Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

I’ve been scribbling a few ideas of late under the general heading of The Chalmers Option. Briefly, it is an attempt to think through how the Western church can recover a healthier vision for its future not simply in order to recover a holistic theology that encompasses poverty, oppression, and suffering but through that very recovery. This exchange of values is brought about by “the expulsive power of a new affection”—that we only turn away from a faulty love in the face of an overwhelmingly better one—a phrase from Thomas Chalmers.

The name’s similarity to The Benedict Option is not an accident. I am highly in favor of the direction Rod Dreher has taken in teasing out this concept on his blog and in his most recent book. The church cannot give away what it does not have, and this soul searching is long overdue. Without an internal culture shift, our hope of external cultural impact is a waning illusion.

So why bother to riff on a good idea? First, if there was any shortcoming to the book, it was the relative gloss on how well the concept might apply to those already on the margins of our culture. I chalk that up to the simple fact that nobody can put everything in a single book, so I’m offering this as an addendum more than a corrective. Second, several voices (both online and in person) pointed out that civilizational decline narratives don’t resonate very well with those who never experienced a cultural ascendancy. There is a similar sense of moral/spiritual loss in marginalized communities, but the present urgency is not felt so keenly where being an outcast has long been the norm.

Since poverty is as much a culture as a condition, this raises the question of how the BenOp translates across cultures. Though it is explicitly a strategy for the West, the spiritual and community disciplines that the book commends are needed for all Christians.

In this, as in so many other arenas, Christians tend to talk past each other about the same concerns and truths. Disagreement and uncoordinated efforts are as often the result of cultural disconnects as actual opposition. We usually fail to recognize the intentional and unintentional roles we play in shaping those very cultures.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ July 11 piece on the growing cultural divide between elite and mainstream American cultures (the now-infamous “Sandwich” column), has a lot to teach us in this regard. Class cuts across many planes, and members of the elite culture (those with education, at least a little bit of money, and connections to the halls of power) are increasingly incapable of even holding conversations with anyone not just like themselves.

Brooks is by no means the first to raise this point. Sociologist Charles Murray published a book-length study of the growing cultural divide in 2012’s Coming Apart. Murray’s work shows that on nearly every metric of social health (social capital, marriage, employment, etc.) those on top tend to remain on top, and those on the bottom tend to remain at the bottom. The divide itself is nothing new, but what has changed in recent decades is the lack of mobility across it. We simply do not mix across class lines anymore. Murray’s thesis rings true, and he supports it with compelling evidence, but I fear that his tense is wrong: maybe we really have come apart. Nothing short of love (with intense patience) can restore the power of community, the value of shared rituals, the art of neighboring and other practices that can hold us fast against the wider cultural maelstrom.

Brooks, Murray, and others (including Alan Jacobs and Dreher) speak of a set of cultural shibboleths, and these can hold just as much sway within the church. Murray observes that religious attendance in the U.S. has held somewhat steady among the richer classes while cratering among the poor. What underlays this, though, is not only the broader issues Murray discusses (healthy lifestyles, social networks, etc.), but a cultural stratification among and within churches themselves.

The failure of evangelical jargon (“Christianese” we used to call it) to connect with unbelievers and the general culture has been talked about a lot, so much so that most churches have thrown it out in favor of simpler terms (which, in turn become jargon themselves). “Getting saved” becomes “trusting Christ.” “Christian” becomes “Christ-follower.” “Sanctuary” becomes “worship center.” The list goes on. I’m not sure what can be done about this particular phenomenon—in-group slang will always be with us.

At what point, though, does a shared language become a barrier rather than a unifier? I see some unsettling trends in the way that the educational and economic segregation of the faithful interacts with professionalization of pastoral work to contribute to disunity among the faithful. The theological language used in wealthier and more educated congregations (technical terms, church history, Greek or Hebrew being used and translated, etc.—all good things in themselves) is incomprehensible to the majority of Americans who call themselves Christians. Moreover, the level of education expected for pastors in most evangelical denominations leads those with seminary degrees (and the debt burdens that come with them!) to only seek ministry roles in wealthier areas. This accelerates the divide, depriving trained pastors of the opportunity for long-term learning from Christians outside of their social bubble and depriving lower-income churches the chance to benefit from the good work of seminaries.

These threads are coming together to function as “condensed symbols” for a largely accidental elitism within the Body of Christ. None of us have planned for this to happen, but we’ve wound up here by virtue of not considering the larger cultural issues at work. We’ve arrived now at a place where childlike faith is not enough to burnish our identity in Christ, where “loving the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength” means having a Masters-level understanding of Scripture and theology.

When we consider many of the other disappointing aspects of church culture (the rise of a mushy “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” in place of submission to King Jesus, churches’ accommodation of aspects of the sexual revolution, etc.), this dynamic is lurking in the background. The generally poor state of teaching afflicts all of us across the spectrum. When we live in one bubble or the other, we will always be tempted to shade our teaching away from the whole counsel of God and bow to the cultural norms that press on our churches from the outside (see again the “A-side/B-side” comparison in the last post).

A little courtesy and communication theory (“consider your audience”) could go a long way. All of us need to rediscover how to treat American God-fearers with the same love and patience we treat the unevangelized across the world—listening, contextualization, and long-term discipleship. People should always be growing in their understanding of the depth of God’s truth, but the vibe in church should be “welcome to our journey together” not “you’re too dumb to be a good Christian.”

Food for thought.

Photo: Atlanta History Center, July 2017.

God, the Ruler of All the Earth: Psalm 46

Many Psalms look inward at our personal righteousness in the face of God’s holiness (like Psalm 1), Others, such as the one we turn to now, focus outwardly on God’s strength and power and His dealings with the nations of the earth.

One of the great themes of the book that emerges very clearly in Psalm 46 is God’s power over and desire for praise from every nation, not just the Israelites.

Looking back from the perspective of the modern West, as inheritors of the work of faithful believers through the centuries to bring the Gospel to far shores, it is easy to see such messages in the words of the psalmists and “connect the dots” to the New Testament reality of God’s love poured out for all people. When we read a passage like Psalm 67:3-4, “Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for You will judge the peoples with uprightness and guide the nations on the earth,” it is for us wrapped in the warm joy of the Church around the world praising God and yearning for the day when we will do so together in His presence.

For the Israelites under the Old Covenant, however, the notion of God’s love for the nations would have sounded like a haunting prophecy, a departure from the status quo, and (for some, at least) a threat to their special status with God. Of course, God’s plan was always for redemption of the whole world through Israel (as we see in the promise to Abram in Genesis 12, Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, and many other places), but most of the Israelites were blind to this truth. It was not until after the death and resurrection of Christ that this message broke forth under the influence of the Holy Spirit (as we see in Acts 2) and spread like wildfire.

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The Mystery of the Manger

 An Advent meditation from 2008. Originally published in Pulpit Helps.

Each year at Christmas, we return to the manger. The simple image of the Messiah surrounded by livestock and shepherds is an archetype of the Incarnation and a recurring theme in our hymns and traditions.

We are right to put Christ’s infancy at the forefront of our celebration because God chose to put it at the forefront of the symbolism surrounding His coming. As if the Creator of the universe taking human form wasn’t mind-blowing enough, He chose to arrive on the scene naked and helpless, completely dependent upon His parents for nourishment and protection. In divine paradox, He was both Father and child to them.

In spite of His authority and ability to do so, Christ did not depart from these humble beginnings, returning with His family to Nazareth and apprenticing with Joseph to become a carpenter. Isaiah 53:2 says, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” He never aspired to “greatness” in the human sense, content to quietly work the will of the Father and withdrawing from the praise of the masses. God-become-man demonstrated His identity precisely by not trumpeting it (Phil. 2:6); those who met Him at the manger were awed at the very ordinariness of His human form.nativity-small

Equally significant is the location of His birth. While we don’t know the exact placement of the manger (whether in a stable, on the lower floor of a house, or in a cave), it is a place not befitting human residence, let alone God’s. But it was there in that dishonorable, unsanitary space that Christ entered His world. British author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton capitalizes on this in The Everlasting Man. Seizing on the image of the cave, he writes, “It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors…had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born.” Indeed, His birth as an outcast foreshadowed the life of homelessness that He and His disciples led (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58).

The lowly birth of Christ, as Chesterton goes on to state, is the central event of all history, the end of mythology’s dreams and philosophy’s search, and the trumpet call of victory over Satan. He says, “It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited this world in person. It declares that really…right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into this world this original invisible being about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths: the Man Who Made the World.” The manger turns the world on its ear.

God’s entry into the world serves a larger purpose than simply flying in the face of human conventions, however. His arrival was the ultimate demonstration both of His authority over creation (in being born of a virgin) and His love and concern for man. Because He showed up in the person of Christ, His character has been demonstrated for all to see. He cannot be ignorant of poverty, for He was poor. He has ultimate sympathy for the suffering because He was tortured and gave His life. No man can accuse Him of being distant or uncaring because He is God with us. By healing the sick and rebuking the proud, He reminds us that He has entered the world to set it to rights; He will bring His justice.

He came as a man to redeem the world. He had to take part in birth and death to defeat the power of Satan over men (Heb. 2:14). As Athanasius of Alexandria put it, He came “to renew men according to His image.” Because of the manger, birth and life are honored with the presence of the King. In lowering Himself, He gave significance to the daily tasks and struggles of life. He came to set a standard by which we should also live.

This then is the mystery of the Incarnation—through all these things, He commands us to follow Him. From the manger, He bids us to follow into a life of lowliness, wandering, sacrifice, and submission to the Father. The irony of God’s destruction of earth’s status quo is that it simultaneously frees us from slavery under the law and calls us to a higher road. The very Word of God, by whom all things were made and are held together, has shown us the way, and we are to be imitators of Him. Such is the gift of Christmas.

Election Reflection: Burned out, but Building up

Much as this election felt like a long national nightmare—and the wreckage in the rearview mirror leaves me nearly in despair—the outcome and its potential future makes the campaign itself seem merely like the end of the beginning.

I’ve generally refrained from talking partisan politics in this space, and I’ve waited until the end of this cycle to avoid any perception of endorsement or campaigning. This year, though, has so squeezed my principles that they’ve nearly collapsed in on themselves. Whatever spark remained of my younger self’s zest for the intrigues of the political process has been thoroughly snuffed. I’ve watched men & women I respect make apologies for the most reprehensible behavior and diabolical ideas (from both ends of the spectrum). I’ve watched the notion that character matters a whit in any area of life go up in smoke. In an eerily sacramental finale, those of us in the Southeast have had to process these events in a haze of literal smoke.

Though neither party nor their “chosen” candidates (the election was not between two candidates so much as between their anti-matter counterparts—#nevertrump vs. #neverhillary) had anything of substance to offer to most Americans, many projected their desires and fears onto them. Of course this is nothing new, but the level to which fear was the only note played by this year’s band astonished even my inner pessimist.

In the weeks leading up to November, my wife & I both read two recent books that effectively capture two prominent perspectives in the present America. Though undertaken for general interest and learning, reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me quickly came to reverberate the two basic fears driving opposition to the two parties. In these two books, two very different cultures with problems and responsibilities that are both similar and wholly different cry out to be heard and reckoned with. Both are being spoken to by certain constituencies. Both are being sold a mess of pottage by the governing elite and ignored by the broader upper middle class (Charles Murray’s “broad elite“).

Both Vance & Coates speak as “insider-outsiders” with unashamed fondness for their cultural background (and baggage) even as they have risen into the same elite class so blindsided this year. True to his chosen title of “Elegy”, Vance raises more questions than he attempts to answer; Coates’ refrain is more of a damning, poetic indictment of the destruction of black men, women, & children by the dominant culture. Both, though, lean hard into the conversations that our culture doesn’t want to  have but soon may not be able to live without. Both name the unspeakable loss that comes from watching what you love being stripped away by forces often completely out of your control.

These books also reflected for us an exercise in empathy. We are given a glimpse into a culture that, for many of us, is simply “other”: former coal miners or factory workers wade through unemployment, drug addiction, and family breakdown; young black men navigate recognition of their fraught history and witness friends and brothers being killed by police. Walking in such shoes is not something that comes easily to a modestly well-off, educated suburbanite like me. In this respect, readings like this are another step in my own journey to making peace with the privilege and responsibility inherent (to some level or another) in each of our lives.

Empathy goes a long way toward explaining how hard it’s been to watch this political year unfold. The level of my emotional reaction to Trump’s win surprised me. As I’ve tried to tease that out, I’ve joked with friends that “I didn’t know I had an inner liberal before this year, but I do, and he’s angry.” More truthfully, what’s changed for me is having forged real friendships over the past few years with people with very different stories from mine. Blessed with a life full of ladies (I have two sisters and three daughters; no brothers and no sons), I already had a built in revulsion to the way Trump treats and talks about women and the way Mrs. Clinton has thwarted her husband’s accusers, and no desire to see that kind of behavior rewarded and empowered. Watching Trump’s bumbling bring out some of the worst elements of our culture helped me see that the racism (both tacit and virulent) I thought was dead and gone is a part of daily life for my African American brothers and sisters.

Added to that, I’ve been working since March for a ministry focused on equipping churches to alleviate poverty. You can’t spend your time & energy teaching others to recognize and respect the God-given dignity of all people and then sit idly by when the platforms of those who would strip it from so many of them get mainstreamed into American political life.

What I have in common with all of the rest of my compatriots this year is fear. It is written on so many faces; scribbled as the subtext of every commentary on our fractured politics. Fear, powerful motivator though it may be, is most dangerous when we allow it to define our hope. They are natural opposites, these two, but they always tag together. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” When our fear is properly placed in the Lord (who holds our destinies), our hope is found in him as well. Letting fear reside elsewhere (say, in a Hillary Clinton Presidency) allows hope to attach to utterly untrustworthy objects (such as Donald Trump). All of us struggle to keep this divine perspective, living in quiet terror of losing our spot in life’s queue.

As frustrated as many are with the situation we find ourselves in, I’m forced to wrestle with what a luxury political angst is. Apocalyptic rhetoric has always been a feature of politics in a free society, but (however much it may be justified) it always distracts from the worthwhile endeavors of actually building the communities that build a country. What is worth our time? What will last? What are we willing to give up to gain what is not so easily lost? If each of us (pointing the finger at myself first) spent half the time getting to know and serve our neighbors that we spend digesting national news and wringing our hands, what could be built? The day after the election, a group of us (black and white) sat across the breakfast table from a South Sudanese pastor (whose church is in a refugee camp) talking about the future of his ministry, and our “justifiable” despair at the state of our nation began to look a lot more like petulant self-absorption in the grand view of God’s kingdom.

As 2016 comes to a close and the sorrows of national life mingle with the joys our family and friends have experienced this year, the memory of this apparent annus horribilis may be sweeter than I have capacity to see. Taking time to think and feel and process all that has passed will, I hope allow me to someday tell my children how God is faithful in things big and small, working out His plan despite our penchant to accuse Him of unconcern.

May we all see that, despite the apparent priority of political life, “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” nearly as much as we might think. God is on His throne, and our daily marching orders are still posted as ever.

Photo: Remains of a Forest Fire, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, October 2016.