Is the US like Babylon and Rome?

Posted December 12, 2008 by Andre Lundsett
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The New England Puritans were not in doubt that the US was the new Israel and Shane Claiborne is not in doubt that the US is a new Babylon. I think Claiborne is closer to the truth, but I wish he had taken a more nuanced approach when comparing the US to Babylon or Rome. When discussing how Christians and the Church should relate to politics and the state, Claiborne gleans from how Jesus, Paul, and John the Seer relates to and speak about the Roman Empire in the New Testament.
Claiborne quotes Tony Campolo saying “we may live in the best Babylon ever […] but it is still Babylon and we are called out of her” (Jesus for President, 151). The quote alludes to Revelations 18:3-4, where John talks about Babylon (codeword for the Roman Empire):

For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.” 4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues.

It does not take a whole lot of imagination to see how verse 3 could be a description of—at least part of—the United States’ role in the World the last century or so. Claiborne particularly notice how the pursuit of wealth is a striking point of similarity between Rome and the US, and I could not agree with him more. I would think the chasing after material wealth has penetrated a much larger part of society in the US than in than it ever did in Rome, and the Church seems thoroughly infused by materialism.

But John wrote Revelations to Christians who were persecuted by Rome and feared for their lives. Through John God comforted them by saying that their current struggles would have an end, and God would bring down the oppressive rulers. John recalls how God had shown himself to be mightier than the Emperor once before when he brought down Babylon and freed the Isralites.

The Church in America is in a very different situation. Some families worry about their kids learning about evolution in school, but they don’t exactly need to fear for their lives. Claiborne and Haw fail to discuss what implications democracy has for how the Church should relate to the state. Claiborne is right that the church should not be tempted to think that they can transform a nation to become like the kingdom of God, it will always be a kingdom of the World. Claiborne points to how the kingdom of God spreads like a mustard plant, hidden but powerful. But Christians today have more options than in the first century. Claiborne has an anarchistic Christians-should-live-beside-society approach that I find too narrow.

I think many Christians have been way too optimistic about how the kingdom of God through media and engaging in politics, but I also think Claiborne and Haw go unnecessary far the other way. There is a danger for the church to buy into too much of kingdom of the world thinking, but I think we need to be more creative in engaging the opportunities modern democracy gives also for the kingdom of God to advance.

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Evangelicals Lose Bush?

Posted December 12, 2008 by Ashleigh Greene
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After Bush’s recent interview on Nightline, media networks have creating hype around the fact that Bush made several comments relating to the Bible that wouldn’t jive with most evangelicals.  (I’m sorry friends–it was on Fox News, so it must be true! ;o)  In fact, according to some definitions of an evangelical, Bush is officially outside the fold given what he shared.  I think it’s an interesting political moment to watch–what will the long-term implications of this be for the Religious Right?

Perhaps they’ll trust their leaders less.  Campell and Kean note in American Cultural Studies the emphasis of Regan and George W. on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion as important in securing votes from the Christian conservative  electorate (120-121, 124).  But as we know, Bush quickly became more than simply a spokesperson for these issues–for some he became a religious figure , a Messiah not all to different from Barack Obama.  “At least we can be thankful we have a Christian president!” some said.  Will they say that anymore?  Will their voting reflect the issues alone in the future rather than whether or not people identify as Christian or how they articulate what that means?  Is this the end to “bonus points” for so-thought evangelical candidates?

What is it that Bush said that was so controversial?  There are two main pieces, which for many are related.  First, he apparently said that he doesn’t take the Bible literally.  Different people mean different things by literally, and for some that simply means they think different genres are present within the Bible and must be read as such.  Still, even many in that less fundamentalist came would have issues with his admittance to believing in the liklihood of theistic evolution.  As Campbell and Kean explain, evolution has been an important issue to many conservative Christians since the mid-twenties (121).  Even Bush himself has said that he favored teaching religious perspectives on creation, as well as evolutionary theory, in public schools (121).  Due to his inconsistency, I think, really, that some evangelicals might have a right to feel cheated or misled.

But then I also wonder, what normalizing effect could this have on Bush’s views?  I mean if someone as seemingly conservative as Bush is allowed to have these heretical views, what does this mean for the rest of us?  Will there ever be a moment when someone from the “inside” of conservative Christianity reveals their previously secret beliefs… and such beliefs become not so scary anymore?  Is it possible for such an insider to remain on at least the edges of the inside?  At this point, I think some are questioning Bush’s Christianity to begin with–essentially saying they were wrong to count him as an insider.  I wonder if it will always be this way and what it would take to remain considered legit by the people with the voice in the evangelical community to make those kinds of calls.

Quite a fascinating question indeed.

Alternative

Posted December 11, 2008 by cretts
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Writing three years after the end of World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr, having been thoroughly disillusioned with Utopian vision of modernism preceding and leading up to the war, wrote an article entitled, “Why the Church is Not Pacifist”, in which he expounded his theory of “Christian realism”. In it, he leverages the “law of love”, that ethic which he finds “ultimately normative” (Niebuhr, Pg. 305) against the depravity of man who is, “inevitably involved in the sin of infinitely making his partial and narrow self the true end of existence.” (Pg. 302) For Niebuhr, the reality of human sin rendered “the law of love” useless insofar as we employ it to “secure justice in a sinful world” (Pg. 305) and relegated to the concerned Christian, two stark, yet non-heretical alternatives:

Either she could disavow “the political task by freeing the individual of all responsibility for social justice” (i.e. disengagement), or she should affirm an existing, though understandably flawed structure (i.e. democracy with its “high degree of achievement”), in which, at the very least, “power has been made responsible, and in which anarchy has been overcome by methods of mutual accommodation.” (Pg. 311)

Huh.

Is it just me, or is this dichotomy still pretty prevalent 60 years later: Disengage completely or redeem the powers by participating in them like Jesus would. What alternative is there?

In discussing the Niebuhr article, it was the teacher of my Christian ethics class at Fuller Seminary that first pointed out to me that Niebuhr hardly ever talks ecclesiology. To use her words, “he has no doctrine of the church.” This is telling to me, because I think it belies a very prevalent identity crisis going on today in American politics. Who are we? Primarily? Do we believe that we are an alternative community?

In asking this question, I like to think of the term alternative in its full sense. I am not just asking if we should be just “different”. If those who are engaging in cultural syncretisms with the American Mythos are in danger of not diverging enough, those who completely disengage from culture may be charged with being only “different” – but not effective. Is there a third way?

For my part I see the church as being called not just to being alternative (and giving up on social engagement), but rather to being AN alternative. As in, a realistic option; one which does have power to secure justice in a sinful world.

Do we think the “law of love” is possible? Do we think it will work? And if we refuse to buy into some Utopian ideal of human achievement as Niebuhr rightly exhorts we should not, the question becomes more pressing. Do we believe that the Sermon on the Mount represents Gods intended modus operendi of working through his people? Or do we not. Did God, rather, intend that his people work through the ways of the world?

The question is still being asked and answers in both directions are being espoused. If David Dark is right; if reassessing the stories we tell can be both one of the most patriotic and kingdomly (of God) things that we can do, then it can only be because we are meant to engage over some of the areas that our patriotism and our allegiance to the kingdom of God bear no difference, and summarily, make a decision over whether or not this is appropriate.

How alternative do we want to be – and in what way?

Boots Without Bootstraps

Posted December 10, 2008 by fullerstudent
Categories: culture

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statue_of_libertyI took a Pastoral Theology class last year in which we were tasked to learn and utilize an assessment process called Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  I hated the exercise.  In contrast to simple problem solving, where deficiencies are identified and actions taken to correct problems, Appreciative Inquiry starts with what’s going right, in an effort to help the organization focus on shared values and beliefs and discover new ways of embodying them.  As someone who likes to cut to the chase and get to the point, I failed to appreciate Appreciative Inquiry.  I thought it was a roundabout and tedious way of problem solving.  Unfortunately, it’s the first thing that came to mind after reading Robert Wuthnow’s insightful look at American cultural myths, American Mythos.

It wasn’t his book as a whole that made me think of AI.  In fact, I found his analysis fair and on point regarding the ambivalence of our nation’s promises and hopes.  But after reading his chapter on the interaction between immigration and the perception of our privilege as a nation, and after reading an article in this week’s Newsweek about violence, drug trafficking and immigration issues on the border between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, and after critiquing the myths of our nation for 10 weeks now, I couldn’t help but feel the need for a little Appreciative Inquiry.

Wuthnow speaks of the ambivalence of the immigration process in America.  Our immigrants come for the promise of freedom and a better future than what their home countries offer; This story of the idealism of immigration has prevailed.  Yet such promise comes at a great cost, and the stories of sacrifice and loss have become hidden by the glare of the shiny American Dream.  These stories, Wuthnow argues, must become a part of our identity too, because they point to strengths and values that we need in order to truly become the better nation we long to be – values of the home, family, community and deep and nurturing roots.  America has a lot to offer the more than 600,000 immigrants who legally became citizens last year, but we have much to learn from the cultures they have left behind.

It is easy to criticize the way in which our beacon of light has dimmed in recent decades.  It is easy to look our broken systems of education, health care and public safety and doubt that we have anything to promise immigrants at all.  We’ve certainly got our share of problems, and it’s no secret that our immigrants receive some of the worst treatment of any of our citizens.  We’ve given them all boots without bootstraps and cheerfully shouted, “PULL!”

But then, we can look at the border between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, where each day 200,000 people cross between the two cities.  Factory executives who live in El Paso head south, while citizens of Juarez head north to shop for sneakers and stereos.  They spend about $2.2 billion a year.  And until recently, Americans fueled a vibrant tourist economy in Juarez.  Yet now, violence plagues the Mexican city that is home to 1.5 million people.  It is ruled by drug lords and the death toll this year is 1,300 and counting (as opposed to the 15 murders in El Paso).  The situation is so bad it’s difficult to describe: “[It] looks a lot like a failed state, with no government entity capable of imposing order and a profusion of powerful organizations that kill and plunder at will” (Newsweek, December 8, 2008, 51).  Hospitals, even in El Paso, are guarded by SWAT teams and bulletproof glass because the drug lords have come north to finish off their surviving victims while they were being operated on.  Beheadings, burnings, dismemberments and mutilations have become routine, and corruption within the Mexican police force prevents any foothold on the problem.  Such anarchy stirs not only fear in the residents of both cities, but a deep desire in the people of Juarez who have been affected by the violence to find peace north of the border.

Immigration isn’t what it used to be.  The journey, for the most part, isn’t as long or treacherous, and the pay-off, perhaps, is not so great.  Still, I can’t help but wonder, in the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry, if our nation does not still offer a glimmer of light, even if it be dim.  I know we are not the Savior of the world, but when I walk in the footsteps of the people of Juarez for a few minutes, I can understand why they might want to come.  Is it possible that boots, even without bootstraps, are better than bare feet?

Our immigration system desperately needs reform.  Our promise needs reform.  But I was reminded today to appreciate the promise of old, stained and tarnished as it may be.  Perhaps our renewal can come from remembering what was good, and reflecting on all the best things the promise of our nation has to offer.  We’ve gotten a long way from them, I believe, but if we return, perhaps some of our problems will be solved.  Or, perhaps they were all just a myth to begin with.  But to the hundreds of thousands who still flee to our borders every year, the myth is real.  They need it to be.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus; inscription on the Statue of Liberty

Culture Calling

Posted December 9, 2008 by rroeca
Categories: culture

  • “… mass culture was ‘imposed from above’ on audiences who were ‘passive consumers’”
  • “… of ‘homogenized culture’”
  • “As the mass production techniques of industrial capitalism could reproduce endless copies of the same, standardized objects, for example sit-coms, records, or paperbacks, fears grew that a similar process would occur in all cultural practices …” (page 292)
  • “America, … became a symbol of both cultural and political leveling, in a manner that endangered educated values.” (page 293)
  • “In such a world accepted notions of a clearly defined American national culture imposing itself on other cultures become increasingly contested by the ways in which the construction of the idea of America itself is constantly under challenge from both internal and external forces which are difficult to resist. (page 299)

These ideas from the last chapter of American Cultural Studies (Campbell and Kean) summarizng the author’s research, are distressing. I find it odd that while the “world” is wary of being “Americanized,” so much of it seems to readily take what is available. Is anyone, Americans included, actually being forced to eat at McDonald’s? Call it capitalism, commodification of goods, industrialization of world resources, the production of the throw-away society, there seems to be a ready and willing acceptance of what America exports.
Which brings me to my next question. What is “culture?” Is it only “high” culture – work that is produced by recognized visual and performance artists, classically trained musicians, and films produced by independent studios? Or do we also include “popular” culture – neighborhood art fairs, the local community theatre, “rock ’n roll”, general “kitch” that is mass-produced, our basic television sound-bit news, comedy and drama productions, and so on. From the discussion in this book, it seems that the authors more than usually include primarily visions of “low” art that America creates and exports. I’ve been having a discussion recently with my MFA students and other faculty in the art department about whether or not an “artist” should be aware of and sensitive to the audience of peoples who might view their artwork. On the side of “high” art I think that artists do see the world around them differently than others and that it is their responsibility to share the vision to those who do not see it. This “vision” is sometimes discomforting to the casual viewer. This, I think is good. When we get too accustomed and comfortable in our surroundings, we become complacent, making it even harder to accept another’s viewpoint. This only exacerbates the continuation of “myths.” On the other hand, an artist might want their work to speak more directly to the casual art viewer. In this case, I think the artist might indeed fashion their work so that it will appeal to that viewer. Some critics might then conclude that this artist has succumbed to “the masses” and lost their vision for “change” (since this is often what an artist desires).
Another idea that Andy Crouch suggests in his new book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, is that the process of actually creating takes cultivation, in the sense that it takes time. While he does not use this metaphor, while I was in grad school in Illinois, I heard someone talking about farming. How, when the farmer plants the seed, he has to just wait while it is underground. He cannot “do” anything. Oh, he can fertilize and whatnot, but he cannot make this seed grow. It is a matter of time, weather, other growing conditions that allows this seed to “cultivate” itself and become the corn plant. But the thing I most like about this, is that it takes time. Obviously, even after the seedling shoots its little head out of the soil, the farmer cannot make it mature any faster that is its custom. So, I do think that while opportunities for “creating” have been democratized, the process of cultivating talent is something that takes time. From my perspective also, becoming an artist is a calling (Bezalel and Oholiab).
Finally, I want to say something from these quotes that mention “passive consumers,” “fears grew that a similar process would occur in all cultural practices,” and “a clearly defined American national culture imposing itself on other cultures.” Why are people “passive consumers”? Why do other fear the “leveling” process in all cultural practices? Why can this American culture “impose itself on others?” Is it not because others have become too satisfied with what they have? They are no longer taking steps to build up their own culture? Is America really imposing itself on other cultures as much as others are not “fighting” to not only protect what they have but to also create again? Yes, I don’t like seeing McDonald’s on every corner across the globe (and other annoying American popular culture symbols) but is there not a choice given to retaining existing culture and also welcoming new visions of “new” culture? The Italian Futurists in the 1920s wanted to flood the canals of Venice and burn down all the old structures and “art” in Italy in order to establish a newer vision for Italy (they were fascists). Could they be right? that Italy had become complacent in its history?

Adding to the confusion

Posted December 8, 2008 by Justin Fung
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One of my non-Christian friends emailed me a couple weeks ago, asking me what the Bible said about killing and murder. He was alluding to the Ten Commandments, and so I told him that the Bible said, no murder (short version), and more generally spoke of a consistent ethic of life and of the value of human life. A few days later, he emailed me back.

“So you should not murder, and therefore the death penalty is abhorrent to all Christians? Sorry if this sounds simplistic.” (My paraphrase.)

I haven’t replied yet, because this could be a paper topic. I could talk about the voice of Scripture that runs throughout the Bible, the witness that says that the value for human life is tantamount, and that any judgment that comes is necessary judgment, and that God does not pleasure in meting out punishment. I could talk about contextualization and how God dealt with the people where they were, culturally and historically. I could talk about the trajectory of history and of the Bible, which reaches its climax in Jesus Christ, the full embodiment of God, and how we look to him to know what God is like and it is through him that we interpret the law.

But I’d also have to be honest with him: the death penalty is not abhorrent to all Christians, just as not all Christians seek to follow Christ with their lives, thoughts, actions, attitudes, and relationships.

My point is …

First, being a “Christian” can mean a wide range of things (and we touched on this in class). Does “Christian” connote someone who is pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage? (Because it does for some people.) Or does “Christian” connote the opposite? (Because I know a good few Christians whose values as gleaned from the pages of Scripture motivate them to fight for the woman’s right to choose, against the death penalty, and for gay marriage.)

Second, how do we navigate this broad swathe of Christianity? Being a Christian, at its narrowest, is to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he is the Lord and Savior of our lives (or something similar; I’m sure we could make it even more narrower). But it’s in the working out of what it means for him to be the Lord and Savior of our lives that we can sometimes differ.

Third, should we just be okay with this? I think that Christians who differ do so because they are sincerely and genuinely trying to figure stuff out, not because they’re being disingenuous, ignorant or moronic. (Okay, some do … sometimes.) And we all think our understanding or interpretation of the gospel and the Bible is the best, at least as far as we know (and if we didn’t, we’d have great trouble living out our convictions).

So … what to do?

For what are we Fighting?

Posted December 8, 2008 by dbogard
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What exactly are we fighting for? The Seattle Times reports this year, once again, on a statewide controversy over displays of holiday symbols in public places and state institutions. This year’s controversy centers around a sign displayed in the state capitol presented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In part the sign reads: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” (See the Seattle Times for an article: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008458044_noreligion02m.html)

When I read such an article, I can help but wonder: what exactly were those Christians hoping to accomplish? Certainly Rep Ahem knew enough about politics to expect that officially declaring the tree a “Christmas Tree” would be tantamount to throwing the first stone. Certainly he expected to cause controversy, certainly he anticipated a backlash. So why do it? Perhaps for the sake of political advancement, perhaps so that he might maintain the status of one supported by the Christian right? If so – his Christian constituents ought to have written their representative and asked that he stand for something more substantial that showy politicking. If we are to declare the message of the gospel, we will do so through real words and real deeds, not the empty symbolic warfare of the Christmas display window.

This incident reminds me of another recent political battle: that regarding Proposition 8. I recall attending an event at which a Christian speaker declared to his enthusiastic audience that “we won” the battle over prop 8. My own views on prop 8 aside, I remember wondering at the time: just exactly what did we win? And just exactly who are we fighting? Is it really something to celebrate when an attempt to elevate biblical principles results in this must hatred toward the church? Even if we voted for Prop 8, should we declare victory? Or should we rather lament the fact that the battle lines even had to be drawn. For what are we fighting?

The political climate of the age would seem to suggest that the battle lines stand between Christians and non-Christians. And the current struggles would lead us to conclude that the thing at stake is political sway. Lord forgive us when that is the case! Let us not forget that the battle is for those far from Jesus, not against them. And the stakes to be won or lost are much greater than those our political system has to offer. Do we really think that the presence of a Nativity scene in the capitol or a Menorah in the airport will be that which leads one toward Christian or Jewish faith? Is a billboard actually going to change lives? Men and women who watched Jesus feed five thousand and raise the dead did not believe – are we really going to convince them with a Christmas tree? Oh, how short sighted we are! Let this be a reminder to us as Christians to rethink just exactly for what it is that we are called to fight.