Better theology needed in the public debate over homosexuality

One criticism I’ve seen of mainline churches is that they don’t do a very good job of connecting theology to congregational, individual, or public life. Whether or not this is true as a general matter, one area where it does seem to me to happen is the public debate–particularly in American Christianity–over the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the church. To hear people talk, you wouldn’t know that theologians have been grappling with these issues for literally decades or that over this time, a rich body of biblical and theological material has been developed supporting the case for the full equality of LGBT people. (Case in point: this recent exchange between Ross Douthat and William Saletan; to read this, you would never know that there was more than one “Christian” position here.)

It would seem that very little of the work that has been done in rethinking Christian attitudes toward LGBT people–largely by academics in theology and biblical studies–has filtered down to the congregational level and out into the public sphere. We still find ourselves rehashing the same half-dozen or so “clobber texts” and framing the debate in terms of “traditionalists” who uphold orthodox faith and “liberals” who are moral and doctrinal relativists. What this leaves out is, for example, the robustly theological (or theological-ethical) case for equality that has been developed by people like James Allison, Eugene Rogers, Gareth Moore, and others, or the work that has been done on the meaning and context of the relevant biblical texts. Bringing this to bear on the discussion would scramble the usual narrative of “liberals” being indifferent or hostile to theological arguments.

Mainline congregations have often exhibited good instincts in this area, basing their stance of equality for LGBT folks more on concrete experience than theory. But this leaves mainline Christians ill-equipped to make the case in theological and biblical terms, and they often end up ceding the theological high ground to their conservative opponents. It also allows more conservative forms of Christianity to be seen as the sole legitimate public expressions of the faith.

Communicating the gospel after Christendom

I urge everyone who cares about these things to read these two posts from bls at The Topmost Apple on how the church is dealing (or not) with our current “post-Christendom” situation. She makes two main points: first, the church often acts like it has nothing very interesting to communicate, and, second, what it does communicate is too often encased in impenetrable religious jargon that is meaningless to a lot of people. She thinks that the gospel carries the explosive truth about the human situation, but the churches are afraid, unwilling, or unable to offer that to people:

I think the Gospels – and Paul – are making some really convincing claims about the facts of the world and the human condition – and that A.A. has (re-?)discovered some of these things almost by accident. I think Luther was really onto something in his parsing of “Law” and “Gospel”; it has taken me a couple of years to come to understand more about this-but it’s real. It’s true-and it’s actually backed up by quite a lot of real-world evidence. This kind of thinking really does change your point of view – and it’s philosophy as much as religion, really. It’s got legs.

We need to be able to say these things to people who do not know our language already – and we need to offer people who do know the language a way for the faith to remain vital and alive – to continue to offer sustenance and excitement – in and for them, too. We need to make a case. “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe. It’s clear to me from years of discussions about these things that many people are interested in religion – but just can’t get with some of its manifestations (mentioned above). And of course, we have the problem of some of the …. erm ….. more extravagant claims of the Christian faith (sometimes called “believing six impossible things before breakfast”). So I do not believe we can count anymore, my friends, on Christianity being “believed in” as it’s been “believed in” in the past. We are going to have to assume that many (most?) people will not be convinced about these “impossible things” much anymore – and we’re going to have to depend far more on Christianity’s fascinating unveiling of counterintuitive ideas and mystical insights.

In a related vein, Ben Myers at Faith and Theology writes on the limitations of preaching from the lectionary:

There’s a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)

I think most churches–primarily in the U.S. and European context–have still not come to grips with the fact that a large number of people no longer consider religion particularly important or interesting. Not that they necessarily reject it passionately like the new atheists; they just don’t see why they should be much concerned about it at all. Moreover, they don’t necessarily have the background familiarity with the Bible, the church, and Christian claims that might once have been taken for granted. Those of us who take a special interest in theology and religion, either as professionals or amateurs, tend to become embedded in the language, history, and arcana of the church. As a result, we lose sight of what all this must look like to someone on the outside. If we believe that the gospel offers people something decisive and meaningful for their lives that they can’t get (or maybe more modestly aren’t getting) elsewhere, we have to find ways to communicate it. In a way, this is just a recapitulation of the insight of theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we have cordoned off matters of faith to a special “religious” sphere; but if the gospel is true, its truth is for our “secular,” ordinary, quotidian lives.

Church, class, and bourgeois virtue

Jim Henley cites some recent research showing that church attendance correlates with income and “familistic and bourgeois values”; he goes on to offer some speculative explanations of why church might be inhospitable to working-class folks. I think there’s a lot of truth there, but I also have to ask, if this is a recent phenomenon (as the research Jim cites suggests), then what changed? Why are churches losing ground among the working class now? Is this something specific to churches, or are people who have lost ground economically losing faith in all the institutions in society (church, government, business)? After all, divisions between rich and poor in the church go back at least to the church at Corinth.

There are a few possible additional explanations I can think of, but it would also be helpful if we knew whether this phenomenon is evenly distributed among different kinds of churches. Are liberal mainline churches doing better or worse among working class people than conservative evangelical ones? While it might seem plausible, for example, that poorer people would find “prosperity gospel” preaching alienating, my sense is that this variety of Christianity actually is more appealing to those trying to better their economic condition than it is a post facto rationalization for wealth already accumulated, though it may also be that. (See this Peter Berger article on prosperity-type teaching among pentecostal Christians in the global south for a provocative take on that.) Meanwhile, I can think of reasons why lower-income working people might find the “peace and justice” preaching of some comfortably upper-middle-class liberal churches less than fully relevant to their lives.

Whatever the explanation, there’s clearly evidence that churches often become “self-selecting circles of the economically and socially successful,” as Jim puts it. What should–but apparently doesn’t–go without saying is that this is a far cry from the kind of community that Jesus gathered around himself and which Christianity at its best has embodied. The church isn’t primarily–if at all–supposed to be a training ground for bourgeois virtue, although it has certainly functioned that way for much of American history. If there’s a silver lining here it may be that this model of the church is finally dying a well-deserved death. But what, if anything, will replace it?

Any other thoughts?

A worry about open Communion

I don’t have really strong feelings one way or the other about “open” Communion–i.e., communing the non-baptized. I can see arguments both for and against it. But I do have some questions about how I’ve seen it put into practice.

At several churches I’ve been to that practice open Communion, there is little or no effort at instructing the congregation in the meaning of the sacrament. Which is odd since you’d think that if atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, etc. are being invited to participate, they might be interested in knowing just what it is they’re being asked to participate in. Surely we can’t assume that everyone already knows what Communion is all about, can we?

This raises the suspicion that open Communion–at least as it’s practiced in a lot of places–is really more about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence. It also suggests that if you really want to invite people to participate in Communion with some meaningful understanding, something like catechesis is necessary. But doesn’t this just call the whole practice of open Communion into question? I’d be interested in hearing what others think about this, especially if they think they’ve seen it put into practice effectively.

Friday Links

–Marvin on the Presbyterian Church’s decision to allow congregations to call non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors.

–Libraries are part of the social safety net.

–“I hated vegans too, but now I am one.”

–On anti-Semites and philo-Semites.

–Mark Bittman asks, “Why bother with meat?”

–Jesus and eco-theology.

–Jeremy discusses Herbert McCabe and Gerhard Forde on the Atonement.

–Your commute is killing you.

–Rowan Williams’ Ascension Day sermon: “The friends of Jesus are called … to offer themselves as signs of God in the world.”

–Grist’s “great places” series continues with two posts on the industrial food system and its alternatives.

–Keith Ward on his recent book More than Matter?

–Russell Arben Fox on the Left in America.

–The Cheers challenge. My wife and I have already been rewatching the entire series. We’re on season 6 now, which replaces Shelley Long’s Diane with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, although the earlier seasons are probably the best ones.

–Ozzy’s first two solo albums, which are generally considered classics, have gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Here’s a review.

Friday Links

–A challenge to libertarians on the coecivene power of private entities.

–A.O. Scott on superhero movies as a Ponzi scheme.

–Richard Beck of Experimental Theology on why he blogs.

–A political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. (I scored as a “solid libera.l” Although I’d take issue with the way some of the choices were presented.)

–An end to “bad guys.”

–Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the changing meaning of having a “number 1” album.

–The folks at the Moral Mindfield have been blogging on the ethical implications of killing bin Laden, from a variety of perspectives.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Abraham Lincoln and slavery.

–Marvin had a good post earlier this week on the death of bin Laden and Christian pacifism.

–Christopher has a post on problems with the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” in the church.

–I don’t always agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I’m glad he’s out there asking the questions he asks. He’s been blogging up a storm this week on the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death.

–Brandon has a concise summary of the history behind Cinco de Mayo.

ADDED LATER: How do you feed 10 billion people? By eating less meat for starters.

Friday Links

What Makes Life Good? An excerpt from Martha Nussbaum’s new book.

–Johann Hari makes the case against the British monarchy.

–How progressive are taxes in the U.S.?

–Ten teachings on Judaism and the environment.

–Marilyn of Left At the Altar reviews Laura Hobgood-Oster’s The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals.

–A very interesting New Yorker article on the love-hate relationship between fantasy author George R.R. Martin and some of his fans.

–The fantasy of survivalism.

–Intellectual disability and theological anthropology.

–Do we need “Passion/Palm Sunday?” Seems like this comes up every year, and I’m not sure there’s a good solution.

–Mark Bittman on the cost of “lifestyle” diseases.

ADDED LATER: On Dutch efforts to ban traditional Jewish and Islamic practices of animal slaughter.

ADDED EVEN LATER: The spiritual benefits of headbanging, riffing (pun intended) on this Atlantic piece: How Heavy Metal Is Keeping Us Sane. (Thanks, bls!)

ONE MORE: It sounds like the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is every bit as bad as you’d expect.

On ecumenism and the unity of the church

There’s a bit of hubbub in the theo-blogosphere about ecumenism and the unity of the church (e.g., at Inhabitatio Dei and An und fur sich). I haven’t given this a ton of thought because I think ecclesiology is boring, but, for what it’s worth, I see the unity of the church as having two aspects. First, it’s a gift; we are, through no merit of our own, reconciled with God through Christ in baptism–and, as a corollary, with each other. Second, this unity, which already exists, needs to be made visible. How do we do this? Through our works alongside other Christians of caring for the world and worshiping God. This doesn’t require all existing churches to merge into some kind of super-church. The church should not be divided along economic, racial, gender or other invidious lines; at the same time, there are differences that are legitimate and can be enriching. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity enforced in some top-down fashion.

As far as the implications for ecumenism go, in my view there’s already enough agreement for most major Christian bodies to be “in communion” with each other in the sense that we should be able to worship together, partake of the sacraments together, and work for the common good and well-being of the world together. Of course, not all Christians agree with this; some think more is required for “real” unity–something like institutional unity, or everyone being under the same ecclesiastical hierarchy, or agreement on fine points of doctrine. These aren’t issues that are going to go away in the near future. What I think we need to do is seek the greatest degree of unity possible while respecting the views of those brothers and sisters who feel that they need to keep their distance a bit. It may be that full visible unity is an eschatological concept.

Shouldn’t the Bread of Life resemble actual bread?

Yesterday on Twitter I mentioned that I like it when we use real bread for communion at church and asked, half in jest, whether there were theological arguments for using tasteless wafers that I was unaware of.

The answers I got, at least some of which were, I think, tongue-in-cheek, included avoiding getting crumbs of Christ’s body on the floor or mangling the body by chewing it and the symbolic value of unleavened bread to connect the Eucharist to the Exodus.

A cursory Google search turned up this article at the Episcopal Cafe, which makes the case for real bread and good wine at communion:

If there had been a deliberate campaign to isolate the Eucharist from everyday life, and seal it off a in a purely ritual context, the results could have hardly been more successful. But of course there hasn’t been. It’s just that the desire for efficiency and an almost superstitious concern with what we suppose to be reverence have created conditions for severing the roots of sacramental practice from our everyday lives. Wafers can be efficiently counted and stored, they don’t make crumbs. They don’t require any effort, simply being delivered by mail. The sickly fortified wines marketed by the ecclesiastical supply houses keeps indefinitely. We have dozens of excuses to justify using these customary products as the elements, and we would prefer not to examine the spiritual losses we incur. At home we can savor wonderful wholesome bread, and appreciate even modest wines day by day as the glorious distillation it is of earth and sunshine. And then we go to church and find unique ecclesiastical stuff being used that has no connection with what we love to eat and drink normally.

I think it’s worth noting, in particular, how the connection between the sacrament and the Kingdom of God is obscured by the way the Eucharist is commonly celebrated in many of our churches. Jesus described the Kingdom as a banquet, a feast. And yet how much does the typical Eucharist resemble a feast, even though it’s supposed to be, among other things, an anticipation of the Kingdom?

At the church I attended when living in Berkeley, we would occasionally have not only real bread and wine at communion, but also olives, and milk mixed with honey! At the time I thought that was just left-coast liberal flakiness, but now I think they might’ve been on to something.

I’m curious what others think about this.

On the murder of David Kato

I know others have been blogging this story, but we had a canon from the Episcopal diocese of San Diego at our church this morning who spoke about it, so I thought I would try to give it some small additional bit of attention.

Last month, David Kato, a gay rights activist in Uganda, was beaten to death after a tabloid (oddly called Rolling Stone) published a photo of him and several other people it maintained were gay under the headline “Hang them.”

According to this article in the New York Times,

Mr. Kato was beaten to death with a hammer in his rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Police officials were quick to chalk up the motive to robbery, but members of the small and increasingly besieged gay community in Uganda suspect otherwise.

“David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. evangelicals in 2009,” Val Kalende, the chairwoman of one of Uganda’s gay rights groups, said in a statement. “The Ugandan government and the so-called U.S. evangelicals must take responsibility for David’s blood.”

Ms. Kalende was referring to visits in March 2009 by a group of American evangelicals, who held rallies and workshops in Uganda discussing how to turn gay people straight, how gay men sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” intended to “defeat the marriage-based society.”

What has invariably been described as a “draconian” anti-gay-rights bill has been working its way through the Ugandan parliament for over a year, which among other things would “broaden the criminalization of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty for people who have previous convictions, are HIV-positive, or engage in same sex acts with people under 18 years of age.”

Meanwhile, a retired Anglican bishop in Uganda, Christopher Senyonjo, an advocate for gay people in the country who was expelled from the Church of Uganda when he first started working with gays and lesbians, is calling on the Anglican Communion to take a stronger stance in support of the rights of LGBT people. (The Anglican church of Uganda, while objecting to some of the more stringent penalties called for by the bill, has come out in support of a modified version that strengthens the current criminalization regime.)

The police have apparently arrested a suspect and are saying that the killing resulted from a “personal disagreement” and not from Kato’s activism. Some sources have been reporting that this was a case of some sort of sexual tryst gone bad, and not a hate crime. (Some conservative Anglican websites are even reporting this with a kind of satisfaction, as though it shows that concern about violence against LGBT people is just a bunch of liberal handwringing.)

Whatever the investigation turns up (and I know nothing about the circumstances of Kato’s murder beyond what I’ve read and nothing about the probity or otherwise of the Ugandan criminal justice system), the kind of climate of hate being fostered in Uganda–by professed Christians in many cases–is nothing other than the antithesis of the gospel of Jesus. The church of Christ, and particularly its leaders, needs to be crystal clear about that and unstinting in its defense of human rights and dignity for all.