Slipping Into Darkness

Read on conservative side of the Religious Right and one can catch a whiff of an anti-democratic spirit, a longing for something other. Is just the patriarchal longing by another name? Is something else at work?

On her Facebook page, Kristin Kobes DuMez ponders this in light of a new article at Sojo (currently paywalled) by David Gushee, “The Trump Prophecy.”

This is something I kept seeing in my research that caught me off guard—the lack of support for democracy in conservative evangelical circles. When you believe in a patriarchal, authoritarian chain of command, democracy doesn’t make sense. Plus, for presuppositionalists, why would you want corrupt ideas holding sway? The question I struggled with is how influential/pervasive these ideas are within evangelicalism more broadly. More prevalent than I one thought.

So I don’t see this as an after-the-fact turn to justify support for Trump.

This emerging taste for hierarchy is certainly culturally different from the traditional culure of the Plain Folk, or the Scots-Irish that have so nurtured the Religious Right, which in turn leads me to wonder if this perhaps is a continuing capture by (conservative) Catholic social teaching? On Right to Life, the Catholics won the narrative, so Evangelicals started talking about “Natural Law” and likewise got up in arms supposed abortifacients (even got Calvin to sputter about Plan B as I recall). Also look for the use of subsidiarity by Evangelical political thinkers. In this framework, Trad Catholics lean away from representative democracy so it’s not surprising that the ties to representative government also get loosened.

As an aside, we can note the use of “Natural Law” as a sort of catchall in the desegregation debate. C.f. G.T. Gillespie, “Segregation is one of Nature’s Universal Laws” in Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Zondervan 2019. p. 133. Further, the authoritarian turn may also be an instance of what Michael Lind describes as Southern Bourbonism politics with its aristo-oligarchic, Big House style authoritarianism; another dark shadow of the Cotton Kingdom.

The authoritarian turn also destabilizes Evangelical theology. The suspicion that is built into the Reformation and especially its Baptist wing gets dulled. To reverse the James II “no bishop, no king” we instead have “king, so bishop.” And to the degree the authoritarian is shadow of the Cotton Kingdom, it becomes a white box, a substitution of the Evangelical proclamation of good news for all into a good news (only) for some.

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Yes?No? Maybe?

Brian Keepers revisits what it means to be Evangelical. Are we? Aren’t we? Sometimes? It is a confusing thing, he notes,

it’s got to be about more than just loyalty to the past. That wouldn’t be reason enough to stay with the label. Mouw would agree. As I consider why I’m still self-identifying as an evangelical, it is also because I believe in the heart of evangelicalism.

The model for the evangelicalism he’s seeking is one he takes from Richard Mouw, a manner of approach, “a kind of evangelicalism that is both convicted yet humble, robust and generous, open-hearted and curious, faithful to the past’s legacy but always restless and willing to be self-critical.”

As noted, being evangelical is almost entirely contextual or social: in some places I will be read as an “evangelical” because of my beliefs; elsewhere I can be vaguely progressive because of my politics. To the extent that Evangelical has a meaning, it points to a community, both the one that shaped us — a community of memory if you will, and the present social community — a society. One may belong to one and not the other, or to both.

Among the Dutch, the term, even the idea is a bit more complicated. The Evangelical were those who left e.g. PJ Zondervan, or Calvary Undenom and RBC both out of then Calvary Reformed): they were “methodists” then “fundamentalists,” then ‘thank-G– I’m not one of them’ they’re from Iowa (Wisconsin, or Ottawa County).’

Given that the personal nature turns the question into a sort of navel-gazing and a consideration of who belongs, words from John come to mind. Peter wonders “what about him (the other guy over there — John)?” And Jesus’ words are to work on our own business, “You are to follow me.” (John 21:21-22). I wouldn’t worry about Evangelical as much as I would worry about the following part. There’s plenty to be done.

Keepers, Brian. "Is It Time to  Let Go of the Label 'Evangelical?'". Reformed Journal:The Twelve. April 8, 2019.

Christian Politics? Nothing social about it.

Over at The Twelve, Jason Lief pushes back against those who see the call for Christian engagement on social issues as “the social gospel.” For him, the Christian community is called to oppose the ideologies, the powers of this age, starting wtih Jacque Ellul’s thoughts about money or Mammon. Following Ellul, Christians are called to bear witness, to speak on behalf of the weak and voiceless. And they are called to listen

The Christian community must listen to the voices of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized. We must oppose every form of hatred, every form of racism and bigotry, and every attempt to silence. This begins with confession—listening to the poor and the oppressed, and confessing our participation in sinful systems that pay homage to the idols of power and wealth.

But is he right, here? Is this the path for Christian engagement in politics?

After all, most of us take our politics from the sociological community where we live, so a person from Ann Arbor has a certain politics, and the Dutch dairy farmer has another political framework. We’re embodied, and the challenge for us within the scope of our own life is to manifest and promote the reign of God. The press of acting justly towards our neighbor or of acting for the good of our community is common. Likewise the resistance to the powers of this Age is common to us in our varied sociological settings. E.g. we all struggle with Ellul’s technology (techinque) as it actively seeks to stop our growth into Christian maturity. And technique is but one of the Powers with which we must engage in conflict.

So if we face a common task, albeit expressed differently, what is the role of confession? Isn’t that a form of perfectionism, my need to be absolved before I can speak: one more leftover of individual pietism, of me and Jesus?

So, too, consider the notion of opposition, itself an inherently reactive stance. If I oppose I do not really have to change, the problem is always with the Other. And to the extent we oppose abstract causes — those general national, international problems– we are only importing our own pre-existing values. Our sociology reigns.

Rather than think in terms of the political, why not think in terms of diverse voices, that the task of God’s People is to pursue justice and the good of the neighbor in the context of their particular sociological settings? We are open to the seduction of power, money, and the other idols and principalities of the age, what we need is not opposition, but a common cause, a commitment to confess Christ in our public lives as well. This will look different depending on where we are, and I would think that’s ok, perhaps even what God seeks. This finally why opposition doesn’t work, it muffles the summons to proclaim and act on Resurrection.

Haunted.

Adam Copeland is a haunted man, haunted by the memory of where he once was, who he once was, who interacted with hinm on the road to faith. The result? He doesn’t really go to church, even though he has a part in the church as institution. His article in the Christian Century considers this circumstance:

… frankly, the church of our future may not be as life-giving as those of our past. More likely than not, it will be in decline. It may be experimenting—badly—with ways to attract millennials. It may not have hit its budget target in years. It may struggle with mission beyond its doors. It may be somewhat uncomfortable, even painful, to visit and to join.

This closing thought has it almost right: we have to settle for the imperfect, rather than pursue the ideal. The point of having great memories of life-changing congregations is to treat them as the gift they are. They not only have shaped you to be the person you are, but also are a sort of gift to be shared with others. Keeping them only to yourself, refusing the messy and imperfect, does not keep the memory fresh it only curdles it.

And it’s Lent: what are we called to do but lay aside our own self for the sake of others? How can that be done alone. Only with the messy and imperfect can we have the mind of Christ who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. Only with the messy and imperfect can we open ourselves to being surprised by God’s goodness in the face of another.

Finally there’s the Table: how does one come to the Table except in the context of the messy and imperfect?

My recommendation? Talk with the custodian at the school, where does she go to church? Go there.

Adam Copeland, “I’m a ‘church leader’ who doesn’t really go to church” The Christian Century. March 28, 3029

Reading Tea Leaves

A recent article from The Atlantic discusses the relationship between gender non-conforming children and later social transitioning. Much depends on where one starts. Looking at the nonconforming children, the study finds that some will, some won’t socially transition, that the intensity of experience of nonconformity increases the probability of social transitioning. This suggests that the universe, the meaning of childhood gender nonconformity, is not only larger, but carries other meanings for the children themselves.

However, looking from the viewpoint of one who has socially transitioned, it is clear that the shape of one’s life was there from early on. A useful paragraph captures the reality:

“Implicit in a lot of people’s concerns about social transition is this idea that it changes the kids in some way, and that making this decision is going to necessarily put a kid on a particular path,” says (Kristina) Olson. “This suggests otherwise.” Children change their gender because of their identities; they don’t change their identities because they change their gender.”

A second aspect of the story will be its social location. The children studied are all from the upper middle class. The opening acceptance of gender non-conformity at a young age may be grounded in the advantages and perspectives of this class. Do their advantages and intellectual understanding allow them to respond earlier, in a more open fashion? Does it especially allow them to see? Elsewhere, the evidence is still out whether other children in say, blue collar household, experience their gender non-conformity in the same manner, with the same outcomes in terms of social transition.

Adding to the need for further research is that the CDC now reports that two percent of teens consider themselves transgender. As the early study by Olson highlights, what that means will need to be studied longitudinally.

Finally the question for all of us remains, whether who we understand ourselves to be now is a sort of persona, or the sign of something to become. How do we read those tea leaves for our selves?

Ed Yong. “Young Trans Children Know Who They Are”, The Atlantic. January 15, 2019.

Valerie Strauss. “CDC: Nearly 2 percent of high school students identify as transgender — and more than one-third of them attempt suicide,” The Washington Post. January 24 2019

“Now he knows what to say.”

Fuel

Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye




This is more standard literary poetry: a set of observations, and then some “insight”, “what this is really about,” a revelation. There are some lovely poems here: “Hidden,” quoted in many reviews is nice; also “Alphabet;” the opening lines of “The Rider” are lovely (A boy told me/if he roller-skated fast enough/his loneliness couldn’t catch up with him); “Pause” brings some nice observations; and the closing poems, “The Last Day of August” and “I Still Have Everything You Gave Me” offer a nice closing sense.

The last lines of “Listening to Poetry in a Language I Do Not Understand” are probably my favorite of her closing insights:

One word rolls across the floor,


lodging under the slipper


of the man who has felt uncomfortable


all day.

Now he knows what to say.





Oh, George

Image result for george h.w. Bush speaking
(George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)

President George H. W. Bush was known for his distinct speaking style–just ask Dana Carvey. That style was his from the moment he stepped into politics running for the U.S. Senate. Ben Cramer captures it:

Bush–well, he wasn’t much on the stump. He’d get cranked up, dive into a twisty river of a sentence, no noun, a couple or three verbs in a row, and you wouldn’t know where he was headed–sometimes for minutes at a stretch, while his hands sawed and pulled at the air, smacked on the podium, drew imaginary lines and boxes without name, without apparent reference to what we was talking about, which you couldn’t exactly tie down, unless you caught a key word, now and then, like “Sukarno,” or taxes,” or “lib-rull” (that one came up a lot), although you could tell it really hacked him off, the way his voice rose through the octaves–until he emerged on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, red in the face, pleased as hell with himself, spluttering out the predicate, or maybe the direct object of that second-last verb, and a couple more random words that had occurred to him in the meantime, and you could see he cared, and it went all together in his mind, but it wasn’t clear exactly how, or what it was he thought was so damned important.

Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: The Way to the White House (Vintage, 1993)