Monday, November 14, 2011

The bishop comes to call (Sunday Reflections for November 13, 2011)

Metro Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller dropped by the church last week. He is setting aside time for “no agenda” visits with pastors in their parishes, hoping to get to most of them within two years. Since, as he said, the bishop tends to be contacted only when there is a problem, these visits are giving him a better sense of what is happening in the lives of synod pastors and congregations.
Our conversation was very cordial. After discussing our congregation and our community, we turned to the church-at-large. Miller was refreshingly frank and open. He made no attempt to hide or downplay the crisis the church is in. Everything is changing, whether we want it to or not, whether we’re ready for it or not. And, of course, the reality is we don’t want to change and we’re not ready. Miller is trying to manage our institutional decline and the resulting tensions and disorder. Yet at the same time, he is looking for signs of new life and energy in the church—green shoots to be nurtured, embers to be fanned.
What is clear is that nothing of the institutional church will be exempt from the changes sweeping through it. Will there be synods? Will there be bishops? Who knows? Already some synod offices are on the verge of closing. At a minimum, a wave of synod consolidation is inevitable. Seminaries are also stressed, including my alma mater, LSTC, here in Chicago. Mergers or closures are coming.
Layoffs in the ELCA’s churchwide organization have left many empty cubicles at the office headquarters on Higgins Road. (Know anyone in the market for an O’Hare office tower?) Board and committee meetings are being reduced, including having the biennial churchwide assembly becoming triennial. Of course, the change obvious to the most people is the shrinking number and size of congregations. Fewer and fewer can afford a pastor’s salary, or even the buildings they are in.
But reducing, shrinking and consolidating can only get the church so far. As Miller and a growing number of others recognize, what is really needed is imagining new ways of doing church, at all levels.
Instead of congregations with separate buildings and full-time pastors, we may need to be looking at starting and nurturing “house churches.” These would have little in the way of formal programs. Instead, they would emphasize more intimate worship and fellowship, as well as community service and outreach.
Three- and four-year seminary programs have become too expensive and impractical. Perhaps pastors can begin their preparation as apprentices. During this period, they would have other employment while working in congregations with experienced pastors. Formal training would be shorter, combining part-time classroom time with online learning, similar to many secular, professional graduate programs.
In general, the trend is away from broad church organizations and bureaucracy to the more local and personal. Such trends are common in many institutions today. Decision making can often be more effective when done closer to where those decisions will be implemented. Yet there can also be a loss of coordination, cooperation, and connectivity. The Internet and social networking, however, may replace at least some of those functions previously performed by more formal church structures.
Later, as I thought about our conversation, I nonetheless felt we had missed something fundamental. I still felt we were talking about rearranging the deck chairs on our sinking ship. And I’m not sure Bishop Miller would disagree. For the reality is that when you’re part of a two thousand year-old institution, genuinely thinking outside the box is really, really hard. Yet that is what we need to be doing, for it is what our times are forcing upon us.
One thing we didn’t discuss was theology. Now I admit that such talk can often seem esoteric and irrelevant. Yet theology is the church’s starting point. It’s where we decide who we are and what we are about. Without theology the church simply exists to exist; we go through the motions without knowing why.
And that is a lot of what has been going on in the church: going through the motions. The church has been running on momentum from its past. We do things because “this is what we’ve always done,” even when we know it doesn’t make any sense today. So we still pray to “God up in heaven,” even when heaven stopped being a map-able place as it was for our ancestors, and when even “up” has no objective meaning anymore!
No, the world of the church of our ancestors is long gone. Where for ancient and medieval people, what was constant and unchanging was the norm and most important, for us the opposite is true. Our world is in constant flux. One generation struggles to understand the world of another, even when they’re living side-by-side.
So the church needs to reimagine its purpose and identity, as much as its structures and organization. But it may be this also needs to happen mostly ad hoc and at the grass roots. Like the bureaucrats, the academics also need to watch and listen (a good Advent theme). The church, like most institutions, has usually wanted the flow of ideas and direction to be from the top down. Today, however, rather than looking to ancient authorities and documents, or contemporary studies and commissions, it may be time to let the spirit blow where it wills, and the theological chips fall where they may.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hide and seek (Sunday Reflections for November 6, 2011)

Once in awhile, I’ll notice a topic or theme appear in multiple places, nearly all at once. That happened recently on three different interviews I heard, one on TV and two on the radio. When it happens it makes me think something is happening in our culture that’s worth paying attention to. In this case, the connecting thread of these broadcast conversations was how much a mystery other people can often be to us, and how much we often hide from people around us.
The first time this came up was in the 60 Minutes interview with Ruth Madoff and her youngest son, Andrew Madoff. Their experiences and stories are different, but both claim they knew nothing about the enormous fraud being perpetrated by their husband and father, Bernie Maddoff. Because Andrew worked for one of his father’s companies, his shock and anger comes from believing he was intentionally duped. He says he will never forgive his father or ever speak to him again.
Ruth’s reaction was different. She seems more stunned by the events, and resigned to her social fall and now very bleak future. From this and other stories about her, she apparently played a role as Bernie Madoff’s wife which included very little involvement in his business affairs. From an early age she was enthralled with him, but despite having lived with him most of her life, Ruth actually knew her husband at only a superficial level.
Another interview, this time on radio, was with British actor Bill Nighy. He plays the role of a spy in a new BBC drama, Page Eight, which airs this month on PBS. In a short excerpt played from the show, his daughter dismisses his concern for her when she realizes he is simultaneously trying to get information from her. “You’re working! Hell, you’re not even talking to me. You’re working…. Do you have any honest relationships in your life at all?”
Nighy goes on to describe his character’s dilemma as never being able to be fully honest, especially with this family. He is always keeping important parts of his life hidden from them. In an excerpt from another of his films, the comedy Love Actually, Nighy is an aging rock star being interviewed on the radio. Nighy’s character startles the radio host with the bluntness of his answers, as he reflects on his life near the end of his career. “Wow. We don’t get many honest answers on this show. Thanks for that.”
The most powerful of the interviews I heard was with author Joan Didion. Most recently Didion’s life and writing have been focused on dealing first with the death of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking), and then with the death of her adult daughter, which occurred a few years later. She began the interview reading from the introduction to her new book, Blue Nights: 
When I began writing these pages, I believed their subject to be children: the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances, the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them, the ways in which our investments in each other remain too frayed ever to see the other clear, the ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.
As the pages progressed, it occurred to me that the actual subject was not children at all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children. Their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in this contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death, this fear. Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same.
Just this small selection makes evident the depth of Didion’s writing, which comes from her clear vision and honesty. And yet she is admitting here her own weakness in not knowing her own child and susceptibility to the temptation to intentionally not see what she doesn’t want to see—in other words, her lack of vision and honesty.
What sets Didion apart, however, is her remarkable ability and willingness to recognize such things in herself. She is willing to double back on her own life and say, “I wasn’t honest here. I only saw what I wanted to there. I hid things from myself I didn’t want to know or understand.” Thus, we see the enormous gulf between a Joan Didion and a Ruth Madoff. Anyone can be deceived, or even deceive them self. But who has the courage to recognize and admit it, to them self or to others?
The challenge of honestly understanding others or ourselves is not a new one. It’s a major theme of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Bible’s story of David, and even a folk talk like The Emperor’s New Clothes. The stories I heard perhaps only pointed to the new permutations on this common human foible, made possible in our unique time.
They certainly make clear that, however else we may have advanced as a culture, the temptations of ego and deceit certainly are alive as ever. They also illustrate the healing truth of one the Bible’s most profound insights and promise, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reformation reprise (Sunday Reflections for October 30, 2011)

In honor of Reformation Day, I am reprinting this column from a year ago. It followed an earlier discussion of last fall’s ELCA churchwide lay-offs and many organizational difficulties. Here I respond to those asking what the church ought to do to get past its problems.
The question is a fair one. However, to use a medical analogy, the patient isn’t going to accept the treatment if she doesn’t believe she’s really sick. I think the church has been, and still is, in this situation. The various “fixes” that have been tried over the past few decades have almost always fallen into the category of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” In other words, most still believe the church is fundamentally okay but it just needs to do what it does better. The result—to use the quote from my earlier post—has been lots of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
So I’ll cut to the chase and state my conclusion: religion as we have known it is dead—or dying and soon to be dead. Now I am well aware of the signs of life that still remain. Most of those are in parts of the world just now entering the modern industrial world. Where modernism has taken hold, however, religion’s trajectory has been steadily downward for decades or even centuries.
Religion has not disappeared but it is now simply a personal option, a life-style choice. Some people still “enjoy” religion but it’s the way others enjoy music, art, reading, gardening, sports, and so on. In the past, religion was part of the fabric of society. Today religion is just one among many cultural components, all jostling for people’s attention. This cultural “comedown” is why fundamentalist religions are in such a panic. Remembering religion’s glorious past, they are desperately trying to reclaim its power.
The problem for moderate religions, including mainline Christianity, is that we get it. We know what’s happened but we don’t know what to do about it. We know that religion of the past is just that: past, over, done. Yet we also have this gut feeling that there is something of value that needs to be kept alive, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. That, I think, is what churches like the ELCA are trying to reach for but we’ve been going about it very poorly. We’re like the trapeze artist who just can’t let go of the rope because we’re not convinced another one will be there to grab on to.
A new Lutheran magazine came out at the same time as the ELCA’s latest turmoil and it included Bishop Hanson’s monthly back-page column. When I first read it I admit I thought it was another mish-mash of theological jargon, saying little. Re-reading, however, I decided it actually spills Christianity’s theological beans (though I doubt that’s what Bishop Hanson intended).
Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that Christianity contains the seeds of its own destruction—intentionally so. Historically I think there has always been a minority that understood this but who were oppressed if they started talking about it too loudly. It is a tension that has existed in Christianity from the start, planted by Jesus himself. Perhaps the best symbol of it is the story of his overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. This one we know as the founder of the world’s greatest religion was actually prophesying the end of religion.
Hanson’s essay is titled “Our gospel must be Jesus.” Briefly he describes the many competing, false “gospels” in the world, both secular and religious, with their strenuous requirements for success and salvation. Hanson then uses a series of quotations from Paul (someone else who got it) to describe Jesus’ gospel—of freedom.
This gospel, in Paul’s view, is the healing of all separation and alienation. It exposes the pointlessness of a life of hoop-jumping and rule-keeping. It gives the assurance of every person’s inherent importance and worth. Hanson summarizes this saying: “The good news we proclaim and believe is that Jesus would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.” Exactly—and to me this is another way of saying, “Jesus would rather die than be in the religion business.”
Which is why Hanson fumbles at the end of his essay. He wants this to lead to a stirring call for revival in the church, but he can’t pull it off. And for a simple reason: it doesn’t lead there and he knows it. Instead we get this:
When we proclaim this gospel with clarity, courage and conviction, the Spirit will be at work, bringing us to faith, freeing us and calling us so mission will flow from it into the various contexts of our lives and throughout the world.
Did you feel the air just seep out of the balloon? Why not say this instead?
When we truly hear and believe this good news of affirmation and freedom, we will go out and live our lives with passion and joy, using our talents and opportunities to the fullest, with love and compassion.
Whether you use Hanson’s statement or mine, it’s hard to see how either necessarily leads to joining a congregation, attending worship services, and serving on the property committee.
Hanson quotes Paul from Galatians in what may be the most revolutionary statement in all religion: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The irony of our time is that the modern secular world gets this, but the church still doesn’t. It wants to take back the most important thing the gospel offers. Realizing its implications, the church keeps sputtering “Yes but…!” in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. It’s not working. More and more people do get it. Our freedom also means freedom from religion.
So, should the church just shut its doors and hang out the “For Sale” sign? That certainly is happening, but I’m not sure it’s the only option. True to its heritage, however, for it to go on the church must die to be reborn. It must give up what it was for it to become something new and genuinely life-giving. The question is whether the patient will ever accept that prescription.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Living here, now (Sunday Reflections for October 23, 2011)

Emily Rapp is a creative writing professor in Santa Fe, NM. She uses all her talents in a brief, heart-wrenching, yet profoundly wise essay that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. Rapp is a relatively new mother but as she writes, at least this time, her experience will be far from what our culture sees as the parenting norm. She describes that norm this way:
All parents want their children to prosper, to matter. We enroll our children in music class or take them to Mommy and Me swim class because we hope they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart. Traditional parenting naturally presumes a future where the child outlives the parent and ideally becomes successful, perhaps even achieves something spectacular. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is only the latest handbook for parents hoping to guide their children along this path. It’s animated by the idea that good, careful investments in your children will pay off in the form of happy endings, rich futures. But I have abandoned the future. . . .
Abandoned, in the case of her 18-month old son Ronan, because there won’t be a future. Ronan, despite multiple prenatal tests, was born with Tay-Sachs, a fatal genetic disorder for which there is no cure. While still relatively healthy, he is unlikely to see his third birthday. Emily Rapp, it would seem, is living a parent’s worst nightmare.
And yet, while difficult and incredibly sad, Rapp is enduring and fully living this experience by throwing out all her previous expectations. She is redefining parenting, and in doing so exposing how distorted many of our attitudes have become—not only about parenting but life in general. She has realized the pointlessness of focusing her life where all the advice has told her she should focus it: on the future.
Parenting advice is, by its nature, future-directed. I know. I read all the parenting magazines. During my pregnancy, I devoured every parenting guide I could find. My husband and I thought about a lot of questions they raised: will breast-feeding enhance his brain function? Will music class improve his cognitive skills? Will the right preschool help him get into the right college? I made lists. I planned and plotted and hoped. Future, future, future. We never thought about how we might parent a child for whom there is no future. . . .
Our parenting plans, our lists, the advice I read before Ronan’s birth make little sense now.  No matter what we do for Ronan — choose organic or non-organic food; cloth diapers or disposable; attachment parenting or sleep training — he will die. All the decisions that once mattered so much, don’t.
Rather than a tiger parent, with her eyes focused down the road, thinking about what’s over the horizon, her attention is on the only thing that matters: this day, this moment. She has instead joined the ranks of an elite group, the dragon parents.
We are . . . fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice. . . . The certainties that most parents face are irrelevant to us, and frankly, kind of silly. . . . And there’s this: parents who, particularly in this country, are expected to be superhuman, to raise children who outpace all their peers, don’t want to see what we see. The long truth about their children, about themselves: that none of it is forever.
I would walk through a tunnel of fire . . . if it would make a difference. But it won’t. I can roar all I want about the unfairness of this ridiculous disease, but the facts remain. What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go. . . . This is a love story, and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss. Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.
It is a teaching found in all the world’s great religions. The Buddha said one of the most difficult life skills is to simply be present, to actually live in the here and now. Jesus says much the same in the Sermon on the Mount: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.” Or as the Psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong in planning, in anticipating and preparing for the future. Yet it is easy for the future to become an obsession, especially as it feeds the illusion that we can control our lives. For this is the truth the Buddha and Jesus were trying to teach, and the reality exposed by a story like that of Emily Rapp: life is ultimately contingent and beyond our control, including and especially the fact that our lives will sooner or later come to an end.
So as we plot and plan and scheme, as we make our lists and agendas, as we dash from one essential activity or event to another, it may be helpful to think of other lives, like that of Emily Rapp. The future is important, and dreaming about it and planning for it can be valuable and even fun. Yet as it says in Ecclesiastes, none of us can count our days. And the most valuable of them all is the only one we know for sure that we will have: today.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What were they thinking? (Sunday Reflections for October 16, 2011)

This week I watched a TV program that left me puzzled and more than a little annoyed. Thursday night WTTW Channel 11 broadcast the first episode of a series called Catholicism. It is the creation of, and hosted by, a Father Robert Barron. Barron heads up the Chicago-based Catholic evangelism organization called “Word on Fire.”
And that’s what Catholicism is: an evangelism tool. Ok, but what is it doing on public television? As I looked around WTTW’s website and local newspaper reviews, there seemed be no effort to explain this or even any real surprise at it. Well, color me surprised.
The show is well made with lots of HD quality video shot on-location around the world. Father Barron is certainly an engaging narrator. He doesn’t come across preachy but just enthusiastic.
In the reviews and summaries I read, the program is described as being like a religious version of Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking BBC documentary Civilization. Father Barron is likened to being Ken Burns (the famous US TV documentary maker) with a Roman collar. To which I say: No and No.
There is one huge problem with this program which belies either of the above comparisons: it doesn’t even pretend to be objective. Instead of scholarship, we get Father Barron giving his personal views on the church. This is all slickly shot against lovely and fascinating backdrops but we are never told why we should believe him. Other authorities are never interviewed and rarely quoted because, for this piece, Father Barron is the authority. This is contemporary propaganda at its most beguiling: believe what I am saying because I am articulate, attractive, and a nice guy. I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?
The first episode is about the life of Jesus. The presentation by Barron is made as if the past two centuries of biblical scholarship never happened. He recounts numerous sayings and incidents of Jesus without even a hint that some of them may not be historical. Most scholars today, for example, doubt Jesus himself ever claimed to be divine, though the early church came to that conclusion later. For Barron, however, this is a key part of Jesus’ teaching and self-identity.
Barron carefully weaves together an appealing picture of Jesus that fits perfectly with traditional church teaching. He does it well and is certainly free to do that. But this is 2011, not 1511. We know so much more now, and Barron surely knows how much more we know now. His choice to simply ignore the mountain of critical scholarship about Jesus and the early church can only be described as deliberate deception.
Why deception? Because of the format of his presentation. It is intended to look like a modern documentary. The audience is supposed to believe that what he says is researched fact, as one finds in a Ken Burns production. But it’s not. Instead, it is one man’s view as filtered through the teaching of his church.
Earlier this year a group of us watched a 1990s PBS program called From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. It was an episode of PBS’ premier documentary program Frontline, and featured high quality on-location video and interviews with numerous scholars in the field of biblical and early church history. The contrast between this programs and Catholicism couldn’t be greater. While the Frontline series used multiple, recognized authorities presenting the current findings of research scholarship, Catholicism gives us one voice of uncertain qualifications giving his personal opinion.
From Jesus to Christ was groundbreaking for PBS at the time, yet totally appropriate. It easily met and even exceeded their standards for objective broadcasting in the public interest. I don’t understand at all what Catholicism was doing on Channel 11 Thursday night.
Actually, I probably do. The explanation is, of course, money. The program’s production was privately funded. The broadcast is being supported by Loyola University Hospital and a long list of individuals, presumably mostly local Catholics. As a result, this probably isn’t costing WTTW anything and might even be making them a little money. (Another sign of their money status was the program that followed. Rather than pickup—and pay for—the PBS’ feed of Live from Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, they repeated an old program about the abdicated King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.)
It isn’t my place to tell WTTW what they can and can’t broadcast. Yet to keep their integrity as a public television outlet they should at least acknowledge upfront what they are doing. Catholicism is not a documentary about the Catholic Church (which I would actually probably enjoy watching). Instead, it’s a piece of propaganda.
It really fits into that strange category, common on many cable channels filling broadcast time, called an “infomercial.” Rather than on Channel 11, Catholicism belongs on Mother Angelica’s EWTN network. And guess what? It turns out that is where most of it is going to be shown. The whole series is 10 parts but only the first 4 will be  on WTTW. EWTN is picking up the remainder starting in November.
What I a most disappointed at, however, is the church attitude reflected in a program like Catholicism. Once again it is assumed that ordinary people can’t handle the truth. Instead, they have to be given a highly polished, whitewashed picture of Christianity.
As an evangelism effort, however, I can’t see how this will be anything but preaching to the choir. Contemporary people, and especially young people, know when they’re being sold a bill of goods. This is a day when everything about everybody gets revealed. A soft-focus, romanticized portrayal of the church just isn’t going to cut it. People outside the church are going to smell it from a mile away and be reinforced in their suspicion that religion just tries to pull the wool over their eyes. And in the case of Catholicism, they would be right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alien evangelism? (Sunday Reflections for October 9, 2011)

If “Does God exist?” is the most argued about speculative question, then a close second would probably be “Does other intelligent life exist?” Recently a conference devoted part of its time to an overlap of those questions: What would be the religious implications of discovering intelligent aliens?
The “100-Year Starship Symposium,” held in Orlando last week, was sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Such a “starship” is not currently being developed but DARPA (which specializes in studying somewhat far-out ideas) and NASA have jointly begun a project to explore the possibilities. In addition to the technical how-to questions, the project also wants to look at cultural implications of such an endeavor. Thus, one panel of conference speakers discussed the philosophical and religious considerations of visiting other planets.
The summary I read focused mostly on a presentation by German philosophy professor Christian Weidemann. His talk was titled "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?" and examined the implications for Christianity if intelligent life was found elsewhere. Weidemann identified the main problem for Christianity if such a discovery were made, which is its exclusive claims for Jesus: through Christ, and Christ alone, God saved the whole universe.
It’s hard to tell from what I read just how seriously Weidemann took all this (he is identified as a Protestant Christian). His title certainly implies he was being at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Basically he looks at the problems that would be presented to orthodox Christian beliefs by such an event. His discussion of them has a kind of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” quality to it. Maybe aliens aren’t sinners. Maybe God’s incarnation occurred simultaneously in multiple forms in all the Universe’s existing civilizations. And so on.
I can only imagine how any NASA scientists or astrophysicists present must have reacted to such a conversation. They probably felt like they had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. Weidermann is correct that followers of conventional Christianity would be challenged to explain how other intelligent life fits into their view of reality. Yet conventional Christianity has been challenged by multiple scientific discoveries long before this.
To say God saved the world in Christ meant one thing in the context of ancient or medieval Europe. To say it now in the 21st century, and in the context of the pictures of the Hubble space telescope, seems almost laughable. We literally live in a different world than did the original formulators of Christian doctrine. Perhaps asking “Did Jesus die for Klingons?” was Weidermann’s way of showing the absurdity of our situation.
Of course, part of the absurdity is how hypothetical all this is. Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Given the immensity of the universe, it certainly seems possible and perhaps even likely. The difficulty, however, is the immensity of the distances between the stars, let alone other galaxies. It could be a long, long time before we are able to travel just to parts of our own galaxy.
Fifteen years ago the movie Contact explored a number of these questions. Based on a story by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, it hypothesizes alien life reaching out to us. We are “discovered” when earth’s first TV signal (assumed ironically to be the 1936 broadcast of Adolf Hitler opening the Berlin Olympics) reaches them in the Vega system 26 light years away.
As science fiction often assumes, the aliens are far more advanced than we are, but in this case they are also friendly. Their “outreach” is basically to communicate a method for humans to contact them, which is done by the lead character, a scientist played by Jody Foster. The implications of all this are debated by her (an agnostic) and a clergy friend, played by Matthew McConaughey (who is incredibly miscast but this is before he achieved “hunk” status—I don’t think he ever takes off his shirt). The story ends with Foster being forced to ask others to simply believe that she really did contact the aliens, thus raising the issue of faith and doubt even in scientific endeavors.
In addition to allowing us to speculate about the future, science fiction also helps us think about life right now with its “what if” perspective. One of the most interesting part of the movie is the brief conversation Foster has with an alien (who chooses to appear to her in the form of her late father—oh my). He tells her that they have basically solved the social and technical problems that bedevil human civilization. The life question has thus become for them, so now what do we do?
In brief, alien life is about learning and discovering—hence, their reaching out to “contact” human beings. Their explorations are how they deal with two fundamental challenges of intelligent existence: boredom and loneliness. It does raise an interesting question: What is our life apart from solving our problems?
Medieval theology hangs on because it preserves a much simpler world: God is in heaven and all’s right with the world. As much as we might want to, however, we no longer live in that world. The vastness of the universe which we now recognize, both in time and space, is something no ancient religion imagined or could comprehend.
The hypothetical question of alien intelligence raises the very real question of religion’s continued relevance. Any religion that hasn’t already figure out we are in a new world now won’t be helped by the discovery of alien life. Any religion that is contributing to meeting contemporary life’s challenges, rather than being part of the problem, has already come to that realization, welcomed it, and is moving on.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Youth to world: we can do better (Sunday Reflections for October 2, 2011)

Young people are upset and angry with their government:
“We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems, but that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our country.”
“The political system has abandoned its citizens.”
“We don’t think they are doing anything for us.”
“We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”
While easily understandable in our own political context, none of these quotes come from Americans. Rather they are the words of young adults in Spain, Israel and India, quoted in a New York Times story, “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge around Globe.” Young people throughout the developed world are saying what is obvious, but which has been largely ignored until now: that the global financial crisis is the result of a political crisis. For hundreds of millions of citizens, democracy is failing.
The financial crisis is bouncing around the world like a soccer ball: from Iceland to Ireland to the US to Greece to Spain to the US to Japan to Greece to the US to Italy to Greece to . . . . Most of the world’s industrial economies are awash in debt. Normally this isn’t a problem—until it is. Debt is all about confidence. I loan you money on the belief you will pay be back eventually. But we are running out of confidence and now debt is a hot potato. Nobody wants it and it just gets tossed around.
People are losing confidence in more than just international finance. People are losing confidence in their governments’ ability to govern. That’s what the protests that have occurred this year around the world are about, both in Western democracies and in authoritarian countries. The Arab Spring uprisings were certainly due to declining economic opportunities. Yet it took young people, raised in the “open source,” freewheeling culture of the internet and popular music, to boil over in frustration and topple their autocratic elder leaders.
Earlier this year, Great Britain was caught off guard by the sudden irruption of riots and looting in cities across the country. Leaders dismissed the mayhem as simple hooliganism yet everyone knew it was more than that. The recent cutback of government social services was taken by many poor and unemployed young people as yet another brush-off by their country’s political and economic leadership. The frustration and rage was random but not without cause. As British author Owen Jones said, “The young people who took part in the riots didn’t feel they had a future to risk.”
In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” More and more people seem to doubt the reality of all three of these phrases.
Democracy is never perfect. There are always suspicions and accusations that some group has acquired undue political power and influence. Yet never have such claims been made from people around the globe, and all pointing in one direction. In short: the process has been bought by the rich and powerful; the game is rigged.
The current “Great Recession” is different not just for its length or depth. Its most glaring anomaly is its inequality. Statistical reports around the world all show that the economic elites have come through this economic collapse virtually unscathed. The disparity of wealth and income in the United States is the greatest it’s been since the 1920s. It is no surprise then that the one sector of retail sales at or above pre-recession levels is luxury goods. (The ultimate symbol of luxury, Rolls-Royce, is on track for a new sales record this year, so far up 64% from 2010.)
In all of this the most incredible story has been that of banking and financial services. Recklessness, greed, incompetence, and fraud by the companies of this sector are recognized as the primary cause of the 2008 financial implosion. Yet they were infamously “bailed out” at the height of the crisis and there have been only a handful of prosecutions of company leaders. Salaries and bonuses are as outsized as ever. Government officials have defended this as protecting a critical part of the economy. Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs, infamously said his business was doing “God’s work.”
The past couple weeks a small and somewhat disorganized protest has begun to “occupy” Wall Street. Relatively insignificant thus far, it may signal a new phase of disillusionment with the power elites of this country, especially by young people. What is more evident is their rapidly growing dismissal of the political process. A brief rise of enthusiasm for the Obama candidacy has quickly deflated. The gridlock and farcical shutdown battles in Washington have renewed their view that the democratic process has become a joke. They see the shrill ideological battles as sideshows to distract people from the growing economic inequalities that have become the norm.
If, as expected, young people stay away in droves from the 2012 ballot box, this should only be taken as a grave warning. If their frustration with a failing economy and lack of opportunity is not expressed by voting, it will be vented elsewhere. History has shown again and again that gross economic imbalances always lead to social instability. No society is secure or can prosper when few of its members believe they benefit from it or that their contribution to it is fairly rewarded.
So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD… because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2)

Monday, October 03, 2011

A jobless future? (Sunday Reflections for September 25, 2011)

The latest “inside the White House” book is David Susskind’s Confidence Men. It focuses mostly on the making of economic policy by the Obama administration as it struggled to respond to the “Great Recession.” One excerpt that has gotten attention reports President Obama’s belief that rising productivity is the primary cause of the current high unemployment. This stunned some of his advisors.
The prevailing view has been that unemployment rose as the result of a drop in economic demand. A view like Obama’s, however, could lead to the conclusion that growing unemployment is the result of improving efficiency. In other words, more people out-of-work is the unfortunate consequence of a highly productive economy.
There is no question that something is different about this recession. Not only is the basic unemployment rate staying high longer than usual, more people are staying unemployed for long periods and more people than usual are “under employed”—i.e. working part-time rather than full-time or working significantly below their previous pay or skill levels.
On the surface Obama’s belief doesn’t seem to fit with what happened. Unemployment jumped dramatically following the 2008 financial crisis. Obviously this wasn’t the result of a sudden increase in productivity. Yet as a longer-term phenomenon, Obama’s notion has some merit and may partially explain why unemployment is remaining so high.
Before this downturn, a growing number of economists and others have been expressing apprehension about the future of industrial society. Most everyone has cheered the constant stream of technological advancements which have sent efficiency and worker productivity soaring. Nearly every successful business tells stories of how, what it took 100 workers to do a generation ago, it now takes only 25, 10 or 5.
A well-known example is the picture of a typical assembly line before World War II, showing a place bustling with human activity. A similar picture today shows a place bustling with computerized machinery, operated or even just watched over by a handful of people. Computerization has had an even bigger impact in offices of all kinds. Digitizing and manipulating data and information are what computers are all about.
In the case of the assembly line, the obvious question is what happened to the 75 to 95 people who used to work there? Until now it’s just been assumed they found work somewhere else (or their children or grandchildren did). Yet even before this recession there had been a growing awareness that many of the new jobs available were not as good as those they replaced. Statistics now show a majority of households with stagnant or even declining inflation-adjusted income for the past two decades.
The growing concern, then, is that this is becoming the “new normal.” A recent blog post I came across discussed a book written almost twenty years ago, darkly titled The Jobless Future. The book analyzes this now familiar story of automation and job elimination. Its conclusion is that many of the well-paid professional, technical, and production jobs that raised living standards in the 1950s and 60s, and which have been lost, will not be coming back in anything like the numbers needed to maintain those living standards.
The authors do not, however, see this as necessarily leading to economic disaster. Rather, they say we are nearing the time when we need to radically re-think many of our assumptions about life and economic well-being. We are at a point where our society and economy can meet everyone’s basic needs, and even provide a “good” life, but we don’t need everyone working at traditional full-time jobs to do it. As the authors are quoted, “The aim of this work is to suggest political and social solutions that take us in a direction in which it is clear that jobs are no longer the solution, that we must find another way to ensure a just standard of living for all.” The blogger then goes on to say of the writers,
They are as interested in the "satisfying" part of the question as the "standard of living" part. They want to know what sources of meaning, worth, and value are possible for a whole civilization in which work and career are no longer the primary focus? It is an existential question as much as it is an economic one.
And, I would say, it is a spiritual question.
For a long time, people have been aware of the inadequacy of defining our lives by our jobs or occupations, even though we all do it. It is the standard question when meeting someone for the first time: “And what do you do for a living?” Implicit in the question is the assumption that we will then make judgments about a person’s worth and importance based on the answer: conclusions about income, wealth, education, intelligence, character, lifestyle, power and influence, etc.
We are also aware of the crisis many people experience at retirement. A moment people look forward to can nonetheless send them into confusion and depression, as they lose what had been their primary source of identity: their job. This experience, of course, is made even worse when a job is lost through unemployment, compounded by the resulting financial insecurity.
The immediate question is how to support people during this time of economic upheaval and transition. Sadly there has been far too much blaming the victim, with the unemployed being dismissed as lazy, stupid, dumb, or just “unlucky.” If high un- and under-employment is now inevitable, then this needs to be recognized and social policies adjusted for it. Otherwise we face the prospect of increasing social unrest that is the inevitable consequence of having 20 percent or more or our people having little or nothing to do.
In the longer-term, we are faced with the even more challenging question of what do we want human life to be? We are being faced again with the ancient questions of what makes us happy as individuals, and what makes for a good society. Thus far much of our increasing “free-time” has been filled with fairly passive and escapist entertainment. That’s not working so well now and it certainly isn’t going to be adequate in the future.
The question can make us anxious yet it can also be incredibly liberating: Who and what do you really want to be? In the future, with new freedom we probably can’t even imagine yet, our life will literally depend on how we answer that question.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Less words (Sunday Reflections for September 18, 2011) is a network of people and organizations promoting an alternative to conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. Started in 1994 by an Episcopal rector in Washington, D.C., it now includes individuals and congregations from 17 denominations, as well as various independent and ecumenical groups.
Among the resources it provides is a summary statement of “8 Points of Progressive Christianity.” I thought you might find interesting their recently revised version of that statement.
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who . . .
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an experience and of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to: conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all classes and abilities;
4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
 5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth; and
8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
This is certainly not the most elegant statement of belief or principles I have seen. It reads like it was written by a committee, which it probably was. Nor is it written “for the ages”—I’m sure it will be revised again. Yet I think that is one of its other points. Over the centuries, Christianity has become notorious for its endless production of doctrines, creeds and statements of belief. Theologians have then written millions more words interpreting those statements. (And Lutherans have been at the forefront of those efforts.)
A statement like The 8 Points is really an attempt to step away from all that. It is not systematic theology nor does it claim to summarize “The Truth” (in fact, it almost denies such a thing exists). It is more about behavior and attitudes than about intellectual ideas or beliefs.
My intellectual guru, English theologian Don Cupitt, has said that systematic theology basically stopped being written after about 1970, and I think he is right. The last two great Christian theologians were the German-American Lutheran Paul Tillich (who died in Chicago in 1965) and Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968). They were the last to write “grand theology” that genuinely broke new ground or said anything original.
The few attempts made after Tillich and Barth have not really said anything new. Most theologians haven’t tried, however, because they have understood Cupitt’s point that the world has changed. Christianity, and religion generally, has run itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac. In other words, theology really just doesn’t have any new insight to offer about the world or human life in that world. That baton has been passed to the natural and behavioral sciences.
Unfortunately, it has been very hard for theologically-oriented churches to recognize or accept this new reality. Such churches are predominantly mainline denominations, like Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. We continue to insist on the importance of getting all our theological and doctrinal ducks in a row, when most people, including most of our own church members, don’t really care about such things or even understand them. Denominational offices and gatherings continue to talk and talk, and write and write. Yet fewer and fewer pay any attention to such efforts, which look more esoteric and antiquarian with each passing year.
A simple and kind of unrefined statement like The 8 Points is really an effort to say, “Let’s be done with all that.” It is an attempt to redirect the church away from an obsession with getting its thinking right and refocus on values and behavior. Of course, this is nothing but a scandal and a horror to those convinced that being a Christian is all about what you think or believe. Yet in my experience, while such people tend to very vocal, they are a shrinking minority.
I think the real weight behind a statement like The 8 Points is that it is not only more true to our times, but it is also more true to the biblical tradition. There is actually very little explicit theology in the Bible, and what theology there is certainly isn’t systematic. Only in the latter stages of the New Testament do we begin to see a fixation on “getting it right” in our thinking. Prior to that, and certainly in the life and teachings of Jesus, “getting it right” is all about our behavior, individually and as a community.
Apart from its specific statements, The 8 Points says that in the 21st century Christianity’s value is to cause people to ask “How shall we live?” not “What do we think?” In doing so, progressive Christians aren’t charting a new path but getting us back to an ancient one.

9-11 plus ten (Sunday Reflections for September 11, 2011)

I’ve had a hard time knowing what to make of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The New York and Washington media have been telling us this is a big deal. Since many of those in the industry experienced it personally, this isn’t surprising. Yet their perspective is inevitably skewed by the huge impact it had on those cities. If my experience is at all representative, I suspect the thoughts and feelings of much of the rest of the country are more conflicted.
There is no question the 9/11 attacks were stunning and horrific. Yet ten years later, “What did it all mean?” is a question we still wonder and argue about. 9/11 set off a dramatic chain of events for the country and the world: wars, economic upheaval, new security measures, and increased anxiety, to name some of the most obvious. Here again, however, the meaning and necessity of all these are still debated.
In evaluating important events, ten years is much too short a time to have genuine perspective. Yet I will hazard a guess that 50 or 100 years from now, the 9/11 attacks, even acknowledging their horror, will not be seen to have been history changing events. Rather, I suspect 9/11 will be seen as one example or symptom (though perhaps the most dramatic) of an extended period of global instability—a period that is probably still far from over.
Historians often disagree about which events are the actual turning points for some period. History rarely turns on a dime. Change comes gradually, yet often there are events where that change becomes obvious and inevitable. In this case, I suspect our most recent historical turning point will be seen to have been, not 9/11, but the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the time the Cold War ended, there were a number of observers who said we would soon come to miss it. Subsequent events have demonstrated the insight of their prophecy. As bad as it was, the Cold War did provide a power balance which drew in nearly every country on the planet. Nuclear weapons kept the US and USSR apart but it was the broader dynamics of Cold War politics which kept conflicts between all other countries from getting out of control.
With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika all that came to an end. Decades long power balances were thrown out of kilter and nations new and old went spinning out in all directions. Perhaps the region most constrained by Cold War politics was the Muslim world of North Africa, the Middle East, and South-central Asia.
This area, more than any other, has demonstrated how many authoritarian regimes were kept in power by playing off the US and Soviet Union against each other. This year’s Arab Spring uprising is the most recent example of the region’s upheaval. A much earlier instance, of course, was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, whose original goal was the overthrow of the corrupt and US-allied monarchy ruling Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Islam.
Yet what the Soviet Union’s end really represents is not just new, head-spinning geopolitics but a whole cascade of social changes sweeping the globe. From modern cities to primitive villages, people everywhere are experiencing cultural upheaval unlike anything the world has known. Much of it is driven by an avalanche of new technologies, especially in information management, agriculture, communication, transportation, and health care. Many people are literally finding themselves being propelled from the 19th century (or even earlier) into the 21st century, with the trauma such rapid change inevitably causes.
The media has drawn attention to the role of cell phones and social networking in the Arab Spring. Ironically these youth-inspired revolts also demonstrated how far behind Al Qaida had fallen in appreciating the social changes underway in the Muslim world. That, as well as the destruction of most its leadership, is quickly making Al Qaida into a historical footnote and casting doubt on whether it will really have any lasting impact on the world.
Contemporary terrorist organizations and revolutionary movements, like Al Qaida, have drawn their strength from the fear and anxiety caused by the cultural changes in less-developed countries. 9/11 may come to be seen as the moment when people in the West were finally confronted by the dark side of our technological and economic transformation.
One reaction throughout the world has been the rise of fundamentalist and jihadist-type religion. This has been driven by a turn-back-the-clock desire to reverse traumatic cultural changes. The impossibility and irrationality of this is often ironically demonstrated by the use of modern technology by these “traditionalist” movements.
In any case, social upheaval is almost certain to continue for the indefinite future, whether inspired by religion, politics or economics. Even the most beneficial technological changes are going to continue to cause unpredictable, ricocheting consequences. We have much more to learn about how to manage those changes and minimize their unintended consequences.
Yet the answer to technology’s problems can’t simply be more technology. The greatest challenge we face is how to integrate technological developments with a moral perspective. While not yet officially acknowledged, it is becoming increasingly clear that the recent financial meltdown was the result of technologies used to hide the risky and even felonious nature of countless financial transactions.
Others point to the growing use of technology and its complexity to mask fraud and deceit in nearly every field and institution. Lying and cheating, of course, are as old as history itself. It is also true that they have tended to rise and fall in waves and that they are kept in check only by the intentional efforts of society. Al Qaida has essentially been eliminated but, if anything, the social upheaval and injustice which spawned it have only grown. We are, however, more aware of it, even if we feel helpless to do anything about it.
Yet we are never helpless. History and all the world’s religions testify that a commitment to genuine community, and the fairness and equality it requires, does make a difference and ultimately wins out. Our values do get out of kilter and we often succumb to looking out only for our own interests. Yet the voices of our consciences and our prophets challenge us to do better, and we know we can. Ultimately controlling technology is not our greatest challenge. Rather, it is the age-old task of controlling our egos and emotions with a commitment to justice and compassion for all.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

He even associates with SNRs! (Sunday Reflections for September 4, 2011)

In recent years I’ve come to expect whining and complaining about the decline of Christianity from religious conservatives and fundamentalists. I was stunned—frankly—to hear it this week coming from a minister of a denomination that usually epitomizes acceptance and accommodation with modern culture, the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Two pastoral colleagues shared on Facebook a short “devotional” piece by Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, IL. These two friends liked it (as did many of their friends in reply). I was appalled. The essay was titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Rev. Daniel apparently does a lot of traveling and gets stuck with a lot of annoying seatmates:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? 
Yikes! I pity the next person who sits next to Rev. Daniel on a plane, especially if they’re not an active church member. Perhaps she just needs a vacation.
I quoted most of her piece so you could get its tone, because that’s what I think is important. The content is primarily sweeping and unsupported generalizations, both about “spiritual but not religious” people (hereafter “SNR”) and about the church. On the Facebook forum where it first appeared, most comments were supportive but a number were from people taken aback as I was. These echoed my thought that many are not religious specifically because of negative experiences with churches.
In her essay, Daniel presents an idealized, and even romanticized, conception of the church, especially as it’s expressed in actual congregations. The ongoing exposure of clergy sex scandals, the screeching judgmentalism of fundamentalists, and the stories any Christian can tell of congregational fights and schisms (to name just a few prominent ones) surely provide ample explanations of why people could be alienated from organized religion.
I also can only dismiss as nonsense Daniel’s assertion that there is no challenge to “having deep thoughts all by oneself.” Oh that more people would have such experiences! I hardly think we are over-supplied with deep thought. Nor can I accept her implication that the church is the only community where one can genuinely put spiritual thought to work. In fact, I think most spiritual work is hammered out in the crucibles of the family, the work place, government assemblies, and the countless informal “non-religious” communities of which we are all apart.
I think most of this is so obvious it hardly needs explanation. That’s why I am left wondering what is really going on with Rev. Daniel, who ought to be aware of all this. While I joked about her needing a vacation, I do hear burnout, frustration and discouragement in her rant. She is not alone in this in the church, especially among clergy.
While fundamentalists have been complaining for decades about the decline of Christianity and the rise of secularism, it is the mainline churches that have really taken it on the chin. I guess it’s not surprising that this would occasionally lead to the kind of venting Daniel engages in here. She’s picked the wrong target, though.
Of course, SNR folks can be superficial and shallow in their thinking and behavior. Yet they are hardly unique in that, even when compared with religious people! The SNRs I meet are a mixed bag but many are as sincere, thoughtful and socially engaged as the religious people I know. The reality which Daniel ignores is that the nature of religion is changing around the world. For those committed to traditional religious organizations and religious activity, this can be very hard to understand or accept.
Yet understand and accept is exactly what we must do, even and perhaps especially if we are in the church. Nothing in the world stands still, including religion. Recent scholarship has emphasized that Jesus lived in just such a cultural moment, with ancient religions increasingly unsatisfactory and ineffective.
Jesus accepted the religion of his time but was hardly committed to it. Indeed some scholars believe he actually anticipated the end of traditional religion, believing there was no need for religious institutions acting as go-betweens for God and humanity. Indeed it’s hard to make the case that the church which was created centuries after him is not something he also would have railed against.
The Bible shows again and again that it’s the religious outsiders who usually have the best insight into spiritual truth, not the folks invested in the success of religious institutions. For that reasons alone, rather than lecturing the SNRs we need to be listening to them.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Jesus business (Sunday Reflections for August 7, 2011)

Last week I caught part of a BBC radio program about business innovation, including the difficulty large legacy companies have staying competitive and even surviving. One guest interviewed spoke at length about the now commonly heard idea that companies need to know what business they are in. Often they make the mistake of focusing on specific products they make rather than the service those products provide for their customers. When clear about that service, companies can then continually refine their product line, even if it means dropping products the company has long been identified with.
The example he cited where this did not occur (at least not soon enough) was the two American one-time photography giants, Kodak and Polaroid. Kodak assumed it was a company that primarily made camera film while Polaroid’s identity was wedded to its instant picture cameras. Because of inflexibility in their corporate self-images, neither was able to adjust to the revolution of digital photography and camera miniaturization.
This was especially ironic for Kodak because at onetime it had invented a digital camera. Its corporate culture, however, couldn’t figure out what to do with it since it couldn’t imagine a photographic world without film. Like Kodak, Polaroid also possessed many technologies and products which could have been transitioned into the new digital realm but it just wasn’t looking in that direction. If these companies had understood themselves as serving the photographic community rather than as producers of specific products, they could have found the flexibility to pivot with new technologies and popular interests.
The Kodak/Polaroid experience has become an increasingly common one in the corporate world. The long-predicted collapse of Borders was also the result of its leadership being unable to adjust, in this case to the popularity of both online retailing and electronic book readers. For too long it assumed its business was selling physical books in large brick-and-mortar stores, rather than providing its customers reading material however they wanted to get it.
It’s not hard to see where I am going with this. Can you think of a “legacy” business that we are all involved in that is having trouble adjusting to new market and technological realities? For me this radio conversation raised some very practical, pointed and, certainly for some, disturbing questions about the contemporary church.
Just thinking about the church in these terms makes some people squirm and I know there are those who would reject this whole approach. For me, however, the questions are obvious and unavoidable. What business is the church in? Have we identified our self too much with particular products and not with the services we provide? Is our product identity blinding us to resources we have which would enable us to provide new products and services, better meeting people’s wants and needs?
In the past I’ve used the analogy of the church being like a buggy whip manufacturer that has been unable to adjust to the automobile age. What the BBC program made clear is how much such organizations’ problems are psychological. They have a mental block, a blindness, to the new world around them. They can’t imagine the world has changed in such drastic ways that people no longer need or want the products they had successfully offered for so long.
It’s the nature of religion to be about “eternal truths.” Historically, however, we are aware that every religion adjusts to changing times, sometimes radically, or they disappear. When “eternal truth” runs up against new conflicting realities, they are adjusted or forgotten, though that may not be publicly admitted. Those truths become like outdated products a company drops and replaces with more relevant ones.
The single “product” the church has most identified itself with is salvation. The meaning of salvation has often been somewhat fluid but the church has always liked the idea that, whatever it was, it was the only place you could get it. (I heard that notion again just this summer from our synod bishop.) People need what we have and they can’t get it anywhere else. No. That is the blindness that has bankrupted companies and is now sinking the church.
Like the veteran corporate and department heads of Kodak and Polaroid, the church is dominated by people (clergy especially but laity as well) who love what once was. Cameras without film, built into your phone?? Instant pictures on digital screens, not on a piece of ejected paper?? Churches that don’t save people?? Close your eyes, stop your ears, and these crazy ideas will go away. “What has been will always be.” Right.
What’s different about the church’s situation is that it has been in decline longer than any company has existed, at least two centuries. Within mainline churches certainly, most people know the world has changed and the church has not, yet we lack the imagination to think of the church and what it does in a new way.
One example: It’s debatable whether traditional Christian worship has a future, yet the church is unwilling to even consider recasting it in ways to make it more welcoming and relevant. Why can baptism only be the entrance right for church membership? Why not open it to anyone wanting a ritual of community blessing at the beginning of life? And why not do something similar with communion, making it into a meal of fellowship and spiritual blessing rather than an experience reserved for elect few?
The reason such changes are resisted is that both are still too closely identified as dispensers of salvation, a “prize” that only worthy people are entitled to receive. Unfortunately for the church, that “prize” is one fewer and fewer people are interested in getting. They’re not interested in jumping through the hoops the church puts up to get it.
The challenge facing the church is to be willing to throw open its doors and genuinely welcome anyone and everyone without condition. Let people’s needs guide its practice and self-understanding, rather than its identification with its “salvation product line.” Salvation, meaning, hope, new life and all the other ideas Christianity has used over the centuries still have meaning and value for people, but not in the classic, antique forms in which the church has preserved them.
Jesus is still one of the most popular and well known figures in the world, but not in the theologically straight-jacketed form the church hangs on to. Rather, people are attracted to him as a real person: inspiring, encouraging, challenging, puzzling, loving, hope-giving, welcoming—all the things that seemed to get people’s attention during his life. The church could do worse than to simply say: we are in the Jesus business. Then be prepared to dump any part of our “product line” that doesn’t contribute to that.