A Tribe of Grace

This morning, driving to work, I was between audiobooks and so tuned in to our local NPR affiliate.

Morning edition co-host Steve Inskeep introduced a bottom-of-the-hour human interest story about a husband and wife by alluding to Valentine’s Day. That’s pretty unremarkable, but something about it got my hackle up.

He said something along the lines of “It’s the day before Valentine’s Day—did you hear that? The day before. You’ve been notified.” It was a throwaway line, signifying nothing more than a popular radio host yukking it up for listeners, but my mind started to go toward how I perceived that nod to societal pressure to do something above and beyond for my wife because of the arbitrary yet sacrosanct commercialism of February fourteenth. Then I drifted to thinking of how single friends might feel about that, and before a few seconds had passed I was mad at someone I’ve never met about something I don’t really care that much about, all while trying to merge onto an interstate at rush hour.

Mercifully quickly, though, another thought pushed in, and I cut Steve the slack he’s certainly due as someone who spends a few hours each day with a hot mic stuck in his face.

In politically right-wing circles, a popular bogeyman is the politically correct, “woke”, “social justice warriors” who supposedly want to police our thoughts. On the left, people are equally incensed at the insensitive, boorish, racist, sexist, talk and actions emanating from locker rooms (and often the White House) these days.

Of course the traction these stereotypes get is due to the fact that their worst expressions do actually exist (though likely in much smaller numbers than either side perceives). In reaction, we keep pushing ourselves to ever greater hyperbolic contrast to distinguish our own virtue. In the froth, we’ve accelerated our sociopolitical sorting, with a default setting of anger at the other side (never mind that the lines between me and the “other” are ever shifting).

This isn’t news to anyone with eyes and ears in America today. But what hit me after my momentary bristling this morning is how much both broad camps that we’ve sorted ourselves into suffer the same core problem.

One group is so sensitive to any transgression against any historically oppressed group (or chosen identity) that the day is filled with microaggressions—many of which are very real, but many of which are as ephemeral as my NPR rage (call it “centering commercial-romantic synthesis” if you will). They cannot brook any dissent from their campaign to purge judgment and negativity from public discourse.

Another clustering of people is so self-assured in their own normalcy that can barely be bothered to extend sympathy to anyone who is different, broken, scarred, or scared. They increasingly delight in stepping on toes for the sake of breaking them, with “owning the libs” serving as more of a motivator than any substantive statement.

Both of these subsist on a failure of grace, practicing the same excessive self-interest—whether it is expressed as moral codes decoupled from repentance or stumbling blocks unhitched from a meaningful path forward. And as we pull in opposite directions, rifting an entire society, the legitimate concerns of racial injustice, family disintegration, lack of economic mobility, freedom of speech, mistreatment of women, care for the unborn (and their mothers), environmental degradation, etc., to just so many tribal shibboleths. And our media outlets act as gasoline on this fire, reducing the public square to all outrage, all the time.

This is getting us quickly into a hole that I’m not sure we can find a way out of, and the church of Jesus Christ too often hastens to leap in to the fray by joining one side or another rather than presenting a transcendent community that addresses earthly problems with the perspective of the kingdom of God. Neither trying to be right as a bludgeon nor trying to be kind at the expense of eternal truths does our calling any favors.

I’m not going to try to offer solutions today (though there’s plenty of other spots on this site where I’ve tried to do so). I’d simply like to say that I’m embarrassed by how seldom I think before I emote, and how my emotions are so culturally and politically malleable. It’s a complex world out there, and the complexity is a feature not a bug—designed to keep us humble, both dependent on and freely bestowing grace. As C. S. Lewis has a character put it in The Great Divorce: “‘But of course!’ said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. ‘That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.'”

Steve, I’m sorry.

Image: North Carolina Museum of Art, “Swan Attacked by a Dog”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1745. Photo by me, January 2019.

Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church

The first of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church.

“Because I’ve been catcalled and leered at twice just while walking to work this week, #MeToo. The worst part is that the safest option in those moments—on foot, on the street—is passivity as people consume me and treat me as property. And the past year…shows that far too many people—even in the church—think [sexual abuse & harassment] is tasteless, but excusable sin.”

Seeing these words last fall in a series of Tweets from a good friend called my attention to what the #MeToo moment was dredging up—a breadth of pain, fear, filth, violence, and injustice endured by women on a daily basis. Many had been reluctant to speak out, cowed by threats or simply exhausted from responses of disbelief, but the growing groundswell of shared stories has helped them bring all manner of individual and institutional offenses to light. More troubling, such attitudes show up and seem to hold sway in far too many corners of the #ChurchToo.

As multitudes of women have broken the silence of shame, the rest of us (i.e. men) have been given an opportunity to reflect on all the implications of a side of life and culture that far too many of us had previously had the privilege and position to ignore. Their stories have shaken the foundations of companies and institutions that covered up such things and protected the powerful men who perpetrated them.

I want to respond to the courage of my friend and so many others both by digging into the higher-level cultural phenomena they’ve uncovered and in trying to help plot a path for a different future.

Dignity vs. Consumption
Blatant evils like sexual harassment and assault can only become, as my friend said, “Tasteless, but excusable,” when we deem victims as somehow less than human. Her choice of words there is telling: dehumanizing people always leads to their consumption or disposal, replacing inherent dignity and worth with cold value-assessment or “taste”.

As was often the case, novelist and essayist Walker Percy sniffed out this tendency well in advance of the cultural mainstream. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Percy crafts a revealing exchange between his protagonist, Will Barrett, and Kitty, the suburban Southern girl he thinks he loves, who he thinks might finally help him find a “normal” life. Will is concerned with the on-again-off-again nature of their relationship and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to her as person. He nervously recounts a story of how his grandfather took his father to a brothel on his 16th birthday to avoid having him “worrying about certain things.” Kitty responds to that grotesque thought by trying on different personae to get Will’s attention and affection. She first offers, “I’ll be your whore,” which he ruefully accepts (to her dismay), leading her to say instead, “Very well. I’ll be a lady.”

Later, Will is lost in thoughts of existential angst, musing: “But what am I, he wondered: neither Christian nor pagan nor proper lusty gentleman, for I’ve never really got the straight of this lady-and-whore business. And that is all I want and it does not seem too much to ask: for once and all to get the straight of it.”

Percy’s jarring either/or reveals more than we may be comfortable with about our culture’s understanding female personhood. What Will couldn’t “get the straight of” while lying awake that night, it seems, is that we (in the rich, comfortable, “liberated” echelons of the Western world) still don’t know how to appreciate women as humans qua humans. We perpetually want to classify them in relation to men. In this telling, women exist for men as a sort of “consumer product”—either in marriage and polite society (as “ladies”) or in sin and secrecy (as “whores”), and various shades between the two extremes—rather than as fully formed persons and citizens of God’s kingdom in their own right. Both categories demean, measuring every woman’s worth not by the content of her character, but by the man that chooses her, or doesn’t.

As a result, we don’t know how to understand men as humans either. We can never dehumanize others without also losing a proportional part of our own humanity. This is also a part of Will’s question above. Is there a path to fully formed manhood aside from becoming the “proper, lusty gentleman” his family and culture expected him to be?

Church: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?
That this pattern of dehumanization shows up in the wider culture seems like a given. And if we are struggling, in the midst of an open, liberal culture, to welcome women as full participants in humanity, how much more in other parts of the world. Under Islam? Under Hinduism? In poverty? In slavery?

When it shows up just as vividly in the church, we’re left with two ways to interpret this tendency (and I should emphasize that it is a tendency, a general bent from which many, many men faithfully dissent and diverge). Is it a holdover from a fallen, unconverted world? A brokenness and sorrow from which we should flee, repent, and repair? Or is it, like in so many other religions, just the logical outworking of an understanding of the world shaped by its ancient text (with a simple caveat that the lustful side of the consumer coin should be avoided)?

I’m tipping my hand in the way this question is phrased, for I do believe repentance is called for as the only biblical response—even from those whose ministries and churches have not willfully engaged in these patterns. If #MeToo, #ChurchToo (and #YesAllWomen before that) have shown nothing else, they’ve shown that half the image-bearers in the world have routinely been given a lesser status than the other half. This is a systemic sin, often as invisible to its perpetrators as it is pervasive. Time does not heal sin. Injustice may fade in its visibility, but when the Spirit brings conviction, we have no choice but to see, grieve, repent, and restore, and then call others’ attention to the sin so that they may do likewise.

Lastly, lest we think that the church—the embodied family of Christ on earth—has better things to worry about than what gets hashed out on the Internet, my friend adds: “There is a reason the corporate lament and community of [this moment] happened on social media, even for your sisters in Christ. It’s because, as a general trend, that corporate lament isn’t happening in our churches.” With that in mind, what follows in these next few pieces is, to be sure, a theological and social reflection, but with a firmly pastoral focus. How we think through these things should inform how we weep with those who weep.

Part 2: Men, Women, Image-Bearing and Scripture
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Madonna di Campagna, 15th-Century Italian painting

Reforming for What?

Writing the history of this era will demand that shark jumping be elevated to poetic art.

We open news feeds with trepidation (but also a twinge of sadistic glee?), wondering which formerly trustworthy person or institution is going up in flames today. In a particularly painful twist of irony, this fall has seen American Christians by turns celebrating the liberation of the religious conscience and then re-enslaving it in service of a false god.

October 31, 2017, marked 500 years since then-obscure German theologian Martin Luther wrote up a list of disputations with abuses of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, publishing it in the accepted manner by nailing it to the church door in Wittenburg. Luther’s act is traditionally viewed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, which forever altered Western culture and religious practice (though, it should be pointed out, much of his inspiration came from beyond Europe). His theological descendants have enjoyed an anniversary victory lap this year, reveling (not without merit) in Scriptural authority and historical doctrines the Reformation restored.

At almost the same time, news broke that the always-controversial Alabama politician (now Republican Senate nominee) Roy Moore stood accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment and general creepiness toward young women over many years. Several of the same Christian media personalities who had earlier compromised to publicly support Donald Trump’s presidency have beclowned themselves defending Moore. Some maintained Moore’s denial of the accusations, others have gone so far as to urge Christians to continue to support him even if every claim proves true. The stakes are too high, they say, to let a pro-abortion senator even finish out an abbreviated Senate term.

What do these events have in common? Surely #Reformation500 is not to blame for Christians thinking it OK to vote for a theatrical (and possibly criminal) huckster as the “lesser of two evils”?

New York Times columnist (and outspoken Catholic) Ross Douthat certainly sees a connection, if not to Moore directly then to the general climate that allows him to even have a leg to stand on.

Reaction to Douthat’s tongue-in-cheek trolling tweet was fairly hostile. To distill our current political moment to a centuries-old theological dispute is facile at best, especially considering that “Luther was responding to chaos, not creating it.” Still, Douthat may be on to something beyond a joke. In a fragmenting culture, is it really that far of a leap from the priesthood of all believers to setting up the pragmatic individual conscience as final arbiter of right or wrong?

The Reformation itself is not a fit scapegoat for our crisis of moral authority. Indeed, most of Luther’s complaints centered around the leadership of the church in his day acting like pagan kings. The recovery of Scripture as authority (which stood over church and civil leadership alike) was the goal, not the casting off of all authority. Moreover, a proper doctrinal understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit should constrain the conscience of the believer to the whole counsel of Scripture, never contradicting it on any point.

We’re not sent out on our own as free-thinking Spirit-buckets to make utilitarian choices in each situation. Supporting flagrantly immoral leaders is wrong, even if it appears to preserve perceived freedoms or achieve desirable ends. To believe otherwise is Enlightenment hubris, not Reformation thinking. If anything, the Reformation recalls the core truth that our would-be secular saviors (whether clothed in the mantle of religious authority or not) are nothing but idols. They disappoint at best and destroy at worst, using and abusing Christians for their own ends.

But secular saviors we want. Even the disciples were, at first, dejected that Christ turned out not to be the political Messiah they longed for. The church has often been so hungry for the pottage of political power that we have suppressed a bottom-up design of societal transformation that begins with the household of God, is refined through suffering, and flourishes to God’s glory in perseverance (see 1 Peter). This failure of vision often leads us to turn inward, choosing piety and order over justice and peace, despite Scripture’s insistence that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits (see Isaiah 58, among many, many other passages).

The energy of hope, desire, and growth so vital to a healthy community is not sustained by a church that trades the bounty of God’s kingdom table for the scraps of an individual pie-in-the-sky gnosticism. That joy may fade from the church, but even in times of unfaithfulness, God will not be without a witness, allowing (for a time) the mantel of social reformation to pass from the church and onto the shoulders of a no-less-zealous progressive irreligion. The heirs of New England’s Puritans are not churchmen but the elites of liberal democracy. If we fear the loss of religious liberty in such a world, surely a measure of blame lies at our doorstep.

How else can one explain why, on October 31, that venerable bugaboo of conservative Christianity, NPR, tweeted all of Luther’s 95 Theses. Some thought their account had been hacked, but I didn’t see any incongruity there. Whatever one thinks of NPR, it’s hard not to see that their leaders are pursuing a certain vision of a better society. Why not hearken back to a historical restoration of free speech and democratization?

While the political party pursuing (on paper) an end to abortion-on-demand is willing to cheerlead for the likes of Moore and Trump, the party of Planned Parenthood understands the wisdom of putting a Franken and a Conyers away for their transgressions. While some Christians make a public show of sweeping sexual sin under the rug, Hollywood’s empire of lust is throwing its newly exposed villains under the bus.

I’m not so naive as to think that public pressure, political posturing, and damage control have as much to do with these things than any latent morality, but they illustrate the failures of cultural Christianity nicely. Ceding the moral high ground to a secular culture can’t be good for Gospel witness (especially because it comes with all law and no grace), but it should wake us up.

It is deep in our humanity to long for the restoration of all things. The creation groans. If the church does not answer that desire with the fulness of God’s good plan through Christ, people will look elsewhere. When the church is rejected by a culture, it may indeed be persecution, but we ought also examine ourselves to see if what is being rejected is actually an incomplete and unholy vision.

It is time, now as always, for the church to declare the breaking in of God’s kingdom, already here but not yet fully seen. Why settle for power when we can rejoice in redemptive confrontation with the brokenness of mankind? Why settle for trying to make a temporary home “great” when we could be building on our imperishable inheritance? Why settle for burnishing our credentials to one or other political party when we serve the king to which they must one day bow? This is the good news of the Reformation, the one that began at Calvary and carried right through Wittenburg and on to the New Jerusalem. May we not settle for anything less.

Semper reformanda

Photo: 13th-century Gothic archway & stained-glass window, Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 2017.

Qualm Before the Storm

O faith once delivered for all the saints,
Built, against the gates of hell, on truth’s rock.
Secure, sealed by grace from all earthly taints,
Fitting man to don his heavenly smock.
Holy Word of God on high, placed in feeble hands.
Holy church on earth, guarding the good deposit.
Holy Ghost within to guide, convince, and sustain.
With great strength and courage, sent out to all the lands.
Authority and order, to truth apposite.
Full-arrayed in mighty armor, the Devil’s bane.

O! Doubt that cries out from behind restraints,
And bristles at that double-dealing flock.
God, who made the world, does not take complaints?
Stout cathedral doors cannot bear a knock?
Lament opens a chasm, untying stale bands.
Horrors in the name of Christ would likely cause it,
How should “Love thy neighbour” unleash such pride-wrought pain?
Confidence, a casualty of our warring clans.
Our baptized idols spill from the church’s closet
Upending joy, sapping power, shading hope vain.

“O child, I know thy strife.
Take now bread, breath, and life.
O sinner, I have died
For every evil plied.
No one is good,
No one is right,
But I have stood
Despite all blight.
I alone good.
I alone right.”

Photo: Summer Sunset, Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2017.