The Connection between Motel Chains and Bridge Failure

In college I worked at a Ramada Inn motel. At that time Ramada had a policy that rooms had to be redone (new carpet, new paint, new mattress, etc.) every three years. That meant that perfectly good carpet was being ripped out of rooms on a regular basis. A couple of years after I worked there the motel was purchased by a new group and rebranded with a chain whose standards weren’t quite so high, resulting in lower operating costs.

Motel rooms are a lot like infrastructure (roads, bridges, power lines, etc.). Infrastructure only lasts so many years before it needs to be updated. Of course updating infrastructure is far more expensive than redecorating a motel room and the stakes are higher. An out of date motel room might lead to a bad night of sleep; an out of date bridge might lead to death and disaster.

In 2007 an interstate bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. People died; it caused traffic snarls for months. It also led to Iowa (the state directly to the south) to perform a major triage operation on  the state’s bridges. A shocking number were found below standard. The state is still in the process of replacing bridges that were declared unsafe ten years ago. (It makes me think twice about driving the backroads whenever I drive east!)

Underlying the story of the bridges lies a pattern of neglect, corruption, graft, and broken promises. When a government builds a road system there is an implied promise to maintain that road system. That almost never happens as it ought because proper maintenance and replacement is hard and expensive and it requires a great deal of attentiveness. Governments, like the new motel owners, are always tempted to (and too frequently do) change the rules or change the franchise so that the maintenance can be reduced.

Thus the story of road systems can be generalized and applied to just about every human endeavor. We can call this generalization a meta-story. Whether we consider infrastructure, famine, flood,  disease, or violence, underlying those stories is almost certainly, and to varying degrees, a story of neglect, corruption, graft, or broken promises. There is a sidewalk where I park across the street from church. It is so long since it has been cleared that the detritus from the overhead tree is turning to soil. Neglect. It’s the same meta-story as the bridge, the New Orleans floods, or the South Sudan famine. Because this meta-story is rooted in the human soul, it cannot be eradicated.

We use meta-stories to subconsciously organize our lives and make sense of our experiences. Meta-stories provide the connecting thread that help us navigate an otherwise meaningless jumble of things. There is nothing new about them either. They are closely related to Aristotle’s forms and grow out of Carl Jung’s archetypes. Certain meta-stories become primary in a society and provide a sense of shared experience and shared values. The above story about corruption is one of the archetypical stories from the Bible and has shaped Christianity over the centuries. While it is one of the easiest meta-stories to grasp, it is not the only one. I will explore that further in the next essay.

 

My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors

In the previous essay I opined that we need to broaden our face-to-face community and interact socially with a broad range of people. In truth it is surprising how difficult that is. Our social networks, our churches, and many of our social groups are “silos of conformity” where no real dialog with those who are different is possible. There’s a reason for this; being with those who are different is hard.

This year I took part in an Advent book study that extended out through winter and Lent. Over time the group inexorably veered toward social justice issues, not by design, but because the most outspoken members were focused on social justice and seemingly quite dismissive of disciplines focused on personal spiritual growth (except for prayer: prayer is good … as long as it leads to social justice; and worship and the Eucharist are good … as long as we understand that the Eucharist is about feeding hungry people). I hadn’t been intimately involved with the social justice wing of the church since my days as a Presbyterian pastor, so this turned out to be an adventure in community with people of quite different perspectives and thus an illustration of that which I was speaking in the previous essay.

I was unimpressed (to put it mildly) by the social justice movement of the 90s which was long on talk and short on action (except for protests, public meetings, and bulletin inserts – in other words, long on action that made us feel good but short on action that actually led to social justice). Over the years I have come to realize that the systemic change the social justice movements of the 80s and 90s were seeking were beyond the scope of anything that movements could significantly influence. For the most part systemic change occurs in spite of, and not because of, social justice movements.

My new experience with social justice was the same as two and three decades ago. We read books and repeated the same conversation we had back then. The characters had changed (Latinos instead of Somalis, for instance; Donal Trump instead of Ronald Reagan) but angst and anger were all pretty much identical.

It was at this point that I began to disengage in the book study. My memory of my Presbyterian days was that it was the anger that propelled the movement forward and the angst that made it feel righteous. We felt bad and a righteous anger burned against those who did bad. But is it righteous?

Righteous anger is a very rare thing because it needs to be constructive rather than destructive. For me, in my very short time with this justice focused group, there was very little that was constructive. (Conversation for conversation’s sake, for instance, is not constructive; going to a meeting about immigration is not constructive.) It was destructive because it left a slow burn in my soul. Righteous anger, in order to be constructive, cannot be the slow burn variety. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).

Anger that you sleep on, that you mull over in your head, transforms itself into a variety of spiritual problems. It drowns out the silence of God that transforms the heart into the image of anger rather than love. St. Porphyrios said, “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” Abiding anger is antithetical to the life of love that Porphyrios is talking about.

But when I disengaged from the book study I did not engage the group in a discussion of these issues, or only did so at the surface level. Is this not a contradiction to what I said should happen in the previous essay? As I said at the beginning of this essay, my experience illustrates the difficulty of authentic engagement with those one disagrees with.

The Orthodox vision of salvation is radically but subtly different than the Western vision of salvation. It took me years to begin to understand and embrace the difference. One of the key differences is that the Orthodox recognize that social justice is inherently futile.  The world is broken; we are broken. The result is that when we try to fix the world, we inadvertently break it more. The very idea of changing the world (every college kid’s dream, if you believe the commencement speeches) is triumphalistic and thus , to a degree, idolatrous. Only God can change the world.

My role in that primary grand divine process of changing the world is to participate in changing myself. Changing myself is extremely difficult. In fact, it is far easier  to put that aside and go about trying to do social justice and hope that others and social systems will change. In this Orthodox framework, social justice is similar to co-dependency.

But the other people in the group didn’t sign up to have a conversation about Orthodoxy and how it is radically different than the liberal Protestant vision of what we need to do in the world. They didn’t come to me, I came to them. It would have been impolite to force the conversation in that direction.

Instead, I’ll hang around and wait. Maybe at some point down the line there will be an opportunity for such a conversation. But before that is truly possible I need to spend more time listening and being … and allowing myself to fully appreciate their personhood and ideas without (1) merely demeaning their ideas, and (2) not allowing their ideas of social justice to create a slow burn in my own heart. The time is not full, the opportunity is not yet fully ripe.

Tolstoy, Facts, and Community

I continue to ponder what I believe to be Tolstoy’s misguided view of the world and reality itself as expressed in his book, The Kingdom of God Is within Us. In this essay I want to consider his rejection of the larger community and the resulting narrowness of his thinking. Most everything he said was factual but he didn’t have enough facts. Because of his disdain for those who disagreed with him, he had no source of the other facts and ideas that would have rounded out his opinions.

We have far too much confidence in facts. Facts are good, but there are too many of them. Several factors limit our ability to get the facts that are useful to us. First, we are limited creatures. I can only be in one place at once, so my perceptions of the world are not actually of the world, but of this small place that I am in. Even if we had access to “all” the facts, all that information would overwhelm our limited brains.

Second, my personality shapes how facts are observed and incorporated into my thinking process. Consider two observers of a conversation between two people. The one observer, who is an idea person rather than a people person, pays attention to what is said. When asked to  report on what happened, she describes the content of the conversation and what she learned from it. The second observer, being a people person, describes how the conversation was uncomfortable and one-sided because person A was domineering, moving into person B’s space. The effect that person B was constantly on the defensive. What are the facts of the conversation? Our idea person described it in a series of concepts while our people person described the relationships. All those facts were present in the conversation, but personalities shaped which facts were heard and incorporated into the listener’s perspectives.

Third, my value system will shape which facts stand out, and thus get incorporated. The van has a flat tire and everyone gets out and stands by the roadside while the tire gets changed. Afterwards they are asked what they saw. The prairie expert notices an unusual flower tucked in beneath the bank beside the road. The flower requires shade and is usually found in woodlands, but because of the shade of the bank created by the road cutting through the hill, the flower is thriving in a most unexpected place. The bird expert saw the sparrow, which he had never seen this far north. He wonders if that species is expanding its range. The environmentalist didn’t see the flowers or birds in particular but bemoaned the litter along the roadside. The guy who works for the county said a crew needs to come out and fill the potholes.

Expertise also comes into play in our ability to see what’s there. I am a fan of the Creighton Men’s Soccer team and attend most of their home matches. I don’t know a lot about soccer, but enough to enjoy the matches. One night I sat in front of two scouts from the Chicago Fire, a professional soccer team. They were there to watch three players. They saw the same match I did, but what they saw was completely different because they knew exactly what to look for and their eyes were trained to see the small details that I didn’t have the skill to notice.

Put all of these factors together and the result is that different people see or hear the same things physically but harvest a different set of facts from the same event. If I don’t interact with these different people, when I observe the world and collect the facts that shape my understanding, I will see and hear things that confirm my personality, my interest, and my expertise. I need other people to round out my perceptions of the world.

This is one of the primary functions of communities. Groups of hunter/gatherers were more successful than lone hunter/gatherers and this was the basis of the first human towns and tribes. Similarly, one cannot be a lone Christian and remain truly Christian for long because we need the broader insight and experience to come to know the living God and not just the caricature of a God (or a caricature of the Bible) that I develop all by myself.

But community is having a tough time of it at the moment. Universities were originally designed to promote this sort of broad thinking that would promote true communities of learning. Increasingly, universities are doing the opposite by focusing on a single ideology and excluding most others. (The book The Closing of the American Mind offers a thorough critique of the problem.)

Social networking, as it is currently conceived, is not social at all, in the classic understanding of the term. These networks tend to gather people of a single opinion together and thus mirror the crisis of the modern university. The effect is that certain facts that confirm a certain bias get amplified in the various self-selected “social” groups.

American churches suffer from the same confirmation bias. Individual congregations and denominations tend toward a single perspective on critical issues. In the most recent American election cycle a Trump supporter would probably have been stoned (if that were still allowed) at the local Episcopal Church while the same fate would have faced a Hillary supporter at the currently popular local post-denominational entertainment church. (At least if the rhetoric at work from members of those congregations is any indication.)

If we want to be well-rounded human beings, it is critical that we spend time, and I think it requires face-to-face time where we interact with the fullness of persons and not just their on-line avatars, with a variety of people. I’m not sure where we go to find these relationships, but I do believe it is one of the critical needs of the day.

Eventually we will figure out how to incorporate all of our new technologies into our social relationships. For the time being, we need to be intentional about seeking those sorts of relationships out. Only then can we be given more facts by others – facts that we probably won’t and can’t discover on our own – that will give us a well-rounded understanding of reality.

Nowhere for Me to Get Out To

From Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Setting: Ivan is in an insane asylum because of a misdiagnosis (in his opinion); he saw the transcendent world. There are bars on the windows, but another patient has just entered Ivan’s room by unlocking the bars and opening the window. They are now talking:

“But if you can go out onto the balcony, you can get out of here. Or is it too high up?” queried Ivan.

“No,” was the guest’s firm reply, “It’s not because it’s too high that I can’t get out, but because there’s nowhere for me to get out to.” After a pause he added, “So, we’re stuck sitting here?”

“Yes, stuck,” replied Ivan, gazing into the new-comer’s anxious-looking brown eyes.

Ah … but isn’t that the plight of humanity! Nowhere for me to get out to.

Note: If this doesn’t make a lot of sense, the novel is a critique of Russian atheist culture.

What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.

Oppressed-a-non

‘Tis the season to be reminded of the poor and oppressed. We hear it every week in the Advent scripture readings at liturgy. We are asked to give financially to a whole host of charities during this season. And inevitably, we hear some harangue about how “we” (the “we” in this harangue may be aimed at one’s local congregation, or denomination, or city, or nation, or even the U.N.) are simply not doing enough to help them.

My thesis today is that such harangues are likely a product of what those in recovery call an “enabling” or possibly a “codependent” relationship. At the heart of codependency is the reality that both parties are broken and use the relationship in order to either cover up or pass blame for their own brokenness. As long as I am helping the addict (no matter how inappropriately), I can avoid dealing with my own issues and deny my own brokenness.

So it is with the poor and oppressed. Jesus said we ought to help them, but oddly he never told us to fix the problem. The Old Testament prophets certainly went after kings, nobles, and governments for allowing these conditions, but fixing poverty seems to have never been high on the agenda of God’s commission to the Church. In fact Jesus said that the poor would always be among us. As a result almsgiving – helping – (in  contrast to social justice – fixing) is given a high priority.

I propose the reason for this is that poverty and oppression are not the problems; they are rather symptoms of a much deeper problem. The deeper problem is sometimes called “sin” and sometimes called “injustice” in scripture, but both terms are notoriously vague and difficult to pin down. Paul even calls it “death,” which seems a bit weird given what we mean by that term today. Within a couple of generations after Christ the Church began to identify this part of the sin problem specifically as “corruption.”

Because of their initial sin, Adam and Eve “died” and passed death on to their offspring. In this context death refers to our separation from God, who is the source of Life (because he is Life itself). Like a Christmas tree that begins to dry out, fade and lose needles, even though it’s kept in water chock full of nutrients, cut off from the root, the tree begins to die. For us humans that death manifests itself as “corruption.” Our bodies don’t work right, our social systems don’t work right, etc.

In Christ we are joined back to true Life and in the Holy Spirit true Life begins to once again flow. The Spirit is the Source of Life and we (the Church in its grandest mystical meaning) are, in a sense mediators (or as Peter calls us, “priests”) of that Life to all creation. (Don’t ask me exactly how it works; this point clearly falls under the category of “ineffable.”)

But we can cut off the flow of this true Life because our sin (either our ignoring of the effects of the corruption on others – the poor and oppressed – or the outrage and anger toward all those people and institutions that aren’t fixing the problem) is not dealt with. We must become vessels that can hold true Life before we can effectively be the priests and mediators through which that Life enters into the world.

But dealing with our outrage and anger and a whole host of other sins, from pride to miserliness, to lust, to laziness, is extremely difficult. It requires humility and discipline and the gentle help of those around us (whether confessor or friend or person who sits in the pew directly behind us). It’s far easier to become an “advocate” and rage against the system that has failed the poor and oppressed than it is to deal with the rage.

Helping the poor and oppressed and enacting systemic change so that the oppressed get a fair shake is not a bad thing, but rather than rage, it must grow out of our joy and wonder of God. Just as oppression is symptomatic of a much deeper issue, so is our rage against the system is symptomatic of our own codependency and denial. Instead of joining an advocacy group, maybe we need to first join Oppressed-A-Non so that we can become the priest and mediator of true Life that we are called to be. Only then will our almsgiving and advocacy become truly transformative, both for me and for those being helped.

The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.

Baby’s Got the Blues

It’s been a long time since I listened to Larry Norman’s Stranded in Babylon album. It’s a hit you in the face sort of reality check and one of the most fascinating songs is “Baby’s Got the Blues.” If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here on YouTube with lyrics.

Many albums of this era were not simply a collection of songs, the album as a whole was an entity with each song adding a facet to that whole. This was just such an album. As an album it is profoundly Christian although not every song is (outside of the context of the whole album). “Baby’s Got the Blues” certainly fits into this category. It doesn’t even explicitly mention God, but instead uses euphemisms. The bridge is a prayer that begins, “Mercies and angels up above, / Heaven please help the one I love.”

But in the context of the song this sentiment is profoundly Christian if we use the term “Christian” to refer to the actual manner in which we live our lives down in the trenches. In the song Norman is watching “his baby” (wife? girlfriend? sister?) struggle with depression. He has no words to offer her and he has no words to offer God. When life hurts and the heavens are brass, it is often hard to fully believe in a caring God. In those moments it might be the only option to address “mercies and angels up above.”

Paul the apostle also understood this depth of despair. He said that at such times the Spirit “groans” on our behalf. No words here. No words needed. Such a groan no doubt says more than a whole collection of essays. And God hears the groan and understands what it means.

I confess that I despise Christian radio because the station manager – or whoever it is that puts together playlists these days – don’t seem to have the courage to play the music that comes from the trenches. Mostly its worship music. And I would argue that worship music, when that’s all we hear, paints an utterly bleak and depressing view of the world. … Not because the music is depressing but rather because it’s mostly a reminder of how short I fall from that mark set by the perky DJ who is praising God and gloriously happy, no matter what’s happening around them.

To hear a wordsmith like Larry Norman put his finger on the pain that is so deep and so confounding that there are simply no words is liberating in a way an old standard like “I Can Only Imagine” can never be. It’s a reminder that when the Son of God became human he suffered in the manner that humans suffer. His life was not a set of praise choruses! On at least one occasion he told the Father to just remove it all … if it was the Father’s will.

Given the fact that most Christian Contemporary Music is written by praise bands who got their start accompanying contemporary worship services, this sort of “down in the trenches” music is almost non-existent anymore. (No doubt there’s some out there, but it’s quite hard to find.) As a result I find myself increasingly dredging up the old stuff: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill (the old Randy Stonehill, when he was young and outrageous and hadn’t yet grown into “Uncle Randy”), Daniel Amos, Randy Matthews, etc. In my album collection I had two or three Normans, a Matthews, three DAs, and a couple of Stonehills.

Music streaming services have been a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I am hearing all the other music these folks did (along with other similar artists) that I never heard before because I couldn’t afford all those albums. A curse because I’m not hearing the songs in the context of their albums. I’m missing the gestalt while getting all the particulars.

So for those of you who are ready to move beyond the froth of CCM, I commend to you the above artists. Daniel Amos’ best albums were New Wave which is probably not everyone’s taste. (For instance, “Hollow Man,” on the Doppelganger album features their previous very strange song “Ghost of the Heart” (from Alarma!) played backwards, but with new lyrics over the top. I think it’s awesome … My wife? Not so much. But with that caveat in mind, dig in.

As a special recommendation I commend Larry Norman’s Something New Under the Sun (or SNUTS, as it was lovingly referred to). I love blues and it is, in my opinion, one of the five or six best blues albums ever put together. I love this album so much that twenty five years later, I named one of my dogs Snuts in honor of the album.

A Troublesome Text

Today’s epistle in the daily lectionary is one of those texts that has become truly difficult:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive it’s approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. (Rom. 13:1,3)

I know that if I were black and living in America, I would have a beef with Paul. So what are we to make of this text? My native instinct is to explain it away, but I choose not to do that.

Instead, I offer up a completely different reaction to society most recently described in the movie Captain Fantastic, which opens this weekend. It features a family that cut itself off from an evil and unjust world (and what happens when they re-engage with it). Following in the footsteps of stories like Swiss Family Robinson, and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is yet one more exploration of the supposed innocent and natural life unencumbered by the burdensome order of society. In actual fact, Rousseau’s vision is more frequently worked out along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but that is a different essay.

Rousseau’s vision offers us a dismal view of the potentials of corporate society. Modern society has no redemptive value and the better choice is to flee.

Paul’s vision, in contrast, is an optimistic view of how society can work. In his view, society is redemptive because it offers the order and structure that makes working out our salvation possible in a group context. (And a reminder: salvation is not and, in the end, cannot be individualistic. We are incorporated into the Body of Christ and Christ as head of that corporate Body transforms creation through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and the priestly efforts of his Body.)

When things get as dismal as they seem to have gotten, it is tempting to take the Rousseau option and opt out. But that rarely – if ever – works in the long run. And Paul reminds us that there is indeed a fundamental order in the society that exists. As bad as it gets, eventually – and it will happen sooner if we all stay engaged – norms of authentic law and order return.

That doesn’t make the current bleakness (whether that is the American context of violence against blacks and Native Americans, or the Middle East context of utter societal breakdown or the European context of unexpected and absurd violence against the bystanders) any easier to withstand, but it puts it into proper context.

“Pay to all what is due to them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (v. 7). When we go through life in that manner, we may suffer, be tortured, and killed. But at least we’ll live and live abundantly.

Political Religion

I just read an extended review of Shadi Hamid’s new book Islamic Exceptionalism, and am intrigued. The book is now on my “to read” list. In his Washington Post review, Carlos Lozada focuses on the idea (from the book) that Islam is inherently political.

The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, preacher and warrior, but also builder of a new state. In Christianity’s origins, by contrast, governing was not the point; Jesus of Nazareth was a dissident against the political order. ‘Within the Christian tradition,’ Hamid emphasizes, ‘there was no equivalent of Islamic law – an accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance and the regulation of social and political affairs.

While it is true that classical Christianity had no “accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance,” over the centuries attempts at just such a corpus have been attempted. Originally there was “Christendom,” popularly attributed to Constantine, where the power of what would become the papacy and the power of the emperor were joined. But that system was specific to the rule of a monarch.

Social developments in northern Europe led to the rejection of both the divine right of monarchs and the pope. Protestantism became the norm and a new political philosophy of democracy, both in church and state developed. The result was the privatized Christianity and freedom of religion that we are familiar with today. Within Protestantism, while there is a highly developed theory of how Christians should relate to the state (Just Law theory, patriotism and conscientious objection, etc.) the idea of specific Christian governance, and the rules surrounding that, is not the norm.

History in England took a different turn than it did in northern Europe. England rejected the Pope without rejecting the Church/State relationship assumed in Catholicism. (The monarch remains the head of the Anglican Church to this day.) While not everyone in Britain was Anglican (the Scottish Kirk was Presbyterian, for instance), this close relationship between Church and State shaped theology as it did no where else in Europe. As a result the Westminster Standards (the confession, catechism, and a whole host of supporting theological writings) use the Old Testament Law as a model for our civil life.

This wholesale adoption of Old Testament law in a Christian context never took hold in England because England had a strong – and much older – tradition of common law that transcended Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the British monarchy.  And while English common law had a profound effect in the colonies, the marriage of Old Testament Law and Christian faith (sometimes called “Theonomy” – literally meaning “God’s Law”) had a great deal more influence in North America than in England.

So while Hamid is broadly correct that “within the Christian tradition there is no equivalent of Islamic Law,” in the American context there is a strain of Christian religion that does have the equivalent. Theonomy is technically a small offshoot of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. It was expressly embraced by splinter groups such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and later, by a large segment of the Presbyterian Church in America.

But Theonomy has a history of punching above its weight. Thus the primarily Baptist “Moral Majority” was deeply influenced by Theonomy, as were some Roman Catholics and their particular take on Natural Law and Legal Positivism in the United States.

The effect of all this is that the U.S. has had a series of groups that attempted to create Theocracies in the United States (starting with Plymouth Colony and the “Shining City on a Hill,” which was originally a specifically Theocratic idea). Many of these attempts have ended in tragedy (Posse Comitatis, Jonestown, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, etc.).

More significantly, because Theonomy tendencies run strong in American conservative Christianity, there is a certain respect for the idea of an Islamic state just as their is a respect for the idea of a Christian state. And furthermore, for Christians that are warm to the idea of a Christian state, there is typically an abhorrence of a competing state based on Islam.

Classical Liberalism privatized and individuated Christianity by making “freedom of religion” a basic human right. American conservatives (particularly those with Theonomist sympathies) promoted freedom of religion as long as the religion in question was Protestantism. Specifically, because there has always been a wishful idea that America was a Christian nation (in contrast to the Liberal Democratic Republic which was created in 1776), freedom of religion is more specifically understood as freedom of Protestant religion. (For instance, try to offer a prayer to Allah or Mary before a Texas high school football and wait to see what happens next!)

This riff on Theonomy does have a point. We Americans need to take seriously Shadi Hamid’s thesis that Islam is, in contrast to classic Christianity, inherently political. But hand in hand with that, we Americans need to take seriously that a very strong (but often ignored) strain of American Christianity is also inherently political.  For many, America vs. Islam is not so much political as it is inherently a religious war.

Donald Trump understands this and exploits it. I suspect that this is why a politician who in almost any other context would be considered in league with the Antichrist by conservative Christians has been embraced by conservative Christianity. This is not a political fight, it is a religious (dare I say it?) crusade that has led to a union of a blasphemous anti-christian demagogue with conservative Christians against the infidels.

I find the prospect frightening.