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I’ve been trying to do something that is incredibly uncomfortable for me lately…being ok with not being ok. I typically power through hard times, I like to play the hero. In the moment this can look great…but I become pressurized from never processing pain and eventually it comes out in irrational rage at small things and the occasional bout of ugly-crying.
Sunday night after driving home from an exceptionally great worship gathering at Kairos but an exceptionally hard week/weekend I did something different. Instead of jumping straight into a podcast or audiobook (my typical driving routine)…I decided to grieve the week’s hardships and my lack of control…I did this through the add of my old friend “Sunny Day Realestate”(I posted a spotify link below…they are quite good). The result: a much less stressed out day on Monday. So embrace the loss and face the grieving…It is the only hope you have of thriving in the future.
Last week I got to see interstellar… I still haven’t made up my mind about what I think… But I definitely think something.
Besides weirding me out and giving me that “don’t think about the space time continuum/ flux capacitor/cluster flub” – the film stirred up al kinds of thoughts about leadership.
The most frustrating thing about watching interstellar was watching someone with clairvoyance of the future be impotent to change the present. There is a burden that comes with vision… vision is the nonnegotiable of good leadership. Good leaders see where a group, company, family or movement is and where they need to go and calls for changed birthed from vision. But if you are in capable of changing the current circumstances, choices, or prejudices, vision can be the greatest burden a leader can carry.
Many of us have been in positions where we’ve seen what needs to happen but have been a minority of opinion when it comes to how to move forward. The black hole scene where McConaughey is trapped viewing the past without a way to effect the outcome haunted me for days after viewing it. In terms of cinematic power, the movie could have (and possibly should have) ended there. The poignancy of the movie seemed to rest in our inability to change the past based on what we know in the present.
While the film focused on the future it played with the terms future, past and present to the point that they were all interchangeable based on the time in which we are talking about them. The frustration we all experience at wishing we could change the past is the same lament leaders go through in moments of clarity and foresight.
So what are our options when we can see clearly into the future but realize we are powerless in the present?
1. We can escape. The maxim in poker is to know when to fold ’em. The sad reality is there are times when we need to stop trying to help people and just set up boundaries; when we need to leave the company that is fledgling; when we must stop supporting a movement or candidate because we can see where it will all end.
2. We can give in. Easily the worst of the options. This is when folks refrain from blowing whistles on corrupt companies because they will lose their paycheck; when countries become Nazi collaborators because they fear the consequences; when abusive leaders remain in power because no one wants to rick the boat.
3. We can form resistance. Just because we realize we cannot affect change where we are does not mean that we need to become apathetic and complacent. We can strike out in the revolutionary ways of rebellion: prayer, confrontation and reform.
This isn’t just at a corporate or political level…I’m thinking of someone standing up to and resisting a group of friends bent on destruction, a spouse committed to dysfunction, a church no longer following faith, an education system committed more to bureaucracy than students. At the end of the day none of these options lessen the burden of leadership, but resistance does lighten the feeling of apathy, complacency and corruption that come with serving a group, person or system that we know to be wrong.
Sunday morning has typically come to mean two things in America: Church or Sports. This bifurcation of leisurely and religious pursuits in our culture is a development of the past 20 years…and it is a major sign of the end of adulthood in the American Church. A. O. Scott recently published a profound and possibly prophetic article in the New York Times entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” in which he suggests that we have witnessed the death of the mature male lead in pop media. This is a long developing trend in American literature, film and tv in which we see fulfillment come through friendships and personal journeys of adventure and rebellion, not the deep challenges of relationship and responsibility. What started as organized rebellion against injustice and stifling of creativity mutates a generation later into “bro comedies” of idle consumerism.
Put another way:
“We are an immigrant nation. The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things. The next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation snowboards and takes improv classes.” -JACK DONAGHY
The general malaise of adulthood in American culture manifests in Evangelical Christianity in pronounced ways. Scotts’ thesis perhaps clarifies feelings of decay that many in the church have sensed for a long time. Between the declining percentage of self-identified, practicing Protestants in America, the shrinking number of churches in our landscape and the feminization of religion (70% of church participation is female) in the West it is no shocker that things are amiss in the Church at large. For every reason the Church identifies for it’s decline we create solutions with buzzwords: Missional, (Neo) Reformed, Emergent, Social-Justice, Etc. While all of these groups/movements care about this pandemic and address various symptoms of decline, rarely do they penetrate to the cause of decline; perhaps the root cause of decline in American Christianity is a lack of maturity among Christians?
In Scotts article he identifies several signposts of perpetual childhood in American Culture; these signifiers are often alive and well in the American Church:
Away from the overview of mothers and lovers, the modern “man” finds happiness in the challenge free environment of friends that “play” and “adventure” with their energies.
When we survey men in the church do we see something different? When we listen to men addressed from the pulpit do we hear another narrative offered? Preachers typically offer either a “try-harder spiritual chauvinism” that is found in the complementarianism of the Neo-Reformed, or the complacent validation of the status quo. Men need to be better, try harder and lead their families by making unilateral decisions and having lots of sex with their “smoking hot wives”; or they are offered a patronizing version of Christianity as a cultural rubber stamp that pats them on the back for drinking beer, watching football, voting republican and being “Christian”.
The problem with both of these narratives is that they envision maturity for men through the lens of individualism. Individually men are supposed to “lead their families” and take on responsibility. We are typically offered the unattainable challenge of being perpetually responsible and competent or the impotent invitation to validate the life of comfort we find easy, but unfulfilling. We rarely merge these together with the additives of guidance and wisdom from someone beyond our peer pool. For the church to mature we need formative and involved discipleship. We need peers, but we also desperately need mentors.
The American male protagonist is most at home on the road or embroiled in rebellion against a cause. Adventure and rebellion can be a great rite of passage but, as Scott outlines, when this becomes our place of abiding rebellion quickly erodes to tantrum and adventure retreats into irresponsibility. The riddled angst of A Street Car gives way to the “bro comedy” of The Hangover. The entropy of American Christianity is driven by the gravity of comfort…we give up on the challenge of the road but embrace its lawlessness.
Where is this alive in the Church? Do we give up on the struggle of maturity, self-sacrifice and accountability but embrace the “journey” of spirituality…taking our time to “find ourselves”. Scott argued that “grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things.” Have we structured out the drive for maturity in our own churches? Paul warned against this to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Has the idea of “spiritual journey” and “self-help” Christianity lead to a crisis of maturity in the Church?
I don’t mean to single men out in the spiritual “journey” of self-absorption…but we need to realize men and women, generally speaking, are at different points in their spiritual devolution (as it relates to and corresponds with American culture). Women are a step behind in their descent into egocentrism…the female of today is facing the same post-coming-of-age transition American men found themselves in during the 80s and 90s. They are encouraged to embrace the “me” mantra of feminism and find the self-actualization offered in contemporary spiritual traditions. As feminism meets our long standing belief that women are naturally more virtuous and faithful, biologically inclined towards religion, women become the heroes of the Church…selflessly pursuing righteousness, family and holiness while we celebrate their spouses just showing up on a Sunday. In the culture of Christian self-realization, family and “holiness” can easily translate into image, success and pride.
Where do we remedy this? In community! Experiencing faith, serving others, pursing reconciliation with committed friends pushes us out of the nest of self comfort and into the maturity of the other-centered-life. Making faith explicitly communal stretches us from our singular, individualized spiritual journey and places us firmly in the narrative of the Kingdom. We find accountability, leadership, challenge and guidance when we try to grow with others involved in our process of spiritual maturity.
I recently wrote a blog on the Maslow Hierarchy and our need to seek intellectual fulfillment , often at the expense of our physical and emotional needs. In American culture we can see the digression from the existential quest of the 1960s and 70s into the narcissism and self-absorption of the 80s and 90s into the sarcasm and cynicism of the last decade and a half. It appears there as been a similar trend in Church sub-culture over the same period. The general openness and rebellion of the Jesus Movement gave way to the seeker-sensitive mega trend of your-best-life-now spirituality (see below). This inward focused narrative of Christianity then produced a now emerging generation of “missional” practitioners who are disillusioned with power-Christianity and self-actualizing, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship. Questioning these polemics of power and (sometimes) abuse/coercion is a health movement and deconstruction can remove toxic elements to the religion. However, the void of this discontentment often becomes a breeding ground for cynicism.
What this looks like in most churches today is the act of spiritual voyeurism – we watch from the sidelines, without engaging in the maturity process. Our intellectual development allows us to critique everything from worship music and theology, to community and transparency. When we engage in this trend of snarkiness we are grapes left unplucked, criticizing the tannins and fruits of every vintage safely from beyond the boundaries of fermentation. We are not called to have sophisticated language of critique or developed prose of argument, but to keep with repentance that will bear fruit. In an age where we are used to making judgments about restaurants based on Yelp or classify people from a Tinder account without any encounter, is it any wonder we do this with God and community?
Our voyeurism keeps us safe from engagement and challenge. Can we move out from our gated communities of ideas and join the neighborhood of practitioners? Embodying practices that aim at formation over information, experience beyond explanations. When churches first seek to live Scripture instead of memorizing it we see spiritual growth; when we seek to be mastered by doctrine, instead of master it we see transformation. When we stop passing judgment on entire groups of people and insist on engaging individuals, we are no longer free to distance ourselves from our neighbors and live in false self-righteousness. When we give guidance by the Holy Spirit priority over strategy and skill we remedy the cancer of cynicism with the treatment of vulnerability and the antidote of openness. Vulnerability…true vulnerability produces humility and openness to change…to repentance…something we need greatly if we are to grow.
The actions and values we proffer as “mature” are often some of the most infantile of masks. We will never bear fruit that matures unless we seriously examine what we currently consider mature and healthy. If churches are going to be places that nurture, grow and reproduce the life of Jesus in their members we should stop offering diets of emotional candy and spiritual junkfood. Stemming the tide of consumerism is the beginning point to address immaturity in the Church, but we need a clear picture of what it looks like to be an adult in the way of Jesus…we need leaders willing to be vulnerable and transparent, willing to walk hand-in-hand with people through the adolescence of life, willing to live a life of shared community as an extended family on mission together.
“What you want is not what your need”
I testify to this maxim with some many parts of my life:
We could go on; you can plug your own needs and desires in here. The point is that what we want is often different from what we need. Abraham Maslow famously penned his hierarchy of needs in descending order:
The Maslow Hierarchy shows our level of need – with things like self-actualization (creativity, originality, morality) and esteem (confidence, relationship with others) taking much more space in our lives than the pursuit of our basic needs for survival (this is only true in developed countries of course). In our poorest moments we spend vast amounts of capital and time on existential pursuits at the cost of our basic needs…purchasing expensive rims for luxury cars when we don’t have health insurance or buying scratchers and top shelf liquor while our children wear tattered clothes. These are exchanges of safety and necessity for esteem and self-realization.
The twist comes in our modern welfare state. Our federal benefactor provides our basic needs in part through cheep imitations that leave us in a heightened state of insecurity and scarcity. For example, we receive the illusion of safety through the stimulation of foreign war and the abdication of our personal freedom; we receive the illusion of provision through subsides of GMO foods and agro-industrial manufacturing; we receive the illusion of affection through endorphin releasing simulations of sanctioned pornography or tariff free, globally produced goods. Whether it is a $100 iPhone that should cost $2000 dollars or a $1 burger that should cost $11 we mollify our basic needs through the cheap substitution of subsidized products and experiences. The production of cheep foods in the US liberates more of the average income to pursue the higher “needs”; however, these same productions cost us in the quality of our lives by causing obesity, heart disease and cancer. Without these subsidizations we would be forced to center a greater amount of our capitals on basic needs…which may produce a greater degree of happiness and satisfaction.
The spiritual realm is not so different. The world of churches has often turned into a realm of spiritual benefactors…providing goods and services for a populace that eagerly consumes them. Mike Breen calls this spiritual feudalism…alluding to the dynamic of client/patron relationships that take place in Western Christendom today. Churches often provide the illusion of spiritual depth, genuine faith and Christian living that indebt the client to the church while pacifying the actual needs of the soul. The false provision the Church proffers often corrodes the living soul. Purchasing the product of premature spiritual authority and realization means we will never actualize our spiritual potential through the longue durée of following Jesus; acquiring the goods of a self-help or prosperity Gospel directs that we will never ascertain the depth of character found in the spiritual sojourners life. In an age of online sermons, digital worship, NYT bestselling books, and multiple satellite services we can curate our spiritual oeuvre to own liking and to our own detriment.
How do we overcome the malaise of our multifaceted, postmodern, spiritual mural?
As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer creating, disease inducing food that is filling at a cheap price we will never be free of disease and premature deaths; As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer producing, spiritual pandering that creates spiritual dependents, we will never be free of the spiritual impotency and weakness that leads to consumerism and hypocrisy. If you look at the hierarchy that Maslow laid out…only after focusing on and realizing our basic (spiritual) needs will we realize our greater needs for realization and identity. We need a faith that is ready for the long haul of life in Jesus, awaiting the trials of trust and discernment and producing the determination of the committed, not the consumer.
Police make me nervous. Seriously. I realized most of the people I know don’t share this sentiment. When I’m at the park playing basketball or barbecuing and I see a patrol car come through I just assume they are going to harass me. Now I am a law abiding, middle-class, Anglo, family man…I don’t get harassed by the police nor do I give them cause to harass me. I didn’t give them cause as a child or teenager either. The only difference is that I lived in not so nice areas of the Antelope Valley. So I don’t get the sense of security and goodwill that my friends and coworkers who grew up in affluent communities do. In my history police equaled problems. I have quite a few good friends in law enforcement and realize that this is a jaded perspective. However, it is a perspective that persists.
This is what is at stake in Ferguson. You have outrage at another shooting of an unarmed citizen by the police…something that happens alarmingly often in the Black community. Race as a social construct is most definitely a primary issue at play here, and many Black thinkers and leaders are highlighting this. We all need to listen. From my own experience, I also see the issues of power and privilege that are often underneath and interwoven with matters of race, and they seem to be rearing their ugly head in Ferguson. For this article, I want to focus on this element of power and privilege. There is a problem behind Ferguson, behind fueling race riots, arrest murders, and labor disputes, and it is power and privilege. Affluent folks view law enforcement as an extension of their will (maybe with the exception of speeding tickets). Disadvantaged people view the police as antagonists to their well-being. One of the biggest problems with the Michael Brown shooting is this divide. In many ways the outcome of this incident has little to do with Brown and the officer and much more to do with a historical rift between the poor severed from the resources they need and the rich controlling these resources (and law enforcement) to protect their privilege and security.
In the aftermath of the Civil War the executive office and Congress were faced with the impossible problem of not only reincorporating peoples and institutions that had waged war on the Union, but also embracing and empowering a nation of freed slaves who had little-to-no property, education or self-governing life skills. Radical Republicans called for property redistribution and enfranchisement while the elite, defrocked Planter class attempted to impose a new order of slavery through intimidation and coercion (black codes, sharecropping, etc). This latter group formed militias to promote white supremacy (the Ku Klux Klan being the most infamous of these groups). These paramilitaries would harass the newly freed people and use violence to keep them from utilizing their recently amended civic and Constitutional rights. The Radical Republicans in Congress were able to employ the US Army to break up these militias and ensure the protection of these people. Through a whole convolution of events, the radicals fell out of power, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the swift disenfranchisement of Black Americans ensued. In the shadow of this unraveling, Congress passed a law called Posse Comitatus – stating the federal government cannot use federal troops to enforce the law. Track with me on this…most Americans would see this as limiting the power of the federal government for the protection of the common people. WRONG! The point of Congress’s action was to keep disadvantaged people in the mercy of the powerful. This was not meant to protect people from the US military or a growing police state…that still takes place. Under Posse Comitatus the National Guard is still allowed to be called in to establish law and order under the Governors direction. On more than one occasion the president has used federal troops to break up strikes and protests. We have established federal armories (we have one of these in Palmdale) to provide weapons for troops during a state of emergency (which is most likely a riot or grassroots movement, not a Red Dawn type Russian paratrooper invasion of the West Coast). This federal legislature was composed to prevent the federal government from ensuring black Americans would live without fear of violence or persecution and forfeit the right to vote.
It is often the case that the events of history offer us two messages – a superficial answer and a deeper underlying meaning. This is the case in Reconstruction; this is also the case of World War I. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak and historians and commentators have been debating the root causes and effects of the war for the past century. In a truly Marxist interpretation (don’t worry, I’m neither a Communist nor a Marxist)…WWI was neither about class nor nationality nor race (ethnicity, linguistics, religion)…it was about power for the powerful. Marx assumed that the next great international war erupted it would be countered by a revolution of the workers…those who produce v. those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie v the proletariat). Marx underestimated the power of patriotism…he wrongly presumed that poor factory workers and struggling farmers in England would identify with poor factory workers and struggling farmers in Germany (or Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) over and above the rich industrialists of their own country. The problem: they didn’t! The ideologies of togetherness, solidarity and patriotism trumped those of like-mindedness and self-interest. he events in Ferguson are not so unrelated to the events of Austria a century ago. Is the Brown shooting only about race? The result of believing this may end up turning poor people against poor people; the imperial leaders told European peasants it was all about nationality – turning factory worker against factory worker. Planter elites told Southern people it was all about race – turning poor white farmers against poor Black farmers. The problems of Reconstruction, WWI, and Ferguson have common ground that extends beyond race, nationality, or ideology. They are all about power and privilege.
These are a few divides I choose to look at, but certainly many (if not all) historical conflicts fall into this category (The Cold War is a great example). I want to propose to thoughts that challenge the polemics offered on cable television today:
The pain of slavery and reconstruction is alive and well today…in the South more so than anywhere else. Men of color have far greater reason to suspect the police of undue harassment and profiling than I do. However, race can be misleading if we don’t follow its trail toward other issues. Many civil rights leaders started at race and moved towards the issues of class: Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez. The Great War wasn’t really about nationality…this was used to incite the passions and fears of nations. Ferguson isn’t only about race…race as the end all can become the faux amis employed to rouse suspicion of our neighbors. Can I go so far as to claim that race can be utilized as a misnomer during reconstruction…aimed to divide White and Black in a pitch to win White support for the dominant power class? There is a powerful TIME article that elaborates on this much more eloquently than I ever will.
I have a friend and teacher who once told me that Jesus was a pacifist because “violence wasn’t powerful enough.” In a recent post on Ferguson David Fitch penned: “This is the dilemma of violence. It never gets us anywhere in the long term. It’s the devil’s way to keep the sin ongoing.” It has taken me several years to understand what he meant; it has taken Ferguson. The National Guard is called in to establish law and order – and maybe they will…however…Law and Order is much different than PEACE! The National Guard will never establish peace!
I don’t mean a new political order…that is what Woodrow Wilson called for in his New World Order mandate for a great League of Nations. A new political order will always turn into another establishment wielded by the power of the privileged. We need a new social, relational order. We are doomed to repeat Reconstruction, WWI and Ferguson until we stop viewing each other in binaries that alienate. Jesus, the greatest pacifist ever, called the world to live under his new order (the Kingdom of God) were mercy triumphs over judgment, where we treat each other with dignity and respect, where love is the organizing principle and not privilege or power. The League failed and Reconstruction faltered not because they are bad, but because they aren’t enough!
We need an interior revolution that starts within communities and homes…not an imposed mandate from an institution.
A few months back I posted some thoughts on the Super Bowl that got me into some trouble. Now let me touch the Golden Calf of the day, THE WORLD CUP #worldcupproblems
I figured, “hey, people defriended you after that post about the Super Bowl…why not slam the world cup?” – right? It is no secret, I enjoy futbol more than football…but there are some serous problems with what is going on in Brazil at the moment.
1. Human trafficking: The amount of human sex trafficking expected for the events around the developing country of Brasil is expected to dwarf that of the Super Bowl. This isn’t brought to the country by FIFA but is enhanced by this event (much the same way that sex trafficking was not brought to Seattle or San Diego by the S.B.). I have a good friend on mission in Sao Paulo right now trying to combat the inflammation of this industry brought by the Cup.
2. Poverty: The displacement of many of Brazil’s urban poor has brought sharp criticism of the countries priorities and disbursement of funds. This has brought on a slew of protests and rebellions…time will tell if FIFA really enhances the countries economic stability, wage equity and social welfare (many are doubtful).
3. Nationalism: It is a bit surprising to see the unabashed worship of patriotism and nationalism. I have been cheering the US as much as any other red-blooded American, but I am still a little perplexed by the worshipful nature of sports. Can we enjoy, revel and root for athletes without verging on idolatry? When I juxtapose this with religion and gender in America, most guys will spend money to go to a bar, exuberantly celebrate by cheering, raise their hands and stand up for a team….but when it comes to times of worship…crickets.
Here are a few differences that I see between the World Cup and the Super Bowl
1. Comradery – the sense of international sportsmanship is akin to the Olympics (minus a biting incident).
2. Materialism – this is certainly part of the Cup, but it takes a backstage to the event itself. There are only three main points of commercial interest. Before the game, half-time and after the game (baring extra-time).
3. Sexualization – the absent of a half-time show diminishes the role of sex and objectification within the World Cup.
Are there more problems with the World Cup? Sure! Are there somethings that the NFL does better than FIFA? I’m sure that is true as well. I just offer a few observations…defriending worthy observations;)
(SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT…SLIGHT)
“Family supper at Burger Chef”…This is the brilliant, enticing line for the new fast-food franchise the men and (more prominently) women from Madison Avenue are selling America at the closing of season 7 of Mad Men. This is why we love Mad Men…able to sum up the allusive and leering reality so many of us feel by packaging feelings and fears in order to sell the hope of security, peace, family, and fulfillment we all desperately desire. The secret-sauce (slight pun) is that the sales people proffering such a dream are the very antithesis of the very product they are pushing.
For Mad Men fans, we have been through 7 (6 1/2) seasons of ups and downs (mostly downs) with these characters…and one consistent theme that emerged from the first time we saw Don giving his Kodak Carousel pitch to the melt-down with the Hersey’s rep…SPIRITUAL HEALTH MATTERS IN THE WORKPLACE. It is as if AMC created an 85 episode melodrama to convey the importance of soul care and the dangers of the pursuit of wealth, power and sex all any cost.
Some friends of mine at 3DM recently published a short book on the idea of Oikonomics…that is the economic exchange that places value in every aspect of our lives, not just our financial worlds. The premise is brilliant and it is one that the likes of Don Draper and Roger Sterling would do well to take note of. In the human economy we have at our disposal five capitals, or resources, to which we can spend and gain as we leverage one or two of them for greater quantity of the others. They are in ascending order:
We all poses in different measure and pursue these by varying importance. We are also called by Jesus to invest what we have and leverage it to gain the things that matter the most in life…The Kingdom (Mt25.14-30 and Mt13.45-46). I was not born with a high degree of financial capital, but was inherently given a great deal of relational capital from the church I came into as a teenager. I received investment from others and in turn invested in some folks around me…years down the road those relational investments have produced a return in financial, intellectual and spiritual capital. The people from Sterling Cooper certainly have a great deal of Financial and Intellectual Capital…but they are physical, relational and spiritual bankrupt. This is the ultimate ethos of the show.
This is also why these capitals have an ordering to them…financial capital is very important, but if you don’t have the intellectual power to manage it, it is useless; if you have no time or energy to use your financial capital or relational equity to spend it with what good is it? If you gain the world but lose your soul what good is it? Is this the not-so-subtle message Bert Cooper gives up in the closing of our half season as he is singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free”? The idea behind Oikonomics is that the best things in life do not cost money, but they do require a costly and very worthy investment.
This past Friday I took the plunge and attended the local mosque here in the Antelope Valley. I’ve visited a few different religious houses of worship – a synagogue, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, Catholic mass, many Protestant churches and some naturalist gatherings (does D&D count too?), but I’ve never been to a mosque. A friend of mine is in a comparative religions class right now and mentioned he was going so I jumped on the chance…telling him I have always wanted to, but was a little chicken to go on my own. I was surprised by the similarities and differences between Christian worship and Islam. Here are some similarities and differences:
No one listens to the announcements: is this not true of your church? No one listens…I often give announcements at Kairos and I don’t even listen. We have tried to stop doing announcements…but they are cancerous and return after you think you’ve eradicated them. No, it doesn’t matter what religion or creed you are…no one cares about your announcements.
Sermon trajectory: while this isn’t (I hope) true of my church, it is persistently present in many Christian churches…the sermon started with a note on love and being grace filled (my language) and moved swiftly to “you need to try harder”. Isn’t this often where Christian churches land…the “be better” sermon?
Reverence and irreverence: there was a very sanctified air walking in…it is silent, most people (men) don’t talk with each other but rather take a spot on the floor and pray. This is unlike evangelical churches…however, as the service went on people shuffled in late, not-so-quietly greeted the friend they were sitting by and then left early. This last part is pretty true of most every church and religious group around – there is always a mix of reverent and flippant followers. Wasn’t this true for Jesus?
Food: many churches have a potluck together, others have coffee, in our home churches we eat a meal together every week, the Lord’s Supper is a meal of sorts…this is a great element to have that many churches downplay. They have a full meal together after the service and a large space to eat at. There is a strong element of community and commonality that comes from eating together.
No shoes: quite an Asian element…as you enter the mosque you take your shoes of and enter barefoot. In face, many facets were culturally foreign to the West – incense, Arabic writings and spoken language, floor seating. Some of these (barefootedness, communal seating) could be wonderful in a Christian service if they were more culturally accessible.
No greeting: not in the Christian church setting – someone is waiting to tell you Asalaam Alaykum (peace be upon you) and you are to respond in-kind. But that is about it…there was no informal greeting or introduction, no place for new visitors to find out more information or fill out some communication. Actually, maybe that should go in the similarity section.
Acapella singing: there was the traditional call to worship, the adhan (Allahu Akbar), is lead by a male congregant. Outside of that there is no communal singing and no instruments. The entire service was beautifully simplistic. Made me feel that often we are over-produced and overly complicated in postmodern Christian worship.
No women: they were there, but not during the service they were sequestered in a different section. There is certainly no element of equality or equity of the sexes. Now, that is also true of many Christian churches (though, once again, not mine)…but they are too cowardly to own outright their misogyny. I wonder if this is actually an appeal to Islam…you do not have the same feminization of religion?
There are my takeaways…there was no sense of darkness or evil, no hostility and no pressure to conform. Overall it was quite the tranquil experience. I was impressed with the seriousness that the community takes their rituals (purification, prayer, posture) and it made me wondering how contrite we are in the rituals of Christianity (singing, Communion, etc.) I think the biggest take away was the connection between religion and culture. Both Islam and Christianity are “universal” religions…i.e. they are not tribal or ethnically centered. However Muslims are tied to a geographical location (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem) and to a language (Arabic)…this is evident in the religious service and the tenants of the faith. While it is clear to me as an outsider how culturally contained Islam is, it is not quite so clear how culturally defined and limited Christianity or my particular expression of it is. I don’t have enough distance to gain see things in parallax. Where are the “stumbling blocks” of culture in the Western church today? They are no longer adherence to Latin or Rome, they are no longer ideologies of a “new Jerusalem” or Victorian mores. But maybe they manifest in the ideas of democracy, gender ideologies, literacy, etc.? What do you think culturally constricts the church in the West today?
Here are some thoughts that are quite embryonic…I’d love your feedback and collaboration.
It occurs to me, as a history professor, that one of the greatest challenges we face in understanding historical context is to be objective with our biases, presumptions and approaches to understanding different people and places. This continues to be a problem for Western cultures as we interact with other cultures around the world (the “White Man’s Burden“…) – we assume we understand things that are strange and foreign to us.
A regular assignment I give to my American history classes is to blog on the “connection between technology and psychology”. A core element of this idea is that we are inevitably controlled by the things we create…not always for the better, but sometimes for the best. It is very hard to envision our lives without the technological wonders we come to appreciate – smartphones, cameras, the Internet. On a historical level, this is why we have such a hard time understanding the morality and ethics of the past. For instance, it is hard for most students to grasp why feminism and gender equality did not become a more pressing issue and unified movement before 100 or so years ago. Why weren’t women demanding systematic equality centuries early? Because people in general were not questioning oppression and equality. As technology advanced (literacy and communication) and social theory developed with it (the Enlightenment and human rights) we were drawn into a higher ethic of behavior…one where inalienable rights existed for all people. Without understanding the historical and cultural context of this development…patriarchy seems absolutely ludicrous. But placed within a framing story the raison d’être becomes apparent (even if unjustified).
So my thought is this…is there an evolutionary nature to our ethics (different from evolutionary ethics)? As we grow in our capacity to understand and engage with the world we live in are we called to an increasingly higher standard of moral duty? For the breadth of human history global poverty was not a problem…as industrial production and globalization created this problem new medias in international communication technologies have brought this plight to our front door. Because we in the developed world are aware of our brothers and sisters in their squalor, we have a responsibility to engage with them.
As our capacity increases so does our responsibility (inserting tongue into cheek to refrain from Spiderman quote). For instance, when most post-moderns read questionable situations within Scripture (polygamy, warfare, deception, slavery) we have no basis for empathy. We cannot realize that this world was one of famine, barbarism and hubris…survival was the point of this world. In western, 21st century America, survival is not on our mind, so there is no social benefit for polygamy. However, if we can supplant ourselves back to a time of patriarchy and piratry…being widowed under these circumstances would spell certain disaster. Polygamy can be an act of mercy and generosity in this world…not just an act of sexual depravity, exploitation and control. As we grow and evolve on an social level (food and medical assistance, housing supplements, benefits and employment) vestiges like polygamy no longer find justification. The same could be said of indentured servitude and the development of credit, or industrial waste and environmental sciences.
In a world of abundant information, social mobility, global communication, financial freedom and political democracy we have more freedom and responsiblity than ever before. Having a micro computer in your pocket means that you are instaneously plugged into the problems of our global village. You are not only informed, but have the ability to advocate for others, inform your self, fund causes, plan events, etc. all from your mobile device. So…if our ethics are to evolve with our technological advancement and intellectual competency where does that leave us? Do you think there is validity to that notion? Are there other connections? Examples?