The Anglican Church & CV19: from the cross to the kitchen

We are roughly three months into a global crisis of health that has shaken society, economy and polity. During such a time, should the church not play a very particular role as the claimed body of Christ present on earth? But when we regard the recent actions of the Anglican leadership in general – with some exceptions – what appears is deeply disturbing. What this may reveal is that the leadership of this communion is deeply lacking in creativity, boldness and the sense of the moment in which the church has a duty to provide balm, salve and hope.

This is not a pragmatic moment to benefit the church.

It is not a moment to be called, as some have, “A tremendous Gospel opportunity” as if now is the time to pounce with the message, “Jesus loves you”. This crass seizing of the moment for such an end should be anathema. I say that even as one who believes that the Gospel is a great victory announcement over sin, and the beginning of redemption. But there is indeed a clear call to the Church during this time.

We see in Christ the right example.

Christ never appears to take advantage of human need to make his most important didactic points. He taught to large crowds, and yet in the moments when approached with a personal request He simply acted and said remarkably little. “But Jesus”, we may think, you missed an opportunity to convert a soul! I don’t know what to say, other than perhaps Jesus knew what the Jewish Scriptures taught Him – there is a time for silence, and a time to speak. And now, during Covid, is a time for silent acts of prayer, service and piety which open us to the graces of God.

Now is a time for the church to boldly act!

This is a moment in which such actions must be used to bring help and hope. This requires creativity and can lead to many small yet powerful initiatives and actions. The Anglican leadership should be encouraging its local leadership to seek ways to continue public and private prayer, to keep churches “open” during the week (supervised for safe gathering), to read Scripture together, etc. Surely some simple creativity can mean that we both keep the community safe, and find a way to continue what is core? Imagine the hopeful image of a Bishop holding court in a Cathedral while reading aloud the Psalms of lament and comfort (streamed? or not) – these sorts of visual and symbolic acts are critical.

The mad dash to the novelty of online services belies a further problem. Few understand how the online medium changes the very nature of personal presence, and so to simply move traditional formats online and expect people to politely sit through an hour is simply inhuman. Simplification, varieties of engagement (readings, testimony, short homilies, musical lament and celebration, etc.) would better engage the human mind and soul. Why continue with the Sunday morning timing at all when spreading these through the week might engender better engagement? Why have a service, _per se, _when a 15 minute Scripture reading might benefit more? But, this is a topic for another day.

When we return to the core issue of how the Anglican church has handled the CV19 crises, here is what we have seen:

  1. All churches closed despite no Government requirement. Little effort to open the doors and hour a day for prayer with social distancing respected. Little to no effort to demand that Vicars, Priests, Deacons or Bishops go to church alone to pray for the people as both a visual and a public act of faith and hope in God.
  2. The Archbishop of Canterbury retreated to his kitchen to remind us of the victory of Easter! A shocking and jarring visual, that perhaps reveals much about the Anglican leadership’s sense of the faith. Rather than boldly and physically stand present in the Canterbury Cathedral – he says warm and cosy in his kitchen. I trust his latte and eggs were warm? Too biting? I am sorry, but it is deserved.
  3. A retiring, tentative and weak sentimentality in how the church has communicated. “Wash your hands, be good citizens.” Period. I expect as much from a Government poster – not the organization that claims to stand in for Christ in time and place.

What is unforgivable to me, as a Christian, is the immediate retreat of leadership. Perhaps that one image alone – a man hiding in his home – captures the sad and true essence of the soul of Anglicanism today.

Lord, help us.

Suicide, despair and the BBC

It’s a Monday.  I am getting ready for the day.  The BBC News is on in the background.  The headline story is about the sad reality of youth suicide in the UK (this trend is visible in many developed nations).  The BBC is reporting that a London couple were visited by the police and advised that their 17 year old son had just taken his own life. The devastated father describes literally falling backwards into a wall as his brain is assaulted and numbed by this horrific reality.  I am certain that I have not got anywhere near feeling the horror that this man felt at that moment.  Sad.  Deeply, deeply, deeply sad.

Cue the experts as the BBC piece now moves to the talking heads of professional expertise.  An explanatory narrative slowly unfolds as two experts take turns prognosticating on the causes of this suicide, and the worrying trend among similar youth from otherwise “normal” middle-class homes.  The rather shallow conclusion begins to take a form, and becomes evident. The explanation offered went something like this.  London is a big and thriving city. Sometimes young people in such a city cannot find their place and feel that everyone else has got a good life, but them…things are expensive….good jobs are difficult to find.   The conclusion reached was that the environment of the big city presents youth with many challenges which sometimes makes them decide that life is not worth living.

I must confess that I lost interest at about this point, while pondering this very unsatisfying and incomplete explanation sadly being peddled by professionals.  I did not hear the conclusion, but we have all heard variants on this explanation.  I can guess that they went on to say we need to be listening for trouble with our children.  Then we need to get them help and be aware of the stresses they face.  As a bald statement, this is not untrue nor unwise.  But, you see, the experts have done a very poor job of understanding a human life and the sources of deep despair. The elephant in the room that was never raised was not the “city as culprit”, but what it was about this child’s place in his “own city” – that is, the “city” of his family and daily life.  Clearly anecdotal and concrete evidence exists that the fundamentum – the thing, if you will, at the very “bottom” of how a person feels –  is how she or he thinks they relate and fit and are supported by the ones who should love them the most.  You see, most healthy adults grew up knowing that sometimes they don’t get the job, the car, the girl, the house, etc.  In a world where there is a safe and comfortable resting place with imperfect yet largely unconditional love, almost all people (except those with perhaps true mental illness) quickly bounce back with resilience.  Or at worst have a few bad days or weeks.  That is a far cry from actually terminating your own existence in this world.  It is not a move of degree along some spectrum for such a person with a healthy sense of being loved and supported.  No, rather it is literally a different category of reaction.  One founded, I sense, on a profound lack of hope that someone loves you and will always be there for you.

All children and youth need a place in their lives of complete and unconditional love and commitment.  Fundamentally, that is the role of a parent and in a lesser way, siblings and extended family.  No matter what the outside world has done to you this week…layoff…your boyfriend has stopped loving you….etc…you have a safe and loving place to go to obtain strength and hope to move on.  This is indeed a truism.  And yet, then, why do these professional miss such common sense?

Let me offer an alternative narrative that better fits the facts, as well as some more specificity as to what might be going on in modern, developed countries.  Firstly, economic challenges do not seem to be the key factor in the vast majority of such suicides.  The problem I am describing here today is largely evident in middle and upper-middle class youth.  As such, it eliminates in this analysis, a need to explain everything.  Rather, I am focussed on the question as posed – why do youth from contexts with plenty of money to eat and live and enjoy daily luxuries unheard of last century still commit suicide in such instances?  I will proffer my theory which naturally flows from the observations made prior.  I believe this issue flows directly from a general reduction in the objective quality of family life in our times.  “Objective”, in that some distinct facts have changed in recent decades.  I will also claim that family life today seems “unfair” and so informs a general sense of protest and anger at the state of Western civilization (which should not be blamed on Western, liberal politics and economics, but on a broken family).

Why do I dare claim this?  What has changed today for the typical 14-18 year old (when I compare to my childhood) is very evident.  Firstly, dual income families mean that the typical child comes home after school to a lonely house or groups together with friends who kill time until Mom and Dad come home and ask them if they have done their homework, etc.  You cannot and must not underestimate how this makes a child fee in their innermost being.  I have occasion to recall my largely ideal childhood.  Home at 3pm or so after school and Mom was always there.  Cookies. Milk.  “How was your day?” et cetera.  I felt like at the end of every mediocre school day there was a place of safety, comfort and rest where my marks or social status (or lack therefore) was nullified for some sacred time in which I was one loved who alway had a safe place to go.  This was the ultimate “safe place”.  By the way, you do not weaken the argument by pointing out that not every child had that.  Some came home to an alcoholic Mom, for example.  These exceptions are distractions that don’t logically weaken the general argument that, everything else being roughly equal, children in the past had, on average, a sense that they were a priority of utmost importance to a greater degree that the data may make the children of today conclude.  If you are sent to daycare at age 1-2 then Mom and Dad are absent until 5-6pm each day, you receive a very different message in your insides about how loved and important you are.  Please do not point out odd exceptions and special cases, we are dealing with averages across millions of families.  To be rather cute, one way to say this is that if the quality of support and care was a 6.5  our of 10 in the sixties, I am arguing it is now a 4 or something material lower.  Not that the sixties were perfect, and so those of you who think the argument is weak in this pint should stop barking up the wrong tree.

My Mom achieved most of this by simply being present and loving, not perfect.  The message to me was that I was a priority to her (and my Dad, by proxy) as they worked together to provide a home…that most important of safe places.  I can vividly recall one day when my Mom was not there due to some errand. I had the key.  I walked in.  The house was colder. I felt unnerved as perhaps an 10 or 11 year old on my own.  So is it only about having a parent at home after school. Absolutely not!  This example is one slice of my reality.  It, and the fact my mother did not work outside the home, spoke to me more clearly than words.  What is said was, “You and your brother and sister are a priority for us as your parents”.  It’s a feeling that is deeply hard-wired into your soul that is either there – or not – and for too many children and youths, this feeling …this “centering”…is now broken or absent. Daycare cannot replace this need in the young child’s heart.  In some ways I suspect, daycare is more part of the problem than part of the solution. That is a matter for another day.

Now, to a bold prescription.  I will go so far as to say that we have coarsened life for our children in recent decades.  If you are a Mother choosing to work outside the home during those crucial young years, you indeed feel guilt.  And you are torn between what you see as a need to work to pay the mortgage, and your motherly heart which naturally wants to be present for your children.  I say to you that there is not easy way out. In the prior decades you were not put in this position.  But are you going to allow two wrongs to continue and put your children in a sub-optimal state?

How dare I connect suicide to parenting? I have and I did.  Suicide is the indicator, but below the surface a greater despair seems apparent to professionals who work with children – and virtually all the cases do not end in such extreme action as suicide. Notwithstanding the in extremis cases where mental health is a real problem, it may be more the norm that despair is brewed by the culture in which parents convince themselves that it is better to both work to provide, that to have one parent stay present during those critical and formational years.

The BBC story I began by describing would not dare pose such a question. Consistent with modern narratives, it is easier to blame the cold “big city” and economic capitalism, rather than point towards the empty home where Mothers once used to invest their lives.

Journalism: leading us further away from the ​truth

 

“Journalism has become a mechanism to generate traffic and profit while fair, thorough, informed, considered and balanced reporting has largely disappeared. “

There is something deeply disturbing about the spirit of the age today around “offence” and “retribution” and how these attitudes are shaping our public discourse.  Discussion about critical political and public policy matters has taken on a brittle and deadly serious nature that is not helpful to any side on any issue.  Being deadly serious and grace-less has its place on matters that require it. Pure evil in its distilled and most shocking forms requires such attitudes and steely resolve and we must indeed reserve such a mentality for (only) such battles.  With this said, on many debates now underway in public on a range of policy matters (immigration, education, healthcare, tax policy, etc.), we are using this steely and deadly seriousness when a more graceful disposition would better help us.  Further to this, we are also now regularly trading on half-truths and incomplete factual accounts with just enough “truth content” to batter our opponents, while refusing to acknowledge the body of truth that the other side brings to the table.

This brings me to the topic of this article – that of “journalism”.  This function is meant to fairly inform and to lift this coarse public discourse by way of fuller information and balanced presentation.  But this noble profession seems deeply impaired and unable to perform in this modality.  Journalism has now joined this rather chaotic public discourse underway through social media often as a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.  Much of journalism is leading us further away from the truth, rather than towards it.  The use of half-truths to support our own positions is somewhat understandable for individuals in a social media world.  But we are taught to expect better of our journalists.

The condition of brittle and divisive public dialogue is exacerbated by the revenue and metric models used by our media to measure their own survival and success.  In the back rooms of such information-factories, poor decisions are being made because the enterprise in question is a profit-driven and metrics-measured organization often, today, run by someone with a political or ideological agenda.  The outcome of using such information delivery frameworks to generate headlines is that complexity, nuance and patience are sacrificed for “hits” and “engagement”.  Media outlets want our attention, and they will do almost anything to get it.  Attention is better held by hard-edged positions that resonate emotionally.  Complexity and fairness cannot be a part of such things.  Further to this, I will argue that many journalists today under 30 or so have grown up in a social media world and play into this medium rather than work against its tendencies to truncate the truth, over-simplify and vilify.

So have we reached the point where we cannot trust the media to inform the public fairly and therefore risk damage to our democracy?  That is, can it be that the healthy functioning of our political system is being sacrificed to corporate profit motives and its derivative metrics?  Indeed, it is not only possible, but it is happening before our very eyes.  I, and many people I know, no longer see the media as an imperfect yet largely balanced mirror of information under the tutelage of wise adults.  That is why, regardless of your political stripes, many people recognize enough truth to Trump claims that the large media outlets are “fake news”.  This claim only stings so much because there is enough truth to make it hurt and because the staff of CBC, MSNBC, CNN, Fox, etc. know how decisions are made and how little actual research is done before they take to their airwaves with their prognostications.  I can name a journalist who has told me offline that he ended up on a list of “experts” for the media almost by happenstance.  He now gets the call after a news item to prognosticate on a particular matter.  He admits that he knows no more than the average person on this topic, but is happy to take their money and have the attention drive traffic for his book sales!  This is one of the many dirty little secrets of the journalist.  Journalism has become a mechanism to generate traffic and profit while fair, thorough, informed, considered and balanced reporting has largely disappeared.

Further evidence? I can name a number of high-profile “journalists” (what does that even mean anymore…) who on their Facebook or Twitter feeds regularly signal their political stripes by way of sharing opinions or comments which make me question what the entire journalistic enterprise means anymore.  What is the academic pursuit of journalism teaching? What happened to the better angels behind the idea of journalistic integrity? Those companies now growing and hiring are actually setting the table for a very different sort of feast – whatever it is, it is not journalism as we theoretically understand it.  Its noble aims have been subsumed to the crass desire to get attention….

Part II…what can be done ??

Christian apologetics: have we got it wrong?

“Proofs may aid in protecting, but not in initiating certainty..” A J Heschel


In a world that worships at the altar of rational thought (the new “religion” of the moderns), Christians find themselves increasingly on the defensive. Apologetics is a tool we use to intellectually push back and assert the reasonableness of our faith.  And yet, as with all tools, we must use them cognizant of their purposes and aware of their limits. I fear we have clearly forgotten this in how we value and use modern apologetics and have now fallen into the grave error of investing too much time and hope in this activity.

Most of us in the Christian community today accept that apologetics is a sort of “admission ticket” to keeping the Christian (counter-) narrative at the table and engaged. However, since we feel that we have this “hammer”,  it seems we think everything may indeed be a nail. My aim is to shake this assumption by arguing that we have taken modern popular apologetics and assumed that more of it must then be better – and so we now overuse it when most of our imagined audience for these efforts are unimpacted.  I humbly offer this observation in spite of the fact that some of my colleagues are heavily invested in the work of apologetics, and appear to have not noticed that the emperor may indeed be at least down to his socks and underwear (if not fully without clothes!). 

In late-modern culture, we are witnessing a rapid and increasing falling away from orthodox Christian practice and belief. This began many decades ago, but the last generations acted out of cultural habit in order to at least continue to appear “Christian”.  In recent years even the echo of this cultural fragment is fading. Our feet are now firmly planted in the materialist/scientific age with the former consensus of Christian voices silenced and side-line in the public square and most institutions. The governing zeitgeist within the commanding heights of government and education is stewarded by those who see Christianity as a “nice fable” that they ignore with impunity.

Given the prevalence of this materialistic-rationalistic framework, Christian apologetics has become seen as a better way forward than taking moral or theological positions, which are now understood to be largely irrelevant, or even harmful and unhelpful.  Whereas we can imagine a time when the Church would speak boldly to the culture to remind them of their need of God, today we have divined that the culture needs us to engage in scientific and rational apologetics.  I do not disagree with this in a general sense.  My argument is that we have placed too many eggs in the apologetics basket. If we could only remind the world, we say, that Christianity is reasonable, then all will be well again. Indeed this is never wasted effort since modern science does not in fact conflict at the data level with anything Christianity has historically taught. But at the narrative level, where data is interpreted, we indeed see material conflict, and good apologetics can and should provide reasoned arguments. We accept that the defence of the Faith by positing alternate narratives of scientific data is a useful and needed course of action. And yet.

Indeed, this sort of intellectual apologetics has its work to do and a role to play. It strengthens those within the faith (see the Heschel quote above). It can also provide sceptics with alternative views they have not considered that in some cases can lead one to further investigation or consideration or at least a better understanding of Christian counter-narrative of the data the world has given us. Yet, I fear a danger and a lack in all of this emphasis. Observation of the falling away or “fuzzifying” of orthodox Christian belief – or the denuding and diluting to push it to the outer margins of societal discourse makes me think that such apologetics cannot be the sole treatment for this rather sick patient. In fact, it may not even be the best treatment and the one most needed in this battle (yet this is indeed the implicit position we seemingly cling to). Yes, we think, it is good to preach the Bible and Gospel, but alas, we say, apologetics is the future in addressing the post-modern mind. Let Ravi at them and get William Lane Craig and they will finally admit defeat. Could it be that evangelical Christianity has now allowed apologetics to be so prominent in our address to the culture that we have turned it into a sort of “intelligence signalling” so that we can proudly boast “We have our PhD as well and he is armed with arguments”?
Have I overdone my concern about modern apologetics? I hope not, but I also do not want to take the sting out of the tail in terms of the point of concern that we are raising. Conversations with sceptics and nones/dones has to lead us to conclude that we are using this one tool too often when the broader issues are not that people are non-believers because they think Christians are dumb (and therefore, showing we are “smart” is not doing much). The battleground has shifted and Christians need to shift our focus materially.  I will posit that this means turning the dial down a few notches in terms of apologetics as done today.
The core issue we see with youth who walk away from the church is that they no longer respect its authority to speak on moral matters and to speak to the heart of women and men in our culture. In short, the Church finds itself without perceived material moral authority, nor medicine for the sick modern soul. The debate has now shifted to the “authority space” in that who gets to define the moral high ground is where we see the friction and debate and subsequent loss of faith of commitment to orthodox Christian belief. The solution?  That’s another discussion beyond the point of this missive. At this stage I am only attempting to lay bare this one thought at the feet of leaders like Ravi Zacharias, etc. How do we move from a sort of scientific/rationalist apologetic motif to one that is a moral apologetic? That is not something I have yet figured out in any way shape or form. But recognizing the lack and the need is surely a small and humble step.

Church as time travel

Have we lost the proper focus of Christian gathering? Do we re-present our Saviour to our souls each week as nourishment or do we gather to tickle the ears and say “well done my soul”? 
We human beings inhabit a universe that is both stunningly beautiful and shockingly strange all at once.  It’s a wonder we can actually get up each day and make our coffee, check the news, shower and line-up dutifully on the highway or subway platform as we head into the office or school without being slapped silly by the reality around us.  We are warmed by a sun with billions of years of fuel that exists in a universe of Black holes denser than the mind can imagine.   Physicists, many who deny the non-material, now tell us that time and space are in  illusory and that two physical particles can be in two places in the universe at once.   And, all of this concrete reality is understood to have arisen from absolutely nothing, in a singularity so mind-binding that only pure mathematics can describe it.  How did we get to be part of all of this dizzying reality?  And what a privilege for humans to ponder and observe and ask  “why”, while the rest of life on earth apparently lives only to survive?
One of the many wonders of creation is time itself.  Time is the ethereal filmstrip on which the events of our lives are imprinted.  When we think about time, is it not true that two moments can be separated by many decades and yet connect in a way that make them seem inseparable?  For those who experience emotional elation or trauma, time seems to be a thin veil indeed when we meditate for a moment on this events.  They appear to us as apparitions in the here and now, despite the fact that months or years have elapsed. In this way, as much as we are bound by agendas and calendars, our lived-sense of time is more elastic and relative.  Not just in the mathematical sense that Einstein indeed helped us all understand, but in the emotional and experiential sense as a human being.   Moments of fear and panic from years past can instantly sneak up behind us and pounce.  In those moments we are connected to and pulled back by an event that marked our very being and soul.  This ability to experientially time-travel takes on a greater weight as we approach middle age.   But what is universal is that our distance in years from an event in no ways means it has to be less impactful or less real as something which occurred in time and space and is now etched in our history.   If you doubt this, simply spend a few brief moments talking to a survivor war, or some other traumatic event.   Usually, tears well up as they will describe how the events of that time are as real as if they occurred yesterday.  
What is the value of reflection on this reality and what is the connection to the church of Christ?  Having established that events can be so impactful that they seemed like they occurred only yesterday, I would like us to move to an instructive corollary.   The corollary is that at no time as we reflect on the past do we seriously question that certain events happened.  We now live in the shadow of these events.   We accept and recall them as real and as markers and moments in our lives.  To the degree that they changed who we are today, we accept the role these moments played in forming us and we allow them to inform out lives in the here-and-now.   Your personal history is a concrete reality that has marked your life.  We cannot doubt, short of some sort of mind-bending philosophical idealism, the reality that went with these happenings.  Where are we headed with this line of thinking?  Simply put, as Christians we need to enter into a full acceptance that the historical events around the life of the God Man, Jesus our Lord, are as real in history as the very events of our own lives.   Not equivalent in significance or influential as mythical sources of daily wisdom, but as equivalent as these real events of our personal timelines.  True Christian’s are those who embrace the reality that Christ’s life unfolded in time and place.  This fact has now created a wake in time and an impact on history, individual people and nations forever.
As Christians we understand this at some level, and so understand what it is to which we witness.  And yet my experience over decades of church attendance is that at times it seems there is a certain air of, “but this is somehow different than reality” about how we see and describe the life of our Saviour.   Although we would never say it this way, it is not always clear that believers live as if the events we speak about actually happened in the same way your marriage or the birth of our children happened.  And that’s the point we are trying to bring home.  If you are a parent,  when you think back to the birth of your children you know that this was a concrete happening in time and place.  It is never doubted.  But I maintain that in the Church there is a real sense in which we gather and pray and open the Word of God and leave and forget the bedrock reality that stands behind the claim.  If you stopped many Christians after church and asked them what they are doing their answer belies the very mature of the underlying problem.  They may say that since they believe in God they have gathered to encourage each other and learn more about His Word and worship Him.  Yes, indeed – this is true.  But would they also go on to say that they gathered as a Holy Memorial and Witness to the actual events of the life of the God-Man and to re-present that reality to their souls while workshop the God who intervened in history to save us?  In this sense, the church-event as a gathering is meant to be a sort of time travel, which is really no time travel at all when we keep the eyes of our soul open.
In prayer, worship, song and fellowship we must be trying to live in the shadow of light cast by the life of our Saviour.  We must be placing ourselves beside the cradle and the cross, or in the Garden and say to our souls, “This is why everything is now different.” Something Real Happened.   And we should do this in the same sense that we reflect on our birth, marriage and the like – as real moments in God’s world.   The Apostle Paul expressed this in his letters when he often reminded the new Christian’s of his time that they were witnesses to real events that no-one can deny.   Just as you were a witness to a real event  in your life.  But somehow in light of this we still gather  and listen to the typical worship band warmup to a typical sermon with a monthly celebration of the Last Supper and never fully enter into this mindset.  When we gather there should be a sense of deep occasion and although I am struggling to articulate it, here is one small analogy that at least directionally for me.
When my Father died, at the next few family gathering ,as we said grace before our meal we would say something like, “And today we remember Dad and think of the great man he was at this time and how he is missed by us all”.  For me, and those who loved him, there was a moment where the reality of his existence in time and the gap between the “now” and “then” of his life collapsed and we remembered a life lived and its impact on us as if it was yesterday.   We were “re-presenting” Dad to ourselves to both honour him and encourage us to live as he lived. And this felt so very real because it was.  He indeed was born in time, he died, he raised a family, and he served his country and God. That reality of even a human life matters! How much more the Grand Life that saves all lives who trust in Him.  How much more the life of which Athanasius said,“ Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men…?”
Should church not feel more like this as we gather?   God bless my Catholic and Orthodox brothers for at times better understanding this truth.  My weary soul has tired of singing and expository preaching that seems to lack the deep sense of the reality of Christ in Life and Christ in Death.   Should church not be about in effect stepping back in time to bring foreword to our souls the historical reality of it all.  From there we can step forward to focus on “the what now” (i.e. how then should we live), but I fear that too many churches only live in the “what is now and next” and have not spend enough time re-presenting the “what then” without which “the what now” is be utterly meaningless.  Would that I bring this sort of heart to worship each week and be met by others who are also desiring to be taken back in time before we are taking forward into our daily lives.  We must be expecting to deeply recall a Life truly lived on this earth that forever changed the course of history and the future. Would that the Pastor, rather than preaching a discourse again, just once dropped their weekly preparation and just stand in front of the congregation and say something like “Today we have gathered to remember our Saviour.  His life and love. His humility and His servant heart.  His purity and His obedience. His compassion and His forgiving heart.  His pain. His willingness to redeem and repair. His real presence with is today.  Let us today kneel together in silence as we remember a life lived to redeem the unredeemable world and then let us go and show others His love and tell them why when asked.”  At that moment those who are true believers would fall to their knees with thankful hearts.  And would we not leave feeling more impacted than hearing yet another four points on why it is important we read the bible and pray? Or more exegesis on Hebrews? Are these other things not also part of our growth in the Faith? Yes, yes and yes indeed.  But I would argue that we must first do some spiritual time -ravel to first ground and link our faith in a reality.  When we do not begin here, and if the Author and Finisher of our Faith is not regularly re-presented, _ecco homo_, behold, then we flounder and begin to look a lot like just another self-help group who study the Bible.  And please do not kid yourselves that the world of unbelievers does not see this.
Let’s pray that Church becomes more like this and less like an intellectual and musical display of human hope.  This can never be enough for the world or our own souls.

Dear Lord Jesus, come quickly,

And yet while we live in this dark and sometimes hopeless looking gap in time,

May we re-present You to our parched and thirsty souls

And call others to the same joyful ecstasy,
as you haunt us daily until that happy day we see you come again in time.

And my I yet say to my heart again, “Cheer up dear heart, why again so forlorn?”

Jesus Came, Jesus Lived, Jesus Died so that you, dear heart, can be again-born.

Christianity does recycle….

Neo-evangelical churches (my phrase) are not likely contributing to the growth of church attendance, but are actually “re-cycling”  those who find their traditional Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Alliance or ______ church not “working” for them. 

Bring it on “Harvest Fellowship”, “The Meeting House”, “Elevation Church”,  and the like, but please remember something and walk humbly. You must not fool yourselves into thinking your church is some new and special “move of God” and that you are re-claiming and re-booting Christianity while saving it from cultural irrelevancy.  Humility is a virtue and needs to be remembered most when success seems the outcome of our endeavours.

Neo-evangelical church Pastors and their Elders and Boards must stop and acknowledge that professional and “cool” worship music, engaging & entertaining Pastors/speakers, inviting facilities, good children’s programs, great coffee, and a casual vibe and dress align with the same underlying trends that cause the growth of other non-church enterprises as well.  Is it a coincidence that the “vibe” and demographics of growing companies like Apple or Starbucks appear closely co-incident with these sorts of churches that are growing? [ If this sounds like a rather crass and mechanical criticism please bear with me as I am speaking out of 35 years as an active evangelical, and 35 years in the economics/commerce/business world.]

Is it just possible that there is nothing powerfully mysterious going on that cannot be duplicated by any congregation or seen at work at your average successful retailer or coffee shop. Before you accuse me of being unfair in comparing what you are doing to commercial enterprises, please don’t take me to be so naive as to not understand the different missions – one eternal and one temporal, but please don’t imagine that growth attendance can be de-coupled from these very temporal actions that I would argue also associate Christianity too much with a particular expression of culture (ironically while almost all of these churches have Pastors who sprinkle their sermons with the word “countercultural”. How convenient!  I understand that the Church of Jesus Christ is not such a human enterprise, but we also cannot be so thick-headed as to not see the point being made here.

Neo-evangelical re-branding?

Many of these churches have re-oriented how they “project” to our culture and have used the same tactical considerations that, like it or not, any other retailer or commercial enterprise uses.  Let’s be cool.  Know our audience. Relevant.  Open.  Remove barriers. This amounts to nothing more than a re-branding exercise, and as an evangelical, I am beginning to find the disingenuous way these folks resist this accurate description a further sign of the correctness of the basic criticism.  If they remember this, perhaps they will stop kidding themselves that somehow they have stumbled onto the “True Jesus” while the poor Baptist church down the street is stuck on the wrong Jesus simply because they are losing members to them.  Indeed – it must be the “True Jesus” we preach since our churches are growing and this is the move of God.  Wrong.  Oh, how wrong.

Mimicry as flattery…

Sadly, even now these more mainline evangelical churches are starting to mimic the very same tactics.  Visiting one of the largest evangelical Baptist churches in the Toronto area recently revealed that the music now sounds the same (endless repetition of mindless lyrics essentially saying, “Jesus, I worship you for caring about mainly me and making me the centre of your life”).  The Pastor is also dressing like the Pastors we see at these neo-evangelical churches, and in some cases, these traditional churches are now removing crosses and Christian imagery, etc.  What have we wrought?  While our members have a knowledge of Christianity that is about a mile wide, but half an inch deep, we seem more concerned with putting “lipstick on a pig” than addressing the appalling lack of Christian education and the churches’ ability to articulate with grace what we believe, and why we even exist today.  Am I arguing that any given tactic is in and of itself bad – indeed not.  Please don’t imagine you weaken my observation by pointing this out.  Rather – my goal is simply to remind you not to associate the visible success measured by attendance and budgets with anything spiritual at all. Relevancy is not a sin.  But confusing what is essentially a set of re-branding tactics that naturally result in growth with the work of the Spirit of God might be…don’t we think?

Humility and modesty in assessing what you are doing…

There are also good factual reasons for these churches to remain fully humble.  Very often in these churches, the “membership” may be a mile wide and be growing, but the commitment of the majority to the passing along of the apostolic faith is still very limited.  Studies of average giving and attendance and volunteering (and other measures of engagement) in these neo-evangelical churches shows no apparent difference with the traditional mainline evangelical Baptist/Alliance/Lutheran/Pentecostal/etc. churches from which they have re-cycled their attendees.

These churches need to be warned to not believe their own press.  They also need to remember that should their “gifted and charismatic” Pastor resign or should they de-invest in all the other conveniences they will likely suffer the very same fate and lose members to the next neo-evangelical church and the next “gifted Pastor”.

Do we really need more of these micro-movements or is Protestant Christianity just too enamoured with its own sense of freedom to consider whether they may actually be moving people off the Christian Ship to a smaller lifeboat while the entire enterprise, organisationally, sinks deeper in the waves?  I am not going to double-click on that thought further, but am calling those of my friends and colleagues who are so convinced that these new churches represent some sort of “new move” of God to be very, very careful indeed.

I do indeed hope I am materially wrong about this observation and do not write this to be mean-spirited.  I offer it in the hope that it will lead to some more humility and self-reflection.

Novelty, in our churches today is being rewarded.  Something is wrong.  Dear God, help us.

 

Something Pope Benedict Said…

In a book in which he was interviewed, when asked about the mission of the Church, Pope Emeritus Benedict said in essense that the contrast between the Christian message and other religions is that we bring “Him” to the world as against religions that bring a system of belief and practice intended to please God.

Does this mean the Christian Church does not need to focus on right belief and practice?  Of course we do…but there is a very different orientation in that we need to intermediate a Being to the world who seems indeed to be the Perfect Human and the more we show Simply Him and strive to be like Him, the more we fulfill our mission.   And what a glorious task we have.  When seen in His Fullness, Jesus is overwhelming in so many ways.  This is not true of other founders of belief systems.  Despite the human respect we may carry for those of the Muslim faith, in discussions I have had with Muslims they do have to defend Mohammed when I have never felt the need to defend Jesus and what He did.

You see, Mohamed looks like one of us in so many ways.  He is so really human in all the “dusty and fleshy” sense that we are all human.  We see in him a stronger, more focussed version of what a human being can be.  One might indeed build a system of belief around such a being.  However, in Christ we see Otherness yet recognize in the otherness the self that calls to us to push away the flesh; push away the striving; becoming childlike and pure.  An entire book could not do duty to the contrasts between Jesus the Christ and Mohammed.

In Mohammed, like in my own flesh, I see Adam after the fall, and I see Noah and Jacob and David…the ambition of mankind in action. In Jesus I see Adam before the fall and in perfect communion with the Father. To which should we direct our lives?

A dawning sadness: Evangelical Protestant Christianity is suffering. 

A slow sadness is settling its weight on my soul in recent years.  It is a sort of mourning for something lost and a failure observed.  As I enter my fourth decade of life within the Protestant evangelical church, I now sense a crumbling and a cracking and wonder when the roof will fall in.  This indeed sounds rather dramatic, but there is a sense in which the lack of a recognition of a broader crises is really what is the more dramatic.

By Protestant Evangelical churches I am speaking most broadly of churches that look like this:

  • High and conservative view of Scripture (“Sola Scriptura”)
  • Swimming in the the Reformed and Calvinist stream generally (but certainly not only)
  • Missional and Evangelical in orientation

Observations

I have compiled a list of symptoms of the disease that I will now lay before you. This list is not exhaustive nor can I claim to have fully and properly diagnosed the disease. My simple hope is that you will see that the patient is sick enough that we need to spend some time on this matter.

This list is not in any order as much as together these things are present in so many corners of our churches such that I challenge anyone to seriously cull this list.

1. A cult of personality and charisma takes precedence over proven, wise leadership connected to the broad historic precedents and history of our faith.  

Far too many churches rely on the charisma and vision of one man unconnected to the broad stream of Christian precedent that goes back to the birthing of our faith.  Paradoxically, “Sola Scriptura” and the broader Reformation, with the good that they did in opening a window of fresh air needed at the time, also swept away both baby and bath water. The irony is lost on far too many people when two pastors in the very same city can claim to be committed to the very same “Sola Scriptura” and yet disagree on substantive points of doctrine through their own individual interpretations.  How ironic and sad.  These same pastors would indeed argue for the authority of Scripture alone, and yet the scandalous result is not further unification, but further schism..

2. Outsiders view Christians as involved in church for their advantage and as a balm needed by weak people.

A casual outsider catches glimpses of “Christianity” largely on social media, or TV and soon conclude that we must be Christians because we believe it will benefit us in the here and now.   If you pay attention to the typical sermon it is likely you will see a variation on a general theme: Now you are saved, God is on your side and will help you.  “I know your life is now a mess, but Jesus can clean it up”.   Not untrue at all, but out of the broader discipleship-follower context and discipline it becomes something that is really not Christian at all.

3. We have not really answered the core question to non-believers – why should I believe?

The evangelium to our world involves a certain narrative of the pain, loss, incompletion, injustice and hatred we observe around us, and how that God is also pained by this and sent Jesus the Christ to begin the work of redemption.  We were sent from the Garden, and Jesus provides the way back. Following Jesus does not magically un-do in this time all of the momentum from human sin and ignorance, but begins by connecting us back to the Source of redemption.  This journey is hard.  This journey is long.  The road is narrow at points.  But we find immense joy and love and peace in that journey.

This is not the tonality of most of the Gospel messages I have heard in the Protestant world. Most examples of Gospel preaching reduce the Gospel to a message that makes it primarily about God providing a solution for personal failings and sin. Indeed, it contains this idea – which is most hopeful. But preaching the Gospel this way is akin to describing the Mona Lisa by a focus on her nose alone. I hope you see my general point.

4. Neo-evangelicals are projecting Jesus as an ethical teacher whose ways of peace will let us all just get along. 

Of course, they will deny this, but it is the practical out-working of their approach.  It is the old liberalism wrapped in new evangelical clothes. The medium is twisting the message.  By overtly trying to be anti-church and anti-religious these churches project an image of Christ as modern (in its bad sense) and embraceable rather than as scandalous and forcing us either to our knees or to reject him.  Jesus said he did not come to bring peace, but then I can name a few churches now whose tag line is built up on the “peace teachings of Jesus”. I hesitate to write this since those in these  churches  (some, my friends) think they are onto something so different and powerful that it is the new and pure gospel…when it is not.  Please understand this, Jesus came to bring peace as an ideal that marks what the Kingdom of Heaven is like indeed, but that is not the same as saying we should worship at the altar of “peace” as the prime target.  And since these “peace churches” aim for this, I have grown abhor them since the effect is to cutely kick one of the legs away from the stool and yet hope it stays upright.  Justice and obligation and duty and also part of what Jesus brings.  Separation and conflict.  But these notes are not played in the new “Symphony of Peace Church” or are played so quietly as to not disturb the slumber of those who only want to hear the calming harmonies.  The peacefulness of Jesus is not the theme of this symphony.  It is indeed contained in it and is an out-working of sorts of a life lived on our knees in service to God and our fellow human beings.  We are indeed to be peacemakers and never to seek personal revenge for personal offences. But broader systems of justice and retribution as well as police forces and the like are not counter indicated by the teachings of our Lord and for these churches to imply such belies their poor theology and a lack any connection to the logic of “two spheres”.  Proper views have been well defended by St. Paul and thousands of years of theological development in the West and Eastern lungs of our Christian faith.  But the Red Letter/neo-Jesus movement is skating on dangerous thin ice if they see their view as the full and total summation of wisdom on society and politics more broadly.   One anecdote for me is that most of these peace churches teach that to be a full follower and in full agreement with their views you should not also be a police officer since police officers might, in extremis, have to use violence. Now, Jesus never taught against violence per se, rather He taught against hatred in your heart.  Ironically these peace churches usually teach that we must  judge the goodness of actions on the intents of the heart.  Is it then assumed that at the moment the officer has to use violence to reasonably restrain broader harm and to resist evil he is operating in a paradigm of hatred?  Nonsense!  Do people become police officers to hate?  Nonsense also.  The ones I know do so to serve and contribute to a just and peaceful society.  Jesus would be proud.  So should we be.

Red Letter/Neo-Jesus churches are not delivering the proper and complete gospel.  Theirs is a poor reflection of a much deeper and wider message deliver by the Word to Mankind.

5. Typically the youth of today are leaving.

The causes are many but I now have overwhelming personal evidence that the 20 somethings of today who were taken to Church by their baby boomer parents have a very high-level of disengagement and often drift into non-attendance and scepticism.  The above four factors play into this.  But there are more.  In and of itself this is an indicator that the patient is sick and needs urgent attention.  And is it not puzzling that today there are more and more churches who have adapted to new formats hoping to engage these same youth (great worship bands, solid speakers, the comforts of a Starbucks in the church lobby, kids programs, padded seats, etc) and yet the overall base of evangelical attendance in most cities in the 20-30 demographic is actually fading.

This crises is indeed masked by what I call “target fixation error”.  The churches today getting press are the new-evangelical new format churches and newpapers write about how they are humming along and growing.  In point of fact largely it is a recycling on old-line attendees and their kids enamoured with a new, cool and engaging vibe and a Pastor with Jeans and beard who asked you to call him “Chad”.  While we focus on the great and temporary success of these few churches we are missing the utter death of many traditional evangelical Baptist or Alliance or Pentecostal churches across North America.

Sad conclusions?

This missive is far too brief and a sort of “100,000 ft” flyover and so I have exposed my weak flanks far too readily.  My critics can indeed point out incomplete thoughts and assumptions, but then let’s engage and debate.  Do we not at least recognize a modest amount of truth in these observations?  If you reject them completely are you prepared to say that they are not valid at enough of a level to be a flaming concern for the state of evangelical Protestant Christianity today?

The future of the church demands we at least have the debate. Why are denominations and leading evangelical seminaries not gathering Protestants together to debate and discuss these issues (and others) and take a critical view of how we are doing as a collective?  Corporations do this regularly. Yet we can barely muster a whimper.  Sadly, some of the reason we cannot engage a representative leadership group in evangelicalism today itself proves the case.  I can see the local Pastor saying “no thanks we are a Bible-believing church and I don’t see a problem here since we have the truth in its entirety and have nothing to learn of gain from this meeting.”

Protestant Evangelical Christianity has become ghettoized to such a degree that my current prayer almost sounds like a hope that these churches fail and send Christians running into the streets seeking something better.  I can only hope.  And Pray.

On a personal note, I have become so disillusioned with Protestant Evangelical church today that I am now attending a Catholic Church and using this time to connect with the history of our faith in a way that is proving both rich and enlightening.  I am repenting of my prior condemnation of our Catholic brothers and sisters when as a participant I am finding the rhythm and structure intensely powerful and a better way of reconnecting me to the reality of Jesus as God-Man of history, not comforting Guru to the modern age.

Thank God for the Church.  The very Gates of Hell will not prevail.

Communion and Liberation: Father Giussani

When you contrast him to the current crop of neo-evangelical Pastors  who seem most interested in pushing new models of church...it is like comparing a professional to a series of rank amateurs.

I have had the good fortune of coming across this movement in recent weeks.  It’s founder, Father Luigi Giussani, is a deep fountain of theological and practical wisdom.  I am now reading his book – “At the Origin of the Christian Claim” and just a few chapters in I am paying rapt attention to every sentence.  It’s almost deeply sad when a book has so much wisdom you feel inadequate to read another word as a certain fear emerges that you will forget the last great sentence and insight.

I am still an amateur in terms of my understanding of the CL Movement (in Italy) and its spiritual genesis, but as a new student of this community within the broader Catholic Church, I am very thankful for the writings of Giussani.
As a Protestant Evangelical for 40 years now I have ask why the Protestant church seems to been so bereft of deep and wise spiritual writings in the last decades while the Catholic Church has produced men like Henri de Lubac and Father Giussani.  Perhaps my Protestant friends would point me to great Protestant theologians (I can name a few indeed…) and they are indeed gifted men.  And yet.  There is something deeper emerging, on average, from the Catholic side of the isle within orthodox Christianity and increasingly it is calling to my heart and soul.

A “pop” summary of why, with an embarrassing lack of intellectual vigour,  would go something like this (and perhaps Noll would agree?) – Protestant evangelicals applaud simplicity and a false humility in theology as well as hating hierarchy/leadership (flat model – “we are all just following Jesus and know one can claim to be any better at it or know more”).    This modality may make it hard for deep and serious philosophy and theology to still be done in most seminaries and written about in most journals (CT or Faith Today, etc).  Additionally, humans only have so much bandwidth to run programs and chase dreams and ideas.  Within the Protestant world much of that time/funding/focus/press/etc goes to other things like the latest hit Christian book or para-Christian movie (usually shallow and repeating a mix of Christianity and modern tripe – yet selling millions) or raising funds to feed the various church and para-church bodies all increasingly looking like they are getting desperate to differentiate and maintain shrinking funding bases as demographics plays out.  In any event – as crude as this “pop” observation may be, I sense that the Catholic Church maintains a more serious and welcoming approach to doing good theology and chasing fewer rabbits.  Perhaps Catholics are the adults in the room while Protestant Evangelicals (a certain strain I am referring to – not all of us, but too many) are the children/teenagers of the faith  refusing to hold fast to sound doctrine.

In any event, today as a Protestant (by practice and habit, but less so my inclination in recent years) I can say “Thank God” for Father Giussani.  When you contrast him to the current crop of neo-evangelical Pastors  who seem most interested in pushing new models of church (and posing as “anti-religious” and “anti-church” to sweep into the fold a few recycled evangelicals who have grown tired of traditional evangelical churches) it is like comparing a professional to a series of rank amateurs.

Trump: America hitches a bumpy ride (but what else could it do?)

"...when your car breaks down on the side of the road and you are miles from home and night is quickly falling, you may jump into a vehicle that looks a bit rough in order to get where you want to go."

In recent years much has been broken in American political life. For decades both parties have had opportunities to fix some of these things – yet with little actual success and sustained focus. While the high school educated middle-class saw their wages drop from about 80% of those of college educated folks in the 1970’s to under 60% today, and while corporate America shipped jobs and money offshore (due to trade deals and poor tax policy), neither the Red or Blue parties did anything material. Every four years the Republicans would rail against taxes and spending, the Democrats would talk about healthcare and education…and little changed. All the while Americans became numb to lawless streets where dozens are shot in a single weekend while Senators and Mayors and the Overly Educated hangers-on (as we Brits would call them – or the “Intellectual Yet Idiots” as Taleb has said https://medium.com/incerto/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e2d0577#.t54lwaer4) continued to fiddle. And in 2014 and 2015 while a sad and material refugee crises originating in Syria began to overwhelm our world and exacerbated left-right political tensions, politicians dug out their standard talking points and effectively shrugged. And despite all of this, even people who should know better (like the Clintons) continued to babble the tired old lines about America still being the greatest nation on earth. During the recent election it is now accepted that the elite and privileged classes failed to take these (and other) criticisms seriously enough since for them America did still feel great and still the greatest nation on earth. Indeed it may still be that for the top 20-30% who have nice homes in nice neighbourhoods and who have good jobs and healthcare. But for a material number, this was not their reality.

In recent years the system has worked well enough for the political and managerial classes to support their trance-like happiness and be satisfied to fiddle and play political theatre while not substantively doing anything much (but always making it a priority to appear to be doing something in order to get re-elected). This is in fact what America almost had yet again again if it had elected Hillary Clinton and continued to sing from the Consensus Songsheet. But the Trump and Bernie forces made that impossible this time.

Sanders and Trump were the political gunslingers ready and willing (and armed due to these failures) to shoot down the rotten and crumbling narrative of the continued greatness of American life. They each had unique criticisms of the state of affairs and body politic, but there were very similar threads weaved by both campaigns. Fast forward to today and Mr. Trump has been elected and this despite his many personal flaws and lack of a certain “polish” we have come to expect of our leaders. Should we be so surprised though ?

When your car breaks down on the side of the road and you are miles from home and night is falling quickly, you may find yourself taking a ride in a vehicle that looks a bit rough in order to get where you want to go. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. When you get in this vehicle you indeed noticed it was a rough and loud and aggressive, but clearly it working and has enough gasoline to get you closer to your destination. The car and driver may be a bit rough around the edges, but at least you are not left by the side of the road as night falls hoping for some more perfect car and driver to save you. So you jump in. Now, to continue the analogy, if your neighbours saw you in this rather rough vehicle they might say, “Wow, what is she doing in that?”.  But you know that this vehicle is going your way and you are better off in it than standing on the side of the road waiting. This, in a real sense, is exactly what America has chosen to do. Enough waiting by the side of the boulevard of broken dreams and time to hitch a ride at least to get me closer to where I feel I need to be. At least this car and driver are heading roughly where I want to go. If I get somewhat closer, but then have to jump out and walk the rest of the way – then so be it – but right now, getting into this vehicle is my best shot at possible help. That’s what America did in November, 2016. Is that really so hard to understand?

Most middle-class Americans (even more than the 48% or so who voted for Trump) have sympathies with the kinds of things he wants to do. But being that he is a rather crude vehicle, there will be bumps along the road. And he maybe an erratic driver at times and so Americans (and the rest of world) will need to hang on for the ride. The hope and prayer is that when it is over we will be closer to somewhere that is in fact true progress in key areas for America and the world. If Trump can get the American middle class back on the road in terms of believing in and investing in the American dream, then perhaps the wild ride will be worth it. Hold on.