catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 20 :: 2007.11.02 — 2007.11.16


Heaven’s gated communities

I think that Sam Brownback has contracted a condition—and it could be in its later stages.  A U.S. Senator from Kansas, he has a number of normal and even distinguishing characteristics:  he claims a strong interest in human rights on a global scale and in American family issues; he is a Roman Catholic; he has partnered with Democratic Senator Joe Biden on the endorsement of partitioning Iraq into three federal states in order to quell sectarian violence there.   Until very recently, when he dropped out of the race, he was one of the few Republican presidential candidates in this election cycle who logically could be attractive to the Christian Evangelical Right. 

But there are symptoms as well.  He has one of those haircuts that must be cool in Congress—it’s as if Washington D.C. barbers are only taught one style and apply it to all men with sufficient hair, regardless of ideology or party affiliation.  But it looks a little odd in the rest of the known universe; it says, “I’m not from around here.”  Other symptoms which sufferers of this condition may experience include a marked tone deafness, an affinity with the biblical character named  Jonah, and a vertigo-like feeling that the world is at once shrinking very quickly and expanding beyond recognition.  I know this because I have seen the symptoms before.  I have been in proximity; I’m afraid that I might have it, too.

I know even this much about Brownback, though, because he was speaking at Saddleback Church’s World AIDS conference last fall, and I was in the audience both as a member of the church and as a reporter for a Christian magazine. He shared the stage with a national candidate of higher profile, Barack Obama, junior Senator from Illinois, son of a Kenyan father and a white mother, also from Kansas.  (Obama shows symptoms of Brownback’s condition, but in its early stages—his haircut is a little funny, and he speaks in a long, careful way that, well, doesn’t sound like real speech).   Brownback, who spoke first in the session on governmental policies concerning the AIDS crisis in Africa, lamented that he had been spending a lot of time speaking at events for which Obama was the headliner—in fact, he said, it had become a little like traveling with Elvis.  Then, enjoying the confidence apparently gained from being a Republican in a major Evangelical church, Brownback said, “Today I want to welcome Barack to my house.” 

The remark was greeted with applause from a significant portion of the audience, silence from others, and a crossing of arms by a few.  After listening to Brownback’s speech, Obama rose to compliment Brownback on his positions on Africa and AIDS.  He then offered Brownback and the audience that morning pointed greetings from Trinity United Church of Christ on West 95th street in Chicago, and concluded his opening remarks by questioning why, exactly, Brownback was claiming a Christian place of worship as his house and not God’s house. 

Near my home in Orange County, California is a gated community.  I have only entered it to drive my sons to a neighborhood Bible study and that, in itself, borders on the ridiculous.  “We want to invite you over for some fellowship, but first, well, you need to get past the guard at the gate.”  Due to a number of factors that I hope to explain in this article, I believe that we Christians continue to be engaged in a project of building communities of worship that are comfortable for us, but that are not welcoming and perhaps have become even inaccessible to the very people we are trying to serve and reach.  Our churches are becoming gated communities.  We share Sam Brownback’s condition, to one degree or another.  At its core is this:  Evangelical Christianity is becoming anti-evangelical.


Stage 4 Christianity

In his recent book on the emerging generations’ reactions to Jesus and to the church, Pastor Dan Kimball draws a frighteningly logical sketch of how Christians almost naturally build gated church communities.  Kimball lists four stages of Christian development.  In the first stage, conversion and its near aftermath, new Christians share their faith experiences, usually with about 20 other people per year, and maintain relationships with un-churched friends.  Stage 2 sees Christians becoming gradually immersed in church life, to the point where our social contact becomes limited to other Christians.  In Stage 3, in which our relationships with non-Christians wane, we spend more time physically at the church, we think of missional life outside the church as something done overseas rather than in our neighborhoods.  Our worlds become simultaneously very small (our church) and very big (the overseas un-churched world).   As we isolate ourselves, we develop our own language of Christian in-phrases and become citizens of the Christian cultural bubble.  We expect people who are interested in God to find Him (and us) at church. 

Stage 4:  After several years in the bubble, writes Kimball, “we begin to complain and point out the terrible things happening in our culture…like Jonah, we even have a secret sense of delight thinking about how God will one day punish all those sinners in our towns and cities” (Jonah 4:5).  Perhaps we read novels about the end times in which the whole world is going to hell.  Perhaps we get a little upset when judgment is slow in coming.  Perhaps we sit on the hillside and, while in front of our eyes God has decided not to punish a city of humans that “cannot tell its right hand from its left,” we whine about how the church that has provided us shade from the metaphorical noon-day sun is now drying up like a shriveled gourd, that numbers aren’t what they once were.  If you do the math, moving from Stage 1 to Stage 4 only takes a few years.  Sorry to be so blunt, but I’m entitled, I think, since I am part of the problem. 

But I do not think this is the whole story; there are cultural factors at work that stoke the flames of our Jonah-ism, which add strength to the full range of the condition that ends in producing an anti-evangelical church culture.  Many people such as Kimball are writing about the cultural landscape and the danger that the once-vibrant American church may, in the course of the next 30 years, walk the same path to cultural obscurity as the church in Europe has walked.  I’ll offer three observations on cultural factors that I think the church has absorbed and that are adding to our identities as “gated communities.”


Winning—at the Cost of Sadness

Part of my work as a professor—part of the work of almost all English professors in the American college and university system—is to teach college composition.  I love this class.  It gives me an opportunity to work with college students in integrating our personal experiences with intellectual, theological and cultural questions that we sometimes assume are not applicable to our daily lives. 

One section of the typical composition course was once called argumentative writing.  My students’ reaction to the word “argument” has become more negative over the years; the reason is partly due, I believe, to negative cultural models.  While “argument” may once have been understood as a conversation with an audience, or at least an attempt to change an audience’s mind about an idea, that central conversational core has been replaced by something akin to an attack.  Look, I tell my students, at any cable television political show.  These programs represent a pattern of contemporary “argument” that is close to what children are forced to hear from their divorcing parents:  demean the opponent, use “truth” as it is convenient, speak more loudly to avoid conversation, and exaggerate the opponent’s position to avoid engagement.  The notion of convincing an audience has been thrown out the window.  Argument now seems rather about rallying the base around the despicability of the opponent, who is portrayed as an “enemy” because she or he disagrees with us.  Argument can also insure that we only talk to those we agree with, in order to make those of us who are in agreement feel better.

How bad is it?  Bad.  Think about the recent “swift-boating” of 12-year-old Graeme Frost and his family for deciding to express a dissenting opinion on the SCHIP program.  The blogosphere allows both “facts” and personal attacks to run unchecked.  Recently, as the southern half of my state struggled with wildfires and the displacement of almost a million of its residents, Fox News ran a story suggesting that an FBI memo may link the fires to al Qaeda.  (The problem is that the memo was four years old, and it speculated on the possibility of terrorists setting simultaneous fires in two or three western states—not in California, by the way).  These examples are taken from the political right, but I am sure there is plenty of blame to spread across the political spectrum.  The problem is cultural.

But the problem becomes particularly painful for me when I see Christians involving themselves in this rhetoric of winning at all costs.  Such “arguments” isolate us further from a culture that is finding us more hostile and irrelevant.  Moreover, they leave me at a genuine loss as to how they can be at all reconciled with scriptures that command us to forgive our enemies and bless (not curse) those who persecute us.  This cultural form of argument that demands we win at all costs is anti-Christian, and we have reached a point when Christians no longer notice the point at which they have crossed the line into anti-Christian behaviors and mindsets.

On a recent evening, about two weeks ago, I stepped into a Twilight Zone moment in front of my television—although the setting was not provided by Rod Serling’s distinct narration, but by a conversation between John Stewart and Chris Matthews.  Stewart, Comedy Central’s host of The Daily Show (which draws on one of the prime demographics—ages 22-35—that the church is now losing) was interviewing Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball.  Matthews has a new book out, called Life’s a Campaign:  What Politics has Taught Me about Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success.  He was Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show, and the interview—usually an interesting, positive moment of endorsement during the program—developed in an unexpected way. 

Matthew’s books suggests that our present understanding of argument, played out in how we run our political campaigns, is a good guide for achieving success in many areas of life.  A portion of the transcript of the interview follows:

Stewart: Life’s a Campaign. Now if I read this correctly, and I believe I read this book correctly, what you are saying is: People can use what politicians do in political campaigns to help their lives. . . . It strikes me as fundamentally wrong. It strikes me as a self-hurt book, if you will. Aren’t campaigns, fundamentally, contrivances?

Matthews: Yeah, campaigns can be. But politicians, the way they get to the top, is the real thing. They know what they’re doing. You don’t have to believe a word they say, but you have to watch how far they got. How did [Bill] Clinton get there? How did Hillary get there? How did all these guys get there? Reagan. They have methods to get to the top.

Stewart: So you’re suggesting that even if no one believes a word you say, you can be successful.

Matthews: Yes.

Stewart: Now that seems to me to be a book about sadness. Is it not?

Matthews: Do you want to succeed?

Stewart: I’ve succeeded!

Matthews: Do you want to have friends?

Stewart: I have friends! I want real friends! Wait a minute. If you treat life like a campaign, at the end of your life do you give a concession speech?

Matthews: It is a campaign. Everything about getting jobs, it’s about convincing someone to hire you. It’s about getting promotions. It’s about selling products. It’s always a campaign. It’s a campaign to get the girl of your dreams. It’s a campaign to do everything you want to do in life.

Stewart: But there has to be some core of soul in there… What campaigns are, are photo opportunities that are staged. And there’s nothing in this book about ‘Be Good. Be Competent.’

Matthews: That’s the Bible. It’s been written.

Stewart: This book has been written, too! It was called The Prince. … Sometimes when you read the book, it seems like you’re saying “Do what you think will win,” not “Do what you think is right.”

Matthews: Well, it’s both.

Stewart: Well, this seems to emphasize the former.

Matthews: You are unbelievable. This is the book interview from hell. This is the worst interview I’ve ever had in my life. This is the worst. You are the worst. I thought you were so big, you weren’t afraid of me.

Stewart: I’m not.

Matthews: This book scares you. There’s something in this book you fear.

Stewart: There is something in that book I fear. Like fascism.

Matthews, a Roman Catholic, is arguing for a Machiavellian philosophy of “do what you think is right” while Stewart, whose show often belittles religion, is hoping for a way of living “with a core of soul in there” that cares about being good and competent.  If I was on the outside of Christianity, and I had been intrigued by the words of Jesus in the gospels, why would I look to find Christ among those who have adopted a philosophy of winning at all costs and vilifying their opponents?


Idea Pollution:  Political Christians or Church-Embedded Politicians?

How did we get to the point when Christians are arguing for Machiavelli and non-Christians are arguing for goodness and competence?  Perhaps this analogy will help.  When we sit down at a table with someone to become partners in an endeavor, most of us probably hold an unconsidered idea that our new partner has come to agree with our way of thinking.  The problem with this point of view is that the person across the table is likely thinking the same thing about us.  And, if the other party is savvy about human partnerships, chances are that the he or she is thinking about how we can be made to adopt as many of his or her points of view for as little cost as possible. 

Over the last two and a half decades, Christian Evangelicals have been spending a lot of time at the political table, ostensibly asserting influence on matters such as abortion, the sanctity of marriage, the AIDS crisis in Africa, and the need for moral leaders in high places.  What they have actually received in these issues is a matter for debate and the subject of another article, but I have heard far too little discussion in my Christian world on how these new partners’ political values have actually changed the way that Evangelicals think and behave.

Evangelicals have assumed that they would be the influencers rather than the influenced, but, in the world of professional politics, such an assumption is akin to walking onto a car lot and expecting to get the best of an experienced car salesman.  (In fact, another conservative presidential candidate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, has recently expressed similar thoughts in his public comments on the strategy of many in the Christian right to find a “winner” rather than a candidate who matches up well on ideology and proposed policy.) Winning, power and its maintenance, a culture of fundraising, and a rhetorical style designed to protect incumbency seem to rule the day.

Kimball writes about the typical progression of the new convert from a life in “the world” to a life inside the Christian bubble, but sitting down at the political table for the purpose of partnership adds a foreign element, perhaps even a contaminant—as we see in the Matthews interview—to what we take back inside the bubble with us.  When a “political worldview” has been repeatedly brought back into the bubble, many inhabitants may come to believe that it is part of the natural Christian landscape.  Those outside the bubble are more likely to see politics for what it is.  They are also likely to scratch their heads in bemusement over how Christians subsequently treat each other.

An example, unfortunately, could be the treatment that Saddleback Church’s global outreach program has received from others in the Christian community.  Rick Warren’s PEACE plan, an ambitious attempt to mobilize the international church against illiteracy, poverty, pandemic diseases such as AIDS, corrupt leadership, and spiritual emptiness, has been greeted by its critics with some fairly outrageous and destructive claims.  Without naming names, I would summarize the “concerns,” expressed in that attacking-winner-take-all rhetoric that marks our cultural discourses, as the following.  Critics says that the plan is not practical or biblical in that the Bible tells us that governments are by their nature corrupt and that the poor will always be with us. (This might be called a cherry picking of biblical evidence.)  One blogger even suspects that Warren’s plan is oddly aligned with the United Nations’ goals and that a secret alliance exists between Warren and the U.N.  If you are tempted to think that these statements are the exceptions, please note that Warren received significant criticism for inviting Senator Obama to the World AIDS Conference at Saddleback; the criticism was based on Obama’s political party affiliation and in his position on abortion.  So, not only do many in the Evangelical church assume that the Republican party is the only legitimate party affiliation for its members, but the church is content talk to itself, to make itself feel better; it need not invite people of differing opinions into the discussion, no matter what they have to contribute.


A Separated Reconciliation

Saddleback’s PEACE plan encourages all active members in the church to either go on or support a “PEACE trip”—a mission trip that attempts to address the plan’s concerns.  Although there is some criticism of this initiative, both in terms of practicality and effectiveness, the plan succeeds in making the world bigger for the average churchgoer.  The thread I see running through the reports of those who have taken a PEACE trip is a new appreciation for how the rest of the world lives and for the level of wealth the typical American possesses. 

It seems to me, however, that the church’s general diversity—of cultures, ethnicities and ideas—either has yet to be influenced or, if it has been, the effect has been quiet.  One reason may be that programs like the PEACE plan and the general concept of “missions” unintentionally reinforce the invisible gate around our church communities.  Mission trips allow church members to go to do work in a place far removed, and then to come back to the church.  Thus, missional work aimed at “others” is something that happens “out there,” in countries and cultures far away from the small world of our churches; effectively, the home culture of the church remains unchanged, or changes on its own terms. Our world views become both bigger and smaller.

It is ironic, then, that members of a local congregation may encounter tremendous diversity on the short-term basis of a peace trip, but not see much diversity at all on a weekly basis.  Is it possible then that the work of racial reconciliation is being accomplished by, say, white Americans with Africans, but that the same work is not accomplished with the African American community at home?  When we look around our congregations, how many people don’t look like us?  What sort of space is created for people to ask difficult questions and then discuss answers?  How much time do we spend in the building, as opposed to out in the surrounding community?  How much “like Jonah” do we appear to those non-Christians we actually encounter?

I always felt a little odd waiting at the gate of the community on the evenings I would take my sons to their Bible study.  Sitting in one’s car in front of a guard elicits a whole set of feelings, not unlike the feelings caused by seeing a police car in your rearview mirror, not unlike the feelings that some of my black or Hispanic students tell me they experience when they are followed around by security guards at shopping malls.  For those outside the church today, the feeling of being stuck at the gate isn’t rational, but there are a number of factors of our own making that, unfortunately, are encouraging them to stay there.

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