Getting off the Porch: Rachel Held Evans, millennials, and evangelicalism

Tish just published a piece on the Well, InterVarsity’s blog for women in the academy and the professions, addressing Rachel Held Evans’s recent comments on CNN. Evans contends that millennials are leaving the evangelical church because it is ‘too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice . . . hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’, anti-intellectual, and anti-science. Evans’s comments are in part a response to the recent Pew Report on the Rise of the ‘nones’ among the Millennial generation, among other things. Tish argues that Evans draws the wrong inferences about millennials, indeed that if what Evans is saying were true, then the mainline churches would be flooded with millennials seeking a more progressive church. Tish doesn’t have room to say it in her article, but the Pew Report indicates  ‘political backlash’ theory of millennial attrition has some plausibility but in the end is not a sufficient explanation. In fact, what is occurring is a ‘a decline in nominalism and vague religiosity’, which will leave a smaller church in America, but a church clearer about its purpose, dogma, spirituality, and mission. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, Tish argues. Read her article here.

An Earnest Question About Anti-science, Poor hating, Narrow-minded Republican evangelicals

Every time I hear someone pontificating about how evangelicals don’t care about science or the poor or don’t like “hard questions” or are way into being Republican, I always wonder the same thing: Who are these people they’re talking about?

I am an evangelical. I know a whole, whole lot of different sorts of evangelicals all over the world, and I’m increasingly  confused by the ever-recycled, echo chamber truisms about evangelicals.

I’m bewildered because many of the folks I know who are doing the most rigorous scientific research and working hardest to bring hope, help, and justice to the poor are evangelicals. Like these folks.
Or any number of the (literally) hundreds of evangelical students I could link to who I have personally met who are doing incredible work in science. Not to mention, this guy.

Or our dearest of friends who started this or this or this. Not to mention, these guys who were talking about social justice before it was cool (and before I was born). Or this dude. Or these guys, who just might be saving the world.

Some people like my friend Daniel so hate science and poor people that they become top of their field in medicine and then move with their families to developing nations where they give quality care to the sick.

And then folks are writing about a new sort of evangelicalism.
And stuff like this keeps happening. And this. And this.

And I hear about these stories of tremendous beauty in a dark world and talk to these kind of science loving, compassionate, justice seeking evangelical weirdos every single day.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that this litany makes the gospel evangelicals believe true or that you should be an evangelical or that we’re worthy of any kind of respect or that the evangelical church doesn’t deserve criticism or that we aren’t all completely nuts.

But here is my honest question: Am I just really lucky?

I’m asking this earnestly. Do I just happen to know the ‘right sort of’ evangelicals, a negligible, invisible sect within a sect? Granted, I work for these guys. And they’re always coming up with things like this. But is my sample that skewed? Have I just gone to above averagely awesome churches? Because none of these science-rejecting, poor ignoring, homophobes go to church with me.  So is my experience all that unique? Or is this stereotype based on partial truths or the Moral Majority of  twenty years ago? Or is this a strawman that is being trotted out and bashed again and again? And if so, why?

Why You Should Still Talk about Politics on Facebook

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I get it. As the election draws near, most of us get tired of hearing about politics.  (And those of us who do not become political pundits or Poli. Sci. professors).

My Facebook thread has certainly had a lot of political posts lately, some far more helpful than others.  I have also posted a lot about politics as well. But lately my Facebook feed has mainly been filled up with broad threats like, “ To everyone in general: Stop talking about politics or I’ll defriend you” or cute, little memes like, “Everyone is talking about the election and I just want to look at Pintrist photos of cupcakes.”

So I ranted a little to my husband today about why I think we really should keep talking about politics on Facebook and here is essentially my argument:

There are two reasons to not talk about politics on Facebook:

1. Because you think politics don’t matter.

But here’s the thing: they just unavoidably do. I have seen so very clearly through this situation this past year how a bad policy decision made in the seemingly hermetic fluorescence of an office suite trickles down to affect real communities of real people who I love. I have seen through working with the poor and working with immigrants how the rhetoric that gets thrown out in public debates reverberates through the lives of men, women, and children in tiny, silent ways every single day.

Now, let me be clear here: Politics will not save you. The tendency of certain Christians on the right or the left to think that all would be made right if only the other team would lose and their side would triumph is entirely deluded. Too many Christians believe that one political party or the other is the hope for the church, which I daresay is nigh unto blasphemous and exactly upside-down. And let me be clear about this too: Politics isn’t simple.  I have very little faith in either party and very likely will not vote for either major candidate this year (that is a whole other post). Different parts of the church are far too quick to baptize one political party as the party of truth or worse, the party of Jesus.  Poverty, peace, church and state relationships, matters of scale and subsidiarity—all this (and more) can get ethically complicated pretty quickly.

But because politics are complex and will ultimately fail us, that doesn’t mean that politics don’t matter. Politics matter because people matter–the way we think about culture, our ideas about the truth and what it means to be human, the way we use our money, how we decide who lives and dies, who we bless and who we bomb, our laws, our history, the way we love our neighbors, how we make room (or don’t) for peace, how we care for the least and the little, how we raise our children, how we honor the elderly and the dying, how we are allowed (or not) to follow our consciences in worship and public life.  It all impacts real people, you and me and our communities. So even if your conclusion is that you can never vote again, fine, but you can’t just ignore this stuff. One must both think about these issues and engage them in whatever way one can because, whether we ignore them or approach them with intentionality, they impact our lives.

2. You acknowledge that politics matter, but don’t think people should talk about it really. 

This one bugs me more than option 1.  Here’s the thing: Whether we like it or not, Facebook is a public forum. And, for better or worse (probably worse), it is one of the very last public forums that we have left in our culture. People don’t read newspapers or magazines anymore so writing an opinion column doesn’t do much good (unless it goes viral and ends up skyrocketing around…. yep, Facebook). We don’t have an Areopagus anymore and elders don’t hang out around the gates of the city debating ideas.  Most of us don’t know our neighbors. Even if we do, massive amounts of research shows that we are getting more and more polarized politically and geographically—chances are that those you live around and hang out with think, more or less, like you do. So if you hang out with a bunch of left-leaning urbanites, it makes it harder for you to possibly conceive how anyone with a functioning brain could be against gay marriage or Obamacare unless they are simply blinded by fear, fundamentalism, or hate. And if you hang out with right leaning, business types or soccer moms, you can’t conceive why people would be for a better social safety net or for not bombing Iran unless they are simply entitled whiners who are weak and naïve.

Very, very few places remain where we are actually in “public.”  Facebook, for all its many, many flaws, is sadly one of the only spaces left where we might actually hear from people who see the world very differently than we do. And if these people are people that you know in real life like your kid’s ballet instructor or your cousin’s husband’s best friend- all the better. These sorts of friendships, however ambient or distant, help us consider that the “other side” may not just be blithering idiots or bigoted screamers. They help us to have to defend what we believe with hopefully something more thoughtful than, “Well, that’s just the way I am!”

Is Facebook the best medium for sharing ideas? No, probably not. But it is what we’ve got. Do I get tired of unthoughtful rants, the trolls, the endless repeating of soundbites? Oh yes I do. But the often inarticulate and contentious conversation that we are having as a culture will not improve by everyone dropping out of it and declaring, “No more talking about politics.” It will only improve by you entering the conversation with conviction, curiosity, and humility.  If everyone but the ranters stop talking about anything but muffin recipes and Downton Abbey, then the current political/cultural conversation –-and politics and the culture in general–will continue to decline.

So, please, tell me about your new kitten and your favorite new band. Really. Do. I love that stuff. Post pictures of your cute kids, and I will “Like” them with gusto! But also tell me what you think and why and please, please link to thoughtful articles that help you decide what you think and why. Because what you think matters and why you think it matters. It isn’t all that matters. It isn’t ultimate Truth. But it matters.

On Order, beauty, and me, part ii

In this series, I’m examining order as a theological category by way of the narrative of my own life. In the first post, I described my discovery of punk in college and the hermeneutic of suspicion that gave me for examining the way in which I was raised. In this second post, I’m examining why it is that punk could not offer me a better narrative to order my life than the one I grew up with.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that ‘you cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it….to “see through” all things is the same as not to see’ (p. 81). The trouble with punk culture is that it participates in an impulse that is nearly universal within American, not to say Western, culture, which is a failure to articulate a positive vision of what people are for. The sedimented belief is that somehow, if the bonds of injustice are smashed, if patriarchy, heteronormativity, corporatism, and militarization are dismantled, then the authentic expression of each individual will naturally be unleashed and come to full flowering, and that the eccentric existence of each of these individuals will somehow miraculously not come into conflict with anyone else’s. In other words, without any sort of directedness except the mere evasion of legal consequences, negative liberty will somehow produce not barbarity but cooperation and flourishing.

The truth is, since we have spent so much time focusing on unmasking, we have not thought much about what should replace what we have torn apart. Nor have we thought about what kinds of ascetic practices we will need in order to form the virtuous habits in us necessary to become the kind of people worthy of whatever vision should replace the one we have destroyed spent so much time destroying as a culture. And perhaps most importantly, we have not considered to what degree our cultural penchant for iconoclasm and revolution makes it impossible for us to cultivate the discipline of those ascetic practices. For in the revolutionary consciousness, which we all share, having been formed in late modern American culture, the problem is always extrinsic. One’s own state of brokenness simply cannot be entertained, except as a matter of poor socialization that can be overcome by consciousness-raising. It is a matter of faith that the real problem is with some evil group in society — who are not merely in error, but whose views are so odious that they must be shamed, disgraced, and if possible, buried completely.  And the more we rage against the external enemy without attending to the enemy within, the more revolutionary culture comes to parody itself. Speaking of Gandhi, Thomas Merton wrote that ‘our evils are common, and the solution to them can only be common. But we are not ready to undertake this common task because we are not ourselves. Consequently the first duty of every man is to return to his own right mind in order that society itself may be sane’ (quoted in Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care, p. 30).

Punk helped me to see that it is not a good thing to be well-adjusted in a society that is deeply disordered, but while I was busy slamming to the Winnepegan vegans Propagandhi, I was blinded to how much goodness there was in the order my family had instilled in me. I will write more about the process of recovery and retrieval anon.

On Order, Beauty, and Me, part i

I have recently been engaged in an effort to get some order in my life. I am not naturally the kind of person who goes to bed at a reasonable hour, who knows how to say no to TV and the internet, who is willing to take an hour to tidy and disinfect the house, or, to be honest, who is willing to spend ten to twenty minutes getting ready for the day. Lately, my lack of discipline has been driving me up the wall, and I realized in conversation with Tish that my failure of discipline was bothering me, at least partially, for theological reasons. I’ve decided to do a series of posts on the theology of order with reference to my own personal history, which, as one might expect, is what has made me see the importance of order as a theological category.

When I was growing up in the suburbs of the ATL (the New York Times once referred to Atlanta as a small planet of 600k people in a ‘galaxy of sprawl’, a description which I like a great deal), my parents did their best to instill in me a sense of pride in cleanliness, order, and decency. Now, as I said, I’ve never naturally been an ordered person. Keeping my home and work spaces tidy, keeping my passions and emotions in proportion, and so on, have never come easily, but by authoritative direction and formation, my parents managed to habituate me into an fairly quotidian routine of grooming, cleaning, and all around self-discipline. Then I got to college, and there I discovered punk rock, which undid almost all of this primary socialization. My first introduction was to ‘mall punk’ – MxPx, NoFX, Blink 182, post-‘Let’s Face It’ Mighty-Mighty Bosstones, etc. –the kinds of bands you would find t-shirts for at Hot Topic, hence the name ‘mall punk’. But I quickly discovered that ‘real’ punkers hate that sort of music, and as I was introduced to ‘real’ punk, I found that it offered a more satisfyingly jaded, angular approach to the banality of American culture. Brett Gurewitz’s clever, pointed writing for Bad Religion entranced me. Ben Weasel’s misanthropy and seemingly genuine loathing for people appealed to my possibly innate sense of snarkiness. Ian MacKaye’s and Guy Piccioto’s scathing, acid political commentary in songs like ‘Smallpox Champion’ gave language to my burgeoning feelings of dissatisfaction with suburbia and the banality of the ‘good life’ in middle class America. With Guy shrieking ‘bury your heart, U.S. of A./history rears up to spit in your face’, I felt like I was being introduced to a strand of social protest that effectively unmasked the injustice, superficiality, and falseness of the American way of life.

Of course, I could not divest myself of the privilege into which I was born, but it felt better to me to intentionally cultivate grubbiness, disorder, an effete and romanticist feeling of despair and cynicism, and of course, indignation. And the protest culture of punk fit well into the politics of resentiment practiced in the humanities departments of my alma mater. And of course the rejection of bourgeois culture fit well in some ways with the ‘whatever’ grunge aesthetic of 90s culture in which I came of age. I don’t deny that some of the deconstructive work that punk encouraged was positive and important to my formation. I continue to appreciate the rage against the poisonous culture produced in post-war America that I detect in the most articulate versions of punk rock. I think in the long run, in the mysterious way that narratives work, it’s led me to a more committed, more theological, more catholic, and more ascetic vision and practice of Christianity. It’s helped me to reject the easy fit between American evangelicalism and neoconservatism, which is all to the good, since as Richard Lovelace has aptly said, ‘I cannot escape the feeling that Luther, Bunyan, and the Apostle Paul would be referred to psychotherapists if they appeared in the evangelical community today’ (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 218). The impulse in punk to reject conformity to a social and political order that is not fit for habitation by human beings is an impulse that I still respect and endorse.

Next up: why punk was not enough for me.

A Voice Against Intolerance- The Rev. Peter Gomes and Vanderbilt’s Non-discrimination policy

I haven’t been writing on the blog much this week, but I’ve been writing a lot none the less. Here is a piece I wrote on  Harvard’s late Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes and Vanderbilt’s policy, which forbids religious groups from ensuring that their leaders share the group’s core doctrinal commitments. Harvard faced a similar situation in 2003 and decided to allow religious groups the ability to self-govern and preserve their religious liberty. Let’s hope (and pray) that Vanderbilt will do the same!

But don’t just take my word that religious liberty and identity matters at the world’s great universities, listen to the Rev. Dr….

Pregnancy Is not a Disease: How We Talk about the Female Body and the HHS Mandate

I should just make clear here at the beginning that my main interest in and objection to the HHS contraception mandate is that of religious liberty. If the Catholic Church and many Protestant believers did not have a moral objection to contraception and abortifacients, which they are now required by the federal government to provide to employees, this issue would have sailed right by me unnoticed. I simply think that the government encroaching on religious bodies by forcing communities to do that which they find morally reprehensible is wrong, regardless of whether or not I agree with the particular stance of those religious communities. The Amish should not be forced to buy televisions. An orthodox Jew should not be forced to provide my daughter with a baptismal gown. A Muslim woman should not be forced by the government to wear or not wear hijab. This so-called ‘compromise’ seems to do little to address the concerns of those most marginalized by this mandate. For reasons why see a helpful summary by my friend, Fr. John Baker, here.

But, putting all that aside, there is something else that has bothered me about this broad conversation regarding contraception and federal mandates:  The near constant refrain from those in support of the mandate that contraception is necessary for a woman’s health, inferring that somehow if you oppose this mandate, you are for making women less healthy. Since when did disease prevention and pregnancy prevention come to be regarded as the same thing?

I was a strong supporter of universal healthcare. It was one of the reasons that I voted for Obama in the last election. We even put a ‘Healthcare for All’ bumper sticker on our car. I still believe in that. Our insurance and healthcare system are broken and this failure has affected many whom I love dearly.

But instances where contraception is somehow medically necessary for women are extremely rare. In reality, oral contraception has been shown to raise a woman’s risk of stroke and breast cancer.  We are mandating ‘healthcare’ that makes women less healthy.  So let’s be honest, this mandate isn’t about preventing or healing illness in women, this is about ensuring that women can have satisfying sexual experiences while avoiding the natural results of those experiences.

I am all for women having dynamite sexual experiences, but I don’t see how this is such an inalienable right that the government must trample all other commitments to ensure that we do. And if this mandate is really about the government providing sexual freedom to women under the name ‘health care’, then where will it end? If we want to ensure that those adults who want to have sex can whenever they’d like, why not mandate free access to Viagra? Or, if we equate pregnancy prevention with disease prevention, why do we not also see the provision of children to those who desire them, necessary for the ‘health’ of women? Ought we mandate free access to fertility treatments and IVF, even though the latter most often involves some sort of abortive measure?

If we confuse prevention of disease and prevention of pregnancy, there is really no end to what we can mandate as long as we call it “healthcare.”

The other thing that I find absurd about this confusion is that it equates having a baby and having a disease.  I am unashamedly a feminist. I think that women’s bodies are amazing and ought to be celebrated, and I can think of little less pro-woman than equating a healthy woman’s body doing the miraculous work that it naturally does with ‘disease’.

I get that many people have no problem with contraception or abortifacients. I am not saying that all women should not use contraception. I’ve used it myself. I am saying, however, that if one chooses to use contraception, which is, by definition, non-essential for health, that one should pay for it. If one does not want to pay for it, there is absolutely free pregnancy prevention available to them: a) abstinence and b) Fertility Awareness Method, which every woman in America needs to learn if for no other reason than you will be far more in touch with your body than you would otherwise. Read about it here.

Among women, particularly educated women, the new trend is to battle to remove the historic stigma of pregnancy and women’s fertility. We are into showing our baby bumps proudly and having our babies naturally. There’s a push (which I’ve been part of) to allow women to breastfeed publically for as many years as we and our babies would like to and to provide women with employment alternatives that support breastfeeding and infant care.  We can’t have it both ways, ladies. We can’t ask the culture to applaud and respect our fertile, life-producing capabilities when we want children, and regard them as pathological and deleterious to our health when we do not.

[I posted an update in the comments].