Sunday, May 28, 2017

When (or to whom) not to listen

So the previous entry on this fool's errand suggested that the staggering but "not dead yet" mainline needs to do a heap of listening as it seeks to find the way forward in the Spirit to be (finally, at last?) what God has ever been wanting the church to be. There are limits to that, however.

Folks involved with computer science and programming (and probably lots of other folks) will be familiar with the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" (sometimes shortened to "GIGO"?), an expression that reflects a computer's inability to do anything about the quality of the data entered into it; given flawed data, the computer will duly process that data according to its programming, producing output that is as flawed as the input from which it is generated.

(A further extension of that acronym points to human gullibility about anything that comes out of a computer: "garbage in, gospel out." Now this really begs to be considered in the life of the church, but in its own blog entry, or maybe several.)

So in short, bad input generates bad output. And that certainly has application to the mainline. Given this maxim, we'd better be very cautious about who or what is allowed into the church's head space. Whether it is those who are up to no good, those who are sincerly but desperately misguided, or those who can only envision a rival to be conquered, there are plenty out there who should not be allowed to deposit garbage into the soul of the mainline.

Such as...?

Don't listen to the vultures. You know, those people. Just don't. It's bad for your soul.

Don't listen to the fixers. They often overlap with the above, as in "you're dying but I can bring you back to life." Unless Jesus Christ in the flesh (or in the Spirit) is the one standing in front of you saying this, run. Run very hard in the opposite direction. One thing the mainline absolutely, positively cannot get caught up in is "personality churches." To the degree that any human figure usurps the role of Christ as head of the church, the church is no church and should be euthanized immediately. The mainline has usually managed to avoid such a thing, thankfully, but now is not the time to be anything other than extra-vigilant.

Don't listen to the clone-makers. That would, not surprisingly, be a related category to the fixers, though it might not involve a lone hero figure. Instead it might sound like "if your church would do (x) and (y) etc. like our church does it would be great." No, it wouldn't be great. It would be a pale imitation of something else transplanted into a situation where it (very likely) makes no sense.

Don't listen to the nostalgia-mongers. Now this is the hard one, but every church has them. You know them, the ones who remember when the church was full every Sunday (though what defines "full" can be hard to nail down...), when the choir was the best in town, when all the right people were know the drill. And you also know, dear mainline church leader, that the road that follows Christ never goes backward.

(Somewhat on this subject, I cannot recommend highly enough Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The title says it all. Even that spasm of everybody going to church and all that was part attack on FDR's New Deal, part "parasitic greedhead scam" in the ever-poetic words of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Just read it.)

Do you notice how these seem to have a lot in common? How to fix. "I alone can fix it." (Really, shouldn't we know better by now?) These are all things that distract one from the hard work of knowing where you are and how you and your church got there, and how you and your church might respond to that particular, distinctive context. (They also tend to involve human heroes, but I harped on that already.) In other words, they lead you away from the hard work of listening. And they certainly don't lead you to the leading of the Spirit.

There are more red flags to discuss and I have a feeling we'll get to them. But in the meantime, a kind of "shaking the dust off your feet" (Luke 9:5) is not out of line here. They don't listen to your testimony, because all they can do is tell you what to do? Shake that dust, baby, and walk away.

One thing that might make all this easier to remember is the hard but needful saying that it is not your  (pastor, educator, member) job to save the church. It is your job to be the church.

Confusing the two only leads to misery. So don't.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The mainline and the "fine art of listening"

I'm not wild about my local classical music station.

(Note: I spent part of grad school as a music host at such a station, so such things are nearer to my heart than to most folks' hearts, I suspect.)

I mean, I don't hate it by any means, and I'm highly aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't actually apply in many places in this country, and I'm exponentially more likely to listen to it than to any other radio station around here. On the other hand, I'm also aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't necessarily apply even to those places that technically do have one; the music is actually piped in from some syndicated national source, and in many places there is little to any local content. (For part of the year there is a three-hour afternoon block of music with a local host. That program apparently takes academic holidays off.)

There is one thing about this station that I not just like but love, however: its tagline.

I'm talking about the thing you hear at the end of a station identification or frequency ID blurb. The masculine announcer voice gives the call letters and frequencies of the main station, its various translator frequencies or HD locations in this case, and then finally ends with this gem of a line:

"Dedicated to the fine art of listening."

BAM. Now that is how to sell your classical-music station, particularly in an age when the classical music establishment doesn't have the caché that it used to. Now I might wish their musical progamming actually lived up to such a lofty standard, but at least the standard is there.

Needless to say, I have a sneaking suspicion the church, particularly the mainline, could learn from this tagline.

I mean, I have been arguing since the second entry ever posted on this blog, lo these many years ago, that the mainline had a period of high influence (sort of) that was largely squandered (with a few exceptions). We had (or at least fancied that we had) the numbers, we had the right people, we had the influence.

If anything is apparent these days, it is that those things are no longer true.

Right now we're the corner of the church on which, ahem, other branches of Christendom are laying odds on our death. Out of Christian love, you know, and all that.

So, now that we're pretty severely stripped of all those pretensions of human power and influence, what do we do? I'm going to suggest that we might take a cue from the Gospel reading for this Thursday, Ascension Day.

(You did know that Thursday is Ascension Day, right?)

Stay in the city and wait.

And, I might add, listen.

Listen to the scriptures from which we preach. Listen to it. Study it in great large gulps. Resist the urge to reduce it (or to stand by as others reduce it) to "greatest hits" verses and cherry-picked checklists.

Especially listen to the gospels. Don't just resist, absolutely fight the sanitized Jesus of schlock paintings and shlock songs. Problematize Jesus. When Jesus is difficult, say so. Plow into the really difficult passages. Absolutely call out and stomp on anything that turns Jesus into anybody's mascot.

Listen to our worship, in particular (from my point of view) our liturgy and the songs we sing. If they don't match up with what we hear when we listen to the gospels, ditch 'em. This is no time to be sentimental, folks; that's how we got in this hole.

Listen to the folks who don't look like us. (Talking to the white folks here.) The mainline has, with a few exceptions, been at best an uneven partner in seeking justice, especially when that justice has called into question the exalted position we just kinda naturally assumed was ours because we were just really nice people. Folks, we didn't hit a triple; we were born on third base. (Wow, did I just riff on a Barry Switzer quote?) In this particular case the listening we need to do to Christians all over the world, and to Christians in this country who have gotten ground up in injustice, is going to involve an element that is necessary for good listening in general, but will be desperately important here; shutting up. Not getting defensive, not playing wounded, just shutting up and listening.

Listen to the Holy Spirit. (Back to everybody now.) You remember that, right? That embarrassing thing that some groups get all excited about. Yeah, that. Part of that Ascension Day story is that, of course, when the disciples went back to the city and waited, eventually Pentecost happened. I'm not expecting the on-the-spot ability to speak Korean or Punjabi to appear out of nowhere one day, but who knows? And we have to know by now that relying on our own inspiration isn't cutting it.

It's not as if this really is a list of discrete items to be checked off a list. I've gone on record in a forum that got read a lot more than this blog ever does about the degree that listening to our congregational song and listening to the global church (or, you know, the church) will likely interact with one another if we do it right.

Of course, the really big challenge for us is that listening takes time. With the overeager vultures circling overhead, the temptation is to be urgent, to do something now. That would be foolish. Part of the need to listen is about learning, and clearly we've got a lot to learn before we rush off into anything. Trying to do things our way, on our own timetable, in our own particular idiom (watch through about 1:05 or so) gets churches in trouble.

Listen. Quit assuming we've got the answers. Quit assuming it's all about us. Quit assuming we call the shots.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

I fight authority, authority always wins...

Twitter is a pretty good place for following the latest public theological kerfuffles, if you follow the right people.

These things occasionally erupt on what sometimes gets called "Christian Twitter" (an aside: is that really a good idea? I mean, "Christian Twitter"? Isn't that just a gold-plated invitation to disaster?), usually provoked by some straying evangelical suddenly getting woke and questioning some of the darker tenets of that particular wing of current Christian faith. Frequently the straying evangelical is also female, which seems to bring out the sharpest of knives.

One of the latest Twitter kerfuffles apparently involved a woman named Jen Hatmaker. I confess, even after her name has come up in a couple of such kerfuffles (yes, I'm going to keep using that word), that I really don't know who she is. She's enough of a big deal to have a stub article on Wikipedia, though, so I can learn that she was a presenter on some HGTV show, she said something about how the church ought to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons, and for that she got dumped on by the evangelical community and her books got dropped from the stores of a large evangelical bookseller. That was kerfuffle enough.

The more recent kerfuffle perhaps sprang from the Hatmaker blowup, or maybe from some other flareup, but it was set in motion by an article in Christianity Today. I link to it only reluctantly, in that it's a pretty fatuous article, but you probably need to be able at least to glance at it to get what's up. The title kinda gives away the game, though.

The obvious answer to the question is "nobody." Look, like it or not, the "blogosphere," like the rest of the internet, is a bit Wild West-ish; you're only "in charge" of whatever patch of territory you stake out. I "control," basically, this blog, and maybe my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and that's about it. Given that the readership of this blog seldom cracks triple digits, it's not as is I even exert much influence with the little bit of cyberspace I tend; someone like Hatmaker or other, I guess, "celebrity" bloggers (does that even make sense in the church? About as much as "Christian Twitter, I guess) like Rachel Held Evans or Carol Howard Merritt get much more of a following and, presumably, more influence.

About all you can really do in the end is talk back. Frankly, trying to crack down on such figures is at least as likely to give them more credibility or interest in the blogosphere as it is to shut them down. About the best you can do is state your disagreement and move on.

One guesses this is what puts off people who ask questions like "who's in charge of the Christian blogosphere?" There's precious little control wielded over what people blog or Facebook or tweet (if there were we would not have the President we now have, would we?), and so folks like the above bloggers can pretty much write what they are moved to write. The right-wing evangelical establishment can throw mud at them, but they can't really silence them, and it drives that establishment nuts. Plenty of mud got slung at Hatmaker, and she somehow failed to recant. So far as I know she's still a supercalifragilistichyperevangelical, so they haven't even managed to satisfy their urge to control by running her off (unlike Held Evans, who has quite contentedly slipped into the Episcopal Church).

Of course, it seems likely that the other major sin committed by the likes of Hatmaker and Held Evans is the heinous, unforgivable crime of having girl parts.

We are, after all, talking about a movement that, if it really got its way, would have women be at home cooking, and routinely getting pregnant. Even tolerating female clergy, though it has been done of necessity (the author of the above article is Anglican clergy), goes against the grain of the hardest-right wing of evangelicalism, and is sometimes still an awkward fit in other parts of that branch of the church. (By contrast, most mainline traditions have been ordaining women for a while now, fifty years or so in some cases.) That non-ordained women like Hatmaker and Held Evans write stuff (even real books with paper and covers and everything!) and have lots of readers (even if a certain number of those readers are mostly there for trolling purposes) and don't participate in the mandatory bashing of LGBTQ+ folk or other disapproved types is just unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, the topics that provoke the most angst over "authority" tend to be those for which "authority" is at best sketchy and involves things like really poor exegesis of scripture (like the infamous "six verses" used to bash homosexuals (or seven, depending on who you ask). Most of the time you don't get big Twitter kerfuffles over things like the Trinity, about which it is almost impossible to speak without committing multiple accidental heresies. I almost suspect that someone could write a blog article suggesting that 2 Peter, a real dogpatch of an epistle, should get eliminated from the canon of scripture and get less grief that the "uppity female blogger" du jour who fails to toe the line on gay people.

Meanwhile, the mainline is pretty quiet. There aren't a huge number of "celebrity mainline bloggers" of either gender, and such churches as have real "authority figures" like bishops don't seem to expend a lot of energy on controlling bloggers. So far as I've heard, the head Episcopal bishop hasn't come down on Rachel Held Evans, for example. (My own denomination is governed by a General Assembly that meets once every two years, with the closest thing to a denominational "voice" in the interim being a Stated Clerk -- hardly an awe-inspiring title, even if the current holder of that title is pretty cool. So far as I know nobody in that office even knows this blog exists, much less cares. But then, I am ordained and have boy parts, so I guess my authority is not in question.)

While the mainline doesn't necessarily incline to suppress voices, I'm not always sure it's good at encouraging voices from within its ranks either. The Christian Century magazine makes a go at fostering a few blog voices in its online version, and a few other periodicals do likewise. Still, it's not so easy to find "Christian Twitter" or a "Christian blogosphere" (ugh) in non-conservative form.

In short, people need to speak up, partly because (as Carol Howard Merritt notes on one of those CC blogs) just because most of the hot-button issues are more or less settled in the mainline denominations doesn't mean they are settled in other regions of the church, and mainline voices still need to be heard, explaining and exegeting and affirming. Also, speaking up is simply a part of bearing witness, and even mainline folk are supposed to do that.

How each person chooses to speak up will vary, naturally, and nobody's promising instant celebrity just because you start a blog or open a Twitter account (and if you're lucky you'll be spared that). But speak up, because there's still good news to be told.

Yeah, that was his song quoted in the title...