Words of the Day

Posted: December 7, 2016 in Culture and Faith, Things of Faith

While I have not been known to be a sesquipedalian, I am somewhat of a lexophile. Over the past several months of living in the alter-universe where, truth is detached from reality and created by opinionated perceptions distortedmanurehero into a perverted sense of the present, I had to smile at the way in which Pope Francis addressed the emerging post-truth culture. He cannot be accused of euphemizing his judgments.  His analysis of the current context he summed up with two words, “coprophilia” and “coprophagia.” A wonderfully colorful characterization of consumerism and news media. Apparently this was not the first time he had used these terms. However, it was the first time that I heard him use them.

The imagery these two terms conjure are graphically appropriate at a time when the populous is so voraciously devouring news (obviously this term no longer means what it used to) that it is out-pacing the media’s insatiable appetite to report anything (truth has no meaning here) that meets the tastes of consumers. What seems strikingly obvious is that this is but the natural result of a capitalist and consumerist oriented culture. How is it that we are surprised by these developments? What seems almost comical to me is the way in which of the (half or un)truths are being spread by those within a community who are said to worship the one who claims to be the “Truth.” The irony is as deep as the pile of feces being loved and consumed. How is it that we have moved from standing with Jesus and truth-telling to standing with Pilot asking “what is truth?”

truth-and-liesThe immediate problem (as I see it within the United States) predates this election cycle finding its roots in the early Twentieth Century as industrial and religious leaders became partners in the cultural experiment of creating the national religion of Christian Libertarianism.[1] This national religion sought to shape and create a culture in which capitalism, constitutionalism, and a spattering of religious (Judeo-Christian) values were mixed together with exceptionalism. This, however, is only part of the story. The immediate counterpart to this liberal conservativism is liberal progressivism which also shares a smattering of exceptionalism, religious (social) values, constitutionalism and capitalism. Interestingly enough both sides share an unhealthy affection for militarism. They are two sides of the same coin. In as much as they are different, they share many of the same fundamental values

Regardless of which side one identifies with, the underlying rhetoric used is that of fear. The language used has reached apocalyptic levels exalting the stakes so high as if the ultimate hope lies in an a political process or system. I’m not saying that organization and institutions are unnecessary or unimportant, but simply they are not the source of Christian hope. They do not hold the future and they are not what a follower of Jesus is to swear allegiance to. What has happened is that we have become so enmeshed in this culture and so much hyperbole has been used to push political agendas that the evangelical community has become consumers of half-truth and falsity. Like the pop-culture, the evangelical community finds itself asking, “What is truth?” I think it’s time to step away from the dung hill and find something more nutritious to consume. We all know the old adage “You are what you eat . . .”

[1] Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. (Basic Books: New York, 2015).

jobfair-660x330About five months ago when I returned to full-time ministry in a local congregation I wrote a post discussing the lessons I learned while working in the corporate world. In my previous post I addressed (for the most part) the ways in which the church has brought the market into the church treating pastors as employees. Moreover, the church (institution) has even begun treating membership numbers (as well as giving amounts) as the bottom line by which to evaluate the success of ministry. This is not to say that numbers are not important, but that they should not be treated (and interpreted) in the same way as the market uses them. Essentially I focused upon the church as institution and the congregation’s contribution to this ecclesiological move. In this post I will be looking at some of the lessons I learned from the other side.

The contrasts between corporate America and the church are undeniable in so many ways that I am often astounded by efforts made by pastors and clergy to compare them in a way that unwittingly expresses a desire to be treated as such. In conversations with pastors I have heard comparisons of the position of pastor in the congregation to be like a CEO. I was once told point blank that I needed to “dress for success” in church ministry. What is especially alarming in all this is the extent to which this syncretism is taking place and that church leaders are instigating it.

As I worked my job for two years as an operations manager with some account manager responsibilities, I learned what it really means when the business motto is that the client is always right (regardless of how wrong they might be). The numerical bottom line is paramount and the company pulls out all stops to protect the revenue stream that begins with the customer. I shouldn’t even need to begin making the argument of how wrong it is to bring this approach into the church. But what I learned most was that even in my prior ministry context, in spite of protesting such syncretism, I indeed became enamored by the bottom line mentality. With this form of reasoning pastors often measure the success of their “career” as pastors by the numerical bottom line.

When this model is adopted, it is a slippery slope to where the pastor begins seeing herself as a successful business person who is deserving of a “salary” comparative to the (numerical) success of the church. Moreover it doesn’t take long for attitudes to begin shifting away from ministry focus to employment focus in which there is expectation for comparative compensation for hours worked. As if it were a company workplace it becomes easy for the pastor to then begin counting hours worked doing “church business.” This is one consequential implication I was trying to warn about when I stated, “What I have ironically experienced in the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition is the full attempt to articulate the relationship between congregation and the pastor using the business language of employer/employee.” Indeed this is an unfortunate irony that leads to behavior and attitudes that are quite unlike what would be considered a biblical and spiritual calling (pastoral and congregational attitudes of entitlement, tendencies toward monetary legalism, etc.).

2016-05-19-1463647608-1254725-businessMy simple argument is that for the benefit of the church and the role pastors serve in the church, the pastoral calling should never be considered a career or employment. There are three (perhaps more) reasons that I think this. First, the standard of qualification for a career or some form of employment is based upon previous personal accomplishments and accolades. The implications of this is that if a person can write up a good enough resume (or profile) that includes particular accomplishments with a noted numerical bottom line result, then that person would be more attractive and more likely to be “hired.” The tendency here is to minimize a spiritual discernment process to being essentially a time to scour through numerous resumes and profiles to pick the most attractive one. The qualifications are understood to be education and accomplishment centered. The underlying result of this is to begin believing that anyone can be trained to be a pastor.

Secondly, this will inevitably result with the pastor claiming responsibility for congregational performance either positively or negatively. The consequence here is double edged. I have seen pastors who have taken responsibility for the great successes of their congregations providing fodder to build a false sense of self. I have also seen pastors leave the ministry because they have taken on the responsibility for failures of the church. At this point I need to qualify this also. In as much as there are occasions where responsibility predominately lies with the pastor. It is never that simple. Pastors are part of the church. Therefore the congregation necessarily always shares in that responsibility, whether negatively or positively.

Finally, and most significantly it changes the fundamental understanding of the role and call of ministry for the church. Rather than the emphasis being upon the role of the Spirit gifting the individual in the context of a congregation and that congregation discerning those gifts and calling them out, the emphasis is changed to human accomplishment. Once again the consequential belief is “if we can send them to seminary, then we can train them and in teach them the necessary skills to be a career pastor.” The theological and spiritual implications are devastating to the church and to the pastors alike.

Perhaps, instead of bringing the market into the church, the church should begin looking at pastoral ministry more like missionary service in which the church commits financial support so that the ministry to which the believer is called can perform that ministry on behalf of and for the church. Instead of approaching pastoral ministry as hiring an employee from “outside of us,” maybe we should begin with a spiritual and relational model derived from scripture. I don’t know for sure, but something inside of me thinks that might be a more suitable approach (note sarcasm).

Another lesson I learned over those two years is that if the church becomes the market place it will cease being the “the presence of Jesus.” I am more convinced than ever that this world doesn’t need another business (whether entertainment or marketplace). It desperately needs the church to be the church, shining with the love of God for the world.

Today I read an article announcing that the University of Chicago (read full article here)
alex_maclean_2005_campus_with_cityscapehad issued a letter to new students that it will not heed trigger warnings. It state
d that due to its long standing commitment to intellectual freedom that students can expect to be exposed to opinions that they may not only disagree with but sometimes find offensive. In my opinion this is a bold stance by a large university in the midst of a culture which finds itself dee
ply divided.

With the growing socio-political divide in this country, hypersensitivity to language and social topics has reached levels that have created a difficult environment in which to explore socio-political topics. What seem to be contributing factors of this hostile environment are (in my humble opinion) threefold. First, due to the politicization of particularly difficult topics, an extreme dichotomy is created. Unfortunately in a culture still struggling to shed its cloak of modernity such topics are most often boiled down to merely two sides. When this occurs it ignores the complex reality in which we live as well as silencing the multiple narratives living with the topic. In political language this occurs by categorizing the topic with “either, or” language with the popular labels of “progressive (liberal)” and “conservative.”[1]

Secondly, in as much as the culture has framed conversations surrounding social topics as simply two-sided (most often attempting to forcefully push people into one or the other category), the two culturally dominant groups have conscripted the language used in these conversations. On the one hand particular words or phrases become off limits labelled as too offensive for public discourse (and sometimes loading particular words with extenuating meaning thus minimizing the original sense of the word)[2] while the other side chides and intentionally pushes the limits of language directed sarcastically at the other side. While the original intent of sanitizing language was meritorious, it has contributed to the divided society. Both sides are championing (even though in distorted ways) values held by liberal culture.[3] On the one hand striving to solve social problems and on the other protesting the reactionary oppression censorship (even if only imagined) of language at least seems to cause.

Finally, the current climate of deep division finds its essence expressed by the illusionary environment it is creating and the painfully oppressive consequences of this embodied modern culture in the U.S. psyche. This is illustrated on the one hand by the conservative embrace of symbols and systems that have been used to perpetuate longstanding prejudices and violence. Again on the other hand it is illustrated by the use of the same oppressive behaviors toward those who have been characterized as being part of the privileged class, race, and gender. In both cases the same oppressive behaviors are used and embraced. One becomes the reactionary reflection of the other only labelling it in language of justice against the effects of the other. This becomes especially problematic when a primarily punitive understanding of justice is embraced instead of a reconciliatory one (which also includes aspects of compensation).

I’m not sure why it is, but it seems that the mainstream of U.S. culture wants to cling to the simple yes or no framing of modern perception rather than acknowledging the complex reality that we all experience. In a recent educational trip I took to Palestine, our guides highlighted the reality that too often the Palestinian/Isrit-is-impossible-to-stand-for-intellectual-freedom-without-grappling-with-censorship-frances-m-jonesaeli conflict is framed in an either or context. In reality it is a multi-narrative conflict consisting of a complex set of narratives and underlying socio-political, physiological, psychological and geo-political extenuating realities. The culture(s) in our part of North America share the reality of the Middle East that it is made up of multi-competing narratives with complex extenuating contexts. Until we begin to acknowledge and appropriate the complex reality in which we live, pushing aside our modern sensibilities and their aptitude toward boiling everything down to yes or no questions, we will never be able to appropriately engage the challenges our shared future holds on this small green planet.

So all of this is to say that I applaud the University of Chicago for their willingness to at least have a space where such conversations in all their complexities can take place. This may be so only in theory at this point, we’ll have to see how it works in practice.

[1] I consistently try to avoid using liberal in this sense in that it confuses the reality that both conservative and progressive are part of the liberal culture. Liberalism is nothing more than the political expression of modernity with its dichotomizing tendencies.

[2] Two examples are the use of terms such as “open and affirming” by the progressive groups and “pro-life” (those who identify as such politically are actually anti-abortion) by conservative groups. In both cases the conscription of the word fails to accurately express the fullness of the symbols and add implied meanings that characteristically and politically dichotomize the positions to yes or no votes.

[3] What I find most important in the University of Chicago letter are the qualifications for the freedom of such conversations being done with “civility and mutual respect.”

6a00d83498861169e201b8d0cbe5e9970cI’m sitting here once again considering what it would take to experience the changes I so desperately desire. In the past I would often look to the outside world as a cause for how I felt and thought. To some degree this is the case in that my gaze was fully focused on particular parts of this world that shaped my affections. Yet this is not entirely so either. I’m slowly discovering realizing the meaning that it is not merely the things that I see or even think about that shape my affections. There is definitively that aspect of the human person that transcends a rational consciousness that forms the essence of what I love and care about.

For too long I have intentionally focused my “efforts” on spiritual disciplines with the presupposition that I am primarily and essentially a rational creature. I suppose in this sense I am a creature of my environment (culture). I have lived in a world that has ignored and even mocked the affectual nature that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. In his book, Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes the persuasive argument that desire is the key element to human formation and that human desire is formed by liturgies (particular affectual practices). Essentially he is arguing for a paradigmatic shift in training students from one that assumes students are empty receptacles into which the instructor pours information to an approach that seeks to form the student in a holistic way even shaping the emotions and desires. His argument focuses primarily upon worship (liturgy) as the essential means of this process.

So far I am fully with Smith both in his rejection of the enlightenment approach and assumptions and that liturgies are essential practices by which persons are formed. Smith also rightly states that human beings participate in liturgies regardless of religious background. If a person professes no religious affiliation or more extremely rejects such affiliation, that same person at the very least participates in secular liturgies (which is inevitably formational).

Where I veer away from Smith is not in any principle disagreement of his theoretical argument. However, in the application of it I would argue that Christian liturgy transcend the practices of the cathedrals and the modern understandings of worship services. My Anabaptist sensibilities demand more than an hour singing and saying worshipful things to the transcendent (and imminent) God. Having recently read Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment, I was reminded of the practices of the early followers of Jesus. In the first two centuries of the church it was essential for the prospective Christian to begin the faith journey in service to the poor. I can’t help but read Matt. 6:22-23 (“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness?) as a context for Jesus’ parable about the “least of these” in Matt. 25.

Jesus’ metaphor of the eye essentially concerns hermeneutics in that it addresses the focus of one’s attention. However, itstock-photo-blured-text-with-focus-on-focus-157720016 is more than just that. I am convinced that Jesus is addressing the very things that shape the affections of human beings. If a person continues in the status quo practices that focuses upon the security and survival of the self in exclusion of the other then the affections of the self will be shaped thusly. In the case of the “Sermon on the Mount,” if the follower of Jesus practices the liturgies Jesus instructs on that hill, then the focus and attention of the disciple will requisitely change too. But Jesus doesn’t end his teaching there. The climactic teaching of the sermon addresses the symbols which are representative of survival for a people living at subsistence levels.

For a Christian who was born and raised in the northwestern hemisphere and who is part of the dominant culture (including all that this category means racially and in terms of origin) this teaching is easily misunderstood to simply address greed and wealth. Most significantly it is addressing allegiances, bonds, commitments, and identity. To whom or what have we made allegiances? Where are the sum our commitments focused? To what group, culture or sub-culture are we bonded? How do we fundamentally identify ourselves? As is conspicuous in the articulation of these questions the matter of Jesus’ teachings goes beyond the simple surface interpretation of this passage. In fact the following verses do not address worry in the sense that it has been preached for decades. To a people living at the subsistence level, to actually practice the teachings Jesus presented would consequently lead the disciple to social (and ultimately financial) bankruptcy in the contextual vertical structure of society.

Essentially what I am arguing is that if we practice the liturgies taught in the sermon, especially in light of chapter 25, the proverbial eye will essentially focus upon (and pragmatically serve) that population living on the margins of society (the least of these). The posture emphasized is one that serves in a way that expresses the jubilee claim Jesus takes as his own as recorded by Luke (chapter 4). What has repeatedly occurred through the centuries is the continued attempt to assimilate the kin(g)dom focus of the church into the dominant culture of society. The consequences have grievously been devastating both to the witness (and life) of the church and the population who the gospel intentionally identifies with and for.

Essentially Pentecostal scholars such as Kenneth J. Archer are correct in identifying the orthopraxis of the church. What this means is that practices are absolutely essential in forming the life of believers. I am convinced that before we can become effective disciples of Jesus, our affections (desires) must be reformed (perhaps more accurately transformed) so that even as the disciple loves God with all of her/his life, it is primarily expressed by loving the other. This intentional and directional service is in and of itself an essential liturgy to any rule of life. There is no horizontal worship of God the Creator unless it is first formed through the service to and life with the least of these.