Tag Archives: first things

“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?

Centrifugal Forces in the Church

A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.
A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.

“Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity were safer and seemlier for Christian [people], than hot pursuit of these controversies, wherein they that are most fervent to dispute be not always the most able to determine.”

-Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

The church is about Jesus.  That seems obvious, but we humans are a distractible lot, easily thrown off course.  Yes, it  seems obvious that the Body of Christ is to be centered in Christ.  But in large, bureaucratic organizations, mission drift is all too real.  As a big-tent denomination, our variety of goals, agendas, and callings within the United Methodist Church is a strength (other large denominations, or even megachurches, would apply equally, here).  Taken individually, most of these are even noble and life-giving, but they can also take us off-center.  Put another way: there are many centrifugal forces at work in the church.

Wikipedia defines centrifugal force in such a way that I am reminded of the UMC at present:

Centrifugal force (from Latin centrum, meaning “center“, and fugere, meaning “to flee”) is the apparent force that draws a rotating body away from the center of rotation.

A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those.  All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources.  One veteran of a similar family feud is R.R. Reno, who draws on Anglican priest-theologian Richard Hooker for advice on weathering the storm:

“For a great Anglican figure such as Richard Hooker, the deepest law of ecclesiastical polity was preservative, and all the more so when the church was threatened by centrifugal forces that threatened ruin…he was convinced that the church communicates the grace of God as a stable and settled form of life that is visibly connected to the apostolic age. His via media was precisely the willingness to dwell in this inherited and stable form, especially when uncertainty and indecision about pressing contemporary issues predominate. For Hooker the first imperative is clear: to receive that which has been given, rather than embarking on a fantasy of constructive theological speculation and ecclesial purification that would only diminish and destabilize.”

In the midst of “centrifugal forces” that sought to destabilize and harm the Body, Hooker’s strategy was to stay close to the apostolic deposit which had been received, on his view, from Christ an the apostles. I am especially drawn to Hooker’s insight, quoted by Reno in the original section above, that the quickest to debate might be the last people you want trying to make decisions.

We all know the swing is fun.   The centrifugal force brings a rush; it’s a blast to swing out as far from center as possible and look around.  But the Body can’t maintain itself if too many of us are constantly playing so far from center that we forget what home looks like.  As Reno hints at, “when uncertainty and indecision” abound (hello GC2012!), it’s time to stay close to center, to what has been received.

After all, it’s impossible to build on an unstable foundation.  Even the friendliest centrifugal forces still need a center off of which to pivot.  What would it look like for protestant Christians, and especially for United Methodists, to dwell in the inherited forms today? What would it look like for us to get off the swing?

Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

Reimagining United Methodist Education

pfeiffer
Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, NC.

What would it look like for United Methodist colleges and universities to be identifiably Wesleyan in ethos and practice?  Most Mainline-related institutions of higher education have very little about them that is recognizably Christian: maybe a rarely used, symbolically neutral chapel, or perhaps a required religion class that may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.  Some formerly religious universities are even shunning any organization that would expect certain beliefs (say, the resurrection or the Trinity) from its leadership.

To explore this question, I present to you an interesting exercise.  I have replaced “Catholic” with “Methodist” in the quote by R.R. Reno below. I believe the thrust of his argument (found in an article here) still holds.  The only problem is, no one is seems to be interested in what the Wesleyan tradition has to say to higher education.  See what you think:

Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Methodist universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Methodist tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Methodist education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints.

Ironically, I read this the same day I watched the opening mass for Catholic University of America.  Cardinal Wuerl drew on the tradition that R.R. Reno names, challenging students, especially the incoming freshmen, that there is more to their education than just career ambition.  Rather, he beautifully articulated the gospel’s call, preached and lived by Jesus, to live for something above and beyond self.  With the Spirit’s power, Christian students ought to be driven to transform the world inspired by the vision of the One who proclaimed, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

To receive that power and see that vision, the Cardinal then led the whole assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist.

By contrast, the United Methodist university I attended has not, as best as I can tell, had Communion celebrated in at least a decade and probably more.  And it’s not merely apathy to the sacrament.  I was honored to be invited a couple of years ago to preach at the chapel service on homecoming weekend.  I requested that we have Communion as part of that service – because what, after all, says “homecoming” for Methodists more so than gathering around the Lord’s Table?

But I was told “no” by the alumni office.  So many students and alum are not Methodists, you see – what they were really saying is that we have all these Catholic students – that we wouldn’t want them to feel unwelcome.

For a Catholic university, that would be unthinkable.  The Mass is who they are, regardless of who goes to school there.

I suspect the neglect of the Eucharist and the neglect of United Methodist identity and formation in holiness at our educational institutions are intimately related.  We believe Communion is a sacrament, a means of grace, a way to grow closer to God.

But we have, as best as i can tell, abdicated the vision of the Wesleys who began the tradition of Methodist education: educating people both for their own flourishing and as part of our comprehensive mission as followers of Jesus to renew and sanctify ourselves and our communities in all aspects of life.  At our best, Methodists have not educated young people so that they can go out and be decent, middle-class citizens with 2.5 children and an SUV.

At our most Wesleyan, we have educated young people so that their lives can flourish in holiness and thus be a blessing to others.  We educate soteriologically.  Our goal ought not to be merely informational, but formational.  James K.A. Smith, in a recent lecture at Harvard, made an excellent case for why Christians in general should be invested in this vision for higher learning.

A lofty ideal, of course.  But then, we are a people who claim to strive after perfection.  What would it look like for our colleges and universities to take that seriously?

One example that goes against the grain that I have been identifying – that is, a United Methodist university that is proud of its Methodist heritage and builds on its faith-based identity – is Pfeiffer University outside of Charlotte, NC. I would encourage any United Methodists considering college to seriously consider Pfeiffer.

What do you think? Are Presbyterians, Lutherans, or others doing any better than Methodists are in educating for holiness? Are there other UMC colleges I should know about?  

Postmodern Allergies and the Rebuilding of the Church

rr reno book

I am working my way through R.R. Reno’s brilliant work  In the Ruins of the Church.  Given the shenanigans in my own tribe at present, this is a helpful read.  It is his own attempt to understand and analyze the crises facing the Anglican Communion, and the broader Mainline, at the turn of the 21st century.  Part of the book includes a brilliant reading of the challenges facing the Church in the transition from a modern to postmodern worldview. An important piece of this story is how the humanistic focus of modernity has stayed with us, but is haunted by the fears of the postmodern conscience.  Thus,

“…we worry about about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The bogeyman of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom, flees from error without pursuing truth.”

To be sure, Christians have some reason to rejoice in the fall of modernity’s influence.  I’ve heard N.T. Wright suggest on multiple occasions, “The job of postmodernity is to preach the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity.”  In this, we can surely join hands with the postmodern project.  We ought not, however, swallow the postmodern critique whole-hog:

“Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and fight from truth.”

We see this played out in society as well as the Church, where the only sin is judgment and the only virtue is laissez-faire tolerance.  Any claim to moral authority or  truth is soon met by the most popular logical fallacy of the internet age, Reductio ad Hitlerum.   The modern love of freedom and truth has degenerated into the postmodern definition of freedom as the ability to live absent anyone else’s definitions of truth and without interference from any outside authorities.  For all the ink spilled in the pages of literary journals and the proud triumphalism of deconstructionist academics, it is essentially a fearful worldview which claims, at its root, that all truth claims must be rejected as acts of violence.

The Church is at the epicenter of these concerns.  “As the most powerful force shaping Western culture,” writes Reno, “Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves.”  In current Church controversies, from the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, to the status of gay marriage in the UMC, and even reaching to basic doctrinal claims like the Trinity, we see the authority of the Church constantly undermined (even by its most senior clergy, at times).  While concerns may vary, based on the particulars of a given issue,

“…the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.”

Reno suggests that all of this leads up to a strategy of “distancing” designed to keep us as individuals insulated from the moral and spiritual demands of the Christian community.  We are tempted to separate from, rebel against, or otherwise marginalize the authority of the Church – a temptation as real in the pagan world as it is among the baptized.

In this context, Reno’s prescription is decidedly counter-cultural.  Calling on the witness of Israel’s prophets living after the devastations wrought by foreign armies and internal disputes, he suggests that Christians learn to suffer “the ruins of the Church,” dwelling amidst the rubble, embracing the discipline of affection for her overturned stones.  Distancing is easy, after all; it is the current we are all swimming in.  But God’s Church cannot be rebuilt in the postmodern world unless we learn to love what has been received, though that will be a struggle.  In such a context, Reno argues, we are called to dwell in the ruins, to live with the devastation, before we can begin re-establishing the walls.

Postmodernity has much to offer the Body of Christ in the 21st century, but, like all philosophies, it is a useful servant but a tyrannical master.  An allergy (Reno’s term) to truth and authority cannot serve as the cornerstone for a community built upon “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, cannot help but run into conflict with a worldview based on the fear of truth and authority when we worship one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,”  and who has been given “all authority on earth and heaven.” (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18.)

We can, however, recognize the ruins of the Church for what they are, and learn to love them.  We can lean into the conflict, contradiction, and chaos, instead of distancing ourselves from it.  After all, is that not what Jesus did with the ruined world we had wrought? He did not distance himself from us, from the ruins of creation, but came among us, embracing the devastation, and bringing the Kingdom.  And while the Church is not the Kingdom, she is the Bride of the King, and her well-being matters.

As God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has borne with the mockery we have made of both creation and the Church, perhaps we can learn a similar patience with one another, built upon the recovery of a hope in the God who loves even those who seek to make a ruin of His will.  In recovering that hope in God, we might also recover a love for the devastation that surrounds us, and thus begin to rebuild – with Divine assistance, of course – Christ’s Church.

[Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002), 36-37.]

On being Christian in a postmodern context

I want to highlight a recently (re-)posted article by Joseph Bottum at First Things.  He reflects on being Christian in light of both modern and postmodern sensibilities.  I admit that philosophy is not a strong point of mine, and I will need another couple of readings to really digest this, but it is worth your time.  Here is a sample:

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack—the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.