If anyone is wondering why I haven't written about the non-rapture or the hateful prayer, it's because I'm as tired of it as you are. I feel like Carly Simon: "I bet you think this song is about you. . ."
So instead I point you to some lovely neighbors to the north on the Cardus blog, writing about faith and public life in a sane (and utterly Canadian) way.
I particuarly liked the self-deprecating post on driving to the gym. If you can't point out the absurdities in your own life, you are in danger of becoming a self-righteous bore.
I've been struggling internally a bit with the conflicting demands of institutional life and the so-beyond-all-that-crap attraction of God. Jenell, in her inimitable way, has put her finger on it:
"Churches organize people, funds, help, and childcare, and it's great
when they do it well. But they also organize our identities,
encouraging us to perceive ourselves and to project a public self that
is (among other things) saved or damned, good or bad, or on the path or
straying." (Please do read the whole post).
I think the freedom of the Gospel as Luther understood it is about
exactly this giving up of the categories. We're always saints and
sinners, all the time, and it's wonderful when we can give up wasting all our energy on categorizing ourselves. This is, in theory, why Lutherans are not quite so wrapped up in the "good or bad" rhetoric, but we still find lots of ways to place ourselves in a theological universe that is more about who we are compared to others instead of an honest spiritual journey.
We need to be in community, and it seems like humans naturally do this "temporal social discourse" thing that, all too often, detracts from relating to the Great I AM. As a pastor I do try to be conscious of when I'm serving an institutional need and when I'm doing something vaguely more spiritual, but frankly, the constant shifting of gears is exhausting, and I'm pretty sure that most of the time the people I'm interacting with don't make those same mental shifts as we go along.
Tomorrow, I'll be at a large funeral, which is both a mammoth effort of social organization and a recognition that most of our self-identities are meaningless in the face of death. The deceased is free at last. The rest of us will muddle along.
The Christian Century has a cover article about The Golden Compass (the book -- they don't really cover the film) titled "The Enemy Church." The first book of the trilogy doesn't fully play out Pullman's theological challenge, so it's no surprise that any protest about the film was short-lived. I agree with Chris' comments below that Pullman's primary problem seems to be with original sin. It's a disagreement shared by a lot of people I know, even though many Christians would agree with GK Chesterton that sin is the one doctrine of Christianity for which there is empirical evidence. Pullman's characterization of the church as authoritarian and oppressive is no surprise either to most of us. We're accustomed to seeing the church as a pure caricature in the movies. And, quite honestly, we can agree with most atheists that historically the church has done a lot of Bad Things. Add to that the fact that Pullman's world is purportedly a fantasy world, a parallel universe of sorts in which the pope is John Calvin and people's souls walk about with them in animal form. If Pullman wants to criticize the historical church, have at it. Christians can at least agree that the church has often betrayed its own mission. If he wants to argue that we'd all be better people if we didn't believe in sin, well, there you have a matter to talk about, and I'm not sure the straw man of the Evil Church that he raises in His Dark Materials series helps advance that argument.
I'm thoroughly enjoying Rob Gifford's China Road, which follows the NPR Beijing correspondent from Shanghai along China's east-west artery to the "Wild West" of China. I picked it up, in part, because he actually spends time in Henan province, the place I'll be traveling with eleven high school youth this summer. Henan is, shall we say, not a glamorous place, and Gifford's tales from that location are not the sorts of things the folks in Beijing want the world to see. But Gifford has a wonderfully warm style that helps us see both China's charms as well as its historical baggage and potential downfalls. The most pleasant surprise, though, has been that Gifford reports on religion in China with a frank confession of his own Christian faith. How often do you hear that on NPR? It's not a major focus of the book, but I am so grateful that he included the vignettes he did, such as the story of stopping in at a rural church's Sunday service and finding himself asked to preach. I appreciate it when people with an audience as big as Gifford's can simply and unapologetically say they are religious, and in Gifford's case his journalism seems the better for it.
Will and I have often talked about how our apparently
unrelated fields of work intersect. In fact, we’re co-writing an article with
the working title, “Actually you did
go to seminary to solve parking problems.” But it’s rare for us to see these
two areas intersect in anyone else’s mind.
But here it is, in no other place than a New York Times’
article about Radiohead’s decision to put their latest album up for download on
a whatever-you-want-to-pay basis. Basically, they couldn’t imagine signing
another major record deal. Mr Yorke explains:
it’s tempting to have someone say to you, ‘You will never have to worry about
money ever again, but no matter how much money someone gives you – what ,
you’re not going to spend it? You’re not going to find stupid ways to get rid
of it? Of course you are. It’s like building roads and expecting there to be
you have it: human fallibility and traffic planning, straight from Radiohead.
this quarter featured a funny but ultimately unsatisfying piece by Moncia Crumback, who discovered
that her son’s grandparents were plotting a secret baptism. Mother and father
met at a Lutheran college and left that institution “a lot more liberal and a
lot less Lutheran.” (I understand that those two “l’s” don’t go together in
some people’s minds, but it irritates me that this sentence prompts no further
As a pastor, I have seen all too often how
grandparently zeal for “getting it done” can overhwhelm any meaningful
conversation in the family about what baptism means, or the parents' religious
intentions for their children. I applaud the Cumbacks' recognition that, given
their own lack of commitment to Christianity, they have no business baptizing a
child. We pastors really don’t want anyone to be put in the position of lying
to themselves, their family, or to God.
On the other hand, I find the author’s description of their
spiritual plans for their children less than honest. They will expose their
children to the stories of a variety of faiths, they say, and when their
children are grown “they can choose.” I have heard this approach defended many
a time, often from people who are equally clear that they would be appalled if
their child grew up to, say, drive a Hummer or join the Republican party.
Let’s be honest. To expose your child to a lot of “stories”
and “philosophies,” but no living community of faith or ritual practice, is to
instill in your child a quasi-religious philosophy, namely one of secular
skepticism. While it’s entirely possible that such children will grow to some
day commit themselves heart and soul to a traditional religious faith, they
would not be following in their parents’ footsteps as they do so – and odds are
good that such a conversion would cause family tension. Their children will
indeed choose, but their parents have made a clear bid for what they hope that
choice will be.
Religion, ultimately, is a very human endeavor, a bit like
language. I know some very committed interfaith families, but they work very
hard at teaching their children more than one language of faith – and that
includes interaction with community, holiday celebration, Scriptures, and
ritual practice like worship. It is the difference between raising a child
bilingually and saying you will expose them to a half-dozen languages and let
them pick one later on.
I appreciate the respect the church is granted when people
are honest to God. Let’s just be completely honest that non-belief is also passed
down to our children.
A friend of mine noticed that I'm reading Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and asked if I had an opinion about the call for a boycott of the upcoming movie. I don't yet, but I was motivated to finally read the book because: a) it's a genre I usually enjoy b) I know a lot of kids at my church are reading it c) a lot of people will see the movie d) New Line Cinema is promoting it by transfiguring the ring from LOTR to a compass in its previews e) I heard years ago about Pullman's atheist agenda, and decided I'd better investigate for myself
I'm not done with the book, and suspect that the full agenda of Pullman's anti-Paradise Lost tale will become more evident only in books two and three. So I don't have much to say yet, except that Alan Jacobs, who I respect enormously for defending Harry Potter among the evangelical set years ago, has voiced serious concerns about Pullman. OK, Jacobs is a C.S. Lewis fan, and Pullman decidedly is not, so they are already in different camps. But Jacobs is not a knee-jerk "It's not explicitly Christian, therefore it's bad" kind of critic. You can hear his thought on Mars Hill Audio, here.
Mars Hill Audio, by the way, is sort of public radio (Ken Myers formerly worked for NPR) for conservative Christians. It's very intellectual and thoughtful, and I subscribed to it for a while back when it was in CD format, but stopped when they started doing apology for the war. They did some wonderful programs on Tolkien when LOTR was emerging in film.
I saw What would Jesus buy? today, and it has,
appropriately, stirred me up. I can’t say I learned anything new about American
consumerism, or corporate (non-)citizenship or sweat shops. Rev. Billy did not irritate me as much as I
expected. But I was moved simply by the story of these individuals – Bill Talen and
his choir and band members – who toured the country for a month in ancient buses
(retrofitted for biodiesel) in order to
spread their message. Most of them seem
like the people with whom I lived for a year in Lutheran Volunteer Corps –
young, committed, hopeful, and fun-loving.
I generally avoid the places Rev. Billy targets – megamalls and Wal-Mart – precisely because they make me feel demoralized and numbed
out. I’m no better than any other average mortal at getting out of Target
without spending $50 more than I intended to, so I try to just avoid the whole
scene (except when I have to, say, pick up party favors for a six-year-old's birthday). I thought
sitting through 90 minutes of footage in
these places would depress me. But, in fact, Rev. Billy’s witness makes me hopeful.
The members of the Church of Stop Shopping
are witnesses, in the best sense – they point to another way – in a totally
silly, outrageous manner. The folks in the film also seem, in some odd ways, to be a genuine
church, in that they care for one another, reach out to others, and even
confess their own shortcomings.
This is not great film, but I’m glad Morgan Spurlock has
documented TCOSS in this way.
favorite line, after Billy has been detained in Disneyland (I think from one of the choir members):
“They [the Disney folk] completely
control this place. It’s not like U.S public land where you can, like. . .
My friend Jenell managed to find something useful to say about the program in homemaking that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Southern Baptist) is offering only to women. Not surprisingly, her blend of compassion and wit made it onto the LA Times Op Ed page. Go Jenell! Well said.
This morning I attended part of a consultation on young adult spirituality. Andrew Root of Luther Seminary led us in a thorough and thoroughly sobering overview of the mess we find ourselves in at the end of modernity. There were many moments I was nodding my head, hearing language put to things I've lived but not articulated. One quote (from someone AR was quoting. . .I didn't catch who):
Heritage is tradition repackaged as spectacle.
With the holidays nearly upon us, this seems so true. My congregation is usually happy to sing the same carols as every year, follow the same patterns as every other Christmas Eve, but I begin to worry that not everyone finds much meaning in the tradition beyond the repetition of the familiar. And for some, the familiarity of it may itself be spectacle, not much different from the culture's repackaging of "home for the holidays." Personally, I find great depth in the repetition, like a yoga pose you've done a million times, but different on this day. But I know this is not true for everyone, and for some the difference between heritage and kitsch is pretty thin. And when there is no ongoing faith practice behind the tradition, it really is just sentimental spectacle.
Back on the home front, we're happy to be back to the familiar nuclear family. We're down to four people sleeping in the house tonight, after double that for four nights. We had a lovely time with all the grandparents, but it's nice to be able to get in the bathroom now.