Thursday, October 21, 2010

Religion in American Life

I haven't yet read American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, but Peter Steinfels summarizes some of its key points in the recent American Prospect:

The evangelical wave has been ebbing for some time now and it is being replaced by the "nones":
The book's story is one of a religious earthquake and two aftershocks. The earthquake was the disaffection from religion occurring in "the long Sixties." Church attendance plummeted. So did the percentage of Americans saying that religion was "very important" in their life. At every stage of their life, boomers would always lag behind their parents by 25 percent to 30 percent in regular churchgoing. The authors know well that these were the years of the civil-rights, anti-war, and women's liberation movements, of pot, acid, the pill, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. But with a refreshing directness and only a bit of embarrassment, they emphasize sex. Between 1969 and 1973, the fraction of Americans stating that premarital sex was "only sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all" doubled, from 24 percent to 47 percent, a startling change in four years -- and then drifted up, never to decline. Attitudes toward premarital sex turn out to be one of the strongest predictors of a host of other political and religious changes, including that of the first great aftershock, the evangelical upsurge of the 1970s and 1980s.

That reaction to "the long Sixties" has been extensively analyzed. Less so the second great aftershock, the rise of the "nones" after 1990 when young people, in particular, began rejecting identification with any religion, though not necessarily with a variety of religious beliefs and practices. More and more young Americans, according to polls, came to view religion as "judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political," overly focused on rules rather than spirituality. "The Richter rating of this second aftershock is greater than that of the first aftershock and rivals that of the powerful original quake of the Sixties," Putnam and Campbell write.
People who go to church contribute more money and time to both religious and secular charities and tend to be more civically engaged:
Churchgoing Americans, it turns out, are twice as likely as their demographically matched secular neighbors to volunteer to help the needy and to be civically active. Not only do those in the most religious fifth of Americans give four times as high a proportion of their annual income to charity as those in the least religious fifth, but they give a higher proportion even to specifically secular causes. Neither this generosity nor this activism has to do with ideology. Cross-checking with other surveys, Putnam and Campbell conclude that on measures of generosity and civic engagement, religious liberals rank as high or higher than religious conservatives and higher than secular liberals.
It is not unusual for Americans to change their religious affiliation. Putnam offers himself as an example:
He and his sister were raised as Methodists. At marriage, he converted to Judaism. His children were raised as Jews; one married a Catholic who is now secular, and the other's spouse was secular but converted to Judaism. Putnam's sister married a Catholic and converted to Catholicism. Her three children became evangelicals! No wonder that so many Americans refuse to believe, regardless of the tenets of their religion, that those of differing conviction are bereft either of spiritual truth or hope of salvation.
Although the jury is still out on whether this will be true as we increasing have interactions with Muslims in America.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I'm Not a Witch, I'm You

Elvira is much more believable than Christine O'Donnell:

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Undone by Judge

Judge Virginia Phillips, a federal district court judge sitting in California's central district in Riverside, ruled Tuesday that she will not reverse a decision she ordered last week barring the U.S. military from enforcing the 1993 law signed by President Clinton known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The Pentagon has told recruiters that for now they must comply. The Obama Administration says it will appeal. (Hopefully not with much gusto.) But once again an "activist" judge has moved the civil rights agenda forward. Thank God for activist judges who think that racial and sexual discrimination violate constitutional protections.

Mark Thompson at's political blog notes that Phillips was appointed by Clinton:
And that's just one of the strange twists about the coming collapse of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." While the ban was a compromise Clinton didn't want to make, it was a judge he appointed who apparently finally has undone it. And she did it in response to a lawsuit filed by a group calling itself the Log Cabin Republicans. Not only did Republicans file the suit that's likely to end in the law's demise, the organization itself was created following a successful 1978 effort by gay California conservatives to defeat a ban on gay teachers in the state's public schools. Their most important ally in that fight? A former governor named Ronald Reagan.

My Kind of Book

Whatever happened to Thomas Covenant? I read and enjoyed all Stephen R. Donaldson's chronicles of the unbeliever and white-gold wielder Thomas Covenant as he found himself transported into another world where his leprosy was healed and he suddenly found himself with power and feelings and that he didn't want, and faced with the reality that choosing to not use his power or come to grips with his feelings was even more dangerous than claiming his new reality.

And then Covenant disappeared. The last book, the second in what was to be another trilogy, came out in 2007. Today via a blog post by Loren Rosson III I discovered that Covenant was finally back for one last time. So I went out on Amazon to download the book to my Kindle - done - and also took a moment to read the published reviews. This was the last sentence of the Publisher's Weekly review:
While an introductory plot summary does yeoman service bringing new readers up to speed, it may be hard for them to keep so many characters straight--or care about them--when most of their development took place in previous volumes published decades ago. The focus is on Linden rather than Covenant, whose passive and distracted presence mostly gives others something to react to, but that won't matter to Covenant's large and loyal following, for whom Donaldson delivers all the self-loathing, despair, guilt, pain, and stubborn determination they could ask for.
Self-loathing, despair, guilt, pain, and stubborn determination. Now that's my kind of book.

Paradise is Not Lost

From my reading of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, I am not quite ready to get the the death of Jesus yet and how focusing on it dramatically changed Christian faith. Another quote:
In the sixth century St. Apollinare Nuovo Church, at the edge of the old city (Ravenna, Italy), we found the earliest surviving life story of Jesus depicted in images. Near the ceiling on both sides of the basilica nave, thirteen rectangular mosaics marched from the chancel toward the main door. We examined each of the twenty-six panels closely. On the right wall near the chancel, an image of the last supper began the thirteen scenes of his Passion. At panel ten we encountered Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus to Golgotha. We expected to see the Crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead, we were confronted by an angel who sat before the tomb. The apparition spoke to two women swaying forward like Gospel singers. We too leaned forward in astonishment and remembered what the angel had said: "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here" (Matt. 28:5-6). The remaining panels showed the risen Christ visiting his followers in the stories of doubting Thomas and the road to Emmaus.

We found no crucifixion in any of Ravenna's early churches. The death of Jesus, it seemed, was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for the Christians who worshipped among the churches' glittering mosaics. The Christ they saw was the incarnate, risen Christ, the child of baptism, the healer of the sick, the teacher of his friends, and the one who defeated death and transfigured the world with the Spirit of life.
It seems that nowhere in early Christian art is there a focus on the death of Jesus. Not until the 10th century. This is one of these pieces of information that I find astonishing - that it is so and that I am just learning it now. Early church art focused on recreating paradise. When Christians walked into worship spaces they were reminded that with their baptisms they had re-entered paradise here and now and that their ethical living helped to make paradise a reality for themselves and others. Paradise was not lost. Their sin and the sin of the world did not so mar earthly life that they longed for the afterlife or even some kind of future eschatological moment. They were already living in a realized eschatology.

The afterlife was real of course, and full of saints. But even the saints were present in this life through icons and images. They were a part of this world's paradise made possible by the resurrection of Jesus and by those who lived resurrected lives.

One important insight to keep in mind here is that we are talking about a period in history where virtually everyone is illiterate. When we think of Christian history we tend to focus on the writings of early Christian leaders. As important as these writings are to get a sense of the emerging doctrinal decisions and the battles over who and what is orthodoxy, the vast majority of early Christians had their faith shaped by the art and liturgy of their worship spaces, which is why so much money was put into building beautiful spaces. And the predominant images found in those spaces were about living in paradise. Bread, wine, water, art, and the sharing of resources made paradise a reality.

I am also reminded of one helpful critique of liberal Christianity coming from the direction of the emergent folks. Too much of liberal Christianity is emotionally dry with its focus on word and intellect. There is more to life than being smart and right on the issues. We need to be engaged emotionally through music, poetry, and art and be reminded constantly that there is beauty in the world and that experiencing it is transformative in a way far deeper than any intellectual conversion experience. Which is not to say that engaging the mind cannot also be a thing of beauty - it is - but we want and need more. It seems the early Christians knew this.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Letter of Deepest Concern

Folks at Open Circle are sometimes surprised to learn that a) we are out of step with our denomination on some of its official positions and b) that we are tolerated nonetheless. The good news here, at least from our perspective, is that we are not so hierarchically oriented that someone from the denomination can lower the boom on us in some way. And we have been through the wars in our Northern Plains District and the district has come around to at least tolerating the presence of congregations that are open and affirming on the "homosexual issue" as it is often referred to. In fact it is fair to say in our district that for the most part we are now fully welcomed.

But the denominational story is different. The denomination has taken a decidedly rightward turn over the last several decades. Many congregations and members have been heavily influenced by the evangelical backlash and by the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks that their members tune into on a daily basis.

Below is a copy of a letter sent by standing committee delegates of the Southern Pennsylvania District in response to the recent Annual Conference held at Pittsburgh, PA. The letter was approved by their District Board so it is fair to say it represent the sentiment of a majority of their district.

I have been advocating for some time among the progressive COB community that we stop attempting to win over the other side or even that elusive middle made up of congregations that are themselves divided over these issues. Instead of trying to change minds I think it would be more productive to make the case of freedom of conscience and a big tent denomination (admittedly something of an oxymoron in a denomination with membership rapidly declining to the size of some mega-churches)where congregation are free to follow their own consciences on matters that divide us while we work together on issue where we find agreement. The tone of this letter would seem to suggest that at least some of our conservative brothers and sisters don't see this as an option.

What I read in this letter is fear. In a healthy community having a child handed a rainbow scarf, which represent a different perspective, is a teaching moment not a cause for alarm. The same is true for listening to a sermon that you don't agree with. Over the years I have listened to lots of them at Annual Conference. It is what I would expect in a denomination that has a diversity of opinion.

I must say that I laughed out loud when I read the sentence that said "When I questioned Moderator Shawn about the message he said that Earle didn’t deliver the message that Shawn had asked him to." He didn't deliver the message that Shawn asked him to? What are we? North Korea? We are not, of course, or Earle who delivered the message would now be toiling away at a hard labor prison. But the idea that the moderator 'asks' a speaker to deliver a certain message or that a speaker is not free to preach what is on his or her heart and mind is completely antithetical to what the COB stands for. Or once stood for.

As the letter indicates we are now in the midst of listening sessions across our denomination on the issue of homosexuality. We will be hosting one of them in our district on October 23. I don't expect any minds to be changed by this exercise. Given the rapid decline of our denomination's membership I would like to think that we can agree to a truce and a big tent approach that makes room for diversity. So we can all focus on reaching out to our wider communities with what is the best of the COB. My prediction, though is that nothing will change. Conservatives will remain adamant that their truth is the only truth and liberals will continue to want to keep talking. And we will continue to lose glbt pastors and members who choose to be part of welcoming communities. (My dissatisfaction with fellow liberals in our denomination is much greater on this issue). And all the while our denominational decline will continue unabated.

A denominational split would be a much better option than the status quo. The letter mentioned above follows.

Southern Pennsylvania District Church of the Brethren

Standing Committee Delegates: Larry M. Dentler & John A. Shelly

(letter was approved & affirmed by the Southern Pennsylvania District of the Church of the Brethren District Board, meeting at Upton Church of the Brethren, July 24, 2010)

August 9, 2010

To: Annual Conference Office
2010 Annual Conference Officers
2010 Program & Arrangements Committee

Letter of Deepest Concern

Dear Sisters & Brothers,

As Standing Committee delegates for Southern Pennsylvania District we are writing this letter following 2010 Annual Conference. The decision to write this Letter of Deepest Concern comes after discussions with many of our constituents from Southern Pennsylvania District who attended Annual Conference in Pittsburgh. We write in humility for we know that Annual Conference involves a mind boggling myriad of details to care for. There is much about Annual Conference that we affirm and applaud as being inspirational, well planned, and exciting. But this year we come home with some very deep concern that was not just expressed by one or two but by many of those who attended Annual Conference from our District.

1) The 10 year old granddaughter of one of our families was in the exhibit hall. Persons at the Womaen’s Caucus booth gave her a rainbow scarf and told her, “You should wear this.” The little girl went back to her grandmother‘with a lot of confusion. This was very distressing for the family. Annual Conference should be a safe place for children, not a place where other persons’ controversial viewpoints are thrust upon them. Since this booth this year seemed to be singular in focus — handing out scarves to support homosexual acceptance – we believe that Womaen’s Caucus should either be denied further exhibit space or placed on a probationary status stating clearly that they were in violation of #2, #3, and #6 of “Expectations of Exhibitors” (2010 Annual Conference Booklet, pp.52,53) this year, and any future disregard for Program & Arrangements Policy will result in future denial of exhibit space.

2) The “rolling BMC booth” was present again this year. This seems to laugh in the face of the decisions of Program & Arrangements and Annual Conference policy. This seems to us to reflect a total disregard for the authority of church leadership. Persons find the in-­your-face nature of the “rolling booth” to be embarrassing. We understand that we stress “no-force,” but we have also stressed respect for leadership. Something must be done!

3) When new fellowships and churches were welcomed we were introduced to Common Spirit in Minnesota. In only slightly shrouded language it was made clear that this is a congregation with a main focus on acceptance of homosexuality, in direct violation of the 1983 policy. We understand that new fellowships and congregations are acknowledged as part of District responsibility, but many delegates from our District felt that they were manipulated at this moment in Annual Conference. There was no time given to ask questions, and only a vote on accepting all four at once. These procedures lead to a gnawing, growing, festering belief that Conference officers are not being forthright and honest with the delegate body, and that we are being “set up.” I can’t tell you how many times we as our District’s Standing Committee delegates heard this kind of discontent and skepticism. Trust is eroding.

4) The moment causing the greatest concern for us was the sermon of Brother Earle Fike in Monday evening worship. Perhaps you noticed as we did that many persons left the convention center with tears. Others with faces gripped in anger. Have no doubt, this message will be noted as a milestone in the record of the debate before us. Anyone with conservative viewpoint on the human sexuality issue left feeling beat up and bruised. We affirm Brother Earle’s right to his viewpoint, but this message came across more as a “lobbying speech” than a message from God’s Word. This is especially true since, as many have noted, Earle completely ignored the fact that what brought acceptance was Zacchaeus’ repentance. This message came after we had been told repeatedly by the Conference Officers that there would be no speeches on this issue this year!

When I questioned Moderator Shawn about the message he said that Earle didn’t deliver the message that Shawn had asked him to. He also said that Annual Conference Director Chris had informed him,
p. 3

upon receiving Earle’s manuscript, that “it was going to be controversial.” Why then was there not some intervention? This 30 minute “moment” did great harm to the unity of the Body, great harm to the spirit of the Annual Conference, caused further brokenness and division at a very moment when we are trying to encourage people to listen to each other!

Again, please hear us affirm that Brother Earle certainly has a right to his viewpoint. But to use the message time during worship for this one-sided “lobbying speech” with no chance for rebuttal or discourse, not only showed very poor taste by Earle, but extremely poor leadership by those who might have intervened, and was in reality ‘out of order’ in keeping with the Special Response Process before us, and as one District Executive noted, may well have been in violation of the Ministerial “Code Of Ethics” (Ethics in Ministry Relations – 1996, pp.AC80.5-7).

In our minds a very sincere public apology is in order from those in leadership to the Body of the Church. This did great damage, very likely even hindering the Special Response Hearing process which is just before us.

Let us conclude by saying once again that we celebrate and affirm all the hard work by many faithful servants to make Annual Conference the wonderful “family reunion” that it is. Our love for you as our leaders, and our love for our Church compels us to share these concerns at this tenuous moment in our history when the rumblings of division rattle around us. Please understand that we would be remiss in fulfilling our responsibility as our District’s Standing Committee delegates if we did not share our concern.

Your brothers & servants in Jesus’ love,

Larry M. Dentler
Bermudian Church of the Brethren, 279 Bermudian Church RD, East Berlin, PA 17316 / office ph: 717- 292-1861

John A. Shelly
7535 Talhe1m RD, Chambers g, PA 17202/ph: 717-375-2510

Abundant Life Here and Now

I am currently reading Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. The authors begin with the observation that images of the crucified Christ don't appear in early Christian art for nearly a thousand years after the time of Jesus; then they become predominant. Why is this? What changes within Christianity bring it about?

The first Christian art from the catacombs through the building of worship spaces emphasized the restoration of paradise on earth as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Images of loaves and fishes, water and wine, the rivers of life, trees and animals were used in Christian art to created the sensation of paradise restored. In the same way icons brought the heavenly paradise down to earth for those who touched and prayed to them. To become a Christian brought not only the promise of a future paradise but life in paradise now as part of a community that was attuned through spiritual disciplines to see and participate in paradise and to make it a reality through the practice of what the authors call ethical grace.

They suggest that this same spirit animates much of the New Testament. For example here is what they have to say about John 3:16:
Today this passage is invariably interpreted to mean that God placed Jesus in the world to die on the cross, but at no point does this story mention death. It does not use the Greek word paradidomai, the word that John's Gospel specifically uses to describe the action of those who "gave" or "handed over" Jesus to be crucified. John 19:16 makes it clear that Pilate, not God, "handed him over to them to be crucified." Jesus' words to Nicodemus are about birth and life, not death and afterlife. They reiterate the themes of Creation and the power to be born of God that we spoke of in Chapter 1. God loves the world, the kosmos, and loves the Son, to who he gives "the Spirit without measure" (John 3:34).

In John's Gospel Jesus incarnates wisdom, turns water into wine, feeds the multitudes, demonstrating in various ways that he has come to restore paradise, abundant life, to this life.

Unfortunately, the authors say, paradise is eventually replaced with images of the suffering and tortured Jesus. When and why that happens in a future post.

The thesis of this book reminds me of my trip to Rome several years ago. As we visited the catacombs and churches and the Vatican Art Museum to see early Christian art our guide, Grady Snyder, kept asking us "what are you not seeing here?" There were no crosses anywhere to be found. The promise of new life not a focus on Jesus' suffering and death was what attracted converts to Christianity.

It seems to me that this is or should be one of the predominant themes of progressive Christianity. I think we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Absurdity of Our Current Political Discussion

Tax cuts for the rich: why is this what we are talking about?
The economic challenges we face are myriad and daunting. The unemployment rate is hovering near 10 percent. Our energy policy is stuck in the 20th century. We’ve got crumbling infrastructure all over the place. The budget is projected to remain badly out of balance. And perhaps most troubling, the middle class is barely keeping its head above water. Tax cuts for rich people address precisely none of these pressing issues. They would actually make matters worse in some cases.

Why, then, are we even discussing the possibility of cutting taxes for rich people? Is it because they’ve been hit particularly hard by the recession? Hardly. When the National Bureau of Economic Research announced recently that the Great Recession came to an end in June of last year that news must have come as quite a shock to the millions of Americans who are still out of work, working fewer hours for less pay, and struggling to make ends meet. But it probably didn’t surprise people at the top of the income ladder. They’ve been recovering quite nicely...

It should come as no surprise, then, that income inequality is fast approaching record levels. The richest 5 percent of Americans claimed almost 22 percent of all income in 2009, and the top fifth took home fully half of the nation’s income. The poorest fifth, meanwhile, earned just 3.4 percent of all the income, and the share of national income going to the vast middle dipped as well. Income inequality in 2009 was higher than at any point since at least 1967, according to one measure.

All those facts and figures reinforce what most people already know: The middle class took this recession right on the chin while the rich suffered no more than a glancing blow. And yet somehow in Washington the talk is all about tax cuts for rich people.

As I said in a recent post one of the big reasons we are talking about tax cuts for the rich is that almost all of our legislators in Washington are rich. The rich are their friends. The rich have easy access to Washington legislators, much easier than the middle class or poor. And so when they whine about their "high" taxes they get listened to.

Grouse Display

There were grouse everywhere in northern MN where I was camping at Bear Head Lake State Park. I was watching a female ruffed grouse when a male pranced in on display. She was apparently less impressed than me as she hopped up into a tree. He pranced around shaking his feathery mane, lifting one leg and then the other. About 15 minutes later another male came in also displaying. They danced around the tree where she was perched, completely oblivious as I watched and walked around them taking pictures.

Backyard Visitor

Last week I spent a few days in northern MN camping, hiking, and enjoying the wildlife. This morning the wildlife visited our house. I watched this eagle sail over the house dogged by crows before landing in a neighbor's tree.