21 June 2017

It's hard to believe in Jesus

As a once-naive adult convert to Christianity, I'm in a state of permanent frustration concerning functional atheism's hold on our family of faith. Brian Zahnd's A Farewell to Mars is the most effective tract against this state of affairs that I've encountered in decades.

The book has been around a couple of years, so you can find lots of reviews, and assessments of its importance to the future of evangelicalism. I won't duplicate all that good work. I just want to comment on his intersection with my own story.

My crucial encounter with Jesus in the pages of the Bible, 43 years ago, led to my decision that I could trust the One who said, "Love your enemies." As I sat on my bed reading the Sermon on the Mount, trying to process the effect that those few words were having on my whole mind and body at that moment, I realized that it really must be God. Only God could speak this command into my life with such heart-stopping authority. After seeing violence destroy my family and poison my nation, I had thought that my capacity to trust had been robbed from me, but that day it was restored.

What was strange to my 21-year-old self was how few others seemed to understand my excitement. As a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University, I was immersed in the world of the Cold War, and I was aware of the empires and neocolonial structures on either side of that big divide. I was also aware of how my own family had been formed in the postwar chaos following World War II. On the one hand, war seemed like the ultimate absurdity; on the other hand, the world seemed to consider the ideals of nonviolence equally absurd, and its advocates (at their best) sweet but marginal eccentrics.

Given the way the world was set up, this conventional wisdom didn't seem surprising. But shouldn't Christians have an entirely and decisively different take? After all, Jesus was executed by the power brokers of his time and place, and then God turned everything upside down through the resurrection and Jesus's New Commandment.

As it turned out, Jesus truly is "the answer to all of God's promises" (2 Corinthians 1:20) and we are his Body active in the world to this very day. Is there systemic violence? Bondage? Slavery? Elitism? Corruption? Hopelessness? Through generations of prophets, recorded in the book we acknowledge as authoritative and trustworthy for salvation, God has promised to confront all of this, and has provided the world with the Body of Christ, us, to do the necessary confronting and reconciling. Us! Together, we have the necessary gifts and authority. Why are we so collectively passive, so ready to let those old assumptions of righteous violence go unchallenged?

In Brian Zahnd's book I find a healing reassurance that my discontent is not peculiar to me. It truly is incongruous that Christians are too often found either passively or actively supporting the old ways of empire and violence. "Love your enemies" is at the center of his book, but he also draws on Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and other familiar voices in support of his brilliant and heartfelt polemic against Christian captivity. He gives us close readings of Old and New Testament passages that illustrate the complete disconnect between the new thing God has done in Christ and the old ways of tribe and empire.

If you too have found it impossible, as a believer, to reconcile your faith with the conventional wisdom that tells you to stop dreaming and get with the program, Brian Zahnd may well give you a wonderful shot of encouragement to keep the faith.

Portland, Oregon, is the headquarters of the Luis Palau evangelistic organization. I remember that, in the midst of the USA's military responses to the September 11 terror attacks, Luis Palau gave his approval of those responses. I was so disillusioned that someone of his stature in the world of Christian celebrities -- furthermore, someone who generally avoided politics -- did not distinguish between Christ and empire at that historic moment. Brian Zahnd is very candid in telling how he too, as a pastor, gave full-throated approval of military action in that early post-9/11 period. I found his book all the more powerful because of his candid retelling of how his heart changed.

A Farewell to Mars: teasers...
Isn't it time we abandoned our de facto agreement with Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and their worn-out, death-dealing ideas? Isn't it time we took seriously the revolutionary, life-giving ideas of Jesus -- the one whom God raised from the dead and declared to be Lord by the power of an indestructible life? Isn't it time we were converted and became as children, having the capacity to imagine the radical otherness of the kingdom of God? ... At the very least, we ought to take a fresh look and evaluate with new eyes what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught about the dark foundations of human civilization and the alternative he offers in the kingdom of God. (from Chapter 1, "That Preacher of Peace.")

Far too many American Christians embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic "heaven" while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon. But this is an evangelism that bears no resemblance to the apostolic gospel proclaimed the book of Acts. Christianity's first apostles evangelized, not by trying to sign people up for an apocalyptic evacuation, but by announcing the arrival of a new word order. The apostles understood the kingdom of God as a new arrangement of human society where Jesus is the world's true King. (from Chapter 2, Repairing the World.)

We believe in Jesus theologically, religiously, spiritually, sentimentally ... but not politically. We believe Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but we don't really believe he was a competent political theologian. If we were tasked with framing a political theology drawn only from Jesus's words, what would it look like? Why? Because when it comes to political models for running the world, we find it hard to believe in Jesus. (Chapter 4, It's Hard to Believe in Jesus.)

The road of nonviolent peacemaking is not an easy road, it's not a popular road, and it's certainly not a road for cowards. The road of "God is on our side, and he shall surely smite our enemies" is a wide road. A lot of parades have gone down that road. It doesn't take much courage to travel that road; just fall in step and follow the crowd. A marching band is usually playing. But it's also the road that leads to burned villages, bombed cities, and solemn processions of flag-draped coffins. Until the self-professed followers of Jesus are willing to forsake the wide road for the narrow way, the popular sentiment for the unpopular conviction, the easy assumptions for the hard alternatives -- Jesus will continue to weep while his disciples shout hosanna. (Chapter 6, The Things that Make for Peace.)

Before we appeal to Hitler as the ultimate argument against Christian nonviolence, we first have to ask how Hitler was able to amass a following of Christians in the first place. (Chapter 7, Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come.)

What lessons and priorities might Friends take from Brian Zahnd's message? There's theoretically great congruity between what he says and what we Quakers believe.

We do know what it's like to be treated as admirable eccentrics, nice but marginal. We also have our own ways to avoid implementing the implications of our faith:
  • drawing on the vast resources of Friends piety to satisfy our emotional and intellectual needs while avoiding the surrender and self-abandonment of full conversion
  • making it hard for seekers and newcomers to access our community (folkways, in-group language) so we can keep feeling both modest and special
  • marginalizing Jesus by making him a figurehead or metaphor (some liberals) or a tribal chieftain in charge of our camp (some evangelicals) instead of seeing him at the very center of our meetings
  • trivializing our peace testimony by leaching out its cross-shaped spiritual power in favor of "the cult of middle-class pacifism"
  • weakening our fellowship with doctrinal controversies and bibliolatry (often with the stern language of pseudo-heroism), undermining each other rather than conducting our conflicts based on a prior commitment to each other's well-being.
Happily, none of these flaws are fatal; they can all be addressed. Let's do it, let's be a laboratory of love for the whole Christian world and beyond.

How Katherine Tanner's theology bridges doctrine and social action.

The saga of North Seattle Friends Church.

The ascendancy of the phony Russian propaganda expert. And It's the Russians wot done it!

Svetlana Alexievich and the "collective Putin." (May be behind paywall.)

Britain and the U.S. once ran the world. Now they're all at sea.

Finally! Back to some blues dessert...

14 June 2017

St Petersburg shorts

Crossing St Petersburg's Fontanka River (Lomonosov Bridge)
Soul Kitchen Hostel (recommended!), on the Moika River embankment

Study in Dostoevsky's final home
The high point of this visit to St Petersburg was, for me, a return to Dostoevsky's final home, his apartment on Kuznechny pereulok.

Looking in on the room where he slept and worked -- the room where The Brothers Karamazov was written -- brought back vivid memories of my only previous peek into this same room. It was 42 years ago. At the time, this study and the attached living room were practically all there was of Leningrad's new Dostoevsky Museum, which had been established in 1971, four years earlier. The museum as it exists now has been carefully developed into a first-rate cultural landmark, with lots of explanatory resources in many languages.

Dostoevsky is not necessarily Russians' favorite novelist. I remember our doctor in Noginsk expressing surprise at my admiration for him; she said, "We consider him rather morbid." I can see her point.  He's a total bundle of contradictions, often rambling and disorganized, prejudiced, cranky. His voices argue with his characters, with each other, with the reader. Maybe it was these somewhat shambolic qualities that attracted me as a reader in my teens; he wasn't just telling stories, he seemed to reach through the printed page and demand my response. I enjoyed reading these comments by Himadri Chatterjee, who expresses some of the same wonderment I feel at liking a writer who's not a predictably perfect fit for our own views.

Being on the road has not stopped me from following events in the USA. Yesterday was Jeff Sessions's turn to be questioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. This particular bit caught my attention:
[Sen. Tom] COTTON: Do you like spy fiction: John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Jason Matthews?

SESSIONS: Yeah, Alan Furst, David Ignatius’ books.

COTTON: Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?

SESSIONS: No, yes, I do.

COTTON: Have you ever ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?

SESSIONS: Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It's just like Through the Looking Glass. I mean, what is this? I explained how in good faith I said I had not met with Russians, because they were suggesting I as a surrogate had been meeting continuously with Russians. I said I didn't meet with them and now, the next thing you know I'm accused of some reception plotting some sort of influence campaign for the American election. It's just beyond my capability to understand, and I really appreciate, Mr. Chairman, the opportunity to at least to be able to say publicly I didn't participate in that and know nothing about it.

COTTON: And I gather that's one reason why you wanted to testify today in public.
(From this transcript, with my unlicensed italicization.)

As much as I suspect that a lot of the Red Threat of Russian mischief is a Red Herring, I understand the need to get a full picture of the situation -- the actual Russian interference (as distinct from sloppy attributions connected with various hackers who also bear tracking down but who might have nothing to do with Russia), and the breakdowns in cyber-discipline and vigilance on the U.S. side.

I also understand how some might look at this whole five-ring circus of Russia-related investigations with incredulity. The Cotton-Sessions exchange is a bit theatrical, given how Cotton presents such a cartoonish summary ("the greatest caper in the history of espionage"). Even so, it seems bizarre that this theme dominates U.S. political news day after day, week after week.

Why all this attention? The answer is relatively simple, and it doesn't primarily involve the supposed danger from Russia. The country is confronted by a challenge that is in itself not provided for by the Constitution or any federal statute: dangerous incompetence at the top of the executive branch, complicated by cowardice in the legislative branch. Neither incompetence nor cowardice are themselves indictable. At the policy level, cruel legislation (health care financing legislation) and devious legislative processes (secret health care financing legislation) are also not statutory crimes. Efforts to change the regime legally and peacefully must necessarily find handles for effective response -- so it is no wonder that those who are alarmed for American democracy have latched onto the Russian scandals.

Thankfully, another track has also developed: lawsuits alleging that the U.S. president has violated his oath of office by not staying clear of foreign emoluments that haven't been approved by Congress. On this track, there is no need to resort to villainous Russian operatives. The villains are mainly domestic. Here, too, however, efforts at changing the regime (either its practices or, failing that, its personnel) may be defeated by venality and cowardice among the Republicans. (Inaccurate scare tactics by Democrats and others don't help.)

The stakes are high; we risk (1) wholesale degradation of ethical standards in government; (2) major damage to social safety nets, environmental regulation, voting rights, and other areas of concern to progressive evangelicals; and (3) disconnection from the global community, including those many millions of actual Russians who have no desire to hack our elections!

D.L. Mayfield asks whether we are seeking "the welfare of the city," or just our own?
Writer Nate J. Lee, responding to a video put out by Hillsong church to announce their intention to plant a church in San Francisco (including the phrases “God has great plans for this city” and “San Fran, the best is yet to come!”), wrote this: “Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive … is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methods—and us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches.”

The same critiques can be said of gentrification in general. The problem is not an influx of resources or more diversity (both of which can be very beneficial to everyone, including long-term residents). The problem is the belief that dominant culture is best—so that people move in and change a neighborhood to look just like the last one they left.
What would you ask the Russian president? And does he now lack a compelling story?

Who benefits from transborder corruption -- and who pays for it?

J.R.R. Tolkien's love story.

We've often admired the quality of music education in Russia. And here's a bit of the output! ... performers on Nevsky Prospekt we encountered totally randomly earlier today. (If anyone knows the name of this group or its members, I would really like to give credit.)

08 June 2017

Why conversion? (repost)

Participants in our weekly "tea and conversation" hours, along with several of our colleagues, saying goodbye to Judy and me last Tuesday. Photo by Maria Kazantseva.

The original post was written in Idaho, whereas I'm actually still in Elektrostal, Russia. However, by this time next week we'll be on our way to the USA. We've been going through a wrenching series of goodbyes, in the midst of which I've just been felled by what seems like a light case of food poisoning. So tonight I'm posting something I wrote in June of 2012 while visiting the wonderful Quaker community of Woodland, Idaho.

One more thing. The original post includes a comment by the late Jeremy Mott, whose friendship-by-correspondence I treasured for twenty years. A bit more about Jeremy here. And more.

Woodland Friends Church
Greetings from Woodland, Idaho, USA. Earlier this week I was adding up the bank charges we'd paid over the last month. For this period, the biggest category was currency conversions. I didn't know conversion could be so costly!

A few weeks ago I was writing about the conditions for revival, and said,
What might be the catalytic element that decides the issue, that invites revival rather than decomposition? Maybe we need to ask for a new conversion, a new experience of crossing over into the risky territory of true faith, knowing that without the "protection" of violence and social status, we may lose our lives. I don't have the right to point at any individual and say that "you! to grow spiritually, you need a fresh experience of yielding, of conversion" (though I've said these words to myself) but I'm pretty sure that as a Friends Church, a Religious Society of Friends, that's what we need. And when even a small proportion of us pray our way into this riskier territory, and clear the path for our neighbors as well, there will be signs and wonders and growth.
What is this "crossing over," this "yielding"? I have to approach the subject of conversion with a lot of humility. It's so easy to universalize our own experience and assume it should be normative. If we've been presented with a model of conversion that looks like intellectual surrender to a series of propositions, or like emotional catharsis, and we've experienced neither one, we might conclude that as believers we're incomplete--or that the whole subject is just another example of the pathologies of religion. And William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience claimed that a certain percentage of us humans seem to have been created incapable of religious experience.

My own experience of conversion was very emotional--it provided resolution for several crises that were going on simultaneously. I'd lost faith in all outward authorities, from family to country, and badly wanted to know whom I could trust. To complicate the picture, I was feeling terribly guilty and incomplete owing to the violent death of my sister Ellen, who seemed to me to be more worthy of survival than I was. All this came to a head on a hot August evening in 1974. I had already been reading the New English Bible, but that evening I came to these words ...
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." [Matthew 5:43-45; context.]
At the moment I read those words, I decided to give myself to the One who was saying them (it seemed) directly to me as I read, who was telling me that I could trust him. And I've never looked back.

Given the burdens and anxieties I'd dragged with me into that evening, I'm sure a mental health specialist could come up with a secular explanation for the new sense of integration that came to me with this decision to cross over into belief. That doesn't bother me; I gained a new family (the Body of Christ) and new purpose; and even a brutally reductionist explanation just touches the mechanics, not the Mover or the Creator of the mechanism.

But is it true that conversion is really necessary, or is this just a conceit spread about by those who cherish their own experiences of conversion? Are we simply trying to describe and advocate a sort of ticket required to be acceptable in the evangelical church--thereby increasing motivation for self-deception or pretense in order to be accepted, and repelling others who fear or despise manipulation?

Additional questions--is conversion really possible for a group, even for the whole Friends church (as I had hoped in that previous post), or is it strictly a personal experience?

I take seriously the invitation of Jesus--"Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28--see context.) The "conversion" here seems to me neither dependent on intellectual agreement nor freighted with obligatory emotion--it's a decision, "Yes, I will come to you." Or Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." (My emphasis; context.) Am I right to believe that meaningful conversion can be this simple?

What about the element of surrender, of letting go? I think that so much depends on whether the person considering conversion is addicted to control, or on the other hand is a person who is subjected to others' control. The control addict must let go, but the oppressed person actually gains autonomy in partnership with God and with a trustworthy church. And there must be infinite variety in between these oversimplified extremes.

I do have a strong sense that Friends as a community must face our need for conversion. William Penn said of the earliest Friends, "They were changed [people] themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were ripped open as well as their garments changed, and they knew the power and work of God upon them." Was he only talking about a congregation of people who had individually experienced this and, as a result, gathered together, or was this change, this heart-experience, something they also knew as a community?

In any case, they were so ripped open that they quaked, earning the nickname by which we're still known. After 350 years of carrying this name, do we need to quake again? NO, not a demonstrative, compulsory, self-indulgent carrying on, but YES letting our hearts be opened as we meet the Holy Spirit together, and if unwilling to do so, dropping the name! I cherish the discipleship of Friends--every bit of it, including the extraordinary peace testimony that honors the Gospel verse that converted me--but sometimes I feel smothered by a cultish emphasis on quaker specialness. I have an intuition that, in a renewed conversion, we might be asked to let some of that stuff die...

... but not in favor of generic evangelicalism. I think we may be edging toward a whole new understanding of the Lamb's War. Look around and see how the social and economic structures around us are increasingly unsustainable, while unholy concentrations of wealth and power, armed to the teeth and devoid of ethical centers, stand ready to grab the spoils, oblivious to the dangers facing our planet. Secular protesters don't discern the ways even the wealthy are actually prisoners rather than villains in this system. Nor do they understand that replacing power-hungry oligarchs with power-hungry idealists isn't a solution. I can't pretend to see solutions, either, but I do know this piece: extending the invitation of Jesus to "come to me," to "open the door." And maybe it takes people and communities who have accepted the invitation to extend it credibly to others.

I crawled over to my laptop today to follow the U.S. Senate hearing featuring former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. The impression I had of Comey was not of a suave and agile G-man, but of a decent director who was as gobsmacked as the rest of us by the president's utter incompetence for high office.

A sensible summary of the situation the USA is in: Trump doesn't understand how to be president....
Succeeding in politics in a democratic nation is different from making a go of it in a business centered on one person -- or in an autocracy. Almost all of President Trump's problems can be traced to his failure to grasp this.
In the meantime, back here in Russia, morbid fascination.

How Russia's videobloggers are shaping public opinion.

D.L. Mayfield with more thoughts on school choice.

"I've been afraid to make the Kingdom my home...." -- this was the video I included with this post back in 2012, and it still seems achingly relevant.

Grace Laxson :: Be So Glad from Antioch Church on Vimeo.

01 June 2017


The desk of a serious blogger.
When Judy was director of financial aid at Wilmington College in Ohio, she had a Garfield poster on the back of her office door. Garfield was in suit and tie and was carrying a briefcase. His bright green sneakers illustrated the poster's caption: "Maturity is overrated."

Judy's job involved, among other things, handling millions of student aid and student loan dollars -- and she also had a staff to supervise, so maybe it was good that the poster was only visible when her door was closed! Federal auditors probably wouldn't have been able to see it.

I thought of that poster when I was reading Owen Strachan's blog post, "If Everyone’s a Visionary, Why Do We All Sound So Alike?" and his linked article, "The Kidification of America: On the Goodness of Maturity." To take the second text first, Strachan provides a lot of good food for thought. He exaggerates to make his points (something I never, ever, ever do) and there are some unexamined socioeconomic assumptions, but I totally support his main points: "... contra our narcissistic culture, you find yourself when you find God" and the church has a role to play in forming and modeling that maturity.

The blog post, "If Everyone's a Visionary, ..." is a bit snarkier, despite (correctly) criticizing a culture that uses snark in the service of its exhibitionism.
You may have a rebellious posture. You might affect a cynical, skeptical air. There may be no piece of received wisdom that you don’t slice and dice like a Master Chef. You may be–in your own mind–the living embodiment of the one who speaks truth to power. You may sneer at dress codes, break rules just to break them, and bend the truth just to see it strain against your will. You might broadcast your resistance on a daily basis, showing everyone how you bravely stand against The Man.


In truth, the idea of an actual outcast curating their image is amusing to ponder. Traditionally, the outcast has moved far from the mainstream; today, the self-styled outcast craves at an insatiable level the attention of cultural gatekeepers.

The path to authenticity isn't cultivating a fake image of alienation. Instead: "You mark yourself out in our time when you push away from self-branding, when you obey God in the power of Christ, when you die to yourself, when you embrace maturity."

I don't really have a serious argument with any of this; I just want to add some comments of my own, based on my own struggles against becoming a curmudgeonly observer of contemporary hip sense and nonsense.

First of all, I've mostly made my peace with the way people dress and decorate themselves, whatever their peculiar choices might be. Why should I criticize the self-expression of others, just because their modes of expression are outside the range of choices I make (or don't bother making) for myself? I try to extend the same patience to the way people express their opinions, although for me that's a much harder task. I will continue to argue that neither secular pundits nor Christian bloggers ought to use obscenities in their writing, for example, but that's not my hill to die on.

Since my own obvious hipness may seem to you the very definition of kidification, or alternately of aggressive offensiveness, it's great to promote a public conversation as Strachan has done. But as part of my struggle to take the apostle Paul's advice seriously in regarding others, I've deliberately adopted the discipline of questioning my own temptation to judge. Life is short; let people play!

Secondly, I'm sure that there is truth in Strachan's observations about the way people sneer and break rules and broadcast their resistance, but these apparent transgressions may not be solely in the service of showing off. In this world of personal and structural sin, there are good reasons to resist. The task is to learn how to resist in truly radical ways -- rooted in the public good, and ultimately in God, rather than in self-promotion.

That task, of learning and growing roots for fertile resistance is not the work of a day, and not a solo task. When young people, for example, are only starting to realize that the world is full of organized cruelty, who will be around them to confirm their observations ("You're not crazy. Thank God you care!") and teach them how to anchor their response in God and in mutual accountability to their community? If we are doing nothing to provide winsome access to such support, I suggest we avoid severe criticism of those who fake and flounder in their rebellion.

In my earliest days as a war resister, I had almost no idea of how deep the Christian roots of such resistance were. Then, during the Vietnam-era Moratorium movement, I went to an event that was billed as an anti-war meeting at the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Evanston, Illinois. Having grown up in an atheist family, I found myself inside a church building for perhaps the first time in my life. Thank God some of the speakers made the links with Christian faith explicit; I'm sure it was part of the chain of events that led, four years later, to my conversion.

So far, I've agreed with many of Strachan's observations, and I have also defended right rebellion. My third point is that resistance that is rooted in a believing community ought to have evangelistic power. No matter how immature and exhibitionistic our hip rebels may seem to be, there is an element of truth in their expressions of alienation. They are right not to be at peace with the way things are; let's help them link that element of truth with the Truth we claim to be publishing.

I've written before about the anti-war protest in Portland, Oregon, in 2003, when a lone fundamentalist preacher was haranguing part of the crowd. As our Reedwood Friends Church banner came into view, I could hear people in the crowd saying "Thank goodness, the Quakers are here." I hope that, for some of the demonstrators, our presence was an affirmation of Christian witness, significantly different from the shaming message that they were getting from the fundamentalist prophet. In the best case, however, he would also have been included in the conversation.

Finally, a few words about submission, a feature of discipleship that is implied in Strachan's articles. Submission to God and to a trustworthy church community is of central importance in discipleship and is a great antidote to the snarky self-promotion he criticizes. But what makes a church trustworthy as a place to make submission real? I've seen my share of untrustworthy places, where authoritarianism rules, where (for example) nobody cares about how the word "submission" might sound to women and others at the traditional receiving end of demands to submit. Try as I might, I have no easy formulas and very few sweet experiences to report. What can you say?

Related earlier posts: An end to coercive Christianity; Faith and certainty 3.

More on connecting the dots (or not): questions for American churches who celebrate Memorial Day. Be sure to read the comments as well ... and, if led, respond to them.

Kenya's prayer train.

A conversation with Van Gessel, Shusako Endo's translator.

Yeast and Christian resistance. "So, though top leadership wants to disregard the health of the world, people at risk, and future generations, we can resist and live Kingdom lives now."

Zbigniew Brzezinsk, strategist and optimist. (Russian-language original.) And, while we're at it, David Frum writes about the death knell for America's global leadership.

Donald Trump has definitely lost Micael Grenholm.

More from CrossroadZ:

25 May 2017

At the head of the table

Spring in Moscow. (At the Tretyakov Gallery, a special exhibition of the paintings of Zinaida Serebryakova.)

The Blasphemous Posture of Looking Down

How much of my life have I actually spent in hours of conversations about who is in and who is out of God's kingdom? Conversations where I was articulate, even compassionate, even honest. But now I see that all academic conversations, all theoretically discussions, are in their own way untruthful, no matter how honest you try to be. Even when you are well armed with Bible verses, commentaries, and research papers, how truthful can any conversation be when you are sitting at the head of the table? That was the life I had before I experienced profound brokenness, suffering, and shame -- the life lived from the shallows and not from the depths.

[Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is on the Way and Love Is Already Here]
It's a little hard to describe Jonathan Martin's book -- 215 pages of often inspiring, occasionally repetitive meditations on what it's like for a rock-star Pentecostal preacher to hit rock bottom, be forced to leave home and marriage, and learn to accept a new status: a recipient of grace rather than its celebrity distributor.

His waves of ocean and shipwreck metaphors deliver many vivid insights. The one that struck me yesterday, toward the end of my reading of How to Survive a Shipwreck, was this: ... how truthful can any conversation be when you are sitting at the head of the table?

To me there's a direct tie-in with the 17th-century Quaker rebellion against the religious authorities. On Monday, I was sitting with Natasha Zhuravenkova at Friends House Moscow, holding a copy of Margaret Fell's testimony "Concerning her Late Husband GEORGE FOX" (using the text in the book Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women's Writings 1650-1700). Natasha sat at the computer, with her Russian translation on the screen. Margaret's testimony described the beatings and imprisonments that George Fox endured, and also listed her own imprisonments: four years at one stretch, and later another full year.

Both George and Margaret had been condemned to be "out of the King's protection" for refusing oaths of allegiance and religious supremacy to the king. In one legal appeal mentioned by Margaret, even habeas corpus was ruled as unavailing in the face of this condemnation, known as praemunire. But, according to Margaret's testimony, her original crime was not refusing the oaths, but allowing her home to be used as a meeting place for dissenters and dissenting congregations, namely Quakers.

So, the founding generation of Friends collided directly with the collusion between church authorities and government authorities (in other words, the people who were then "at the head of the table") to repress free expression of Christian faith. The texts, vocabulary, rites, and structures of those claiming to represent the Gospel had been scandalously re-purposed for bondage. It's no wonder that Margaret Fell responded as she did, the first time she heard Fox's case against the religion industry:
And so he went on, and said, "That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God," &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, "The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord": and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves."
"We are all thieves" -- here is a confession that everyone who is in a position of power and privilege in the Christian world should consider. How do we thieves earn the right to tell someone else that we have it right and they have it wrong?

Yes, we will sometimes have it right, and they will sometimes have it wrong. And we should care about right and wrong at least as much as those confident 17th-century bosses did. But before we prioritize our theories about the threat to biblical authority, let's consider the danger our stern theories pose to the real-life reputation of the Gospel for tender believers and seekers. Before declaring someone "out of the Friends' protection," maybe we should first sit back down in our pews and cry bitterly. Let's do all this considering and grieving and kissing each others' tears in full view of a cynical and skeptical world, a world that knows too much about those in authority who assume (in Martin's words) "the blasphemous posture of looking down."


Maybe there was some bitter crying among those in Northwest Yearly Meeting who decided that their interpretation of Scripture entitled them to define others out of fellowship. Mostly I heard impatience.

Ascension Day.

Young Quaker artist -- from Rwanda to Newberg.

Charles McCrary on voice, irony, and writing seriously about religion.
If we write in ways that play off our presumed audience’s assumptions, what are the implications of that scholarly voice? For one, we expect the reader to perceive the incongruity between what the speaker says and means. This might be easy if we know the speaker, but it’s more difficult, perhaps even unfairly so, if we don’t. Second, and more important, this type of ironic voice could be used to smuggle in normative assumptions about the validity of our subjects’ actions, ideas, and interpretations. This type of smuggling is quite common in the study of religion, and I think it’s a problem.
Beth Woolsey has the definitive answer to the public, private, or home school question.

Judy and I were back at the B.B. King Blues Club last Friday to hear Sergei Voronov and his CrossroadZ band. Here's the song they're best known for.

18 May 2017

Seeing red

When I look at this new Time cover, I see red. And I don't just mean literally.

It makes me angry that a red herring like Russian interference in American politics continues to obscure the issues in the USA's current political crisis.

I have no doubt, as I've said before, that Russian political operatives have tried to influence American and Western European elections. But their methods are often laughably clunky. Russian operatives have made no persuasive case that Russia represents a vision for the future. Their opportunistic alliances with left wing and right wing groups in the West seem to have no loftier goal than simply to sow discord and confusion.

Discord and confusion are certainly features of the current political scene in the USA, but, in my mind, this situation can not be credited to Russian cleverness. In November 2016, for a variety of social and economic reasons that had almost nothing to do with Russia, the U.S. Electoral College awarded the presidency to a deeply flawed, self-obsessed entrepreneur for whom facts and expertise are entirely secondary to spectacle and power.

If Russian agents were indeed behind the e-mail hacks that supposedly weakened the Clinton campaign -- which remains to be proven but might well be true -- this was marginally effective only because it seemed to reinforce existing skepticism about the Clintons and about the political establishment generally. That skepticism and cynicism was distributed around the electoral map in just the right quantities to overcome Clinton's popular vote advantage of three million, and swing the results in Trump's favor.

We Americans need to ask ourselves (and each other!!) why Trump's voters were so deeply skeptical about the political elites but willing to suspend all that skepticism and place the top political post in the land in the hands of one Donald Trump: a boastful advocate for sexual harassment and public bullying, serial liar, libeler and slanderer, relentless self-promoter, and demonstrated con artist (Trump University!). All of this behavior was well-known and well-documented long before election day.

And: all of these disqualifying features of the Trump circus have absolutely nothing to do with Russia.  Russia's e-mail hacking did little -- if anything -- to enhance Trump's chances of winning, just as his own alleged involvements with Russian business and entertainment seemed to have cost him very little in the election.

However, the Russia links are relevant in one specific way: they add to the evidence of sloppy incompetence on the part of the president and his motley team. For example, that team knew, or should have known, that their first choice as national security adviser, Mike Flynn, had problematic contacts with Russia. They were absurdly defensive about attempts to investigate Russian linkages. They were tone-deaf concerning the contrasts between Trump's reception of Sergei Lavrov vs his reception of Angela Merkel. In short, they took no competent steps at all to put the Russian issue in perspective. And, as a result, Russia gets credited, or blamed, for the chaos that some here in Russia might enjoy watching but nobody could have generated.

The actual reactions here in Russia range from honest bewilderment to open mocking, all thanks NOT to Russian scheming but to American ineptitude. And in the meantime, while we're diverted by that totally unnecessary coverup, the Trump team's dislike of expertise, experience, and humane policy is demonstrated daily in choices of Cabinet appointees and subordinates, and in policy choices. (See this alarming story, if true, about the USDA.) Education policy, Department of Justice prosecution guidelines, deportations and refugee restrictions, and the ongoing scandal around the attempted sabotage of health care financing ... all seem to point to an unprecedented level of extremist influence in D.C. policymaking. Again, none of this is attributable to Russia.

And all this is taking place under the supposed oversight of a man with a devastating combination of presidential flaws: he's disinterested, angry, sulky, intemperate, and inconsistent. Furthermore, he's assembled a team of staffers and allied legislators who knowingly kneeled down and accepted these attributes for purposes of their own. I pray daily for peaceful regime change, but there is no mechanism under the U.S. constitution for reversing an election and throwing out an entire administration, other than somehow managing the chaos and waiting for the next election. Short of that, there's impeachment, but impeachment is a blunt and messy instrument that would no doubt make Trump even more self-pitying and chaotic in the meantime. Even so, it might be the only instrument available to us.

There's another way out, of course -- for Trump to decide that the job just isn't what he expected it to be, that he's tired of being the object of unprecedented unfair treatment, and resign.

Please! Resign. End this carnage today.

Resign, and claim a wonderful prize: a lifetime supply of self-serving anecdotes about desserts, cruise missiles, witch-hunts, and fake news.

And the rest of us can begin to rebuild a more or less normal relationship between the USA and Russia. It probably won't be a perfect relationship, but at least it might be based on something approaching reality.

Related post: The Russian crowbar.

David A. Graham provides a good compact summary of the situation faced by the Trump administration at the moment.

Lawrence Douglas: Impeachment seemed impossible a few days ago.

The Durov brothers' legacy to Russian political conversation online. And Russian media outlets explain how to preserve access!

From the Pew Research Center: Religious belief and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe.

Carol Kulluvilla: Bono has a message for young Christian artists.

There's a possibility that Newberg Friends Church could become two congregations.

Praying globally for evangelism.

Samantha Fish, "Either Way I Lose" (as far as I know it's not a political song)