1) “Purity” talk is not just for the Evangelicals, it would seem. Despite the characterization of purity rings and abstinence devotionals and root beer pong, Richard Beck at Experimental Theology points to the moral fixation implicit in progressive Christians like himself, too. It’s not a difference in value, it’s merely a difference in where the self-justifying finger is pointed. Referring to an article written by Aurora Dagny, Beck argues that the fixation itself is complicit in making “everything problematic.”

For progressive Christians moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly “pure” in progressive Christian circles is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that “everything is problematic.”  You can’t do anything without contaminating yourself.

tumblr_nlc5p3lHHc1rmvzs8o1_1280To be clear, I’m not judging any of this. I’m simply trying to trace out the contours of the purity culture at work among progressive Christians. Mainly because I think many progressive Christians have become burnt out by this psychology. Progressive Christians have become burnt out by the chronic anger produced by the “good vs. evil” Crusader mentality and burnt out by the chronic exhaustion of living in a world where “everything is problematic.”

For most of us, the vision of progressive Christianity–as we took up the banner of social justice–started out so hopeful and joyous. But for far too many, in the words of Aurora, the purity culture of progressive Christianity caused it all to “metastasize into a nightmare.”

Of course, we are all familiar with the purity witchhunt, mostly by way of experience in various subcultures, but we also surely experience this purity race within ourselves, the inner-conspirator, our own accusing voice. Whether it’s progressive politics or pre-marital moral decisions, our innate tendency to draw lines in the sand is evidence that the “problematic everything” isn’t going anywhere. Like the Pharisees in the New Testament, we are in love with delineations for the sake of self-righteousness. Too bad for us, then, that the Christian faith, in every single biblical scenario, moves each of us to the wrong side of those delineations, and finally obliterates them.

2) Okay, something funny. A favorite of ours, Heather Havrilesky, writes a nerdy but oh-so-endearing ode to motherhood, by way of the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs section, speaking to her child. I don’t have kids, but you don’t have to to have seen this power dynamic at work. As coldhearted as she (we) may want to be, the child enchants the dragon out of us. I love this part:

tumblr_nkm8qqHhqR1rmvzs8o1_1280But I am not Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons. I am your mother. For your purposes, in fact, there is no difference. Because even though I would never cut off your hands, I could make you play with nothing but old vegetables from now on. That’s the kind of power I can wield, even though I never actually wield it.

You must obey me. I know it seems like I must obey you, but that is an illusion. I am the one in charge here. Seriously, I am. Stop looking at me that way! I will answer injustice with justice! I mean it! You have to do what I say, or else! I am the blood of the dragon! Why are you laughing? Reject this gift and I shall show you no mercy! Where are you going? Wait! Wa-a-a-a-ait!

3) Aeon Magazine asks the question: “Punitive Big Brother, Cosmic Petty-Thief-Catcher, Vigilant Landlord. Why Is God So Interested in Bad Behavior?” It focuses on the intuitive belief we have, even as children, that there is a supreme moral Parent in this world, someone who keeps the bad people in check, and catches us in our petty-thief moments, where nothing goes unseen.

As reported in a 2012 article in Cognitive Science, our lab at the University of Connecticut examined what might be called this ‘moralisation bias’ of omniscient beings. To examine this bias, our lab asked students a host of randomised questions about what God knows and told them to answer as quickly as possible by computer. If their answer was ‘Yes’, they pressed one key; if ‘No’, another. Unbeknownst to the participants, the software we used also recorded response speed. The quicker the response, the more intuitive the question. We found that even though people say: ‘God knows everything’, they are quicker to answer questions about God’s knowledge of moral information (Does God know that Leon hurts the elderly?) than non-moral information (Does God know that David has black gloves?). Even though people might say ‘Yes’ to every question, it’s easier to process God’s knowledge in the moral domain.

This moralizing bias, I think, has more to say about us than it does about God (and all the gods we worship). And the writer, Benjamin Grant Purzycki, takes it into a weird evolutionary direction, that we moralize to organize our communities. But the thought is interesting, from a human traditions standpoint, that our starting point with God is an all-seeing eye, a remystified Santa Claus who knows who’s been bad or good.

And speaking of bad or good, and the inescapable hand of justice, I’ve heard that Better Call Saul is off to a ridiculously good start, though I haven’t watched it myself, and that there are more than a few moments of near-biblical moral clarity. This review at ThinkChristian says, “If Breaking Bad is a Greek tragedy, Better Call Saul is a Lutheran tragedy.”

tumblr_nb8irsrz931rmvzs8o1_1280Unlike Walt, who acts out of a narcissistic conviction of his own exceptionalism, the man once known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” (for taking tumbles on icy sidewalks and demanding money from frightened property owners) is defined by his acute guilt. The same could be said for Martin Luther, who – prior to his career as a church reformer – lived the life of a monk devoted to piety and righteousness. His efforts were motivated by an economic metaphor that saw human redemption in terms of a balance sheet: Jesus’ sacrifice clears the ledger of the infinite debt of original sin. Thereafter one keeps one’s accounts with God solvent by engaging in meritorious works. Although sin’s debits are hard to avoid, they can be offset by a scrupulous life of prayer, charity, repentance, worship and poverty. Even better, the monk’s positive balance could be tapped by laypeople whose occupations did not allow for such constant attention to religious accomplishment.

4) It’s March Madness, but not that kind of March Madness. It’s time those college admissions letters come in and, as they are wont to do, separate the few admitted from the many damned. And, as Frank Bruni for the NYT writes, the “great culling” is not just about elitism, it’s about one’s lifelong identity as the kind of person who will not fail (ht CB).

But for too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or the University of Virginia or the University of Chicago is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling.

What madness. And what nonsense.

Yet there’s a frenzy to get into the Stanfords of the world, and it seems to grow ever crazier and more corrosive. It’s fed by many factors, including contemporary America’s exaltation of brands and an economic pessimism that has parents determined to find and give their kids any and every possible leg up.

And it yields some bitter fruits, among them a perversion of higher education’s purpose and potential. College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it. And that’s lost in the admissions mania, which sends the message that college is a sanctum to be breached — a border to be crossed — rather than a land to be inhabited and tilled for all that it’s worth.

Speaking of college, more campus racial tension this week with the Oklahoma University fraternity scandal, as well as yet another moment of indignity in our backyard here in Charlottesville. Speaking out on some of her own observations on the problem of racism and its culprits, Dr. Maria Dixon talks about the missing link of forgiveness in its midst:

tumblr_nfxotb90QI1rmvzs8o1_1280Dr. King’s most enduring premise was that while laws could give us the right to go to school and eat at the lunch counter together, only the Gospel of Jesus Christ could heal the heart condition known as racism. Dr. King’s work was grounded in the crazy idea that without the transformative power of the Holy Spirit meeting us in the convicting rooms of our own consciousness, our efforts to live in true fellowship would be hollow and half-hearted. Such conversions happen in conversations–not yelling, not screaming, but in a sincere desire to listen and be heard. Our knee-jerk reactions to the subject of  race reveal our great discomfort with real conversation regarding how this sad legacy continues to affect us all. There is a time for marching and there is a time for conversation. This was a time for conversation and intervention. By expelling these students, OU made it easier for them to hide and to avoid the real mid-term exam of their lives.

Look, I know it is easier just to be done with these students. Bashing them is incredibly popular and dismissing them from the island of humanity appears to be all the rage. Unfortunately, I am called to the two most idealistic professions—teaching and preaching and I believe in the power of conversion. I believe in the power of Grace. I believe in a God of Second Chances. I believe in a God who is a master teacher.

I know. How silly of me.

5) A little conference teaser. An amazing sermon from the Pastrix herself, Nadia Bolz-Weber on John 3:16, who also throws a little love Francis Spufford’s way.

God so loved this corrupt world of empires and victims and violence that God gave God’s self to us. God so loved the world that God came to us in the most vulnerable and fragile way possible. God so loved the world God created that God walked among us as love.

But not the us kind of love. Our love is limited by self-interest, biology and time. No, this love takes no account of opinion or history, but insists on ignoring information we think of as important: data about worth, beauty, status. This love has quite ignored the Kelly Blue Book Value on us.

For God so loved the world, for God so loved soldiers and prostitues and traitors and unwed mothers and soccer moms and CEOs and ex-cons and Burger King janitors that God gave of God’s self in the form of Jesus. And Jesus was like a clearer set of lyrics so that we might be saved from the noise of sin and self-preservation. So that we might not perish. But be reminded again of the true beat, the real rhythm, the clear lyrics of the song of creation and salvation that is life and that is eternal.

6) And finally, an amazing piece on the not-so-new Church of TED, which we’ve covered before, but certainly there are gems in here. For the New York Times, Megan Hustad writes about the frenetic and ascendancy-minded nature of the modern channel of tent revival secularism. TED, as Hustad (convincingly) sees it, betrays an anxiety to religiously master oneself. It is no surprise, then, that the second most-viewed TED talk explains how standing straight with your hands on hips could “significantly change the way your life unfolds.”

Perhaps the fact that there’s no intrusive voice from above makes this all more appealing than monotheism. Instead of sola scriptura, TED and its ilk offer more of a buffet-style approach to moral formation. I’ve talked to people who say they’ve happily dispensed with God, and don’t even find the general idea comprehensible. But a few, having announced they’re free of cant, spend many nervous hours assembling authority structures and a sense of righteousness by bricolage and Fitbit, nonfiction book clubs and Facebook likes.I never imagined that the Baptists I knew in my youth would come to seem mellow, almost slackers by comparison.

As a little postscript, I mentioned in a post earlier this week a group here in Charlottesville called Theological Horizons, who is hosting Philip Yancey this Sunday afternoon at the University of Virginia. If you’re in the neighborhood, you won’t be disappointed. Read more about it here.

And as a second little postscript, if you’ve been trying to place subscription orders for the magazine this week, and have had some trouble placing the order, we’re working on it, and it should be fixed very soon. E-mail us at magazine@mbird.com if you need any assistance and we’ll set you up.