Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent

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By Flofor15 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Popular blogger and theologian, Scot McKnight, argued recently on his blog that it is time, and past time to bury the identifier “evangelical.”  Recently the former Princeton Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship, citing the confusion and negative associations the term has with students. Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication, now uses the language of “beautiful orthodoxy” to describe its vision. What it comes down to is the term is now associated with the 81 percent of voters who self-identified as evangelical who voted for our current President, and that essentially “evangelical” equates with a certain kind of Republican, and is a divisive and alienating term if one doesn’t identify with those Republicans.

I find I have to agree with McKnight, albeit with great sadness. This is the death of what was once a good word, literally. It has been corrupted by making it politically captive to one party whose policies and practices many thoughtful Christians find impossible to reconcile with a biblical faith.

McKnight is not one who is leaving what would be defined as an evangelical faith in abandoning the term, unlike others who have changed their beliefs along with their identification, some leaving Christianity altogether, others finding a home in mainline Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox bodies. What I hope for McKnight (and I would include myself along with him) is that he doesn’t leave behind the “81 percent” who still use the identifier.

I think there is a great danger for the “19 percent” to fall into the same error of the Democratic elite in this last election, who lost touch with their base, particularly in the working class and perhaps even looked down their nose at them as the “great unwashed” or “the basket of deplorables.” I would argue that there is an evangelical elite as well–academics, writers for national organs like Christianity Today, who would identify as “socially progressive” on many issues while remaining theologically orthodox. And this elite has its own “echo chambers.”

In his book Just ImmigrationMark Amstutz observes the progressive position on immigration of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and the disconnect between these evangelical leaders, and many of those in the denominations and ministries they represent. What this suggests to me is a telling lack of influence by those charged with teaching and shepherding their flocks. Amstutz also notes a troubling disconnect between biblical principles and policy recommendations reflecting a very thin biblical and theological analysis of the issues. When evangelical leaders fail to root their teaching in careful biblical argument, and promote a policy position that looks very much like a party platform, is it little wonder that there is a disconnect between shepherds and flock?

It is probably not uncommon for those in the “19 percent” to bemoan the divisive politics in our country. But what are we doing to heal the deep fault lines with the “81 percent”? I found it deeply troubling to read the uncharitable things written by those in the 19 percent about those who voted for the current president. Dropping the term “evangelical” helps shed what is a negative identification. But if it means dropping identification with those who share our core convictions, who we would call brothers and sisters in Christ, then we mirror our country’s political divisions in the body of Christ. What place have we for complaining about our nation’s divided house when we cannot even restore our own?

Scot McKnight represents a significant group within the 19 percent–those who are the teachers and pastors of the church. Ultimately, if the flock of God has entered into unholy alliances that have compromised our identity in the world, at whose feet must this be laid but those who are teachers and shepherds of that flock? Will we then distance ourselves to preserve our progressive theological purity and simply say “they” are the problem. How far from the prophets of old who identified with the sins of their people, or even Christ, who accepted a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin” even though he had no sins of his own to repent.

What is the responsibility of teachers and pastors when they believe their people in error? The apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

I wonder if we might need to spend less time in our echo chambers and more time with the people we serve, exercising kindness, able teaching, patient endurance, and gentle correction?

I also realize that some evangelical leaders are among those who have strongly supported the President. I’ve seen them decried in numerous blogs, but I wonder how many efforts have been made to “reason together” face to face.

Beyond all this, I wonder if there might be value in laying aside the politics to re-affirm the defining essentials of evangelicalism, even though we may need to find another name for it? Classically, we have been committed to the authority of the Bible in all of life, the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, the promise of new life through conversion of once lost persons, and activism in both witness and social concern. While we squabble about politics, a generation is embracing a secular ideology and a variety of alternative spiritualities, we face a rampant opioid crisis and growing disparities of wealth and poverty, education, and even life expectancy. We are witnessing militant extremists deepening our racial divides and promoting violence.

If we really believe the gospel in its wholeness is very good news and is a message of transforming power, why aren’t we coming together to consider how we might fulfill our Lord’s commission in our day? Why are we looking to the political order to deliver us, whether we are the 81 percent or the 19 percent? I wonder what would happen, and how many of our differences might either be resolved or set aside, if we came together across the spectrum to get about the Lord’s business.

Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, wrote an article critical of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright for his support of right wing causes. Bright was deeply hurt and the two didn’t speak for many years until they were staying at the same hotel and Wallis approached and apologized for failing to mend the breach between the two. Another meeting followed, Bright affirming that the Great Commission included care for the poor in doing all Christ commanded. The two prayed for each other’s work. Some time later, Wallis received a $1,000 donation for his work from Bright, along with a personal note,  at the same time that he had learned Bright had just died. He realized this gift and note were among the last things Bright did.

Might we give ourselves to healing such breaches and come together around our shared calling once more? It would be a sad thing if we gave up hope for that kind of healing along with the name “evangelical.” To do so would be to give up on the gospel.

 

My Response to #MeToo

Don’t usually post twice in one day but wanted to get this out there:

I’m deeply grieved to see so many good friends posting #MeToo. One is a colleague on my work team. Others are dear friends, or those who I deeply respect as gifted, intelligent women. I suspect there are also men out there who have been abused at the hands of men. I’m deeply sorry for the ways my fellow males have acted and that the world is so unsafe for women, children and other men.

To my brothers:

1. Having “your way” with women is not the way to obtain your “man card.” It just shows how much you still have to learn about real manhood which is measured not by your sexual exploits but your self-control and service to others,
2. I never want to hear another man use the idea of “it was her fault.” or “she wanted it” again. “No” never means “yes” and all this tells me about you is how weak and immature and self-deceived you are. It says nothing to me about the woman.
3. Don’t tell me that you can’t control yourself. If that’s true, you need to get help fast! You risk losing your job, destroying your marriage, suspension from a university if you are a student, and criminal charges and a sex offender label.
4. Don’t think porn is a safe alternative. Objectifying and having sex with what you think are virtual women (or others) only contributes to distorting your views of real human beings and feeds the lust for more. And the women (or others) are real people–and often are experiencing exploitation. There are groups to help you escape porn addiction.

For churches and other institutions. When these things occur (and sadly they will) in our midst, we need to realize that the only protection that should be going on is of the victim. The only protection alleged sexual offenders should have is of due process rights under law as part of a criminal investigation.

Men, we need to take responsibility to watch out for each other in this regard, and call each other out at the first hint of disrespecting women. There are a number of ways from words and jokes, to visual materials, to looks and gestures, in which we disrespect women and create a threatening atmosphere or discomfort that fall short of crimes and these also need to be called out. It saddens me that so often it is the women who are doing the calling out. They shouldn’t have to because as fathers, brothers, colleagues, and friends, we are doing it first.

That’s all.

Walking Back From the Abyss of Violence

staircase-962784_1920The latest (for now) mass shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest shooting so far with 58 dying as well as the shooter. Sadly, it seems that these horrors are becoming a regular occurrence, complete with victim accounts, an attempt to understand the shooter, thoughts, prayers, and candlelight vigils and renewed outcries that something must be done to limit guns in a nation where there is nearly a gun for every person already.

The reality is that this is nearly a daily occurrence. According to a Guardian story, in the 1735 days ending on October 1 when the Las Vegas shooting took place, there were 1,516 mass shootings (defined as an event where four or more people were shot, not including the shooter). This does not count the “routine” violence occurring in our major cities. For example nearly as many die every month in Chicago as died in Las Vegas. A Vox report on gun violence reports that 2900 people have died at the hands of police since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson (police are also at greater risk in states with more guns). The same report contends that guns allow people to kill themselves more easily and that where gun access is limited, suicide deaths drop. It may be that the only person your gun will ever kill is someone you love, or even yourself.

Before I go any further, I am not going to advocate any gun control measure, nor am I going to advocate gun rights. I think we are at a stalemate and there are plenty to argue one way or the other. I’m not going to join either chorus. Rather, I want to suggest that these almost daily reports of terrible shootings and the other forms of gun violence, along with our rancorous discourse, suggest we are becoming an increasingly violent society, and that if we don’t obliterate ourselves in a nuclear winter, we might be headed toward a violent, anarchic abyss.

Do we in truth want to live in one of the most violent societies in the world? What I want to propose is that we make a collective decision to walk away from the abyss of violence in our national life.

What I mean by this is that we begin the long and arduous journey to conceive a different kind of society from the one that alternately celebrates and grieves violence. Rather than looking for some kind of quick legislative fix or imposition of government power, I want to propose a movement that may take a generation, just as the campaigns to discourage smoking and warn of the dangers cigarettes pose in terms of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. As I child, I saw ads saying cigarettes were good for you. Now any ad, and every container of cigarettes warns of the health risks. For years, I had to inhale other people’s smoke in public places. Now my right to a smoke-free environment is protected in many public places. It took fifty years to get to this point.

Perhaps this journey needs to begin with a realization that we are all complicit in this violent society. Liberal Hollywood, the gaming industry, and all of us who consume their products participate in a celebration of violence. We may complain about those who manufacture assault rifles and other lethal instruments, and those who own them but how often do we passively absorb scenes of cinematic violence or participate in various forms of virtual violence? While most of us never conceive of violence, do we create a glamour around violence that suggests to some who don’t share our restraints, that violence is an acceptable way to go–often to one’s end?

Might we begin by agreeing that entertaining ourselves by virtual violence against human beings may not be the noblest of activities? If nothing else, there are other ways to employ our time, and a country as rich as ours provides many other outlets, including those that get us off our theater seating and toughen our bodies and minds.

* * * * *

Human beings will do all sorts of strange things when they don’t feel safe, from hoard water, to build underground shelters, to stockpile weapons, and to pass regulations and laws.  Most of the time, doing these things doesn’t make us any safer, they just give us some sense that we are in control.

A number of studies have shown that our number of confidants–real friends– has dropped (from roughly three to two on average). Likewise, there seems to be a correlation between time spent on social media and higher levels of anxiety. Correlation can’t determine which causes which or if there is some third factor. The past election cycle accentuated the phenomenon of “echo chambers” with the insidious addition of targeted ads playing to the tendencies of a given audience or even individuals. And social and other media amplify our fears of violence with the 24/7 news cycle. The old saw in the news world is that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

So, in addition to turning from our celebration of and pre-occupation with violence, might we turn from the things that induce fear? The truth is that while we have seen horrendous examples of gun violence, overall, gun violence, at least up to 2015, is down. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of future events like Las Vegas. It means dedicating ourselves to fostering a society where Las Vegas is even less likely to occur. Maybe rather than trying to limit guns, how do we foster a society where fewer people feel the need for them?

A few beginning thoughts:

  • Find out ways to re-neighbor with our real neighbors and build real community rather than the brittle virtual communities we’ve come to rely on that reinforce our fears and separate us off from the diversity of real humanity. This might also help us spot neighbors whose activity patterns are out of the ordinary and, where appropriate, “see something and say something.”
  • One common thread in so much violence is men.  Young men, old men, and men of every color. It seems to me we have to start asking what is going on with men that makes this resort to violence a choice a number are making. My hunch is that fathering may have something to do with it, and the absence of models to help boys pass into responsible and self-controlled manhood. It seems that much of the energy we spend on fighting about guns might be spent in understanding the men who use them.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to create incentives and easy paths to turn in guns, registered or not. Guns are often left behind on the death of someone and we should do all we can to make sure they as well disposed of as our recycling. This does nothing to limit the rights of gun owners. “How to Get Rid of a Gun” illustrates the challenges of legally disposing of guns. Our local county sheriff’s website gives detailed instructions on securing a concealed carry permit, but no instructions on legally disposing of guns.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I’d have to look at this more than I have, but I suspect we’ve always been a violent nation. I don’t think fighting about gun control is going to change that, except maybe for the worse. Like so many things, I doubt things will change until we are sick and tired of being sick and tired and we turn from our love of violence in film and sport and our habits of verbal violence in so much of our discourse. I doubt things will change until we start paying attention to why so much gun violence is committed by men. We can provide easier ways to legally and safely dispose of guns without impairing the rights of anyone to own one, and maybe if done extensively, this could reduce the number of weapons out there that could fall into the wrong hands.

The real question it seems is do we have the national will to begin the hard work of forsaking a culture of violence. Will we keep after it for twenty, thirty, fifty years? If we survive long enough, we might bequeath a less violent country to our great-grandchildren.

 

Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon?

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Hope in a Prison of Despair, Evelyn De Morgan [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Just what prisoner are we talking about, you might ask. I would suggest this is no ordinary burglar, extortionist, or murderer. Nor are we talking about your ordinary academic criminals–the plagiarizer, the reactionary, the transgressor who forgets trigger warnings. Rather, we are speaking of one who once occupied an eminent place in the order of the academy. Some would contend that this one gave a kind of order or coherence to the academy. So much so that this one was spoken of as Queen of the Sciences. Her name was Theology and she has fallen from the pinnacle of the university to the dungeon. Many don’t even wish to acknowledge her existence.

The image of theology in the dungeon is one I am borrowing from Restoring the Soul of the University by Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream. The authors explore the fragmented character of modern universities and college, referred to by Clark Kerr as the “multiversity,” and contend that this is a consequence of the dethroning of theology from her place as Queen of the Sciences. With this dethroning, they claim the university has lost the unifying story of God at the center that connects the various disciplines as elements of a common story. Their project is a modest one, to bring theology out of the dungeon and make her at least a conversation partner with other scholars in the Christian higher education context. No ambition proposals to “reclaim the nation’s universities for God!” here.

I find myself wondering if the theologians have come to like the dungeon, and perhaps have even ceased to see it as one. They have their own students, publishers for their books, journals for their articles, canons of scholarship, and academic conferences to celebrate and give structure to it all. There are subdisciplines within the theological guild, and conversations in a particular jargon only the initiated readily grasp–perhaps.

I’ve spent my career working in collegiate ministry in public university settings. From many conversations, my sense is that while most don’t want theology to be a Queen, there is an openness to theology as a conversation partner–particularly if that can be a real dialogue. Might those concerned with the interpretation of biblical texts have much to share and much to learn from those whose work is interpreting other kinds of texts, whether historical or literary. Might those who really have looked at the origin stories of scripture with a careful scholarly eye be the best to engage with those considering scientific studies of origins? Might those in health care benefit greatly from the wisdom those working with issues of formation have about seasons of life–how might we both live and die well?

I think the great fear in academia would be some form of asserting authority or re-asserting control. I think this is a needless fear. What is the danger in mutual inquiry and learning? What is the danger in humble listening to and instructing one another? Might there be “lost learnings” on both sides from which all might profit? And if there are fears about this happening in the public setting (although I’ve found this possible even here), why not start with schools affiliated with theological seminaries?

Universities arose out of cathedral schools and the idea that there was a fundamental unity underlying all knowledge arose from the belief that all knowledge had a common source and origin in a Creator God. Not all will agree with this today by any means. But is the idea one that should be confined to an intellectual dungeon? Should there not be a chance to see whether the prisoner in the dungeon has a cogent and coherent story to tell? And if the prisoner is given the chance, will s/he emerge ready both to listen and to speak?

Who Is Not At Our Table?

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Photo by Whitney Greenwell, [CC0] via Pexels

Yesterday, I wrote about the table as an important symbol of the realities Christians enjoy in Christ–God’s gracious welcome to intimate relationship both with him, and with each other as communities nourished by Christ. For many of us, we can think of sweet experiences of table fellowship, where we know and are known and share life together offering everything from emotional support to material help to helping each other see Christ more clearly.

The question is whether it is fitting, and in keeping with God’s intention for the table, to keep these good things to ourselves. It reminds me of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who are living just outside the city gates while Arameans beseige Samaria in order to capture Elisha, the prophet. The city is delivered when the Lord causes them to hear the sound of chariots, horses and an approaching army, causing them to flee and fear. But the people hiding behind the gates do not know this. The lepers discover the flight when they decide to risk death to plead for food from the Arameans and discover no one there. They find tents full of food, clothing, and treasure that they accumulate until they conclude that this is too good to keep to themselves but ought to be shared with the rest of the city.

Truth is that we often don’t want our others to come to our table, for fear that we might lose the intimacy we enjoy. To welcome others to our tables will change everything, we fear. And of course we are right. To welcome others to our table, and particularly those not like us will take us out of our comfort zone. Yet just like cardio exercises strengthen our hearts, so also the hard work of welcoming the stranger will strengthen our capacities to love with the heart of God. Learning to love those different from us (and really that is just about anyone) reminds us that we were once strangers both to God and his people.

When we unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally fail to welcome the other to our table, particularly those who differ in some way the world reckons difference–race, economic status, or even church denomination–we deny the power of the saving work of Jesus. In Galatians 2, when Peter was with Paul in Antioch, he joined in table fellowship with Gentile believers until a group of Jews associated with James came from Jerusalem. Peter, the other Jews with him, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas stepped back. Paul harshly rebukes Peter publicly, not for a social faux pas, but because “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). The great scandal of naming the name of Christ while advocating racial supremacy of one race, or simply justifying segregated tables, and other arrangements is that we hollow out the gospel message of its power to bring together people across these divides.

So a question I encourage the communities I work with to wrestle with regularly is that of who is not at our tables? In the world I work in, this can include those from ethnic minorities, academic departments that are not represented in our group, particular national groups represented on our campus but not among us. It might include those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans-gendered. It might include people from Muslim countries studying in the U.S.

It might be that our first step is not inviting them to our tables, but rather spending some time at theirs. I can’t think of a time in scripture when Jesus turns down an invitation to someone’s table–tax collectors, “sinners,” and teachers of the law and Pharisees, unattached women like Mary and Martha, and others. Once, Jesus even invited himself to the home of the most notorious tax collector in town–Zacchaeus. To accept hospitality, to be the guest and not in control, to be the one on the outside coming in both prepares us to be better, more sensitive hosts, and may open the hearts of our hosts.

Another step is that of making room at our tables. If we have just enough chairs for those who always come, it is awkward if our guests are left standing. Or maybe our tables are crowded and we need to add tables (and make sure to mix up who sits at them!). The physical instances of this are the most easily remedied. The structural and cultural ones may be harder. If we only sing Hillsongs, and only in English, what does this say to those from other countries and backgrounds? Does our conversation divide the world into “us” and “them,” or reflect our conviction that Jesus is making one new humanity. Greg Coles, in Single, Gay, Christian speaks of how weird it can be as a celibate, gay man to be in a church context where people are unaware of his sexual identity and listen to them talk about the “LGBT community” as a “them” that lives a certain way, has a certain agenda, unaware that someone who would identify as gay, but doesn’t fit any of these stereotypes and loves Jesus, is right in front of them. I could multiply examples of this kind of talk about “the Black community,” “the Muslim community,” the “Asian community,” or even “English majors”! I’ve even been guilty of them!

Perhaps my greatest challenge is simply, how intentional and persistent will I be in this effort? After a dinner with some Pharisees where Jesus is treated rather shabbily, he tells the parable of the great banquet, where a host sends his servants to notify his previously invited guests that the dinner is ready. A number of them snub him for a number of lame reasons. But he doesn’t give up or content himself with those who came. He sends his servants out onto the town streets to invite anyone they encounter. And when that doesn’t fill up his tables, he sends them out to do another round of invitations in the countryside (Luke 14:15-24). I love that the master and his servants keep inviting until he has a full house. Will I love the Master, and people well enough to keep inviting until the Master’s house is full?

It all begins with the question of “who is not at our table?”

Come to the Table

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By John Snyder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In my day (and often evening!) work, I am a collegiate minister with graduate student and faculty groups. Perhaps many of my best memories are those of gathering around tables and sharing good food together. Often it is food prepared by many different people, and often from many different countries. And it is often accompanied by fascinating conversation ranging from public policy to dark matter to Jane Austin to the latest episode of Game of Thrones. A number of those at our tables come from countries where, even more than ours, serving food is the way we say “welcome.”

We often consider the cross one of the most central symbols of Christianity, focusing as it does on the work of Christ by which our salvation was accomplished for all trust and follow him. While I do not want to replace this as the central symbol of Christian faith, I do want to propose that the table is an important symbolic object.

It represents God’s seeking and welcoming of his people. There is a strange and wonderful scene in Exodus 24 where Moses takes Aaron and a group of 70 elders up Mt. Sinai. The rest wait at a distance while Moses builds an altar, offers sacrifices, reads the Book of the Covenant, which they all agree to obey. They are sprinkled with blood and then invited to dine with God:

“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (vv. 9-11, NIV)

Many of us learned Psalm 23 as children. It concludes with these lines:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. (vv. 5-6)

God’s comfort in the valley of death and the presence of enemies (including, one must suppose, the ultimate enemy of death) is a table where one is honored as a guest with an anointed forehead and an overflowing cup, and the assurance the abiding welcome in the house of the one who has set this table.

While churches have various beliefs and practices around the Eucharist, or Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, the common element is that we gather around either real or ritual tables and partake of bread and wine (or grape juice) that represent or even in some way become the body and blood of Christ. We are reminded that we are nourished in Christ, and come close to both God and each other around this table. The wealthy, the widow, and the impoverished partake together.

I’m reminded of a folk hymn we sang years ago, “God and Man at Table are Sat Down” (words and music by Robert J. Stamps). It begins:

O, welcome all ye noble saints of old 
As now before your very eyes unfold 
The wonders all so long ago foretold. 
God and man at table are sat down.

The fourth verse reminds us that the welcome of God to the table extends to all humanity.

Beggars, lame, and harlots also here; 
Repentant publicans are drawing near. 
Wayward sons come home without a fear. 
God and man at table are sat down.

It concludes with the wonder at the heart of this time

Here He gives Himself to us as bread.
Here as wine we drink the blood He shed.
Born to die, we eat and live instead,
God and man at table are sat down;
God and man at table are sat down.

All this anticipates the great and everlasting table of the feast when Christ and his bride are united. Growing up, I went to a number of weddings of friends from eastern European and Italian backgrounds, with mountains of food, drinks that freely flowed, and dancing and celebration that went the whole night long. One wedding took over the whole foyer of the performing arts center in my home town, and we danced the tarantella up and down the steps. I have a sense that this great day is something like that only far, far better! John writes in The Revelation:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
 Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
 Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9).

I am persuaded that all our gatherings around tables to eat and enjoy the company of each other are fundamental to our existence not simply because we need the nourishment of food and community, but also as anticipations of the great table to which God invites us.

One quality of God’s table is that he graciously welcomes all without distinction. Tables at their best are places of welcome, where distinctions of national origin, gender, economic status, or success in life matter not at all. Good tables include and embrace rather than exclude, unless, like the elder son in the parable of the prodigal, one excludes oneself and refuses the invitation to come.

Tomorrow, I will reflect on the question of who is not at our tables and how the logic of our joyous community and common Lord challenges us to keep making room at our tables for those who are not there.

Studied Ambiguities

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Ambiguity or Opportunity? photo by ArtistIvanChew (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Have you ever been in a situation where two parties who differ on some important matter (and you may have been one of them, or trying to mediate between the two) are trying to find their way to agreement so as to collaborate and live more charitably with each other, or outright join forces. Often, it is important to articulate this agreement verbally and in writing, and this, perhaps is where things are most difficult.

Words matter. And words don’t always mean the same things to different people. Often, the attempt to find the right words to delineate an agreement surfaces the places where disagreement still exists.

I came across this recently in a critical discussion of an effort between a group of Evangelicals, and a group of Catholics during the 1990’s to articulate an agreement that expressed their unity around Christ and his gospel. (This is in R. C. Sproul’s Getting the Gospel Right; review forthcoming)

The writer noted a number of areas that he felt were “studied ambiguities.” On the face of it, these were statements both parties could agree upon, and yet were capable of interpretations that would reflect the historic differences between the parties. Elsewhere in the document, some of these differences were acknowledged, but he felt that the document purported a greater degree of agreement, and even unity than the author thought warranted.

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon. What is “studied ambiguity?” A sentence may be ambiguous in different ways. Sometimes it is lexically ambiguous (“I went down to the bank” could mean I went down by the riverside, or to my local financial institution). Sometimes, it may simply be syntactically ambiguous. (What, for example does “I ate the cookies on the couch” mean?) At other times, the meaning of the words may be clear and there may be a particular understanding that the person uttering the statement intends, and yet it is capable of more than one meaning. What differentiates “studied ambiguity” from these others types of ambiguity is that the person or persons uttering or writing the statement intend the possibility of multiple interpretations and realize their words are capable of these interpretations.

Why do we use “studied ambiguity”? The main reason I can come up with is that parties who retain significant differences feel compelled to mute these to arrive at some semblance of agreement. I suspect, for example that there was much “studied ambiguity” that could be found in the statements of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta about their vision of a post-war world.

It seems that the aim of “studied ambiguity” is preserving tenuous alliances and coalitions, and the veneer of good feelings toward one another. In cultures where communication is indirect, it strikes me that this allows people to avoid outright confrontation over differences while working in indirect, and often behind-the-scenes ways, to reach a greater sense of agreement than could be achieved publicly. What seems important in this instance is that the parties are aware that they are farther apart than they seem and they are employing discreet mechanisms to address these differences.

What can be more troubling about this kind of communication is when people are intentionally misled to believe that a greater degree of agreement exists than is actually the case, because the words sound good, even though they mean something different to each party.

In the instance I mention above, it is interesting that those who participated in writing the agreement claim not to have consciously done this. They saw themselves as articulating areas of common agreement, some of which they saw as real breakthroughs, as well as areas where they still differed, some of which were substantial, as individuals in both parties acknowledged. Yet the tone of their final document conveyed a degree of agreement and even “unity” that others questioned in light of the substantive remaining differences and the multiple interpretations that could be drawn from the language.

And that leads me to wonder if there is another kind of ambiguity, what one might call unconscious ambiguity, where in a spirit of good will, people convey a sense of agreement, while being aware of difference, that nevertheless affirms the agreement of spirit the parties feel.

I’m having a hard time thinking of examples where ambiguous agreements turned out well–maybe someone else can help me think of one. More often, it seems, they result either in falling-out between parties, or compromises on deeply held values, practices, and beliefs to preserve “unity.” Yet I can see the temptation, particularly in our deeply divided society to try to come to these kinds agreements for fear of the alternative.

I wonder instead whether, on important things, we are talking about far longer processes than we ordinarily envision. Perhaps honest discussions that recognize common ground for limited collaborations while addressing honest differences that take longer times to change, because these involve changes in belief, and personal and institutional practice.

Getting to shared understandings on important things is genuinely hard work. Perhaps this is why Jesus blessed the peacemakers. It seems so urgent in a divided society. Studied or even unconscious ambiguity is a real temptation. Sometimes it doesn’t look that different from common ground. Yet agreements not rooted in truth engender suspicion and not trust, and unravel, or they relativize “truth.”

What do you think?

Lighting a Candle

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By Rolf Schweizer Fotografie from Hoffeld, Schweiz (Pourquoi?) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

So much has been said and written about Charlottesville (including some by me over on my Facebook page). It’s pretty simple for me. Any group that says that America is only for white Euro-Americans is un-American (and un-Christian) and is espousing an evil ideology–particularly in the denigrating remarks made about Jews, Blacks, and others. Others have said this and more, and said it better.

I want to light a candle rather than add to the curses of this darkness. As a white American of German-Scots-Irish descent, I am so thankful that much of the country is not white like me, and how much richer we are as a nation because of this.

There are the Native peoples who were here before us, from whom we took the country. From Squanto without whom the Pilgrims may not have survived their first winter, to Will Rogers, the American humorist, to contemporary author Sherman Alexie whose writing has opened my eyes to contemporary reservation life, Native peoples contributed to our life. Many of our rivers and place names recognize their presence here before us.

The ancestors of many of our African-American citizens came here against their will. I sing in a choral group led by an Africa-American who has taught us about spirituals, and how they came out of the experience of slavery. Spirituals give voice to deep laments and hopeful longings, and have not only been a joy to sing but provided means to express emotions of the heart that my Anglo-Saxon upbringing failed to offer. Jazz, blues, soul, and hip-hop all trace from these. Black athletes like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were childhood heroes. Jesse Owens, a Buckeye alumnus, courageously competed and won in the 1936 Olympics to the intense displeasure of Hitler and the Nazis. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to a distinguished career on the U.S. Supreme Court, and served as a mentor for Justice Elena Kagan. Patricia Bath is a path-breaking ophthalmologist who pioneered laser techniques for the treatment of cataracts. Colin Powell gave distinguished leadership in Operation Desert Storm, restoring freedom to the people of Kuwait.

Hispanic and Latino Americans have influenced our country since the 1700s when Fr. Junipero Serra engaged in missions work in California and shaped an architectural aesthetic that continues to influence California buildings. Joan Baez was one of the voices of folk music from the 1960’s on, whose songs gave voice to Vietnam protests. A collection of Christmas music featuring her clear, soprano voice is one I try to listen to every year. While we may think of many Latino entertainers and musicians from Jennifer Lopez to Carlos Santana, scientists like Luis Walter Alvarez, a Nobel prize winning physicist have advanced our scientific understanding. I don’t know who came up with salsa, whether we are talking about music, dance or the sauce, but I’m sure glad they are now part of our culture!

How grateful I am for Jonas Salk and his work to eliminate the scourge of polio! Gertrude P. Elion likewise pioneered treatment for childhood leukemia.  Blue jeans are, I think, one of the most practical articles of clothing. Thanks, Levi Strauss for making those first “Levis”! Another music icon of my youth, and Nobel Prize holder is Bob Dylan. “The Times They are a-Changing” articulate the turbulence and transformation taking place in the 1960’s. Irving Berlin and Barbara Streisand in music, Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall in film, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok in literature all enriched our cultural life. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings brought insights into my own spirituality. Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld make us laugh. All these are Jewish-Americans.

Asian-American architect I. M. Pei designed the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in my former home of Cleveland. Likewise, architect Maya Lin helped begin to heal the wounds of Vietnam with her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Satya Nadella is the current CEO of Microsoft. Asian-Americans founded many of the technology companies that have transformed our culture, from Sun Microsystems to Linksys to Wang Laboratories. I’ve personally appreciated the writing and art of Makoto Fujimura. His illuminations of the Gospels are stunning. For years, I’ve delighted in recordings of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral works by Seiji Ozawa.

I could go on and on. There are Middle Eastern peoples, more recent migrants from African countries, and other corners of the world. Some of the people I’ve written of have touched my life personally. Others have enriched our national life and shaped our world. You may disagree with some of my choices, and certainly you could add to them. Certainly European-Americans have also contributed to our national and cultural riches, but I can’t help thinking how impoverished our nation would be in so many ways without all these others. In everything from food to literature to medicine and law, to business and technology, our political life and our spirituality, we are much richer, I think because of the mosaic of peoples who make up our country. Sure, at times, it is complicated, and maybe we think privileging a single cultural heritage would make things simpler. I like to think of our culture as robust, made up of many different influences. Like a rich sauce, take out all those ingredients, and maybe things would be simpler, but also dull and uninteresting.

To my fellow citizens who are not Euro-Americans, I am so glad you are here. I know the words and acts of some would suggest otherwise. Perhaps those of us who think otherwise need to get better at raising our voices and reaching across our cultural differences and standing firm against the evil and the vile. What an interesting country we can make together. Might we begin by joining together to light a candle. . . ?

 

What Mr. Erickson Knew

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Julian Fractal, By GARDEN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite high school teachers was Mr. Erickson. He taught math, and also an introductory computer science class in the early days of computers. I did pretty well in math, even though it wasn’t a favorite subject. Mostly, I enjoyed Mr. Erickson because he enjoyed math (and some corny jokes)–it wasn’t just numbers and equations and laws to him, but rather something beautiful that could describe the order of the world and translate “the music of the spheres” into an equation.

I haven’t thought about Mr. Erickson for a long time. But two occurrences in my life recently have brought him to mind. One is that my son, a software engineer for a local company spent his vacation at a conference in Waterloo, Canada exploring the intersection of math and art. Back in elementary school, he had a teacher kind of like Mr. Erickson, who introduced him to fractals. He has never lost his fascination with this geometric patterns that often look like objects in the natural world (and sometimes not) that can be described in mathematical equations and produce repeating patterns at smaller and smaller scales. He has a shelf of graduate level texts at home on fractals (guess what is on his Christmas wish list!) and even has several fractal-related publications (as well as a work of fiction) you can purchase. The conference brought mathematicians and artists together to explore the connection between these two seemingly unrelated aspects of life–in visual art, music, and even opera and poetry from what I’m told.

The other occurrence is reading Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s SakeCaldecott argues that one of the great deficits in our modern educational program is the divorce of the liberal arts from math and the sciences.  This reflects a loss of vision for the unity and interconnectedness of all truth, and perhaps belief in the One in whom they are connected. In a chapter on math, he explores numbers and their expressions geometrically, their significance in a variety of areas of life (musical chords, the use of numerical and geometric properties by visual artists, recurring numbers in the Bible, and the ways mathematics maps onto the world, and more). Somehow, numbers and equations connect to imagination, and reflect beauty. Why is that?

Math and beauty? What Caldecott, Mr. Erickson, and my son all seem to get that I think I’ve lost sight of is the beauty that lies hidden in the equations. In my world, math gets reduced to spreadsheets, financial reports, columns of figures, raw data. Perhaps I’ve bought into that divorce between math and the world of the imagination and the beauty of the world. Perhaps it is time to recall the joy Mr. Erickson had when he explained the beauty in the equations. Perhaps…

Watch Your $%&*@^# Language!

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Chris James, (No Cursing??) Sign (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Have you noticed that language is getting coarser? We were shopping yesterday in a bookstore (during National Book Day!) and I wandered over to the bestseller shelves. Two of the titles that greeted me were, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and You Are a Badass. At least the former title used an asterisk, but we all know which vowel it was replacing.

Book titles are just symptomatic of the proliferation of profanity in our media. It’s common to see either abbreviations or actual profanity on social media and to come across blog posts liberally laden with profanity. More than that, coarse words for defecation, urination, and sex lace everyday conversation. We use a word for excrement for getting our act together. We routinely use a word for urinating to describe the experience of being angered by something. The f-bomb seems to be an all around adjective as well as a favorite expression of anger. I could go on but you know what I’m talking about.

It’s not like I’ve never used these words. Particularly as a teenager hanging out with my buddies in urban Youngstown, our conversations were richly laced with profanity. For a period of my life, I thought it was kind of cool or edgy. I’d argue that it was only “dirty” because some people said it was. I’d argue that we were getting “real.”

My Christian journey started changing that. It wasn’t so much rules against certain words, as principles that spoke to the power of words in a community, and to shape the community around us. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

I began to realize words have the power to evoke the best or worst angels of our natures, that our words build up others or undermine them. Words can hurt or heal. Actually, this extends beyond profanity to things like gossip where we feed on the meager fare of tearing someone down when they aren’t present to defend themselves. Cyber-bullying might be an example of the destructive power of our words, amplified by social media.

I won’t say that I completely refrain from these things even to this day. Catch me on a bad day struggling with the plumbing in my house, and it won’t always be pretty. If profanity occurs in a text I am quoting, I won’t delete it. I also realize that in both writing and speaking, there are times that a profanity may be the most apt word, and a euphemism or softer term doesn’t cut it. I can see a case in literature where contexts warrant profanity. The test for me is whether it fits or is gratuitous.  The restrained, but appropriate use of a profanity may actually capture attention that a profanity-laced dialogue does not.

That said, I am troubled by the increasing acceptability of profanity in our social and public discourse. I think it reflects an angrier, coarser, bleaker view of life. People might answer that this is the way they see it. Some, I’ve heard it suggested, use this as a “language of resistance” as in “since______ has been elected, everything is all f-ed up.”

I think I would answer that our words not merely reflect reality but help shape it. By words, Genesis tells us that God made the world. Our words can convince us that we live in a stinking latrine or that we are turning manure into gardens that are fertile and fruitful. Our sexual vocabulary can take one of the most beautiful experiences of human intimacy, and reduce it to a tawdry bodily function that sounds like simply another form of relieving ourselves. Or it can elevate the tender, and sometimes clumsy, coming together of two people who really care for each other into enduring love poetry.

I don’t want to argue for any form of censorship or a new prudery. The First Amendment protects even profane speech except when it is with the specific intent to incite unlawful acts. I happen to like the First Amendment, even when I disagree with the people and ideas it protects. But if you care about pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, does this not extend to our use of language and choice of words? Should it not be of concern that the use of profanity in private conversation and increasingly in social media and public discourse is increasingly common not only in the general public, but even in faith communities? We may think we are simply describing the world or “telling it like it is” as we used to say. Do we stop and think that we are not merely evoking memories or a sense of things as they were and arebut also invoking a view of reality as it is and could be? What do our word choices reveal about the vision of reality toward which we are living? As a Christ-follower, how do I speak if I believe I have been called into a beloved community and into a life of infinite wonder and purpose and hope?

It’s not so much that I’m against “bad” words. I think I’ve already suggested that all words, even these have a usage or purpose in some contexts. Rather, I constantly find myself wanting for better words, for clearer thinking, for higher aspirations, to set goals for nobler actions, and graceful expression in spoken and written words. Am I out of touch with reality to want that and pursue it? Must I settle for a coarse world when we have so many hints of a world of goodness, truth and beauty? What do you think?