Many, many years ago, in my late teen years when I was becoming evangelical, I watched a religious program that talked about how perverse the ancients were. The primary example was Pompeii, with its abundance of phallic symbols and artwork. The moral of the story, according to the conservative evangelicals on the TV show, was that Christianity has a redemptive and transformative effect on society, and that the filth of the godless ancients was largely eliminated with the spread of the new faith. In the video below, Rev. Canon Steve Chalke explains in great detail just how perverse Roman society was, and how Christianity did indeed speak against it. However, contrary to his conservative evangelical counterparts, this reverend argues that the New Testament writers did not have committed lesbian or gay relationships in mind. Rather, they were denouncing the oppressive use of sexuality that was so commonplace at that time.
Here are my thoughts:
First, while I do find his arguments compelling, I’m left wondering why then the early church advocated for same sex relationships and against homosexuality. If indeed Jesus and the apostles were okay with committed homosexual relationships, then why didn’t that ‘stick’ beyond their generation?
Second, I couldn’t help noticing that this Anglican minister slipped in a denouncement of ‘sleeping around.’ Apparently, what matters to him is not just commitment, but also specifically avoidance of non-oppressive, consensual casual sex. All well and good for a Christian minister to say, but I suspect that many of his flock won’t buy it.
Third and finally, this is all of interest to me solely for academic reasons. It’s fascinating to me to search out how people in times past lived and thought. However, the Bible itself lacks any real authority, as ultimately it is the product of human imagination.
That said, please do give this talk a listen if Christianity, ancient history, and/or lgbtq issues fit your interests.
Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.
Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go. Perhaps, people being the conundrums that they are, and having so little desire to shoulder the burden of their lives, this is what will always happen. But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
He apparently was never completely satisfied with his religious life. I can relate, somewhat, and wonder if that’s the fate of everyone who leaves the religion of their youth in search of a different option (rather than no religion at all).
He’s either cold-hearted or incredibly honest, since he could always fake belief and go through the motions to continue surrounded by his family. I tend to believe the latter, and I respect his integrity.
It’s a bit perplexing and feels a bit shameful to admit that I hadn’t, until this past weekend, read anything by James Baldwin. He was brought to my attention by a fellow member of Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ because a Humanist-themed service the first Sunday of August. Baldwin is to be the central figure of these service, presumably with quotes from him and reflections on his life. It happened that I also recently read Dr. Anthony Pinn’s autobiography, and in it he provides a reading list that includes some of Baldwin’s writing. ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ was what I chose from that list as a starting point.
This book tells the story of a single Saturday in the lives of an African-American family in Harlem in the 1930s. In reality, the span of decades of several people’s lives are told within the context of this one day, revealing the complexity of the characters and the world in which they lived.
Religion is the central factor in this book. Specifically, black Pentecostal religion. The family in Harlem are part of ‘The Temple of the Fire Baptized,’ in which Gabriel, the father of the family, is a deacon. He had been a revival preacher in his younger days in the South, going out as much as 3 months at a time preaching ‘in the field.’
The dynamic in this book is fascinating, with the point of view switching from one character to another, laying bare their faults and fantasies in near-lurid detail. Reading it, I was able both to sympathize with the religious concerns and find them misguided. On the one hand, they make a clear distinction between the ‘sinful world’ with its dissipation leading to disaster. On the other hand, their religion doesn’t seem to really cure them of their vices and bitterness.
It seems as if the faith of the people portrayed was as much as much anything a survival tool for them as oppressed blacks in a world of white supremacy. In incredibly unjust and adverse circumstances, Christianity provided both emotional support and an escape for the disenfranchised. The patriarch of the family, a man as flawed as any you’ll ever meet in real life, was able to see himself in a nobler light as a son of the King. His second wife, the mother of this family, found forgiveness to lift her out of the disgrace she felt as a formerly unwed mother.
This engrossing tale of hardship and faith is one that is still relevant today, in a time when the police continue to beat and kill black people with near-complete impunity. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
This last Sunday I decided to take a little drive, and since I don’t like wandering aimlessly, I decided to look for the nearest church buildings of two fairly small and unknown denominations: The Seventh Day Baptist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the photo of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey.
And here’s where the Church of Jesus Christ meets in Edison, NJ.
That last one definitely has a 19th century rural feel about it. As for the Seventh Day Baptist building, I don’t know what to make of it.
While I’m a little curious what the buildings look like on the inside, and what the services are like, I’m not of a mind to go paying a visit. When I was evangelical I could fit in better, but now I doubt I could pull it off.
Preparing for a trip to Brazil last month (June 2017), I realized that I should take along some reading material. I dropped by a Barnes & Noble a night or so before I left and came across Edward O. Wilson’s ‘The Social Conquest of Earth.’ I discovered during my 9 days in Brazil that although it only consists of about 300 pages of text and was written for the layperson, this book is no light read.
An exploration of ‘the human condition,’ this book begins with a step-by-step description of where we came from. We are given a walk through human evolutionary history along with the accompanying social ills and advancements. This part I found incredibly engaging, and it served to explain a great deal to me about why we are the way we are as a species. Creativity, tribalism, and war are among the key topics covered here.
Where Wilson nearly lost me was in the middle two section in which he does a deep dive into ‘eusociality’ in the invertebrate world. One section in particular focuses on ants, and although I had a few ant farms and closely observed the life cycle of a particular ant colony on the farm where I grew up, this was truly the slowest slog in terms of reading.
In a final section, about what we are, things pick up again. Human nature, language, morality, religion, and the creative arts are covered here as beautifully as the core concepts were in the earlier section on our origins. Tucked away near the end of a paragraph was this gem of a summary of the human condition:
We are Homo sapiens, imperfect beings, soldiering on with conflicted impulses through an unpredictable, implacably threatening world, doing our best with what we have.
The one part with which I did not agree can be found in the closing paragraphs, in which WIlson opines that it isn’t worth it for humans to risk colonizing other worlds. It is, he thinks, far too dangerous, and people are better off staying on our own world and making it a better place. With that latter sentiment I wholeheartedly agree, but not with the former. In colonizing other worlds we will be forcing ourselves to advance our technological skills in ways that remaining on our own world would not, and in becoming an interplanetary species we would be increasing the chances of the survival of our species should disaster strike our homeworld.
There was so much that was quote-worthy in this book, and the science supporting it all is meticulous. I’m certain that this is a book I’ll return to again and again to reference, or even just as a refresher. Published in 2012, I’m sure research has advanced considerably in the few intervening years. Still, it feels fresh, challenging, and insightful. This would certainly be a great introduction to the topic of eusociality and the development of civilization for a newcomer.
On my father’s side, I’m the 4th generation of my family that was born and raised in Missouri. My children, for their part, were born in Brazil and (mostly) raised in New Jersey. So, that chain is broken. In any case, Missouri is known as the ‘Show Me State,’ which is reflects the healthy skepticism that supposedly comes naturally to Missourians. Whether this is generally true or not I can’t say, but in my case there are moments I’m reminded of my roots. One of those times was just last week as I read Reverend Janet Edwards’ piece for Auburn Seminary entitled: “And Ye Shall Be Changed: The Resurrection of the Mainline Church.” I have my doubts about the potential for the mainline church to experience ‘resurrection.’
Rev. Edwards begins well enough with a factual evaluation of how most of the mainline churches stood with the status quo:
These Protestant traditions were ambiguous regarding slavery and they did not stand up against the Jim Crow entrenchment of oppression that followed Reconstruction. Likewise, they did not speak truth to the power of emerging industrial capitalists who exploited their workers during the week then sat in mainline pews on Sunday. The Church happily took their tithe.
In the very next paragraph a giant leap is made, one that I find questionable:
At the same time, those very industrialists understood the threat Jesus posed to them. After World War II, several Presbyterians in Pittsburgh, led by J. Howard Pew of Sunoco, began a long strategic effort to undermine mainline church influence by empowering independent, conservative Christianity. This included support for Billy Graham and the founding of Christianity Today. When Ronald Reagan intentionally included conservative Christians in his successful run for the White House, the eclipse of the mainline by evangelicals was well on its way.
If the mainline church represented the status quo, evidently with a de-fanged Jesus, then why invest in the evangelical movement? It seems to me that neither the mainline nor some version of ‘Jesus’ were the threat. If the political and economic powers that be wanted anything, it was to use religion to defend the status quo against the equalizing, liberating forces of secularism. It wasn’t Jesus that was promoting inclusion and affirmation (yes, I know about the Civil Rights Movement, but realize that quite a few involved did not identify their activism with Christianity). The Cold War was on with fear of Communism looming (terrible for business, you know) and at the same time there was all this talk of ‘Human Rights’ that posed a problem for old white men. Conservative evangelicalism offered an opiate for the masses that would also motivate them to defend an archaic, patriarchal view of the world.
The wave of effective TV and radio ministry by conservative Christians drowned out any other Christian voice. Well-funded and politically effective conservative wings succeeded in keeping the mainline denominations roiling with division, primarily over the place of women and, later, LGBTQ people, in God’s heart and in the church. The silence of the mainline in the public square and steadily declining membership are seen as ringing its death knell.
Yes, the evangelicals out-competed the mainliners, in true capitalist form. It’s misleading to portray the well-financed efforts of evangelicals the primary factor. The mainline churches had for years preached a conformist, milquetoast message that admitted – directly or indirectly – that the foundation of the religion was largely a fiction. Very few will find that sort of thing compelling, and so the mainline made it easy for the evangelical movement to win converts from among its number.
The evangelical Christian church may aspire to be that leader, but its craven support of Donald Trump for President in 2016 destroyed any claim it might make to integrity in the eyes of the world.
Well, maybe. Evangelical Christians may largely have their beliefs reinforced rather than undermined by the nonsense going on with Trump. Human psychology is tricky like that. From what I’ve seen, though, their children are less and less persuaded by this xenophobic brand of Christianity. That does not mean that they’ll be any more impressed by the now-socially-active mainline denominations. Social activism can be done with far less overhead through groups unaffiliated with religion.
It is new for the old guard like me to follow. Of course, it is not easy for us or for me. We are accustomed to being in charge. I was in a meeting of faith folk involved in advocacy recently. Hispanic and Black participants insisted that the whites in the room sit back, deferring to others. I confess, I stewed in my back seat, pondering in my heart what was required of me.
Being a Unitarian Universalist I’ve certainly heard of situations where people of color asked white people to remain silent during discussions, particularly those dealing with race and oppression. Given how deeply ingrained white supremacy culture is in us all, I agree with this approach in such circumstances. However, I wonder if the ‘advocacy’ this meeting Rev. Edwards met to talk about involved race. If, for example, I were to attend a meeting on climate change policy and advocacy and were asked to be quiet because of my race, I’d leave.
Most likely, the PCUSA—the American mainline church as a whole—will look radically different from what we were. There is a good chance my ancestors would not recognize what is coming. No matter, they will cheer us on if we follow Jesus. John commented, “It is not yet clear what we shall be,” and Paul assured the faithful, “We shall be changed.”
Certainly the mainline churches will change in coming years. I believe they’ll continue to shrink, and even if they don’t formally merge with one another I suspect they’ll strengthen their alliances and share even more resources (publishing houses, interfaith ministries, etc). At the same time, the evangelical movement is shrinking as well. Christianity as a whole will certainly survive in many forms, but what we’re likely to see (if we are so fortunate) is a far more secular society. Such has been the case in Europe, and so it seems likely it will go in North America as well.
Can mainline churches be ‘resurrected’? I’ll believe it when I see it. Show me.