WHO is Christianity for?

I love that Joel starts with the big questions: What is Christianity, anyway? And what is it supposed to be for? And is Joel weird? The answers, in order, are: Good question, wrong question, and yes, but only in that he’s not a cynical as some others of us, for which I am grateful. I’ll tackle them each briefly.

What is Christianity?

Writes religion scholar Sam. D. Gill on the effort to define religion: “Most religion scholars have grown weary of the effort… despite the widely accepted principle that a word that cannot be defined is a word of limited…  value.” But defining religion isn’t merely an exhausting academic exercise: if we don’t know what religion is, how can we insure that it is protected by the First Amendment? Right now, for example, rightwing anti-immigrant forces are attempting to define Islam not as a religion but as a political ideology in order to strip Muslims of First Amendment rights.

But just because it’s important to know what religion is doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The humanist tradition stresses religion’s distinction between the sacred—what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “things set apart and forbidden”—and the profane—the petty concerns of an individual’s everyday, ordinary life. In religion, says the theological Paul Tillich, we are “grasped by an ultimate concern.” Rudolph Otto said that, underlying all religion, was the numinous experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans—experiencing a Wholly Other that, despite its awesomeness, attracts us.

All very charming, but the result of defining religion this way is that much world religion got ignored or derided—and not just the religions of the people Europeans colonized and enslaved the world over but also the religion of European women and poor people. While much religion does, indeed, have to do with the sacred, much of it also has to do with our everyday lives. We might not agree that Soul Cycle is religion, but lots of us have religious experiences that are also mundane, something not possible in Durkheim’s set-up.  We certainly have religion that isn’t about encountering God or being transformed. This notion likely offends evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics (who, after all, are supposed to be encountering the literal body and blood of Jesus at mass each week), but if we are looking for a useful definition of religion, we have to recognize that many religious people are not “spiritual” and that the supernatural is not all that (or even at all) important to them.

We might be better served by thinking of religion as a syndrome—a set of signs that often “run together” and characterize a condition. So we can say that religion often includes a concern for the sacred, a belief in the supernatural, a moral code, a set of prescribed behaviors insuring avoidance of the profane, beliefs, symbols, rituals, revelations, scriptures, and an erasure of the invention of all these things (a key point in the definition for anthropologist Clifford Geertz), but not all religions display all these characteristics.

As for defining Christianity, we can define Christianity by asking self-identified Christians what it is—that is, a descriptive rather than prescriptive definition. That’s a lot of people—about 2 billion, worldwide—with a lot of variation and considerable disagreement even on the basics and some answers that would make our Sunday school teachers sigh in frustration. This is a “lived religion” approach to the question, and I think it’s the one that is most useful.

Who is Christianity for?

Joel actually asked, What is Christianity supposed to be for? but that question is teleological, suggesting a purpose to Christianity that somehow informed its origins—an interesting historical question, but not one that addresses this rather terrible moment in American Christianity.

So I’ll ask instead: Who is American Christianity for today? If you’ll allow me to define Christianity as what Christians say it is, then we can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo. If you’re a Christian and that grosses you out—well, I think it should.

Above, Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit on September 9, 2016. The logos on the wall behind him belong to various religiously conservative political organizations. In his speech, he promised that he would, as president, insure that “our Christian heritage will be cherished like never before.” The our inserts him into the Christian family, while the Christian heritage appeals to both Christian and white nationalists. The will be hints at a legal mandate to recognize Christianity as important in US culture, and the like never before is an appeal to the politics of resentment felt by entitled white conservative Christians who have argued for decades that they have been denied their place of supremacy in American culture. The standing ovation that Trump received for this speech helps us see how American Christians define their faith: as something that deserves to be officially vaunted by the US government.

This is not new. From colonization to Indian removal and “pacification” to slavery and segregation up to today’s social Darwinist delight in the death of the poor, Christianity has insured that the weak stay weak and the strong stay strong. (Note that I don’t say Christianity has been used to do bad things. I’m saying that Christianity has done bad things. Because there is no pure, innocent, ideal Christianity apart from how people use it.) Some heroes have resisted this and risked their lives for a Christianity that  lifts up the downtrodden, but they are the exception. What makes them—Bartolemé de la Casas, William Wilberforce, Corrie ten Boom, Oscar Romero—heroes is that they defied their own Christian traditions (sometimes after too long of a wait) in order to care for those more vulnerable.

I don’t have a lot of love for Russell Moore, who, along with other Southern Baptists, has spent decades now using fear of women and sexual minorities to drum up support for the Republican Party (and that’s beside the fact that, no, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, I do not forgive them for being on the wrong side of emancipation). But while I think that Moore should have taken this position far earlier, I appreciate his effort to remind his fellow Southern Baptists that a marriage of politics and religion is seldom good for religion. As the Baptist hero Roger Williams wrote:

When they [Christians] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.

Moore is getting hammered by fellow Southern Baptists because he opposes the invocation of faith to support the general moral depravity of Donald Trump. But Moore has also long been associating with people who would only use religion to advance their own interests. He didn’t challenge their lazy, self-centered theology earlier because it didn’t upset his thinking about sexuality. The consequence of his anti-gay teaching has been that thousands of queer Baptists kids were spiritually, sexually, and physically abused; many are homeless because their parents refuse to allow the “sin” of gay sexuality in their homes. If the pro-Trump backlash is millstone that drowns him for the violence he’s done to the “least of these”… well, perhaps that is a risk he took.

But I share Joel’s concern for what he sees as “a wound to Southern Baptist integrity.” We are wounded because we expect religion—Christianity broadly and specifically Southern Baptists, who do, with their tradition of religious liberty, have a lot to offer—to do better. I think, in the long run, that’s actually a realistic expectation.

What Is Christianity, anyway? (Russell Moore edition)

Rebecca:

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I suspect it’s a topic you can shed some light on: What is Christianity, anyway?

Let me get more specific. Is it just a means of encountering God — the “just” does a lot of work there — and being transformed, even redeemed, by our encounter with the divine? Or is it just another tribe that we who are Christian (or post-Christian) belong to, an identity that marks us externally instead of internally (or eternally)? Is it political or apolitical?

Or maybe all of it? Or none of it?

I regularly come up with reasons for wanting to delve into this. My own sense is that American Christianity is largely more tribalistic than spiritual. Which — though I’m quasi-agnostic these days — makes me feel less than charitable towards a lot of people who call themselves Christian.

Here’s my latest example:

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.

Now: I’m not Southern Baptist. Russell Moore’s theology is not my own. But he’s struck me as a sincere, thoughtful guy walking in his faith — in a very public way — as best he knows how.

Let’s back up here. What did Moore say that was so controversial anyway?

Well, this for example:

We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.

This should not be surprising to social conservatives in a culture shaped by pornographic understandings of the meaning of love and sex. What is surprising is that some self-identified evangelicals are telling pollsters they’re for Mr. Trump. Worse, some social conservative leaders are praising Mr. Trump for “telling it like it is.”

So Southern Baptists are angry at Moore … for a critique of Trump based on the longstanding Southern Baptist understanding of sexuality?

Now, Rebecca: I’m pretty sure the Southern Baptist sexual ethic isn’t mine, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t yours either. But it also seems pretty foundational to the Southern Baptist identity. Did I miss something?

I dunno. It bothers me when churches seem to so easily dispense with their message when earthly politics are on the line. If Russell Moore is forced from his job, it seems to me the Southern Baptist witness will be rooted in Trumpism rather than any particular understanding of the Christian faith or message. And I suspect that Trumpism, for all its faults, isn’t really rooted in the kind of eternal outlook you’d expect of a religion.

I’m still trying to make my thoughts cohere on this. I’m not Southern Baptist, but I’m offended at what I see as a wound to Southern Baptist integrity. Does that make sense? Am I weird?

And what the heck is Christianity supposed to be for, anyway?

— Joel

Resist the Internet? Not quite.

Without the Internet, I imagine I would’ve ended up with a nice, long career writing and editing for newspapers in small Kansas towns. This was the career track I was on, early in the Digital Era, before the Internet’s rise finally started to displace everything in its path. This would’ve been good.

Because of the Internet, I write regularly today for national outlets like Macworld and Vice.com — and because of the Internet, I got to leave my Kansas roots for awhile and live nearly a decade on the East Coast. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything — and it has also been good, but in a very different way.

The Internet opens the world to me. The Internet floods me with too much information. The Internet forces me to be in contact with people from my past whom I’d sometimes like to shed. The Internet lets those people offer me support when times are rough. The Internet is too much for our minds and not enough for our souls.

In other words, the Internet is like any other human creation: It can be used for good. Or it can be abused to our detriment.

This may seem obvious, but it’s also worth asserting from time to time. There are lots of smart, bookish people who sometimes seem to regard the Internet as a malevolent force even as they surrender to its warm embrace. Take Ross Douthat’s column today, entitled “Resist the Internet”: Continue reading “Resist the Internet? Not quite.”

‘Faith, taken seriously, has consequences’

Joel and I have been in conversation for years now. As maybe this blog will reveal over time, he’s just the kind of friend to push your thinking forward when you are getting complacent, frustrated, stuck, inappropriately indignant, or just plain intolerable. We all need those kinds of friends, and I’m fortunate Joel has been one for me.

Like Joel’s story, my own isn’t the straightforward narrative of a “cradle Mennonite.” I grew up in rural Lancaster County, close to my Amish neighbors, who sold us raw milk, used our telephone in an emergency, and occasionally babysat us.  I was a wildly churched child, attending every Vacation Bible School in our rural area and hitching a ride to Sunday School from any neighbor who would tolerate me. In adolescence, I decided to stick with the Mennonites for reasons that were clear even at the time: every church preached that we should be like Jesus, and the Mennonites I knew best fit that description as I understood it at that time: patient with each other, humble, and radically hospitable, even in poverty. Like many adolescents, I detested bullshit, and the Mennonites addressed the hypocrisy of Christian support for war explicitly by calling it what it is—sin—and fighting against it.  The peace that comes from living with consistency was more appealing that anything any other faith could offer, and I’ve been Mennonite ever since.

My faith has been the least complicated part of my life. I’m not naïve about the Mennonite tradition, Mennonite organizations, or Mennonite people, but I continue to be inspired by the best of each. I fail often in my faith, but it never fails to provide me with a higher standard than that which I’d default to if I weren’t committed to the disciplines of simplicity and peace-making. After decades of practice, I’ve got the hang of a lot of it—some of it ingrained since before I joined the church, from living in a Mennonite enclave. It informs my politics, my relational style, my parenting, my research, and my teaching in ways that I sometimes only become aware of after someone else points it out. I take that as a good sign but also as a reminder to always be critical about faith because faith, taken seriously, has consequences.

I consider this blog a public effort to do that well or at least often, even if we’re not talking about religion explicitly. And I’m grateful for the challenge and the chance to do it with a longtime friend.

— Rebecca

Welcome

First thing’s first: Welcome to 606.

If you have any connection to the Mennonite Church, you’ll probably note that digit is the (long-since abandoned) hymnal number of the doxology:

When Rebecca and I talked about starting a blog together, we soon settled on this as a common reference. She can speak for herself, but I think it’s fair to say our associations with Mennonites play a big part in how we see the world.

And for me, this is complicated. I wasn’t born into the church. Instead, my family moved to a small Kansas town when I was entering adolescence — and we were struck, for a time, but its insularity. The first taste of the Mennonite religion was a bad one. But then I went to a Mennonite Brethren college and came to embrace and love much of the Mennonite outlook on faith.

Sometime later, I lost my faith.

I still qualify, I think, as a quasi-agnostic. I don’t know if God exists, what shape that takes, or what she/he wants from us if she does. Still, I find myself drifting into worship once in awhile. I’ve even sung 606 lustily. You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy. Thus the “(mostly) Mennonite” title of this blog.

One more thing: For me, writing is a discussion. I spent most of a decade writing a point-counterpoint column that was syndicated to newspapers. When that ended, I searched for a new discussion. Rebecca, my friend, turned out to be an excellent person to be in dialogue with, and I’m glad she’s here too. It’s also nice that we have enough in common, idea-wise, that our conversations on this blog won’t consist of endless arguing. Then again, I think our perspectives differ just enough to keep each other honest.

And we want to be in dialogue with you. Comment! We will govern the comments ruthlessly. This is not a shooting gallery. It is a conversation. You don’t have to be ideologically aligned with us to get a word in — but you do have to play nice.

With that: Welcome again. I’m looking forward to it. Rebecca? What say you?

—Joel