LE Blog General

The Parable of the Monkeys in the Vineyard

Just a quick report to all of my LE friends on some of my thoughts following this year’s American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta. I’ll share more in the coming weeks, but I want to call your attention to the work of one of the world’s leading primatologists. His name is Frans de Waal and he is a Professor in the Psychology at Emory University and the Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. And from what I saw at the AAR annual meeting, he’s also quite a funny guy. You’d have to be working so often with bonobos and monkeys.

So here’s my plan, follow it if you have a few free moments. First take some time to read my own personal favorite parable, the story of the workers in the vineyard. I’ve included a version below. Then and only then, take a few minutes to watch the linked video on some of de Waal’s subjects. I will not even bother adding any of my own thoughts, I’m sure that the connection will be obvious to most of you. ENJOY!

How can Liberals "MAKE" our kids go to church

I used to run into this question all the time as a youth minister. Put simply, bribing teenagers with pizza only works until they’re old enough to drive and buy their own pizza. Then parents have to “make them go to church.”

This is one of those topics that opens itself up to dozens of tangents, many of which are worth pursuing but I’ll try to chasten my writing and concentrate on a single question: Why, liberal readers, does the very idea of “making” your kids go to church cause so many of you/us to cringe?

By way of diagnosis let’s note a few dissonant realities. First, none of us cringe at making our children eat healthy foods and avoid gulping sugary sodas before bed. We make our kids brush their teeth, we make them go to school, and we make them visit their grandparents. In short, we make them do all kinds of things that are good for them and rarely do we hesitate. So, why do so many Liberal parents pause when it comes time to make their teenagers go to church? One possible answer is that they do not see church as that important, so it isn’t worth the same effort as making their kids do math exercises or eat vegetables. But for the sake of this post, I won’t address this possibility. Another possibility is that as North American culture has become increasingly secularized, more and more events for kids (soccer, hockey, birthday parties) are scheduled on Sunday mornings, meaning that kids and teenagers have better and better reasons for pressuring mom and dad to skip church. This is not a non-issue, but I also won’t address it here. (Ever wonder why so few Jews play football? Just consider the title…“Friday Night Lights.”)

I think it is more likely that most Liberal parents hesitate to “make” their older kids go to church because there is a fundamental tension at work between three concepts that I’ll symbolize with three words: Liberal, Religion, and “Make.”

It is not the case—at least I’m not addressing these types of cases—that LiberalEvangelical parents do not value religious education and church. Rather, Liberals, by definition, believe in personal choice and are deeply hesitant to force anyone to do or be anything without good reason. (The book that launched this website, Lost in the Middle?, does and excellent job of digging into the history of the term “Liberal” and its earliest roots in Evangelical movements.) But yet, as we’ve already noted, Liberal parents force their kids to do all kinds of things that their kids don’t want to do. So why, for so many Liberals, does religious education not rise to the level of linguistic or scientific or mathematical or physical education? Why will we force our kids to brush their teeth before bed, but never consider having them read their Bibles before turning out the lights? (Believe me, I’m not on my high horse here. I’m describing my own actions as a parent.)

Why I Care Very Little that my Minister is a Heretic

 

Well, he is. There’s no denying it if you heard his sermon on Pentecost Sunday. He’s a confirmed Modalist, and I have very little doubt that most everyone reading this blog is as well. And I don’t care at all about your heresy either.

Trigger Warning: there is more than a little philosophy in this post, if you find this sort of thing traumatic, you may want to look elsewhere.

The Fundamentalist Myth includes a cosmology, a particular picture of the cosmos that is deceptively simple. It includes the familiar threefold distinction between heaven, earth and hell—though the spatial representations of heaven as up and hell as down should not be taken literally unless we are to banish all Australians to hell, what with the world being round and all. Heaven is truth, hell is error and earth, the realm of humanity, teeters between the two in persistent limbo, constantly tempted by both. The Fundamentalist Myth also includes a narrative about how humanity once had full access to the truth (Eden) but lost it (The Fall). Post-Fall, humanity lives in a world that cannot be trusted to yield truth, for sin has given us a fallen humanity and a fallen world. Luckily, however, the supernatural Incarnation of Jesus and the revelation found The Holy Bible (KJV only please!) transcend the natural world and allow us, even in our fallen and error-ridden condition, privileged access to truth. Fundamentalists and traditionalists as diverse as Jerry Fallwell and Karl Barth accepted this basic myth and cosmology, even as they disagreed about its details. If this picture is true, then heresy (the misconstrual of supernatural revelation) is truly a crime that should solicit the worst punishments imaginable. But the LiberalEvangelical fundamentally disagrees with both this myth and this cosmology, and consequently looks at heresy in a very different light.

Apologetic Patriotism

 

Every fourth of July I end up thinking about this topic, knowing full well that lots of Evangelical churches across America are reveling in “Old Glory” and hosting “God and Country” Saturday night revivals, even as Liberal churches in the same towns cringe and argue about whether it is appropriate to have an American flag in the building. As a LiberalEvangelical I come down on these issues in some unexpected ways thanks in large part to the impact of a single book that influenced me more than almost any other in seminary: H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

I write book reviews from time to time, but this is more of a recommendation than a review. Niebuhr’s text isn’t as well know as some of the texts that his brother wrote, nor is it as internally coherent. It is, after all, a collection of essays, not a sustained argument. But it does introduce a very important distinction that has stuck with me for almost 20 years. Monotheism and Polytheism, we are all familiar with, but Niebuhr introduces the concept of Henotheism, a kind of degenerate monotheism that “believes” in one God but is in fact “that social faith which makes a finite society, whether cultural or religious, the object of trust as well as of loyalty and which tends to subvert even officially monotheistic institutions, such as churches” (11). With this formulation Niebuhr construes religious life as less a matter of confession and more a matter of loyalty, the true monotheist being loyal to all-beings-that-are and all-being-that-is part of creation. Rational assent to a statement of belief or creed is meaningless in the face of divided loyalty and any act that partitions off part of creation and elevates it above another is a kind of henotheistic idolatry.

I remember feeling that I had been slapped upside the head when I first read this text. It is brutal and uncompromising, but true to the work of the both the Niebuhrs (H. Richard and Reinhold) the text is also rich in pastoral instruction. Niebuhr wasn’t trying to break any skulls, he was instead calling on his readers to re-appreciate the radical claim of monotheism that not only is God one, but God is truly the creator and sustainer of all being, so no subset thereof is to be elevated above another or despised. It is a radical restatement of universal love i.e. an ideal, an unlivable task, an impossibly egalitarian love.

Churches Aren’t Corporations and Christians Aren’t Customers

 

OK, full disclosure; this title is a rip-off of a Rebecca Schuman piece that ran last month on Slate.com.  It’s a great editorial entitled “College Students are not Customers: a political shorthand that needs to die.” So your first task is to pause and read it, and try not to get bogged down in the comments section. (Most comments sections are unreadable, but you can tell that more than a few unemployed or underemployed academics responded to this article since the comments are uncommonly articulate.)

Now that you’re back, you should see why I am so eager to look at our churches through a similar lens. If (and this is very much a disputed “if”) we think of students as customers, then there will always be the temptation to goose the bottom line by appealing to the immediate desires of these students/customers. The analogy here is with political pandering. If all you want is someone’s vote, then you are more likely to tell them what they want to hear than to try to get them to hear the truth. So colleges and professors, when they treat students like customers, are inevitably drawn to shape curriculums and programs and even classes to fit “what the students want” instead of working to shape students through exposing them to hard ideas and holding them to high standards.

I could do a couple of things here. As a college professor I’m tempted to stay with the educational theme, but as your esteemed LE.org blogger, I’m moved to turn my attention to similar dynamics within the churches. Instead of asking the question, who are our customers, I’d phrase the issue differently. To whom should our churches be accountable? Who is our constituency?

Summer Series 2015

 

May is my busiest month as I work to put in our 900 square foot garden and finish reading the last stack of term papers, and as it draws to a close all of my routines change. I move away from teaching and ramp up my reading and writing, I transition from using frozen strawberries in my morning smoothies to cutting fresh rhubarb (no, I promise, try it!), and here in Canada we can finally open our windows. Summer is upon us, and no one appreciates summer like folks here in the frozen north where it’s summer three months a year, and winter lasts from October 1 through the end of April. But to be honest with you, there is one other thing that really stands out as a sign of summer: the pews are empty…at least I think they are since I’m rarely there to notice. Yes, the Daniel-Hughes family is entering our season of church hooky.

I have taken up the annual task of running our men’s retreat. I began doing this when my wife returned from a women’s retreat with all kinds of fun stories. They drank wine, read books, kept journals, shared, cried, and cried and cried and then shared and cried some more. I deliberately organized our men’s event so as to keep all sincerity and sharing to an absolute minimum. Journals and books are forbidden. We don’t even stay indoors. We hike into the Adirondack mountains to smoke cigars, drink scotch, get bug bites and eat fatty and salty foods without guilt. The friendships are the point, and we drive this point home by refusing to call what we’re doing “fellowship” or “bonding.” I love it, and take pride in running a trip where there is a very real chance that someone ends up needing first aid. But I’m beginning to prattle…the point is that once the annual men’s retreat is over, church is pretty much over for us for the next few months. We’ll be there 3-4 times, off and on, but once my son is out of school, we’re simply not in town during the weekends. The mountains are calling, and as a red blooded American, I’m duty bound to take every opportunity to cross that border and get back into some good old ‘merican wilderness. Sorry pastor, but unless you’re moving the pulpit to Saranac Lake for July, I won’t be seeing you much.

Here’s our family’s rule-of-thumb/compromise: If we’re in town on Sunday, we’re in church, but if we’re in a tent, or lean-to, or hotel, then we ain’t (see even my vocabulary changes when summer arrives). Now I know what my Pentecostal grandparents and great-grandparents would have thought of this, but I’m asking you dear reader, what do you think.

Looking for Converts, Not Heretics

I don’t much listen to music when I run or work in the garden; instead my iPod is full of sports, science and politics podcasts. The sports shows I subscribe to are completely partisan and lean toward all things Boston, but I much prefer an ideological mix when it comes to politics. I especially enjoy the podcast from the PBS News Hour where Mark Shields and David Brooks talk over the events of the week. Last week Shields said something in regards to the various GOP candidates that I thought was quite insightful. I’ll paraphrase him here: when parties are feeling secure, they look for converts, when they’re feeling threatened they look for heretics. How true…but how odd at the same time.

I began to mull this idea over as I drove south toward Plattsburgh, New York and again and again I came up with compelling examples of this phenomenon. Shields’ point seemed to hold not only with regards to political parties, but with regards to entire religions, nations, denominations, political factions, and even individual congregations. In times of threat and crisis our deepest tribal habits kick in and rather than throwing open the gates in the hopes of building strength through coalitions and numbers, we hunker down (sometimes literally) and inspect our foxholes to be sure that they are free of traitors and atheists. There are hundreds of studies that verify this phenomenon and dozens of thoughtful commentators who try to help us think the data through and come to some kind of broad synthetic understanding of its implications. I’ll pause here to point readers toward Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, though there are many other texts that make similar cases.

I won’t be taking us down the fascinating rabbit hole of cognitive science and the study or religion, or it’s close cousin moral psychology. Instead, I want to focus on a frightening implication of what is a well-documented scientific fact. See that bold sentence above. Look at it again from the perspective of the aging mainline churches or any shrinking congregation you might have in mind…that’s scary stuff. Because if it is correct, then by the time most congregations and denominations wake up to the fact that they’re dying, it’s already too late to save themselves. Times of crisis are those times in which we are least able to examine ourselves and the ideological boundaries that we have erected. One must make hay while the sun shines, or to use a more biblical metaphor, let's look to Matthew.

Lingering Over Lent

 

We’ve had quite a winter here in Montreal. My snow-blower has been getting more than its usual workout. So we’ve been looking forward to the beginning of spring this year even more than normal. I’m not sure anyone really looks forward to Lent. Advent season is a preparation for Christmas, but properly speaking, Lent is more about preparing for Good Friday than for Easter. It is a relatively solemn time that matches the weather—at least our weather here in the frozen north—so most of us are usually content if not eager to see Lent in our rearview mirrors. But these past few weeks have been rewarding enough to make me pause. Our little church here decided to embrace the season and the weather by taking this month to explore the topic of depression and it has proven to be strangely heartening. I won’t write a single argument here, I’ll just make a few points that I hope will add up to a cogent whole.

1) I’ll fill you in on my theory as to why exploring depression has been so uplifting at the end of the post, but I want to begin by noting one of the worst habits that so many of us Evangelicals (Liberal and Conservative) embrace. We are far too happy, far too self-assured, and often entirely unable to stop babbling on joyfully and nonsensically to hear what people in real pain have to say. Many non-Evangelicals (Christians included) have created Evangelical caricatures based on this common and annoying characteristic that so many of us share. The fellow depicted here may be a cartoon, but his constant habit of making lemonade out of lemons and spewing nonsensical clichés is all too familiar to many of us. Nobody wants to talk to the Neds of the world because Ned is incapable of a conversation. He may hear, but he doesn’t listen because no one can truly listen if they’re convinced that they already know the answer before they know what you are going to say.

2) A while ago I wrote about some of the most harmful clichés that Evangelicals sprinkle into their conversations with one another and with non-Evangelicals. It remains one of my best posts. Happiness is wonderful, but it’s most wonderful when it’s a response to a genuine encounter with grace and beauty. Happiness can also be a weapon, a blunt instrument that can feel like a cudgel to someone who is struggling simply to get up in the morning. Depression isn’t a choice, and when people fighting that battle are made to feel yet more pressure to “seem happy” or “act happy”, happiness can become a positive evil. The last thing people with mental illness need is some chuckling schmuck telling them “chin up buddy, God never gives us more than we can handle.” Sure he does. It is a lie to suggest that we can handle i.e. control everything. None of us can.

The Problem with Pigeonholes

Sorry folks, but you’ll have to tolerate some philosophical table setting before getting to the LiberalEvangelcial point and payoff.

So many of our day-to-day duties involve sorting. Sorting is one of the fundamental ways that we take the relative chaos that the universe presents us and work it into a manageable form. Occasionally, these sorting tasks are conscious operations, like sorting the mail (the source of the pigeonhole analogy) or deciding which budget category a particular expense should fall into. If I write a letter of recommendation for a student, should I file a copy under “professional correspondence” or under “student records”? Many of these decisions seem to be quite inconsequential…until they go wrong.

Luckily, however, we have extremely sophisticated brains that have evolved over the millennia to take on most of these sorting tasks and perform them without our conscious participation. Think about all of the “sorting” tasks you undertook today without consciously engaging. You sort out relevant sounds from irrelevant “background” noises. If you took public transportation your brain was working overtime sorting out faces from other less relevant images. If you drove, and have been driving for more than a few months, most of the data that inundated you as you cruised down the road was non-consciously sorted and processed as you steered your car and worked the pedals, allowing you to give conscious attention to the radio talk show, the kids in the back or the conversation your passenger was relating. I am hyper-aware of the difference between conscious and non-conscious processing because I live in a part of North America where half of the conversations I hear, I understand without conscious effort and the other half require that I engage and often struggle to sort sounds into nouns, verbs and meaningful sentences. French requires my conscious attention while English does not.

As I see it, there are at least three kinds of sorting processes at work 1) the non-conscious ones we are born with (recognizing faces), 2) the ones that we learn so well that they can become non-conscious (language usage), and 3) the processes that require our conscious attention (sorting the mail or organizing the basement). All three involve forms of judgment and all three can go wrong with varying consequences. And this is what I want to talk about with you here: what happens when our sorting processes go wrong in ways that have damaging real world consequences. Click below for the promised point and payoff. But we warned, I’ll be assigning some tough reading.

A Great Winter Read: Steven Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism

 

I read a lot of books. Most professors can make similar statements because we read for our jobs as well as for fun. I read anthropology and philosophy, religion and science, far too much Sci-fi and lately The Adventures of Captain Underpants. (Anyone with an eight-year-old boy will know that last title.) But for the last several years I haven’t read much in the way of Evangelical history in part because I felt as if I’d exhausted the genre. For several years in the early 2000s I taught courses at Concordia University and Connecticut College on the history and development of American Evangelicalism and preparing for those courses caused me to develop a fairly extensive library of Evangelical histories and anthropological treatments. As religious movements go, Evangelicalism is still in its infancy, so the histories deal only with a few centuries at most, and once you’ve read a dozen or so, the differences between them become largely academic. If you’re interested, I recommend Mark Noll’s The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity and George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as good places to begin your study of the topic. But today I’ll recommend a new text to you.

Over Christmas break I devoured Steven P. Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years. And while this is a blog and not a book review, I will tell you what I found so compelling about the text. First and foremost, it avoids the pitfalls of so many other histories of American Evangelicalism, so let me outline those shortcomings first. In my experience, most histories of A.E. fall into three camps. First, there are those histories written by professional historians of religion (Noll and Marsden fall into this camp.) that trace the history of modern Evangelicalism back to it’s roots in the First Great Awakening or even the European Reformations. For history and theology buffs like me, these are fun reads because they highlight continuities and connections between “mainline” traditions and Evangelicalism. The basic operating thesis of most of these texts is that Evangelicalism has always been there, but due to class associations, it has usually been an under-appreciated contributor to the American religious tradition. In short, these books rewrite the entire history of American religion so as to highlight the Evangelical strain and its contributions. They are, if nothing else, thorough.

Multiculturalism...Get Used to It, Because it Ain't Going Away

To paraphrase myself, and why not it’s my blog, “Just as increased urbanization is likely in the coming years, we should expect our little pockets of homogeneity to be increasingly disrupted as we encounter and live beside more folks who are different from us. Perhaps no issue is more pressing for LiberalEvangelicals.”

What a wise observation I made a few weeks back! Sarcasm aside, it’s patently true. For most of human history humans have been able to count on the fact that most other humans we might encounter would share many of our most basic assumptions about the world and our habits of interacting with our shared social and natural worlds. We can no longer count on this, and while it is especially true for those of us living in and around large urban centers, folks in the “fly over states” are no longer “safe” from difference. So get ready LEs, no matter where you are, for a century of increasing multiculturalism. Chi-Chis is not going to be the most exotic restaurant in your town for much longer. 

[To my chagrin, I learned AFTER writing the last sentence that Chi-Chis shut down all its locations in the U.S. in 2012. However, I will leave the preceding paragraph alone as a memorial to a once great chain. “A Celebration of Food,” we celebrate you one final time.]

Rather than try to demonstrate the demographic case to you and show that multiculturalism is a growing and probably irreversible trend, I’m going to concentrate on a much more uncomfortable fact and a probing question.

Fact: Difference is uncomfortable and even the most tolerant of us often chafe at having to navigate a multicultural space. There is no point in denying this basic fact of human life. Instead, let’s ask the important question.

Question: Why is it that the very same differences that bother us when we’re in our own hometown (race, religion, ethnicity, language, child discipline or lack there of, social propriety, to name only a few) do not bother us nearly as much when we’re on vacation? What makes these two situations feel so different?

My Hypothesis (and this hypothesis is hardly unique to me): We’re hardwired to perceive difference not merely as inconvenient, though it is that, but also as moderately threatening. “You and yours, ain’t me and mine,” to put the matter bluntly, and difference alerts me to that fact and activates my most basic instincts toward defending and expanding my own kin and in-group.

LiberalEvangelical Analysis: Stop it!