Tag Archives: Christian

“Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils of Online Christian Community

A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons.  This is how group-think afflicted Christian often act online.
A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons. This is how Christians, awash in group-think unawares, often act online.

“How can you handle all that arguing??”  Friends regularly remark to me how much they dislike getting into religious discussions on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like.  They say this in shock that I seem to enjoy it.  I suppose we all have different personalities, some of which are amenable to getting in the gutter and slogging it out and some of which are not.  For my own part, I am not sure which is better; I only know that I am not good at seeing foolishness and not naming it as such.

There are many inherent dangers in the world of internet Christianity.  Ivan Pils, an Orthodox layperson, recently laid out some of these from a specifically Eastern perspective in a great piece for First Things.  His comments, though, certainly apply outside of Orthodox Christianity (so you might, as you read this, replace “Orthodox” with whatever your chief adjective is for your genus of Christianity – evangelical, progressive, Baptist, Emergent, Methodist, Missional, etc.):

It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.

By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.” (emphasis added)

So much truth here.  If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware.  The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases.

The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.
The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.

A good test for spiritual health is this: am I regularly in contact with people who challenge my worldview?

Pils is dead-on that “there is a lot of junk out there.”  Indeed, it seems that the key to being a significant voice in the online Christian conversation is to be at least half-crazy and barely Christian.  All the more reason to pause if you find yourself loving your online ecclesial family more than the flesh-and-blood Body of Christ.  You’ve traded a gnostic personal playground for the Christian life that God intended for you: a life in real community, with all its attendant blessings and challenges, conflicts and potlucks and pettiness and hugs.

In my last post, I noted Michael Eric Dyson’s critique of Cornel West: the true prophet is tethered to a true spiritual community.  Absent that filial and communal bond, Christian thought, speech, and action is likely to degenerate into a sad parody of church. And this, to me, explains rather elegantly so much of the garbage online that passes for Christian discourse.  It can’t be an accident that the most outlandish malarky comes from those with few or zero ties to the local church: ex-preachers, blogging hobbyists with an ax to grind, seminary students, campus ministers, agnostics masquerading as Christians, and former church staff members.

There is no shortage of those with a grievance against the local church (some days I am one of them); but beware of critique against the church from those who are not invested in it.  Words come cheaply when they are never tested by the gritty reality of other flesh-and-blood persons, and instead only see light among the self-chosen sycophants with whom it is so easy to surround oneself in the online world that we too easily mistake for reality.

In the image above, a pack of wolves surrounds a bison.  The pack mentality is strong among Christians online, and the instinct to hunt, run to ground, and destroy is easily spotted.  If you don’t believe me, get into a conversation with a TULIP-loving Calvinist or one of Rachel Held Evans’ minions (in reality, two sides of the same coin) – the pack will come out very quickly.

Even among Christians dedicated to caritas, the internet can be a place where our most base instincts are allowed to roam free.  As with many things, social media is a useful servant but a very poor master.  Let us resist the wide path, the easy substitution of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ for an online facsimile of like-minded people who all hate the same things.  This is a fool’s bargain when compared to the complex, messy beauty of the community God gave us at Pentecost.

Thoughts?

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The Maasai Creed (Creed of the Month)

The cover to a volume of Pelikan's edited collection of creeds, in which this month's creed is included.
The cover to a volume of Pelikan’s edited collection of creeds, in which this month’s creed is included.

A new feature here at Uniting Grace will be a “Creed of the Month,” highlighting a different iteration of what St. Vincent of Lerins called, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  We’ll do this the third Monday of each month, since, you know – Trinity and all that.  First up is a creed I have recently come across from the Maasai people of Kenya.  Yale historian of doctrine Yaroslav Pelikan referred to it as an excellent example of how the faith “once and for all delivered” (Jude 1) is adapted to local culture and custom.  One of his students, a former missionary, told him of this creed, and he included it in his magisterial collection of creeds published near the end of his career:

“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”

I especially love the line about “the hyenas did not touch him,” and the way that “share the bread together in love” unites both the Eucharist and justice.  I find this to be a wonderful creed, and a true gift to the church universal.

What do you think?

P.S. For more on creeds by Jaroslav Pelikan, here is a great interview he did with Krista Tippett.

Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?

Base of a human brain, from Vesalius' Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.
Base of a human brain, from Vesalius’ Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.

Human beings are thinking creatures.  To be sure, we are embodied, and our flesh-and-blood living matters, too.  But while our capacity to think is a quality that separates us from the beasts, this too often goes unused.  This is tragic for all people, but especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Christian faith is not about the abandonment of critical thought but about its enlivening, about its highest end.  N.T. Wright argues that the Church – the body of people, alongside Israel, called to be and to bear God’s message to the world – cannot be herself without thinking:

“If the ekklesia of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of of the mind’, to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people, to understand who this God is, who this Messiah jesus is, who this strange powerful spirit is, and what it means to be, and to live as, the renewed people of God, the renewed humanity.  This is a worldview, in other words, which will only function if it is held by humans with transformed minds, and who use those transformed minds constantly to wrestle with the biggest questions of all, those of God and the world.” (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 567)

If you spend too much time in the wrong internet haunts, you quickly get the impression that Christians today have no capacity for or interest in critical thinking.  Oh, to be sure, there are a lot of rhetorical grenades tossed about, many blogs and articles written, read, and shared, but most of this takes place within very defined and uninteresting echo chambers.  The conservatives quote Witherington, Piper, or Al Mohler, and the progressives quote Borg, McLaren, or Rachel Held Evans and likely post 15 articles from HuffPo Religion, AKA theology’s Mos Eisley.  It’s all quite dull, really.

Christianity cannot be sustained absent renewed minds that come about by prayer through the gift of the Spirit.  This is a non-negotiable part of our faith, though many seem to want to make it option  (just look at my previous post’s comment section).

noll scandalI suggest the church needs thought police.  Not, mind you, to police what is thought – but simply that thought occurs at all.  While I don’t count myself a progressive or conservative Christian, I can appreciate such Christians when they engage their own and others’ faith traditions with depth and sincerity.  Unfortunately, too much of our conversation in the church turns on surface-level ranting that makes MSNBC and Fox News look academic.  Two decades ago, Mark Noll charged that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was that there wasn’t much of one.  Unfortunately, rather than rising above that, many progressive evangelicals and other populist Christian voices have continued this trend.

As Wright notes, there is no church without renewed minds marked by Spirit-imbued intellectual effort.  There is much more, of course, to being God’s people.  But when lived out truly, our vocation to the church will always include, treasure, and encourage the life of the mind.

When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

The 4th and the Lord’s Table

http://sharpiron.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/american-jesus.jpg

Like many other United Methodist churches, we will celebrate Communion on this first Sunday of the month.  Of course, it is also the 4th of July, a time for many Americans to drape themselves in the red, white, and blue, enjoy small explosives (called fireworks), and sing songs about their love of America.

Christian pastors and theologians disagree over what kind of challenge the 4th of July and the celebration of Christian worship represents.  Is it a conflict of competing political orders? Is it “The Kingdom” vs “The Flag”?  In North American evangelical circles, a renewed interest in Anabaptist ecclesiology has led many to see this – rather simple – bifurcation as the story of this Sunday.

I don’t buy this though.  Augustine spoke of natural forces by which our “bonds of affection” would create earthly loyalties in the civic arena.  The City of Man is not to be confused with the City of God, but it too, has its place.  For me, then, the issue becomes one of rightly ordering our loyalties.  And granted, in the modern West, this is a difficult task.  One reason I am wary of those who worship government authority is a theological conviction that we should not expect from the State what God alone can provide (for instance, eternal security, comfort, and peace).  The goods of the state are always contingent and apt to fail, and we should treat the state as such.

The details of this, when it comes to doing church, are where the devil lies.  Some churches turn their Sunday morning into a full-scale patriotic celebration (and think nothing of it).  Others will make a point to do nothing remotely patriotic in the interest of loyalty to Jesus or love of being counter-cultural (some think that these are the same things).  I’m trying to trod a middle path…though I like to think I’m being a bit ironic by using a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on a day when we celebrate our independence from Britain.  I think we can and should recognize what the people in the pews are celebrating, join with them when we can, criticize it when we should, but all the while try to keep it about Jesus.

The peaceful life of families and communities that we all appreciate would not be possible without the political “sword” that Paul speaks of in Romans 13.  At the end of the day, the sword of order that is a gift of God’s love is wielded by flesh and blood, men and women who have made and continue to make great sacrfices so that we might be able to worship, love, party, sleep, and die in peace.  People like my friends George, David, Alicia, and Trish.  Their service, and that of our forebears, deserves praise – but not the same praise that is reserved for God alone.

I think an example of this “middle way” is found in the communion liturgy for tomorrow that has been suggested by the United Methodist Church.  Perhaps this makes me a “company man,” but I think they struck the right tone and balance here.  What do you think?

A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day

Hoyt Hickman and Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
Ruler of all nations, Judge of all flesh,
you have placed us, your people, in this land made rich
with rivers, forests, mountains, and creatures great and small.
Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation
an opportunity beyond measure
to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.
Here you continue to call your people,
freed from the law and baptized into Christ Jesus,
to be a sign of your reign in all the world.
For such a place, such a vision
and such a calling we give you thanks,
praying we may ever join afresh the dreams you set before us
as we join with your people in every land on earth
and with all the company of heaven
in your unceasing praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Above all we give you thanks
for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ,
who sends us into the world
to declare the good news of your kingdom
to every creature:
Justice to all peoples,
good news to the poor,
release for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
and freedom for the oppressed.

On the night before he was arrested and sentenced to death
by the authorities of his own nation,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples,
and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”

When supper was over,
he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples,
and said, “Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the covenant
poured out for you and for many,
for the forgiveness of sins.”

And so we remember and proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We pour ourselves out before you in praise and thanksgiving,
a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.

So pour out your Spirit
on us and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make Christ known to us in the breaking of this bread,
and the sharing of this cup.
Renew our fellowship in him,
that we may be for the world his body
poured out for the world
at this time in this nation,
and at that great banquet in the fullness of your new creation
where justice flows like rivers,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
where none shall hunger or thirst,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

By him, with him, and in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty God,
now and ever. Amen.


Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org Used by permission.