I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.
We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.
But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)
The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”
Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).
A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:
Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.
There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.
She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?
I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.
I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.
I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.
I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.
But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.
(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)
It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.
Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.
Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.
I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?
Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?
*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.
*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”
The unfortunate thing about the salacious sex lives of our so-called-conservative leaders is that not only are they unsurprising, but when they are outed it simply reinforces the stigma associated with being honest about sexuality.
None of us believes Falwell’s particular kink is unusual, right? Or that “cuck” is a term loaded with contempt precisely because *so many* manly men sense that their jealousy is an aphrodisiac, and they are secretly embarrassed about it, right? Just like so many virulently anti-gay pundits are in the closet. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves. We are masters at projection.
I have to admit feeling some schadenfreude, because Falwell is a cruel and hypocritical person.
But y’all, it’s also so, so sad. We cause so much misery in our own lives by refusing to be curious about *why* something appeals to us that is socially taboo.
For example: there is a reason the woman in the Song of Songs teases her lover by saying,
Tell me, you whom I love with all my heart— where do you pasture your flock, where do you rest them at noon?— so I don’t wander around with the flocks of your companions. (Song of Songs 1:7)
She teases him by saying she will give her affections to his friends. She says this BECAUSE jealousy evolved to create this very response, a mixture of anger and arousal that is highly stimulating. White conservative men, many (but not all) of whom are perpetually angry, are particularly attracted to this brew of emotion. They are also highly defensive about it. That (and misogyny) is why “cuckold” is their epithet of choice.
(FTR, I think it’s pretty obvious that what we’ve heard in the media is only the surface-level stuff. Also, I don’t really need to hear any more.)
The Bible also tells the story of an explicit BDSM relationship between Samson and Delilah. Pastors have often preached that Delilah “tricks” Samson, but she doesn’t. She asks directly, “Tell me how to tie you up.” He tells her, and then submits to being tied up. THREE TIMES.
You think *modern* people invented bondage play? Like human beings only *recently* learned about kink? (And that’s not all that’s in the Bible, BTW).
Why does Samson eventually reveal his secret? Because even the strongest man in the world needs to feel vulnerable sometimes. The burden of being strong is exhausting. Samson was tired of performing all the time. So it’s particularly bitter that he ends his life performing! (Judges 16)
All that to say: so much of religious conservatism is about performing. Most of these preachers and pundits who have such loud voices in our society are performing. When Falwell says he was depressed, I believe him—but not for the reasons he gives. It is sad that their comeuppance creates *more* incentive for people performing conservative religiosity to be incurious about their own brains, their own sexuality, and their own spiritual lives. Seeing their colleague publicly humiliated, they bury their secrets deeper.
And no, admitting, “We’re all sinners” is not helpful. Sin isn’t even the point. The point is if you’re afraid of your own internal life, you will never be at peace. You are at constant enmity with the world and God because your theology of sin sucks. It is our own incuriosity about our inner life and our binary view of good and evil that creates such manufactured suffering.
When you live your whole life under a giant SHOULD, you develop a “worm” theology. “You are not worthy, and you never will be, you pervert, you miserable worm.” It does not shame one into being a virtuous person. It makes one into a hypocrite.
Hypocrite literally means “actor.” A performer.
In our society, we are lousy with them. And this kind of religion is killing our planet.
United Press International photo, August 1966. Students in Waycross, GA burn Beatles albums. From Wikimedia Commons.
After telling Arjuna that Krishna is one of many incarnations of the Divine, Krishna continues:
Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)
There is so much here that we will pause on these lines for a few days.
1) One thing I’m illustrating in this devotional series is a critical concept called intertextuality. That’s simply a fancy academic word that means we cannot hear a text “purely,” without hearing it in dialogue with lots of other texts. For example, whenever I read Amos 5:24, I hear it in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This was part of his famous “I have a dream speech” he delivered in 1963. Whenever I read Amos, I think of the struggle for Civil Rights in the country. I cannot bracket or close off those associations—nor do I want to. The words of Amos and Dr. King, 2500 years apart, present an intertext, a space where words meet, overlap, expand each other, and sometimes wrestle. This is a valuable space.
When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I automatically hear it in dialogue with the Bible. That’s the obvious intertext. But for me, there is another an implicit intertext. I’ve alluded to it already, but I want to make it explicit as I delve into these verses.
2) Growing up in the 1980’s, I remember a lot of moral panics. Ouija boards, Satanism, New Age beliefs, Eastern philosophy, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, tattoos, heavy metal music, healing crystals, all were threats to Good American Christianity™. One of the most dangerous beliefs, I was told, was the New Age belief promoted by people like Shirley MacLaine (among others) that you are God. “We are that God force, we are perfect,” she said (in this linked article from 1987). “I most certainly am not God,” came the evangelical retort. In evangelicalism, salvation depends on admitting one’s sinful imperfection and need for Jesus’s forgiveness. We are in a state of original sin, of separation from God. New Age beliefs that emphasize our unity with God, from a conservative evangelical perspective, undercut the gospel. “If we are already in unity with God, why do we need Jesus?” goes the reasoning.
Today, those moral panics continue about both beliefs and practices. Recently, a debate about the practice of burning sage erupted on social media, with one popular pastor calling it “satanic aromatherapy.” He connected it to the New Age belief that people can “become their own gods.”
A screenshot of an evangelicalist website ginning up moral panic. I will not link it, but you can certainly Google it if you like. Pretty sure that I qualify as hell-bound in their framework.
3) I share all of this about intertext and moral panics because in order to address the first line of the above verse—Those who know me as their own divine Self—we have to acknowledge the intertext of moral panics in American Christianity, of a decades-long culture war waged on multiple fronts. Moral panics have been a weapon in that fight. There is an intellectual front: Are people basically good or basically sinful? And a political front: How should we structure policy in light of it, and who gets to decide?
Though I’ve spoken dismissively of moral panics, I do recognize that there were and are beliefs and practices that are dangerous, that do harm to bodies, souls, communities, and the planet. You can make a convincing case that institutional Christianity is one of them! Capitalism is another. There are plenty of people who keep trying to gin up a moral panic about Christianity, who refer to religious teaching as “indoctrination” and claim raising children to be religious is child abuse.
But if we are to understand the line Those who know me as their own divine Self, we have to acknowledge and name that a) there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Christian Evangelicalism and Eastern religions, and b) that there are social and political forces who benefit from maintaining that misunderstanding. We see it so clearly today, in disinformation campaigns and political rhetoric. There is a concerted effort to gin up moral panic, to advance a worldview that people are fundamentally evil, lazy, selfish, and out to steal souls from Jesus.
This worldview is not biblical. And it isn’t true. It harms people.
Prayer: God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, deliver us from false religion and oppressive power. Bring about your kin-dom where all people can thrive, and no one has to live in fear.
Maybe you remember white guy Supreme Court Justice Powell, before he was a Supreme Court Justice, writing a memo in 1971 to prominent white guys in business. Among other things, he told them that they needed to wise up to the threat posed by social justice preached from pulpits.
Or perhaps the real danger to evangelicalism is white guys.
*The defensiveness around these statistics is interesting. Several evangelical authors try to spin these numbers in a positive direction. Christianity Today says that white evangelicals saved the day in Alabama’s senate election by not showing up, effectively giving credit to white evangelicals that should go to black women. The authors at CT and The Gospel Coalition object to the framing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t true, all of these authors argue, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for these candidates, only that 80% of voters who identified as white evangelicals and showed up at the polls did. Yet nearly-identical percentages voted for both Moore and Trump, and in surveys, 70% continue to view Trump favorably. So while it may be true to say “not all white evangelicals,” it misses the point that there is something specifically about being white and evangelical in this historical moment that only white evangelicals can deal with.
Conservative churches grow. Liberal churches fail. That’s been conventional wisdom for thirty years. In the 1980’s, as the religious right was beginning to flex its political muscle, people said this kind of thing all the time. This is why the mainline Protestant churches were declining, and Southern Baptist churches and “nondenominational” churches were growing.
Only it turns out that neither their theology nor their politics had much to do with it. According to exhaustive research by Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, it was mostly due to marriage and birth rates. The best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids, and the engine of church institutional life for the last century has been married families. As much as churches of all varieties liked to think that they were bringing the lost to Christ, the fact is that most of their numbers came from simply breeding new Christians. The mainline Protestants, who tended to be slightly higher on the economic ladder, expected their kids to go to college and delay marriage until they had a sufficiently high-paying middle-class job. Their pastors, likewise, were supposed to be well-educated (and thus slightly older) than their “evangelical” counterparts. This meant fewer generations in a given church, and therefore fewer people. Of course, once the non-denominational evangelical churches eventually caught up with the economic prosperity of the mainliners in the 1990’s, they started seeing the same downward trend. (In the second decade of the 2000’s, there’s another disturbing trend: marriage is increasingly the privilege of a shrinking middle class. A majority of households below median income are now unmarried. What will that mean for the church of the future?)
I do wish it were otherwise. I wish that most of our growth was from changed lives, new believers, people who were committing their lives to following Jesus. That’s what “evangelism” originally meant, before the related word “Evangelical” took on such conservative political connotations. I consider myself evangelical: I believe all people—sinners, saints, and skeptics—need Jesus. They do not need a doctrine about Jesus. They do not need a particular prayer or a set of words. They need the person, Jesus, even if they aren’t to the point of “accepting” him. As a fellow church-planter says, the gospel isn’t about us accepting Jesus into our hearts anyway. It’s about Jesus accepting us.
Unfortunately, the discredited idea that conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline has not yet died. It was trotted out again by Bishop Lawrence, an Episcopalian who is distressed about that denomination’s decision to bless same-sex unions and ordain transgender people. “Sexual and gender anarchy,” he claims, will lead the denomination into decline.
There are two things (besides the prejudice) that bother me about this kind of argument.
The first is that there is little evidence that the political or theological alignment of a denomination actually affects church participation. On the other hand, there is plenty of data that point to socioeconomic factors (class, marriage, kids) influencing church involvement
Church people are notoriously bad about making fact-free assertions. Lawrence claims it’s their liberal ideas that hurt mainline churches, but I could use his same set of facts to claim that it’s the weather: Churches in the Southeast are doing better than churches in other parts of the United States. Clearly, it’s hot, humid weather that makes people more religious! So all we need to do is get more people to move to the Southeast! Or make the entire planet hotter!
At our General Conference back in April, one delegate had the audacity to stand and proclaim the same conventional wisdom as Bishop Lawrence. He said that we Methodists needed to learn from successful churches like WillowCreek, megachurches that were more conservative. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 10,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, sat maybe two tables away. I wish I could have heard his thoughts at that moment.
Clearly, churches across the theo-political spectrum are able to do well. Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco is radically inclusive and very liberal, yet people line up around the block to get in. At the same time, there are plenty of dying conservative churches all over the country. Quality ministry does not depend on the orientation of one’s theology or politics. People who use the tired rhetoric that liberal churches are dying while conservative ones are thriving are simply spouting their own prejudices wrapped up in religious language.
The second thing that bothers me about Lawrence’s argument is this: I believe that if more churches gave a rip about about marriage and childbirth patterns, about the disappearance of the middle class, about the economic factors that make people poor and why that makes marriage less likely for them, they might do better ministry AND address a demographic problem of decline. But my saying that probably makes me a liberal. So according to Lawrence, I’m the problem.