Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sympathy for the Evangelical

We’ve hit that point in the election cycle where I’ve become sorely tired of campaign commercials. Most of my voting decisions are, I’ll admit, this year being made based on superficial factors: no to the guy who had his own theme song written, no to the guy who does a bad Obama impression, yes to the guy who doesn’t stand a chance. (Apparently women in my district don’t run for political office.) But one thing I’ve come to appreciate this year is that people seem to be laying off the evangelicals.

In Chicago, church affiliation is not a disqualifier for public office; a prominent pastor is a serious contender for Chicago mayor, for example, and every Sunday I hear a sound bite or two from sermons by gubernatorial candidates and aspirants to the state senate. These church appearances tend to be on the liberal side of the divide, but it’s telling that no one is raising significant protest against what, in other days, might have been considered a serious breach of the division of church and state.

Meanwhile, on the right, candidates who in previous years might have pandered to the conservative church seem to be leaving it alone: no loud professions of faith, no “Jesus is my favorite philosopher” blindsides, no voter’s guide tucked under my windshield wiper during worship (yet). There’s been private pandering, I’m sure, at fundraisers and the like. And once or twice candidates have been set up to admit, however awkwardly, that they would separate their faith from their politics a little less than their opponent. But by and large, it seems that in this election, we’ve forgotten that personal faith exists: in this cycle, it’s the issues, stupid.

Maybe we should credit President Obama, who two years ago successfully negotiated a controversy involving his home church pastor and helped the country put personal faith in a new political context. Maybe we should credit Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, who stumped for then-candidate Obama and changed public perceptions about the monolithic political nature of evangelical faith. Maybe we should credit political activist James Dobson for stepping down as president of Focus on the Family (or credit the Focus board for giving him a little push). Maybe Jimmy Carter, whose Our Endangered Values is unabashedly Baptist and unapologetically progressive. Or maybe we should credit the Tea Party, whose sympathies clearly lie with conservative evangelicals but who have found better traction by identifying with the economically frustrated.

In any case, I’m relieved. Evangelical has been far too weighted an identifier for me to be comfortable with for, really, most of my adulthood, so the less press it gets, I suppose, the better. And yet it’s still an identifier, and in other parts of the world being evangelical can still get you into trouble, as Chinese delegates to the recent Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Capetown, South Africa, recently discovered. So particularly when it doesn’t hurt me but does hurt others, I find it helpful to revisit the term: what does it mean to be evangelical?

For some, evangelicals are equated with “Bible-banging homophobes,” as a friend of mine puts it. For others, evangelicals are driven by family values like gun rights and low taxes. For still others evangelicals believe the world is flat and was created, like, a thousand years ago for human beings to trash. For many, quite frankly, evangelicals are better bearers than Muslims of the term jihad.

There are more technical definitions of evangelicalism; Wikipedia assigns it four distinctives, based on the analytical work of David Bebbington:

• The need for personal conversion (or being "born again")
• Actively expressing and sharing the gospel
• A high regard for biblical authority, especially biblical inerrancy
• An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus

I’d like to return to this idea of jihad, however, because I think it’s helpful for defining the starting point of evangelicalism (its “genesis”—ha ha) and what might be considered its guiding ethic. Jihad, according again to Wikipedia, translates as “struggle” or “striving in the way of Allah.” The idea of faith and piety of any kind, Islamic or otherwise, as a struggle is as compelling as it is self-evident: the rational mind, the self-interested mind, the passions, the primal urges all might pull us in any number of directions; the mind of jihad stubbornly declares “But wait.” This internal jihad often extrapolates culturally, even politically and militarily, as the stubborn jihadist seeks strength in numbers to offset the power of the passions, the cool reasonableness of rationalism, the clarion cry of “collective self-interest.” But at its heart, jihad is primal, an impulse of the person (and by extension, the people) aiding the complicated process of making our way through the world. We stifle this interior struggle at our peril.

Evangelical jihad, however, adds a wrinkle to the term. The evangelical, I’d like to submit, doesn’t merely wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12—pretty sexy verse, eh?); the evangelical wrestles against him- or herself, all the while wrestling with none other than the God of the universe.

We see it throughout the Scriptures, from Adam and Eve protesting their innocence, to Abraham negotiating for the salvation of a city, to Moses pleading for his people, to David on a hunger strike for the life of his child, to Job lamenting his sad condition, to Jesus crying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). We see it carry through the formative years of the church, where Peter resisted the instructions of God before finally giving in and “actively expressing and sharing the gospel” to non-Jews, where Paul hears the voice of Jesus remind him that to fight the will of God is as effective as “to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Personal conversion, submission to the authority of Scripture, belief in and proclamation of Jesus’ unbelievable saving actions on the cross and at the resurrection—these are preceded by, supported by, and indeed sustained by, struggle.

Three things keep the struggle alive for evangelicals (there are probably others):

• God is with us. We don’t struggle in a void or suffer in silence.
• God always wins. God is sovereign over all creation, after all.
• God is love. However bitter the struggle, however abandoned we feel in it, we are told that the author and perfecter of our faith, our jihad, is whatever love is.

That love, it’s worth noting, extends beyond ourselves, so that our interior struggle is not just our own private experience but our part to play on behalf of the whole. Paul helpfully reminds us in Ephesians 6 that, for all that our struggle is, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.” Our neighbor—next door or far off—is not our enemy. If God is love, then, part of our jihad is to become love ourselves. That’s no walk in the park, but it’s God’s desire for us, and God always wins.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What Would You Tear? A Meditation

Has anyone else noticed this? Saturday Night Live has adapted its thirty-plus year tradition of host photographs as segues from commercial to sketch. Instead of one static image, the viewer is now treated to flip animation: Amy Poehler turns slowly to the right and breaks out a staccato smile; Jane Lynch runs a gamut of facial expressions. What once seemed to be a delaying of the inevitable—the commercials are over, the show is back on—is now something of a show of its own.

I’m a word guy. I edit words for a living; I even edit words that other people have already written for my own entertainment. I write three blogs for kicks; I write books whenever a publisher will agree to publish them; I write, word for word, whatever I’m preparing to say in public. So when a static picture shows up on a screen, I tend to tap my feet and wait for something to be said, for something to be written. And yet, there’s something about a moving image—even something so simple as a flowing sequence of photo stills—that can be moving in ways that words strung linearly together simply can’t.

I hesitate to admit that. After all, I make my living off stringing words linearly together. Besides that, my faith—the ground of my being, the lifter of my eyes—is intimately associated with words strung together. To be a Christian is to claim, among other things, a special relationship with at least sixty-six distinct books, bundled together to tell the story of God as well as our own human story. To describe people of Christian faith as “people of the Book” makes sense; “people of the moving image” would seem to be some other communion entirely.

And yet we find these strung-together words in the Bible taking shape in our imagination; we hear the Bible and we see not sentences parsed but sentences carried out; not subject-verb agreement but bloody conflict and merciful reconciliation; not words made into paragraphs but the Word made flesh. So as much as the Bible is a set of words, it’s also kindling for our imagination. And so as much as Christian faith is a matter of words, it’s also undeniably a matter of power.

That, I suppose, is the idea behind Spencer Burke’s “monotations,” in which he combines one word with one image and invites people to reflect on what God might be communicating through the experience. We grow when we’re stretched, I think, and part of the stretching experience is to interact with our environment, allowing our environment to shape us even as we reshape our environment.

I write this and two scenes from the Scriptures come to mind. Both involve sovereign powers interacting with holy writing. Both involve acts of violence (not against human beings, though neither story is far removed from such violence, but rather violent reactions to holy words). One is a cautionary tale, the other is a high-water mark in the history of God’s people.

Imagine a room filled with a handful of men, one sitting, the rest standing. A fire pit heats the room on an otherwise frigid day. Those who are standing are anxious, not sure what to expect in the scene that unfolds. The one sitting is the king, and whatever he says, goes.

The king bids Jehudi to read from a scroll. Jehudi begins to read. And “whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe's knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.” What was written on the scroll? An appeal from the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Judah to repent of their wickedness and return to the Lord, and a warning of disaster planned by God for the unrepentant. “The king,” it’s worth noting, “and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes.”

Now imagine another room filled with a handful of men, one sitting, the rest standing. Perhaps a fire pit heats this room as well, as one man reads from the long-lost and recently rediscovered Book of the Law to the sitting king.

“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes.” These were the words of God, and the implications were obvious: having not kept faith with God’s commands, God’s people stood condemned. The king repented of his own wickedness, and with it the wickedness of his people, and committed as a nation to return to the Lord. As a result, the king heard more words from God: “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, . . . I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.' "

Two scenes, two kings, two acts of violence. One ripped up the words of God and burned them in the fire; the other tore his own robes and wept.

Now imagine your own scene. Whatever you say, goes. Then, all of a sudden, God says something. So . . . what would you tear?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Such Is Life in the Age of Ephemera

I'm embarrassed at the length of time I've gone without posting anything--not only to Loud Time but to my corporate blog, Strangely Dim (good thing I have colleagues who also post there), and my column on Burnside Writers Collective, "Becoming the Great Us" (good thing nobody reads it). Such is, I'm afraid, the state of my life right now. I've actually been doing a lot of stuff which would normally generate posts--trips to conferences, retreats, workshops, author meetups, family get-togethers, you name it--but the pace has been such that I couldn't collect my thoughts long enough to form a coherent sentence. I've been either on my feet or out of gas.

A fellow I admire, Andy Crouch, tweeted not too long ago (is there a verb that represents updating your Facebook status?) a comment that sticks with me like that popcorn husk firmly nestled somewhere between your molar and your canine:

Who is the most effective person in your sphere of culture? Chances are they exercise outdoors more and watch TV less than you do. And in ten years we will add, they take more regular technology sabbaths. (The comparative advantage of technobusyness is disappearing.)

I found it frustrating, mostly because I don't regularly exercise outdoors and I typically watch TV to wind down and I don't take tech sabbaths. Ergo, per Andy Crouch, I could be more effective (whatever that means). But I suppose necessary messages often come across as nuisance, because as much as I've resented the poke, I've found myself looking for opportunities to get outdoors more, and I've tried to resist the urge to turn the TV on at the end of the day (to limited effect, I freely confess). The tech sabbath is a different thing, because in the rush of the last month, the moments of contemplation have been those stolen moments when I've scrolled through my twitter feed; my moments of confession or self-expression have been when I've updated my status or posted a picture. My maintenance of community has been dependent on my access to phone and e-mail and other social media. Such is life in the age of ephemera: we live and move and have our being at a brisk pace--forgetting what is behind us as we press on toward some nebulous goal.

I'll get some breathing space soon. Barring any last-minute urgencies, Monday begins my first full week in the office in six weeks or so. But if I've learned anything in this marathon month, it's that I can subsist but not exist on my own, in my own strength; it's only to the extent that I tether myself to a place and some particular people that I maintain a healthy sense of self, and a rightly ordered relationship with the world around me.

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