Saturday, May 16, 2009

is a certain place a cult? A half skeptical, half sympathetic ramble

This is going to be a long and rambling blog entry because I'm contemplating a whole decade worth of a place. You've been warned.

There are those who would suggest that the level of power exercised by certain religious groups cosntitutes the makings of a cult. I am not here suggesting that one group or another be dubbed a cult and have that end discussion (not that there's discussion going on here, mind you, necessarily, since this is a blog). What I am interested in proposing is that a popular way of expounding upon the nature and origin of cults seems to be misunderstood or misapplied. The propensity is to define a cult in terms of the authoritarian way its leaders may take in this or that way. I would suggest that that is merely part of how things work. Let me make an appeal to ancient Israelite history, idolatry was something that was embraced not merely by leadership but by the people.

ALl of this is to propose that for cultish leadership to happen at the top there has to be a groundswell from the bottom promoting that. A cult leader has to appeal to the anxieties and insecurities of those whom he or she ostensibly would lead. It would not be hard to say that charismatic leaders who eventually wield immense power do so by tapping into the desires and fears of the people they win over. I would argue that for a bunch of insecure young men who want a sense of identity in terms of their affirmed masculinity and the sense that they are not losers in a contemporary society that, in its egalitarianism and globalism, has less and less use for "unskilled" labor that there is a great deal, sociologically speaking, that would make a leader appealing who has the following platform:
1) reaching out to young men
2) giving them a sense of purpose
3) elevating their status when they often feel they are lacking
4) presents an implied narrative of the man being endangered in this time and place so that "real men" are considered an endangered minority in today's society
5) promotes a social order in which the social and economic viability of young men gets them culturally approved sexual contact (marriage, et al)
6) allows them to invest in the emerging culture/counterculture in a way that allows them to rise to levels of leadership within the social unit regardless of how much they appear to be nobodies on the outside.

This is essentially a kind of sociological appeal that ANY cult can have. Young insecure men with a general lack of certainty about what purpose their life serves will be drawn to this sort of thing. Older men who have similar anxieties or believe that all the above are necessary things will be drawn to such a movement. It will have a populist appeal that may only later take on the trappings of academic thought. Young men can get what they want and older men can get the disciples they secretly or unconsciously crave.

This is, I am aware, a common liberal explanation about the appeal of certain kinds of religious cults. I don't say that this means one should accept it at face value but one should also not reject it out of hand. But as time goes by and I look at how self-identified complementarian Reformed thinkers tend to apply their reasoning and explain their interpretation of the Bible the more it seems to me that this stream of thought can be, in the hands of an immensely charismatic leader, a cult waiting to happen.

But if it IS a cult waiting to happen it cannot become so on the basis of leadership alone. The used car salemsman and the used car need a customer and it is this element, the customer, that is so often (it seems) not adequately addressed in writings regarding cults. There have to be enough people at the trench levels who believe that this kind of agenda will get them what they want, whether prestige or financial stability or a wife or whatever earthly measure of success you want, and that it behooves them to get behind that, that they latch on with gusto to what they may later reckon a terrible cult. In some case older men may smell the scent of disciples in the air. If they get on board with this program they can gather young men around themselves who look up to them and whom they can treat as disciples. Younger men can see in this sort of movement the opportunity to become "real men", whatever that may mean, and that as they pursue that goal they will get the wife and kids or career or whatever they believe they want or perhaps "should" want. If this is couched in terms of the divine will then one's own existing predisposition as a matter of faith gets involved and, let me not bother to put too fine a point on it, grace in Christ can become law as interpreted by the herd instinct.

In Scripture we see that the leaders of GOd's people and GOd's people often fall into the same sorts of idolatry. In some cases the leaders lead the way but in other case they do not. One of the great delusions spiritual leaders can suffer from is thinking that if they have all their ducks in a row they will either be immune to idolatry or that their example will sway the idolatry of the common masses. NOpe, not necessarily. We can observe that even during the reigns of the best kings idolatry was not completely stamped out. We can also observe that a king like Joash might be a mixed bag at best at first and then slide terribly into apostasy ... thanks to being fawned over by important people in the community. When the nobles of Judah bowed before Joash it pleased him and he permitted them to have the idols they wanted. Yes, I'm working the subtext mojo for quite a bit here. In the end Joash descended into idolatry and permitted idolatry because the important people around him were into their pet idols. Even the pinnacle of Joash's career, a long and badly pock-marked building project, is rife with compromise and failure.

One of the great mistakes I believe gets made regarding cults or semi-cultic religious groups is the supposition that the great danger is from the abuses of leadership. No, not entirely, though that is an important risk. It is equally dangerous for abuses to swell up from the ground level. For a cult to develop that lasts there has to be a synergy. Everyone has to get most of what they want from the dynamics of the social order. In fact people who have been in cults tend to explain how they felt they really belonged, found their identity in the movement.
This can happen in groups Christians formally consider to be cults on the basis of doctrine but this can happen just as frequently in what are, on the surface, relatively orthodox churches. We can go into something thinking "This is the one group that GETS IT" And this is exactly where people do not realize that they bring themselves into it. When you render the verdict that this little or large group is the real deal, the genuine article, accept no substitutes and this is how it goes and ANYONE should appreciate this, congratulations, you're a cult-maker at least in potential if not in actual fact. If you render the verdict that lots of other churches are truly gifted and being used by the Lord but that right here, right now, at this point, you have found a community whose beliefs you agree with then you're being a regular Christian.
The paradox at work here is that over time I have seen a few Christians decry consumerism while displaying that consumeristic impulse. It is the consumeristic impulse refracted into you being the secret shopper for everyone you know that leads to cult stuff.
When God's people fail the trend can be as brutal coming to the top from the bottom as it is coming from the top down. King Saul spent more time listening to the voice of the people than the voice of God. After years of heeding the voice of the people from below, as it were, the more Saul found it easier to, as it were, believe his own hype machine and become more autocratic in his top-down approach. He was willing to take credit for the work others did and willing to punish those in whom God prompted active obedience in areas where he failed (whether David as his annointed successor or Jonathan as the son who accomplished without divine oracles what Saul was loathe to do with direct prophetic instruction). In our legitimate skepticism about the abuses of authority we should not forget that God's people have failed at every level, which means that leaders can often fail because they sell to the masses what idols the masses are already clamoring for.

It is instructive to consider the first idol mentioned by way of description and name is Yahweh. Aaron creates a golden calf that he describes as the Lord. Here is where the chickens come home to roost, the most dangerous idols we may set up for ourselves are our own truncated understandings of Christ. ANd here I will not pull any punches, an manly Jesus set up as an alternative to a gay, limp-wristed hippie Jesus is still just as much an idol as the alternative. As Tim Keller put it, the conservative Jesus is no closer to the true Christ than the liberal Jesus is.

Few things seem more dangerously legalistic to me now than Reformed complementarian types who go on and on about "real men". Throw in the 1990s inspired craze of "kissed dating goodbye" and throw that into the mix and you get leaders who create destructive matrixes of legalism in a church culture under the guise of being "biblical". Much of what I saw by way of applied legalim on that issue was often a matter of as many things floating to the top from lower levels as coming down from on high.

I have seen moments where in the wake of conduct and speech that could be considered abusive that people at the ground level, in the trenches, saw the protest and considered it "sour grapes". Here I return to my earlier analogy of the neighborhood dog who attacks people. The person who owns the dog does not consider the dog to be a neighborhood terror because the dog has not bitten the hand that feeds him yet. No sooner does this happen than the man who thought he owned the dog and that the dog was on his side learns the truth, that the dog thinks he's above the rabble and can do whatever he wishes. By not checking the behavior of the dog earlier the last man to be bitten does not realize how he contributed to his own harm. There is nothing wrong with lamenting the dog attacking people he doesn't like for this or that canine whim, the trouble is that so many let the dog do whatever he wished that by the time the attacks get more flagrant and aggressive it is, so to speak, a bit late.

By analogy, a cult that forms around notions of what true humanity is (and make no mistake, "real men" rhetoric posits nothing less than the ambition to define what is truly human for males) can go on for some time and it can, in time, be a sort of cover for other concerns. When Israel failed, Israel failed as a whole. It was a matter of the leaders and the led alike. The time to have checked the behavior of the neighborhood dog was, say, four to six years ago. Now perhaps the reason this didn't happen was because those who could have made a cogent case didn't, for whatever reasons. It might be possible, to admittedly take a rather morose perspective, that so long as people at the ground or mid-level are getting what they want out of the thing they don't speak out of "respect" when that respect may be part of the problem. Cults tend to breed in an artificial sense of unity. "Shoulds" proliferate to the point where being a viable part of the community hinges on things that escalate what is expected. Because the people who have been around longer have much to gain through this escalation it continues when the net effect may be that graciousness is withheld to those who, in an earlier time, would have been considered good enough. The sorts of abuses that can happen in cults happen synergistically. At the risk of having this entire entry descend into the domain of Godwin's Law, Hitler didn't start off big, he just made big promises about what he was selling would revive the "real" Germany. Many, many people bought it hook, line, and sinker.

By analogy, and this is the part that can legitimately be considered unfair but I write all this as a cautionary blog entry, Reformed complementarians into stuff like Rushdoony or "real men" or courtship or what-have-you, this can all lead very quickly into cultish stuff. It would be unfair to say people rush headlong into this thinking that's where it WILL go or even that this is where they WANT to go. People struggle to believe the Truth revealed in Scriptures. He is, simply , not good enough, not as good as the ability to, say, plan out the next five years of your life so that you feel like you're in control, or, say, a mapped out checklist of traits you or someone you "ought" to marry may have. It is fascinating how in terms of actual application much of the "real men" rhetoric I have observed in Reformed or merely Calvinistic complementarian circles smells like the work of Pharisees and experts in the law. It is, to make things controversial, the circumcision of this Galatian crowd. Marriage has been to mars Hill what circumcision was in Galatia and that Driscoll has said people make an idol of marriage does not really change that. For any "you don't HAVE to do X you GET to do X" there will be jokes about singles having expiration dates or being single for too long. The jokes and asides undercut the abstractions.
Let a fad like this run its course for even a while and it swallows up the Gospel and the grace of Christ and replaces it with law. It is within this sort of setting in which tiny infractions can be seen as terrible. The ground has been made fertile for quashing other sorts of dissent that this or that thing sold so strongly is not, in the end, particularly biblicaly and does not, in the end, REALLY point unswervingly to Christ. A church in which a pastor can say "I'm the pastor so you have to trust me" is the same kind of setting in which a father can say "I'm the father, I don't have bad days" when a conflict comes up or, "I'm the older person so you need to respect me" when failing to make a cogent case for a particular position. This is the sort of setting in which "all the elders are in agreement on this even though we admit it isn't exactly backed up by the Bible" can emerge. I saw this four years ago and articulated by some of the people whose lives, as I've been told, have been destroyed by the church. I agree, but I also believe it is necessary to point out that after nearly a decade I have seen the same cultish and inadequately biblical mentality manifest even among some of those who were most hurt. I am not diminishing their hurt at all but pointing out that by now it is necessary to observe that the same spiritual weakness has been evident in leaders and members past and present. Daniel prayed a prayer of repentence not only on behalf of himself but on behalf of the people. A place like Mars is a place where corporate repentence has been virtually non-existent and individual repentence is emphasized to a degree that has often been imbalanced.
I am willing to make a rather broad generalization, that the abuses that happen at every level in the body of Christ spring from some form of idolatry. In order to grapple with this and bring it before the Lord repentence is needed and this often needs to happen at different levels. At times the people suffer under an unrepentent leader, at other times an unrepentent leader leads the people into ruin, at other times the repentent leader leads the people forth and at other times a leader is corrupted by an unrepentent people. And as we saw in the life of Christ, a good and holy man may be destroyed by the sinners He came to save. This would only be true without qualification of Christ Himself. There are cases where good leaders are crushed by those who do not regard the Lord. It does seem, though, that just about any pastor fools himself into thinking he's in this last category.

When I have spoken with a handful of people about the time they spent at a particular community I began to observe a pattern. The pattern was that problems of conflict resolution in the community were essentially hiding in plain sight not because there was nothing to observe but simply because members who had invested themselves in the community and were literally not on the receiving end of harsh treatment at the time considered themselves to be in the clear and those protesting about harshness were in a state of "sour grapes". A few years later and the tables turned, with people regretting their treatment at the hands of people they cheered on a few years earlier. What happened? What changed? Well, what changed was nothing so much as who was on the receiving end of the same sorts of conflict resolution techniques that were deployoed earlier; the same fallible humanly applied definitions of sin that one might expect to have seen then or now. E.g. the neighborhood dog bite me and not someone else even though the dog's condut was evident from the start. It took our collective apathy, indifference, or even active sympathy to encourage the neighborhood dog to get to the point he may be at today.

In other words, our idolatry would be the fuel of his idolatry. The paradox is that for a cult to form there has to be idolatry at every level but as the stratification of critera falls into place and the standards of true membership in the cult become slowly but steadily more stringent, those who did the most to promote the stratification may themselves suffer at the hands of a process they helped along. We can simultaneously pity those Stalin destroyed among those who helped his rise to power. They were getting what they thought they wanted in the process, perhaps little realizing that they were sowing their own destruction as they destroyed others.
I surely don't have to spell out the implications of this for anyone who has read me for a while. The seeds of cultishness were right there, let the reader understand. It merely took a general attitude of, say, "I'm the dad so I'm always right and don't have bad days" while theoretically granting that possibility for others, to slowly manifest itself in other ways, such as "the elders are all in agreement about this so that means a difference of opinion is going against the elders." The two forms of exercising a level of control and a requirement of uniformity within the body of Christ that is, so to speak, not natural, are different limbs growing out of the same tree, different flowers that, as it were, sprung from the same seed and have common roots.
We can find it acceptable to sacrifice the lives of other people, or our own lives, for the idols we have made. The Church has a lengthy history of this, which should not surprise us, since it is a struggle we continually fail at since before the coming of our Lord. In assessing the failures of our Shepherd's flock we must consider the failure not just of the shepherds who behave as though they were hired hands but of the sheep who were perfectly content to follow those shepherds as though they were the Shepherd Himself. This is a painful, difficult path because it means that if I sense a shepherd has become an idol to himself or merely that others treat him that way it is not a simple matter in practice, however simple it is in principle. My repenting of my idolatry is no surety that others will repent of theirs.

As Tim Keller put it, Christians tend to have three idols--"Truth" (insert trademark here), gifts, and moralism. These are, not to be subtle about it, the kinds of ways that cults are helped. You trademark truth as you expound it and present it as though it were the plain meaning of the Bible sans any serious exegesis or presentation of potentially different perspectives. "Truth" is what you enlist to assure yourself you have the truth and will fight for the truth when no one else will, a trait I have seen Mars Hillians display almost constantly even in cases where leadership urged them to not have so strong an us vs them mentality. Sadly it seems as though in many cases the idolatry of the flock has often been in danger of poisoning the leadership. I cannot forgot the "Wallace! Wallace!" chants on the old Midrash. Who are we who have spent years at that place to simply condemn leaders when it has been our own idolatry of ourselves through them that helped fuel that weakness? The smarter, more repentent ones set aside their idols and started on a different spiritual path within the body of Christ. The dumber ones stayed and got burned and take that as a self-implicating statement since it is meant to be.

Gifts can be anything that is salutory or admirable about you or others. Those gifts can be held up as more special than others and once that happens a fundamentally Corinthian abuse happens because the PURPOSE of the gifts is not understood. Some super pastor who is gifted as a communicator who does not help other pastors learn how to be as effective a communicator as he is has been placed or places himself on a pedastal He could humble himself by helping to train people to take over the work GOd may have for him, or he could choose the path of continuing to do things himself and deprive brothers in Christ the opportunity to grow in the ways he grew. Paul invested in Timothy because, in part, Paul knew one day he would die and that he was planting for Christ as well as harvesting for Christ. Gifts are frequently the basis of Christian idolatry.

Moralism, of course, is, too. Moralism is usually the basis from which distinctions are made as to who, in Driscollism, is "varsity" and "junior varsity". These distinctions are made all the time.
Moralism is imposing rules that are not outlined in Scripture as though they were. Say, the idea that the man has to not live with his parents. In most societies that wouldn't have been true at all. In many societies the man would marry into the authority of his father-in-law as Jacob did his uncle Laban. A guy like Driscoll and complementarians in general seem to operate under the delusion that they can read the nuclear family into biblical texts. I have seen this for years and find it stupid and aggravating. It is moralism, plain and simple. Pharisees are never the sort to think that they are promoting a works-based righteousness. No! THey think they are getting back to the Bible and taking the Bible seriously.

If complementarianism were simply a position in which it was articulated that on the basis of a combination of scripture and tradition we don't have women as having pastoral and priestly roles in the formal leadership of the church and just left it at that things could be left well enough alone. But as I observe actual complementarians I have met it tends to give off the stink of insecure young white guys who feel like they need to be affirmed in their masculinity.

I suggest, not without a great deal of regret, that an appeal or selling point of Driscoll for young men is less about the love and grace of Christ and more about the appeal to "real men" Get a young, insecure guy who has a fraught relationship with his parents either in reality or on the basis of his own sense that his parents let him down (a pop narrative that suffuses Mars Hill in several areas) and he is primed to make Mars Hill a cult even where it wouldn't be. He brings his own moralistic impulse to Mars Hill and then when things go south for him or his friends he reads that moralistic impulse back on to Mars Hill without realizing that he was a participant and advocate of the thing he feels hurt by.

At the risk of callously pointing out the obvious, God is not mocked and we reap what we sow. That is a chiefly eschatological observation that moralists can invoke incorrectly as having a one-to-one correspondence in this age. But I can point to the origin of the kingship in Israel to point out that there are times where the Lord disciplines us by giving us exactly what we want. If moralists and crusaders at Mars Hill have been hurt then perhaps the Lord is chastening them a bit about their moralism and crusading to let them know they should also be still and know that He is God. Others who may be still too much may be prompted by the Lord to actually do something.

Getting back to gifts as idols, this is a problem rampant in Christianity in America, and not just in places where a premium is placed on "the annointing". I recall a person or two who explained Driscoll was just so much more gifted and less boring than other pastors it only made sense for him to have the lion's share of preaching. My case that other pastors will not be allowed to grow into their preaching gifts this was was met with indifference. Ironically, things are closer to what I have hoped for NOW than at the time when ex-members were at Mars Hill who now believe Driscoll is a tyrant and a bully. Well, had you read Pussified Nation or listened to him explain how Pelagianism and Arminianism were basically the same circa 2001-2002 you could have been less surprised. I am aware of concerns that the leadership at Mars Hill is abusive and I wish to point out that if you are serious about those concerns that implicates not only present leadership but past leadership. Investing in a building without researching adequately whether it could be used for anything other than industrial purposes having announced a capital campaign is still part of the problem and the fired pastors are as culpable for that as anyone else.

Now a person might say "Shouldn't we offer them grace?" Well, sure, yet if they pleade grace for a million-dollar purchase while telling stay-at-home dads they should be subject to church discipline; if Driscoll is the sort of man who can repent of making his wife work in time to be paid a salary but not earlier, then there's some systemic risk of the whole leadership in pleading grace for things on a massive scale they do not necessarily extend grace to others in. This has been an issue going back as far as a lack of graciousness even in some of the fired pastors. In other words, people who have been burned by Mars Hill are not wrong to feel burned but repentence is something needed all across the board. Some of the people who left were apt to legalism and control of the same stripe that may be present at the place now.

Instead of just looking at Driscoll or other Mars Hill leaders and saying "this is a cult" consider how even those hurt by that church contributed to that mentality. If no one else will then I am willing to point this out. Christ is everything and we are merely His creations, His ervants. It will not suffice to insist only on the repentence of the other without considering how we contributed to things. IF, in fact, Driscoll is a bully of a pastor and Mars Hill is in any way a cult then those who joined the church and left will need to keep struggling with how their own idolatries fueled their participation in that cult. A church leadership team that dumps money into a building that can only be industrially zoned shouldn't turn around and tell stay-at-home dads they are in sin. Jesus told a parable about a master forgiving two debtors and asked who would be more grateful. The answer is simple, the one who owed the greater amount. Jesus also told a parable about a master who forgave his steward a huge debt, an astronomically high debt. The steward then threw someone in prison for having a large debt. I'm going to spell out the application here, Mars Hill pastors who dumped the money of members into Ballard would-be-campus 2 simply don't have the basis for disciplining stay-at-home dads about money. The hypocrisy of that is just too much. Instead of laying into the stay-at-home dad for being a worthless coward and failure as a man consider the worthless cowardice and failure of men to admit they made a dumb-ass mistake buying a huge building without investigating whether they could finish the tower. I keep mentioning this precisely because others do not and because the essence of moralism is to excuse or justify in ourselves what we would punish in others. This is why I find it hard to buy rebukes of stay-at-home dads when the leaders are guilty of squandering quite a bit more money on an ill-advised purchase. If they can do that and plead ignorance they should extend a great deal more mercy and understanding to stay-at-home dads. If dad and mom are having an argument the kids many not need to know what's going on but if the kids' tithe checks pay for mom and dad's salary then they should recognize there are limits to what they can say to the kids about giving if dad and mom are going on expensive dates.

The thing is that the leaders ALONE should also not be held culpable for the sorts of moralism and hypocrisy that can happen. A flock that takes alcohol to an alcohol-free camp site and then pleads ignorance of the rules is guilty of both moralism and hypocrisy for considering its own rules above those of fellow Christians and this is, frankly, a weakness I have seen rampant in the place. It's the kind of place where a person can take disciplinary action against uppity members while being guilty (no doubt witlessly) of a major violation of international copyright. When people ask "Shouldn't you extend grace?" I reply that I do extend grace but I don't have to keep writing checks, and I can also urge that the people who presume upon grace stop presuming on it quite so much. I have come to see that no one presumes on the grace of God and others quite the way a moralist does.

I think liberal secularists have some very legitimate points about how a cult (if Mars Hill is a cult) promises an identity for young insecure men, perhaps promoted by young insecure men. A synergy emerges in which legalism spirals upward and outward as young men with more zeal than knowledge might take a Driscoll joke or statement about "real men" and then spin that out into saying that people shouldn't watch a show like Alias if they have the Holy Spirit. Or they might promote courtship as good and dating as sinful without acknowledging that there is not an adequate scriptural or even traditional defense for that. People may lament an "epidemic" of singleness that pins all the blame on singles without examining how the fiscal policies and social world created by those policies can make marriage more and more challenging. Or you might get a pastor saying from the pulpit that he urged a young couple to not become members at a church like Mars Hill because the wife vastly out-earned the husband and she and her husband were both totally cool with that. That is just stupid, legalistic foolishness.

Then again, that sort of thing has been popular for years. Driscoll was the one who once said that if guys don't get married by 30 they are like milk cartons and start to smell funky. He's matured a bit, just as I hope Munson has matured a bit since his "There are no righteous poor in America" statement at Dead Men. Seriously, ex-members, all the evidence you needed was staring you in the face and speaking to you for a decade if you want to plead "cult". Obviously I'm not sure I either need or want to consider Mars Hill a cult. God can raise up enough heathens that if God's people make a mockery of Him then per Romans Paul's words apply, then it will be on account of us that God's name is mocked among the Gentiles. People expressed concerns about a pastor who said "I'm not some pansy-ass therapist" years ago.

It is, I understand, tempting to look at the tree and the fruit and worry about it at the expense of considering how the seeds grew and what and who watered those seeds over time. As Stevie Wonder put it in a great song, you better tell your story fast and if you lie it will come to pass. It is too convenient to think that someone else's lies may have come to pass without consider how our lies to ourselves or others in the depth of our sin may affect us and others. If only God is truly good and Christ is God then only Christ reveals the truth without mixture. The rest of us are those to whom Christ reveals Himself in different ways, often choosing to use murderers like Moses and Paul or David.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's a good year to like Star Trek

It shouldn't be as though you have to ask, dear reader, why it is a good year to like Star Trek. The movie has been out for just a week. I'm not talking about liking Star Trek in the Trekkie sense of the thing. I'm thinking more in terms of Abrams' new film has preserved and updated what was best about the original series. To be honest, I have a certain amount of respect for The Next Generation and gave up almost entirely on the franchise after Roddenberry's death. First Contact, yes, I did muster up the interest to see it and it was fun but TNG has never had the same appeal or value the original series had for me.

See, Star Trek is old style old TV liberalism in politics and intellectual thought and to some degree that is both its weakness and its strength. It could be preachy and didactic. And with characters like the self-impressed horndog James T. Kirk, and the equally cardboard cut-out characters of Spock and Dr. McCoy vrrtinh wildly to the intellectual left and emotional right we were seeing caricatures on the small screen.

But like Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup this trio of characters became vastly more than the sum of its initially limited parts. Trekkies, take some meds because I'm sticking with that comparison for the rest of this blog entry. Star Trek was at its essence a humanist show, a deeply humanistic show. Many Christians don't want to recognize how profoundly secularist the perspective of Trek as a franchise has always been. Name me a Republican Christian Trekkie who complains about Star Trek IV and the whales and I'll show you someone who just plain wasn't paying attention to the previous two decades of Trek!

But let me set that aside for a moment. Star Trek, the original series, gave us an inspiring trio of characters in popular culture because the trio of mind, body, and spirit is conveyed through Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. Let's face it, Kirk is body all the way because he's always jumping the bones of alien women. What the three characters lack as individuals they find in the others. Through the community of these three Kirk, Spock, and McCoy can be presented, by means of the always subtly to brazenly didactic Star Trek, to reveal what the fulness of the human experience can be. At its best it did not seek answers so much as encourage the legitimacy of being able to ask questions. It might be best to phrase things this way, that Trek as a franchise has its best storytelling and best characterization when it eschews the pablum of the triumph of the human spirit (or whatever) and examines the profundity of human need in terms of the individual and the community. I would submit that this is a reason Christians of various stripes DO like Star Trek and why it's okay to like what I have often considered to be the celluloid syndicated secular humanist's version of a Chick tract. Fortunately for us regarding the original series Roddenberry and company gave us a FUN show, not merely a didactic one.

And this examination of human need is why I find the spin-off series to be, well, underwhelming. There was no other series that capture the trichotomy of mind/body/spirit the wway Spock/Kirk/McCoy presented it. There were no Powerpuff Girls adventures, more or less. The multiracial integrated crew of the ship is no longer the novelty it was forty years ago. Many things are simply not as daring as they once were. I don't happen to have any real affinity for secular humanism, to be honest. I consider it to be as naive as the unbelievers consider Christianity to be. On the other hand, humanity bears the image of Christ whether it recognizes Christ at all. I can respect that Hayao Miyazaki can sense shadows of divinity or the image of divinity in the human race despite his pessimism about the inclination of the race as a whole.

Christians should not be so averse to what they consider the enemies of the faith in humanism or liberalism or whatever culture war shibboleth they are obsessed with now that they faill to recognize something--that there is still something valuable about humanity recognizing the possibility of redemption. When Trek wallows gleefully in its belief that we have come so far or would be further were it not for bad guys ... it sucks (Insurrection). When Trek examines how the foibles of men lead to unexpected catastrophe and how people can choose in the darkest moment to sacrifice themselves for the greater good it is genuinely touching. Seriously, I shouldn't have to tell you I'm referring to Spock's death in Star Trek 2 but I might as well underline it. There is nothing wrong with being touched by a statement we all yearn to hear and often do not, a statement we often sense is made without meaning it, which is why even in an imaginary story it is still touching when Spock says, "I have been and always shall be your friend."

And this is, of course, what Christ offers us Himself. The reason I admit I love a lot about the original series and don't really care in the end about the rest of the knock-offs is because despite itself the original Star Trek stories had characters who struggled with what it meant to be truly human. They often didn't understand each other, they often didn't like each other, they often were not sure what the future had but they also were willing to "boldly go where no man has gone before" (old school now). It did not matter where, perhaps, so much as with whom you went into the unknown. This is what made the original trio in the Trek-verse so enjoyable--Kirk, Spock, and McCoy might butt heads but at the end of the day they were loyal to each other even when some of them were a bit loathe to admit it.

I admit I find things about the old series strangely touching, and not so strangely touching. I got into Star Trek as a child through reruns and also because of my dad. Before a few things in our relationship changed significantly for the worse Star Trek was one of the things we could have lots of fun conversation about and it was my dad who pointed out that the original Trek trio was great on archetypal grounds because the three characters completed each other and weren't just obstacles to each other. It made for good drama and comedy at the same time because they could work together or lock horns with each other because each had a unique strength that was also a unique limitation. And here let me toss out a potentially pointless observation that the body of Christ can learn much from this. :) Sometimes God uses the stories of others to help us grasp important elements of His story that He shares with us in and through Christ.

I believe Abrams made the right decision abadnoning all the knock-offs and spin-offs from the original series that no one has any reason to give a damn about in this day and age. All those things were the sad creations of guys like Roddenberry who became self-congratulatory, bought their own hype, and forgot that the original thing was a one-off. Perhaps I could liken it to Joss Whedon, an essentially one-trick pony who hasn't realized his time has largely come and gone. He may be the Gene Roddenberry of our time amongst sci-fi and genre fiction fans.

Back on track, Abrams wwas right to bring back and reboot the premise and cast of the original series. He was right to abandon the "scientific plausibility" that Trekkies have clung to that has made the show increasingly ossified and missed the real point of the series. Abrams was right to distill everything down to revealing who these characters are and why we can come back to them and enjoy their story in a new way.

It can be easy to look down on things from forty years ago or things that were before our time. I have met people in their twenties or thirties who have no thought for any of the arts before their childhood. This might manifestt itself as the attitude that no movies made ten years before you were born "matter". The release of a movie like Trek reveals, in this case, that the old stuff matters and the old stuff will continue to matter, flaws and all. Those who do not know the past, it is said, are doomed to repeat it. In the arts those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it without knowing they have wasted their lives and our time. This can also happen when people hope to build on the past without understanding the past. Ergo, the rest of Star Trek after the original series ... at least, in my opinion, until about now.

I make exceptions, but I make this broad, polemical point for a reason. Star Trek, the originals eries, was good campy fun while still making its serious points. The characters worked and they still work. There were no "principles" that humans couldn't have conflict with each other. The rest of the Trek franchise is, in some sene, varying degrees of failure because they missed the point of the original. They saw the optimism of Trek without seeing that the optimism was brought to bear against odds, not ignorant of the likelihood of failure, but not considering failure to be as bad as inaction. Spock tells Kirk there is only a 4.3 percent probability that what they are undertaking will work. "Spock! ... It'll work!" is Kirk's optimistic reply. And, of course, being Star Trek, it does work. As with the far flung solutions, so with the original series and original characters.

Seeing Star Trek in the theater this year not only reminds me what I loved Star Trek once but also why my dad loved Star Trek and that's anything but a bad thing. I am not a particularly optimistic fellow, I am often more cynical and moribund than perhaps a thirty-five year old person should be. I need to be reminded that wanting things to be better and hoping tha tthings can be better and working to make things better is not in vain. In my case, specifically, I have to recall these things because in Christ life is not in vain. In Star Trek a character can die in vain and The Humanist will be pleased with that. Great, someone had to sit through Generations. In Star Trek a character can die in vain because you'll cyniclaly observe that in yet another movie they will be brought back, but that's a different kind of "in vain" known as the "death without cost".

In Christ our deaths are not in vain but there is something that can be rarely articulated in the circles I have spent time with, that our LIVES are not in vain. It can be terribly easy for me to feel that my life is basically in vain, that there is not much to accomplish here or to consider valuable in this life as I await eventual death and consider that one day Jesus will return. Perhaps the kind of apocalytpic upbringing I had had something to do with this. Perhaps I grew up getting the impression that whatever it meant to be fully human I wasn't measuring up, couldn't measure up, and wouldn't measure up.

I have been in settings where Christians talk fondly about getting their asses kicked metaphorically by the preaching. There was a time when I valued this but it is an incomplete understanding of humanity and of Christ. But by now, obviously, I have steered so far off topic that I am no longer talking about Star Trek. Well, that is more or less as it should be. In the end my hope is in Christ and if that means in some cases I have to turn my eyes from how Christ is presented by some to consider who Christ is and isn't that is part of the process, too.

Dostoevsky wrote with great clarity that in your twenties the easiestt thing for a man to do is die for a cause. Put that mean in a position where he spends five years of his burning youth toiling away indoors and you discover what he is REALLY willing to accomplish. We are like Peter, swearing that we will embrace sacrifices of the highest level when we are not even willing to admit we know Christ. Over the last twenty years I have seen that happen often, especially in the arts, whether myself or others. I have also seen it, sadly, in professions of faith. I know people who were "on fire" for God who have cast that all aside. I have struggled almost my whole life with doubts that numb the heart and with the visible wickedness of the visible church ... and yet for some reason I can't turn away from Christ. I can neither say that my adherance to Christ is to my credit or that it has nothing to do with me. It is mysterious and I don't understand it.

By now, obviously, I have steered far off from my topic and that is, as I said, just as well. Sometimes learning how to hope that things can be betterhere and now can help one remember that there is a greater hope. All of Hebrews describes how that which we have now is but a shadow of the things to come, shadows compared to Christ. I have come to realize that in the last ten years I have heard people ostensibly preach Christ but preach Him in such a way that He becomes the measure of what you should be NOW or what you should be becoming soon with the help of some "community" or "spiritual authority" rather than a hope that sustains you in the midst o of continuing failure. Some find it easier to preach 1 Corinthians than 2 Corinthians, which is both our loss and theirs.

Some people define spirituality through, say, Spock alone, or McCoy alone, or through Kirk. Some combine two and omit the third. Some combine all three and write books about it. Clearly I'm playing with the analogy of mind, body, and spirit. I have heard preaching from Christians who uphold the body and mind but neglect the spirit. I have heard people who uphold the spirit and body but not the mind. I have heard peopel uphold the mind and the spirit but not the body and these all reveal what they want redeemed in themselves at the expense of whatever it is they omit. A person who emphasizes that Christ redeems the body and mind has no thought of the spirit. The other combinations apply. They are piloting the Enterprise of their selves into uncharted lands without one of the key crew members they need, i.e. that part of their walk with Christ considered. Eventually Spock and Kirk discover they need Dr. McCoy if they have not brought him along. At length McCoy must acknowledge that Spock's logic outweighs his desire to act right away. So it is, by extended analogy, in our walk with Christ. If we neglect the body the spirit and mind suffer terribly, just as the neglect of another causes the other two to suffer terribly. And by now I am pointlessly rambling.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

factoring in variables of obvious bias ...

For those of you who may not be familiar with the concept of advocacy journalism I can explain it rather simply, there are people who believe that the illusion of objectivity in mainstream medium was an illusion, a delusion, and something best not embraced. In contrast to the appearance of being at a remove, of being "objective", advocacy journalism puts the convictions of the journalist as observer and interviewer researcher front and center. This is a form of journalism in which, at its best, we are not seeing yellow journalism in the archetypal "bad" sense but a kind of advocacy in which the journalist puts his or her convictions on the table and does research. Their bias and perspective may color how they view the truth but, if you will, their bias, if they are pursuing the truth, will not necessarily get in the way of reporting the facts.

Now obviously a person may object that any links to this publication can only be links to highly biased and unprofessional journalism. Sure, bear with me, however.

There is a certain pastor who apprenticed for a time in some capacity in this place and as Jesus once put it, it is enough for a student to be like his teacher. This pastor has distanced himself publicly from things like May Day for marriage as ineffective and being a bunch of suburban pastors and Dobson fans showing up, protesting, and basically doing nothing beneficial for the actual city (a perspective I happen to agree with, by the way). However, be that as it may, certain types of confrontational rhetoric about what constitutes a manly man may, to make this point obvious, indicate an essential continuity of both rhetoric and position. In other words, certain weaknesses regarding the use of rhetoric in the confrontation of opposing views may have a homiletic generational mark to them, a kind of DNA. The mustard plant was once a mustard seed.

Bias in this publication's coverage? Well, sure, they don't pretend otherwise. Factually inaccurate? That would have to be verified. A publication can publish a lot of stuff you don't like for ideological reasons and not necessarily wrong about the essential details of the story. As with another story, the bias inherent in the article is not really prima facie proof that it is inaccurate. At the risk of employing an outlandish example, Satan can still quote the Bible accurately and in context. Obviously I'm not suggesting The Stranger is Satan in any literal way, I evoke and allude. And since Satan is allowed by God to torment Job and Satan is not wrong to consider how Job has been protected by God the obscurity of these sayings is not really obscure.

But I do have other things to consider, like the wonderfully entertaining new Star Trek film. I plan to get to that in a bit and share a bit about what it has been like to be an ex-Trekkie who has rediscovered some of what has made Trek fun.