Friday, June 26, 2009

Drip, drip, drip

I just read in our synod monthly newsletter the surprising announcement of the closing of Wilmette Lutheran Church after 88 years. Wilmette is one of Chicago's wealthiest suburbs and while the church was never large, in the past it had been a siginifcant source of revenue for the local synod. I knew it had "faded' somewhat in recent years but had no idea it was on the verge of closure.

The question is how does a denomination lose a previously thriving congregation in one of the most prosperous areas in the country? Undoubtedly there is a back story here--internal conflicts, scandal, mediocre pastors, or some combination of the usual suspects. Looking at the online statistics, however, it mostly seems to be a case of a long but steady decline. The loss of such a congregation speaks volumes about the state of the ELCA and mainline Christinity. It would be interesting to learn about the general health of mainline churches in Chicago's suburban "old money" North Shore. In any case, the steady decliine of the ELCA obviously continues.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Christianity: religion or cult?

In general, US law enforcement and other government authorities treat churches with kid gloves. This is a long standing tradition based both on constittional grounds and the unofficial special status Christian churches have in the socio-political community. Occasional exceptions occur with regard to churches pushing the boundaries of their tax-exempt status or in the mistreatment of members on health and welfare grounds, especially children. The recent mass removal of children from a Mormon camp in Texas was a dramatic increase in government intervention, thought subsequently overturned by the courts.

I suspect, however, that such interventions are going to be more frequent. Fundamentalist groups are being seen more often as outside the norm of "acceptable" religion. Their more extreme behavior and beliefs are drawing increased scrutiny from the press and independent watchdog groups. I think law enforcement is going to be under increasing pressure to intervene in alleged abuse cases and are going to feel freer to do so.

The news today
features the story of a fundamentalist church's graphic YouTube video of their exorcism of a 16-year-old boy. The objective was to cast out a "homosexual demon" from him. Calls are being made for an investigation by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. An incident like this raises a question being asked by nonreligious people: What really is the difference between a religion and a cult and doesn't Christianity behave increasingly as much like the latter as the former? We are likely to hear more often of extreme example of Christian beliefs and behavior being branded as crazy and/or illegal--and not without justification.

Is it art or is it Thomas Kinkade?

It's easy for the "educated elite" to disparage schlock and sentimentality. It's harder to actually explain what they are, why they are bad, and why their alternatives are clearly preferable. Joe Carter does a good job on his blog using as an example the artist the art world loves to hate, Thomas Kinkade, "The Artist of Light TM." As Carter demonstrates, Kinkade is more complicated that he first appears because in the past he was something else, as the case study Carter leads off with illustrates. Both of the above paintings of Chicago's iconic Water Tower are by Kinkade. What happened? Read the article (with additional illustrations) for his insight into Kinkade and the appeal of his quasi-religious and patriotic products. The comments that follow--both pro and con--are also revealing. One writer also references another earlier and excellent article examining the Kinkade phenomenon, including its relation to Christian theology, by Gregory Wolfe.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Babies and big fish: the truth of stories (Sunday Reflections for June 21, 2009)

Last week the Chicago Tribune carried a front page story headlined “Blogger’s baby a hoax”. Beccah Beushausen, 26, an evangelical Christian and ardent abortion opponent from suburban Chicago, had created an online persona who was struggling with a problem pregnancy. As she told her story she developed a large following of supporters who encouraged her in her pledge to not abort her child despite its handicaps. Recently “April” was born but died shortly thereafter. Ms. Beaushausen’s mistake, however, was to publish a picture of her with her newborn. Some of her faithful followers recognized her “baby” because they had the same doll (as it actually was) in their own homes. Very quickly, everything came crashing down.

As it turns out, Bueshausen had lost a newborn son a few years ago. She began her blog this past March to help deal with the loss and to express her anti-abortion viewpoint. To her surprise, she was soon getting 100,000 hits a week and “it got out of hand,” she said. “I didn’t know how to stop…. One lie led to another.”

One of the biggest obstacles I encounter in teaching a modern critical way of understanding the Bible is the notion that many/most of its stories “aren’t true.” Characters that never existed. Events that never occurred. “You mean someone made it up?” people ask incredulously. Well, a lot of someones actually, but yes they did. And the follow up needs to be, “It happens all the time.”

Headlined reports of truth turning out to be fiction have become almost commonplace. In recent years many major newspapers have had to publish embarrassed retractions when reporters were discovered to have been using their creativity a bit too aggressively. In 2006 author James Frey was publicly rebuked by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show for fabricating much of his “memoir,” which she had promoted through her book club. Significant Holocaust biographies have been revealed recently to be largely fictional.

People make things up. They tell stories about themselves and about others. It happens all the time and has been happening for as long as we have records. Ancient “history” hardly exists except for what contemporary historians can piece together from minimal fragmentary evidence. Recorded histories from these times are almost always propaganda, promoting this or that king’s exploits or creating the mythological story of some people’s origins. In a time before PhDs or a publishing industry, who cared about “objective truth”? Were 100 killed in the battle, or 10,000? Who counted, and who remembered?

The line between fact and fiction is certainly an important one to maintain. That doesn’t mean, however, that determining that line is easy. Psychologists have shown that our individual abilities to separate the two are more flawed than we realize. Our perceptions in real-time are often mistaken and our memory of events often selective. We see and remember what we want and can filter out what is unpleasant or contrary to firmly held beliefs.

I read recently about a series of surveys of World War II vets which showed how over time the percentage reporting having killed someone in battle steadily declined. In a different direction, post-election polls always show the number reporting having voted for the winning presidential candidate to be higher than the actual vote. In the religion field, it’s now widely accepted that people consistently over-report their worship attendance to survey takers (one of countless examples of people telling pollsters what they think ought to be the case rather than what actually is).

We like to tell stories and we like to hear stories. Does it matter if they are “true”? More often than we might think, probably not. A delightful story about story telling is the 2003 movie “Big Fish” by director Tim Burton. Its setting is that of an estranged adult son coming home to the death bed of his father, a notorious “big fish” story teller. The mythology the father has spun is so thick that his son thinks he knows nothing about the real man. As the stories are retold, however, he gradually discovers that the “truth” has been there all along, hidden in the fanciful events and characters of his father’s tales. This realization finally sinks home when many of the real people who inspired the stories’ characters appear at the end for the father’s funeral.

Life is often messy, confusing and painful. Stories/myths sometimes help us make sense of life. Sometimes they help us hide from it or hide it from others. It’s also true that stories allow us to tell the truth in ways that can be less threatening or overwhelming, to ourselves or others, than if we were to tell “all the facts.” Good fiction writers are aware of all these things and good fiction can be some of the most truthful writing we encounter.

The problems seem to come when we invest ourselves too much in our stories or other’s stories. We need to remain aware of where our own fiction begins and ends. We also need to realize everyone, including our greatest heroes, is surrounded by a certain degree of fiction and mythology. Feeling personally insecure we often attach ourselves to someone else’s “certainty.” When we get a glimpse “behind the curtain” and see our heroes as they really are, we feel betrayed. Yet we really betray ourselves when we expect others to somehow be untainted by the ambiguities and imperfections that are our everyday reality. And so, pro-life idealists are hurt by attaching themselves to a seemingly perfect story affirming their beliefs, when they discover that it was . . . a story.

Is the Bible true? Sometimes. Does the Bible tell stories? Always. How do we know which stories are true? We don’t, if by “true” you mean that they happened. Based on comparable examples from the ancient world, and based on what we know about human nature, it’s probably a good bet that a lot of them, even most of them, didn’t happen. They are, after all, stories.

But whatever truth the Bible contains is largely unrelated to the factuality of its stories. While “just the facts, ma’am” was enough for Joe Friday, we’re interested in different kinds of truth. We’re looking for truth that guides and makes sense of our lives and of our world. Since our world is very different from that of the Bible, many of its truths are of limited value to us. Still, the appeal of its stories is more than the appeal of its exotic tales of camels, polygamy and, yes, big fish. Something else speaks to us in these stories through the dilemmas and discoveries, tragedies and triumphs of their characters. If nothing else, their search for hope and meaning, and their conviction that they were there to be found, encourages us to continue on our quest for these same things. The people we meet in these stories give us the faith to believe that for us as for them, life and truth will be given to those who seek them.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A meeting of magical thinking (Sunday Reflections for June 14, 2009)

I attended one day of the synod’s day-and-a-half long annual assembly meeting. The synod assembly has been shortened in recent years to save money and because of the difficulty in getting people to attend. Being so brief it’s hard to really accomplish much. It would be tempting to blame these bare-bones meetings as a cause of the fraying of church life but it is almost certainly more of a symptom.

On this occasion, the main event I was interested in was the report of our bishop. I especially wanted to hear what he would say about his proposal to reverse the decline of synod congregations, called the "Turnaround Synod Initiative" or TSI. (You can find my earlier thoughts about this in the Reflections columns for May 17 and May 31.)

Predictably, the language was traditional and tired. For reasons that completely escaped me, the bishop tried to invoke a kind of “old time religion” mentality. He consciously used the evangelical term “testimony” to declare that we should be telling our neighbors about our experiences with God and the church. Then he shifted to more recent language in talking about “sharing our story”. But recent doesn’t mean new. Nearly thirty years ago, the LCA (a predecessor church to the ELCA) produced a combined Bible study and evangelism program called Word and Witness which emphasized this. I can still picture its Venn diagram of “your story, my story, and God’s story”. In seminary we often joked about “sharing our story” and the intervening decades haven’t improved its value.

All of which is to say that the bishop was simply re-plowing old ground. His language often betrayed awareness that there really wasn’t anything new here. One of his more unfortunate tacks was to try to revive a church-world, us-them dichotomy. “The world is thirsty. We must believe we have something the world needs.” And so on. All we needed was a tent and some saw dust. In fact, to top it off, we closed by singing that 19th century evangelical warhorse, “I love to tell the story”. It is fun in a nostalgic way but it left no doubt that the hope really being proposed here was to turn back the clock.

As I listened to this revival of “tell what God’s done for you” style of evangelism (which Lutherans have never been good at), I wondered just how real it ever was. Do we know it even works? In other words, are people really drawn into the church by hearing about other peoples’ religious experiences? In the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters and in Acts, the emphasis is on telling the Jesus story, i.e. the gospel. From what I can tell, it’s really not until the rise of post-Reformation pietism and evangelicalism that this “testimonial” style of evangelism takes hold. It parallels, of course, the modern era’s rise of individualism. But I wonder if it doesn’t also parallel the fading of the power of the Jesus story, the traditional message about incarnation and redemption. “I don’t really care what happened to somebody named Jesus umpteen centuries ago. I want something to happen to me.”

I also paid a brief visit to a “workshop” about TSI. I didn’t stay long because the presenter was basically repeating what was in the printed brochure everyone had received earlier. As I listened I was reminded again of the contradictions throughout this plan. On the one hand we are told that this is not a top-down program because only people in the congregations can really know what’s needed. Then we are told that a variety of outside consultants, coaches, experts and resources will be made available. It’s hard to see how both of these can be true—and actually neither is.

The first assertion is mostly politics. Congregations (presumably) don’t want to be told what to do by church authorities above them. The second promise is just wishful thinking. “Surely there is someone out there who knows what to do!” Yet there is no evidence that is the case. Obviously, if congregations themselves knew what they needed to do to “turn around” they would be doing it. As for the outside experts and resources: who/what are they and where are they coming from? The church’s decline in the US is happening in congregations of all types and across the denominational spectrum.

Despite all the seminars and how-to books available there is nothing to indicate anyone has figured out how to keep the existing church model going. Here in the ELCA, there are not more than a handful of congregations that are growing and which are not also in growing communities (usually with lots of young families). When hearing about learning from coaches and consultants who all come from within the church establishment, it’s hard not to think of Jesus’ warning about “the blind leading the blind”.

A question and a phrase keep coming to mind as I think about all this. The question is: Why is this so hard? It’s a rhetorical question really because it obviously shouldn’t be this hard. Religious fervor spreads like an infection. Everybody catches it. That’s how it starts and grows. Then when things settle down a religion is maintained by being built into the culture. It’s what everybody does. Now, neither of those is the case. Christianity has lost its fervor and lost the support of the surrounding culture. Which of these is coming back?

The phrase I keep remembering is from the title of Joan Didion’s recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it she tells of her grief-induced craziness as she tried to cope with the sudden death of her husband of forty years. “Magical thinking” describes what I keep hearing from church leaders responding to the current crisis. And grief may well be what’s behind all these fruitless rescue efforts. The church’s heyday in the US was barely a generation ago, in the 1950s and 60s. It’s what I grew up with and I am stunned at how quickly the church has declined since then. We in the church are grieving the loss of that earlier time: the filled pews, overflowing Sunday schools, constant stream of baptisms, confirmations and weddings. Now suddenly that’s gone and as with the death of a loved one, we are all prone to “magical thinking”. Surely he/she/it is coming back? Well, no, but everyone’s too polite or embarrassed to say so.

The experts have taught us about the stages of grief. It follows a natural progression which shouldn’t be rushed. Yet it’s also true that people sometimes get stuck in their grief, preventing them from returning to a normal and productive life. I am not sure whether the church is still in “normal” grief or if we’ve gotten stuck somewhere. Institutions aren’t people and I assume different rules would apply. All I know is that American mainline churches, at least, have been in decline for forty years. If we’re not stuck then we must be pretty close. In any case, it certainly seems time to put away the magic and start dealing with reality.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Betty Bowers explains: traditional marriage

Okay, this is a really bad--and therefore a really funny--mockery of "true" biblical marriage. It certainly puts the previous post in context.

Church of Sweden elects gay bishop

The Lutheran Church of Sweden will soon have it's first gay bishop. On May 25, Eva Brunne was elected Bishop of Stockholm. She will take office in November. Brunne is in a state-registered committed partnership with Gunilla Lindén, another priest of the church, and they have a three-year-old son. (Hat tip to Spirit of a Liberal for making me aware of this.)

Recently, ELCA ecumenist Rev. Paul Schreck said in a Lutheran op-ed piece (you may have to register to read the article online) that he was concerned about the church's possible adoption of a proposal to permit non-celebate gay clergy. He is afraid it will sour our relationship with Roman Catholics and other ecumenical partners and possibly result in the ELCA's expulsion from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Obviously, given the Church of Sweden's action, the ELCA wouldn't be alone. In fact, much of European Lutheranism is heading this direction and most of the American Protestant churches we are in fellowship with are also wrestling with these issues. I left a rather stinging response to Pastor Schrck's nonsense on the website.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The age of the Spirit (Sunday Reflections for June 7, 2009)

The day of Pentecost remembers the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Filled with the same Spirit that Jesus had, the disciples and the church are empowered to continue his mission of proclaiming the gospel and making real the presence of God’s kingdom. In Christian theology, the Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and, like the Pentecost festival, has tended to get short shrift. God the Father and Jesus the Son outshine the Holy Spirit, just as Christmas and Easter eclipse their lowly liturgical sibling, Pentecost.

In official church doctrine, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal members of the Trinity. Each person is a “face” (Greek persona = “mask”) of the one true God. In practice, of course, the church has had great difficulty keeping all three of these balls in the air in this theological juggling act. Theologians acknowledge the impossibility of fully explaining the concept and so dub it a “mystery”. To religious outsiders, including many Muslims and Jews, there is no mystery: Christians are really tri-theists rather than monotheists.

There is another way to think of the Christian Trinity. In this view, the Trinity says more about us and our attempts to understand God than it does about who or what God truly is. In this understanding the Trinity is more about chronology than ontology, more about humanity’s evolving experience and understanding of God over time than about God’s being or nature.

The adoption of monotheism is viewed as ancient Judaism’s great contribution to the world’s religious history. The idea that there was one supreme God was certainly developing in other places but Judaism embraced it most strongly and enthusiastically. The notion’s popularity spread quickly. The gods of the Greek pantheon, for example, while personal and understandable, nonetheless seemed too human. The tales about them often resembled contemporary soap operas, with humans often the innocent victims of their squabbles and game-playing. As for morality, the rules often seemed to be made up as they went along.

The God of the Jews—at first Yahweh and then simply "The Lord"—while often mysterious and inscrutable, nonetheless proclaimed his unending love for his people. The end goal of the grand drama of the Hebrew Bible was nothing less than the redemption of the world. God’s revealed Torah/Law was seen as a firm and (fairly) clear statement of how humans should live. It was the operating manual for human life and society.

Christianity continued and spread Jewish monotheism. This wasn't surprising since it was based on the teaching of a faithful Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. As indicated above, things did get complicated, however, because Christians insisted that Jesus wasn’t just a rabbi, indeed not just a normal human being. He was also God’s Son, though the church was never able to agree fully on what that meant.

A big part of Jesus popularity, however, was the result of church's giving him a divine nature. As the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, Jesus gave God a “human face”. The God of the Jews, while combining power and compassion, was still experienced as being rather distant and even frightening. Indeed, some have seen the growth of that distance in the Bible itself, moving from a God who walks with Adam and Eve, then talks but remains invisible to Abraham and Moses, then speaks only through prophets, and and in the latest stage not showing up at all in the book of Esther!

It wasn’t long, however, before this human face of God also began to drift away. The approachable Jesus of the gospels gradually was overwhelmed by “Christ the Lord” who ruled the world from his heavenly throne. At the same time, the mission of spreading the gospel was replaced by the church's bureaucratic dispensing of forgiveness and salvation. To compensate, popular piety developed the cult of Mary and the saints who became intermediaries not unlike the alderman who can get you a zoning variance. You offered your prayers and devotion in hopes they would put in a good word for you.

Throughout this time and to the present day there has also always been, to use a recently popular phrase, a “minority report”. Christians holding this view believed that not only did Jesus give God a human face, he also revealed God’s presence in humanity—gave humans a divine face, if you will. They took seriously Paul’s and the gospels’ teaching that the Spirit which empowered Jesus was also present in his followers. Even more fundamentally, this understanding reached back to Genesis’ creation stories which said that humans were made in God’s image and that God made Adam by breathing into (in-spirit-ing, inspiring) a lump of dirt (humus, human).

What happened to Jesus after his crucifixion? An argument can be made that the real point of the Easter/Ascension/Pentecost stories is not so much that Jesus went to heaven but that via the Spirit he entered his disciples. Hence, Paul declares we are each “temples of the Holy Spirit” and the church is “the body of Christ”. We live now by the power of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.

The notion of Christ as an intermediary between humanity and God is fading. It was overused and abused by a church that kept people coming by convincing them of their depravity and sinfulness. Fear of hell seemed more motivating than teaching that Christ’s Spirit now lived inside his followers. Go to church, take the sacraments, pray, confess your sins, leave your offerings and maybe Jesus will intervene for you with the Big Guy.

Today most people just aren’t buying it. I often hear church leaders sneer at the increasingly common confession, “I’m not religious but I am spiritual”. While there are certainly varying degrees of sincerity behind such a statement, it actually sounds more in keeping with the Bible than many church creeds. And so, ironically, it may be that “average people” have come to a better understanding of what Jesus and the Bible were trying to teach than has today’s church. Rather than a prize to be earned by jumping through ecclesiastical hoops, the life of God and the Spirit is an already present reality needing to be discovered and embraced.

Perhaps then today we have entered an age where God as Spirit is the most meaningful and appealing “face” that God can have for us. Rather than trying to reach a God who is somewhere else, we now are challenged to be empowered by a God who is everywhere and even more importantly, right here—closer than we probably ever imagined. While this understanding may be new in some ways, it is also true that one of the first persons to demonstrate it in his own life was the Jesus we find in Paul and the gospels, a child of the ancient family of Abraham. Thus the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is affirmed again: “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us.”