Sunday, September 27, 2009

I wonder as I wander...

Ahh, the wanderings of Summer. I walked the streets of Portland and Vancouver, BC this Summer, taking in the sights, watching the people, observing culture. Of course, this was in addition to the more regular visits to the nearer cultural (or maybe counter-cultural is a better description)centers of Seattle and Olympia, plus a random visit to the Midwest, reconnecting for a few days with my small town church roots. And I wondered as a I wandered about the future of Christianity in North America.

First, the urban environments promptd me to note that, as the culture at large in the U.S. has shifted over the past decades to an urban focus, Christianity has gradually followed suit. Think about the cultural perceptions: there was a time when TV shows like The Waltons and The Andy Griffith show presented us with the small-town environment that was thought of as typical, classic American life. But when the mainstream TV shows became focused on people living in apartment complexes in downtown (fill in a city name here), the cultural shift was becoming more evident. I think of Seinfeld, Friends and King of Queens as examples, but I acknowledge that I'm about ten years behind and I don't know half of what truly hip people are watching on hulu these days. But in visiting cities, I have seen where urban revitalization projects have brought fine downtown living in cities across the continent. And in each city officals are proud to point out the success of their redevelopment projects (as they busily work to shuffle the poor and transient populations to different fringe areas that will be out of the eyeline of visitors and upscale residents).

Christians have caught onto the fever, it seems: community transformation and reaching the urban poor have become trendy ways to do ministry - although, if we really follow the demographics, it may be that white, suburban Christians who have become missionaries to impoverished urban areas may simply be taking the place of black, urban churches that were fixtures in those neighborhoods for years, and gradually saw the next generation of members gain wealth and move away from the poverty and crime that their parents struggled to help them overcome. So this shift may involve trading places more than adding urban numbers.

Churches are not focused only on the urban poor, but also are trying to crack what has been a tough nut: the urban, educated, professional and artistic crowds. Pastors like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, in Seattle and New York, respectively, have developed a bold new image of the intellectual, culturally aware preacher at the head of a church that appeals to university students, creative minds, culturally diverse audiences, and the kind of crowd that takes for granted the idea of getting a master's degree. The modernist takeover of universities, public education systems, governement and the arts sent Christians reeling at one time, pulling back to develop their own Christian institutions. But now in cities where many neighborhoods are reputed to have more dogs than evangelicals, a fresh energy has arisen to move eagerly into these environments and give an intelligent presentation of Christianity, working in the face of the hubris of a skeptical elite.

Does this attitude seems to me to reflect an acceptance of the idea that Christianity is quickly losing cultural dominance? Skepticism and vitriolic rejection of any role for Christian beliefs and ideals in the public square are not new attitudes. But if you look at what Barna and books like Unchristian are finding in their research, this outlook seems to be gaining popular momentum, . Perhaps some are adapting to the idea that building Christian institutions for education, entertainment, and every area of life may not be as possible in the changing climate, but hanging on to the call of the church to speak and live the gospel, no matter how dark the environment is essential. But the overall numbers of evangelicals have not actually had a significant decline in the American population at large, only in younger age brackets. If this trend continues, then the dramatic changes will take place.

But these changes may appear more dramatic because of a different concept of how the church should affect culture. TO use a metaphor, its as if one generation gathered all their wood together and built a big bonfire, bright enough to be seen from a distance. Some accepted the invitation to join the party; I grew up in the fire's warmth myself. Others outside the church simply complained about the noise the group around the campfire makes, and stayed as far away as they could. The bonfire crowd gives ideas like, "If Christians would all have six or seven kids and raise them right, and if Christians would move their kids out of the secularist education system, the public system as it is would crumble, and we could take back America." Building Christian education institutions, a Christian music industry, Christian publishing houses and political action committees were very important - there must be rival institutions for the liberal, secular edifices.

But I see a number of people who have decided to instead take their flame and carry it, even if it is only a small, flickering candle, into a very dark place, delighting in the contrast of light with darkness, even while enduring the chill of the climate around them. The candle crowd says, "If only we would step into the broader culture, be a part of public institutions and organizations, and pair active witness with work for the good of those around us, we can see lives transformed in even the darkest of situations." This crowd wants to have their kids in public schools so that their voice is heard in the education system, to see Christians influencing both political parties from within, and to be Christian in their neighborhoods and homes, without having Christian activity confined to brick and mortar structures or have their work categorized, labelled and marketed as Christian. Christianity will show from a genuinely changed life without the labels, and it's not expressed in knowing the right phrases and niceties of organizational culture, but in simple and sincere love in a hateful world.

So will the demographic trends play out to make us a "post-Christian" society? I can only hear so many alarmist appeals before I start to wonder whether it's rhetoric rather reality. How many other times have people sounded the alarm? Perhaps people in my age bracket are absent because they are walking away from their faith and imbibing skepticism. Or perhaps they just envision Christianity very differently, and so aren't on the radar of what have been the institutions of Christianity in our culture. There's probably a lot of both.

But if we do truly become post-Christian, I think that could bring about some good things in the life of the church. Here are a few things I would love to see from a marginalized church in our country:

- More efficient Christian institutions: more money invested in people who speak and live out the gospel and make disciples, rather than self-help books to use Jesus to make us feel better and clean entertainment for Christians to passively consume.

- More sacrificial giving, as we stop relying on a lot of people dropping $5.00 in the plate ever Sunday, and have to really think about what we can give up to keep the important Christian works alive.

- More expressions of Christian faith that say why we believe what we do and how we hold to it in the face of the pressures and criticisms of the world. Feeling good about amen-ing cultural assumptions and blindly affirming catch-phrases without having any clue what they mean probably doesn't change many lives.

- More awareness of historical and cross cultural communities of faith, as we are willing to look to other sources and gain a broader perspective on our own faith. Urban settings foster multicultural exposure, and minority status makes us more willing to look outside ourselves for answers.

- More focus on essentials beliefs and behaviors of the faith - the things that distinguish us from the world - rather than traditional American culture packaged in religous language.

- More emphasis on faith through good works that shows the world Christianity brings something good in people. Rather than measuring devotion by attendance and knowledge alone, calling people to play a meaningful part in something worthwhile, so that they have a commitment worth considering.. If all we are asking people to do is show up, what reason do they have for showing up?

I am speaking in broad generalizations about things I have seen in cultural Christianity, and don't intend my words to be harmful to the many people who are already working hard to bring these changes about in their churches and ministries. I am drawing conclusions from what I have seen of various slices of Christianity, knowing that others have seen some very different things. I want to hear your perspectives in the comments or in response blogs. But here you have the musings of this Impoverished Sage, wondering about what's next as I wander through life.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Relativism lurks on the street corners.

I used to work a street corner in downtown Tacoma a couple years ago. One night I got slapped in the face on what was an otherwise peaceful evening. To quickly clarify, my job on the street corner was to valet-park cars for a 4-star restaurant. And the slap was a metaphorical slap, delivered in the form of relativistic philosophy.

What exactly was the slap, you ask? Well, let me explain. You see, valets tend to have a lot of time standing around at work, and I got into an interesting conversation with the lady I worked alongside that particular night. She had been part of an evangelical church at one time, she informed me, but she stopped going because the leaders at the church kept telling her that her interpretations of the Bible were wrong, and they acted like they had the right interpretation figured out. For example, this lady was a vegetarian, and had been her whole life, because she didn’t want animals to die on her account. So when she read the ten commandments and saw, “Thou shalt not kill,” she took that to apply to all living creatures, not just humans. She was insulted that the teachers at her church would be so close-minded as to say her interpretation was wrong, when the teachers’ views were just their own interpretations anyway.

As a seminary student who had already completed two classes with Dr. Willsey, the Yoda of hermeneutics in the Pacific Northwest, I felt pretty prepared to give a good explanation to her. I pointed out that in other parts of Moses’ writings, we see that all animals were created by God’s spoken word, but humans were fashioned specially in God’s image. After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah that permitted humans to eat animals as food, but warned that anyone who killed another person would be killed by another person. In addition, the people of Israel were expressly instructed to kill some animals as sacrifices in other parts of the Law. While this doesn’t say that being vegetarian is necessarily bad, the command not to kill can’t accurately be applied to animals as well as humans. After I finished my careful exposition, my coworker looked at me, smiled sweetly, and said, “That’s just your interpretation.”

I was dumbfounded. Thankfully, a customer called for us to get a car at that moment, so my lack of words wasn’t as noticeable. I went home that night turning the conversation over in my mind, with my figurative cheek figuratively smarting. I knew something was seriously wrong with what she had said, but I didn’t know how to answer without making dogmatic assertions that just further proved her point. I’ve done a little thinking and discussing since then on how to answer the great postmodern skeptic’s catch-all phrase, “That’s just your interpretation.”

I realized that some fundamental flaws are associated with this statement. First, “interpretation” is used in such a way that the word “misinterpretation” would become extinct if we all followed this definition. Doesn’t it seem that, if anyone knew what an author meant by what they said, the most likely person would be the author? So if we find other statements from the author that help us to understand the statement in question, an interpretation that takes these into account should be given more weight. Claiming to have a more accurate interpretation may get me labeled as arrogant, because I am ruling out other people’s interpretations. But if we rule out the author’s explanation of his or her own meaning in favor of our own interpretations, isn’t that arrogant as well? Try this simple test: interrupt your best friend or significant other when they are talking, tell them that you know what they mean and explain an idea in your head that’s loosely related, but very different. Then, if they try to explain themselves further, rudely ignore them by saying that you rinterpretation is right for you and they can’t tell you it’s wrong. Interpreting when an author is not present to speak up and clarify is obviously more difficult, but let’s give merit to what they have said in writing, not completely ignore it and pretend that won’t affect our understanding of their message.

I’m not arguing for absolute certainty, I’m just saying there’s a limit to the range of interpretations that are valid. In many cases we don’t know for certain which interpretation is completely accurate, but we do know that some are definitely better than others. Take a math equation for an example. You can take the same numbers and arrange them in a lot of different ways, performing different operations on them. As long as we agree on the values of numbers and follow rules like the order of operations, we can get to an answer in a variety of different ways.


But if a math student misunderstood a problem and changed the symbols around, they could use the same numbers to get to a very different answer.


“Checking our math” on interpretations is a good thing. In a variety of interpretations, each person can help spot the others’ “miscalculations” or misappropriated symbols. But, please, if someone tells you 2(4)=24, don’t just smile and tell them that they are entitled to their opinion. That’s the kind of stuff that will make computers, airplanes, and financial markets crash. Put the interpretation together how you want within the range of merit and validity, but don’t be so arrogant as to defy reality when someone points out the problems with your approach.

Am I too late? Perhaps postmodernism is too far past for this to be relevant. The fact that we can label and describe a way of thinking may well mean that it has past its prime, at least in academic trends (even if the label is rather non-descriptive). Even though the evangelical world is still enthralled with the terms and it makes us feel cutting edge to add “post-“ to the beginning of our cultural descriptors, we may see ths issues pass off the scene just as we’re developing some really good answers for them. But the ideas will still have impact on people for years to come, whether through acceptance or reaction.

Using logic and words to refute the claim that logic and words are meaningless may seem like an exercise in futility. A truly consistent relativist would reject it. But the reality is, there aren’t truly consistent relativists. Skepticism of knowledge and meaning is limited to a couple of categories – literature and religion - and most people who use our phrase in question are just repeating something they heard, and haven’t really thought through its implications. For example, try questioning whether evolutionary theory or global warming science are credible, and see how relativistic your skeptic becomes. In reality we have to make decisions about how we will behave and function, and when we make most of those decisions, we don’t do it with the mindset that any path is as good as any other, but we weigh how the options will affect our circumstances, finances, emotions, future, etc. While none of us can predict or control the future, yet we look for a warranted belief that the course of action we are choosing will have desirable outcomes. And this is what we are looking for in evaluating interpretations of a text. We want to eliminate misinterpretations as invalid, not even giving them the dignity of the title “interpretation” or placing them within the range of validity. And we want to look at the warrants of the other interpretations, knowing full well that there may be a couple with virtually equal levels of warrant, which we can never decide between with certainty. But that doesn’t mean they’re equal to all others.

Do we have the proper interpretation of Scripture locked in a dogmatic box? No. But do we have grammatical, literary, historical and cultural evidence that places our interpretations within a range of validity? I certainly hope so. If there are no warrants, be like Hus, Wycliffe, or Luther and question authority. If there aren’t, quit locking up your own mind without any warrant.