In Defense of Denomination

There is one Body, and there is one Church.

There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.

But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.

This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”

Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”[1]

It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.

The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”

While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.

Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”[2] The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.

And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.

And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.

For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.

[1] Luke 49-50

[2] John 4:23

Pain and the Possible Gain

It is often said “No Pain, no Gain.” But I’d like to propose that along with that saying comes the mindset that to feel pain is to feel weakness leaving the body. I have definitely seen variations of that idea written on the back of multiple sports player’s t-shirts and cringed every time.

So which is it? Can pain be dignifying or is it something that one must hide?

There’s an inherent problem with this saying. It glorifies pain as something that we ought to strive for because it will make us stronger. But there is another saying, and this one is not written out for us like the others. That saying goes something like this: “If you’re in pain, do not let anyone else know because it will show that you are weak. “

For starters, I’d like to classify what types of pain we will feel in life. Let’s start by splitting this up into two simple categories: good pain and bad pain.

Good pain is the pain that tears down in order to rebuild something stronger. A practical example of this is how our muscles work: it hurts to tear them when you work out, but once they are healed they have grown back stronger. This pain is something in which we can pride ourselves. Athletes even roar in pain as they finish races, communicating to others that they are in pain while showing that they are overcoming it.

This rebuilding pain also occurs not just physically: it can also be mental or emotional. Sometimes we must go through new experiences in life and learn new things. The pain of failure can break us down, but to overcome a failure makes one even more successful. What has been torn down is made into something even better.

This is a pain can be likened to that of Dante’s Purgatory; while it is painful for the individuals to climb up the mountain and be refined by the fire, the pain is worth the end. Being refined only makes them stronger and we see an aspect of redemption in this pain as they reach an end goal.

It is what I called bad pain that does not allow for this rebuilding. This is the type of pain that tears down and does not readily heal to any profit. It is that pain that is felt when you scrape your knee, lose a loved one or remain defeated by the troubles of life. It is a pain that can dwell with us for a very long time if we do not learn how to throw it off of ourselves.

When we are told that we ought to hide our pain, our loneliness, our depression or our losses, we learn to dwell in the pain rather than leave it behind. To remain in pain that does not refine is not beneficial; rather we can leave pain in the past by turning it into a pain that will help grow and rebuild us.

There is no entrance into the rebuilding until we learn to share our pain. For it is only by sharing that we are given a different perspective on our personal pain. In community we can find both remedy and empathy.

If we do not share our pain there is no way to find a remedy. In a hospital, if a surgery patient is in pain, that patient must communicate their pain to the nurse in order to receive relief. Only then can the patient receive a remedy–in this case a type of pain reliever. Only once that remedy is administered can the recovering patient feel better and even go through a proper pain that comes with exertion for something like physical therapy. But none of this would have happened if the patient remained silent and never communicated their pain.

By sharing a persistent and degenerative pain with someone else, it can be turned into a rebuilding pain that comes to an end.

There is remedy in the act of sharing. The sharing could lead to something as simple as immediate physical pain relief, or it could be the actual sharing of a painful experience that heals.

But like I said, it’s harder to share than we think. We do not feel that others will entertain our struggles or understand them.

So here’s the bright side for a Christian: they have God. God, who will always listen, always sympathize, and always offer a remedy. That is enough, but we are also meant to live in community. Members of the church are called to be that love, understanding and remedy to other members. We are to bear each other’s’ burdens.

Sometimes God alone is enough, but more often than not God will show himself through the community that He brings us to in a time of pain. This is the community where we can share pain, be uplifted by the stories of those who have gone before us and see from a different light that we too will make it through the pain and put it behind us. But we can only find those who can encourage and empathize by first sharing with them.

It is through sharing that the church can gather around a hurting member and know how to help them as best as they can on the path to restoration.

Our Turn Inward: Emotionalism

While some economic theorists take notice of class distinctions and their impact on quality of life, few choose to go deeper by asking such questions as “how does capitalism shape our feelings?”

Eva Illouz does just this by bringing abstract economic theory to the realm of the personal. Illouz acknowledges the trendy yet ensconced cultural tendency to observe life through emotional lenses. Her recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, provides an in-depth articulation of this shift. Transcending academic and professional categories, Illouz spearheads a new kind of study, analyzing psychological and emotional language in its attention to human behavior. Guernica Magazine’s Jesse Tangen-Mills gives Illouz the label “cultural theorist,” as this approach doesn’t fit the typical labels of “historian,” “philosopher,” or “sociologist.”

Illouz’s thesis in “Saving the Modern Soul” reveals—if not pronounces—a change in contemporary discourse. In the early 20th century, “society” understood the world according to relationships. Community was what mattered; less so, the individual. When talking about the family unit, we spoke of it in terms of the greater good. Any defiant individual who caused harm to the community, for example, we “felt” and spoke of as being in direct opposition to the social good. When considered, the individual was most frequently viewed in opposition to, or in support of, the community, rather than the community towards the individual. This view has since been flipped.

Tangen-Mills points out that in shifting towards the emotional and psychological we now “hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs” when we talk about ourselves. The defiant individual is no longer a mere enemy, but is recognized personally. We begin to view the individual as a victim of the family and/or the greater community. We turn from a discourse that sees only the greater good to recognizing the personal and individual good.

If we doubt this trend, we need only look at the popularity of Oprah Winfrey and Woody Allen—both of whom, Illouz points out, have built their careers by recognizing the deeply emotional and often broken nature of modern day individuals.

The question is not whether such a trend exists, but whether it is in fact good that we have turned from a communal discourse towards an individualistic one. In evangelical Christian circles, the term “individualistic” is often antagonizing because it’s believed that an individualistic society perpetuates “self-focus,” which is in direct opposition to the selflessness directive given in Scripture.

Constantly evaluating the personal impact of one’s environment—for example, how a person was treated by their family—turns our attention furthur towards the “singular,” and away from the family and community. Rather than viewing a poor individual and his affect on the community at large, we fastidiously turn our heads towards the emotions he experiences because of his lack. Illouz comments:

…in literature people focused on interpretation of text and really never bothered to actually pay attention to the fact that texts and movies elicit emotions and draw you in through emotions. Or sociologists who asked themselves why people do what they do could talk about competition, when you consume something, or they could talk about class stratification but never about the envy or the humiliation or the shame that can accompany class stratification.

Prior to the last several decades we analyzed and articulated subjects of study externally. Sociologists who talk about “competition” regarding human behavior, for example, remain just outside of a discourse of feelings and emotions. Competition is a perspective of relationship with others, rather than an emotion that comes out of such a relationship. The development of psychology as a discipline has brought with it a reading of human behavior that regards emotions almost to the exclusion of all else.

People spend an increasing amount of time focused upon the misery of an individual rather than of healing and triumph. Movies, for example, are more likely to show the gradual digression of users defeated by heroin or cocaine, such as Requiem for a Dream, than to show the impact of users upon the greater public or those individuals finding healing in their communities.

We are now inspecting the parts of a picture, instead of the picture. Yet, to ignore the minutia is to ignore what makes up the whole. This turn towards the psychological and emotional experience of the individual may not be such a bad thing.

In fact, by looking inward, we find some of the causes of our social diseases and have the opportunity to solve them. Modern society’s “emotional” approach is in fact liberating in its own right. Examining human experience according to its psychological and emotional impact allows us to understand our environment and community in a much deeper way. We give voice to injustice and pain, and doing so, are given the insight to carefully respond to the social or familial harms that create an experience which negatively influences individuals who become “defiant.”

Despite this psychological and emotional discourse being new to humanity, the emotional and psychological is part of our makeup. Humanity has always been and always will be emotional. Our discourse has changed; we have not.

But the way we speak about ourselves affects how we relate to one another. And so, as we continue in this new way, we should cautiously remember that individuals make up a greater whole. Environment and relationships affect the individual, and though the individual is important, he or she also impacts the whole. ‘

The Murder of the Homeless & Social Merit

Do we perform acts of kindness towards others because they deserve it or because they need it?

In case you haven’t heard, a homeless man was recently murdered in New York City after trying to help a woman in the middle of being assaulted. Brian Levin reports:

In New York surveillance video captured a homeless good Samaritan come to the aid of a woman being attacked by a knife wielding assailant, only to be stabbed himself. While not a hate crime, the bleeding wounded man was casually ignored by passersby who failed to do anything to assist him as he lay dying in the street.

Levin comments that though this instance isn’t a hate crime because the perpetrator was initially after the woman, Levin states that many hate crime scholars are regarding the increasing number of homicidal deaths of this demographic as such, because the homeless are “perceived as a threat.”

Of course, we should be angry at those who choose to actively brutalize and murder, but what of those who do nothing to stop or help when they’re able? What of the passersby?

Some are saying that the passivity of passersby is the result of a kind of psychological paralysis. “Bystander apathy,” as it’s called, is a result of being overly-exposed to violence and being in a very public setting in which people feel less guilty for doing nothing.

While some, like Manasan, offer other examples for why few get involved in public displays of violence, we should consider whether our judgments of those being harmed play into our decision to pass-by, watch… or help.

Isn’t it possible that in a crisis situation we are more likely to help those we consider more valuable within society than those who we view as a burden?

Jack Levin (no relation to Brian Levin), a professor of sociology and criminology, comments that being homeless and/or elderly has an effect upon those who are witnesses:

“We devalue people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people who are marginal types, and elders,” he said. Levin suggested that crime victims who need help while in a public space try appealing directly to an individual.”If you can somehow single out a person so he does feel personal responsibility, then he will help,” he said.

In discussing what happened in New York the other day, a professor of mine pointed out that even those who speak out for the marginalized often fail to properly help the marginalized.

We feel better about ourselves if we “say” something in support of the needy. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t make me feel better to write this article. But if I regularly justify not helping others when I can, for the sake of myself, and because of implicitly held beliefs about who is valuable and who is not, I am one of those onlookers who passed by the homeless-man while he was bleeding to death.

Consequently, if the murder of this homeless man is an example of our social gradation of human value, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that we are failing to live up to our professed beliefs?

Is it logically consistent to serve others based on merit or need?

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. (Some Rights Reserved.)

The Problematic Suppositions of Wired

Amy Wallace’s essay “An Epidemic of Fear,” published in this month’s issue of Wired, is both perceptive and worrying. Wired’s articles often comment on the growing debates between social groups and professional communities. This month’s feature focuses on the conflict between anti-vaccination proponents—mainly parents—and the scientific community that contends they are necessary.

Wallace’s essay, while offering some sympathy to parents, argues heavily in support of the scientific community. Unfortunately, her view also creates worries about parental rights.

Consider Wallace’s comments about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children:

In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitivly, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).

The figures sound alarming. Wallace provides reasons for us to believe that vaccination exemptions result in serious health concerns for both specific individuals and larger communities. The issue, however, is garbled amidst Wallace’s concern that parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated are doing so on irrational grounds—even though, as Wallace points out, the majority of parents abstaining from vaccinations live in more highly educated communities. Yet she says that naysayers oppose vaccinations because of fear and “unmet need,” as opposed to scientific evidence or reasonable doubt. She adds:

…Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” [Carl] Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

Wallace’s attention to the motivations underlying parents’ objections to vaccinations does not cohere with her primary thesis that vaccinations are necessary. Furthermore, her comment that these objections are a result of fear and irrationality is not far removed from the kind of remarks Sigmund Freud makes in his Civilization and It’s Discontents. He writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” Like Freud, Wallace implies that parents are trying to assuage their fears using superstitious means. This line of thought implies that our unmet fears and needs are irrational, and so the direction in which we point our fears and needs is unjustifiable.

Of course, we cannot deny—nor should we—that we are liable to hold beliefs that are not wholly logical. Wallace’s position, however, not only has the capacity to generate more fear among anti-vaccine proponents, but it also has the capacity to undermine parental rights. If she argues that parents who object to the scientific community about vaccinations are irrational, perhaps they should not be allowed the freedom to choose not to have their children vaccinated.

Yet the fact that fear exists among parents does not imply the absence of reason. With all the controversies surrounding treatments, as well as updated information about side-effects and the rise of medical information available online, parents are justified in questioning scientific authority. By dismissing parents’ concerns as illogical, Wallace feeds this distrust. Respect goes both ways. If the scientific community is truly a bulwark of logic and reason, it should seek to bridge the gap between parents and doctors by effectively communicating about the challenges and controversies regarding science and medicine. Furthermore, if Wallace wants to convince parents that the scientific community should be trusted, she will also seek to bridge this gap, instead of engendering more doubt. ‘

Urban Life and the End of the World

It is a jarring fact for most Christians that our end is in a city, not a garden.  We understand the allure of Eden, our lost home, a beautiful, bountiful haven. A simple life in harmony with nature and God has intuitive appeal. It is harder (for many of us, at least) to anticipate eagerly the fact that we are destined to be urbanites.  We are promised inhabitance in the New Jerusalem, a massive city of the glorified that is ruled by Christ himself. 

In counterbalance to Chesterton’s championing of small community on which I last blogged, Wilfred McClay argues in the most recent edition of The City the particular value of the metropolis. Most Christian thought about stewardship over the earth is likely to evoke environmental concerns before it does urban planning. McClay emphasizes the importance of considering our habitation, however, especially that habitation which is most undeniably a human construct – the city.   

McClay argues that, within American culture, we have careened between over-adulation of the cultural advancement our cities represent, and undervaluing them as irredeemable hotbeds of crime and corruption. As Christians, we ought not fall prey to this false dilemma. We adhere to a faith that views the world as both undeniably God’s and as pervasively at odds with him. In light of this, McClay challenges contemporary Christians: our environments shape us, and we of all people have the greatest reason to be aware of and active in a city’s influence, while seeing it for what it truly is. 

McClay’s call to a more balanced perspective on our cities in light of our Christian story is reminiscent of Lutheran theologian Ted Peters’ espousal of “proleptic ethics” in his book God–the world’s future. Peters argues that the Biblical vision of the end times should inform our lives in the present.  The main gist of Peters’ argument is that we ought to imitate though we cannot imminatize the eschaton. That is, our lives in the present should be informed by the values of the New Jerusalem as they have been revealed to us, though we cannot fully bring them about. If every tear will be wiped away in the New Heaven and the New Earth, we should see this as a charge to address and comfort sorrows now, as Christ’s body and his imitators. Peters’ point is eloquently affirmed by McClay’s sense of how Christians ought to live in an urban setting. Ted Peters describes a life lived by proleptic ethics as “the life of beatitude” – according to McClay, it may be that this life can best occur in the city.

Both Peters and McClay are quick to note that this positive view of earthly justice must always be held in tension with our critical stance toward the inevitable “failures of the present” by the standard of God’s Kingdom Come (377). It is worth recalling that God’s prophets rail against Jerusalem far more often than they foretell its renewal. It is in light of the City which we know we will indwell that we can truly criticize the ones we now indwell. Peters also argues that eschatological ethics are valuable because they give us an aim; they remind us of where this story is headed — and if the story is headed to a city, McClay offers, why not learn to live in one well now? Cities perhaps best exemplify the continuity of culture, and uniquely entrench us in our history, our limitations, and our aims. They serve as both “vehicles of preservation and as vehicles of anticipation,” according to McClay (17). He reminds that the “party of memory is also the party of hope,” for Christians who lean on past promises for future good (18). There is much good in the political and social unity-in-diversity a city alone provides, and that good has special weight for Christians who anticipate heaven as an urban culture. The stench of sin may be most present in cities, but then so are the glimmers of the New Jerusalem. ‘

Better Than Fiction

Has our culture lost the ability to foster honest public discourse?
Sometimes it appears so. One blogger had this to say after one of the campaign debates last fall:

What is it about politics that tends to reduce normal, presumably at least quasi-thoughtful journalists (and others) to insult-slinging, cliche-hurling, party-line-toeing ideologues who all mysteriously sound the same with the sole exception of which party line they’re toeing?

Great question!

Continue reading Better Than Fiction