my duty to parent my own kids before trying to parent everybody else’s.

And if one works within a particular government, there is a clear duty to give priority to one’s own “house” before venturing off to mow all other “yards” and trim other “hedges.”

This need not be nationalism and it need not be sacrilegious.

It might be a form of stewardship, and the priority might be a “first among equals.”

Maybe.

CONCLUSION

Still, the question is not just what intention lies behind such slogans (for indeed “chants” are rarely the most measured or coherent statements), but what the words connote within the hearts of hearers.

Thus while the catchphrase may not always entail a conscious endorsement of nationalistic syncretism, I still much prefer the attitude described in the age-old Letter to Diognetus.

They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed