The Orwellian Christianese of “Love”

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Too many Christians confuse pity and paternalism with love.

Actually, “confuse” may be too generous a word. For some it can be Orwellian Christianese, where “love” or “forgiveness” is simply used as a tool to demand submission, or to silence complaints. One of the most common negative responses to prophetic language is Christian tone-policing—saying that it is “unloving” or “hateful” to use oppressors’ own rhetoric to disarm their religious weaponry, or to criticize those in power who use religious language as a political tool of domination. In this reading, much of what Jesus himself said is unloving and hateful.

It is a kind of weak rhetorical ju-jitsu to take the words of the prophets* and the complaints of those who are oppressed and describe them as “hate.” As if protesting the disproportionate slaying and imprisonment of black children is “hate.” As if objecting to for-profit sick-care is “hate.” As if decrying Christianese support of militarism and fascism is “hate.” As if championing the rights of “widows, orphans, and aliens” against the abuse of political leaders is “hate.”

There is something I gladly admit to hating: this kind of language. This condescending, paternalistic, bullying and bully-enabling language that uses the words of Christ for cover. (There is a difference between hating the sin and the sinner, right? Or does that only apply to gay folks?)

Rather than get tangled in endless psychologizing or spiritualizing about the inward state of debate partners, I’m much more interested in the effect of our language, practices, and policy. Where do we see the oppressed being freed? Where do we see widows, orphans, and aliens valued as fully human and made in the image of God?

That’s where love is.

I appreciate that Christ loves me, and I have full assurance of salvation through the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that Christ also loves the bullies and fascists of the world, the Torquemadas and Roy Moores and Bull Connors, and that where I’m unable to love I can intercede that Christ love for me while shaping me into someone more loving. I can acknowledge my own failure to love.

But I have no interest in a “love” that does not rejoice in the truth. Nor do I have interest in a religion that can only speak of “good news” if the oppressed are silenced.

There is difference between paternalism, pity, and love.

*(Of course, there is a critique of the less-than-loving attitude of the prophets in the Bible itself. It’s called the Book of Jonah.)

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The following article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

When I ask laypeople to write prayers for worship, I give them these instructions.

Group or corporate prayer is an important part of worship. The congregation is not just sitting back and relaxing while one person talks. They are allowing a person (or group of people) whom they trust to give voice to their joys, concerns and petitions.

If you have been asked to pray an offertory prayer, a pastoral prayer or an invocation in our church, you are welcome to find a prayer online or in a book and use it. You can also modify a prayer or write one yourself.

Lots of people think prayers should be off-the-cuff and spontaneous. This is okay in some cases, but if you were bringing a petition to a king, and speaking for a group of people, you would rehearse what you would say, right? You’d probably go over it in your head a hundred times. You’d write it down so that when you delivered your petition, you would come off as a competent representative of your people. I believe that’s the way we should approach corporate prayer. We are not praying “our own hearts.” We are praying for the assembled Body.

The main parts of a public prayer are:

1. Addressing God: Any conversation begins with a greeting or an address, even if it’s just “Hi, there.”

2. Talking to God: This is the “meat” of the prayer. It could be invocation: “Be present with us today.” It could be praise: “You are wonderful.” It could be complaint: “We are tired. Why don’t you hear us?” It could be thanksgiving: “Thanks for this amazing day.” It could be a request: “Bless Aunt Mary.” Anything you can imagine saying to God in a group is appropriate here.

3. Conclusion: There are a lot of formulas people use to “sign off,” but the simplest is just, “Amen,” which means “so be it.” In a group, the congregation will often echo your amen. Read some other prayers to see how folks conclude, and find a way that feels natural to you. “By the power of your Holy Spirit we pray” or “In the name of Jesus Christ” are common ways to end public prayer. The main thing is to avoid stumbling to the end, like: “So, anyway… yeah. I guess that’s it. Amen.” That’s fine for small group prayers or private prayers, but not when you are standing in for the voice of the congregation.

If you choose to write your own prayer, here are some guidelines:

1. Short is good. A paragraph that takes up one-third to one-quarter of a page of paper is probably long enough — that would be around a minute and a half. Pastoral prayers tend to be longer because you have more needs to address, and a diverse congregation with many different needs.

2. Use “we” language. You are speaking for the congregation, so this isn’t about you. It’s about we, the church. “We praise you today,” not “I praise you today.”

3. Let the images do the work. Rather than use a lot of abstract words, think about a single image you can paint with your language. “When we see parents pushing their kids in swings at the park, we remember your motherly love for us.” “We are sad, and the ache in our chests makes it hard to catch our breath.”

4. Use inclusive language. It’s okay to call God “Father,” or use “he,” as long as we remember to balance it out with gender-neutral or feminine imagery as well at other times. Avoid saying “Father and Mother God,” because that’s just overkill. Try instead, “God who loves us like a parent,” or “God who loves us like a mother.” You can also address your prayer to Jesus, in which case it’s fine to use masculine language, or the Holy Spirit, in which case I’d prefer you use feminine language. The main thing here is not to be “politically correct,” but to give people a chance to connect with God using imagery that will help them grow spiritually. Big Daddy God is fine, let’s just not overdo it or limit ourselves to one expression.

5. Think about your own experience. The best resource you have for writing prayers is your own experience and your own spiritual journey. Think about what you need to hear from God, and craft your prayer around that. So, if you’re writing the invocation, maybe you say, “Let us hear your voice, God. Speak our names.” If you’re writing the offertory prayer, maybe you say, “Help us let go our fear of not having enough, and trust in your abundance.” Let God inspire you through your own walk of faith.

6. Avoid preaching. While it’s okay to refer to Scripture or use biblical imagery, you aren’t doing this to teach or change attitudes. Again, remember that you are the voice of the congregation.

Finely Crafted Fertilizer

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“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.

Reframing Heterosexist Rhetoric: Playing Offense Instead of Defense

Christian arguments about LGBTQ issues follow a pretty rigid rhetorical structure, and you can probably lip-synch to most of them. Too often, Christians in favor of full inclusion or marriage equality wind up playing defense with scripture, letting their opponents rattle off a series of proof texts while they scramble to offer one alternative interpretation after another. It’s like playing rhetorical Whac-a-Mole! There are some very good ways to play defense (I recommend both Mark Sandlin’s Clobbering Biblical Gay-Bashing and Matthew Vines’ moving sermon on the topic), but in order to shift the conversation, you have to play offense. This is part of what I was attempting to do by writing God Shows No Partiality: to offer biblical rhetoric to people who often abdicate the Bible to literalists and fundamentalists.

Classical education involved the study of rhetoric—an education which we desperately need today.

I apologize, in advance, that rhetorical metaphors often use combat and sports metaphors. In ideal world, we would have conversations around an open table where every voice is equal. But the very definition of rhetoric recognizes that language is always connected to power and privilege, and that there are social dynamics hiding beneath the things we say (and do not say). (The word “dynamics” comes from the Greek word for “power.”)

Any given debate is an attempt to control or shape a public narrative. This applies to everything from formal arguments in a court of law to the most juvenile trolling comments on the internet. Discussions among equals happen when we share power in shaping the narrative; we may disagree about some things, and we may advance certain arguments, but ultimately we’re cooperating in telling a story about the way the world is. Debates happen when we wrestle for control of the story.

If you read through the comments on my previous post, How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking About Homosexuality, you’ll see that commenters who disagree with me seldom spend much time addressing the scriptures I cite, or my comparison of anti-gay attitudes to the parallels with the anti-Gentile attitudes in the gospels and Acts. This is because they believe they control they narrative, or frame, of the biblical argument on this issue, and addressing the points I am actually making would give me control of the narrative.

So, in the spirit of playing offense, here are some questions for dialogical opponents, along with scriptural references. I offer these not because they are definitive or exhaustive, but simply to illustrate how to reframe and refocus an argument. I will also say that I deploy these kinds of questions only when it’s clear that we’re not actually having a discussion, but instead wrestling for control of a narrative:

  1. How is your objection to homosexuality different than the Christian Pharisees who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised? How is it different than their insistence that Gentiles follow Jewish dietary laws? (Acts 10, 15)
  2. Which is more difficult: changing one’s sexual orientation or cutting off one’s foreskin? Which is more difficult: changing who you love or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols?
  3. Paul describes women with short hair as being “against nature” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). He also says that Gentiles being grafted on to Israel’s tree is “contrary to nature” (Romans 11:24) This is the same word he uses in Romans 1:26. Is being “contrary to nature” a bad thing? Is a woman having short hair worse than, better than, or equivalent to homosexuality? What about a man with long hair?
  4. What does Jesus mean when he says that the Pharisees “lock people out of the Kingdom?” (Matthew 23:13). How did they go about doing so, or what does this phrase mean? Does anyone “lock people out of the kingdom” today, or was it just something that happened then? Who does it today?
  5. What does Jesus mean when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:29-30)? Was he only talking to Jewish people? Is your opposition to committed same-gender relationships increasing or decreasing a religious burden on people? How would Jesus talk about requiring something of someone else, like celibacy, that you don’t do yourself (Matthew 23)?
  6. Jesus complained that the Pharisees were more concerned with what goes into a person than what comes out of them (Matthew 15:10-20). How is your concern with homosexuality different than their concern with unkosher food? What makes someone pure: the food that they turn into poop, or the language that comes out of them? What makes someone pure: where they put their genitals, or how they talk to other people?

I find that, in general, questions are more powerful than statements. Questions can be open and welcoming, inviting further discussion. But questions can also be power plays that people use to draw you into their way of framing an issue. I have also found that simply exposing the rhetoric operating in any given argument helps to shift people from debates toward discussions—it makes us into equals again. “How do you interpret [such-and-such a scripture]” can be met with, in a non-antagonistic way, “Do you really want to know how I interpret that scripture, or are you just offering it as a proof text?”

One commenter cited scriptures prohibiting sexual immorality, as though we had already established that same-gender romantic love was a sin. At best, this is begging the question (assuming the conclusion), a simple logical fallacy. But the goal of citing those scriptures is to shame one’s debate opponent instead of actually engaging the argument. By arguing for inclusion, I become an enemy of God and false teacher, promoting sexual immorality. Which might be true—if I’m wrong. But if I’m right, advocates of exclusion become the Pharisees of Matthew 23, “locking people out of the Kingdom of God.” Now we have a different way of looking at what’s going on.

This will sometimes be met with complaints that “You’re being just as X as the other side.” This, too, is sly, shaming rhetoric. I am sure that Paul’s opponents in Corinth and Rome also accused him of being “divisive” and “judgmental.” It is also an attempt, by so-called  neutral Christians, to capture the moral high ground, to claim a pastoral and more Jesus-like perspective. In the debates between those who say “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos,” they sanctimoniously claim, “Well, I follow Christ.” This is an attempt to assume the position of referee or commentator while pretending you aren’t actually playing the game. In my own experience, they are the bossiest kids on the playground, and they usually side with the bullies.

Jesus had a knack for seeing through questions to the narrative and rhetorical tricks behind them (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 12:18-34). While he probably had divine insight into people’s hearts, he also lived in an age where rhetoric was part of a typical education, and he had such a firm sense of his purpose and his mission that he couldn’t be drawn into someone else’s narrative.

If someone actually wants to discuss how the Bible is an inspired document, or how to interpret various texts, or how Christians should think about the authority of scripture, I am more than happy to discuss any of those things—as equals. But if we’re just going to compete over who controls the narrative, and which of us is doing what by speaking, I’m going to play offense, not merely defense.

Jesus vs. the Drama Queens

We usually use the word “hypocrite” to mean someone who doesn’t practice what they preach, or someone who notices other people’s sins but do not notice their own. But after hearing yesterday’s lesson on Mark 7, I began to hear something different about the way Jesus uses the word “hypocrite.”

I wrote about this passage in my book God Shows No Partiality: “hypocrite” is a Greek word that meant stage-actor, and for the first Gospel writers it would have carried several negative connotations that they associated with Greek theater. Because both Christians and non-Christians use the word so much, it has lost it’s ability to connote these other meanings.

So I started thinking, what if we translated “hypocrite” as “drama queen?” Imagine Jesus saying to today’s Christians, “Woe to you fundamentalists, you drama queens!” The phrase “drama queen” connotes both acting and overacting. It can include manufactured outrage, religious posturing, or disapproval at people who break religious regulations. It connotes the shocking gender and sexual ambiguity that was present in first century theater (where men played women’s roles, and theater people were associated with lax morality) as well as the modern implication of some kind of personality disorder. Religious drama queens have a deep personal need for attention and approval, either from God or from their social group. They love stories in which they are an oppressed minority. For them, the world is always about to end. The president or the pope or Lady Gaga are the anti-Christ. For preachers who rail against homosexuality, the phrase “drama queen” points out that they may have their own gender and sexuality issues.

It’s too easy for Christian holy-rollers to shrug off being called hypocrites, and it’s too easy for non-Christians to slap the hypocrite label on religious people without thinking of how it applies to themselves. One common sermon illustration is the person who says they don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites. The pastor replies: “We’ve always got room for one more.” Both religious and non-religious people can be drama queens.

You can be a religious or a non-religious drama queen any time you build yourself up by showing others what a lifestyle diva you are: praying in the marketplace, as Jesus said, or publicly lamenting whatever it is trendy to lament, or manufacturing outrage over someone else’s misstep. Their are eco-drama queens, and second amendment drama queens, and vegetarian drama queens, and libertarian drama queens. In this way, hypocrisy is not only about saying one thing and doing another. It’s the whole practice of blowing tiny things, even irrelevant things, out of proportion.

The story from Mark goes like this: The disciples sit down to eat one day without washing their hands. (For contemporary Christians, this might be like sitting down to a meal without saying a blessing first). Some of the Pharisees notice, and they say to Jesus, “Don’t your students care about honoring God before they eat?” Jesus answers, “The Bible warns about you religious drama queens: ‘These people talk incessantly about me, but their hearts belong elsewhere. Their worship is meaningless, and they teach their own rules instead of mine.’ ”

The Pharisees were taking a few verses from the Bible about religious purity for priests (who were supposed to wash their hands and feet before serving in the Temple) and applying it to all people in all situations. Today, religious drama queens take all kinds of scriptures out of context, or make up new restrictions that they say follow logically from other scriptures, and teach them as God’s Will for All Humankind. Jesus says that such people are not really following God. They are drama queens.

As we begin forming Saint Junia, our new United Methodist Church in Birmingham, I think we need to establish early on a “no drama” rule. Not the theater arts, obviously, which are hugely important, but the bad drama of moralistic posturing and religious politics. The idea is to walk with God humbly, recognizing that it’s very easy for us to cross the line from authenticity to overacting without ever realizing it.

The words “must,” “ought,” and “should” just make me tired—but seeing love and grace in action makes me want to move. It’s the same way with preaching!

Otherwise Thinking

Preaching the Good News…

Image …as Good News

For a variety of reasons, we often fail to communicate any motivating “good news” in our sermons. From my experience, there are several reasons for this.

Sometimes we cave in to the culture’s pejorative definition of “preach” – thus the need to sound “preachy.” We load sermons with hard or soft imperatives: “we must,” “we should,” or “let us,” and “we are called to….” When this happens, I am reminded of the hospital nurse, using the “nurse’s ‘we’”: “we need to take our medicine now,” “let’s sit up now and eat some lunch.”

At other times, we worry that the congregation is not doing all that it could do to support our exciting vision for church growth or social justice. We feel compelled to nag at our congregations for their failings.

At other times, we lose sight of the redemptive good news…

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