Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why I Fear for the American Church

I was ready to move on from this. Politics in the US has been digging up a lot of unresolved feelings for me and I thought I'd blogged my way through...and I have quite a bit...but today I was listening to the talk below by Ravi Zacharias. It's called "Why I'm not an Atheist" and in the talk the former Hindu turned anti-theist and current Christian apologetic talks on some of the issues he has with hard-line atheism (not to be confused with agnosticism).

He comes at it from multiple angles, but most prominent, at least to me, was his assertion that atheism is frequently the moral safe-haven for people who simply want to live purely for themselves...something that most religions will not let followers do without some level of internal discord. He spoke of a desire to acquire wealth, staunch individualism and  lack of responsibility for those around you...the core of the direction the Republican Right...the former "Moral Majority" moving. And this just isn't in words...I don't believe that Paul Ryan is necessarily following Ayn Rand's philosophies point for point (though it's been a while since I read the Fountainhead), but the way the woman thought is almost wholly incompatible with Christian teachings.  The kicker is watching those same Christians support a man who follows a faith that teaches so much that directly contradicts the Bible over a sitting president who is a Christian (I believe the rumors that the President is a "secret Muslim" are efforts to quiet some of this cognitive dissonance). I'm not just watching this on TV. I see this in new Christian friends and those I've known for years and I am at a loss.

I don't take issue with people voting Republican...I've done it myself and will likely do it again. What concerns me is seeing large segments of the Church tiptoeing into waters this strange for the sake of preservation of tradition.

Zacharias, as usual, boils it down beautifully. The argument isn't theist vs. atheist, it's all about world views (I thank G.K. Chesterton for shifting my line of thought on this). We're embroiled in a battle between those who focus their fight for the self, the here, the physical and the now, and those who fight for others, and what may exist on the other side.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is Creation too Complex for most Christians?

Great message this morning on continuous learning through life. It was timely for me because I decided earlier this week to pick up my copy of The Guide for the Perplexed and give it a go. It's a 12th century Jewish text written by Maimonides as a letter to one of his students. I initially bought it because I wanted a better understanding of the Old Testament.

*a thanks to Family Guy for the reminder a few hours before reading this, that Jesus was a practicing Jew. 

Click the link for more detail on what the work actually is, but let me just's one of those books that made me feel like an idiot. took me 2 minutes just to find the first section I wanted to explore. I read 3 pages of the introduction and was ready to accept defeat...but the book put forth a concept that drew me in. Maimonides asserts that certain concepts of faith were simply not fit for the masses and that even to those who were able to handle them, they should only be taught late in the Jewish tradition. That thought landed oddly on my equality-drenched American psyche. My gut reaction was that the concept was simply wrong and archaic, and I with my open, modern mind would continue reading despite the ancient ignorance...but then I thought of my study of jiu jitsu. There was a moment last year where another student and I were working a technique for his belt exam. I played the part of throwing dummy. He'd been studying 4 years, I, 2. Our instructor saw us from across the gym, walked up and said to him "Stop. You don't have enough control to keep from hurting her and she doesn't have enough understanding to protect herself."

This work is definitely one of those situations. It is specifically geared toward deciphering the mysteries of God and it tackles them the "hand of God" an actual hand? Was the universe actually created out of nothing? Can God actually be described and if so, how should it be done? These are questions that have split churches and synagogues and, on the surface, seem to be elementary to divine belief...yet this books takes them on as advanced topics.

I couldn't help but marvel at the disagreement over creation out of nothing and how neatly a discussion within a faith community mirrored the one had today so publicly between Christian and Atheist/Agonistic groups today.  

I sometimes wonder if we're not laying the foundation of our faith on the spiritual equivalent of differential equations, encouraging people to feign certainty about things they simply cannot genuinely understand and waiting to teach basic addition (personal, internal things like love and self-sacrifice that Jesus plainly laid out as the core true religion in his teachings) until believers have been practicing for years. Creation comes on the first page of the Bible but seeing as the Bible isn't based on progressing difficulty, I wonder if beginning at the beginning isn't a bit confusing.

The pastor this morning brought up a profound point about Jesus that I think Christians miss while people who don't believe in the divinity of Jesus understand perfectly. The man made ground-breaking social strides. As I was reminded this morning, he was revolutionary in that he treated women and children as humans, wholly worthy of his love and attention as any adult male in a society where they were simply background players. We miss these simple, amazing, transformative and obvious things about Jesus' walk while getting caught up in mysteries few of us are likely to ever understand...and I think this is an active choice.

I have a DVD set dedicated to one submission in jiu jitsu...just one. The triangle. That's 3 DVDs on one technique. I could come home tomorrow and spend 4 hours watching them. I could then sign on to a couple of forums and debate the effectiveness of the techniques. After that, I could start blogging about my experiences learning a submission that I'm physically well suited for. I would leave the experience with no sore muscles, no burned and bleeding shins, no torn ligaments, not one drop of sweat spent...and I would feel accomplished for having accomplished nothing.

Or...I could go and suffer the pain and frustration of cleaning up my sloppy, ineffective, easily defended triangle. Application, even of simple things, is usually painful.

I'm going to keep reading...slowly. Many of the mysteries of God that the book addresses really are light years beyond my understanding. I felt my chest burn as I was reading and knew that I was taking a look at God that I had never even considered before. It scares me a little...and not in the ways that intellectual pursuits of Christianity have before. I don't worry that I will begin to replace an understanding of God with a knowledge of scares me in a way that is exciting and intimidating and possibly the closest to true Fear of the Lord that I have ever gotten.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Today was my pastor's last day.

I cried.

As he read what's possibly the last message I'll ever hear him give, I realized I was sitting in a new emotional experience. I've sat under six pastors in my life and never have I had one leave on good terms. I've never been sad to see one go. I also don't think I'll ever get used to looking into a man's eyes when he's about to cry.

2012 very much feels like a year of loss for me. My grandmother, who I consider one of the few mentors in my life, passed in late 2011, but I'm just now coming to terms with it. I also lost two cousins, one to a sudden, violent death. I feel like there's something else there too, but I can't pinpoint what yet.

I was talking with my cousin today about internet dating experiences. As a Christian single, it's important to have someone as a sounding board for things like this. Navigating life as a single requires that one be able to improvise and be very clear on what you're trying to accomplish or avoid. You many options when it comes to housing, use of time, use of finances, etc. But yeah. I told her about a message I got from a man.

"You say you don't consider homosexuality a sin. Are you actually a Christian? What do you to say about Sodom"

I have on my profile that I am Christian and that it is extremely important in my life. He was foreign, so I don't think there was as much accusation in his message as might be perceived. I explained that I do not consider the state of simply being gay a sin any more than I consider finding a married person of the opposite sex attractive to be a sin and directed him to Ezekiel 16: 49. He replied that he misjudged me and we continued on with the conversation.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

When Janet Reno came to church.

The idea of American Exceptionalism scares me on many levels, one of them definitely as a Christian.

I love the Olympics. It's easy for me to. I have a natural bent toward international environments. I get excited at seeing a new country's take on the games. I love seeing the names I can't pronounce (Eastern European names make seeing Chinese ones a, so many consonants), the native costumes, the bloodless competition. It's also easy for me because I'm American. I wonder how excited I'd be for the games as a whole if I were from, say, a country like Grenada who just won their first medal ever (a gold to boot...huge congratulations to them!).

So yes...due to our recent political climate already having things riled up, the Olympics, from what I can tell, has only caused a slight uptick in the frequency of the "America is the best/greatest/most powerful/most awesome country in the world" meme. During the Games it makes perfect sense. The Games themselves are essentially one huge, two week festival of comparison and oneupsmanship. That's what competition is. I'll take this any day over war. Imagine...if instead of Japan attacking Pearl harbor and America responding with two atomic bombs, Russians began using professional basketball players against our college Olympians and we responded with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson...oh wait. 

But comparison outside of clearly designated boundaries? I have to ask why. When a comparison is being made, there's a reason...usually to assert the superiority of one, to emphasize the inferiority of others or to retaliate against an attack. It's not always bad, but there is, always, a reason.

When I left the church I was raised in, it was bigger than just walking away from a building, my family, a routine or a peer group. I was walking away from a social institution. I walked away from the Black Church. I did it to preserve my faith. I haven't said it in a while, but I got to a point where Sundays in church were when I felt the farthest from God. (I say that not to assert that one can't be Christian and attend a Black Church. I'm saying simply that I found a conflict between the culture and the working out of my personal journey of faith as a Christian.) Yes, my individual home church had some issues, but I believe...I know that they were symptoms of cultural retaliation.

Displaced cultures are peculiar creatures. It happens afresh in today's world, but here in the US, we watch, every day, the effects of a country trying to regroup and redefine itself after engaging in the mass displacement of Africans...a practice that flew in the face of the very values a young country was trying to implement, all for the sake of economic prosperity. National cognitive dissonance of that level does not go away without the growing pains of racial relations we live today. (This is one of those points that I believe the US actually is breaking ground on, but yet another point of exceptionalism we choose to ignore in favor of clinging to successes of the past).

The solidarity and uniformity of the Black church is a reaction to that displacement. It's not just a religious institution. It's a place where culture is affirmed and reaffirmed and recycled and replayed. It was and is a core of education, family and community during the Civil Rights era and continues to be one of the primary funnels and filters of power in the Black American community. Pastors know this. Politicians know this. I realized this one Sunday when, as an usher at 16, I stood face to face with the formidable presence Janet Reno.

...and this is where things get fuzzy. You have an institution that has a dual of faith and one of culture. The words in Matthew 6 apply here. An organization cannot serve two masters. It will eventually, if not every day, have to choose. My old church made its choice and I vowed not to return until a specific leader left. Well...a few years ago he did leave. He did not though, take the influence of Prosperity Gospel with him. I heard reports of a new song titled "Speak it to the Universe" that had made its way into the rotation at the church. I knew then, that this was deeper than one building or one branch.

I see something similar going on in the White Church. The culture is threatened and trying to regroup and redefine. Christianity is still, by far, the dominant religion in the US, with almost 80% of people identifying as Christian. What has changed though, is that it is no longer the default setting. People of other faiths, or no faith, now, thanks to social media and...well...more media in general have more of a voice to express their disinterest, disagreement or animosity. More platforms to highlight their displeasure and faults of the past...and this disruption in the status quo...this redefinition of the profile of America...I think is the birthplace of this reactionary new use of the concept of American Exceptionalism.

The loss of the perception of security is shocking (see Sept 11th). No one needs to assert their superiority when they feel secure. Part of the reason you hear overweight women assert their beauty, attractiveness and sexiness is self-acceptance. Part of it is them trying to convince themselves.

But a few personal words of affirmation aren't too much to be concerned about on a global scale. My concern is what happens when any group of people go from saying they are inherently exceptional to believing it...when they feel they and all their actions have been ordained by God. It hits my ears as the beginning of the latest reincarnation of what was once referred to as Manifest Destiny, British Imperialism, the territorial expansion of the Holy Roman Empire...etc.

God is not a fan of pride. Never has been. Check out Obadiah 1. Yes, it's addressed to a specific nation, but it tells us a lot about the character of God. The tone behind the term of American Excpetionalism is completely devoid of the submission and subjugation of Amazing Grace that is, at least in word, so respected by those that sing it. There is no scent of wretchedness, no acknowledgement of a state of loss. There is no hope in God's word. There is no need of Grace.

My father told me today that he heard a speaker on Moody Radio say that politics was the new religion of the American Right. I fear he may be correct.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Life is not a football game.

So I've been doing a lot of musing over the Republican Wall in the American church. Not just because it hits some personal nerves, but because it's real. It's something that I and any liberal/minority friends run into while trying not to forsake connecting with Christian groups. It makes it easy for people like me who are either naturally introverted or have past church scars to just...walk away and try to do it on our own.

I can normally find some relief by spending some time checking out The Christian Left, but lately, even they have begun to counter the stereotyping, closed-mindedness and self-righteousness of the Right in kind...justifying it by pointing out the faults of their "enemies"...and there's the problem.

Life is not a football game. I'm not going to stop buying chicken or eat mor chikin just because someone says two things I happen to agree/disagree with.  We don't have teams. Seriously we don't. Having "teams" is the modern day example of struggling against flesh and blood...and this is definitely not limited to the church. I think it reflects a larger change affecting society as a whole that has, like so many other things, just waltzed its way ever so quietly into the midst of the Christian community. That whole Team Edward/Team Jacob deal? What happened to people just favoring one character over another? There wasn't a team Luke or team Team Gatsby/Team Nick...(I have to add that I watch Lucas, read Fitzgerald and do neither with Meyers...had to put that out there).

At what point did we lose such ownership of our own identities that we began to need an adversary to define who we were? That's the point of teams. Without the rest of the NFL, the Bears are just a bunch of guys wearing way too much clothing. Have we become so dull to the concept of shading that all encounters in life must be black or white? Based on what I see from the Christian Left and the religious right and every...person...out there measuring the state of their morality on their relationship with a chicken sandwich, I'm going to say yes.

...and I think I know why.

My management studies in biz school were pretty weak. Not surprising since my school specialized in finance and accounting, but it bes that way sometimes. There was one concept that grabbed me above the drone of my oversimplified organizational management class. Group Think. It's been blamed for everything from bad fashion choices to US forces ignoring warnings about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. I want to get the effects of that out there so no one takes it lightly. This is more than just a difference of opinion or people being stubborn or sticking to their guns. There are real and serious side effects if behavior of group think is left unchecked and unchallenged.

It basically happens when people want cohesion and harmony SO badly within a group that they toss out personal desires, group well being, organizational mission statement and all forms of rational thought--all just to keep things happy.

This is why I think conservatives are more prone to group think...and I don't just mean Republicans. Some people are natural born conservatives...they might even vote Democrat, but at the end of the day, they just don't want things to change because change is the worst thing that can happen they're willing to risk the well being of themselves, their group, their country and their world, just for the sake of things not changing.  (On the other side of that spectrum are people who think change is inherently good...Chaos-mongers if you will, but that's a post for another day.)

So I did some fresh reading on group think to check out some of the situations that might lead to this rearing its ugly head.

  • Very stressful external threats
  • Recent failures
  • Difficulties in decision making
  • Moral dilemas
Between September 11th, the browning of America, global economic failures, convoluted electoral systems and questions over gun ownership, abortion and gay rights, the US is a hotbed for group think. I'd be shocked if it WEREN'T going on. The church in the US, with its regional focus, racial segregation, bias toward the married with children model and unified purpose is especially susceptible...homogeniety of social background and ideaology is one of the best fertilizers for it (moral of the story? Be selective, but shake up your peer group a little from time to time.) Still don't believe it's going on? Check out some symptoms:
  • Illusions of invulnerability: Belief that the US will stay the best country in the world regardless of slipping test scores, economic status, social mobility and everything else that laid the foundation for our country's greatness is pretty common
  • Unquestioned belief that outsiders are immoral/wrong: I'm personally picking up on a bit of the Chrstian Left's brand of group think. I hear "Right" and assume certain moral failings. 
  • Stereotyping outsiders: This is one of my main reasons for disliking terms like "Libs" "Repugnicans" "Obamabots" or the says more about the degradation of the user's critical thinking than it does about those being labeled.
  • Pressure to conform: all this drama over flag pins and Gabby Douglas' uniform not being patriotic enough (guess everybody forgot about Nastia in pink). 
  • Truthiness
So's going on left and right, contributes to the lack of effectiveness of the church and could lead to the end of the world. Is it preventable though? Are there remedies?

Of course, but the tricky thing about group think is that lazy leaders LOVE it (some even enough to actively feed it. I question any leader feeding an emotion like fear that grows just fine on its own). It makes their job so much easier. And guess do lazy followers. If rules and thoughts are clear and individuals have little responsibility, people who like to play it safe feel EXTRA safe. It turns organizations from slow, messy, beautiful masses of human diversity into huge, unthinking, easily controlled beasts. I left my last church because of group think that had gotten to the point where not even Biblical scripture could be used as a valid counter to the opinions and behaviors of the group. 

I consider myself pretty well insulated from group because I'm an introvert, but two because I like variety in people and keep myself surrounded by a decently broad spectrum of humanity. There is something that can drive me to it emotions. And mine are burning lately from years of previous and piles of current hurt I perceive as coming from the Christian Right. It is so, so easy to slip into the group think of the other side...they affirm what I believe! They accept me for who I am! They don't challenge my comfy little world! And ya know what...that's not their job. While I do think The Christian Left has a responsibility to not feed the group think beast, I also believe it's my job as an individual to prevent my being sucked in by not forgetting that even those on the right, are God's children, even if off base about many things. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

I'm embarrassed to go to Chic-Fil-A.

*warning...long, convoluted post sorting out old, convoluted emotions.*

Not as a Black person eating fried chicken...not as a follower of the paleo diet sneaking cookies (they're totally worth the $1+ for 1 cookie). No. I'm embarrassed that someone, somewhere, might think I'm one of "THOSE" Christians. You know...the ones where love takes a back seat to anger...the ones that only care about God's proclamations around marriage when it involves excluding gays (still not hearing anyone talking about that whole divorce-remarriage deal that straight people do all the time)...or only seem concerned about God's proclamations around anything when it comes to gaining back some sort of cultural ground they've lost. The ones who likely wouldn't welcome too many of my color in their services. On that same note though, I wouldn't boycott the restaurant because one, I (for the most part) judge establishments by treatment of patrons, employees and community and two, money from the gas I buy goes to support people who murder homosexuals, so forgoing a chicken sandwich seems insultingly self-righteous.

Because of all the drama round the chain though, I think I've figured out my beef with the culture that calls itself the Religious Right.

If you don't feel like watching the whole TEDx talk, the point that jumped out at me was the fact that Michael Dowd (Author of Thank God for Evolution) subtly centers the talk around getting to know each other as humans. Connecting with your fellow human being. He ends it with a quote from Carl Sagan

"Science is, at least in part, informed worship." Here it is in context:

If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.

I know that Sagan was an atheist, so I in no way take that statement as some sort of bottom of the 9th conversion or credit Sagan as a great thinker of faith. What do I think he was saying? I think his point was "Church goin' folk. You have no excuse for being stupid."  

He missed something though. I don't think science is rejected by Christians sheerly for the love of ignorance. I think it's rejected because, as the video says, the more you learn, the more you realize you have in common with people from everywhere, from every walk of life. If you don't want to have things in common, learning and experiencing become something to be avoided. Seclude and exclude as much as possible and it's easy to create your own reality every single day. 

I've been mulling over a LOT of very personal and very mixed feelings that were dug up after vising a Christian relationship site where they take a similar stance to that of Mark Gungor...basically it's your job to get married...just do it and stop worrying over love and God leading you to the right person. God just wants you to get hitched and start popping out babies. I'm going to dedicate a post to them, so I won't go into too much detail, but one thing really struck me about the site. I read the posts written for both men and women, for both singles and marrieds, finding the usual subtle messages discouraging women from being educated beyond HS and holding men, those people who are supposed to be head of household, to the lowest behavioral standards possible. Nothing surprising there. What WAS new was the credentials of the people writing the articles and giving advice. Those writing for married people? Licensed therapists, PhDs, veritable alphabet soups after author names. Those writing for singles? They went to church...a WHOLE lot. Thanks for letting me know that my well being  as a single isn't worth the consultation of professionals. I wrote them a very carefully worded, non-accusatory letter two weeks ago to find out what's up with that. I have yet to hear back. 

I felt excluded and uncared for as a single Christian. I felt that maybe one day they would consider me worth the attention of someone who'd invested time and study into their profession, but not until I got a ring on my finger. I was on my own until then. 

All the tea-party talk I hear from Christian Republican friends? I feel excluded. 

Those same people and their anti Chinese bent? Exclusion. 

When I know I'd be more welcome walking into a random jiu jitsu gym than a random church? Excluded and sad.

When I hear Christians beefing about immigration? More exclusion.

I felt the same thing when I saw a friend post this very poignant photo on Facebook. 

The firing of Brenda Honeycutt actually gets to me more than a CEOs views on marriage. 

She'd called out one of the biggest, loudest and most public exercises of Christian exclusion this country has seen in a while. As a Christian, I do not look on this gesture with pride. I've worked for men who prayed before meetings and spoke loudly of family values while beating their wives and openly cheating and lying to customers. Eating fried food does not make a statement. And as much as I do give the chain credit for continuing to close on Sundays in the face of a culture that holds less and less to be sacred, I maintain that people give entirely too much credit for generically standing up for one's beliefs...2 year olds do that all day long and get no props do terrorists and that guy who flipped you off in traffic. 

This is the face of the church I see in this country most frequently...I know...I have my bias because of past and present experiences and I know many people who identify as Republican/Conservative/Right and Christian who are doing the work of God in genuine, Biblical ways...but be it out of personal choice or actual association, I never consider those people to be part of the "Religious Right" or a "red-blooded American Christian". 

I consider them just "Christian" just "part of the Church"...which is how I think it should be...there's a reason there's neither Jew nor Greek. And while I do understand that the identity of the WASP-American is threatened right now, it is hard...very hard for me to be compassionate to the point of ignoring so many slights...slights against themselves even, because every step of exclusion and separation is a blow to the body of Christ. 

It is frustratingly difficult for me to hear phrases like "family values" and "traditional marriage" and "Christian upbringing"...phrases on that surface I agree with, was raised with and work to exemplify in my life, but that have been twisted in an affront to everything I, the people I care about and the people I've been charged to help as a Christian, are. What do you do when people wrap bigotry, callousness, hard-hardheartedness, ignorance and oppression in packages of piety and start selling them on street corners? How do you sort those with good intentions from modern day Pharisees?  How do I sort my own offense, anger and frustration from areas to practice forgiveness and places where such behavior should not be tolerated?

I do not know what to do with that.