Friday, May 29, 2009

Finding wind for the church's sails (Sunday Reflections for May 31, 2009)

Earlier this month I wrote to Metropolitan Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller to express my doubts and even dismay about a new church renewal program he had announced, called the Turnaround Synod Initiative (TSI). I published that letter two weeks ago as my Reflections column for May 17. Since then Bishop Miller and I have had a brief email exchange and, as promised, I’ll share the gist of it with you here.

Bishop Miller did not dispute my assessment of the church’s predicament, saying he is “much more realistic about the plight of the church” than I might think. Nonetheless, he remains convinced that “the truth of the cross is a matter of life and death for the cosmos”. Therefore, the church must be revitalized but not in a way that simply keeps old institutions alive. “This is not about institution building for me. I am not the least bit interested in clinging to dead forms…. What I am suggesting is that resignation, apathy and passivity in the face of the challenge will absolutely guarantee death.”

In his second email he added, “I find that in the climate of this synod there is so much discouragement that it takes enormous personal energy to try to find some way to put some wind back in the sails.” Most of that energy will have to come from below (“up from the earth”), of course, but he believes he has “a modest role to play in calling that energy up and then giving it a bit of shape and significance.”

Whenever you are the head of an institution in crisis, it’s inevitable that many people will expect you to be the “answer man” and I know that is occurring in our synod and across the church. As I said in my letter, the urge “to do something” is understandable. But the questions remain, “Do what? And to what end?”

As I read and listen to what others are saying, more and more agree that there is no going back. The church of the future will not and cannot look like the church of even the recent past. And so Bishop Miller says he is not interested in “clinging to dead forms”. Yet, while more and more are agreeing it can’t be done, it is hard to see how TSI and other recent proposals are really trying to do anything other than prop up our existing churches and ways of doing things. I am afraid that even as we say our intention is not to preserve “dead forms”, when those forms are all we have known it’s hard to imagine what the alternative might be.

I have said before that the church’s dilemma is very similar to that of the automobile and newspaper industries. Young people, especially, don’t buy American cars, don’t read newspapers, and don’t go to church. Those aren’t coincidences but are part of a much broader phenomenon which is affecting our society, and indeed the whole planet. And that is probably the single most significant change, which is that we are in the beginning stages of the creation of a genuinely global culture.

Dramatic improvements in education, communication and material prosperity around the world are suddenly thrusting us all together with dizzying speed. The forces of this transformation are pulling apart the bonds of traditional religion from multiple directions—and that is true not just here in the US, nor is it true only for Christianity. People’s lives are changing the world over, and one of those changes is that increasingly they find that they don’t need organized religion, at least as it has traditionally existed.

Like Bishop Miller’s passionate belief that “the truth of the cross is a matter of life and death”, I often hear it said that there is something the church has that is essential to people’s and the world’s wellbeing. This is why the church and its mission “must go on”. Yet in reality, not only do people outside the church not believe this, fewer and fewer people inside the church really think this way. Much more common is the attitude that religious involvement is a matter of personal preference. Just because it’s good for me, I don’t assume it will be equally good for you, let alone essential. Even fundamentalist churches have pulled way back on their “believe in Jesus or you’re going to hell” rhetoric, though that may still be part of their official doctrine.

Bishop Miller accurately points to the difficulty of energizing the church—putting “wind in its sails”. But the reason we aren’t raising the sails is because we don’t know where we want to go. If we aren’t saving souls from hell, and we aren’t trying to preserve religious institutions (those “dead forms”), then what are we supposed to be doing? This is another one of those elephants in the room, the awkward reality everyone knows is there but no one wants to talk about. The church’s lack of energy is really a loss of purpose and most of our movement now is momentum leftover from our past which is rapidly running out.

My suspicion about TSI and similar efforts (like the Book of Faith Initiative) is that their real purpose is to help us avoid talking about these awkward subjects. TSI proposes to re-energize the church to carry out its mission when the real problem is that the church doesn’t know anymore what its mission is supposed to be. For similar reasons engineers at Chrysler and GM debate what the next season’s hot colors will be when the problem is that too many people don’t want their cars whatever colors they come in.

We don’t discuss the church’s purpose because we are afraid that there isn’t one anymore. That’s our bogeyman—if we don’t think about it maybe it will go away. We all know how well that works. I say, what have we got to lose? I had been hoping that perhaps the church was near enough to desperation to finally start asking the tough questions. When I read about TSI I (admittedly) went into orbit because it was yet one more round of “let’s pretend”. Let’s pretend we really know what we’re trying to do and that the problem is that we just need to do it better.

People everywhere continue to have spiritual needs. People continue to search for meaning for their lives and struggle to accept and deal with life’s inevitable limitations: time, randomness and death. And in various ways, people continue to want to come together to meet those spiritual needs with others as a community. But the more a person is connected to our expanding globalized, post-modern culture, the less likely are they to find traditional Christianity or any of the other ancient world religions a satisfactory place to pursue that spiritual quest.

The church won’t disappear but the radical transformation it must undergo won’t come from its official leadership or from programs like TSI. Rather, to use Bishop Miller’s phrase, it must come “from the earth”. And it will.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ascension: a tall tale

This past week liturgical churches observed Ascension, the festival that commemorates Jesus going to heaven after his resurrection. It is one of the stranger stories of the New Testament and is one of the best examples of how literal reading can not only be absurd but actually obscure what a text is trying to say.

Any one comparing how each of the four gospels comes to an end realizes there are significant differences between them. Given how scholars believe the gospels were written it is fairly easy to imagine the progression. Mark’s ending (Mark is the earliest gospel) is most famous for what it doesn’t include, namely an appearance of the risen Jesus. Women go and find the tomb empty on Easter morning. An angel tells them Jesus has risen and they should go tell the disciples that they will see Jesus in Galilee. The women flee in terror but say nothing to anyone. End of story.

Matthew, likely the next gospel written, obviously did not like how Mark ended his gospel. He basically retells Mark’s story to its ending but has the women flee in terror “and joy”, with the stated intention of obeying the angels’ (now two of them) instructions. Awkwardly, Matthew has Jesus appear at this point (running alongside them?) but all he does is repeat the angels’ directions. The disciples do go to Galilee and see Jesus. There is little action but Jesus gives a final sermon which includes the “great commission” to take the gospel into the world and “baptize all nations”.

Dating John is difficult because it seems to have been edited at various times and does not follow Mark’s chronology. This gospel also leaves Jesus on stage—twice. After Jesus appears in the upper room to Thomas to bring him to faith, the gospel is brought to a clear conclusion. The next chapter then has obviously been added later by another hand and gives an account of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the shore of Lake Tiberias. A “wrap-up” paragraph similar to the one in the previous chapter ends the gospel again. In neither case is Jesus “removed” from the scene.

Perhaps being more the dramatist, Luke appreciates that having Jesus reappear after his resurrection creates the problem of having him lingering on stage. At the end of his gospel, after Jesus has appeared to the disciples (in Jerusalem, not Galilee) he is “carried up into heaven”. To begin Acts, his second book, Luke double backs and again has the risen Jesus appear to the disciples. Here, alone among the gospel writers, Luke introduces the idea that Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days after his resurrection (which is why Ascension always falls on the Thursday of the sixth week of the Easter season). A more involved conversation ensues and Jesus gives the disciples Matthean-like instructions to be his “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (something he hadn’t done at the end of Luke’s gospel). After this we are told that Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Angels then appear and tell the disciples to stop staring into space and get to work.

Luke’s exclusive account of Jesus’ levitation into the clouds certainly creates problems for modern readers. Besides the obvious awkwardness of having Jesus fly away like Superman, one is also left wondering just what exactly happened to the fleshly and fish-eating Jesus (Luke 24) after leaving earth. Just what was that cloud he flew into? If Matthew and John were aware of any difficulty in leaving Jesus on earth, perhaps they anticipated that any story of his removal would simply create more narrative problems. More likely, it simply didn’t occur to them to include this dramatic element, because what becomes obvious when comparing how the gospels each end their stories is that these are not accounts of what has occurred based on eye-witness testimony. Each writer is taking a general tradition of Jesus’ resurrection and creating dramatic narratives consistent with their individual purposes, Luke included.

The notion of the gospel writers creating their material is extremely bothersome to many Christians. And yet the church’s acceptance of four distinctly different gospels makes clear that its concern at the time was not for journalistic or historical accuracy. Indeed the gospels themselves imply or say outright that their purpose in telling their stories is to proclaim the gospel and create faith, not report events. What is often missed today, however, is that the gospel writers did not create out of thin air. Rather, they followed the ancient and biblical tradition of creating new stories out of old. In doing so, they connected their work with the scriptural quilt that had been evolving over the centuries. They intentionally wove their stories into the greater narrative of God’s people.

There usually are multiple influences in any biblical composition but often one will stand out. In this case the tradition Luke clearly has in mind is the cycle of Elijah/Elisha stories, in particular the account of the passing of the mantle (literally) from the latter to the former. The key passage is 2 Kings 2: 9-11. Elisha knows his teacher Elijah is about to be “taken away” and that he will be assuming his responsibilities. As the moment nears Elisha decides to ask for help.

9When they had crossed [the Jordan], Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 10He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

Elijah wails in mourning. Nonetheless he takes up the mantle Elijah dropped and repeats Elijah’s miracle of parting the waters (a connection back to the Moses tradition). Elisha is ready to carry on the mission.

The parallels with Acts are pretty obvious and, as a result, so is Luke’s underlying message. Jesus, like Elijah, is taken up into heaven as the disciples watch. Their experience of Jesus’ ascension is the confirmation that, like Elisha, they will now inherit the spirit that has empowered Jesus. Luke is not a copycat, however, and so creates his own dramatic confirmation of this promise in the Pentecost story of the next chapter. Here is where the fire and whirlwind of Elijah’s ascent appear, as a “violent” wind/spirit fans the flames burning above the disciples’ heads. Subsequent events confirm the disciples are indeed on fire with the spirit and gospel message of Jesus. This is where Jesus has really gone: into the lives of his disciples.

Did Jesus ascend into heaven before the disciples’ eyes? No. Did any of the events in the Ascension/Pentecost narrative actually occur? Probably not, but who knows? Certainly Luke didn’t know, living more than a half-century (and a devastating war) after the time he is depicting. Increasingly scholars are recognizing Acts as fitting quite well into the style and form of the ancient novella. It doesn’t fit well at all as a work of journalism or history.

In the ascension story Luke has a theological message he is trying to convey. Whether these things actually happened is an obsession of ours and was irrelevant to Luke’s intent in including them (or creating them). The story is the work of a great theologian, not an investigative reporter. When we insist “this must have happened” because it’s in the Bible, we miss Luke’s whole purpose in writing and for many contemporary readers cause it to have the exact opposite affect Luke intended: it doesn’t create faith but drains it away.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Keeping closed the "book of faith"

Opening the Book of Faith is the introductory guide for the ELCA’s Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI) and an introduction to Bible study from a Lutheran perspective. I think this book has a lot of problems (certainly due in part to the fact that six different people had their hands in authoring its hundred pages). One that jumped out at me illustrates well the concerns I have discussed elsewhere with BOFI and with our attempts to revive Bible study today in the church.

In the book’s third chapter, BOFI’s director Diane Jacobson (a professor at Luther Seminary) lays out four perspectives for reading the Bible: devotional, historical, literary, and Lutheran. In discussing the historical approach she correctly emphasizes understanding a text’s authorship and context. In the first of four sample Bible studies which follow (and which Jacobson also writes), this guidance somehow goes out the window.

The text is Exodus 3:1-15, the story of God’s call of Moses at the burning bush on Mt Horeb. In the previous chapter on study methods, Jacobson lists several appropriate questions (p. 53) that should be asked about a text and its author: who wrote it, who was it written for, what do we know about the political and cultural context when it was written, and so on. But when she turns to this study she focuses on the events in the story. She says nothing about authorship of the text or any possible context for the story’s writing, ignoring her own instruction. Why? Because it avoids the presumably too controversial issue of the historicity of the Exodus events.

Who wrote Exodus? Certainly no ELCA seminary or university Bible department would say it was Moses, the tradition added to the Pentateuch well after it was written. Without needing to get into specific theories of authorship (like JEDP), the key point to be made is that this certainly is not an eye witness account but rather was written centuries after the presumed time of these events. Given that, and given that we are trying to emphasize relating the Bible to adults as adults, certainly some attention has to be given to the obvious question: Did any of the events in this story actually happen?

Surely Professor Jacobson is aware (whatever her own stance) that a significant portion of biblical scholars would say “No they did not”. And they say so, not because they believe God doesn’t speak through burning bushes, but because there is simply no historical evidence for any of the Exodus saga and ample reason to take that silence as telling. In this view, Israel was not enslaved in Egypt, Moses therefore did not come and rescue them, the Israelites did not wander in the Sinai and then invade Palestine, and there probably was no Moses, at least not as he is depicted in the Bible. How, when you are supposedly looking at a text from a historical perspective, could you not identify it not as history but as story, not as a recounting of events that occurred but rather as part of the larger mythology of Israel’s origins?

Perhaps one of the most disingenuous statements in the chapter is this (p. 71): “Though we cannot always know how much of each story is precise historical fact, we do know the story of God’s saving action in the Bible includes real people and places.” But what does that mean? If I read a story about George Washington’s brilliant leadership in a Revolutionary War battle in Texas, then it’s valuable because George Washington was a real person and Texas is a real place? However great a story it may be, as history it would be preposterous because we know there were no such battles in Texas and, while Washington may have slept in a lot of places, we know he never laid down his head in Texas. And we know, in fact, that this kind of mix-up of names, places and times happens all the time in the Bible.

What frustrates me is that I know Professor Jacobson knows all of this. What is she afraid of? What are we afraid of? Why is it so awful to think that the Bible tells stories, just as every other culture and religion of the ancient world told mythological stories about their origins? Here again we are applying contemporary values and perspectives (“precise historical fact”) to ancient writings and getting confusion and misunderstanding.

The main issue here, however, is that once again we are paternalistically deciding what people should be told. To discuss this text from a historical perspective and not even hint at the fact that many, and probably most, non-fundamentalist scholars consider this a fictional tale is simply deception. And what does it do to the church’s credibility when people find this out on their own? How can they not conclude that they were lied to?

Opening the Book of Faith could have been written fifty years ago and most of it probably a century or more ago. Some will view this as a testament to its faithfulness to tradition but I see it as evidence of its failure to realize how fundamentally our world has changed. The first two chapters trot out the tried and true chestnuts of Lutheran hermeneutics and theology without any awareness that many of these have become meaningless gibberish to ordinary people. The authors cheerlead and cajole (“Lutherans read the Bible…they believe the Bible…they love the Bible” p.26) seemingly unaware that BOFI was launched precisely because so many of their assumptions are no longer true.

All of this raises the question of who this book and BOFI generally are intended for. Most of it seems aimed at the faithful remnant who already know the church’s language, are still regular worship attendees, and already have a traditional familiarity with the Bible. And so to protect their sensibilities we will avoid offering anything new or challenging to the Sunday school view of the Bible they received a generation ago. For the vast majority of people with little interest in or familiarity with the Bible, however, this approach will ensure that it continues to be seen by them as an antique curiosity, cherished by our ancestors but largely incomprehensible and irrelevant to contemporary life.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Not a good day

A smattering of reports and developments roiled the economic waters. The green shoots are really struggling.
  • Another high unemployment report (supposedly) sent stocks lower. (I say "supposedly" because I think these simplistic explanations for market moves are normally just media spin.) It seems nealry impossible now to avoid double-digit unemployment by the end of the year (and probably sooner).
  • Unusually, bonds fell as well (more typically bonds and stocks move in opposite directions). Reports indicate that Standard & Poors will soon be downgrading the debt of the UK and suspicions are growing that the same will happen to US debt. At the same time the credit of several European countries and multiple European banks recently have been downgraded.
  • To no one's surprise the large Florida thrift BankUnited was shut down by the Feds today. This will result in a large hit to the FDIC, second only to that of California's IndyBanc which collapsed last year.
  • Finally, AIG Chairman and CEO Edward Liddy announced he is throwing in the towel. Liddy was brought in after AIG's implosion last year and was literally working for nothing. In interviews he came across as someone who was sincerely trying to make the best of an awful situation and was working out of a genuine sense of social obligation. He took a lot of heat for the incompetence of his predecessors. Called out of retirement as head of Allstate, he's obviously had enough. This has to be viewed as very unfortunate as it is unlikely that there are very many people of his abilities and character available for such assignments as we tried to rebuild our tattered economy.
All-in-all, just not a very good day.

"The Dream" Indian Style

The Daily Dish highlights a new housing development outside Mumbai, India. Tata is known in the West primarily as an automotive company. It developed the $2000 car and recently purchased Jaguar. In fact, it is a huge conglomerate which is now trying to bring modern housing to people that have been largely ignored thus far in India's building boom. These are SMALL apartments (the largest is less thatn 500 square feet) but affordable at $7,800-13,400. Take a look at the plans. It does cause you to wonder: Could I live like that?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Seeing with Hubble's Eye (Sunday Reflections for May 24, 2009)

When was the last time the service department came to you to change your oil and rotate your tires? Didn’t think so. But that essentially is what NASA did last week for the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is now well into borrowed time and so no one is surprised that an assortment of its parts has worn out, broken down, or even become out-of-date. Hubble’s replacement is still some years away, however, so in order to prolong its life 5-10 years a billion dollar service call (compared to fixing the banks that’s like the change in your sofa cushions) seemed like a worthwhile investment.

A maintenance-and-repair mission via the space shuttle was put on the planning board a decade ago but it was cancelled after the Challenger disaster. “Too risky” NASA’s director decided. Hubble, however, is by far NASA’s biggest success story since the Apollo moon landings. After NASA got its confidence back (and a new director) it was decided to put a Hubble service visit back on the docket. While it will take some months of testing from the ground to be certain, at this point all the intended repairs and upgrades seem to have gone as planned.

The 1960s moon landing project was exciting to follow as it built to its ultimate goal. Once we got to the moon, however, public interest lagged (with the exception of the Apollo 13 near disaster). Getting there was indeed (at least) half the fun. There’s simply no hiding the fact that the moon is a big gray rock and, frankly, doesn’t make for very good TV. Hubble has been just the opposite. Getting relatively little attention during its development, it initially looked like a boondoggle when, after launch, it was discovered that its all-important mirrors had been ground incorrectly. Hubble’s first visit from the shuttle a couple years later, in effect, gave it a pair of glasses to correct its blurred vision. The fix worked and then the show began.

Hubble has performed beyond even its developers’ wildest dreams. Year after year it has sent a steady stream of jaw-dropping pictures of the planets and other objects in our own solar system and of mysteries out to the farthest reaches of the universe. The data Hubble has collected has enabled scientists’ to confirm numerous theories and propose new ones as our understanding of the universe has grown and, in some ways, gotten weirder (so that, for example, some now say we don’t live in a universe but rather a multiverse—a word, I see, is too new to be recognized by my spell checker).

Yet what Hubble has provided us is really only an appetizer, a tease. We are like Alice who watched the rabbit run through the door into the garden. She chases after him—but the door is locked! All she can do is look through the key hole. It’s such a lovely garden—how she wishes she could go there!

When put into human scale numbers, the universe’s statistics are simply mind boggling. Hubble’s pictures, however, even if we can’t really comprehend what we are looking at, provide us a hook with which we can connect ourselves to this vast and bizarre cosmic community in which we live. The thousands of hardly distinguishable points of light our ancestors have gazed at for millennia have now given way to dizzying, psychedelic colors and whirls. Even as we have been numbed by our awareness of the universe’s vast distances, Hubble has suddenly given it character, dimension, and even “personality”.

One suspicion confirmed by Hubble is that the universe’s “stuff” is not spread out evenly but rather is organized in clumps. Thus, there are vast stretches of little or nothing between those clumps. Hubble also showed, however, that beyond those gaps there is a whole lot more stuff. In one experiment Hubble was pointed at one of those empty patches and in a classic photographic trick took multiple long exposure shots of the same spot, thus allowing whatever light there was to accumulate over time. The resulting “Deep Field” photographs (example above) have forever changed our understanding of “empty space.” In Hubble’s gaze beyond this “empty lot” (about the size of a dime held at arm’s length against the night sky) appeared galaxies by the thousands.

It’s been less than a century since astronomers informed us that the Milky Way is not synonymous with the Universe. Only when the first large telescopes were built after World War I and they were able to get a closer look at those “smudgy” stars did they realize they weren’t stars at all but rather massive clusters of stars—in other words, other “Milky Ways”. (The man who demonstrated conclusively the existence of other galaxies? Edwin Hubble.) And yet our own galaxy is itself so enormous only science fiction writers can envision our exploring it. Inter-galactic travel is beyond even their imagination. To realize now that our galaxy is just one among billions of others in the universe is—well, we’ve kind of run out of superlatives.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Our understanding of the heavens, and probably God as well (we’ve kind of just dropped “firmament” altogether), have changed quite a bit since the psalmist wrote those words over two millennia ago. We can’t know how literally they were originally intended and, then as now, different people probably interpreted them differently. In any case we now know “the heavens” go unimaginably far beyond that blue “firmament” over our heads and beyond the God who used to sit in his above-the-clouds palace.

For many current followers of the ancient biblical religions this has created an intellectual problem and often an emotional trauma. The fact is simply unavoidable that we can’t look at the sky in the same way our ancestors did, or at God. And yet the psalm’s old fashioned word “glorious” is not a bad one to sum up the incredible vision Hubble has given us of this universe in which we live—of “the Creation”, if you will.

“Where is God?” is the anxious question that vexes many modern believers (often forgetting the question is at least as old as the Bible). If the world’s religious traditions are right, that awe and wonder are universal human responses to experiencing the divine, then perhaps Hubble has given new depth and meaning to the psalmist’s experience. The heavens are even more “glorious” than he could ever have imagined.

The scientific search and the religious quest are often seen as being at odds but Hubble’s spectacular legacy may be to help us realize that they are not so different after all. Indeed Hubble may actually reaffirm one of the most common yet profound teachings of the great spiritual guides, that God and the holy are actually hidden all around us, as far as the eye can see.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Has recession fat lady sung yet? Many saying, “Oh no”

The run up in stocks may be petering out and a small chorus of voices is saying it’s time to batten down the hatches. For them the market’s climb has been fueled solely on na├»ve hopes and Obama good will. The ongoing problems are many:

  • foreclosures continue, now spreading into higher end properties
  • credit remains tight for both consumers and businesses industrial production has suffered the biggest decline since the Depression
  • S&P 500 profits are now down 90%
  • the true state of the auto industry is finally beyond denial with GM’s bankruptcy a foregone conclusion
  • small and medium banks are under increasing stress from the collapse of commercial real estate where they had much more exposure than in residential mortgages
  • consumer spending will continue to be weak with many facing very uncertain short term economic prospects while others increase savings to compensate for the devastation of their retirement plans
  • and the big question still unanswered is: Where is the recovery going to come from?

About the only (potentially) positive factor is the fact that most of the stimulus money has not yet been dispersed. This will certainly help but already voices are calling for another stimulus package on the assumption (voiced at the time it was passed) that this one is not big enough. Few think Congress has the stomach for yet more deficit spending, however. If more spending is needed, it is unlikely Congress would pass such a plan until so much economic damage was done that its necessity was beyond dispute. One exception may be passage of another extension of unemployment benefits as there will be hard statistics to support this (and they are unlikely to drop anytime soon.)

One further psychologically depressive factor will be the growing awareness that whatever this recession’s depth, its length it going to be truly unprecedented. The tipped over “L” rather than the “U” now seems to be the almost unavoidable graph shape for this downturn. The simple loss of a truly staggering amount of money around the world can’t be overcome quickly or easily. Regardless of the markets’ gyrations we still have a lot of drama ahead before the fat lady gets her moment.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Letter to my bishop--or how not to advance my career (Sunday Reflections for May 17, 2009)

I recently wrote our synod bishop to express my frustration with his “Turnaround Synod Initiative” (TSI), a plan to assist congregations to reverse their loss of members. There are few details at this point (those are promised for our convention next month), but what is obvious is that it is yet another attempt to patch our leaking boats with no more prospects for success than any of our previous efforts. Here is what I had to say:

Dear Bishop Miller:

I have been thinking, speaking and writing about the church’s decline for quite awhile. I am very aware of the challenges churches are facing and understand the inclination and even the sense of urgency “to do something”. In a crisis situation, however, that is often not the best first step and I think that is true in this case. “Doing something” implies we understand the problem when, in fact, I don’t believe we do. As a result, the “Turnaround Synod Initiative” (like similar previous efforts) will fail to achieve its goals, resulting in wasted resources, discouragement and frustration.

As I know you are aware, the decline of the church in the US has been long in the making. Membership in mainline denominations peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both the ALC and LCA were shrinking prior to the merger forming the ELCA and reversing this was one of the hopes for the new church. Instead, the decline has continued with hardly a pause. The recent ARIS report showed that the number of self-identified Lutherans (of all stripes) has declined 25% in less than twenty years. By most measures, that would qualify for “falling off a cliff” status.

There is nothing to indicate these trends will change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, things may get worse. ARIS showed 30% of Gen X/Y young adults claiming no religious affiliation, the highest percentage ever recorded. The mortality rate of our congregations’ members will only increase as their average age continues to climb and we have little prospect of balancing that, let alone improving on it, with new younger members. The well publicized ARIS and Pew reports show this trend is nationwide and, to varying degrees, across the denominational spectrum.

As a result, I don’t see how TSI is going to be anything but an exercise in frustration. Your letter’s words about how every congregation “is a potential mission outpost” and many “are ready and willing to rise to the challenge” and “unleash the energy for mission” intend to stir enthusiasm but sound to me more like whistling past the graveyard. I fundamentally disagree that giving our congregations “some help and encouragement” will reverse or even stop the slide so many of them are experiencing. This kind of thinking serves only to enable us to hide from unpleasant realities and avoid dealing with real problems. Where is there any evidence that this situation is now changing? What have we learned that we didn’t know before, that we can now apply and which would make a difference? Setting ambitious goals and providing leadership training, coaches, consultants, and “resources” are the types of things we have been trying for decades. This is a classic example of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it” thinking.

The obvious rejoinder to this is: Well what would you do? In regards to our shrinking membership, I don’t know that there is anything we can do. I believe there are cultural forces at work here that are beyond our control. That does not mean, however, that the church will simply evaporate. It does mean that the church is going to be a different institution and play a different role in our society. We can influence that transition but only if we work at it. Efforts like TSI, however, prevent such planning and action by maintaining the illusion that fundamental change is not necessary and that if we all just work a little harder we can get things back to where they were before. That dog just won’t hunt.

Therefore, one of the most important things to be done now is to stop the denial that is going on at every level: churchwide, synods, and congregations. I believe this is a real leadership need, to name the situation clearly and honestly and to acknowledge that it is unlikely to change anytime soon. Engaging in this denial is resulting in frustration, anger, blaming, and guilt. Parishioners, pastors, bishops, and national church executives and staff all engage in finger pointing accusing each other of being lazy, incompetent, unfaithful, unimaginative, etc. Such behavior only serves to make the situation worse. To counteract the denial we need instead healthy doses of honesty and empathy.

We need to be talking at all levels about what should be done now to manage our shrinking resources. What kind of national and regional church management do we really need and can we really afford? Can we honestly expect to continue operating eight seminaries as we do? Can we continue to maintain the model of full-time professionally educated clergy in the face of higher seminary costs, rising student debt load, and the declining number of congregations able to afford a full-time pastor? Can we continue to maintain the model of the stand-alone congregation, with its own staff and its own building? Are there other ways to do ministry? What ministry ought we to be doing? In short, how can we think about new ways of “doing church”?

While I grew up when American Lutheranism was at its peak, my ministry has been during the years of decline. I have seen an unending parade of proposals, from the sublime to the ridiculous, to “fix” our problems. I have been in countless conversations with the theme of “What we really need is . . . a new pastor, another pastor, a youth director, a new building, a new hymnal, more Bible study, air conditioning, a new organ, guitars and drums, free child care, an elevator, more liturgy, less liturgy, better stewardship, more advertising.” And the list goes on and on. We’ve all been there. And now comes TSI to continue this unending and fruitless search for a panacea. When will it occur to us that we are barking up the wrong tree? That we are asking the wrong questions? That we need to think about the church and the world in which we live in a new way?

Right now, at a minimum, we need to be talking to each other. There is so much pain, anger and frustration among pastors and congregations as they try to manage the continuous loss of members and resources. We need our leaders to publicly and honestly recognize our difficulties and admit we really don’t know what to do about them. This sounds simple but I don’t think it will be. Denial has a very strong grip. That grip needs to be loosened, however, before we can move forward. We need to let go of what was and isn’t coming back before we can recognize and reach out for the new opportunities before us. In other words, there needs to be some dying before there can be a rebirth (John 12:24).

I know I have been blunt but that has only been because I see us trapped in an endless loop of stale thinking and fruitless endeavors. We need to shake ourselves out of our stupor. To take a genuinely new direction will be a long and difficult project which we haven’t even begun yet. This is my appeal for us to get off the treadmill and actually start moving, or at least shoot the starting gun.

I will post his reply and my thoughts about it in a couple days.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Stress tests not very stressful

(CCBlog users note: the site is linking to the wrong post. Check the archives to the right for the post you are looking for. Sorry for the confusion.)

Robert Kuttner has had some astute things to say throughout the current financial crisis. Here is his take on the so-called "stress tests" which weren't all that stressful, and why the weren't. Money quote:

Why is the Fed low-balling the problem? The hope is that by keeping the banks afloat for a few more months, and trying to entice private capital back to the table, the recovery in other parts of the economy will spill over onto the banks. But the greater likelihood is that weakened banks will continue dragging down the rest of the economy.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sunday Reflections for May 10, 2009: "Biblical illiteracy" (conclusion)

(This continues last Sunday’s Reflections column posted below on May 1.)

I’ve basically stopped encouraging people to read the Bible. Well, that’s not entirely true. I still think it’s very worth reading but I just know that most people aren’t going to do it whatever I say or think. Reading the Bible nowadays is kind of like flossing: everybody agrees it’s something we should do but how many of us actually do it? I know how dental hygienists feel.

The ELCA’s Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI) was launched last year as an attempt to improve “biblical literacy” in the church. Its stated goal is to make us “more fluent in the first language of faith, the language of Scripture.” I’m sorry to burst people’s bubbles but it “ain’t gonna happen”. And it seems as if the church already knows it. Thus far BOFI looks both unfocused and half-hearted. I was at a pastors’ meeting a couple months ago where the opinion was expressed that BOFI seems to have fizzled out. No one there disagreed. The BOFI web site trumpets that “Bible studies are coming!” Coming? Nearly two years after the initiative was approved and a year after it was formally begun they’re still only “coming”? It doesn’t seem the ELCA’s heart is really in this.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has enjoyed using the phrase “first language of faith” in talking about the Bible. That probably is a good way to describe it because it helps make clear what a problem the church has on its hands. For the reality is that this is a language fewer and fewer church members speak anymore. Regardless of the Bible translation one uses, the concepts in its pages are becoming increasingly meaningless and/or incomprehensible. Without this “language” people can no longer speak or think about their faith in Christian terms.

BOFI’s basic flaw is that it doesn’t recognize where the problem lies. It’s not with the people—it’s with the book. The Bible simply is a difficult book to read. There are good reasons why fewer and fewer people read it or are familiar with it. It is an ancient book (collection of books, of course), by multiple authors, in languages no one speaks anymore and which are difficult to translate. It assumes a world view vastly different from our own. It often talks about topics and issues which are meaningless to us and/or of no interest. Other than that, it’s great!

The simple reality is that people aren’t much interested in reading 2000 year old books of any kind. Calling such a book “The Holy Bible” doesn’t change that. Of course, someone can simply pick it up and begin reading and find it of value. People have done this on their own for generations. The reality today, however, is that for more and more people (especially if they’re under 50) this experience is of little or no value. They might as well be reading the phone book. I’ve led many Bible studies. I try to use the Bible a lot in my preaching. The biggest obstacle in both instances is that there is just so much explaining to do!

I have been asked many times what the best Bible translation is. Now I usually chuckle and say, “That depends what you want.” Most people say they want the version that’s easiest to read. Fine, but be aware that will also be the most inaccurate. “Oh, but I want it to be accurate.” Okay, but then it’s going to be hard to read. The “best” translations try to find some happy medium, such as the NRSV we use on Sunday mornings. Still, it is very much a compromise and you are never sure whether what you are hearing or reading is actually the thought of the biblical writer or that of the translator or of a centuries long tradition of translation and interpretation.

Does it matter? For what is often called “devotional reading”, perhaps not. But this kind of reading is often dependent on years of previous experience which most people no longer have. Such people often pick up the Bible expecting great things but quickly get lost in meandering passages of obscure history, ritual regulations, genealogies, exotic poetry, or even nightmarish prophesy. They soon put it down and head for the “Spirituality” section of the book store for something more understandable and relevant.

Where it very much matters is when we try to make personal or societal decisions based on what the Bible purportedly teaches. In recent years there have been multiple issues on which “Bible believing Christians” have taken combative stands based on what they believe the Bible says. In many of these cases I think they have based their positions on a serious misreading of biblical texts, attempting to uncritically apply ancient thought to modern issues, many of which the biblical writers couldn’t have even imagined let alone understood.

I do believe the Bible has some profound things to say about a variety of theological and existential questions—about God and about life, if you will. But they take effort to “tease out” because the Bible is an ancient document, written in a fashion we are not accustomed to and with a worldview very different from ours. Often ignoring this, the church today is stretching and straining the Bible to be things it isn’t and to speak to us on topics it knows nothing about.

Frankly, I think our biggest problem may be laziness. Even in the ancient world the Bible wasn’t treated as an answer book, which is what we often want it to be. Those who actually read it were few, and their opinions about it were listened to only if they had many years of study and reflection under their belts. Modern scholarship has actually discovered a great deal about the Bible but much of it is ignored because it doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Modern biblical study’s totally unsurprising conclusion is that the Bible is theology, through and through. Thus, it isn’t history, biology, geology, astronomy, economics, political science, psychology or any of the other contemporary subjects which so fascinate us and about which we have so many questions. For answers to them, we must look elsewhere.

So the question the church must answer is, does theology matter anymore? Because it is afraid that it really doesn’t is one of the main reasons the church wants the Bible to be something other than what it is. As a result, preachers proclaim to their congregations their opinions about marriage, personal finance, child rearing, homosexuality, international relations, health and fitness, and countless other topics, but hide and disguise them with isolated and out-of-context Bible verses. And the innocent parishioners respond in approving amazement, “He/she makes the Bible so clear.” Yeah, right.

The church does indeed have a Bible problem but it’s not people’s ignorance about it. The question is whether the church can let the Bible be what it is: the collected thoughts of a particular ancient people, containing their prejudices and ignorance but also some genuinely profound insight into living with God and with one another in our paradoxical world of beauty and pain, purpose and confusion.

Given that the Bible has been the foundation of the church’s life, the question arises: Is that enough? If it is, then the church needs to do the hard work of figuring out how the Bible as it really is, warts and all if you will, can function that way. If that Bible isn’t enough, then we have arrived at the epicenter of the church’s crisis today. In that case, it must either find a new foundation for its being and purpose or recognize that the current decline will continue to its inevitable conclusion. To me, unimaginative and half-hearted efforts like BOFI make it seem that the church, if only subconsciously, has already made its decision.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sunday Reflections for May 3, 2009: "Biblical illiteracy"

The denomination I belong to, the ELCA, is in the midst of a five year effort to promote reading the Bible called the Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI). I’ve been involved with a couple similar efforts earlier in my career and know the challenges such programs face. BOFI has appeared especially problematic to me primarily because its conception was so vague. Where earlier programs had highly developed (and expensive) materials at their center, BOFI seems to be more of a scatter gun approach with an optimistic simplicity verging on “open the Bible and they will come”.

Recently I became involved in an online discussion about BOFI on its web site. (It came to a premature and bizarre conclusion but that’s another story.) The posts I wrote helped me to realize how I have come around almost 180 degrees from beliefs I had when I first entered the ministry. In brief, where I once believed everyone should share my enthusiasm for reading and studying the Bible, now I see it as a much more esoteric activity requiring an interest few people share and an education few people have acquired. Coming from a Lutheran this borders on heresy.

The problem BOFI is trying address, it claims, is that of biblical illiteracy. As almost any preacher will tell you, it’s almost impossible to underestimate how little people today know about the Bible. One interesting item from the online discussion was the report of a survey comparing people’s attitudes toward the Bible and their knowledge of the Bible. Basically it showed that people who claimed a belief in biblical inerrancy generally had as little knowledge of biblical content as everyone else. So according to this survey, people who think the Bible is the verbatim “word of God” aren’t even reading it all that much! That Christians, including fundamentalists, don’t know their own scriptures is a sign that something very odd is going on.

Not surprisingly perhaps, those who proposed BOFI did so because they assume biblical illiteracy is a bad thing. From what I can tell, however, there was little or no discussion or defense of this notion. Had that happened, I think this “initiative” (a suspiciously vague word) might have had a clearer focus.

All this got started when the North Carolina Synod sent a “memorial” (formal request) to the ELCA asking it to address the problem of the lack of consensus in the church about the authority of the Bible or how to interpret it. In other words, they were asking the ELCA to clarify, just what is the Bible and how do we use it?

The memorial obviously arises out of concern over a number of issues the ELCA is struggling with and differences over how to use and interpret the Bible in resolving these differences. This problem has been festering for a long time and may well have come to a breaking point. The ELCA sexuality task force noted in its final report that a lack of consensus about the Bible is one of the main causes of division over issues of sexuality. No doubt this will be on full display at the churchwide assembly this August in Minneapolis.

Curiously, BOFI sidesteps this issue and yet claims to be a response to the memorial’s concerns. The assumption seems to be that all we have to do is get people to read the Bible and somehow our differences about it will get resolved. Well, I don’t believe that for a minute. The Reformers knew the Bible backwards and forwards and fought among themselves like tigers for decades. Their arguments have gone on to this day, if somewhat less ferociously. Indeed, both sides in the current controversy over homosexuality have ample supplies of Ph D theologians and biblical scholars arguing their respective cases.

Which raises the complaint one sometimes hears from nonreligious people and even from church members: “Why read the Bible? It just starts lots of arguments.” And so we are back where we started from: Why read the Bible? Perhaps BOFI’s unspoken response to the memorial is that we really don’t think the Bible is going to resolve these controversies. Certainly the church’s own history doesn’t give much support to such a hope.

The problem is that we can’t use the Bible to decide what the Bible is or how to read it. I could write a book which begins, “This is the perfect word of God and you must believe everything written here,” but you the reader must decide what to make of that. And the Bible isn’t anywhere near that clear! In fact, there are even arguments within the Bible about how to read the Bible. Anyone who thinks reading the Bible will resolve questions about homosexuality, abortion, the death penalty, gender roles, evolution, or any other contemporary controversy obviously hasn’t read it.

The questions raised by the North Carolina Synod are certainly legitimate and serious ones but BOFI is not going to resolve them. They do need to be resolved somehow, however. The sexuality task force’s final report basically says, “We can’t go on like this”. If, as expected, this summer’s churchwide assembly approves the task force’s recommendation to recognize gay relationships and allow openly gay clergy, then the ELCA will at least be rejecting one literalistic way of reading and interpreting the Bible. (Some would argue this was done forty years ago when the predecessor Lutheran churches approved the ordination of women.) Perhaps then the church can move on to address the questions raised in the memorial in a more systematic way, in order to have a consistent guide on biblical authority and interpretation for church action in the future.

But this still leaves us with the Book of Faith Initiative. If BOFI isn’t addressing the question of what the Bible is or how to read and interpret it, then what is its purpose? Just why are we trying to get people to read the Bible? Is it, really, all that important? We’ll turn to those questions next time.