Reforming for What?

Writing the history of this era will demand that shark jumping be elevated to poetic art.

We open news feeds with trepidation (but also a twinge of sadistic glee?), wondering which formerly trustworthy person or institution is going up in flames today. In a particularly painful twist of irony, this fall has seen American Christians by turns celebrating the liberation of the religious conscience and then re-enslaving it in service of a false god.

October 31, 2017, marked 500 years since then-obscure German theologian Martin Luther wrote up a list of disputations with abuses of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, publishing it in the accepted manner by nailing it to the church door in Wittenburg. Luther’s act is traditionally viewed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, which forever altered Western culture and religious practice (though, it should be pointed out, much of his inspiration came from beyond Europe). His theological descendants have enjoyed an anniversary victory lap this year, reveling (not without merit) in Scriptural authority and historical doctrines the Reformation restored.

At almost the same time, news broke that the always-controversial Alabama politician (now Republican Senate nominee) Roy Moore stood accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment and general creepiness toward young women over many years. Several of the same Christian media personalities who had earlier compromised to publicly support Donald Trump’s presidency have beclowned themselves defending Moore. Some maintained Moore’s denial of the accusations, others have gone so far as to urge Christians to continue to support him even if every claim proves true. The stakes are too high, they say, to let a pro-abortion senator even finish out an abbreviated Senate term.

What do these events have in common? Surely #Reformation500 is not to blame for Christians thinking it OK to vote for a theatrical (and possibly criminal) huckster as the “lesser of two evils”?

New York Times columnist (and outspoken Catholic) Ross Douthat certainly sees a connection, if not to Moore directly then to the general climate that allows him to even have a leg to stand on.

Reaction to Douthat’s tongue-in-cheek trolling tweet was fairly hostile. To distill our current political moment to a centuries-old theological dispute is facile at best, especially considering that “Luther was responding to chaos, not creating it.” Still, Douthat may be on to something beyond a joke. In a fragmenting culture, is it really that far of a leap from the priesthood of all believers to setting up the pragmatic individual conscience as final arbiter of right or wrong?

The Reformation itself is not a fit scapegoat for our crisis of moral authority. Indeed, most of Luther’s complaints centered around the leadership of the church in his day acting like pagan kings. The recovery of Scripture as authority (which stood over church and civil leadership alike) was the goal, not the casting off of all authority. Moreover, a proper doctrinal understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit should constrain the conscience of the believer to the whole counsel of Scripture, never contradicting it on any point.

We’re not sent out on our own as free-thinking Spirit-buckets to make utilitarian choices in each situation. Supporting flagrantly immoral leaders is wrong, even if it appears to preserve perceived freedoms or achieve desirable ends. To believe otherwise is Enlightenment hubris, not Reformation thinking. If anything, the Reformation recalls the core truth that our would-be secular saviors (whether clothed in the mantle of religious authority or not) are nothing but idols. They disappoint at best and destroy at worst, using and abusing Christians for their own ends.

But secular saviors we want. Even the disciples were, at first, dejected that Christ turned out not to be the political Messiah they longed for. The church has often been so hungry for the pottage of political power that we have suppressed a bottom-up design of societal transformation that begins with the household of God, is refined through suffering, and flourishes to God’s glory in perseverance (see 1 Peter). This failure of vision often leads us to turn inward, choosing piety and order over justice and peace, despite Scripture’s insistence that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits (see Isaiah 58, among many, many other passages).

The energy of hope, desire, and growth so vital to a healthy community is not sustained by a church that trades the bounty of God’s kingdom table for the scraps of an individual pie-in-the-sky gnosticism. That joy may fade from the church, but even in times of unfaithfulness, God will not be without a witness, allowing (for a time) the mantel of social reformation to pass from the church and onto the shoulders of a no-less-zealous progressive irreligion. The heirs of New England’s Puritans are not churchmen but the elites of liberal democracy. If we fear the loss of religious liberty in such a world, surely a measure of blame lies at our doorstep.

How else can one explain why, on October 31, that venerable bugaboo of conservative Christianity, NPR, tweeted all of Luther’s 95 Theses. Some thought their account had been hacked, but I didn’t see any incongruity there. Whatever one thinks of NPR, it’s hard not to see that their leaders are pursuing a certain vision of a better society. Why not hearken back to a historical restoration of free speech and democratization?

While the political party pursuing (on paper) an end to abortion-on-demand is willing to cheerlead for the likes of Moore and Trump, the party of Planned Parenthood understands the wisdom of putting a Franken and a Conyers away for their transgressions. While some Christians make a public show of sweeping sexual sin under the rug, Hollywood’s empire of lust is throwing its newly exposed villains under the bus.

I’m not so naive as to think that public pressure, political posturing, and damage control have as much to do with these things than any latent morality, but they illustrate the failures of cultural Christianity nicely. Ceding the moral high ground to a secular culture can’t be good for Gospel witness (especially because it comes with all law and no grace), but it should wake us up.

It is deep in our humanity to long for the restoration of all things. The creation groans. If the church does not answer that desire with the fulness of God’s good plan through Christ, people will look elsewhere. When the church is rejected by a culture, it may indeed be persecution, but we ought also examine ourselves to see if what is being rejected is actually an incomplete and unholy vision.

It is time, now as always, for the church to declare the breaking in of God’s kingdom, already here but not yet fully seen. Why settle for power when we can rejoice in redemptive confrontation with the brokenness of mankind? Why settle for trying to make a temporary home “great” when we could be building on our imperishable inheritance? Why settle for burnishing our credentials to one or other political party when we serve the king to which they must one day bow? This is the good news of the Reformation, the one that began at Calvary and carried right through Wittenburg and on to the New Jerusalem. May we not settle for anything less.

Semper reformanda

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The Spiritual Vitality of Place

What does it mean to “be” somewhere?

We all live someplace; we are all from someplace. It could be a place or a nonplace, pleasant or otherwise. So long as life continues, this much is inescapable, but is location-location-location really a determining factor for anything beyond property value?

In 1910, English novelist E. M. Forster published Howard’s End, which explores questions of class, culture, and the future of his country in the face of a fading status quo. At one point in the book, Forster’s narrator laments the mobility inherent in modernity: “London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”

What Forster hints at in this passage is a sort of spiritual vitality to place. We tend to think of communities in terms of the people who live there, which is good and right. What if there is something in the interplay of people and place, however, that goes deeper than either one can alone? A house or hill, sight or smell, can fix in our memory a summary of human experience that would not be possible without such markers. There is a “there” there, after all

In my own life, this was embodied by my maternal grandfather. At his funeral in 2011, I wrote, “He came home to Pine Mountain, and more or less stayed put for the rest of his life. In that, he taught me what a community was and why it was worth putting up with the bad and the ugly to be a part of the good.” The life he inherited and invested in that corner of West Georgia is a part of me even now because of him, though I never “lived” there a day in my life.

Perhaps to truly bind us to one another, we must love both a place and the people who find their homes there. Places (like people) are not all easy to love, but if we are willing to withhold love from anywhere, we effectively hate everywhere. Caring for God’s creation (and the spaces His image-bearers have carved within it) is part of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Such care needs to encompass the full spectrum of our world. To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry, protecting only the majestic, “ecologically sensitive”, or quirky places without a similar regard for more mundane locales is less than true conservation. To be sure, regionality gets a lot of play these days—whether in food, language, music, or scenery. Most commentary on the subject, though, comes at a sort of cosmopolitan remove. The only people who talk about place in this way are those of us who are relatively detached from anywhere in particular. To know a place primarily in terms of terroir, I’d submit, is not to know it at all.

Geography itself has certainly played in the fortunes of men. Few major cities (at least prior to the advent of railroads and airplanes) are found away from seaports or navigable rivers and lakes. The rise of Western Europe surely owes as much to its relatively flat, arable land and moderate, Gulf-Stream-influenced climate as to any of the other cultural factors at play. In the other direction, the struggles of low-income communities in the U.S. and elsewhere are often a result of governmental and cultural segregation that located them in flood plains, cut off from commerce by uncrossable freeways and rail lines, and/or atop industrial wastelands.

Forster’s fear has long since become reality. Cosmopolitanism is king. Mobility has become the key indicator of success in the modern West. Even the average non-jet-setter is relatively capable of pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere when the opportunity arises, thanks largely to that “old Chev-ro-let.” Only the very poor seem to stay put anywhere, and their rootedness often looks less like loyalty and more like being trapped.

These divergent senses of place may be unavoidable consequences of specialization and globalization. Wealth, talent, and ambition slosh about from London to New York to Shanghai (and hundreds of other cities), creating a global “gated community” that admits comparatively few newcomers. Those who lack opportunity and access to enter the stream languish in cramped urban ghettoes or decaying company towns. Perhaps more is lost in the transaction than we realize. Berry writes, “The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods” (The Unsettling of America).

The world is increasingly stratified into the stuck-by-default and the nomads-by-choice, with less and less middle ground. A lack of shared place helps drive us to come apart in other ways. Rediscovering a way to share that space (even, as Chris Arnade observes, at McDonalds) will be key to bringing us back together. Proximity matters, and proximity happens somewhere. Can we truly love someone without being willing to be present with them? Can real relationship exist without shared sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures?

Just as, by God’s grace, a great falling away is often followed by a great awakening, perhaps a great coming apart will be followed by a great reconciliation. There is, and has been, movement in this direction in the midst of the steady opposing current. Re-neighboring is becoming a hot topic, and the Christian Community Development Association’s plea for relocating to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty has been echoing for decades.

Perhaps, in answer to Forster’s plea, love is the only thing equal to the task of keeping us together. It was for love that God made the world, and then formed Adam from its dust. Love is what bound us to the spectacle of the earth to begin with. Recovering our love for people and their places, we may well recover our own roots and find a place called home.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate.”

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Bridges, Chattanooga, Tenn., October 2014.

A Modest Proposal: The Pro-Life Movement in an Age of Realignment

With many around the world still trying to figure out the ropes in the new political realm, one statistic keeps coming back to the surface: 81% of white evangelicals who voted in the 2016 presidential election voted for Donald Trump. The reasons for this will keep being teased out (Clinton-fatigue/phobia? Overall decline in religiosity? Fear of diminishing religious freedom?).

Part of the explanation, though, has to include the collapse of the standard narrative that abortion policy is the driving force behind the “evangelical” (to the extent that such a demographic exists) political machine, with only 14% of such voters listing abortion or Supreme Court nominees as the most important factor in their choice.

For many Christians desiring to live out the Gospel (which historically has to include protecting and providing for the unborn), the 2016 election left us with no place to turn, and strengthened the sense that the Republican Party never intended to seek justice in the area of abortion. The fervor with which many of our professed fellow believers supported Republicans likewise appears to have less to do with moral imperatives than tribal loyalty.

Meanwhile, a large share of the general populace still view abortion as morally wrong, and less than 1/3 want it to be legal in any and all circumstances. Of course, abortion is not a stand-alone issue, with poverty, racial bias, social isolation, individualism, and a host of other factors lurking behind every tragic decision to end a life. The Church has a lot of groundwork to lay for the long haul of building a serious and generous pro-life culture, and the ultimate need is spiritual in nature, beyond the reach of argument and policy. Even so, there seems to be a path toward at least a modest consensus toward refusal to continue offering our children on the altar of the sexual revolution.

With that in mind, let me put forth a not-yet-fully-formed proposal.

I can’t find a good formulation of polling data on the subject, but it seems to me that the Republican Party have decided that relatively unregulated business is the primary thing worth preserving. My guess is that this view and its implications for daily life don’t really sit well with most Americans. Of course economic stability is important, but the essence of conservatism is that there are things worth valuing that can’t be so easily monetized.

The Democrats, coming off the heels of a stridently pro-abortion administration, are doubling down on that particular point of policy. DNC-backed candidates are expected to be in lockstep with the Planned Parenthood/NARAL crowd, pushing the minority view of extreme abortion-on-demand. If there was any doubt about the party’s direction, DNC chair Tom Perez recently slammed the door on dissent rather loudly.

So far, so little hope. Let us not forget, though, that among the fractures in our social fabric that the Trump phenomenon has revealed is a strong shift away from the standard left-right understanding of politics. The same is true across much of the developed world (Brexit, Macron v. LePen, and other election dynamics throughout Europe). The political status quo has been destabilized, and the opportunity for significant and lasting realignment is at hand.

Put another way, the false binary inherent in electoral choices (particularly in the U.S.) leads to nonsensical pairing of ideas. Why, for instance, do we require the tax code to favor either wealth and business or individuals and families? Why does seeking to preserve life in the womb require a willingness to support taking it from others by endless war and police brutality? Why does a desire to care for God’s creation have to be lumped in with abortion bloodlust? Lacking logical consistency and, now, ideological support, such false choices are now free do die.

If, then, a majority of Americans have either a moral conviction against or grave misgivings about abortion (or at least its prevalence), why couldn’t the mushy pro-choice consensus erode into a more firmly pro-life consensus with abortion considered independently of its false-pair tagalongs?

From another perspective, the cornerstone of the radical pro-abortion wing of the Democrats is the has long been preserving a woman’s right to maintain her own economic and personal destiny. Would not those holding that viewpoint have a lot more in common with a Republican Party decoupled from any semblance of social conservatism and wholly devoted to the pursuit of self-actualization and profit?

Lo and behold, this week there are rumblings from op-ed pages of no less liberal stalwarts than the New York Times (from a pro-life perspective) and Los Angeles Times (from a Democratic Party perspective) essentially arguing for just that. Such subversion of party orthodoxies, may seem like little more than ploys to capitalize on our political moment to build a more lasting majority for one party or the other, but these are fairly nuanced arguments that suggest a willingness to deal—to allow a moral question to stand aside from purely political trappings.

I’ve kicked around the idea with friends of writing a “Gospel Federalist” arguing for a more holistic Christian vision of politics. A revolution against broken binaries and tribal temptations seems like a winning strategy in the present moment. With the momentum picking up around groups like the & Campaign, it seems like we aren’t alone.

So this is my humble suggestion for those much more politically inclined and tactically shrewd than myself: take a moment to read the lay of the land and take some bold, creative steps. The ground is shifting, so don’t let allegiance to our old land hold us back. The time may be coming for the politically homeless to set out for a new country we know not yet.

Photo: The White House, Washington, D.C., May 2016.

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.