Saturday, February 19, 2011

and that other writing project continues

One of the problems of being a perfectionist and insecure in one's abilities as a writer is constantlys crapping and rewriting stuff. Well, no, that's what writers SHOULD do but it means that I have been taking longer than I intended to to get more work done on a big writing project. Well, news about the substantial trouble with my mother's health while in my sixteenth month of employment played a role, too. I can admit that. There has been enough family health drama in pretty much my whole family in tandem with my job search and uncertainties about whether I'd keep a roof over my head that almost anyone could appreciate that writing a big treatise on ethics in the narrative world of cartoons would be, uh, an optional project compared to making rent. That and I didn't anticipate that my glasses would literally fall apart at the start of 2011. Lots of things have gone wrong that I never thought would go wrong or was already afraid was going wrong that confirmed my fears.

BUT, God willing, and mustering up more will and mental discipline I hope to finish a hefty project for some blogging friends of mine. That's all I plan to say about it hear but regular readers of the blog won't have to guess TOO hard what the project is. I have made what I consider to be some important breakthroughs both in terms of the structure and concepts of the work as a whole. Along the way I have formulated some polemical ideas about the role of nostalgia in revisiting 1980s properties not in the revisitations of late but in the hostility toward those reboots and the nostalgia associated with the hostility. To remain cryptic, it connects to some of the bitter rants from unmarried guys in their thirties who loathe certain reboots and pine for the allegedly unsullied purity of the stuff they grew up with. I have a great deal more to say about that but I'm saving it for the writing project itself.

Link: Internet Monk: The Bad News of Self Righteousness

Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk has a piece about how Joyce Meyer was able to turn the death of her brother into an opportunity to talk about how he made bad choices and died while she made good choices and has lived. Might not be the real intent of what Meyer actually said and I have to note that I have never listened to anything Meyer has ever taught and have never had use for it.

I can grant Meyer's point about "personal effects" is not about material possessions but a goofy pun on what effects you leave in your wake after you have died. I am not thereby more amused or persuaded that that whole lien of thinking is beneficial but I am at least going to grant the benefit of a doubt that "effects" was intended as the sum of the lived life and not as a reference to possessions. A cheesy pun from a preacher is not something new. I DID listen to a decade of Driscoll sermons and hear songs by Team Strike Force after all! Much as I dislike puns personally I grant that the substance of the pun rather than the style of punning itself ought to be the primary concern. :)

As to seed principles of faith I can take that as being as unhelpful as the "reverse engineering your life" idea. Both are forms of using a modicum of Christian teaching to tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, map out the life they want, and to go pursue that. Yahweh told Abraham to pack up his stuff and to go to the land that He would show him. God is a God who makes His children wander in the wilderness.

Even though Christ is risen if we fail to understand the nature of being aliens to this world it may be because we fail to understand that in a profound and broad level we are all like exiles, all like Israelites who have received teh promise of deliverance but have not yet seen the parting of the Red Sea. As I wrote earlier in the week the central struggle in Christian life is recognizing that we know in part, we prophecy in part, and we have received the promises of God in Christ in part. I realize how easy it is to be distracted by the full delivery of the promises that come through temptation and may the Lord grant that I am better able to resist these lures.

A seed principle of faith may have some kernel of truth to it but as Dostoevsky famously quoted from John, unless a kernal of wheat dies it will yield no fruit. Perhaps the seed of your faith that you think would yield a bountiful harvest for God actually needs to die before it will bear any crop. No, I'm not attempting to make some analogy to Meyer's dead brother. I'm talking about the whole seed faith concept itself. The partial truth is that we are invited to trust in a God who has said "I go to prepare a place for you". That place is still in the process of being prepared. We are invited to trust that the "not yet" is much better than any "already" we can imagine or even any "not yet" we would procure for ourselves even through the avenue of some "seed faith principle". But this kindness comes unbidden and unsought for and perhaps because of that it is all too easy to not be grateful for it.

The appeal of ideology and the disposable (single) male

Many better authors and thinkers have written on this matter before but as I nudge past the middle of my thirties I begin to notice that by now many men have paired off in one form or another or have made pairing off the conspicuous goal of their lives. It is the holy grail of manhood, more or less, to be paired off. In the eyes of many such men (and women) to have not have been significantly othered is a sign of failure.

There are, however, people who consider the act of becoming significantly othered, or rather the process of pairing off, is ultimately and irrevocably a sign of a problem. I am not disposed to either position but I notice that a few guys have decided that marriage and epecially childrearing i s symptomatic of all that is wrong with specifically American culture. In my crankier moments I am inclined to suppose that the men for whom this doctrine appeals (since it is a doctrine, in its own way) are those who couldn't convince anyone else to stick with them in the significant other category or who have, to be more fair, bitterly struggled within the constraints of the conviction that they are unable to pair off due either to inherent weaknesses of character in themselves or perhaps due to systemic evils that precluded their consideration in the mating pool.

Roy Baumeister gave a lecture years ago in which he pointed out that society and culture depends on the reality that men are, not to overstate the case, expendable. This cannot be more true than it is for the unmarried man. The unmarried man can be spent in the service of a cause or an idea and literally or metaphorically die and society is no worse off for his absence. Any man who thinks this through will quickly realize it and this in some sense explains the radicalizing tendency in young men (and old men, too, I suppose). If coupling ends up being one of the base-line social behaviorzs in the human species then those who do not couple must draw their social meaning from some other source.

In earlier ages of human history there were two ways of doing this, joining a religious organization or joining the military. In our time these have tended to be rejected by most people. even a lot of pro-military people will not actually join the military or would admit they remember their military days with a mixture of anger, disdain or frustration but will salute the uniform anyway because, well, someone does have to do the job, after all. There is no society which must not at some point consider the necessities of its own defense. Be that as it may, most people will look neither to the armed services nor a church for a social identity in our time to go by statistics. And it may be that for the churches and armed forces the number of people with at least a passing interest may not be physically or doctrinally strong enough in constitution to pass msuter for membership in either.

What fills the gap of social identity for a man in lieu of church or army? Particularly one who has consistently failed at the mating game, however the mating game was hoped to get played out? Ideology. This is not at all surprising. It is one of the surest ways that cults form, whether cults of personality, cults of cause, or cults of aesthetics. The two most popular ideological cults in the West might well by derivatives of Marxist and Randian thought. Of course there are religious conservatives and secular old-school conservative, too, but what seems to happen for those who find they are not considered fit to mate is to embrace an identity of social commentary and self-established dissidence.

In my more cynical moments I say to myself that it's no surprise that men who, upon discovering how superfluous and useless to society they are, decide that it is necessary to criticize society as both unjust and unvaluable. Either the society is guilty of wanton materialistic consumerism or a lack of productivity and free thought. The idea that society itself produces goods and services that the dissident consumes need not be considered. The problem with this reflexive critique is that the would-be protesting unmarried person participates in the same kinds of things that the society he protests does. Does he consider America to be a land of oppression and greed? Does he spend his weekend playing video games? Does he spend it brewing beer as a hobby or riding a bike or attending concerts? Then he is just convincing himself he is a rebel or a dissident as a way to paper over the reality that his life does not matter in any way he finds meaningful.

Clinging to an ideology as a way to look down on others ensures that, despite the man's own failures to embody the highest ideals of his own ideology, he can still look down on the married and reproducing as living lives of stupid wastefulness. In his own heart and mind he can convince himself that his failures to integrate into statistically normal human behavior, which he may at one point have coveted intensely, are signs of the inherent failure of the indiscriminate herd instead. A man may decide that the problem was not his acrimonius personality because that couldn't be the problem. Instead the problem is the shallowness of women or the unrealistic expectations of society.

Embracing an ideology allows the man to simultaneously build up himself and tear down whatever he may have once desired as not only being not worthy of effort but also worthy of condemnation. He may go from having wanted marriage to being against both marriage and childrearing. He can tell himself he is in favor of sustainable living but if you take that position seriously then simply being an American who enjoys concerts and recreational outdoor activities or old cars makes you inextricably part of the problem of being an American. If he laments the averageness of the ordinary person and spends his days playing video games he is simply another average American who is attempting to sell himself on the idea that he is better than average by dint of will power rather than productive activity.

But here's the thing, I don't see it as inherently wrong for unmarried people to long for social meaning. I am pretty happy to find my social meaning among friends and family and, yeah, life in a church. In fact there are various advantages to having a life connected to a shared faith, particularly a faith which holds that this life is not the only life there is. You might suppose that such a belief system would devalue this life and make it easier for one to be, ay, a suicide bomber. Well, that's not necessarily the case. In religious traditions where suicide is considered an affront to both the divine image in humanity and to the divine suicide is not a viable option. If we are enjoined by the apostles to give thanks in everything this forces us to recognize that to be a living dog is better than being a dead lion even if society in so many ways would rather we all be dead lions than living dogs.

This is, at its core, the temptation for any man who would embrace an ideology from which he can condemn his neighbor, because a man (or woman, really) who has not paired off and is fully confronted with how superfluous he or she is as a non-breeder to society as a whole and has not yet found a productive and emotionally satisfying role to play feels there is no other option.

The reason I can't just cynically dismiss these concerns or the appeals of ideology to the unmarried is because I'm not married. I've never even dated and have never seriously tried. I have been unemployed for sixteen months and thanks to having been laid off by a 501(c)3 I can't collect unemployment. In a strange irony my politically conservative friends are more shocked than my liberal friends that I am not eligible for unemployment. I have had plenty of time to realize that I often feel superfluous to the lives of many of my friends.

I have also seen that even the most rudimentary social life involves money I realize I can't really afford to spend most of the time. This is one of the reasons I can't take leftist ideologues seriously if they do the same consumeristic things for fun that right-wing ideologues do. People do need ways to play and socialize and relax. And as ideologues against breeding, whether intentional or recreational, have to consistently ignore that the sex drive has an often annoying persistence to it with respect to what they consider rational or beneficial. Men and women will horse around, look in each others eyes, and decide they want to spend their lives together and make babies. Men and men will horse around, look into each others eyes, and decide they want to be together. Ditto women.

To the ideologue who is convinced breeding is bad or that the frivolous however he defines it must be avoided, only the gays (maybe) have any business pairing off if only because they can't breed. But at some point the ideologue must condemn the normal attempts to enjoy life. Solzhenitsyn ruined a marriage by being so determined to not be a consumeristic fellow he was a stick in the mud and drove his wife to fury by refusing to let them do anything fun or frivolous like going to the movies.

What an ideology lets you do, if you decide to make it your purpose in life, is to ensure that even if you're not in a crowd you can act toward anyone in such a way that you have a kind of herd mentality all your own. You treat people as classes and not individuals. This is a necessary intelletual and social shorthand, I admit, but it can make you decide that all homeless panhandlers are categorically good or evil and that's not how you should approach that issue at all. I certainly don't give to panhandlers now because I have no job! What the ideology lets you do is to identify or condemn the individual on the basis of the ideology. Christians do this all the time but I trust you know that everyone is capable of this. Someone who hates Southern people on the assumption that they are all racist Republican rednecks is still working in the same spirit as a Klan member in terms of his or her heart.

I can understand why a man or woman who has never had any success in the mating game would decide to embrace an ideology. It is, in essence, what you could say I have done in terms of reflecting on what it means to follow Jesus. It is a belief that guides my life even though I often believe that I am a pretty big failure at it. What I try to remind myself of as often as I can is that Jesus' teaching does not permit me to decide who is and isn't my neighbor so even though rabidly ideological people on both the right and left drive me up the wall I remind myself that they are my neighbors, too, and that I am called by Jesus to love them however I can.

And I can appreciate that in lieu of having a social relationship that affirms your value (i.e. the healthy coupled relationship that "most" people end up having) you have to get your value somewhere. So while I don't especially agree with either the Marxists I know or the Randians I know those that aren't paired off I have some empathy for because the ideology is, so to speak, the spouse of that person. They don't know it or see it in those terms but in terms of social meaning that's where it comes from.

I've also seen this happen at, yes, Mars Hill. Mars Hill involvement becomes the "spouse" equivalent of a social life that involves meaning. It was pretty much my entire anchoring point for several years in my social life. I had almost no friends who weren't outside that church and the friends and family I had were pretty much my whole life. I didn't consider it cultish in any way. Others would say it is indisputably a cult. I would say that both views are immature and inaccurate due to being incomplete.

What I began to notice was that the people who were most bitter about 2007 tended to be idealogues who once had gotten behind the church. I also began to notice a striking difference between how married and unmarried people handled the debacles of 2007. The married people, who on a daily basis have a social relationship that defined them, had complaints but often stuck around (unless BOTH of them were upset and in which cases they eventually left).

For the unmarried, however, there were no degrees of gray. Either it was all right or all wrong. Why? Well, perhaps because if you held at the back of your mind that this might be the place where God would send you your future spouse you weren't going to badmouth or tolerate badmouthing of the place that forms your social identity. Think of it as a case in which an individual can, thanks to things like the internet and social media, become a self-contained instance of deindividuation. For those of us who weren't already coupled off the debacle was more of a debacle because the stronger the tie of your identity is to the social unit the more disastrous a controversy or scandal in the social unit becomes. In this respect all those married people may have failed to appreciate the real level of the problems of 2007. I speak rather broadly, of course.

But this gets to the core of ideology and the unmarried person and why societal critique becomes so essential and formative. If ideology obliges you to critique society as a form of self-identification then you have to speak up against whatever you consider wrong in society based on the ideology. You not only have to do this because the chosen ideology requires it but also because you don't have a relationship intimate or stable enough or a network of such relationships stable enough from which to derive any other meaning.

The Marxist or Randian or Democrat or Republican has something that plays the role a god does for the religious person not merely because that's true at a general level but for the unmarried or uncommitted person that is the anchor in lieu of a partner or a close family member. In this respect to say that secularism is "a religious belief" is not remotely accurate with respect to proposed truthclaims but it is socially true if only in the sense that it describes a metaphysical view which informs or motivates social action. In other words, a lonely atheist and a lonely Christian can both attempt to use their ideological and metaphysical committments as compensation for the fact that they are both really lonely. What ideology permits the unmarried man to do is to use the ideology as a kind of social drug to ensure that whatever has fallen short in his social life is less a function of bad luck or possible problems in himself and more a function of the problems that are in society. The problem isn't himself but everyone else and ideology becomes the means through which to reason that this is so.

Then again, it depends on how he measures himself by his ideology. If I were to use my Christian faith as a way to measure others and find them wanting I'd do that well but my understanding of the teaching of Christ is that I don't get to do that. It's tempting but the strength of the temptation is all the more reason to be aware that it is a temptation. It is in some ways more of a relief to admit that I feel like as an unmarried male I am completely disposable so far as society is concerned than to take refuge in an ideology that would condemn a society that in the grand flow of things has no real use for me.

This is what I believe is ultimately the problem with unmarried ideologues regardless of whether they flow right or left, they feel obliged to measure the entirety of humanity as having value or not based on that ideology. The leftist and the rightest alike are able to shut their eyes and ears to any flicker of compassion or empathy on the basis of that ideology. Sure, there are radicalized Islamist suicide bombers but people who are against "breeding" have the same hate and resentment, too. A Randian who believes that productive work is the highest good who isn't paired off really has only that as a measure of self-worth because it's not going to come from someone who loves you even if you stink and forgot to do the dishes yesterday and of whom you can say that love is reciprocal. We also live in a culture which has so elevated the value of romantic coupling as defining either adulthood or fulfillment that it becomes easy to reflexively condemn this. In many ways I can sympathize with the often resentful or bitter unmarrieds who, seeing they are not paired off and at various times desperately wanted to be, decide to transform their old longing into loathing. Ideology is the catalyst through which this process can be expedited.

Trouble is that the biological urges that drive coupling are so strong they won't go away and the unmarried ideologue who chooses to look down on those who have successfully paired off is looking down on a biological impulse within himself (or herself) and saying that this is prima facie bad. Overpopulation means that one of the most basic and rudimentary impulses in humanity is essentially evil. I either don't have to explain why this presents a moral and social problem both in the individual or for a group, or no amount of explanation could possibly convince you that it is one.

Friday, February 18, 2011

HT: You Are Not So Smart: Deindividuation, how reasonable people follow herds

And another linky link from You Are Not So Smart. Anyone who assumes he or she must be in the minority of the Milgram experiment had best take a few extra doses of reality. You, too, can be a herd-following monster who destroys the lives of others to satisfy your sense of individual and/or group identification.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

conservative Protestants and the gift of celibacy, the non-love that dare not be mentioned?

I have read enough Reformed blogs and bloggers and heard enough Reformed theologians to pretty well know that they all agree there is no gift of singleness, by and large. Singleness is not a gift, marriage is. When Paul says "not all have this gift" he isn't talking about singleness but celibacy. For sake of conversation I can grant this but, now, what I'd like to know is "What is the gift of celibacy?"

More to the point, what do Protestants imagine the gift of celibacy to be? I don't have wonder too much what the Orthodox think the gift of celibacy is because patristics is patristics and the church fathers and monastics were obviously celibate long enough to write a fair amount about it. Catholics, too, have covered that waterfront. The only evangelical Protestant I've ever come across who seemed to even try to gift celibacy/singleness a fair shake was John Piper and in mainstream Protestant and liberal Protestant churches I guess I have to assume everyone is so busy boinking each other and thinking it's all good as long as there is "love" that celibacy is simply a non-starter and a throwback to medieval thought.

Now here is the big E on the eye chart regarding celibacy, nobody talks about the celibate calling with respect to the sex drive. The tacit belief amongst Protestants about celibacy would seem to be that the celibate man or woman just doesn't have much of a struggle with celibacy because he or she is so immersed in the work of the Lord or ministry that they are happy all the time. A person who is called to celibacy must be completely content with that calling and with whatever ministry to which the Lord has called that man or woman, so the reasoning goes. Earth to Christians! Go back and read the Bible and you will that this isn't even remotely true.

Sure, cite Paul saying that he wished everyone was as he was and able to go without being married. Bear in mind a few things, Paul was either a widower or a man whose wife abandoned him after he converted ... or that he was simply an old guy who knew he was likely to die in the service of God. Cite that people with the gift of celibacy or singleness tend to only be people who are called to some dangerous ministry like smuggling Bibles to China (because we all know all the life-threatening and life-draining work is evangelizing non-whites, huh?) Yet Paul also urged Timothy to flee from youthful lusts and there's no evidence Timothy was called to marriage and he was a bishop!

Since we Protestants appreciate the weight and value of the scriptures let me break this one down for my fellow Protestants regarding a famous biblical figure who was called to a celibate lifestyle and apparently hated it. In Jeremiah 16 we read that the Lord told him to not take a wife or have children because of the devastation that was coming upon Judah. Jeremiah is not only to not marry himself but to not even attend weddings or funerals! What do we find in Jeremiah 20, a mere four chapters later? The sentiment "God, you tricked me! This job sucks! All my friends are waiting for me to screw up so they can kill me! I hate my job and I wish I had never been born!" Oh, yes, there's a man of God who was totally at peace and content with his call to celibacy and singleness!

But wait, he wasn't in a dangerous ministry smuggling Bibles to China, was he? He was in a dangerous mission telling his own people who were busy assuming Yahweh was on their side that Yahweh WASN'T on their side because they were worshipping a bunch of other gods while assuming the Lord's favor was still with them. He was declaring that they were guilty of defiling the land with their wickedness and that the land itself would vomit them up. He was considered a traitor to his country and a false prophet. His was left to die in a clay pit and was saved by an Ethiopian eunuch.

Jeremiah goes so far as to curse the day of his birth. He was called to live a celibate life and apparently hated it a great deal, considered a traitor to his nation by friends and probably family alike. He was accused of prophesying lies against God's people and against the Temple. The people of his time might well have supposed that since all these things were nonsense that he was saying Jeremiah should have settled down and gotten married and done something useful to be on mission with what God was doing through Israel. Israel, after all, was Yahweh's chosen people who were going to be a light of hope and be the nation through which the whole world would be blessed. All this punk prophet was saying was junk like that Israel was just a total failure at all of that.

We don't see Jeremiah writing that he had no struggle with any kind of sexual drive. David Plotz, in his blogging the Bible series over on Slate (which is great, by the way) wrote that Jeremiah's problem was not that he was wrong (oh boy was he ever right about pending military destruction) it was that he had major personality and communication handicaps in getting his message across. Now the perspective of a secular Jewish author (if memory serves me) may not meet with the agreement of Christians but we can sometimes be stoked on the scriptures as the word of God we forget that human personalities play a major, major role in that. Plots sums up his complaint about Jeremiah as a person in the following way:

C'mon, Jeremiah! You must be kidding! You show up at capital city, tell everyone they're going to be cannibalizing their kids in a couple years and that there's nothing—nothing­—they can do to prevent it. And then you're surprised that they don't like you!

But this doesn't comfort me! I am not strong enough in my faith to set aside family and country for God. And I don't want to be. Jeremiah is a righteous prophet, but I can't help feeling that he's also a terrible traitor.

I could go into an entirely different post about how many Christians are like this and that many Christians who have a persecution complex about themselves or their Christian communities do this. Jeremiah, however, got words from the Lord and since Israel and Judea were decimated by conquering empires even Plotz grants that the weeping prophet was totally right about what was going to go wrong.

And he's got a point, if you're a prophet of the Lord who in a time of relative prosperity declares that military conquest in your land will get so bad people will be eating their own babies you are not going to be hot stuff on the singles market!

Plotz also points out that Jeremiah never avoids a sexual metaphor or image when it is available. How saturated the book of Jeremiah is with sexual imagery is not something I see any need to catalog stastically but Plotz' observation itself may be telling. Jesus said there are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom and that indicates that this is something people do by choice. Nehemiah was probably a eunuch because of royal court policy and Isaiah spoke to the eunuchs who served in the royal court saying that they should not consider themselves a dry tree and bereft of legacy.

With all due respect to serious-minded and well-meaning Christians in the Reformed blogosphere and outside it in the Protestant world at large, doesn't it seem as though we often have a church culture that tells people that being a dry tree totally sucks? Don't we tell people who aren't married that they are rejecting God's design? God's design for us is marriage so anyone who doesn't go that path and walk that walk is postponing adolescence and not growing up. Really? And the only exceptions are cases of smuggling Bibles to non-whites in some foreign country or doing some dangerous ministry even though the Bible itself attests that the most life-threatening work one can do is calling God's own people on the carpet fo rtheir own stupidity and idolatry?

So here's the thing, if there are Protestants who hold that there is even such a thing as a gift of celibacy what does that look like in the real world? Does it include no struggle with sexual desires at all? That is impossible. Plenty of unmarried men (more so than women) will say that they don't have the gift of singleness or the gift of celibacy because they really, really, really struggle with sexual temptation (should I really add another really?). So in their minds having sexual desire at all automatically means that they are not "gifted" with celibacy.

But what about people with a same-sex attraction? Wouldn't this be a sign that THEY ought to marry, too? Well, uh, no, evangelicals swiftly point out, because that's a disordered sexual desire. Okay then, you have to grant that sexual desire in itself can't be invoked as a reason that a Christian should be married. Just because your sexual desires are hetero doesn't prove that your desire to be married indicates any kind of calling or gifting in itself, does it?

And in both cases does that gift of celibacy indicate a lack of sexual desire? Well, let's revisit Jeremiah 16. Do we suppose Jeremiah saw celibacy/singleness as a gift from the Lord if he hated that everyone hated him and wished he hadn't been born? That doesn't much look like a celibate rejoicing in his celibacy to me.

The essential, goofy, and probable lie in Christian teaching about celibacy in Protestantism, if indeed there is any such teaching at all, is that if you have that gift (and we all secretly suspect you simultaneously don't and/or shouldn't) it's that you will be so busy doing stuff for Jesus you just won't ever have time to have any kind of sexual desire of any kind. Supposing I were called to celibacy this does not for a second mean I won't notice a beautiful woman. It also does not mean that what can often occur as a physiological response to noticing said beautiful women won't happen. None of this would by itself prove that I do not have the gift or calling of celibacy, should I have it. For that matter having exceptionally beautiful friends of the opposite sex (or the same sex if you're in that direction) does not oblige one to think or feel about them "in that way".

If evangelical Protestants tell gays that their sexual desires are not proof that they should consummate those desires that alone compells us to rethink our basis for simultaneously not talking about what a life of celibacy would entail and what connection it has to how the unmarried deal with sexual desires that often show up, as C. S. Lewis put it, unbidden and without warning or even at undesirable times.

So in a Protestant setting how do you "really" establish that someone has the "gift of marriage" or the "gift of celibacy"? If we have a culture that presupposes nobody "really" has the gift of celibacy and that if they did they would have no struggle with sexual desire how can we meaningfully address that the sexual desire someone may struggle with is same-sex attraction. As a Catholic blogger put it, what good is it to tell gays they should deny their sexual desires when all the straight people assume their desire is prima facie evidence they are NOT called to any kind of celibacy?

There is a sense in which despite all our Prostetant evangelical lip service to Augustine and carrying on his legacy none of us want to really explain his most famous, shortest, and amusing prayer--God grant me chastity, but not yet. We're too busy building whole sermon series around how Augustine had a terrible attitude about sex and sexuality. On the other hand, "should" we question his conviction that celibacy was what he believed God ultimately required of him? We can apparently let him write City of God and dispute with Pelagius but in our effort to correct against the perceived mistakes of Church fathers it would appear that we have gotten ourselves stuck.

As evangelical Protestants, especially in the Reformed branch, we often say no one has the "gift" of singleness. We sternly or happily declare that God's "design" for us is marriage and that we should pursue that. We also say that those called to celibacy/singleness are those who must be called to life-threatening work and/or those who must be totally content with their unmarried state. We love to take an apostle like Paul and extrapolate from his life some universal observation that scripture itself precludes. We look at Paul's life and imagine that because of his life any celibate Christian must be so because of a lack of sexual desire or a dangerous life.

We conveniently ignore that one of the most famous celibates in scripture seemed to be miserable and did not actually die as a martyr but probably died in Egypt after the exile, having never married, having been denounced and reviled by his people for prophesying against them in the name of the Lord, and who was told by the Lord, "never take a wife." Jeremiah does not seem to have ever been "happy" that he was told he could never marry. "The weeping prophet" is not someone who backs up the idea that those the Lord calls to celibacy are those at peace with that aspect of their walk with the Lord. Just because Paul was content in his station with respect to that does not mean all the other saints led into a celibate lifestyle had the same experience.

It is not as though the subject of celibacy as an alternative to married life has never been discussed by Christians. It does seem over the last ten years that not too many evangelical Protestants have discussed it, save maybe a few people like John Piper but most discussions of celibacy seem to come these days from conspicuously, almost ostentatiously married people. Some of the pastors most eager to tell people to be chaste before marriage were fornicators. They have no on the ground observations or experiences from which to exhort the unmarried to flee youthful lusts because while they were on the ground they were guided by them. For those of us in the mid-thirties hearing yet another sermon or reading yet another blog post about how God's design for us is marriage or about adultescence is useless. I know all that.

What I don't know is something evangelicals don't seem to broach, which is whether or not it can be reasoned from anything, let alone scripture, that if a person is called to celibacy that one will not ever struggle with any sexual desire. We know that gays would be told they have to live a celibate life and if their orientation never changes it must ever be so but if that's the case then isn't there a rather massive double standard involved? Doesn't that mean that straights are basically told something like, "If you ever tingle down there at all you don't have the gift of celibacy"? We live in a culture in which, unlike ancient societies, your coupling is on you. You're simultaneously a loser if you don't and probably an idolator if you do.

There's been a weird, weird double bind in the conservative Protestant circles I've been in over the last ten years where if you don't want to be married or don't have thoughts or anxieties about it then you're probably disobeying God but if you do want that and are worried about it then you are probably disobeying God, too, by not trusting Him. It would appear to go by the sermons and tacit assumptions of some of the preachers I've heard that the only people who aren't in this bind are, I guess, the people who are already married and don't have anything going wrong. I'm tired of getting this vibe of you're damned if you don't want it and damned if you do want it but just fine if you got it approach that I've picked up over the years.

The idea that you're not even really an adult or someone who cares about the welfare of others or knows anything about sacrifice unless you've married alternately puzzles, saddens, and angers me. To borrow Lutheran dialectical terms it frequently ends up seeming like a Law in which there is no Gospel. Since more and more people are not marrying what if an evangelical response to this was not merely to bemoan the "epidemic of singleness" could we try discussing not merely how the large number of unmarried people is some kind of disease that must be cured so all those people can become "real" adults and get married, but also attempt to seriously address what a life of celibacy would actually?

And don't just say "Oh, it's hard." Tell us something we don't already know. I already know what it feels like to hear the Emerson String Quartet in concert by myself and wonder if maybe I could share that experience not just with a friend but maybe a "special" friend, a spouse. Much of the blather about the difficulty is about as useless as Phil Hartman's character in the sex-ed video from an early season of The Simpsons where he says greasily, "There kids, and now that we've shown you how it's done, don't do it."

Is it so surprising that abstinence programs frequently fail to do more than delay sexual activity? Is it so surprising that out of wedlock births tend to happen in red states even more than blue states? Is it so surprising that so many people settle for whatever outlets they can find rather than rein in their desires? As Lewis put it, in our age it may well be that eros is the love that most needs to be taken down several pegs and today's conservative Protestants not only seem least qualified to tackle this project they may be the worst offenders in promoting the value and necessity of it to forming resposnible adulthood. It may even establish a church culture in which a guy who is on his second marriage may be considered to have found "redemption" more so than someone who has never actually been in a "relationship".

I have absolutely no answers whatsoever and while I'll be the first to admit I'd like to say the folks in my branch of Christianity have them I don't see much evidence for it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

You can't reinvent yourself in the information age but you can still repent of being who you are

As happens once in a while someone you know decides to completely redefine themselves, who they are, what they believe in, what their principles of living are, and may even announce that this change has occurred. Christians are used to the idea of this referring to being born again but it is just as common or more common for people in their teens and twenties to reveal they don't have any Christian faith. Some people delay this transition into their thirties. I've seen it happen more than once.

In the past someone who wanted to reinvent themselves could change their name, move to a new place, find new friends, get a new spouse, or any number of things. As a few pundits and authors have noted Americans are proud of their ability to reinvent themselves but in the information age reinventing yourself and establishing a new identity becomes more and more difficult. I suggest, perhaps with too jaded an eye toward these things, that no one ever really reinvented themselves so much as reinvented their branding. Very frequently the supposedly reinvented self is not a fundamentally new person but the same old person desperately eager to believe his or her own hype and hoping that by dint of this process other people will actually come to believe a real change has occurred.

What I have wondered lately is how radical this redefinition of the self actually is. I don't mean to say it isn't important but at a perhaps very cynical level how many people do we know, who swear they have turned over a new leaf, have not merely paid lip service to the idea of making a new life for themselves. They think they have discovered who they really are through some epiphany, through some new relationship or career choice or choice in religion and what has happened may be more a case of discovering who they have always been rather than who they thought they are.

Think of the guy who dumps trophy wife #1 for trophy wife #2. Think of the woman who bails on one bad egg relationship with a guy only to go to the next one and maybe has kids with both guys. Think of the guy who thinks he'll be more responsible with alcohol and still binge drinks to deal with depression. Or the chronic procrastinator who thinks that this time she'll get all her ducks in a row and will power will save the day. And all the while these peopel continue being the same people that got themselves in trouble.

I have known some people who have formerly been Christians and rejected the Christian faith. Thing is that some fourteen years later these men and women are actually NOT different people than they were in their religious days. They still struggle with being chronic underachievers or obsessed about work. An unbeliever who had bipolar disorder while a believer will still struggle with it as an unbeliever. A person who had little incentive to pay the rent while investing in old European import cars is probably not really going to be a more reliable tenant after rejecting Christianity than before when he held to it. For the unbeliever or the believer alike there can be this belief that 1) simply because I changed my beliefs a whole new set of ethics and personhood will follow and 2) my problems stemmed from my holding to false beliefs.

Well, yes, no, and maybe. Yes, changing your beliefs is a big deal but, no it does not mean anything at all about your person and character has changed but maybe it could if you make a point of changing not only what you think but how the what that you think influences the how in your thinking. In Christian terms this is fairly simple in principle. You believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and God Himself, the second person of the Trinity. Okay, so in light of this knowledge and profession you begin, as the scriptures say, to no longer be conformed to the thinking and acts of the world but become transformed by the renewing of your mind. The metanarrative through which you comprehend the entirety of the universe continues to be reshaped and you also reshape how you live in light of this.

What this means is that unless you discipline yourself to both think and act in new ways a mere changing of signposts regarding ontology and metaphysics has done nothing. Someone who was bad about paying the rent on time before he became a Christian is not going to be good about paying the rent on time just because he converted to Christianity. A woman who had a problem being drawn into emotionally or physically abusive relationships when she was raised a Christian and considered herself a Christian is not going to automatically suss out and reject inappropriate lovers now that she is no longer a Christian. If you begin a Christian and become an atheist your taste in expensive entertainment may change because you want your diversions to match your newfound convictions but your expensive taste itself is not likely to change unless you come up with a new basis for what you even consider entertainment.

One of the delusions we seem to have in the United States is the idea that there is still a viable cultural narrative in which this is America, home of the free. Some people don't believe that 9and they tend to be way to the left or right in their convictions) but they still believe in the power of self-reinvention or self-determination. I don't. I think our capacity to reinvent ourselves is actually very limited. I have never said it isn't possible but I think most people think of themselves as being more flexible and resilient and adaptable and open to change than they really are. We think we are rational creatures when most of the time we are not, especially when we attempt to reason through why we are!

If a guy changes beliefs and relies on his emotions as the fuel to run the engine of his motivation and action he might as well throw whatever he believes to the side because the beliefs won't make any difference in his life. If the fuel for his action is emotion than as his emotions change his actions change. This sort of fellow will resolve through ambition or envy or guilt to go to college and get a degree and get a real job and then weeks later give up on all that and sulk in his room listening to mope rock and decide that everything is pointless. As Ulysses in the Coen's spoof of The Odyssey would put it, the man is like a cat caught by the tail of his own humor. Emotions are what they are but to let yourself be governed by them makes you their slave. As Paul put it, he would recognize what he is free to do but he will not be mastered by it. This is not so different from what "free thinkers" would advocate in any case if they are really free thinkers.

Now as a Christian I do affirm that the good news of Christ provides a powerful incentive to become a new person but as I just wrote earlier this incentive comes in the form of partly fulfilled promises. In many cases for us as Christians we struggle with the realization that we do not really think in our day to day lives that those partly fulfilled promises are good enough. We, no less and probably more than an unbeliever, are susceptible to believing the promise of sin delivering the goods.

For an unbeliever there really is nothing else besides his or her idol(s) of the moment. There is no higher good. We who profess a higher good in theory deny it in practice by embracing as refuges the things that unbelievers consider to be the best thing to cling to for life. An unbeliever who makes the sexual relationship and the sex drive a god knows what he is doing, a Christian who makes the sexual relationship (with a few more restrictions) the basis for assessing whether or not one is really an adult has tricked himself into thinking he's defending what the scriptures say when what may have happened is that he has baptised his own convictions about what true humanity is and isn't in the name of Jesus while, functionally, still holding that the person in their forties who hasn't gotten laid yet is some kind of failure as a human being.

So the paradox for us, regardless of our religious or non-religious convictions, is that merely saying "This is what I know to be true" will not make us live lives that are truly built around that. Liberals want to abolish the second amendment while conservatives wouldn't mind doing away with the first in many cases (same for the liberal). A liberal wants to dismantle the Pentagon and dump money into education even though dumping money into education would still be a pile of deficit spending through fiat currency. Perhaps few places are more depressing to look at than the realm of politics for showing how a world of professed confictions does nothing to cause one to actually live and govern on the basis of those convictions.

But I am not writing about societies so much as the individuals that populate them. Our consistency in action despite our convictions is very frequently the biggest problem we have. I accept the good news of Jesus because the good news is that this is my problem and that the Lord provides a way of release from it. Jesus once said to Pharisees, "If you were merely blind you would not be guilty but because you claim "We see" your guilt remains." Many people, bellievers or unbelievers, are actually blind people who claim to see and whose lives reveal their blindness. The good news is Christ revealing our blindness to us so that we may see.

The good news for an unbeliever, I suppose, could be stated in a parallel fashion but in both cases how this often plays out is a determination not to see one's own blindness but to try to shine a light on what we are certain is the blindness of the other so as to compel the other person to change. If the truth does not transform us then do we believe the truth at all, whatever we say the truth may be? I'm not saying that the transformation affected and effected by a belief in the truth will be swift, easy, or ever fully complete but if it is true it will yield some kind of result. Paradoxically these results will be an outworking of living life in light of the truth rather than a reverse-engineered process by which we reason "I'm a loser, I don't want to be a loser, so I will embrace a radically new belief about reality than what I embraced before so that this will motivate me to not be a loser." No, you'll still be a loser even with your new beliefs and they won't impel you to change a single thing about your life unless you begin the excruciating process of not just rethinking "what" and "why" but "how".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Musing on a Slate piece, 3 sources of anxiety today and how Christians can amplify them

Three proposed sources of anxiety get mentioned in this article in Slate as to why not only teens but Americans in general are more anxious now than fifty years ago. The recession and the bad job market or housing market are not considered the real sources of anxiety. The three proposed sources of anxiety interested me because in many respects these are sources of anxiety that we as Christians can accelerate in unexpected or unobserved ways.

1) loss of community

Ostensibly this is something all kinds of Christians in all kinds of churches say they WANT but what kind of community do we mean? In the last seventeen years I grew jaded by what is often meant by "community". The little school by the canal I attended had leaders whose idea of "community" was of a sort that looked pretty on student recruitment brochures and talked a lot about making a difference in the world and having global impact. All the while it remained the little school by the canal, big enough to get noticed by me in another state but not big enough to, so far as I see it, really change the world.

Ironically I was drawn to the church on the opposite side of the canal because it seemed to have what the little school opposite it didn't have. They also didn't talk about "community" quite the same way but they did talk about "intentional community". I was young enough and naive enough in my twenties to think that adding some kind of modifier in front of "community" meant that the overall concept had changed. Oh the folly of youth, eh? Not that I'm exactly old but I'm closer to forty than thirty.

At length I gained a certain jadedness to this "intentional community", too, because often "intentional community" meant an ambitious couple buying a house they couldn't really afford on their own during the `00s; renting out as many rooms as they wished to have to single tenants; and then hosting events at the house that were church related so that it could be a kind of de facto church building in lieu of being able to afford actually renting space. I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't do that but I am willing to say that in the long haul view of things that is a spectacularly careerist thing for someone with ambitions toward full-time professional ministry to do. It worked out very well for a few of the younger guys who did it, though! They have one of the fastest growing churches in the country on their hands. Very clever!

But the thing is that the more the church succeeded the less necessary it was to hold any connection to that "community". "Intentional community" in Reformed contemporary lingo now differs from "community" (as I've heard it described in secular and other Christian terms) only in terms of how much cherry-picking a person does to decide who his or her neighbor is or isn't. In other words "community" in many respects can isolate and constrain us. What we consider "community" can become more like an unrecognized social club in which, if you pay your dues and are productive as a member of the club you are considered valuable.

If you come upon hard times that last longer than a couple of months or, at most, a couple of years; if you reveal that you are a chronically needy person who constantly deals with failures; or if you are in all unvarnished terms a jerk who is actually a bona fide Christian then eventually the "intentional community" begins to feel you may not be pulling enough of your weight. You could ask them to help you bear a particular burden but they might decide that God will providentially let someone else help you bear that burden or suggest that how you seek help imposes a burden on them. After all God is faithful ... so I don't have to be.

As Tim Keller once put it, the reason so many of us do not help and say we cannot afford to help the person is not because we can't help but because we don't want that help given to the other person to cost us something we value for ourselves.

Dostoevsky wrote of the passion of young men that it is easy for them to be willing to die for a cause but to spend five years of one's burning youth in a boring life of study and research, well, then you'll find out what causes a young man is REALLY willing to make a sacrifice for. The pastor at my church once said that the measure of a pastor's work as a pastor is tested by how he treats the people he can't get anything out of. If he is only nice to the members of the congregation he can get something out of then he might as well be a hired hand and not a shepherd. A shepherd tends to the sheep who are infirm and even useless. In this sense a measure of a Christian's walk with the Lord is how willing he or she is to invest in the life of someone who lacks utility.

So that is a reflection on how Christian community can actually exacerbate both anxiety and loneliness. I suppose I should write about the other two points in separate posts.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The faithfulness of God in the present, part now, all later. Is that good enough for us?

Hebrews 11:39

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised

For every time I have heard or read someone invoke "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" there is this passage in Hebrews that serves as an interesting corrective. And yet that is not exactly what I want to discuss now. Anyone can make fun of a prosperity-gospel that appropriates "For I know the plans I have for you ... " as a personal fulfillment mantra. In context Yahweh was telling His people through Jeremiah that even though they were going to be in exile for seventy years (and then, later, through Daniel, that the exile was really going to last four hundred and ninety years, which should make any Christian think twice about too cheerfully employing the phrase "progressive revelation") that THIS plan of generations of exile was a plan to prosper them and not to harm them. The plan credited to Yahweh by false prophets was that in a few years Israel would gain its freedom and shake off the yoke of oppression and exile imposed on them by a godless empire, THAT was the false prophecy!

Yet here is the thing, though Hebrews is right to point out that none of those saints of old received the fullness of what God had promised they did receive in part. Abraham DID live to see the birth of his son Isaac. Isaac did live long enough to have two sons. Jacob did live long enough to have at least a dozen sons and lived long enough to know that Joseph was alive. Abraham even received a promise that for four hundred years his descendents would be slaves in a foreign land. Daniel received word that Israel would be stuck in their situation for at least four centuries and that then their deliverance would come.

Let us consider Ps 72, for instance. Those things prayed for in the psalm for the king Solomon (or by Solomon, let's suppose for sake of broadness) did not ultimately come to pass in Solomon's reign. They are, obviously, fully realized in Christ. And yet even now we do not see Christ fully and obviously enthroned. We, too, are shown that God's promises are all "yes" in Christ and yet we do not yet see all those things fully manifest. God is faithful and yet it is not false to say that God gives us the Spirit as a downpayment and seal as the promise of a future fulfillment yet to come. Paul wrote that we know in part and we prophesy in part but that when that which is perfect comes all prophecy and knowledge will cease. This perfection has not yet come and contrary to cessationists it is patently obvious that Paul is referring to the return of Christ, the great eschaton, the day of the Lord, and not merely the canonization of the Bible.

What I continually struggle to remember is that the Christian life is one in which it is good and right to be thankful for God's faithfulness in mercurial or even bad circumstances. I have had friends suggest that we should be confident that God has a good plan for us. Yes, He does, but we do not know what that good plan entails in our lifetime. I don't know whether my mother will or won't die of some health problems in the next year. Certainly I pray that she lives many, many more years. But there was a stage in my life where I hoped I would get married before my maternal grandmother died and that most assuredly was not the case!

At one point I thought I might be a professor of New Testament studies by the time I was in my thirties. That, most assuredly, has not turned out to be the case! In fact nothing seems more alien or unlikely to me now than that I should either 1) be married or 2) be a teacher of any kind. What I hope for in this life and what God providentially permits or directs may be completely different things. My mother certainly never wanted me to have the poor eyesight that I have or for me to have a macular detachment at 21. I didn't want that either.

Now in a time and place where Christians may wish to speak of God's faithfulness in terms of a job or a spouse or children or ministry success or anything like that, any outward measure of status or prosperity as an indicator of what we consider godliness I have something else to share. Yes, all those things are, indeed, signs of God's blessing. What distinguishes a Christian's disposition toward those things is to realize that all these things, blessings as they are from the Lord, are at most partial fulfillments of promises yet to be fully kept. Do you have a spouse you consider to be a blessing? Wonderful. Do you have children you love? That is also wonderful. Do you have a job? That is great. Do you have a job you enjoy? Even better.

Christians can talk glibly about idolatry and about how we as Christians should not take good things and make them gods. That's all true but I wonder if I haven't idolized things while thinking they were signs of God's favor. I do not doubt for a moment that a person can make one's own church an idol by leaning on it and idealizing it. I've done it and am likely to do it again. In the bluntest and crudest way possible--the difference between an idol and a blessing for which you or I can be thankful to the Lord may consist of this; the idol is something which presents itself as the complete fulfillment of any kind of promise we make to ourselves or dream we have; or a promise that is made to us in any way or a dream we are enjoined to have. By contrast, a blessing is something that we can see is, for all its beauty or value, as nothing more and nothing less than a partial manifestation of the faithfulness of the Lord toward us or people we love.

Let me restate this observation another way. Even a partial fulfillment of a promise of God is better for us than the fullest realization of any hopes or dreams we may have or of promises we have made to ourselves or received from others (i.e. others who are not Yahweh). The fullest fulfillment of someone else's promise to you is not necessarily a bad thing but it is still not as great as a partial fulfillment of the Lord's promise to you. In many cases that fulfillment may be a providentially partial fulfillment of a promise from the Lord.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

This is a promise from the Lord Himself and yet even this promise is, at most, a partial fulfillment of the promises that Yahweh gives that all, ultimately, find their fulfillment in Christ. It may be the key to contentment for the Christian throughout life is to be content in the partial fulfillment of God's promises to us through Christ and His body.

I suppose at this point the momentum of this blog post has me thinking out loud. I have heard many Christians talk about this or that being an idol and I agree with much of it in principle but too much is made of the false nature of the promises made by idols and not enough is made of how those false promises appeal to us. God's promises seem weak to us because they are partly fulfilled at most in the life of any one believer. God delivered Israel out of Egypt but when they grumbled that they were being led through the wilderness they turned from the Lord. Moses himself did not get to enter the promised land because he disobeyed the Lord yet Moses was glad to at least see the promised land even though he did not enter it himself.

By contrast the serpent's promise was fully realized and realized immediately after Adam and Eve ate the fruit. The power of temptation and the seductive appeal of an idol is not merely what it promises but that it delivers on that promise here and now. We as Christians should not kid ourselves about how and why idols are so appealing, whatever our idols may be. The eyes of Adam and Eve were opened and they did learn the difference between good and evil, just as the serpent predicted! To prevent them from eating of the tree of life and living forever God banished Adam and Eve from the garden. Even God's declaration that in the day they ate of the fruit they would die was no more than partly fulfilled in the day that they disobeyed! Of course we don't have reason to doubt that Adam and Eve died.

In the scriptures ever there after we see God giving promises that saints of old have never seen more than partly fulfilled even after Christ Himself rose from the dead! If we as Christians convince ourselves or each other that what is necessary is for God to be "fully" faithful in whatever we think He has promised us or others in scripture then we should consider whether or not we need to repent of putting God to the test and grumbling against Him in some way.
If even Christ Himself prayed that the cup would pass from Him yet drank the fullness of it anyway then we have an example to follow in obedience that goes to the Cross even after a prayer to not go to the Cross received an answer. I have to ask myself daily whether it is better to trust in the Lord whose promises have every single day at most been partly fulfilled with a promise of a full fulfillment in the final day, or whether it is better to trust in the tiny promises made by everyone else that are fully fulfilled.

Since today is Valentine's day imagine that you are a woman with two suitors. One promises that you can be married today if you will accept him. He comes with an engagement ring, a concrete plan for and vision of the future for you both, and chocolates. The other comes with nothing but a declaration of his love for you, not even a ring. He promises that you will be his bride in the future if you will accept him and that you will be married after he has set his affairs in order. He declines to tell you when that is but assures you that, basically, everything is already in place, is being put in place, and will be worked out soon so he would like your answer now. He asks that you trust in the goodness of his character and his promise. Is that promise, coming from him, good enough for you to say "yes" to his proposal of marriage?

Well, obviously for the sake of this illustration the Lord is like the suitor who holds forth the great promise of marriage but has not told us when the day of the marriage supper of the Lamb will be. Idols tell us exactly when the marriage supper will be and invite us to it daily. I too often accept the more immediate, concrete offer that has a specific timeline. This is, to the best of my limited ability, why I am so easily swayed by promises from idols that distract me from the Lord. Since the serpent in the garden we have been swayed because the Lord promises a whole but has only ever fulfilled in part while idols promise and deliver in whole. It is only after we have discovered that the whole we were sold was itself not only incomplete but a devourer of our selves that we begin to rue our decision. Hebrews and the rest of scripture reminds us that the partial fulfillment from God is more precious than the full fulfillment of the promises of anyone else or anything else.

Sin promises us the moon and gives us the moon every single time. It is only after we have agreed to the moon that we realize the plants in our garden need sunlight to grow and that we have just agreed to an eternal eclipse that will darken the dawn. The faithfulness of the moon we see now outstrips any confidence we have in the sun that has not yet risen but that we are told has risen before.

I had not originally intended this as any uniquely Valentine's Day meditation but I suppose it will suffice for one.

There won't really be any "eureka lost" moments in the long run

This sort of rumination seems to miss the point of whether the "eureka" moment in hunting for consumer goods is something to make the focal point of discussing any "eureka" moment. The "original" moment of "eureka" was a little more truly momentous than simply finding a totally cool consumer good that helped you feel like one of the cool kids. Innovations and discoveries about the natural world and the sciences are surely cooler and a greater benefit to people on the whole than discovering an awesome and heretofore difficult to find minor league baseball cap. Still, it's a nicely built article and I thought enough of it to link to it even while I dissent in part from its observations and points.

Let's not forget that as the internet makes it easier to find things that the level of obscurity to delineate the cool kids from the common rabble simply changes by a matter of degree. Let's just pick one of my own pet interests as an example. These days in classical guitar if you know Sor or Giuliani or Carcassi or Villa-Lobos or Torroba or Ponce, big deal. EVERYONE knows about those people. Even lesser-knowns that nobody knows of outside the world of classical guitar like Koshkin or Brouwer aren't "really" that big a deal. Takemitsu wrote soundtracks for films so he's a little more nerd-cred but for the cool kids, so to speak, the greater cool factor necessitates a greater obscurity. This is easily provided in the internet age. For fans of modernist literature Nicholas Maw or Peter Maxwell Davies or Frank Martin or Elliot Carter get the job done. Even more obscure would be repertoire played by Tillmann Hoppstock (yeah, I have a couple of his CDs and his Bartok transcription is wonderful).

For nerds who want their musical nerdiness to encompass more than just the most avant of the avant garde in classical guitar you can go with Castelnuovo-Tedesco but not necessarily his famous solo works (famous? ;) ) or concerti. You can go for his preludes and fugues for guitar duet or, better yet, Eclogues for flute, English horn and guitar.

But there's nothing like living composers in classical music to affirm the highest level of hip nerdiness. Contemporary classical music is not too much different from indie rock, probably, and has an exponentially greater cool factor. Anyone can google even the most obscure indie rock band without a whole lot of effort. If there is anything the recent flap about Lady Gaga's retread of Madonna's retread of a soul number from before either woman's time has established it's the truth of Led Zeppelin's old claim that the song remains the same. As Ecclesiastes warned us millenia ago, there is nothing new under the sun. Do you believe there is something new? Do you rush to say "See, here? This is new?" It has come before, it is simply something from long ago that has come back. Innovations are generally matters of degree more than kind. Even something as earth-shattering as the development of nuclear weaponry is a revolutionary leap in doing something that people sought to do before.

None of this is to downplay the specialness of discovery. I was stoked to discover Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Eclogues, his preludes and fugues for guitar duet, and his sonatina for flute and guitar. I am still happy I discovered Igor Rekhin's preludes and fugues for solo guitar. It was simultaneously a surprise and a slight disappointment. I was hoping I might be the first composer to have tried tackling 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar. I should have known a Russian composer would have gotten their first because Russian guitar literature is in several respects much more adventurous than Western approaches to the instrument.

Now I speak with the bias of being a composer by hobby but the greatest moments of discovery and happiness don't seem to ever come from the acquisition of things anyway. I get excited when I discover a piece of music I haven't heard or studied before that I think is brilliant. I'm not going to pretend otherwise. This is not as exciting to me as discovering something new in a creative process, coming up with a melody or a harmony I like that is new for me. Stumbling upon what is, for me, a new insight in conversation with a friend or family member is more exciting than just picking up a new book or movie.

Discoveries that are great can include finding this or that awesome movie but a truly great discovery at a personal level is usually a gift that keeps on giving and is a gift to more than just yourself, a gift you can share with others. We don't have to labor the point too much about good news that is so good we want to share it with others and evangelize them to the cause, do we? Those moments never go away and won't stop happening. The internet may make the more mundane moments of joyful discovery of small-level things seem less important but the really big changes and discoveries in life like a new baby or a new friend or a long-lost family member or a new job (this one is particularly dear to me just now!) .

Today is Valentine's day and even though I haven't dated I don't suppose it requires any great effort to point out that lots of people like to discover a new "love" or something new about the person they already love. We are not wrong to want both the familiar and the new and to discover new things about the familiar we didn't know before. We will only lose our capacity for joyful surprise if we steel ourselves against it or keep changing the goal posts and the threshhold of what surprises us.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Link: Brian Auten post at BHT, a great white sort in "missional" church planting?

Pulitzer-prize finalist Bill Bishop's data-tested thesis is that social conservatives and social elites sort themselves politically and form churches around already accepted social norms. This will explain how the PCA grew and why it likely won't grow beyond its current cultural demographic in the near future. For example (page numbers to Bishop's book are in parenthesis) ...

There is a great deal that could be said about these two links Brian Auten linked to. I will keep my comments relatively brief. As the son of an American Indian what I can say in response to the majority of points Anthony Bradley males about the failure of the PCA to effectively assimilate or reach non-whites as a whole is a great big "duh". A denomination with roots in Southern conservative Presbyterianism may have lots of trouble being a home to ethnic, economic, and racial groups that didn't already fit into them in the "big sort". Any church tradition which has as part of its legacy any connection to any Confederate anything at any point is probably going to have trouble winning over non-whites. Visit nearly any website at random that expresses concern about institutionalized racism connected to Christian religion in the United States and you're going to quickly find the name of Dabney and some choice words about the ideas Dabney set forth about race.

(3) As "white flight" ideologically sorted geographically, "liberal church goers would live in one place and conservative church goers in another"(42). Center city church goers likely voted for President Obama (regardless of whether or not they were evangelicals) whereas few suburban PCA'ers would even think about supporting Obama. I was recently at a city center PCA church overhearing a group of people loudly thankful for Obama's policies and presidency. I just can't imagine that would be the case in PCA suburban churches in Virginia, for example.

(4) According to Bishop, the "real white flight" of the past two generations has been white ideologues moving to communities that were becoming staunchly Republican to live among socially similar people (53). I don't have the numbers, but my guess is that upwards of around 90% of the PCA church plants between 1980 and 2002 were in Republican counties. This fits with the homogeneous unit principle. We mistakenly only viewed "white flight" as racial. It was ideological.


(8) Ideological and social white flight has left rural America behind [emphasis mine] (137). The most neglected and ignored churches in the PCA are rural. They have been left behind by suburban and city center white elites (137). As I've written before, middle-class elitism does not seem to care about poor white people. [emphasis mine]

9) City center churches will be easier to plant in the future because young Americans culturally sort by lifestyle preference. Lifestyle is a city's main product and the housing market has shifted accordingly. People will use "missional" as justification for sociologically sorting as an urban elite if necessary. [emphasis mine] Church planters follow people who sort according to social and cultural preferences (153). We should not be overly impressed with center city plants because they will likely also not be successful at reaching blacks or Latinos in cities (as I've stated before).

Since I attend and joined a PCA church all of this stuff interests me, not least because I joined recently and because, having an American Indian dad these things do kinda address me where I live in an urban center. But what also intrigues me about these observations is that I cannot help but wonder if they in some sense could explain the entire "young, restless and Reformed" community as a whole. These are the kinds of young buck Christians (or youngbuck at heart rabblerouser Christians) who admonish us to read "dead white guys" and brush up on church history and all that. They are the sorts of folks who manage to repackage the middle class suburban white middle-American dream as though it were "countercultural" simply because this is a life that is presented as "counterculture" to the urban setting in which "missional" churches get planted.

The popular slogan amongst theo-bloggers I've read in the last five years includes the motto "what you win them with is what you win them to". The PCA may well not be the only Reformed denomination or Reformed sort of church in which we convince ourselves that our distinctives are chiefly our theology when out in the trenches our distinctives may be socio-economic and cultural. That the entire "missional" movement may be catering almost exclusively to upwardly mobile white twenty-something males who hope to get "upstream" and "influence culture" may show that not only traditional denominations but even many of the so-called "missional" churches may turn not into "God's new thing" but new forms of old, established white conservative denominations.

In fourteen years I've seen Mars Hill in Seattle go from a tiny "emergent" non-denominational church into what I would describe (I think fairly) as a nascent Reformed Baptist denomination catering to white upwardly mobile urban hipsters. To be sure white upwardly mobile urban hipsters need Jesus, too, but Mars Hill (and the PCA, let's be fair) may both constitute Reformed and neo-Reformed church movements that appeal to or seek the loyalty of the young white males who may be considered the culture-shapers of the future and tend to be theologically conservative and (very probably in many cases) politically conservative.

We get statistics saying that the number of Christians who are "real" Christians does not seem to be growing a whole lot and yet Reformed churches report growth. What if this is, as Bishop's work may propose, a "big sort"? What if the "growth" is not real growth so much as ideological alignment that is confused for growth. If the big sort were, say, people fleeing the mainlines into either more conservative denominations or no religious affiliation at all then people are not necessarily being reached for Jesus.

Or, perhaps worst of all, people are being reached for Jesus but they are being reached for a Jesus we have engineered to conform to the kind of social community or social network we already have in mind. Say whatever you wish about the new perspective on Paul and whether you think that is a terrible or a great thing (there's a lot I admit I respect about it), there may be a point at which the axiom "What we win them with is what we win them to" will hinge upon what Jesus we declare to the world to be the king of kings, particularly how we say obedience to this king of kings "ought" to play out in the Christian communities and friendships we form together. It will remain, perhaps, a tragic inevitability that in many ostensibly Christian communities where there is to be no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female that all those divisions will not only remain in place but that each division will have its own conception of Jesus to ensure that those divisions remain in place.

semi-regular link to Practical Theology for Women and ensuing ramble

Appropos of this link but otherwise appropos of nothing one of the things I've heard plenty of singles say is that they won't take seriously any advice from any single about how to approach marriage or, to use that Christianese term, "relationships". Years ago one of my friends was invited to speak at a church event addressing singles. I didn't attend the event myself because I had an opportunity to have dinner with some friends I hadn't seen in a while, if memory serves.

One of the only things I heard said about the event was that the singles who attended had no idea why this single guy was invited to speak the event. He wasn't married so what could he possibly have to contribute to the discussion? What could a single guy know about relationships anyway? Having known this particular fellow for eleven years I can confidently say that he is a godly man who is smart, thoughtful and exceptionally generous and that there is much in every way to learn from his example whether he was married or not. That he happens to be married now and a father merely means that he would be someone I would commend to fellow Christians for even more reasons. But the thing is, he was a solid and prudent fellow before he got married. He was a solid and prudent believer even when women weren't giving him time of day at the church.

As no shortage of Christian bloggers have noted, it seems as though in reaction to a Catholic notion that the unmarried are more spiritual, more spiritually devoted, and more able to serve the Lord there has been a contemporary evangelical reaction which goes the other way. An evangelical Protestant preacher might go so far as to say that there is nothing an unmarried person can do to further the kingdom of God that in way exceeds or even equals what a married eprson can do. I've heard at least one preacher make this scripturally unsupportable claim. I am sure you have probably heard a preacher say something similar.

What I find curious is that among fellow unmarried people a mentality can pervade which holds that the people who know about "relationships" must be the married. I will grant this readily to those who have remain married to the same person for anywhere between ten to twenty years. I don't grant that so readily to people in second marriages without getting a chance to get to know them. Some second marriages really are beautiful changes compared to the first marriages; other second marriages are just a transitional state to third marriages or single parenthood; and other second marriages are probably okay but do not confer wisdom or bragging rights to the parties involved to dispense advice just yet.

Several things have stuck with me for a while and because I am not sure there is any merit to them I figured I'd just blog them. That is, after all, what blogs are often for. ;) It has puzzled me that at least in some Christian subcultures there is a conviction, perhaps a rhetorical flourish, that marriage shows a person how selfish he or she is. Then parenthood is the next grander revelation of gnosis as to how REALLY selfish a person is. This must be some kind of rhetorical flourish because if marriage and then parenthood really reveal to you how selfish you are why do people pursue those things that most fully reveal their selfishness? If marriage and parenthood are the mirrors through which people can see most clearly just how selfish they really are then what disadvantage does singleness confer upon a person? Merely the opportunity to avoid discovering how selfish they inescapably are?

What I have found most curious about males in the young, restless and Reformed particularly is how they so often display an immense confidence. It would appear that among this crowd there is a great confidence that single guys particularly don't know what they are doing and have not attained true manhood yet but that they, no sooner than they marry and cause youngsters to spring forth from the wombs of their beloveds, are imbued with a charism of boundless wisdom from which to consider all aspects of human experience.

I again consider how often it appears that the curriculum vitae entails: follower of Jesus, husband of X, father of Y and Z, pastor at A. There is a scriptural precedent for establishing one's household as a basis for being considered a bishop/pastor/overseer/priest ... but I have in the last few years wondered if there is quite as much magic in the transition from single to married that qualifies YRR's to go from "completely unqualified to speak about anything in life that matters" to "fully equipped to teach and train everyone from all walks of life and let no one look down on you because you're young and your youth is excuse enough for any mistakes you might make anyway". What if, as Tim Keller once so succinctly put it, the problem is in attempting to show favoritism to one status or the other?

When Paul describes the church as the body of Christ he emphasizes that each part of the body of Christ has a role to play. Not all members of the body are equally glorious or presentable which is why the less presentable parts are treated with greater care and honor; the less presentable parts are treated with modesty, and that these seeming lesser parts are indispensable and require a deference and honor that the more presentable parts of the body do not require.

It may be, however, that a temptation common to every Christian and in every church is to give the most glory and honor to the most presentable members of the body of Christ. Does it not seem, at times, that we Christians give the greatest deference and consideration to members of the body that may, in the light of apostolic teaching, actually need the least of this special consideration? We bestow honor upon the already honored and ignore those who, for whatever reason, are not considered as honorable. If the grace of Christ is unmerited favor then why do we do this?

I have heard more than a couple of unmarried Christians lament that the unmarried seem to be regarded as second or third class members of a Christian community just as I have heard more than a couple of Christians declare that singles are selfish and don't do as effective kingdom work (unless these Christians are attempting to get unmarried Christians to volunteer in ministries so they can spend more time with their wives). Paul does not attempt to explain what or who constitutes the more or less honorable members of any local body so perhaps that is why we can so readily excuse ourselves or accuse others with regard to what body parts are honorable or dishonorable rather than consider that our assessment of them should lead us to take Paul's words to heart.

If I consider a member of the body of Christ to be less honorable or presentable I must take Paul's teaching to heart and give that member more consideration and modest treatment and honor precisely because whoever is more "honorable", however I see that, does not NEED the honor or deference I probably already bestow upon them. Church leaders who lead well are worthy of a double honor but notice, too, that they are also by necessity the most visible and honorable members of the body. In other words, this double honor may not necessarily be one that is the same as the honor Paul discusses with the Corinthians. They were already enamored with conspicuous power and authority and it is easy to show deference to those who are supposed to be running the local show. At another level a spiritual leader who is aware of his dependency on God may be more aware than others that while he may be most presentable amongst the members of a body this means he also needs none of the special treatment Paul alludes to.

Just as Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their favoritism toward splashy gifts that by themselves were not useful so he in a different way admonishes us to remember that mere body parts do not comprise the entire body. This is an understandable human habit but it is, it seems, an archetypally Corinthian error. It is not merely something that appears in distinguishing between the married hand and the unmarried foot who may or may not be considered really an honorable member of the body of Christ, it is a challenge we face in all sorts of ways.