Another Week Ends

1. Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep is one of the great stories in the […]

CJ Green / 9.27.19

1. Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep is one of the great stories in the Bible, and also ever. A shepherd leaves behind everything in search of one lost sheep — and of course, it’s about more than that. It’s about humankind’s wandering nature and the tirelessness of God. But if you’ve heard the story often, it may have lost some oomph. So how about: a real-life story of a woman who quit her job and spent 57 anxiety-ridden days searching for her lost border collie, Katie. With a little help from strangers and social media campaigns, the dog at last was found:

King [the owner] eventually found an incredibly malnourished Katie [the dog]—“severely dehydrated and in starvation mode,” per a local vet—in the city of Kalispell, Montana, after a tip-off from a phone call on September 15. “I just bear-hugged her; I wasn’t going to let her go,” King told The Spokesman-Review. “Tears were flying, we were screaming, everybody is high-fiving, hugging each other. People are stopping in their vehicles, getting out and hugging us. I think the whole neighborhood knew that we found her.”

High-fives aplenty, this story has a happy ending. Hopefully King spends less time job searching than she did dog searching.

2. Less happy is the state of our planet, it seems. This month the sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg swept into the eye of the media in a way that seems downright biblical. Prophesying mass extinction and “the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced,” Thunberg echoes the prophets of yore, e.g., Jeremiah who warned of “everlasting desolation” and chided, “I’ve spoken to you again and again, but you haven’t listened” (25:3, 9). Similarly Thunberg brings the hammer to liberal masses, saying things like, “I know you’re trying…but just not hard enough.” Her message, observes Osita Nwanevu at the New Republic, is one of emergency and survival, not primarily progress and flourishing. Responses to this are typical: fight, flight, and perhaps most prominently, appeasement: Greta’s message is steeper and more dire than many of her most public fans seem willing to admit. Some interesting things result, points out Nwanevu in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Greta Thunberg”:

From The New Yorker. 9/27.

Thunberg isn’t being applauded because she’s being taken seriously. She’s being applauded because she’s not. 

Thunberg’s activism was ready-made for superficial and inspirational news stories about a new generation of climate activists, and those stories have made her an interesting vessel for a set of truly radical propositions. It’s hard to imagine an academic calling for an end to economic growth being openly praised by American politicians the way that Thunberg has been. But Thunberg gets that praise only because her youth allows politicians and the press to flatten her image. For their purposes, Thunberg isn’t a precocious advocate for a new way of thinking about society, but an instrument of performative self-flagellation. The powerful nod vigorously when Thunberg castigates them, not in agreement with what she says must be done, but in the hopes that nodding might be considered an acceptable substitute.  This is an iteration of the guilt suffused throughout liberal politics, which often seems better suited to producing tears and slogans than genuine change.

Thunberg is a case study in what Cornel West has often called, in relation to the radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr., “Santa Clausification”—the softening of a public figure’s profile into something more anodyne and broadly acceptable. This often takes years, but Thunberg might not need as much time—the necessary elisions have already begun. We should try, nevertheless, to engage seriously with her actual words, whether we agree fully with her vision of the future or not, and learn, too, from the example set by the mass mobilizations she has inspired. She’s asked us not to watch her, or applaud her, but to join her.

Santa Clausification: chalk that up to Jesus as well, the man who said, “If your right arm causes you to sin, cut it off (!!).” Anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount knows he demanded more than could be achieved. That doesn’t mean he was wrong to do so. What it does mean is that the human race needs more divine help than we often realize. For more on this topic, with an eye on law/gospel, continue on to Ben Self’s series Summer in Omelas.

3. Next up, Derek Thompson, from The Atlantic, continues with [yet another] survey of modern religion, this one entitled, “How America Lost Its Religion.” There’s no short answer, according to Thompson, but one idea includes the following:

Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did. In the 21st century, “not religious” has become a specific American identity—one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right. […]

The Church is just one of many social institutions—including banks, Congress, and the police—that have lost public trust in an age of elite failure.

There is of course the enduring qualifier when considering all of this which is that polls/surveys can only capture so much. To say that people are divorcing from a particular definition of religion is not the same as saying religion, or a religious impulse, is no longer a part of their lives. Thompson addresses this towards the end:

Does the rise of the nones matter?

Let’s first consider the possibility that it doesn’t. As America’s youth have slipped away from organized religion, they haven’t quite fallen into wickedness. If anything, today’s young people are uniquely conscientious—less likely to fight, drink, use hard drugs, or have premarital sex than previous generations. They might not be able to quote from the Book of Matthew, but their economic and social politics—which insist on protections for the politically meek and the historically persecuted—aren’t so far from a certain reading of the beatitudes. […]

The deeper question is whether the sudden loss of religion has social consequences for Americans who opt out. Secular Americans, who are familiar with the ways that traditional faiths have betrayed modern liberalism, may not have examined how organized religion has historically offered solutions to their modern existential anxieties.

Making friends as an adult without a weekly congregation is hard. Establishing a weekend routine to soothe Sunday-afternoon nerves is hard. Reconciling the overwhelming sense of life’s importance with the universe’s ostensible indifference to human suffering is hard.

Although belief in God is no panacea for these problems, religion is more than a theism. It is a bundle: a theory of the world, a community, a social identity, a means of finding peace and purpose, and a weekly routine. Those, like me, who have largely rejected this package deal, often find themselves shopping à la carte for meaning, community, and routine to fill a faith-shaped void. Their politics is a religion. Their work is a religion. Their spin class is a church. And not looking at their phone for several consecutive hours is a Sabbath.

American nones may well build successful secular systems of belief, purpose, and community. But imagine what a devout believer might think: Millions of Americans have abandoned religion, only to re-create it everywhere they look.

4. In the same publication, our friend/occasional contributor Alan Jacobs argued that “‘Evangelical’ Has Lost Its Meaning.” Jacobs first defines the term in a more essential sense:

[Evangelicalism is] not a denomination. It’s not even a single tradition. It is, rather, a complex and fluid movement dedicated to the renewal of Christianity, largely among Protestants, though its efforts have occasionally reached into Catholicism. Its focus is on preaching the euangelion, a New Testament Greek word meaning “good news” or “good message.”

However: according to Jacobs — and probably your own experience — ‘evangelical’ usually means something quite apart from the above. Tracing a historical attachment of the term to the 80s-90s Republican Party (and subsequently today’s), Jacobs proceeds that:

…we now have a peculiar situation in which people who don’t know what the term evangelical historically connotes and who massively distrust one another—God-and-Country moralistic therapeutic deists on the one hand, and a press that simply doesn’t get religion on the other—have combined to take the term away from those of us who know and care about its history.

Thus [Tommy] Kidd [author of Who Is an Evangelical?]:

Why do respondents with marginal evangelical characteristics say that they are, in fact, evangelicals? Presumably some intuitively understand “evangelical” as an ethnic, cultural, and political designation rather than a theological or devotional one. Some critics of evangelicals might say they’re right: to such observers, “evangelical” carries as much racial and political freight as theological significance.

This transformation of evangelical from a theological position to a “racial and political” one is not just bad for serious Christians; it’s also a prime driver of the increasing hostility of liberals to religion in almost any form. Those who have insisted on yoking (a very vague notion of) God and (a very specific account of) country may soon find themselves dispossessed of both.

Also of note is Christianity Today’s “Another Look at the ‘Least Religious Generation’”: a more on-the-ground survey of ‘twentysomethings’ who are more ‘religiously minded’ than is often indicated in studies such as above. Here is a key sentence, though those interested are commended the entire piece: “The church can’t bemoan twentysomethings’ lack of religious interest. Perhaps it’s more accurate to conclude that the church is frustrated with how twentysomethings want to express that interest and experience the spiritual search that accompanies it.”

5. In music, a couple of good links. At CT, Mockingbird contributor Larry Parsley shares What Preachers Can Learn from Songwriters. Check out, too, Jim Marshall’s iconic photography of musicians from the 60s.

Also, the following interview with Ken Burns for Commonweal is particularly noteworthy. With his new series Country Music (aired this month on PBS), the famed documentarian remarks on ’emotional archaeology’ and ‘what it’s all about’:

I mean, look, we might as well get right to the point right now. The number-one country song of all time, the number-one single of all time, is Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” And he is a black, gay rapper. At this point, I can drop the mic, right?

The binary attempts, which are the products of our computer age and our journalistic age, the attempts to set up or to accentuate a simple, binary conflict doesn’t hold a candle to what he represents or to what art represents. As Wynton Marsalis says in the film, we all have an ethnic heritage, but we have a human heritage that’s much more important. Art tells the tale of us coming together, and that’s all I’m interested in.

In my Jazz series, Wynton said something that’s stuck with me for more than twenty-five years. He said: “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time.” I mean, that’s what art is able to actually understand in a way that our sort of normal day-to-day binary responses can’t do. We always need it to be one thing or the other. Merle Haggard can only be “Okie from Muskogee.” […]

To me, that’s the key to it all. There’s the reconciliation. There’s the redemption that Roseanne [Cash] says that her dad Johnny was seeking every night on stage. The ability to hold, as she put it, two contradictory things at once. He could be against the war in Vietnam and go support the troops, right? He could be for this and against whatever. He worked out all of that stuff, as she said, on the stage, which is, I think, a beautiful description of the artist’s dilemma—the necessity to hold opposing views without making it the simple good guy, bad guy thing that we do, the binary, the red state-blue state, young-old, rich-poor, gay-straight, male-female, left-right, whatever it is.

6. I’ll leave you with a lovely reflection on death and life, excerpted from longtime author and evangelist David Powlison’s Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles, published this month by New Growth Press. Some of his last written words:

Six months ago, I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. As I write, I am facing the real possibility of my own death. By God’s grace I have been able to continue working, yet much of my work is bittersweet. I am handing off responsibilities and jobs to others. I am involved in making plans for the future that I am not likely to be a part of here on earth. Our family continues to grow with grandchildren. I wonder if I will be here to meet my next grandchild. Those I love are also in the midst of this battle with me—my wife, children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, friends at work. We are all confronted with the evil of death and illness. In the midst of this battle, the weapons Christ gives sustain and equip us to battle against the last enemy—death itself…

At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death… Since the first day the Lord invaded my heart with his mercy and grace, I have never lost that sense of the friendship of Jesus, that he showed love to the loveless to make them lovely, that he befriended the friendless, that he befriended the unfriendly who were self-absorbed and all about themselves. That is the gospel of peace. My feet are fitted for this battle with my final enemy. So I do not lose heart. As Nan and I pray together, we do not lose heart. And even if I did or she did, God’s mercy and grace would remain unchanging. We can always turn and ask for help in our time of need. He is always near.

This is what the whole Bible is about. It’s about life and death; it’s about what is going to happen to you when you die; it’s about right and wrong, true and false, hope and despair, obedience and recklessness, faith and idolatry. This is the drama that we and those we minister to are living in. And the miracle is that we are given a new heart, a heart of flesh, and a new spirit so that we can and will live forever.

What a privilege it has been for me to serve my faithful Savior these many years.

What a privilege it has been to walk with others in need.

And what a joy it will be to see him face to face.