Friday, February 29, 2008

Recently, PEW funded a major study, and just released its report, on the state of religion in America. From what I can tell from a most minimal perusal, it pretty much parallels my own modest sampling and analysis.

When I explored this matter with a denominationally diverse group of undergraduates the concensus looked something like this:
Church is a place. It's a building with an address. It's something you go to (for a variety of personal reasons), not what you are.
When asked what was the most essential element of Church there was no statistically significant response. It totally depended on the person and what they were looking for.
For people in the lower echelons of the socio-economic strata, Church might play a factor in how they located themselves in a new community. For all others, it was at best a secondary matter that one looked into after all the essentials were taken care of--proximity to work, stable property values, amenities conveniently close by, etc.
When asked why some people don't like Christians, they were quick to identify most of the same maladies that are recounted in the Barna Group's book by Kinnaman (Un-Christian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, [Baker, 2007]): hypocritical, judgemental, sheltered, political, pushy, etc. They were unashamed about this, despite knowing it was pretty much the opposite of "they will know we are Christian by our love."
They were unanimous in their rejection of the idea that city planners should be required to designate space in any new development for religious facilities, and non-plussed to learn that this had been the case for most of our history.
In short, my summary of their understanding of the role of religion in American life, including their own, is that
a. it's a purely personal, individual matter
b. the church has no authoritative (or functional) influence in their lives--no-one and certainly not an institution can tell you what you have to believe or how to behave
c. basically, church brings no "added value" to a community
and d. that it's not likely any of this will change. After all, why should it?

Given this scenario, and you can get the overwhelmingly comprehensive data that undergirds my little sample in the PEW report, I'm trying to imagine what gospel might sound, look, live like in this North American world.
Though we live in a culture of violence and death (recent shootings in a mall and classroom close by), there seems to be no sense of warrant, and certainly no urgency, to want life or society to be any different than it is. So if gospel is anything other than a blessing on what is, it's hard to imagine how it would really matter to us.

Thinking (in American style--binary and violent) of the martyrs of the church through the ages, I wonder: if, while we were at the local mall or in our class/office, etc., a rogue were to put a gun to our head and demand that we "sin against the Holy Spirit" or be shot on the spot, what would we do? Which life--life with God or a life immersed in our cultural benefits--would claim our soul?


Tuesday, February 26, 2008


We’ve been having a bit of a nasty winter in Michigan where I live. I commute about 30 miles each way from the lakeshore community I call home with lots of snow (ever heard of lake effect?) to a community 30 miles away where the church I lead is located. Several times this year I’ve driven through near blizzard, or simply blizzard, conditions on my way to the church and back home. What struck me on these drives is that in the middle of a blizzard, strobe lights representing authority are rather comforting. They mean that you are not out there alone. They indicate that help is present for stranded motorists. They mean that some amount of authority is present.

On the other hand, the other day when the roads were clean and traffic was again shooting along at about 75 mph, I saw a strobe light behind a car. The driver was getting a ticket for speeding (presumably). As I instinctively let off the gas (why do we do that anyway?), I realized that strobe lights pulling people over for tickets are not nearly as comforting as those in a blizzard. In fact, the strobe in open space is pretty threatening (maybe that's why I slowed down?). So what’s the difference?

Authority is best when it is recognized, not when it is exercised.

That’s the thought that has been churning inside me this week. How often do we as leaders want to “exercise” our authority so that people know we have it? And when we do that, suddenly we’re not comforting, but instead are threatening. But what if we simply lived in such a way that people “recognized” authority in us, rather than us having to exercise it? It might be more difficult for us as leaders to live that way, but in the end, people might be glad to see us rather than spend time trying to avoid us.

I wonder if that’s what people saw when it says of Jesus in Luke 4:32 “They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.” Wouldn’t it be nice if that were said of us and our teaching? Maybe it will be if we, as leaders, live our lives so that authority is recognized, rather than exercised.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

spiritual formation and violence

Since I last posted a note on this blog about the killings at the clothing store just up the road from where we live, there's been more shootings--this time just a few miles upstate in a classroom lecture hall.

It used to be that the killing fields I read about were continents away, or, if nearer, then mostly hidden away in forgotten neighborhoods that in their own way were worlds away from "normal" suburban life. Not any more. Now the killing fields are located in a local clothing store and lecture hall. These are normal, not exceptional, spaces and places.

In the midst of this localization of violence unto death, I flew off to a retreat/conference for college chaplains. It ws a wonderful spot--green, warm, delightful buffets. The theme for the event was spiritual formation. And even though the news of the Northern Illinois University shooting was breaking news on radio, internet, and television, it didn't penetrate our spiritual formation. I guess we had really retreated from our ordinary worlds.

I did begin to wonder, however, if this wasn't once again a metaphor of sorts ... Has the church just retreated from the world, and so well that the world's violence and trouble just doesn't really reach us any more? But if so, what good is the spiritual formation we get there? How could it possibly make any difference to the reality of gospel in our world? For gospel, surely, is situated in the world.

Or perhaps we haven't retreated at all. No, perhaps the church is so culturally enmeshed in the aspirations and loyalties of our society that these "realities" just seem normal--even if unfortunate and personally tragic for those directly affected.

In this season of Lent, a time of reflection and preparation for all that is entailed in Holy Week, I find myself longing for spiritual formation that will set me apart--body, soul, mind, and strength--from this culture of death and violence and all the "normal, suburban, american, middle class" facades that try to mask it.

Such spiritual formation will likely be found out in the desert, it seems to me. That's where facades are stripped away, the tempter exposed. Jesus retreated to the desert.

In this lenten season, perhaps I would have been better served not to go "on retreat" but to seek out the presence of Jesus in the midst of the cultural wasteland right here at home.


Monday, February 4, 2008

A culture of competitive violence

For some time now, I've been recounting my thesis that one way to describe the culture of america is in terms of competitive violence. I'll leave the competitive element aside here for now, because it's the violence piece that most recently nailed me again.
You see, as it turns out, I not only live in Tinley Park now, but I was at the shooting location when the 5 women were shot down; I was just across the parking lot in the Super Target picking up a couple DVD’s that I plan to use in my class on Tues.
I got “locked down” inside Target as the cops from about every local town and county descended upon us, with more live weaponry than I’ve ever seen before … We didn’t have a clue what was going on/down, til someone phoned home on a cell phone and learned from a radio report that there’d been a robbery/shooting in the store across the parking lot.
I was struck by three things in the moment. First, I phoned home to reassure Connie that, while I would be delayed indefinitely, I was o.k. I had no idea if she was even aware of the situation, but I didn’t want her to worry. Even as I thought of Connie, I couldn't help but also think of the families for whom no reassuring word would come; their loved ones had died.
Second, I was stunned and made a bit fearful by all the weaponry that the law put on display. Fear and violence beget more fear and violence. Not only did every officer have a revolver, etc., but the swat teams had high powered rifles, all on the ready, etc. Everyone was wearing bullet proof vests, etc. They did a sweep of the parking lot, looking into every vehicle to see if the person had taken up hiding in there, and when, after a couple hours or so they let us go, they said it was up to us if we wanted to take the risk … since the offender was still on the loose. Unnerving.
But perhaps worst, as I sat in the little cafeteria area of this super Target, two episodes seemed to capture so much of contemporary American life: a cop came through fairly early on and did a visual search of us all, but then went out of his way to ask a young black fellow who was clearly wearing a Super Target uniform, badge and even Target baseball cap, to take off the cap and stand aside for closer scrutiny. I know the cop had to do it; on the other hand, I thought of my black college students and couldn’t help but wonder what kind of hell they’d have to endure if they had happened to quick run out a minute to Target that morning like I had. Alongside this, a portly white fellow more or less my age commented, in response to Target handing us all $3 coupons for our inconvenience, that $3 was a pretty paltry thing in light of having lost “his Saturday”. I said: “It’s not Target’s fault. They probably are losing hundreds/thousands of dollars for having to be shut down on their biggest day of the week.” But what got to me was that the inconvenience of a couple hours seemed like the most important thing in this person’s life when just across the parking lot people had been shot to death. The incongruity of it all—death, consumer convenience just rattled me.
I’ll be reflecting on this a bit in class tomorrow. Interestingly, my last lecture was a presentation in which I rehearse the state of our culture and had commented, specifically, that i didn't think Columbine or Virginia Tech were exceptional situations, but rather we could expect similar events to recurr with lamentable frequency. Some of my students thought I’d painted an overly grim picture of US life. They began to tune me out; I was getting over the top and boring. Ironic, eh. I go out to buy a CD for that same class, and get caught up in the very violence of which I spoke.

Today, at work, I heard a lecture in which the speaker said that the church in North America was like a thermometer, when it should be a thermostat. One reflects the state of things, the other changes and influences it.

Please pray with me that God will comfort the families of the women who were killed.
And please pray with me that my students will begin to understand the gravity of the situation and God's urgent call for us to be peacemakers ...