The Death of Mike Brown and the Death of the Church

I’ve been really rattled by the shooting death of Mike Brown. Shaken up. In no small part, I’m sure, because I am the father of black boys, and so there is a very real sense in which Mike Brown could’ve been my son. And so the image of him with his hands up, yelling, “Please stop shooting,” just guts me.

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But there is another, more important reason I’m torn up by the death of Mike Brown. And that is that I am a Christian. More specifically, I am a Christian in a denomination that has explicitly made it a goal to strive for a future free from racial injustice.

So this past Sunday, following the challenge of Eugene Cho, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 34, a passage in which God punishes his people because they go back on a covenant they had made to liberate all their slaves. They set them free, but then they force them back into slavery. It was impossible not to see the resonances with the history of African Americans and the situation in Ferguson. And so I said so. And I hoped in some small way that speaking that truth would make a difference.

Then last week, I wrote a blog post about white privilege. Again, hoping in some small way to make an impact. And it got a lot of hits. And I felt a little better.

And then I read this post from another pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile. Anyabwile, who is a black man and a fairly conservative evangelical, throws down the gauntlet for his fellow evangelicals. He says, in no uncertain terms, if evangelicalism does not have a response for the oppressed people of our nation, then evangelicalism is dead:

…most of what’s been said [about Mike Brown and Ferguson] by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. …our most influential leaders with the widest reach [have] been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.

Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework.

Though I don’t (very comfortably at least) identify as an evangelical, I do identify as a orthodox Christian, and so I was cut to the heart by Anyabwile’s words. They reminded me that when Trayvon Martin was shot, I was rattled then too. And I read my denomination’s official statements condemning his death and calling for justice. And I posted them on Facebook. And I felt a little better. And then I forgot about Trayvon.

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Like most prophetic voices, Anybwile’s challenge is simultaneously inspiring and convicting. It is a challenge that applies not just to those who identify as evangelicals, but to all streams of Christianity.  (You should read the whole thing). Sermons and tweets aren’t going to cut it. If we don’t have a way to apply our faith to the injustices around us, if we don’t show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, if we don’t go out to the margins to stand with the marginalized, then the church in America is dead.

Most orthodox Christians have been focussed on their own marginalization from the cultural and political center of American life, as our views of sexuality have become increasingly unpopular. Given the rapid pace at which this has accelerated the past several years, that’s understandable. But if we’re so focussed on our own marginalization from the halls of power and the public square that we walk by our neighbor laying wounded in the street, then we have really—as the British say—lost the plot.

I, for one, will answer my brother Thabiti’s call. I am ashamed that I forgot Trayvon. I will not forget Mike Brown. I don’t have any easy answers, or even any sense of what concretely to do yet. But I’m going to start by listening to Thabiti and my other African-American brothers and sisters in the church. And I’m not going to stop until I do know what to do.

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What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege

The phrase “white privilege” is one that rubs a lot of white people the wrong way. It can trigger something in them that shuts down conversation or at least makes them very defensive. (Especially those who grew up relatively less privileged than other folks around them). And I’ve seen more than once where this happens and the next move in the conversation is for the person who brought up white privilege to say, “The reason you’re getting defensive is because you’re feeling the discomfort of having your privilege exposed.”

I’m sure that’s true sometimes. And I’m sure there are a lot of people, white and otherwise, who can attest to a kind of a-ha moment or paradigm shift where they “got” what privilege means and they did realize they had been getting defensive because they were uncomfortable at having their privilege exposed. But I would guess that more often than not, the frustration and the shutting down is about something else. It comes from the fact that nobody wants to be a racist. And the move “you only think that because you’re looking at this from the perspective of privilege” or the more terse and confrontational “check your privilege!” kind of sound like an accusation that someone is a racist (if they don’t already understand privilege). And the phrase “white privilege” kind of sounds like, “You are a racist and there’s nothing you can do about it because you were born that way.”

And if this were what “white privilege” meant—which it is not—defensiveness and frustration would be the appropriate response. But privilege talk is not intended to make a moral assessment or a moral claim about the privileged at all. It is about systemic imbalance. It is about injustices that have arisen because of the history of racism that birthed the way things are now. It’s not saying, “You’re a bad person because you’re white.” It’s saying, “The system is skewed in ways that you maybe haven’t realized or had to think about precisely because it’s skewed in YOUR favor.”

I am white. So I have not experienced racial privilege from the “under” side firsthand. But my children (and a lot of other people I love) are not white. And so I care about privilege and what it means for racial justice in our country. And one experience I have had firsthand, which has helped me to understand privilege and listen to privilege talk without feeling defensive, is riding my bike.

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Now, I know, it sounds a little goofy at first. But stick with me. Because I think that this analogy might help some white people understand privilege talk without feeling like they’re having their character attacked.

About five years ago I decide to start riding my bike as my primary mode of transportation. As in, on the street, in traffic. Which is enjoyable for a number of reasons (exercise, wind in yer face, the cool feeling of going fast, etc.) But the thing is, I don’t live in Portland or Minneapolis. I live in the capital city of the epicenter of the auto industry: Lansing, MI. This is not, by any stretch, a bike-friendly town. And often, it is down-right dangerous to be a bike commuter here.

Now sometimes its dangerous for me because people in cars are just blatantly a**holes to me. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think its funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose. People I have never met are angry at me for just being on a bike in “their” road and they let me know with colorful language and other acts of aggression.

I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.

Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.

And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile toward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a build up of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.

So the semi driver who rushes past throwing gravel in my face in his hot wake isn’t necessarily a bad guy. He could be sitting in his cab listening to Christian radio and thinking about nice things he can do for his wife. But the fact that “the system” allows him to do those things instead of being mindful of me is a privilege he has that I don’t. (I have to be hyper-aware of him).

This is what privilege is about.  Like drivers, nice, non-aggressive white people can move in the world without thinking about the  “potholes” or the “gravel” that people of color have to navigate, or how things that they do—not intending to hurt or endanger anyone—might actually be making life more difficult or more dangerous for a person of color.

Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around.

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And it’s not just the fact that the whole transportation infrastructure is built around the car. It’s the law, which is poorly enforced when cyclists are hit by cars, the fact that gas is subsidized by the government and bike tires aren’t, and just the general mindset of a culture that is in love with cars after a hundred years of propaganda and still thinks that bikes are toys for kids and triathletes.

So when I say the semi driver is privileged, it isn’t a way of calling him a bad person or a man-slaughterer or saying he didn’t really earn his truck, but just way of acknowledging all that–infrastructure, laws, gov’t, culture–and the fact that if he and I get in a collision, I will probably die and he will just have to clean the blood off of his bumper. In the same way, talking about racial privilege isn’t a way of telling white people they are bad people or racists or that they didn’t really earn what they have.

It’s a way of trying to make visible the fact that system is not neutral, it is not a level-playing field, it’s not the same experience for everyone. There are biases and imbalances and injustices built into the warp and woof of our culture. (The recent events in Ferguson, MO should be evidence enough of this–more thoughts on that here). Not because you personally are a racist, but because the system has a history and was built around this category “race” and that’s not going to go away overnight (or even in 100 years). To go back to my analogy: Bike lanes are relatively new, and still just kind of an appendage on a system that is inherently car-centric.

So–white readers–the next time someone drops the p-word, try to remember they aren’t calling you a racist or saying you didn’t really earn your college degree, they just want you to try empathize with how scary it is to be on a bike sometimes (metaphorically speaking).

One last thing: Now, I know what it is like to be a white person engaged in racial reconciliation or justice work and to feel like privilege language is being used to silence you or to feel frustrated that you are genuinely trying to be a part of the solution not the problem but every time you open your mouth someone says, “Check you privilege.” (I.e., even though privilege language doesn’t mean “You are one of the bad guys,” some people do use it that way). So if you’ll permit me to get a few more miles out of this bike analogy (ya see what I did there?), I think it can help encourage white folks  who have felt that frustration to stay engaged and stay humble.

I have a lot of “conversations” with drivers. Now, rationally, I know that most drivers are not jerks. But I have a long and consistent history of bad experiences with drivers and so, when I’ve already been honked at or yelled at that day, or when I’ve read a blog post about a fellow cyclist who’s been mowed down by a careless driver, it’s hard for me to stay civil.

But when I’m not so civil with a “privileged” driver, it’s not because I hate him/her, or think s/he is evil. It’s because it’s the third time that day I got some gravel in the face. So try to remember that even if you don’t feel like a “semi driver,” a person of color might be experiencing you the way a person on a bike experiences being passed by a semi. Even if you’re listening to Christian radio.

Part 2 of this post here.

Why “Sex-Positive” is My New Least Favorite Word

So I want to explain why, as a Christian, “sex-positive” is my new least favorite word, even though I am myself a very sex-positive guy, and I believe that Christianity is also very sex-positive. But I’m going to need to back up a bit to get there.

Christianity is essentially a form of humanism. That is, at its core it is concerned with the dignity of the individual human being and the flourishing of humanity as a whole. However, unlike secular versions of humanism, Christianity recognizes humans as beings in relation to the transcendent, to something—and, specifically, Someone—beyond the material realm. 

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A truly humanistic humanism must begin with an account of humans that is accurate. And humans are not merely physical/material beings. We have, to use traditional language, souls. We are indwelt by the eternal and we yearn for the eternal. We have a destiny, a telos, that includes, but is not limited to the physical. And so our highest and greatest good, our flourishing both as individuals and as a human community cannot be reduced merely to physical health, material prosperity, and just power relations, however important those things might be.

And yet, in post-Christian, pluralistic Western society, the secular worldview has now set the rules of engagement in the public square. And one of those rules is that moral claims—any “should” or “ought”—must be made without reference to the transcendent. Moral claims must be grounded in empirical evidence and be commonly agreed upon by all (or at least a voting majority). Thus, Christians, who are essentially humanists and have a desire to see human flourishing for all people and not just Christians, are now put in the awkward position of having to make a case for their account of human flourishing in secular terms.

It turns out this is impossible. (Go figure: you can’t explain a vision of human flourishing that is rooted in the transcendent without reference to the transcendent.) But Christians have still been doing their darnedest for the past century or so. At first, it worked…at least some of the time. Because enough of the fumes of transcendence still lingered in the air our culture breathed that even if we didn’t talk directly about God or the bible or the afterlife, we could still sort of pantomime enough in their direction that people picked up on it. But the thinner those fumes got, the harder it got. (Mixed metaphor, I know).

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As it has gotten harder, some Christians have respond by just retreating from the public square, but others have just pushed harder at this impossible task of making a compelling case for the “oughts” of the Christian vision without making reference to the transcendent. And the result has been, well, less than compelling. (Again, big surprise). And in the sphere of sexuality, this has been particularly difficult as the mindset of consumer choice and libertarian freedom has come to exert increasingly influence on our views of sex.

See, a Christian with one hand tied behind her back (the hand that would be pointing up to the transcendent/God) is forced to work with just one hand (the hand that only points around to the material/empirical realm). So she is forced to make the case that the Christian sexual ethic will result in more human flourishing than alternative ethics by pointing to “consequences” and “rewards” on the material/plane plane. I.e., to make the case that this ethic of reserving all sexual activity for marriage and maintaining life-long monogamy will avoid more consequences (unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, emotional trauma, etc.) and net more rewards (fulfilling sex life, fewer abortions, stronger marriage, etc.).

Now, I happen to think that this is true. And I think a fairly persuasive case can be made for it. See for example, Wendell Berry’s classic essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” (which is not entirely without reference to the transcendent, but puts most of the emphasis on how we have lost sight of the inherently communal nature of sex and its “consequences”). However, if someone as skilled and winsome as Mr. Berry can make a case for it, it’s also true that most of the time, the Christian, laboring away one-handed, ends up looking like a fool or a maniac.

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More often than not, this one-handed approach comes off as what has recently come to be called “sex-negative.” Having agreed ahead of time not to use her transcendence hand, she hacks and slashes with her “immanent” hand, hammering on the “consequences” of extra-marital sex and the “rewards” that fornicators, masturbators, and pornography-users will miss out on. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you do X, Y will be the consequence. She appears to be (and maybe often is) using fear and shame, rather than being, well, sex-positive. The non-Christian observing all this feverish pointing at consequences interprets the Christian as saying—to use the words of one recent sex-positive blogger—SEX IS BAD! DON’T DO IT!

Meanwhile, the secularist, whose core moral convictions (self-expression is a moral good, personal autonomy trumps almost all other considerations, liberty is increased by maximizing choices, etc.) are not only allowed but do not even have to be argued for because they are just part of the Enlightenment air we all breath (i.e., she’s playing with two hands) can talk about sex in the context of these moral goods and calmly make some suggestions about “moderation” and “safety” and come off looking like a sane, common-sensical person who is just really, you know, sex-positive and has my flourishing at heart.

This so-called sex-positive approach has so much traction in our post-Christian cultural milieu, that even a lot of Christians seem to be jumping on board. Turns out mom and dad were overstating the consequences of premarital sex. Turns out our virginal wedding nights weren’t the awesome experience they built them up to be. Turns out we’ve got all kinds of lingering body-shame and sex-guilt from all the scare tactics of our youth pastors. Maybe this level-headed, be-safe-and-responsible-and-do-what-works-for-you approach is a better ethic than the crazy, ol’ fashioned Christian one.

But here’s the thing: I think that many of us (certainly the Christians, I would hope!) believe that humans are spiritual beings, that we do have a soul. And something as powerful and emotional and holistic as sex must involve that part of us. And so we need to untie that other hand if we’re going to really talk about sex. We need to talk about the transcendent if we’re going to make sense of it.

In particular, I think we need to introduce the word “sacred” to the conversation. See, the real reason the Christian sexual ethic puts such serious boundaries around sex is not because its afraid of the “consequences” of illicit sex. It is because it understands sex to be sacred. Sex is one of the rare and special things God has given us that is sacramental, it is a “thin place,” a portal between the material and the transcendent. Or maybe a better way to say that is: a place where God has promised to take up the material into the transcendent.

And even more than that, Christians believe that marital sex is a kind of “icon of redemption.” That the mutual giving and receiving of the spouses in conjugal love is a kind of lived picture of the love of God in Christ for us, the Bride, the Redeemed. And so a way of participating in the mystery of Redemption. 

If any of that is even half true, then sex is holy ground. It’s a place where we take off our sandals  to acknowledge we are in the presence of something beyond us, something mysterious and powerful and not of our own making. Something sacred.

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This is hardly being sex-negative. Sacred things have lots of boundaries around them and strict rules for how they are used not because they are dirty or because using them is shameful. Just the opposite: because they are holy and wonderful and good. To say the fine china is only for special occasions is not a negative view of the china. To say only the priest can enter the sanctuary is not a negative view of the sanctuary. To say that children should be protected and kept safe is not a negative view of children.

In short, if Christians can talk about sex on both the material and the transcendent planes, then I think we have the most sex-positive account going. (What other tradition recognizes all the aspects of sex—self-expression and bodily pleasure and human love and procreative power—and ties them all to a coherent vision of the world as created and redeemed and sustained by a loving God?) So as a pastor, I’m going to keep telling my people not to use porn or prostitutes, not to have sex before our outside of marriage. Not because I’m afraid of sex or squeamish about it or think its dirty. But because I’m sex-positive. Because sex is sacred. And I want to help them keep it that way.

If Everything is Awesome, Nothing is Awesome: The LEGO Movie, the Death of Resistance & Transcendence, and the Only Way Out (Part 1)

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I am a Lego parent, twice over.  So it was pretty hard not to enjoy The LEGO Movie. All of the clever references about how kids play with Legos and what kinds of junk get mixed in with their Legos are really funny to me. And of course the visual effects of the movie are just really impressive. (Not awesome, but really impressive.)

But trying to come to some sort of resolution about what I thought about the message of the movie is sort of making my head spin.

In a sense, it is a perfect illustration of our postmodern predicament. I mean, it’s a movie about a mass-produced consumer product—a toy, an entertainment—and while the film pretends to be about some real human themes like belonging and rebelling against authority and authentic self-expression v. conformity–it ends up ultimately being about none of those things but really only about Legos…and playing with Legos. Like everything about our postmodern moment, the film is mired in layers of meta, and the gestures that it makes toward transcendent meaning are in fact just distractions from the fact that it really only points back to itself. (Thus, the decidedly un-awesome title, The LEGO Movie, is really quite telling).

If I were going to invite three people to a conversation about this movie to help me get a grip on it and stop my head spinning, they would be Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Frank. (I would invite Marshall McLuhan too, but I’d like to also be able to follow the conversation myself).

Chabon, a writer and a dad, wrote an essay a few years back lamenting the advent of cross-marketing into the Lego world. In the days of his youth, prior to the introduction of the licensed mini-figure, Chabon remembers, a box of Legos could literally become anything a kid imagined. Legos did not come with pre-imagined characters from existing story worlds (Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, etc.), and the point of Legos was not to replicate a scene from some existing movie by building a model designed by an adult. Kids could make up, whole-cloth, worlds and characters and scenarios, exercising genuine imagination. Chabon writes how miffed he is by the “authoritarian nature of the new Legos,” and the fact that playing with them is more like solving a puzzle with a singular solution that has already been provided than actually creating anything.

But just as you think Chabon is going to end the essay as a lament on the triumph of marketing over imagination, the inevitable dumbing down of the next generation of late capitalism, he pulls it back and offers hope. His kids, he’s noticed, once they follow the instructions the first time and build the corporately predetermined sets, don’t leave them that way. That’s not the way kids actually play with Legos, he realizes. No, once they’re built once, they get broken up and tossed into the box and mixed all together into a giant postmodern Lego chowder. And his kids cross-pollinate all these cross-marketed sets. (E.g., his son liked to put a Lego ghost costume on a Lego Green Goblin minifigure, set it on a horse with a light saber to do battle against a Darth Vader minifugure [also on a horse] bearing a bow and arrow). Chabon sees this pastiche (I’m tempted to say “this brick-olage”) on the part of his children as revolutionary. The childish imagination cannot be trammelled, it transgresses the “structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual.” In short, Chabon’s final scoreboard reads: kids/humanity/freedom/imagination: 1; authority/control/corporations/conformity: 0.

But so here’s the first head-spinner: The LEGO Movie, produced by the aforementioned corporation/authority that is the target of Chabon’s critique, appears to have the very same message as Chabon. The movie’s supposed main theme is that conformity, synecdochized by the trope of following the instructions, is bad. The main character, Emmet, is a portrayed as a nob, a total dufus, held up for our derision and mockery. And his despicable characteristic is that, in a world of conformists, he is the most conformist of them all. At one point he stands in a long, robot-like line in order to buy a $36 latte, to which he responds, “Awesome!”

Conversely (in the supposed message of the film), genuine self-expression and rebellion against authoritarian structure is good. When Emmet is first tested to see if he is a Master Builder, he asks “Where are the instructions?” Wrong question. Master Builders don’t use instructions, man. They can see through the structure of this world—like Neo in The Matrix—to visualize the potential of all the bricks around them. They deconstruct the existing, imposed instructions-generated structure and reconstruct it into imaginative solutions to their problems. The Master Builders inhabit a world—Cloud Koo-Koo Land—completely unlike the pristine, bland worlds ruled by President Business (the villain, obviously). It’s a colorful, zany mishmash of de/reconstructed sets. A world where Lego Batman and Gandalf and Shakespeare and Unikitty are friends with a pirate with a shark for one arm and a canon for the other. I.e., it is just the kind of world built by Chabon’s kids.

I.e. the movie pretends that its message is the same as Chabon’s: Don’t follow the (our) instructions! Don’t be a conformist! Rebel against, you know, like authority and marketing and stuff!

I say “pretends” because, in actuality this seeming proclamation of Chabon’s revolutionary chant is really just a way for them to close the door on the way out he has provided from their “structure of control.”  It is a move by which this resistance is entirely absorbed/incorporated/neutralized.

The best illustration that the movie has absorbed and neutralized Chabon’s resistance is, of course, the toys. By which I mean not the toys in the movie, but the merchandise—the real-life, physical toys marketed and sold in conjunction with the movie. This movie ostensibly about not following the instructions or building the predetermined sets or being a mindless consumer of course has a whole array of licensed, predetermined sets for sale—complete with instructions—so that kids can recreate scenes from the movie about how they should be imaginative and not just recreate scenes from movies. And these boxed sets, since they are made up of toys representing characters & scenes from the movie, come pre-pastiched and pre-mashed-up and pre-de/reconstructed. It appears Chabon’s solution, his escape route from corporate, authoritarian, imagination-crushing consumerism has been swallowed up by said corporation, chewed up, and spat back out as merchandise.

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Which brings us to head-spinner #2: As I said to my wife when we were shopping for LEGO Movie Legos for our 9-year-old’s birthday, “You realize that these are not toys. These are meta-toys.” Because the film’s toys are not so much toys per se as they are references to “real” versions of themselves. E.g., if you go out and buy a Benny the Astronaut mini-figure today, it is not just an un-ironic, “direct” Benny the Astronaut toy. No, it comes with a pre-broken helmet and a pre-scuffed space logo, because it is a toy version of a film version of a toy Benny the Astronaut. Yup, it is the toy of the movie character of the (same) toy. So, like the title of the movie of which they are the merchandise, the toys are actually references to themselves. (As in, the original Benny the Astronaut was a reference to actual astronauts, but the LEGO Movie Benny the Astronaut is only a reference to a Lego astronaut).

If all this recursion and self-reference seems clever but otherwise meaningless—sort of like a hall of mirrors—it’s not. In fact, these layers of meta are the crux of the whole matter here. They are the move that keep us from asking for anything more than “bread and circuses” because they make us feel like we’re leaving the circus when we’re just moving to a different seat. But that’ll have to come in the next post. (In case you’re wondering, I am going to connect this to God/religion/theology eventually).

OK, Folks, It’s Time To Be POST-Post-Evangelical

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I have never really been an evangelical. I grew up in a half-Catholic, half-Hindu(ish) home and had a conversion experience in college that ultimately landed me in an evangelical church. But unlike many of the popular critics of evangelicalism—the Rachel Held Evanses and the Rob Bells—I never really occupied that space as home. I came into the evangelical church already steeped in postmodern philosophy, already aware that there were many brands of Christianity with incompatible doctrines. Day One of my voyage into evangelicalism, I was already critical of the idea that the bible “clearly teaches” anything, already OK with evolution, already not OK with CCM music.

So, when the “emergent” and “post-evangelical” movements came along, I was excited, but I was technically not one of them. Because I wasn’t post- anything. I hadn’t gone to college a credulous Christian and had my worldview rocked by some proselytizing Philosophy professor. I hadn’t, like Shane Claiborne, been a raging political conservative who then met real gay people and real women who had had abortions who humanized the issues and changed my mind. But even though I had come via a different route than the post-evangelicals, I had landed in basically the same place. And I was glad there was now a voice for the critiques of evangelicalism they had to offer. 

One of the most important and enduring of these critiques was/is the call to extricate the church from politics. Or at least from conservative politics. Different demographers and historians tell the story somewhat differently, but the basic narrative runs like this: The Boomer generation had gotten tangled up in this thing called the Religious Right, sold their collective soul to the Republican party, and they had expended all their energy fighting culture wars. They lost sight of things like caring for the poor, defending the oppressed, and just being the church in their local contexts. In the process, they had ruined the Christian brand. Young people now saw the Church as homophobic, anti-woman, and xenophobic. Not-so-thoughtful, mean-spirited white men, like Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush, had become the face of evangelicalism.

Their children were embarrassed by this. And had some legitimate biblical/theological grounds for seeing much of this as unChristian. And those Gen Xers and Millenials who didn’t leave the church decided a course correction was in order. And they made three basic moves to get the hell away from the Religious Right trajectory:

#1 was the “soft power” route. This move says we still recognize the mandate to shape the culture, but we learned from our parents that trying to “legislate morality” is counterproductive, so we’re going to get out of politics and into culture making. We’re going to influence the culture as members of the creative class, make movies and music and websites and art. This route was taken by bands like Over the Rhine and publishers like Cameron Strang, who created Relevant, a magazine about “God, life, and progressive culture.” (A far cry from his father, Stephen’s Charisma magazine).

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#2 was to simply switch teams. Younger evangelicals reexamined the issues of the death penalty, war, gay marriage, Israel/Palestine, abortion, welfare and immigration reform, and found biblical bases for taking the opposite sides their parents were taking. The bookish ones exposed themselves to Christian feminism or queer theory or Marxism. So they kept the evangelical bent toward political activism, but invested their energy on the other side of the aisle. They joined the Religious Left. (A more moderate version of move #2 is the sort of apolitical, Bono-style activism that avoids ideologically-charged issues altogether and focusses completely on noncontroversial things like human trafficking and clean water).

Jesus Bleeding Heart Liberal

And #3 was what we might call the Anabaptist or anti-Constantinian move, the retreat from the idea of directly influencing the world at all. Taking cues from thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, these folks decided that the church’s job is to “be the church,” to worship, to pray, to love one another, to care for hurting neighbors. And trust that these acts are revolutionary in God’s politics and will ultimately be used for the kingdom, whether we ever see the results or not.

Of course, these three moves are not mutually exclusive, and most younger Christians have adopted some hybrid of the three. (And of course, few of them actually self-identify as post-evangelical because, well, its got the word “evangelical” in it). But so as I was saying, when this critique of evangelicalism came along and these three alternatives began to be proffered, I was thrilled. Totally on board. Each of these moves has some merit, and—when adopted with some nuance and balance—represents a much better theology of mission than the Christian=Republican model.

But so, here’s my point, (which is why I began by going out of my way to say that I am not a post-evangelical because I was never really an evangelical), as a non-post-evangelical who was initially really glad to see each of these three post-evangelical “moves” gain some traction, I have to now say that I think they are being over-applied by a whole generation. These three post-evangelical moves can be just as unbiblical or foolish or counterproductive to the kingdom mandate as the Religious Right tack taken by our parents. A reaction to a reaction is still reactionary.

Most of the Christians I interact with, and most of the people I minister to, could be said to be in this post-evangelical camp. And I would say that I can see the shadow of their parents’ politics lurking in almost every conversation. Like Rachel Held Evans or Brian McLaren or Rob Bell, they seem to be almost compelled by their negative experiences of a repressive or ignorant evangelicalism to land anywhere but where traditional evangelicalism would have them land.

And don’t even get me started about the public performance of these post-evangelical identities. My Facebook feed is a continuous stream of people going out of their way to let the world know they are not that kind of Christian. Challenging, mocking, or critiquing every traditional Christian position or doctrine. Quickly berating conservative Christian responses to current events and legislation. If I see one more “Christian” post about what a**holes the Hobby Lobby owners are or what the bible “really says” about gay marriage, I’m going to have to de-activate my account.

hobby-lobby-500

Now, of course, every identity is formed in the crucible of its social context, and everybody’s thoughts and positions are subject to his/her personal history and negative experiences, but I think it’s time for post-evangelicals to get a little more reflective about how they are reacting against their parents or the Religious Right or a personal history they are ashamed of—and how they can start reacting to the love of God extended to us in Jesus Christ.

For example—and I’m just going to go straight for the jugular here—abortion. A good percentage of the younger Christians I know have ended up being either actively or passively pro-choice by making one of these three post-evangelical moves. Conversations about it almost always revolve not around the question of the morality of abortion itself, but rather the errors in the Church’s response in the past generation. Post-evangelicals are just cringingly embarrassed by angry abortion clinic picketers and “fetus worship” and the idea that their secular counterparts might see them as the indoctrinated kids in Jesus Camp. Some of them (the #2’s) have bought the secular feminist line that “reproductive rights” are the linchpin of justice for women. But even those who haven’t (the #1s and 3s) are desperate to find some kind of “third way” solution and not be viewed as in any way traditionally pro-life. (A common move: “What if instead of focussing on criminalizing abortion, Christians were willing to adopt all those unwanted babies?” Uh, last I checked, they were.) 

This is not a post about abortion. My point is that abortion is not a new issue for Christians. The idea that abortion is objectively evil is not something conservative evangelicals cooked up in the 80’s. It’s something Christians have always believed (E.g., check out the 1st c. Didache).  It is not an issue in need of re-thinking.

My point is that, while all three of these post-evangelical moves have their place, we seem to be reaching a critical baby-with-the-bathwater type of point. As someone who never really was an evangelical, I can say “objectively” that evangelicalism didn’t get everything wrong. Much of what evangelicals believe stands within the broad tradition of historic orthodox Christianity and is, to use it’s own language, biblical. So, whether you identify as progressive or post-modern or emergent or radical or post-evangelical, at the risk of getting all cutely meta, I think it’s time to start re-thinking your re-thinking of the Christian faith, time to question your questioning of mom and dad’s politics. It’s time to become post-post-evangelical.

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stargazing with the bride

Because you don't have to interpret Scripture on your own

Anthony Bradley

Author, Professor, Public Intellectual

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