Plowshares last night


Slow Church: A Report from the Trenches an admirer of the Englewood Review of Books, I have been anticipating the release of Slow Church. Now that it’s in my hands, I’m happy to report that it doesn’t disappoint. I am thoroughly convinced by the book’s critique and vision. I’ll leave the close outlining of the book’s contents—on ethics, ecology, and economy—to others who have already done so. Instead, I want to offer a report on the book’s potential audience from my small corner of the world: a small Wesleyan liberal arts college in central Kentucky. Based on my interaction with students here, I expect that many will be compelled by its vision.

Each year I teach a course on World Civilizations. Together students and I trace the rise of the supremacy of the market (capitalism); of technology and gears of production (industrialization); of the organization of society on the basis of efficiency and calculation, not morality, emotion, custom, or tradition (rationalization); of the absolute sovereignty of nations within their borders (nation-state), and of the strong belief in progress. It’s the story of modernity.

My students find much to like about modern development. In the case of industrialization, they note the abundance of food (even oranges in wintertime!). But they also articulate some of the downsides—Cheese Whiz, Twinkies, pollution, global warming, stunning levels of wealth inequality—and are surprised at the length and magnitude of the list. Modernity has not come through on all it has promised. My students, many of them from Appalachia, know these realities all too well.

At the end of the course, we talk about alternatives to excesses of modernity. We discuss the virtues of gardening, reading from books with actual pages, sitting on front porches in the evening and visiting with neighbors, fasting from social media, and so on. Essentially, this is the vision of Chris Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church.

Then, in a kind of culminating experience, I try to give them a taste of what we’re talking about. Here’s the assignment:

  • Rationale: We live in a hyperactive industrialized world of automobiles, vacuum cleaners, combines, smartphones, water treatment plants, and flashy megachurches. YouTube and Facebook, iPhones and SMS have taken up hours in the day once spent in reflection, reading, and story-telling on the front porch. TV, texting, multi-tasking, and iPhone apps have fostered, and we can barely Sit. Still. At All. Premodern humans experienced life very differently. They worked hard physically. They spent time in meditation. This assignment is predicated on the notion that silence and reflection can be virtues, that we have lost something valuable in this age of overabundant information and entertainment. In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes, “Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water. It can form your life even if it doesn’t solve your life.”
  • Instructions: Your assignment is to be silent for 90 minutes. Put away your computer and smartphone. Do not watch television. Leave the presence of other people. Just be still by yourself. You may walk or hike in nature for part of the 90 minutes, but be sure to sit on a bench or lay down on the grass for some of the time.
  • Paper: Write a one- to two-page paper reflecting on your experience and putting it in historical perspective. What does it feel like to be silent, to be without the pings of a smartphone? How is our lifestyle now different than in premodern times?

It’s a modest assignment than gets immodest reactions. One young man balked completely, told me that social media was his total existence, and spent his two pages justifying his refusal to be still and contemplative for 90 minutes. But a good half of my students wax nostalgic for a time they’ve never really known. They exult on how refreshed they feel and pledge to integrate slowness into their daily routine. I have no way of knowing how many are just sucking up or how many actually follow through. But it seems like I’m hitting a nerve.

On the last day of class, we recite some Neil Postman together. “Loving Resistance Fighters” are people who “pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked and why; who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations; who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as synonymous for truth; who are, at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding; who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they ‘reach out and touch someone,’ they expect that person to be in the same room; who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth; who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement” (Technopoly, 183-84).

I’ve noticed more raised jaws, intense eyes, and fervent voices than I expected. I have hope.

*** Cross-posted at Patheos ***

Plowshares tonight


“Then I Shall Be a Wicked Child, and the Great God Will Be Very Angry with Me”

One beautiful spring afternoon four years ago, I came across a horrifying scene in my living room. One of my two-year-old sons was standing on the back of the couch with his legs spread and his arms outstretched. My other two-year-old son stood facing him with an imaginary hammer in his hand and a determined look on his face. He proceeded to pound imaginary nails into his twin brother’s hands and feet. He was crucifying his twin brother.

I had not yet told them the crucifixion story, so I don’t know how they knew to reenact it. Perhaps they had been told the story in Sunday School. Or maybe they noticed the crucifixes that hang in every classroom at the University of Notre Dame, where my wife and I were graduate students at the time.

Whatever the source, early American Puritans probably would have reacted differently than I did. As Catherine Brekus writes, ministers “did not believe in being ‘kind’ to children by sugarcoating the truth.” Even the youngest of children needed to be taught the concepts of original sin, heaven, and hell.

Accordingly, their catechisms were shockingly explicit. Consider Isaac Watts’s First Catechism (1730): “Question: And what if you do not fear God, nor love him, nor seek to please him? Answer: Then I shall be a wicked Child, and the great God will be very angry with me. Question: Why are you afraid of God’s Anger? Answer: Because he can kill my Body, and he can make my Soul miserable after my body is dead. . . .Question: What must become of you if you are wicked? Answer: If I am wicked I shall be sent down to everlasting Fire in Hell among wicked and miserable creatures.” This particularly catechism was designed for children who were three or four years old.”

In her tender and authoritative biography of Sarah Osborn, Brekus describes the child’s dread of God’s wrath. Sarah was very worried that she might commit the monstrous sin of going to sleep without first saying a prayer. “The sin appeared so monstrous that I durst not lie down without it, for I should have been afraid the devil would have fetched me if I had.” Young Sarah was not alone. David Brainerd, a missionary, likewise was “terrified at the thoughts of death” at the age of seven or eight. Reverend Aaron Burr, the future president of Princeton, was troubled by “great terrors and horrors from a guilty Conscience and the Fears of Hell.” Another minister remembered that his mother “took a Considerable Deal of pains” to warn all of her children that they were “Children of wrath and exposed to Hell fire.”

Plagued by original sin and perhaps headed to Hell, infants were considered to be only a small step above the beasts. Early Americans were disturbed by the sight of babies crawling on all fours, which made them look like small animals. Puritans tried really hard to make them stand, constructing special walking stools to prevent them from crawling. Parents laced girls into corsets to straighten their backs, which is why children look unnaturally rigid in many colonial paintings. Children were subjected to stiff discipline.

These views and practices softened through the eighteenth century and beyond. Jonathan Edwards who believed that it was “exceeding just, that God should take the soul of a new-born infant and cast it into eternal torments,” got pushback from many of his congregants during and after the Great Awakening. They and other ministers, according to Brekus, “imagined blissful children being gathered up into Christ’s loving arms. There was no anger as fierce as God’s anger, but no love as sweet, as pure, or as boundless.” Anti-Calvinists later claimed that Calvinists “once taught that hell was paved with infants’ bones.”

Even in Edwards’ own church, the conflict raged. Parishioners criticized Edwards for “frightening poor innocent children with talk of hell fire and eternal damnation.” In return, he accused them of being too indulgent (there really isn’t anything new under the sun—it turns out that church conflict and parenting wars are long-standing American traditions!). In the end, he sort of conceded, allowing for the conversion of children and welcoming some into full membership with the privileges of the Lord’s Supper.

But to truly convert children, Edwards would have thought it important to “fright” them. He would have insisted on a clear articulation of both human depravity and the cross. And so I imagine he would have appreciated my sons’ rehearsal of Good Friday, which managed to portray both at the same time.

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***

Picturing Pain

Last week several dozen scholars of religion met at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom to discuss the global history of evangelicalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The conference, organized by Kendrick Oliver, whose research on religion and the space program you really must become acquainted with, was terrific. Papers ranged from religious broadcasting (Tim Stoneman, Georgia Tech Lorraine), charismatic Anglican short-term missions (John Maiden, Open University), World Vision (David King, IUPUI), and Carl McIntire, the ICCC, and European evangelicals (Markku Ruotsila, University of Helsinki). Among the many gems I learned: European fundamentalists associated with the ICCC pushed back against McIntire to be allowed to drink, smoke, and attend the cinema—and won!

One of the most intriguing sessions dealt with material and visual culture. Photography became particularly important to the missionary project in the late nineteenth century. Pictures seemed to bridge space, culture and language. They seemed factual. They seemed able to communicate when words could not. But Didiet Aubert of Sorbonne Nouvelle University, speaking on “The Missionary Archive as Family Album,” noted the scholarly limits of missionary photography. Most archival collections, lacking dates and organization, are typically a mess.  Even those that are dated and classified are not reliable as “factual” evidence. They are framed, cropped, and posed.

But there also lies much of their value. The very process of creating visual culture helps demonstrate the construction and projection of missionary ideals. Many of the panelists noted that missionaries were projecting images to a sending community wanting evidence of success in converting exotic peoples. During a talk entitled “Opening Blind Eyes: The Evangelical Photographic Frontier in the 19th-Century North American Pacific Northwest,” Carol Williams of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta showed a series of fascinating photos meant to depict darkness, filth, and heathenism (even as the very same images betrayed sophisticated, if not Christian, cultures). Several showed the domestication of Native women into Euro-American housewifery. In a talk entitled “Saving Pagan Babies: Missionary Photography and US-China Relations,” Margaret Kuo of California State University-Long Beach showed a series of photos of missionaries trying to civilize natives. Boys were pictured transforming from emaciation to health, from wearing Chinese clothing to Western costumes, and from venerating Buddhist symbols to Christian crosses. The most favored images pictured entire families that had been converted. These photographs—which evoked both suffering and salvation—justified the missionaries’ existence.

Another genre of missionary photography featured the missionaries themselves. They were pictured in exotic locations with exotic animals doing exotic things in triumphant poses of missionary romanticism. Didiet Aubert juxtaposed these images with personal letters and diaries, which revealed a profound sense of vulnerability. Behind those brave faces sometimes lay intense anxieties caused by troubled marriages, feuds with other missionaries, and spiritual doubt.

While most missionaries used the new technology with considerable enthusiasm, some did with considerable ambivalence. For every Passionist priest walking around China with a good-sized camera slung around his neck during the 1920s (Kuo flashed multiple images of this), there were some who resisted. One administrator was called a “hapless old fossil” by colleagues for not utilizing photographs to raise more funds. In a case study of evangelical missionaries working in famine-stricken India in the 1890s, Heather Curtis of Tufts University told the story of a skeptical missionary named Mark Fuller. He worried about a pornography of pain that played on the emotions of viewers and encouraged a view of Indians as helpless, uncivilized savages who needed a superior West to save them. In an act that sought to subvert the imperial project, Fuller published pictures of Indians helping Indians in a Christian & Missionary Alliance magazine. He wanted to clearly distinguish between Christian faith and Western imperialism.

But in the end, the utility of photography triumphed. It managed to powerfully communicate what Elaine Scarry has called “pain’s inexpressibility.” It encouraged “spectatorial sympathy” on the American home front. Curtis suggests that evangelicals were pioneers in their strategy of “picturing pain.” In fact, she contends that the use of photography to describe awful conditions was not yet being used among secular humanitarian organizations. But they soon caught on to this incredibly effective technique. During one 12-month stretch in the 1890s, one entrepreneurial evangelical missions agency raised $100,000, an incredible amount, when they began using photography to depict the appalling conditions during the famine. Secular organizations quickly followed suit. Picturing pain fueled the growth of the humanitarian industry.

Just Spirituality

The stereotypical religious conservative sees social justice, at best, as a distraction from practices of piety or, at worst, a heretical deviation from the gospel. The stereotypical religious progressive sees social justice as a biblical imperative—but seems to have no time for spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and fasting. This seems to be changing as many religious conservatives increasingly speak favorably about social justice. My own research on the evangelical left (self-promotion alert: if you haven’t read Moral Minority yet, now is the time—it just came out in a much, much less expensive paperback edition) discussed many other Christians who sought to practice both social justice and a rigorous spirituality.

In her new book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, Mae Cannon, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church and a Middle East expert for World Vision, offers half a dozen fascinating profiles of such Christians. They include:

  • Mother Teresa, whose practice of silence as a monastic inspired a lifetime of service. God spoke into her silence, which was a means of removing worldly distractions. Cannon writes that in these moments “she experienced God’s love, which compelled her to bring God’s love to the poorest of the poor.”
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose life of prayer led to an emphasis on discipleship and resistance to Nazi anti-Semitism. His daily exercises of prayer, according to Cannon, “built up such ingrained habits of virtue that he had the inner spiritual resources for appropriate action.”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., whose practices of beloved community and churchly accountability in Montgomery, Alabama, led to proclamations of justice. Surrounded by the historic black church, writes Richard Lischer in The Preacher King, “King gave names to what he saw: sin, racism, genocide, doom, cowardice, expediency, idolatry of nation, militarism, religious hypocrisy.”
  • Fairuz, a devout Maronite Christian from Beirut whose Lebanese folk music has inspired freedom and community throughout the Middle East. Often seen kneeling in prayer at the recording studio, she sings for groups of any religion, ethnicity, and nation. Her song “Ya Zahrat al Madayn” (“Flower of the Cities”) mourns the suffering of the Arab community in Jerusalem in 1948.
  • Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop in South Africa, whose Sabbath-keeping led to reconciliation in the aftermath of apartheid. “All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.”

In these profiles—and in Cannon’s practical advice on spiritual practices such as retreats of silence, centering, the daily examen, journaling, and Sabbath-keeping—we glimpse a powerful synthesis of the material and the mystical. Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu were not progressive technocrats. They embodied pathos, joy, and sensitivity to the supernatural. Their implicit message, to use a Wesleyan formulation, centers on holiness: attention to the inner life (personal holiness) can reorient an outer life (social holiness) toward justice.

Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Pentecostal Edition the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Attorney General of the United States John Ashcroft, a prominent advocate of the war in Iraq, wrote a song called “Let the Eagle Soar” (you can listen to it here).  It is a deeply patriotic song, one he liked to mix with morning prayer meetings at the Department of Justice. Here are some of the words: “Like she’s never soared before, from rocky coast to golden shore, let the mighty eagle soar . . . Oh she’s far too young to die; You can see it in her eye; She’s not yet begun to fly.” Many Americans found the lyrics and tune touching, even if some Justice Department lawyers did not like his brand of religious patriotism in the workplace.

In 2006, the year after Ashcroft stepped down from the George W. Bush Administration, Sarah Palin was elected governor of Alaska. Her words often struck a martial tone. On her reality television show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” she spoke frequently of “locking and loading.” She has used a crosshairs graphic to target politicians who voted for the Affordable Care Act. And she has been very eager to project and use American power abroad. She called the Iraq War a “task that is from God.” She has been critical of Barack Obama, no peacenik himself. She said, “President Obama actually seems reluctant to even embrace American power.” Elsewhere Palin mourned, “We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.”

What do these high-profile persons have in common besides nationalism and conservative politics? According to authors Jay Beaman and Brian Pipkin, who profiled Ashcroft and Palin in a recent book titled Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace, both are affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. Every time Ashcroft has been sworn in to political office, he is anointed with oil (in the manner of King David). Palin was a longtime member of Wasilla Assembly of God. These two prominent politicians do not exactly represent Pentecostalism or broader evangelicalism, which sometimes features a more measured just-war posture or an interest in peacebuilding. But close observers of Pentecostal churches, which often feature an American flag on stage, would recognize the God-and-country flavor of the contemporary movement.

This twenty-first-century iteration of Pentecostalism, however, would have been utterly foreign to movement progenitors. In the wake of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 and at the founding of the denomination in 1914, the Assemblies of God were officially pacifist. As late as October 1940, the Assemblies of God still claimed that “military service is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that a Christian cannot fully follow the teachings of his Lord and Master if he engages in armed conflict.” Several scholarly works have already recovered this forgotten history. Robert Mapes Anderson’s Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (1979) and Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (2003) treated this lightly. More recently, Paul Alexander narrated a full-scale account of Pentecostal pacifism in Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God (2009).

But Beaman and Pipkin’s book Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (2013) offers something new: hundreds of fascinating primary sources showing the pacifist orientation of the Pentecostal movement. Take, for instance, this 1938 column from the Foursquare Church, founded by the colorful Aimee Semple McPherson: “Should a Christian take up arms in time of war? The question is perhaps, a little late. It already has been answered—IN THE BIBLE. Until the Ten Commandments are repealed the Christian has no alternative but to stay aloof from war and its consequent destruction of human life. Should one be drafted? Well, prayer changes things. And the God who saved Noah from the flood, and preserved Daniel in the lions’ den and his brethren in the fiery furnace, surely can ‘handle’ so inconsequential a thing as a little draft-board. Prayer, wisdom and the proof of patriotic loyalty on our part, couple with a willingness to serve our country in non-combatant service should turn the trick for any obedient child of God.” Beaman notes that the Foursquare Church grappled with the pacifist impulse until WWII, when it capitulated (or came to its senses, depending on your theological persuasion) and embraced the use of lethal force and the preservation of a “Christian America.”

By contrast, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) persisted longer. They were not only against war, but for peace. In an official denomination statement, the denomination called upon their members to attempt “exploits for Peace on Earth as risky as do men of war.” More specifically, they called in the late 1960s for the diversion of war budgets to social programs for the poor.”

Why did Pentecostal churches lose this orientation? You’ll have to read Paul Alexander’s Peace to War for the full story. Interestingly, there seems to be signs of rapprochement with the past as Anabaptists and Pentecostals in recent decades have begun meeting outside their respective enclaves. Brian Pipkin, who grew up attending Assemblies of God and Foursquare churches, learned about pacifism at a Pentecostal seminary in the Philippines, where he read The Upside-Down Kingdom by the Anabaptist scholar Donald Kraybill. Paul Alexander, who was a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God and co-founder of Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice, attended Pasadena Mennonite Church for a time. Martin Mittelstadt, a professor of New Testament at Evangel University, calls himself a “Mennocostal” who rejects nationalism and embraces counter-culturalism and a “Spirit-led, story-based hermeneutic.” To meet many others, check out the PCPJ website.


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