Don’t share your cookies!

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit.  – Tony Campolo

Sometimes, when I’m really bored, I’ll click on the Christian Post for a helping of warmed-over evangelical propaganda. They specialize in gripe features, when they’re not fretting about losing white Christian control over everything.

This CP article over the Christmas holidays really helped explain what the Evangelical Tribe is all about. It involves a church in densely populated urban Seattle that is experiencing a major problem. (It’s a Greek Orthodox church, but the CP commenters piling on here were assumedly evangelicals). The particular area is known as one of Seattle’s most popular nightlife and entertainment districts, and home to a historic gay village. It’s going through the throes of gentrification, where the birthplace of grunge is scaling up to a more expensive grunge. Trip experts rave about loads to do, but warn not to stray from the main drag.

Seattle has become a magnet for the homeless. They are hanging out on street corners and camped out in public parks. Tourists complain the area is overrun with pan-handling drug addicts. The local church in question has the same issue, and parishioners are afraid to attend. They blame the police for doing nothing. “We need help”, the church pleads.

The question is, would WE invite these dead-enders and abused losers to worship with us? No. These folks just wouldn’t fit in with our kind, especially at the pleasant après-worship featuring coffee and sweets. Instead, we’d be dialing 911 and sending them to jail. Like a Baptist church in California, where a homeless man who entered the church looking for assistance was arrested. He had stolen some $2 worth of cookies!  Who is the “we” who really needs help?

Last month, most of us in America endured one of the most frigid, pipe-busting Decembers on record. While the polar vortex winds blew, how many of us driving to our comfy Christmas Eve services, gave any thought to detour past a Wal-Mart or other big box store?. After dark, on any given night, any number of dingy cars and vans are parked in the dark corners of the lot. People live in them. We call them “homeless” people, but they are not. They are un-homed, discarded, hungry and unloved. Go ahead and check for yourself.

Like the church in question, many Christians imagine the world’s problems might be solved if needy people outside our churchly comfort zone would just magically disappear. Commenters to the article tried to paint the church as victim:

  • “Police are so kind to homeless people. Seize their property and then roust them 9 times out of 10.”
  • “If you don’t like rampant crime and homelessness, then don’t vote Democrat.” 
  • “These are not poor……….These are addicted to drugs”
  • “Want to get rid of them?  Go out and start preaching to them all day every day.”
  • “Put these people in prison, and, whilst they are in prison, get them dried out, teach them life skills, and, with any luck, make them productive citizens.”

Can you hear what they’re really saying? Funny, how few of these armchair “experts” saw this as a spiritual problem the American church has disowned. “Are there no prisons?” “Are there no workhouses?” Each year, a Texas church boasting 49,000 members puts on a Christmas extravaganza bigger and better than Broadway. A $60 ticket to see the 1,000 member performance buys angels flying across the ceiling, a choir and live orchestra, a cast of on-stage animals, along with a first act featuring Santa. Duas tantum res anxius optat: Panem et circences. And we don’t have resources to help those in need??? Or is it because we don’t give a shit? When Christians turn our backs to the visibly invisible in our neighborhood, it should shame us to be the truly homeless ones, having souls with “no room at the inn”.

The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared? – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Raise a Toast to Thanksgiving

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thessalonians 5

We lived in the village of Ellicottville, New York for a number of years,  tucked away in a small corner upstate which is famous for snow accumulations. This week, a ginormous blizzard “of long duration” is destined to hit, leaving some 4 feet of fresh snow.  We’re used to that beginning around Thanksgiving, being snuggled away with a cozy wood fire blazing, watching out the windows as big flakes poured forth from the sky. It was the best time for that holiday, or at least the best time to be home for it. Sadly, some years, we celebrated by ourselves – the roads were impassable for traveling family. But thankful for their presence whenever they could make the snowy trek.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for the year. It expresses my gratefulness to God for all his many good gifts. Even in the years snow blocked us from the rest of civilization, we gave thanks “in all circumstances”.  Thanksgiving is a bittersweet time for me. I love the family-oriented togetherness that culminates at a well-appointed common table. A time of renewal; a time we express love and receive it. But it’s distressing to see the creeping commercialization of Christmas overtake it. Even as the turkey dishes are being cleared, the god of Mammon is seducing us back into the malls, as if Thanksgiving were some annoying interruption to the all-important “ca-ching”. And Americans are more than eager to resume their acquiring, having paused a whole day out of the year to be thankful.

For me, every single day is one for which I feel grateful – and indebted – to a loving God full of grace. For my loving, caring family. For physical well-being. For the protection of a warm house, and food on the table. Its also a day I give back to those not as fortunate in those regards. Like our former housekeeper, Maria. We have committed to “pay forward” many of our blessings onto her struggling family.

For me, commercialization has hollowed-out much of the true joy of Christmas and turned it into a frenzied credit card free-for-all. I look forward to the season of Advent and the Nativity with mixed emotions, seeing so much having been captured by secular culture. There’s not much buying and selling involved in Thanksgiving – a turkey dinner, some seasonal decorations, maybe a vase of flowers. It’s not sexy for marketers. Stores are already fully stocked with Christmas wares. Materialists don’t know how to molest Thanksgiving. They keep pecking away at it, reminding us in football commercials that Black Friday is really the holiday you should pay attention to.

But there is one special day I can raise a toast to the Giver of the feast with my wonderful family to say “I am truly grateful to God for the blessings he’s bestowed”. And for that, I am truly thankful.

Credo… Credimus

But if we walk in the light, as he also is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.  1 John 1:7

 “I believe… We believe…” Modern English language is densely rich, but one shortcoming rests in addressing a whole bunch of people.  We have no linguistic way of differentiating singular and plural “you”.  It wasn’t always this way. In English at the time of the King James Bible, “ye” was the second person plural pronoun (i.e.- not the performer previously known as Kanye West). As in, “prepare ye the way of the Lord”. To make that distinction today, English speakers need to resort to awkward work-rounds like “y’all” or “you guys”.

I’m not trying to inflict a grammar lesson; this linguistic deficit affects how we interpret the Bible and our approach to faith.  The majority of St. Paul’s epistles, for example, were addressed to congregations, to be communally received. We can easily misread passages where Koiné Greek expresses the collective you. Especially given our hyper-individualized evangelicalism, which embeds the assumption that the Apostle’s instructions were addressed to “Me”, “Mine”, or “I” rather than as pluralized instruction to a community.

The collapse of American community has been recounted in Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”.  The disconnectedness of our society influences how evangelicals relate to one another. Or, to be more precise, how they don’t. The message of the gospel becomes a message “for me” personally. This branding of the idealized modern American Christian begins as the sale is closed, typified by the “I have decided to follow Jesus” style of proselytizing popularized by Billy Graham in his mass crusades. My religion is exclusively between me personally and Jesus.

Asking Jesus into your heart – just say the magic words, and now you’re totally free in Christ. What more is needed after that? The problem with retail grace is that Jesus did not say go and make Christians, but disciples who were to be baptized and taught. The magic words spoken in a crusade do a great job answering what I need to be saved from; what I am being saved to – not so much. John Stott comments: “We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community.” Jesus didn’t tell people to accept him, but to follow him. And that needs to happen within the loving arms of a body of believers, whose practices embody the biblical story.

When Paul the Apostle speaks to the Galatian church about growing “… until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19), he wasn’t talking about weekly meet-ups for religious consumers, or feeding the fast food aggregate of “I”s. He meant a new identity lived out in community. It is where Christians (“we”, “us together”, “among”, “in common”…) put into practice the habits to live Christianly, to encourage each other in godliness, and invoke mutual obligations of care and concern. Worship is connection; brought together with God and each other. Bonhoeffer describes this in Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben). Other cultures have excellent words for this concept English can only vaguely approximate, like the Russian word Sobornost (Собо́рность) or the Greek Koinonia (κοινωνία).

Now, worshipping apart from the evangelical tradition, I’ve begun to think in terms of corporate spirituality, gaining a fuller perspective on life together. In worship we pray, “Our Father in heaven…”  We also profess our faith publically with the Nicene Creed, starting with “We believe (pisteuomen) in one God …” The “we” of the Creed’s opening statement is not only a recitation of doctrinal unity, it also implies obligation and responsibility to one’s neighbor. What is true for me applies to each member of my family of faith, standing together as the church.

Some time ago, the military came up with a recruiting slogan, “An Army of One”. “If you want to be an ‘Army of One’”, one critic noted, “you probably want to join the Hell’s Angels, not the U.S. Army.”  The same can be said for Christianity, where there is no single-person church. The plural use in Nicaea dates back to the early church, and given the post-modern primacy of the individual and its jettisoning of common identities, is especially relevant today for the self-centered “my faith” in isolation from the church, versus the allness of  “our faith” as corporate witness to the Living Word, re-enacting his presence among us in water, bread and wine, and being the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit moves.

We believe!

Dumb, Ignorant, Lazy or Just Plain Stupid?

One of the most religious countries on the earth is also a nation of religious illiterates – Stephen Prothero

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

The Greatest Book Never Read – evangelicals have become a religious tribe of biblical illiterates. The People of the Book revere the Bible – “but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.” For many an evangelical Christian , the word is more a brand than a faith. Evangelicals are identified politically more than theologically; simply another word for ‘Republican’. “This is what religion without religion looks like”, writes Shadi Hamid.

How did we get here?

There are plenty of reasons, and throughout this blog, I’ve been stuck writing the same thing over and over again on the manifold failings of evangelical leadership. We likewise need to examine the effect of those sitting in the pews.

A Christianity Today article entitled, Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible, found an appalling scriptural illiteracy among the very biblicists who uphold its every inspired and inerrant word. Only about half of those who define themselves as professing Christians bother to read the Bible. Frankly, it belies a common American lack of curiosity about the known world, confirmed as I taught ninth grade world geography. I had to dumb things down and teach from a seventh grade textbook. Even then I had to soft-ball exams, with students answering, for example, that Hawaii was a country.  Jay Leno spelled out this embarrassing national ignorance on his Jaywalking segments.   

By and large, Americans are not well-read. And the same goes for evangelicals, where more and more, faith ignorance rules the day. Even at a evangelical seminary, a theology professor was astonished to find incoming students needed remedial training on Bible content. Its a damning confirmation of modern evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism. It’s not that Johnny Evangelical can’t read the Bible. He’s just grown up in an environment where verbalizing the orthodox faith isn’t that important. This lack of Bible-reading explains why we supposed Biblicists assume we know the Bible, when we really don’t.

One could go further.  Many evangelicals come pre-loaded a scatter-text of Bible snippets, rather than an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Biblical literacy means more than winning a game of Bible Trivia – a cut-and-paste approach that looks to the Bible as one’s personal answer book. Bible literacy needs to be more than meeting our emotional needs. Rather than approaching the Bible as a “grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader’s prior commitments”, Christians need to be readers seeking the unfolding of God’s redemptive process. 

Sunday school is passé. Forget catechism – it’s is for Catholics! Feeling is Believing. Small group relational Bible studies are called inductive, but are more assumptive; weighted by with free-flowing devotionals that don’t force us to wrestle with our Christian belief and practice – or as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer put it, hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures . Today’s blind collectivism arises from little taste for “theology” in what has become a post-denominational movement inexplicably hung together by individual autonomies.

To my mind, foremost in the formation of disciples is having read the Bible cover-to-cover, and frequently. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, we see the arc of Scripture in Creation – Fall – Redemption – New Creation, with its centrality being Jesus Christ. That’s why I recommend against reading the Bible front-to-back. A serious Bible learner should start in the Gospels, which hang the larger narrative together in redemptive completeness.

Where do we go from here?

Americans have an innate quest for authentic spirituality. Even many who are “Dones” turned off by the institutional church remain, like the Bereans, eager to learn more about Jesus. Marva Dawn asked, “will we give away the Church and its gospel power by dumbing it down or by failing to reach out?”[1] One of my favorite writers, Dawn incisively begins at the heart of Christian community: worship.

“My major concern for the Church”, she continued, “has to do with worship, because its character-forming potential is so subtle and barely noticed, and yet worship creates a great impact on the hearts and minds and lives of a congregation’s members. Indeed, how we worship both reveals and forms our identity as persons and communities.”

Why do I paste a book on communal worship into a post on “dumbed-down” Christians? Because the Bible was meant to be read and discussed in gathered community. The locus of that gathering is koinonia, where we “experience God’s grace and power, informed by the written Scriptures, mediated by the Holy Spirit, and based upon the work of Christ on the Cross.”

I assign “dumbed-down” Christians two homework assignment: Buy a fresh Bible and immerse yourself in it. Then read Marva Dawn’s works and introduce her to your congregation.  

[1] Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology Of Worship For This Urgent Time, (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1995), 12.