A short reflection on race, geopolitics, theology, and the role of the church in faith.
Growing up in the church, I have long felt both at home in the church and like a resident alien. What some classify as evoking transcendent timelessness, I have often seen as dated and inaccessible.
When exploring other ways of being church, I have often found the presence of this same sense, that as time goes by, the church isn’t aging well. It’s clothes poorly fit. It’s tendencies to be a “straight-shooter” now sound like the cranky ramblings of an addled old man. Or perhaps the kindly woman, hunched over; delicate and well-groomed.
Just not vibrant. Lively. Vivacious.
Sort of like looking at my music collection, which used to expand weekly, then monthly, and now annually. My favorite album, loveless by My Bloody Valentine was released in 1991. It’s sound is quite timeless—as it was truly sonic perfection—but my listening to it, even at home, cooking dinner, dates me. It holds me back to a time in my past in which such discovery was so pertinent and essential to my understanding of life itself. Now, I am a musical dinosaur.
In this way, the church has so often been tempted into diving headlong into the hasty decision of being the place for the dinosaurs or the place for the youth. And sometimes they make the slightly wiser decision to be the place of transcendence—and yet still fall into the trap of trying to escape the quicksand by adding more dirt or water to the mix, rather than allow themselves to be freed.
Several years ago, I read a book called The Dishonest Church by Jack Good. It is a charmingly prophetic book, in the honest sense of the meaning. It is written by a pastor, raised in the modern world and he has a modernist mindset. He argues that the main problem in the mainline is that we learn one thing in seminary and teach something different to the parish. That, for at least a generation or more, we have failed to teach our congregations effectively and honestly.
He then breaks it down along liberal and conservative lines and discusses the issue in a binary way, which I essentially reject. But his charge is profound: that in not sharing what we have learned, the pastors of the church have been dishonest.
Many of us in church know this to be true and yet have trouble figuring out what to do about it. When we get 80 people worshiping on a Sunday and then 6 to join a Wednesday study group, parish leaders can easily feel defeated. I do.
This is our work, however. Doing ministry in this context, means that we are dealing with a church that is shrinking across the board, a society that is post-Christian, and a religious landscape that has become calcified by a partisan divide. That is our current condition, but it need not be our reality.
A new focus
Reading an article by Christian Piatt yesterday, which was a reflective piece about the place of race, radical theology, geopolitics, and religious influence in our current milieu and I was struck by how much I agreed with it on so many levels and yet took great issue with its conclusion. Piatt seems to be arguing for a greater place for “practical” stuff in the academic. Or, at least, that this is the source of our divergence. But I’ve long thought the opposite. We need more space for the academic in the practical sphere. This is all based on our comfort with responding to one simple question:
Why do we do this? Why should I care? Why are we here? Why does GOD care if I eat bacon or drink alcohol or dance or have sex or ?
And the church has so long ignored these questions; more like avoided them; in two ways.
- We prescribe what to believe. Rather than give a response that allows people to better understand what we are doing, we give a formulation to memorize and regurgitate. We don’t deal with the task of answering the hard, yet simple question “why?”
- We focus on “practical” stuff. We plan for our ceremonies and we get our people to do the “right” things and stand in the “right” places. We run around sitting with people as they are dying. We give food away at the food pantry. We go out and we do all of this stuff. But do we do this because of what Jesus commands or because we have figured out why?
Instead of dumbing down the faith to be easily practiced, we should be building it up. Instead of prescribing what we ought to believe, we should be making belief.