Saturday, February 26, 2011

Personal Connection

Was Tocqueville right that religion contributes to American democracy? The evidence suggests that with one important exception he was. Religious Americans are generally better neighbors and more active citizens, though they are less staunch supporters of civil liberties than secular Americans. Morever, religious Americans are more satisfied with their lives. As we have seen, however, theology and piety have very little to do with this religious edge in neighborliness and happiness. Instead it is religion's network of morally freighted personal connections, coupled with an inclination toward altruism, that explains both the good neighborliness and the life satisfaction of religious Americans.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Unites Us and Divides Us, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 492.
Religious social networking. According to the research, religious Americans are more apt to be good neighbors and civic-minded simply because of the social networks provided by their particular religious institution. In other words, a church can have good preaching, good music, and a dynamic building - but without relationships it will mean squat. Without providing a forum and opportunity for true networking (none of that Sunday bullshit of "How you doing" & "I'm doing fine") - people will not change because of church. As Putnam and Campbell say it, "devout people who sit alone in the pews are not much more neighborly than people who don't go to church at all. The real impact of religiosity on niceness or good neighborliness, it seems, comes through chatting with friends after service or joining a Bible study group, not from listening to the sermon or fervently believing in God." People MUST connect with people to make religious participation meaningful. A perfect call for community.

It is amazing to me to see a well researched and articulated book point out the obvious and yet for the church to still not get it. How is it that we see book after book written about the need for community and then even have researched data to back it up - and yet it can still feel so hollow and empty when we go to church? We see the show, we feel the entertainment, and we can tell time and money have been invested...and yet none of it matters or penetrates. Even when we remark on the "timeliness of such a great sermon" - it usually has exited our thoughts by the time we hear that 6 am alarm the next morning. In many ways, that after church lunch with our group of church friends is more critical to developing our lives than the service we just got out of.

So should we ditch church all together? I don't think that is the answer or even a logical step. The church service still has meaning and purpose. However, the reality is that what churches need to do more of is develop ways for people to move beyond attendance and into meaningful relationships. The primary source of all time, creativity, energy, money, and effort needs to be relationship development. Because at the end of the day - that will truly transform more lives than a service. People become better people as a result of truly doing life with other people. Don't tell me you have Bible studies, small groups, or midweek programming. Give me something every single time I come in contact with your church that shows me relationship. Then, and truly one then, will church showcase the intimacy, relationship, and love that Jesus Christ desires with us.

After all, in heaven I would expect Jesus to give me a hug, share a story, or simply laugh with me NOT show me His ability to shock & awe my senses.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trend Follower

However, we can find encouragement in the fact that other evangelicals - and members of other religious traditions too - have adapted to ethno-racial diversity. Like the adaptation to changing gender roles described in the previous chapter, most religious Americans have conformed to the broader societal norms endorsing racial tolerance. To "adapt" and "conform" are passive verbs, chosen because, in general, religion has not served a prophetic role and promoted greater racial equality. Religious Americans are following the trend, not setting it.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 315.
Religious institutions are followers not leaders in American culture. That is a heavy charge to make against groups that the majority of which would say they want to be changers of culture. How do you change culture when you are constantly adapting to fit into it? Taking a look at how American religious institutions have adapted to the changing gender roles, socio-economic relationships, and racial tolerance is eye-opening. Not because they have done so poorly at it, but because they have adapted and conformed in much the same way as the rest of American culture has. So the question is are American churches followers of God or simply cultural clubs?

Here are some things I think. The first is that I believe churches have started hiring female pastors simply because American cultural views of women workers has changed. With the rise of female power, authority and education in culture it became permissible for churches to employ them. Although I am happy to see female pastors, part of me wants to know why the church for so long did not have them but now the "rules" have changed. In other words is the church admitting to failure to recognize female leadership in the past or do we truly believe that in the last 30 years females have all of a sudden become acceptable spiritual leaders?

The second is in giving. I think the American church does a pretty decent job at this. Could it be better? Certainly - but that should not discount the good being done now. But the issue I have is the growing socio-economic divide that we are facing in America and has come to rear its ugly head within the church. Although the church does give money to those in need - it rarely seems to confront the issue that people with money struggle to relate to and form relationships with those without. Giving cash to a person in need is beneficial - befriending them and doing life with them is a whole, bigger step. What is the church doing to promote those types of relationships? Or has the church become okay with the idea of giving money but never actually seeing those who receive it?

Third and final is with racial tolerance. I think this is the hardest one because I think most Americans (myself included) do not do well with this. I believe the church has gotten more racially tolerant and for the most part people seem to be breaking down their out-right, blatant racist viewpoints. However, like in giving - its one thing to say I don't view other ethnicities as lower than my own, it is a whole, bigger issue to say I am seeking relationships and friendships outside of my own comfortable race bubble. Most churches remain homogeneous collections of people. That seems to be a far cry from the "every tongue, tribe & nation" worshipping model. The reality is that what little progress has been made in the church once again mirrors the slow growth model of American culture.

The church should have the desire and ability to set trends not follow them. Until it figures out how to do that, though, it will remain an American cultural club designed to make its members feel included and entertained while failing to bring the impact the surrounding society desperately needs.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Religious Entrepreneurship

...the consistent pattern of religious entrepreneurship in America leaves us confident that more innovations will emerge. Such changes will be mostly incremental, mostly within local congregations, but always inventive.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 179.
As a "showman, businessman, and entertainer" - P.T. Barnum rose to the heights of fame and fortune during the 19th century. Interestingly enough, Barnum might be one of the key figures to study in learning about the American church today. Although I would argue that the church is not offering the hoaxes that Barnum did, I do believe that the church is in a position where it spends many of its hours and dollars on figuring how to draw people in. What can be done to allure the person who is not currently coming to the church into coming to your church?

What this has done has made the business & entertaining side of church far more critical then in the past. A pastor with a theological degree might be able to explain the questions we have about the Bible, but without doing it in an entertaining way - he'll never have the audience to do so. Religious innovation and entrepreneurship have become the backbone of moving the church forward. What can be done to entertain the masses and convince them that your product is the best? What are you selling that the other local churches or possibly local entertainments are not? Might it be that the church would do better hiring more people with business, theatrical and marketing backgrounds? I have often thought that a church willing to hire the creative team behind Bud Light could certainly increase attendance.

Of course the issue behind it all is that the church (hopefully) remains focused on Jesus Christ and His message of redemption. Theology must remain a critical piece to the church puzzle. Without God - the church is simply a moralistic social club. However, the reality remains that churches need attedance & money. Without those two factors, churches (like businesses) shut their doors. So the issue becomes how much of the resources of a church go into the entertainment aspect - and what is the process for determining how effective those resources are at getting the audience to "buy into" the "product?"

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dilemma

However, if the broader appeal of conservative sexual morality emblazoned on the evangelical banner continues to wane (as it is likely to do because of generational succession), the evangelical movement may face a dilemma familiar to American evangelicals a century ago, a dilemma encapsulated in the differences between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism over how much to accomodate religious views to modernity. Continuing to sound the public trumpet of conservative personal morality may be the right thing to do from a theological point of view, but it may mean saving fewer souls now than it did a generation ago.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 132.
I picked up Putnam & Campbell's book on American religion this past week. So far I have enjoyed its insights and research. Their work is done from a social scientist perspective with research, statistics, and hard-hitting questions. Too often the church and Christians live with their heads in the sand, and it is critical to ask questions and seek answers on issues that exist within the American Christian culture. The book (thus far) has done an excellent job at bringing those issues to the forefront of discussion.

One of the first things the authors do is to take a look at how religion was impacted from the 1950's through the long 60's, 70's & 80's swing, and then the 90's & 00's backlash. There were clear statistical patterns during these timeframes. The 50's saw a rise in being a part of religious traditions while the 60's were a rejection of that culture. The 70's and then 80's saw a rise in the religious right and attempted take back of culture, while the 90's through today saw a relapse as people tired of religion and politics mixing. Facts are stubborn things - and analysis shows these patterns to be true. Church attendance & religious participation is dictated by the overall cultural feelings of the time. A large portion of the American population allow their religious participation to be based upon cultural tendencies.

So what does the church do? Does the church accomodate their viewpoints in order to mesh better with their surrounding society? Or does the church continue to try to be the "shining city upon a hill" to the decaying moralistic community engulfed around it? If choosing to stick to certain moralistic standards causes more people to avoid the church - is that acceptable collateral damage? Which battles does the church choose to fight...which battles does the church choose to remain silent on...which battles does the church give into...? As American society moves foward this becomes the central pressing issue on the church.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guy Montag

I recently finished Bradbury's landmark book Fahrenheit 451. Its one of those books I have heard about for so long, but never actually took the time to read. What a book!! I really enjoyed the story but even more then the story was the message behind the writing. At first it was easy to jump to the conclusion that this book is yet another powerful tool against the evil of censorship. In fact, prior to reading it that was what I had heard about it and assumed it was about. Yet after reading it, I discovered a far more profound message then mere anti-censorship.

The primary thing that stuck out to me was the the laziness of humanity. Written in 1953, the book is extremely prophetic on the apathetic & lazy nature of people today. Essentially the people of the story have given themselves over to mindless entertainment with an expressed goal of simply having fun. Life becomes about seeking pleasure, having fun, and finding happiness. As a result people stop thinking, stop caring, and stop learning. Books become evil and are burned not so much as a result of censorship but because people are too lazy to use them anymore. Its easier to simply become numb to the simple pleasures of life. Book require thinking, challenge assumptions, and do not allow people to rest comfortable. All of that is too much for the lazy culture. I was blown away because in much the same way I see that of our current culture as well. How many people do not read anymore? Internet, movies, television, and other forms of mindless entertainment have taken the place of reading. People do not want to learn and do want to be challenged anymore. We have become a lazy culture. Is it too much of a stretch to say that it will not be long before books "die" for us as well.

The other thing I gained from the story was the blame we often put on governments and government systems for our own inadequacies. We do not spend our own money well - and yet rail at the government for poor spending. We do not educate our kids at home - and yet rail at teachers for not doing enough for our kids. We do not like a variety of things - and yet it is often ourselves who are to blame for society's ills. In the book, the city and life of the people is ugly and pathetic. And yet the reality is that the people in the story have all earned their place. Too many refused to do anything about their situation and as a result their society crumbled. The firemen who burned books were not the problem. The culture that allowed for books to be burned was the issue.

Fascinating book. I am glad I finally took the time to read it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Beautiful Story

Behind him came the baripity of the pickup, but he couldn't turn around. He tried to run faster, but his father passed him and stopped the pickup just ahead, then jumped out and ran back. He picked Jess up in his arms as though he were a baby. For the first few seconds Jess kicked and struggled against the strong arms. Then Jess gave himself over to the numbness that was buzzing to be let out from a corner of his brain.
Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia, (New York: HarperTrophy, 1977), 156-158.

My wife and I have a frequent argument over movies and books. She uses both to escape and generally does not like stuff that makes her cry or feel bad. I, on the other hand, like stories that spark emotion within me. Whether its joy, sorrow, happiness, sadness, anger, or shock - I like stories that move me. To that end, I have always loved Bridge to Terabithia. Along with reading Charlotte's Web this weekend, I took the opportunity to read Bridge this weekend. I remember exactly why I loved it. It is so easy to understand the emotions and feelings of Jesse Oliver Aarons Jr. His feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, turmoil, joy, friendship, lack of courage, lack of strength, competitiveness, anger, and raw emptiness all speak so true from the page of Paterson's great work. I love his friendship with Leslie Burke and how much she brings out the best in him. I cried (once again) over her death and the raw emotion and pain felt by Jesse. The passing of the torch to his sister May Belle and his discovery of understanding his enemies Janice Avery & Mrs. Myers.

However, the part of the book that always gets me the most is the scene sketched by Paterson above. Jesse never seemed to see eye to eye with his Dad and for most of the book you see Dad as cold & distant. He is there - but he spends so much time working and doing what he can to provide, that as the reader you feel the distance between the two. Jesse longs for the closeness of the relationship he had with him when he was just a little boy. And then in an instant you see this incredible depth after Jesse finds out Leslie has died. He runs away and his Dad chases after him and swoops him into his arms. I can just feel my own Dad wrapping his arms around me as I struggle to make sense of my own shattered world of hurt, pain, and lack of understanding. You feel the love and care that Jesse's Dad obviously always had for him - even if he did not do well with showing it. And I found myself crying over the absolute beauty of the scene.

A beautiful book. One of the best I have ever read. I am thankful I decided to spend the weekend traveling "back in time" to the books of my youth.

Some Pig

  • Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend. In good time he was to discover that he was mistaken about Charlotte. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.
  • "No," said Charlotte. "They don't catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they'd hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no - with men it's rush, rush, rush, every minute. I'm glad I'm a sedentary spider."
  • "Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman's barn talk, I'm quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. People are incessant talkers - I can give my word on that."
  • "You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that."
E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, (New York: Harper Collins, 1952), 41, 60, 110, 164.
I took the opportunity to read Charlotte's Web this weekend. It was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I do not believe I had read it since about third grade. I zoomed through it Saturday morning and fell in love with the story all over again. What a beautiful portrayal of loyalty, friendship, and the inevitable sadness that comes when we lose someone we love. The life lessons that are taught through the writing are as applicable to the 28 year old version of me as they were to the 8 year old version. Anytime a book can literally move your heart, the writing is solid. It was a good reminder that no matter how many things I can learn, sometimes the most crucial are the lessons I already have learned. Excellent read.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Monkey Mind

I can prattle away to God about all my feelings and my problems all the livelong day, but when it comes to time to descend into silence and listen...well, that's a different story. When I ask my mind to rest in stillness, it is astonishing how quickly it will turn (1) bored, (2) angry, (3) depressed, (4) anxious or (5) all of the above. Like most humanoids, I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the "monkey mind" - the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. From the distant past to the unknownable future, my mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined. This in itself is not necessarily a problem; the problem is the emotional attachment that goes long with the thinking. Happy thoughts make me happy, but - whoop! - how quickly I swing again into obsessive worry, blowing the mood; and then it's the remembrance of an angry moment and I start to get hot and pissed off all over again; and then my mind decides it might be a good time to start feeling sorry for itself, and loneliness follows promptly. You are, after all, what you think. Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), 132.
Gilbert's description of religion & spirituality is very interesting. At times I think she takes the easy route and uses a form of universalism to support her inability to choose truth. However, I do think she narrows in on some key concepts that are very applicable to my own life. For most of her time in India, she is highly focused on meditation and its practical benefits. She spends her time searching for the proper way to meditate as well as spend time in solitude & silence. All of these are invaluable spiritual disciplines. And uniquely I find my own life a mirror image of her's in terms of struggling to sit still, silence myself and actually listen to God.

Rest in stillness. My mind never seems to do that and frankly I am not completely sure how to make it. I admire the idea of retreating to a place that would cut me off from the hustle & bustle of every day life. I don't have the luxury of seeking seclusion in India, but I do think the first step in finding quietness for my mind is seeking an environment that would could help encourage it. The other key point is being a slave to my emotions. How easily true this is of me. I often find my actions & speech reflective of my current wave of emotions. The danger of my monkey mind - is that certain emotions & thought processes can easily derail me.

So now I am left with - how do I accomplish what Liz Gilbert set out to accomplish? Where do I go & how do I take it upon myself to accomplish a mind that seeks stillness? And even more importantly - what am I missing by being the only one talking in my relationship with God?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

World Champions!

I can distinctly remember watching the Packers lose in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos and how upset it made me. I even remember picking a fight with my friend Ben Swails in my frustration. After that night it became a waiting game for another chance to see my beloved Packers play in the Super Bowl. Most years ended with hope being dashed on the rocks of yet another Brett Favre interception. So after all the was incredibly fun to watch them win it all again. Great game & great win. Another team effort led by the best quarterback in the NFL brought the Lombardi trophy home. Good job Green Bay. And hopefully they don't make me wait that long again for another title!

(AP Photo / Kathy Willens)
Play of the game. There were a lot of great moments in the game - but as has often been the case this year, Matthews made the hit that made the difference.

(AP Photo - Chris O'Meara)
Super Bowl MVP. One of the best QB performances in Super Bowl history. Aaron Rodgers was a beast in the playoffs. What a ride!
(Green Bay Press-Gazette / Corey Wilson)
The architect behind the Packers. Ted Thompson is one of the the smartest men in football. His bold & controversial move of saying NO to Favre was one of many brilliant moves he has done.
(Green Bay Press-Gazette / H. Marc Larson)
Underrated & under-valued. Coach McCarthy deserves all the praise for leading this team through adversity after adversity, injury after injury. Great coach!

(AP Photo / Eric Gay)
The drops were awful to watch. But Jordy kept pushing foward and made himself a Super Bowl hero.

(AP Photo / Paul Sancya)
Nothing better then seeing the pick six. Great pressure by Green & great finish by Collins.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Riotous and Endless

I look at the Augusteum, and I think that perhaps my life has not actually been so chaotic, after all. It is merely this world that is chaotic, bringing changes to us all that nobody could have anticipated. The Augusteum warns me not to get too attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may once have intended to serve. Yesterday I might have been a glorious monument to somebody, true enough - but tomorrow I could be a fireworks depository. Even in the Eternal City, says the silent Augusteum, one must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love, (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), 75.
I could write a lot of posts on the good and bad portions of the first third of Elizabeth Gilbert's book. The writing is very good. She does a great job at describing places, emotions, feelings, and questions of the soul. On many different pages I found myself laughing out loud and feeling the ache of loneliness & depression. Yet, I also see a feminist woman who is pretty self-centered and seems to think her way is the right way. She seemingly complains a lot and her justifications do not always land just right. Plus, she was able to get a publishing company pay for her to spend a year on the road. Not a lot to whine about Ms. Gilbert. So in all that, I must say I have found myself really enjoying her writing. So as I go along, I'll jot some thoughts down on passages that have made me pause and think. (Side-note: she dives into a worldly type view of spirituality a lot. I will probably not touch much on this. I don't agree with a lot of her thoughts in this regard - but I would rather focus on what I am gaining, not on what I disagree with).

The above quote comes from a part of the book where she is taking a personal walking tour around Italy, and comes across the Augusteum. Having just finished a book on Augustus - my curiosity was peaked. What was once a grand mausoleum in honor of Augustus, the Augusteum has undergone a variety of transitions through hundreds of years. Her take on its experience and ability to transcend, adjust and grow with the times was very insightful. The reality is our world is chaotic & constantly changing. What we think and hope for right now - can instantly change depending on what the world brings us tomorrow. Transformation will come. It will be endless and riotous. And no matter how much I desire to remain in the past or cling to some supposed path - I must be prepared to deal with what comes my way. Life might not look at all the way I want. That's okay. The key is found simply being able to endure.

The above picture shows the Augusteum today. Hardly a magnificent looking building to house & honor the great Octavian! Yet, the reality is it still stands. It is broken down. It has wild plants and weeds growing all over it. It is old and weary looking. Yet it remains. Can I say the same thing about my own life and journey? Or do the waves of change and transformation wash over me leaving nothing left behind?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chick Book

So I have decided to read a chick book. Not sure what I will gain by reading "one woman's search for everything" - but the fact is I love good writing. I have heard many good things & many bad things about this book, and now will investigate it for myself. I have no shame in reading it and I hope that its writing moves me as much as it has moved others. At the very least, I'll be able to see what the fuss is all about and formulate my own thoughts. So here we go...