Liberalism


This just in from the NYTimes.com:  Texas Conservatives Win Vote on Textbook Standards. Have mercy. We’re not just talking about adding Intelligent Design or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the science curriculum, either; it’s the entire social studies curriculum. US History, World History, and Economics, in particular.

This is the last thing we need; clearly-defined ideologically based curricula at the state public education level. If you want that, there are plenty of options already; private Christian schools and homeschooling in particular. But to go beyond this and identify “Conservative” with “Christian” and “Christian” with “Republican” and interpret all of history in this light is way too dangerous.

I mean, just ignoring Jefferson? Arguing that the Enlightenment played only a small role in the US’ founding? That the US was established as a “Christian” Nation, based on a limited (and totally anachronistic) definition of “Christian”? Virtually leaving out the massive importance of Latinos in Texas’ history?

I’m emphasizing the seriously important role that Christianity has played in not only the founding of the US, but in the colonization of this continent in my US History course, but it is most definitely not along any particular party line because this is impossible. To recognize and emphasize the Christian influence is critical to understanding this country, but, as I tell my students, there were a LOT of different kinds of Christians between the 15th century and now, and to reify the term into a single concept yields a grossly inaccurate picture of US history. (Billy Graham’s or Francis Schaeffer’s version of neo-Evangelical Christianity, for example, has nothing to contribute to any discussion of the Christianity of the Fathers!)

This is anti-democratic at its core, in more ways than one.

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So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

… of Matthew 21.31-32. Dedicated to today’s whitened sepulchers.

paraphrase.jpg“Look, I’m trying to set it straight with you guys. The abortionists and gays and the liberals! are gonna be in God’s world before most of you guys who think you’re in the Right. I mean, guys like John, King, and Wallis, and Edwards and Obama talked about hope and justice and you don’t give them the time of day, but “those other guys” do, and even after seeing what King did and Wallis is doing and what Edwards and Obama are fighting for, you still won’t change your minds and believe them!”

hsadventures.jpgIt has been quite a while since I’ve blogged on homeschooling (actually, a while since I’ve written much of anything substantial), but the time seems right for it here. For the past 2 months, while the missus was keeping us afloat with her holiday job, I’ve been juggling orals, prospectus-writing, grading, attending class, entertaining family for Thanksgiving and visiting family for other Christmas-related activities. But the big consumer of time was keeping the homefires burning, especially the homeschool activities. For us, this involves a “co-op” one day a week (for the uninitiated, a homeschool co-op is pretty much school electives in actual classes taught by homeschool parents), gym class on another day, AWANA for the kids, Ballet for one of them, swim lessons on another day, and the three R’s, science, history, and, yes, Bible-history (a.k.a. “western civ in antiquity”) etc every day.

In all this, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the whole homeschool phenomenon, the stereotypes that go with it, and rationale for it. Most of my “token thoughts” here are based on homeschooling as I experience it and observe it. I know, though, that there are many homeschooler and unschool families who do not fit the mold that this will show, and I hope that some of you folks will comment on your own stuff on this site.

1. In Christian evangelical homeschooling, it is definitely “mom-centered.” It was hilarious how so many of the moms had no idea what to do or what to say when I was anywhere in the area. Usually I was ignored by moms who have kids the same age as my own. One one occasion I was noticed working with another kid and one woman, after looking a bit shocked, snickered and said to me “oh, you must be the token homeschool dad.” Hence the title of the entry here. I find this pretty fascinating; most of these women are your standard and typical evangelical-borderline-fundamentalist moms who feel simultaneously that the world is out to get them and especially their kids, and yet are clearly uncomfortable around men, who they will readily assert are the absolute, biblical heads of their households. I’d have thought that my being around would show a bit of support to the more paranoid, that they’re not in this homeschooling endeavor alone, but it didn’t really seem to be the case. Not every woman there, though, was so standoffish; for the most part, I got on well with many of the teachers whose own kids had come and gone from their homes and who were now in college or in their own careers. Among these, I was heartily welcomed and encouraged to consider teaching for the coop next year. Which brings me to…

2. Because my wife has been involved with these groups now for three years, most of the moms have heard of me, or at least heard of what I do. I’m an academic, a scholar, Ph.D student, teacher at the University, etc, and my field is ancient religion, Bible, and Christianity in general. Which is, to most people in these circles, fascinating, because they think that my kids will get the best apologetically-oriented treatment of Biblical history out of all of them. Well, maybe, but when I’m actually around these folks, it’s a mixture of paranoia and curiosity. See, the Coop exists to help homeschooling parents (read: moms, in this case) teach things that they don’t feel qualified to teach. Science, for example, or advanced history classes, or classical ballet, music, and so on. Greek and Latin are very popular with high school students (or at least with their parents who sign them up for them). Obviously not everyone has a facility for these things. But “Bible” and “Bible history” are not offered. The Bible is an open book; anyone can do it, and for certain folks in these environments, no one, NO ONE, not even Sunday school teachers, will be teaching their kid Bible except for the homeschooling mom in the home, unless it meets the “kid tested, mother approved” criteria of evangelical, conservative, borderline-fundamentalist interpretation. Only way to make sure your kid is getting the Bible taught “right” is to do it yourself. Knowing the Bible, its history, and the history of periods it describes, is not necessarily a prerequisite.

I think it would be a hoot to teach a “How to Read the Bible” elective to the high school kids in the Coop. I may yet volunteer to do so, but I know that most likely it wouldn’t run because the parents would be afraid of it. Which brings me to …

3. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a group of more paranoid people in my life. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that these folks are afraid of getting caught doing something illegal. (They’re not in any danger whatsoever.) I think this has something to do with the way I was received by a lot of the people in the Coop. I’m an outsider, even though my kids are there. I’m a dad (and it’s no secret in this particular group that there are MANY dads who simply go along with the moms on the whole homeschooling thing and refuse to allow the moms/teachers any curriculum budget), I’m an academic, I’m in “religion,” I go to a “liberal” church, and I had critical comments to make about the organization’s affiliation with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) during a casual conversation with some other moms and teachers. The HSLDA traffics in paranoia (kinda like the Bush Administration, come to think of it) and fosters the prevailing notion that everyone outside the walls of the Coop building is out to get them, and that only the HSLDA is equipped to protect you from the public school truant officer. With this mentality, it’s no wonder that anyone who isn’t an insider in the organization (and I’m technically an insider!) is not to be trusted. I think this is a sad state of affairs, because the public school system (here, at least) is very accommodating to the homeschooling crowd and even has offered special needs services for students to whom it would benefit, only to be flatly rejected by the Coop boardmembers because no public school people are allowed on homeschool premises for member families.

4. On the positive note, I will say that at least in the subjects covered in the Coop, I’ve run into some of the brightest and inquisitive young people I’ve ever met. They are genuinely eager to learn, whether it’s Chess, Dance, Public Speaking, Chemistry, or Calculus. There’s even a darn good debate team. I honestly can’t sit here and say that the quality of what these kids are learning is inferior to what they would get anywhere else, public or private. Neither did I experience the ambiguous reception I felt from the moms; apparently this didn’t rub off onto the students, because I felt like they REALLY liked having me around, which is why I’m tempted to offer that “How to Read the Bible” class. And the stereotype that homeschool kids are social introverts is (again, at this place) totally off-base. These kids act their age, which is a good thing.

I think I’ll make this the first part of a three-part post. Next up will be more reflective on the entire homeschooling phenomenon, and the last one maybe I’ll do a post on Why I Homeschool at all (although I kind of covered this in my very first post for Aedificium way back in February of last year; other entries to the subject in the Homeschooling Tag cloud to the right). And I’m very anxious to hear, in comments, from anyone who does NOT homeschool within an evangelical framework, as well as why you do so, as well as from folks whose experiences are closer to my own.

scaffolding.jpgFamily of four looking for church home that meets a majority of the following: 1) Church should willingly and unashamedly call itself a “Christian” church, meaning (2) it follows a local theology that its leaders and board members affirm as thoroughly Trinitarian and which (3) finds its central identity in the biblical concept of a called community that (4) engages the world, rather than insulates itself against it, is (5) committed to biblical and prophetic justice, and which (6) contests “the powers” of state, bureaucracy and empire with prophetic voice and action and which (7) maintains active and aggressive vigilance against its own potential complicity with those powers. Church should be (8) Gospel- and missional-centered, (9) unafraid to name sin for what it is and (10) promote and teach the contents of Scripture as the Church’s “norming norm” even while recognizing the (11) necessity of critical reason, ecclesiastical tradition, personal impact, and interpretive flexibility among other churches throughout history and throughout the world in different circumstances from its own. Prospective church’s worship services should be (12) highly liturgical, with preference given to (13) weekly celebration of the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper and (14) worship in a building that actually looks like it has a sacred history and participates in the holy. Preference given to prospective applicants who demonstrate willingness to (15) ordain both men and women to ministry but which does not do so out of bureaucratic convenience or as political statements; applicants who refrain from ordinations entirely also considered. Churches claiming to have all the answers, or which lead members and attenders to think that they have all such answers, need not apply. To apply, email Aedificium Librarian at link provided on this page, or leave a comment below.

bible_cross_candle.jpgFor those readers who have been looking forward to the second part of my original “Failing Religion” post back in … what, March, was it?… I apologize for the delay. But I’m ready now.

It is a little tough to find a good entree to the topic here, so perhaps a story is the way to go. Beloved Wife spent her morning listening to the teens in our church announce their intent to seek confirmation as members in our church, for which each prospective confirmand would read their own personal statement of faith and the church Board would vote to confirm the statement and the “stater” as a member of the community.

Sounded good, if a little routine and rather “going through the motions”-ish. While this was happening in the hall, I was leading a small gathering of folks in our continued study of the Epistle of Jude. Eventually we caught up with each other after church, and Beloved Wife, member of our voting Board of Elders, was clearly distraught, having been absolutely shocked and appalled by what she was hearing from our teen-aged Seekers and which was being approved as Christian statements of faith and worthy of membership into our Christian community of faith. I’m actually being told that “appalled” is not even the right word, even though it’s true; she feels more “betrayed.” Suffice it to say that if she did not know where she was, she would not have been able to discern the difference between our Christian church, our community of faith in Jesus of Nazareth, and any typical Unitarian-Universalist congregation, based on what was acceptable as “Christian” statements of faith.

And so where our religious education has failed Americans in general in their responsibilities as members of both local and global socio-political-cultural communities, it is failing our young people today even in our own communities of faith. I can only speak, of course, from my own experience, but I can safely say that my Muslim and Jewish friends in this country admit of the same problem in their own faith communities. In a word, the problem is that our churches today have simply not learned an appropriate, Christian response to the very fact that we live in a pluralistic world and have largely been unable to steer a course between a theological wishy-washiness that doesn’t even resemble anything remotely Christian or hyper-biblicistic stance that is unable to see the good in that which is not “us.” In other words, the failure of Christian faith communities in both the mainline and evangelical worlds is resulting in the inability of these communities to define who they are in a way that is “Christian” in any meaningful way.

What is interesting is that the mainline and evangelical Protestant wings of American Christianity seem aware of this, at least to an extent. In very broad, admittedly unfair, general terms, mainline Christians have historically excelled at recognizing the social and political importance of the Gospel of Jesus and the good news of the Hebrew Prophets, but overtime these aspects have overshadowed the importance of actually teaching the Text itself, which is now only incidental in the mission to work towards a just world. To be sure, I believe that this is absolutely a crucial component of the Gospel of Christ, and any Gospel that fails to preach and live out this most evident and tangible call of the Prophets and of Christ is half a gospel at best. But it is increasingly evident that this aspect of creating a just world is assumed, not taught, and accordingly the young people in today’s social-justice-aware mainline churches have no idea what the Bible’s actual teachings are on justice, poverty, stewardship, ethical community politics and economics, and so forth. The result is that the majority of these young people who stay in a faith community see little or no difference between Christianity and other religions and faith traditions who may be undertaking the same thing, and feel themselves to be free to hold any beliefs they want so long as their community supports them as Christian members.

The mainstream evangelical world, on the other hand, has historically been strong in its Christian and biblical education and in perpetuating its community identity through identification with its interpretation and knowledge of the Bible. Evangelicalism’s emphasis on the biblical basis of salvation theology through the Messiahship of Jesus is perhaps unparalleled except for Fundamentalist churches. The emphasis on Jesus’ Messiahship is, after all, the defining difference between Christians and those of other faith traditions and communities, and evangelicalism’s emphasis has preserved that identity perhaps more than any other “flavor” of American Christianity. On the other hand, my long experience with evangelical communities is that where they are strong in basic bible knowledge and in promoting Jesus as the Messiah, the tendency has been for the last 3 or 4 decades to emphasize this aspect at the nearly complete expense of the socio-political dynamic that is so strong in the mainline churches, along with an over emphasis on the God-given authority of the State and the nearly complete absence of emphasis on the prophetic critique of power in the prophets and in Jesus’ life. (Which leads, by the way, to a complete misapprehension of the book of Revelation, but that’s a topic for another day.) The implications of these shortcomings are enormous, and they are disturbing, and fortunately more and more people (mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, from what I can tell, although obviously there are exceptions) are being convicted by evangelicalism’s complicity in the apocalyptic state of affairs that we currently find the world in.

I know that these are generalizations, and that there is a huge group of silent witnesses, as it were, between these two typical representations. But the bottom line is that mainline Protestantism and mainstream evangelicalism are both at a crossroads. The former are in jeopardy of losing their rich heritage and identity as socially-conscious Christians, and the latter are in danger of losing the once-honorable badge of “evangelical” as more and more younger evangelicals are shifting their attention to the traditional emphases of liberal protestant churches. The mainliners are terrified that if they “go biblical” in their social program they will be identified as “fundamentalists” and believe they will have no choice but to join with “the powers,” as they believe evangelicals have done. On the other side, evangelicals cannot see how to become more socially prophetic and critical of “the powers” without either becoming “godless liberal relativists” and cultural pluralists or feel like they are abandoning “the clear teachings of the Bible” on a proper Christian relationship to the State.

Once again, I think it comes down to religious, and in this case specifically Christian, education. Neither “side” demonstrates an ability to provide a more authentically prophetic Biblical and Christian interpretation of either Bible or World. Churches such as the one I belong to need to reassert their Christian identity through deeper wrestling with the Word, and churches such as those who emphasize the Word made Flesh need to reaffirm their presence in the World that “judges not, lest ye be judged.” We are beginning to see some glimpses of both beginning to do just this, which is tremendous. Still, we have a long way to go, and a lot of work to be done. I feel that the first task to accomplish is to simply talk to each other, and not in the way Democratic and Republican politicians do, and certainly not in the way liberal and conservative Christians have done. Let’s actually sit and read the text together and learn how an authentically Christian prophetic ministry can speak to power, affirm justice, and serve as stewards in this world in a way that is recognizably Christian, even while we recognize our indebtedness to those who do not share our specific faith.