01 December 2016

Good News and identity politics, part two

Winter takes a firm hold...

Why we use canes. (Photo source, Krasnoyarsk.)

Fryazevo station, coming home from Moscow.

Our courtyard.

(Part one, written four weeks ago, is here.)

Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, asserts that a concern for identity politics was a factor in Hillary Clinton's loss in last month's USA presidential elections.
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.
He goes on to advocate that liberals (who, he implies, are those for whom Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms are core values), focus on what unites people across those identity categories.

Slate's Michelle Goldberg cautions,
There is truth in this analysis, but also a very real danger that it will be used to dismiss demands for equality for women and people of color. We are entering a moment of reaction that will reshape not just our politics but also our culture. Liberal assumptions that had become part of the atmosphere—that female leadership is desirable, that dismantling racism is an urgent social imperative, that diversity in gender expression constitutes progress—will likely fall out of fashion. In the 1970s, feminism seemed unstoppable; after Ronald Reagan’s election, it was treated as an embarrassing anachronism. If you haven’t lived through a cultural backlash before, you will be stunned by how quickly and how profoundly the intellectual weather can change. And none of us has lived through a backlash as severe as the one we’re facing.
I don't need to agree 100% with one side or the other of this debate to appreciate the conversation. I encountered these specific articles via a podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, during which I felt that the panelists gave Lilla's arguments and Goldberg's observations a fair and thorough examination. To my relief, the far-left thought police, with its typical one-upping and public-shaming tactics, came in for its fair share of criticism, but so did Lilla's column as an alleged expression of white male assumptions that their (my!) point of view sets the norm and their comfort level defines the limits.

One of the Gabfest panelists lifted out an important observation from Lilla's article: "Identity politics, by contrast [with Bill Clinton's focus on policies that benefit everyone], is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them."

The distinction between persuasive and expressive is useful. It links with my perennial theme of the division of labor within the Christian community. Some of us are gifted pastors, elders, teachers and organizers. They are, in a way, stewards of identity. They cannot do their work without referring to specific identities, honoring them, helping them heal from bondage, if necessary. The concept of being made in the image and likeness of God is a beautiful abstraction, but it must also be activated in specific human beings -- individuals and groups -- who find and encourage each other through free expression. That expression may well be full of anguish and anger. The discomfort of others, including would-be allies, should not muzzle that expression.

Those who serve in this ministry of identity affirmation will inevitably develop tools and approaches that will irritate others, especially as their analysis begins to identify systemic patterns that we ourselves might be participating in. Organizers and activists have a vocabulary that is easy for conservatives to mock, but conservatives have their own in-group references as well. Within the church there is no excuse for dismissing each other because we get irritated with each other's cliches! Yes, push back if you think that my operating assumptions are degenerating into intellectual laziness or tribalism -- and I'll do the same -- but let's make an effort to understand!

So: within the church's division of labor, there are those who encourage the expressiveness associated with identity politics. They should be in a mutually accountable relationship with those others who emphasize persuasion, or as it's called in the church, evangelism and prophecy. Evangelism has a universal perspective: the Good News is for everyone, regardless of their life experiences of oppression or privilege. The Gospel invitation to "repent and believe the Good News" and its consequent radical hospitality must not be compromised by any evidence of favoritism, no matter how worthy or tactically urgent such a stance might seem. At the same time, the identity affirmers and the universal persuaders must stay in touch (no matter how irritated they get with each other) because, like it or not, every audience is different.

John Perkins (Mendenhall, Mississippi, 1975)
I've just finished devouring Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, the first volume of Taylor Branch's civil rights trilogy. Back in 1975, during my summer internship at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, I remember John Perkins telling us that Billy Graham had given support to their work. Branch's book mentioned the friendship between Graham and Martin Luther King, and included details I hadn't heard before about the practical behind-the-scenes help Graham's organization provided for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Billy Graham himself has reported on their division of labor :
Martin Luther King suggested to me that I stay in the stadiums in the South and hold integrated meetings because he was probably going to take to the streets. He said, "I'll probably stay in the streets and I might get killed in the streets." But he said "I don't think you ought to, because," he said, "You will be able to do things I can't do, and I can do some things you can't do, but we're after the same objective."
Their distinct roles of expressive identity politics and the persuasive ministry of evangelism in a relationship of mutual accountability changed many individual lives as well as the course of a country's history.

Repentance makes a comeback. (And my own take on repentance.)

Why did Obama win more white evangelical votes than Clinton did? He asked for them. If this article is right, where does it fit in the identity vs commonality conversation?

BBC Culture: How falling in love can help you learn a language.

Denis Karagodin and do-it-yourself de-Stalinization.

What if social networks had existed during the events leading up to the Russian revolutions of 1917? Here's what it might look like (in Russian).

Sister Rosetta Tharpe teaches.

24 November 2016

Regarding, part two

On the weekend after the recent U.S. elections, the Friends Center of Ohio Yearly Meeting hosted a gathering on the theme, "Who do you say that I am?" The Facebook page for the Friends Center includes David Finke's extended set of reflections on the gathering. (See the posts that follow the November 11 event, under the photo of the tree in its autumn dress.)

David has also circulated what he wrote in his journal during the gathering. I found these words very valuable. In part, he said,
At this retreat in Barnesville, I have just found a scissors and made an alternation in a blue and white campaign poster I found in the car, which I'd kept from Hillary's people in the recent election. It still has its original main words, in white against blue: "Ohio Together."

But I've removed from it the political auspices and contact information as to how and why we should vote for Secretary Clinton to become the next President Clinton. I am among those still stunned and wondering "What happened?!!!" but am blessedly given this opportunity to turn to Our Source and Sustainer in the company of committed Christian Friends.

We have just arisen from reading 6 pages of excerpts from both the writings of Paul and also the Gospel according to John (earliest and latest of the New Testament witnesses.) These will be our refreshment and reminder all through the weekend and beyond, as to not only the nature of our call in Discipleship, but also the nature of Fundamental Reality.

In the unstructured Bible reading with which we began the morning, we heard what was new to me, the 8th chapter of Proverbs, about the Wisdom of God (which Paul equates with the Living Christ, the resurrected Jesus whom he had not known in the flesh). This Wisdom is Cosmological, Ontological, in the very of Being preceding the created world of our immediate knowledge and scientific understanding. This is, in Tillich's words, "Ground of Being," antecedent to tangible/empirical verifiable/experiential human-perceived being.

This, by faith, points us to a Structure of Reality which undergirds us and never fails us, through all the changing turmoil of an emerging world with its uncertainty, its chaos, its existential crises. I want to delve into the Wisdom that is contained both in the Proverbs chapter and also what we heard soon after, the Word of The Lord to Job — in effect, "What do YOU know? Were you there at Creation? Do you understand anything at all? Be quiet and learn! Fall back in Awe! Be teachable..."

I knew that in this immediate post-election period, we would be called to and thus empowered in a Ministry of Reconciliation, the dimensions of which have been unclear to me, and which I expect will be revealed In God's Time. I hadn't expected, prior to the election's results, who would most need our contribution to Peacemaking, our Quakerly experience in building bridges and facilitating communication and being called to the work of healing. The call has been clear; the direction has yet to be revealed.

But as a first step, I know that I must leave behind my own contribution to the partisan struggle (of which I am not ashamed: I believe there has been a time for advocacy, for organization and mobilization. I have participated in my best understanding of what was required of me as a Citizen in a Democratic Society.)

I must find again the call to Jeremiah: to uproot and tear down, and then to build and to heal. This is the work of God, and will unfold as we open ourselves to be ready.

Am I like Jonah and so many others who, hearing the mandate from the Divine, want to argue about it and avoid and escape? Will I be Rightly Guided to extend the hand of friendship and offer the gift of listening, to those whose yard signs and whose votes have put in office one who is the least qualified of potential public servants that I could imagine?
One sentence immediately struck me concerning post-election discipleship: The call has been clear; the direction has yet to be revealed. My task is not to join in the swirling currents of glee and resentment, still less to the harsh recriminations, one-upmanship, blame and deflection, that have been filling much of the airspace following Trump's triumph. Instead, we (specifically I) have been called to a ministry of reconciliation, peacemaking, and healing. Now I begin a very specific vigil: waiting for the direction to be revealed.

This is not escapism. Yes, Jonah avoided God's call at first, but eventually went to Nineveh, and faithfully carried God's warning to the great city despite his belief that Nineveh didn't deserve God's mercy! Our ministry of reconciliation and healing does not mean we are reconciled to the features of candidate Trump's campaign that repelled us, nor do we abandon values that we may have thought a different candidate would support more effectively than Trump would. We await God's Jonah call, listening in prayer and consulting with others to share and sharpen our discernment.

For example:

During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump asserted several times that "I don't frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time either." These specific words were addessed to Megyn Kelly of Fox News when she challenged the way he insulted women, but he made similar points in advocating various forms of tighter border control. We know that, in reality, to practice political correctness in its original positive sense (treating all people as made in the image of God and resisting all social and verbal patterns that subvert that value) does not take more time and more energy! It simply requires a transformation of how we regard others:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:16; context.)

This is not just a private insight. It has political consequences, requiring vigilance concerning how the democracy for which we bear collective responsibility treats vulnerable people. Surely this vigilance is part of the discernment for our prophetic direction. It's for this reason that we're now carefully examining the credentials of those being proposed for high office under Trump.

But the same discipline applies to the way we look at Donald Trump and his team. I was listening to a podcast at the gym a couple of days ago, during which there was a mocking commentary about Trump's suggestion that Nigel Farage would make a great British ambassador to the USA. On its own merits ... well, the idea has zero merit. But the smirking comments about Trump's ignorance of the ways of diplomacy just reinforce the smarty-pants image of the elites that is such an irritating factor in class divisions, and probably add to Trump's hero status in some circles. It's not that ridicule is always wrong -- but its one-sided overuse isn't consistent with regarding "no one from a worldly point of view."

I've been following the speculation that Kris Kobach, who helped put together the the U.S. National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program for the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks, may be appointed to a position in the Trump administration. I have yet to hear a security expert explain how questioning people about their beliefs and ideology would increase our safety. Would any competent terrorist tell the truth about their beliefs? The whole thing reminds me of a story I read last summer concerning refugees applying for asylum status in the UK. In some cases, devout Muslims concerned with the fate of their dear children were ready to claim they were Christians in order (as they saw it) to increase their chances of resettlement. Let's continue to resist religious tests for political purposes, whether direct or hidden.

My earlier blog post on political correctness. And a related post on political correctness in the English-language classroom, on my blog for students.

How many of Timothy Snyder's 20 lessons from the 20th-century on how to survive in Trump's America seem consistent with a prayerful and non-paranoid vigil? How many are you already adopting?

The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb -- a review of My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937–1946 by Werner and Elisabeth Heisenberg.

Reading Dostoyevsky for Thanksgiving.

Ray Charles!

17 November 2016

The Invitation

The door to our meeting room.
If Moscow, Russia, had its fair share of Quakers, based on the proportion of Quakers to the world population, we would have over 750 Friends in our meetings here. Instead we have about 40 on paper, of whom a smaller share attend a meeting regularly.

Why such small numbers?

One reality we share with other fellowships: small Protestant groups generally have a hard time establishing themselves in Russia, in the face of Russian Orthodox opposition to all such imports, on the one hand, and popular indifference to overt religiosity of any kind on the other.

Within Moscow, groups with adequate funds can rent facilities to meet and then advertise their events. Our group, dependent on meeting in low-cost alternatives hosted by sympathetic organizations, is essentially prevented from doing such advertising. Outside Moscow, Protestants and other religious minorities sometimes face far greater challenges.

Small groups anywhere in the world often run into another obstacle to growth: the character of the fellowship takes on the internal pecularities and tensions of its participants, no matter how individually sweet and wonderful they might be -- and consequently newcomers may find it hard to feel at home. There's no possibility of an anonymous trial visit for newcomers.

Without a commitment to attracting and empowering newcomers, a church can soon become a chaplaincy for the care and comfort of its existing participants. There might not have been any actual decision to take this path; it simply becomes harder to hear or even imagine a call from God to risk anything else.

Maybe we should be more patient? Friends in Russia have gone from one (Tatiana Pavlova) to 40 in a generation. Is this timespan about right? We may admire the explosive growth (explosive by Friends standards!) of the Friends movement in Kenya, but the growth of the first generation of Kenyan Quaker history was almost as slow. Yet, if truth be told, most of those 40 in Moscow were already among us ten years ago; very few have been added since then.

Finally, no matter how dearly we yearn to develop a truly Russian expression of Quaker faith and practice, the blunt truth is that our tradition is an import. How to manage the integration of the most important and prophetic insights of the imported tradition into a culture that has its own deep Christian heritage -- and even has important challenges for all imports to learn from -- is a question we've barely started to answer.

And it's not as if we foreigners have all had the same answers! Some of us have imported a bundle of compulsory Quaker folkways and vague, optional theologies that reflect the classism and the post-Christian allergies of our homelands and ignore the spiritual yearnings and capacities of Russians. Others emphasize encouraging a fully Russian Friends movement, only to find that actual Russians sometimes appreciate some Quaker features that are perceived as coming from abroad.

(For example, one Russian Friend says, "I'm not interested in being purely Russian. Why should I come to a Friends meeting if everyone there is going to be as aggressive as a typical Russian group would be?" I don't want to universalize this kind of anecdotal commentary, but we can't claim to respect Russian input in the abstract without listening to actual Russians.)

Tatiana Pavlova was a strong and insightful leader in the earliest years of the Friends movement, who made a start in encouraging an integrated Quaker movement, with a balance of imported and Russian influences. She was a historian of national stature in the field of 17th-century British history, which is what brought her into contact with Quakers; and at the same time she was deeply aware of her own heritage of Russian Orthodoxy and the long history of Russian Christian pacifism. Toward the end of her life, however, she sometimes expressed doubt that Friends would ever occupy a significant place in Russia. Since her death in 2002, no one has come forward to take her leadership place in encouraging an integrated Russian Quaker message.

I'm far from losing hope, but I'm not sure the answers lie in yet another sorting out of various existing Quaker ingredients, whether local or imported. I would like us to apply our prayer and imaginations to the creation of a fresh Invitation addressed to individuals and to the larger society. In essence, as an opening suggestion for the Invitation, I would want to invite you and your friends and neighbors to meet together with us for these simple, profound purposes: ...
  • to enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit
  • to support each other in learning how to enjoy this presence
  • to listen to God's direction in what we are to say and do in the larger world.
For practical advice on how to do these things, we can draw upon Biblical and historical experience, including reverent and selective examples from the long tradition of Quaker discipleship -- from those practices that show us, for example, ways to reduce aggression and create space for discernment in our gatherings. But part of our purpose is to risk what's "Quaker" and "safe" in favor of actual faith that God's Holy Spirit is everything in reality that we claim in theory.

This won't happen by accident. We need sensitive leaders and elders (however informally organized) to take the lead in teaching and transmitting the tradition without letting it take center stage; and in recognizing when individual needs require individual attention. But, alongside the ongoing need to identify and prepare such leaders, I hope we can spend some time to shape this fresh Invitation. Once we have a draft, I'd love to see it circulated in our existing groups and in the social media channels that already reach hundreds of readers around Russia. I'd ask them, "Does this Invitation ring true for you? Would you want to experience this community for yourself? Would you want to invite others in your family and neighborhood and workplace to gather with you in this way? Advise us on the strengths and weaknesses of this Invitation, and on how it can be spread."

We could also ask, "How can we help you implement this Invitation? Would you like an experienced Friend to visit you and be part of your experiment in community?"

I don't expect that initiatives like this will take us from 40 to 750 Friends in Moscow in a short time. Maybe it will take another generation. But our times call for a renewed, even daring proclamation of the Lamb's war against the bondages of cynicism, hopelessness, elitism, and violence; what can we Quakers contribute? What are we required to contribute?

Friday PS: When I talk about a fresh "Invitation," I assume that we are actually seeking the best way to express the original challenge and invitation of Jesus to us all: "Repent and believe the good news."

But we're not just issuing a string of words; we're claiming that there is a group of people who gather to learn from him as directly as possible, and to support each other in that learning. We are not saying that nobody else does this, or that nobody else does it as well as we do.

In a sense, we have the advantages of being tiny ("My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"). We further admit and claim that we have no impressive institutions. We don't use shaming, theatrics, or threats to increase sales. Literally all we have to offer (not counting a modest tea and goodies after worship) is our trust that God's promises are true. But by our three and a half centuries of marginal existence, we testify that this is enough to be church, and to speak to the nations, and to remain free of entanglement with any empire. (Friends: am I telling the truth?)

(I see that, over the course of 12 years of writing this blog, this theme of "invitation" is one I keep returning to one way or another. For example, "Gathering to meet with God," and "Signs." I doubt I'll ever be satisfied.)

On Christianity Today's podcast "Quick to Listen," the November 10 edition examines the role of evangelicals in electing Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. Many evangelical leaders advised against voting for Trump, but 81% of white evangelical voters apparently ignored this advice. Have those leaders simply "lost touch" with their constituencies, or were those leaders carrying out a prophetic role that simply didn't resonate? Listen to hosts Morgan Lee and Mark Galli interview Ed Stetzer (the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College) on what leaders should be learning from this experience. Related links: Conservative white evangelicals see Trump's win as their own; white evangelical leaders already distancing themselves from the "81-percenters." Trump won. Here's how 20 evangelical leaders feel.

One of the rawest, most moving essays to emerge from post-election reflections: An open letter to my immigrant father, who voted for Trump. As an immigrant myself, I felt something in common with this writer, despite the fact that my mother was vocally anti-semitic. I'm beyond positive that DT would have had her vote.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation's legislative priorities for the 115th Congress.

On loving your neighbor in Trump's America: Natalia Antonova. Adria Gulizia.

Two songs from Big Walter Horton.

10 November 2016

Election week reflections

October 21. Voting.
I've never been able to resist watching election returns, wherever I might be. So I got up on Wednesday morning at 3:45 a.m. (eight hours ahead of the USA's Eastern Standard Time), made some coffee, and settled in for three and a half hours of streaming video from CBS News before I'd have to leave to teach our first morning class.

I kept CBS News streaming into my smartphone as I walked the 35-minute icy path to the Institute, picking my way through the most slippery places with my cane. By the time our first class of the day started (at midnight on the U.S. East Coast), it was very clear that the tide had turned toward Donald Trump. For a few minutes we projected our news feed onto a classroom screen -- it was our Mass Media class, after all -- before tackling our subject of the day, an article about the "Depressing Food of the Depression." It wasn't until our second class of the morning that a little alert from the news site Lenta.ru came on my laptop screen that Hillary Clinton had conceded.

I spent a good portion of the previous day, the actual U.S. election day, in the wonderful company of seven graduate students at the Baptist seminary in Moscow, teaching theological English. Toward the end of our session, I played Nate Macy's song "Grace to You" as a gapfill exercise, and to my delight, after we worked through the blanks, they wanted to sing it together. One of the students picked up a guitar and worked out the accompaniment with delightful results.

These wonderful hours at the seminary provided nurture and perspective for the less wonderful hours to come -- following the election returns from across the Atlantic.

Instant message to me on Vkontakte, November 9.
Soon after our second Wednesday morning class ended, we began getting congratulations on Trump's victory from our Russian students and colleagues, in person and on social networks. They must have assumed that we had done the (in their minds) sensible thing and voted for him. That evening, I had a long conversation with a retired engineer -- one of those who had congratulated us. She explained (as we already knew) that the main Russian television networks had made it clear that Clinton was hostile to Russia, making Trump the far more desirable candidate. With some indignation, she told me that Clinton and the foreign-policy establishment figures around her were falsely accusing Russia of hostile intentions. "We are a country of peaceful people," as she summed it up.

Russians can be excused for putting foreign policy concerns above America's domestic agenda. And it's that domestic agenda that threatens to give me ulcers. Well-meaning people can reasonably differ on many policy issues, but this election cycle's corrosive campaign and its outcome reveal deeper problems, of which I want to focus on just one symptom: the way Barack Obama has been portrayed in social-network posts by people close to me, and what that says about our sources of information.

Some of my friends and acquaintances acknowledge that Obama has covered all the conventional expectations of a U.S. president, helping guide an economic recovery process and health care finance reform in the face of unrelenting Republican opposition. He has carried out his roles of global leader and national pastor-in-chief with competence and often with grace, especially at times of crisis and tragedy. With his record of extrajudicial killings-by-drone, he's no hero to me, but objectively he's just doing what imperial presidents are supposed to do -- and, to his credit, he seems to have resisted the influences of far more hawkish advisors.

Other friends and relatives seem ready to circulate material about Obama that I can only describe as outrageously false -- so aggressively false that I would have thought that this stuff comes from some parallel universe where a mysterious anti-Obama is busy totally destroying the freedoms of the anti-USA for his personal enrichment, while opening the back door of the anti-White House to Islamic terrorists. Here's what really drives me nuts: if allegations of criminality at this level came to me, I would do some checking before passing them on. Even if I thought the media was already too corrupt, too bought-off to look into these sorts of charges, I would not pass them on without some kind of proof or at least a caveat. "Thou shalt not bear false witness."

It's my fantasy that in the months and years to come, churches will play a unique role. The global family of faith may be the only institution that brings together people holding these diametrically opposite viewpoints. I know this is true in our own Quaker yearly meeting. It may be the one place where "irreconcilable differences" can be transcended, if we are determined to resist the fragmentation promoted by the most hateful media.

Those who are overjoyed by Trump's victory will still need to pray for him -- and it's just as important for those devastated by his victory to pray for him as well. For eight years I passionately opposed George W. Bush's warmaking and slander of Muslims and fiscal shell games, and for eight years I prayed for him daily. I prayed for him for my own sake -- in order to manage and rebuke my own rage -- as well as for his.

Having the mind of Christ, we can also devote ourselves to other specific tasks in the wake of this election, dividing the labor according to our gifts and leadings. We need to diagnose the role of racism, of elitism and social alienation, and other evidences of primordial evil and structural sin in whatever guise they have taken in our day. I can imagine forming book groups and Bible studies, and then taking the time to work out strategies of divine resistance we will offer our congregations. The Friends meetings of Portland, Oregon -- both liberal and evangelical -- studied the situation after September 11, 2001, and began systematically planning visits to congressional offices. At around the same time, a small group of churches and pastors also began staging social exorcisms in government locations in Portland and Salem, Oregon, praying publicly to cast out the demons of violence, greed, and racism.

From a God-centered perspective, this spiritual warfare utterly transcends the divisions between liberal and conservative; the more pertinent division is between those who live in hope and work to bless the community, and on the other hand, those who just stop caring. Let's put fresh energy into community-building, not letting anyone get marginalized, no matter whom they voted for.

Katherine Hayhoe, climate evangelist, and her YouTube series on Global Weirding.

The after-election thoughts of Jim Kovpak at Russia without BS.

An early venture in considering Trump's effect on U.S.-Russian relations.

Newly-released Alexei Gaskarov: What politics?

Ruthie Foster, "Phenomenal Woman"

03 November 2016

The Good News and identity politics

My favorite pumpkin of the season, on display at Cafe Kapra.
(Carving credit: Group 401,New Humanities Institute, 

I was recently speaking to a Baptist audience here in Russia, and mentioned in passing that both my wife and I were recorded ministers, and that I thought she was a better preacher than I am.

Someone in the audience said to me, "That wouldn't happen with us." I heard later that my little aside didn't go over well with some of those present. I know intellectually that women in Christian leadership is a challenging theme here, but I sometimes forget how challenging.

My thoughts went back to the Friends World Committee for Consultation's Triennial sessions in Oaxtepec, Mexico, in 1985. There was a discussion in a plenary session on men's and women's equality. As I recalled in an earlier post, more than one speaker from the Africa Section explained to us that women had to be patient. The culture was not ready for equality. One Friend said that you have to learn to walk before you could run. Then Gordon Browne put the issue in perspective: the question isn't what the culture is ready for, but what does God expect of us? Friends in Britain and the colonies held up a vision of equality long before their own culture was "ready" for it. In fact (before we get too self-congratulatory), many among those early Friends were not all that ready for it, but the theology of equality was fully-formed in that first generation despite all the opposition of conventional wisdom.

My point now is that the whole-grain Christian Good News probably never fits in comfortably with the established ways of any culture, even when that culture is liberally laced with Christian references. This is particularly important at this time in human history. In a recent regional election campaign in Germany, the radical anti-immigration party attracted followers who felt that immigrants threatened "our Christian culture." In the USA, one presidential candidates says that, when he is president, he'll restore "Merry Christmas" -- no more of that "Happy holidays" nonsense.

Christians face a choice: Either ...

1) preserve (restore) the privileges of Christendom as a domineering tribal identity, with all the concessions to power and prejudice of its local manifestations -- for example, allowing men to decide which spiritual gifts women can and cannot exercise, and building fortresses to keep out the heathen

... or ...

2) take the sublime risk of abandoning all that turf mentality in favor of finding every possible way under the sun to express grace, joy, compassion, the infinite love of God, the reconciling work of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Can we do both? I don't think so. The massive abandonment of Christian community by young people who grew up in Christian families is evidence that the religion industry just can't boss people around anymore and delude itself that it accurately represents the invitation of Jesus to repent and believe the Good News.

However ...

Just when I'm starting to feel good about how much more progressive I am than those who pass on urban myths about the war against Christmas and the threat of Islamic immigration ... just when I'm starting to congratulate myself on bravely rejecting that stifling establishment, I begin to remember all the amazing people I've met in churches and meetings who in some ways still seem trapped in the past. Do I (a convert from an atheist family) have the right to play fast and loose with the elements of their identity that have given them strength to build families and communities for generations?

About a year ago, I wrote a post, Redeeming Germany? I mentioned my own family's master-race heritage and the healing I have found in the spectacle of Germany welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees. I continue to be inspired by Angela Merkel's pointed advice to defensive Christians: "You don't want the Islamization of Europe? Go to church!" In my interpretation: Christianity is not a flag, it's a faith -- so go and learn how to live in faith. Then you will have something real to offer in a dialogue with newcomers whose faith is different. For a believer, simply to avoid the encounter entirely, particularly when that avoidance prolongs the suffering of others, is not an option.

The archbishop of York, John Sentamu, also understands the importance of identity. Born in Uganda, his own encouragement of the "triumphs of Englishness" embodies the idea of a strong identity being an anchor rather than a border:
Let us not forego our appreciation of an English identity for fear of upset or offence to those who claim such an identity has no place a multi-cultural society. Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England's fabric, rather Englishness is emboldened to grown anew. The truth is that an all embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.

... To be patriotic, is to appreciate and be grateful for all that is valuable in the country you live in. It does not require you to be a xenophobe or a blinkered nationalist.
The Canadian Quaker Hugh Campbell-Brown, at a yearly meeting workshop in the mid-1970's, advised us to "plow deep in the furrow you have been given." Identities can operate in the service of alienation and tribalism, or they can simply show the very specific ways we reflect the image and likeness of God, delighting equally in how rich they make our lives and how they prepare us to be radically hospitable to others.

The Good News and identity politics, part two.

"Poverty Is Modern" ... Sources: Amnesty International; eBoy.
Amnesty International's representative staff in Moscow has been locked out of their office. AI statement; Washington Post.

Another fan of Books and Culture considers what we're losing with its closure. (I expressed myself last week.)

Viborg city court set to consider banning Bibles and New Testaments from the Gideons.

CNN's take on Hillary Clinton's public and private faith.

The "Awakening Europe" organization managed to do something Micael Grenholm has never seen before.

Rod Dreher on Russell Moore's eulogy for the Religious Right. Video of Moore's lecture. Important.

We don't suck!!

Does this qualify as a guilty pleasure? Scratch my back...

27 October 2016

How will I replace Books and Culture?

Cities of Refuge

Photo by Gary Gnidovic. Sid, Serbia: This Syrian
young man said he had to leave his city after his
home was destroyed only weeks before. Source.
Earlier this year, Books and Culture published one of the best articles on the European migration situation I've seen, Tim Stafford's "Cities of Refuge." I admit I began taking this quality of humane, thoughtful journalism, commentary, and criticism, for granted. After all, for the fifteen years I've been a subscriber to Books and Culture, it's come reliably every two months. At first I bought the paper edition, but while we've been in Russia, I've been paying for online access. In fact, aside from voluntary contributions, and my subscription to the now-discontinued PDF edition of Quaker Life, it's the only periodical I've paid to access online.

Something like a Christian version of the New York Review of Books, Books and Culture reviewed books individually and in thematic groups; interviewed authors; and invited scholars and thinkers of all sorts (including atheists) to contribute to Christian conversations on culture and society. Editor John Wilson's introductory essays highlighted treasures we otherwise might miss -- books on baseball, for instance, or detective novels, or any number of other delights that I might not automatically expect from a "serious" periodical from the publishers of Christianity Today.

See for yourself on the magazine's Web site -- a fair number of its treats are not behind the paywall. Thanks to this periodical, I was introduced to Quaker classicist Sarah Ruden, whose book Paul Among the People is one of my all-time favorite books on the apostle. Alan Jacobs' review of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, introduced me to another recent favorite. It's a great example of a review actually participating in some of the uniqueness -- in this case, the serious whimsy -- of the book it's reviewing. A new translation of the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic (the book that inspired Tarkovsky's film Stalker) led to John Wilson's enjoyable conversation with translator Olena Bormashenko.

And so on. It's really a shock, therefore, to realize that in the next couple of days, the very last issue of Books and Culture will hit the streets, and the Web. The combination of subscription income, grants, and private donations simply didn't keep up with expenses, and the publisher decided it had no choice but to pull the plug. A recent Christianity Today podcast, "Should Evangelical Intellectuals Despair 'Books and Culture's' Demise?", gives some of the magazine's history and the background for the decision to end publication. The podcast is a conversation among Christianity Today editorial staff members Morgan Lee and Mark Galli, and Books and Culture editor John Wilson, and scholar Mark Noll, whose book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) may have, in effect, contributed to defining the new periodical's mission.

Near the beginning of the podcast, Mark Noll pays tribute to the way John Wilson's leadership shaped the periodical:
John's singular ability in an age of polemics and partisanship and gotcha journalism was to emphasize the long term, to be thoughtful rather than reactive, to try to bring insight rather than onslaught, and to do it with younger writers, younger people interested in this kind of forum as well as a lot of veterans.
Later, Noll considers the void left by the magazine's impending closure: What we're losing ...
First is: a voice that really does try to explore issues and figure things out rather than to leap into the social and cultural, theological political conflicts that mark our day....

The other two things I would say is that the absence of Books and Culture means that older, senior and in some cases very well respected scholars, thinkers, who are Christians, now have one less outlet for efforts to reach beyond the academic sphere.

The third thing that's missing is encouragement for younger Christian thinker, usually in the academic world but not always in the academic world, to have an outlet to be encouraged to look at issues calmly, reflectively, to have fourteen hundred words, two thousand words, 2500 words....
As an example, Noll cites, from the current issue, the work of Christian anthropologist Naomi Haynes.

Even aside from the vision and familiar voice of John Wilson, the consistency and warmth of the product, and the resulting sense of reader loyalty, it's going to be a very real void. If there's anything like it in the evangelical world, please tell me! I can patch together any number of excellent blogs and news sources (Patheos blogs, the Internet Monk, GetReligion, QuakerQuaker.org, and many of the blogs that I've listed here on my own site), but that scene is so fragmented, often self-referential, disconnected from a sense of wider accountability ... ok, I'm this close to feeling sorry for myself!! -- I'm really open to suggestions.

A note on that interview with Sarah Ruden: in case it seems slightly confusing, that's because (as you'll no doubt work out for yourself), the coding is a bit scrambled. Some of the interviewer's lines got mixed in with Ruden's answers rather than being separated out with boldface type.

One sign that Mark Noll mentioned on the podcast, indicating that the situation has improved since he wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is the BioLogos team and its Web site.

There have probably already been enough links in this post, but I'll risk just a few more....

Peace with "them" and with "others."

Is Christian education in your meeting closer to the learning model, or the acquisition model?

Here's a hint of why I'm looking forward to the new season of Rectify.

Does Russia belong in the EU? Anecdotally, these voices seem representative to me....

In recognition of the death of Phil Chess: (a fragment, narrated by Etta James)