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Illustration: “Change” by artist Charles Criner at the Museum of Printing History in Houston, Texas. (http://www.printingmuseum.org/crinerprint.php)

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention it was Joel Hunter. At the 2009 presidential inauguration it was Rick Warren. This year it was Louie Giglio. Evangelical pastors who drew criticism for their associations with Barack Obama. The rancor is bipartisan — stones are thrown from both the right and the left. And it’s not just pastors who are targeted: anyone remember the controversies involving magazine publisher Cameron Strang or gospel singer Donnie McClurkin? Regardless of your politics, if you’re a Christian leader who has ever taken your job seriously, becoming yoked with Barack Obama can be public-relations kryptonite.

Giglio, a popular Atlanta-based pastor, was set to offer the benediction at next week’s inauguration ceremony. But he withdrew after coming under fire from gay-rights activists for a 15-year-old sermon in which he was critical of the homosexual lifestyle. For many evangelical Christians, it was just further proof of the rampant political correctness that now pervades society, making it nearly impossible for people of faith to, you know, say and do the stuff that defines them as people of faith. For many gay-rights activists, it was viewed as another victory and a message to the nation that anything smacking of homophobic intolerance will not be tolerated.

This points to the first rule any pastor aspiring to rub shoulders with the president or others in high places should heed in this age of Google and YouTube: your sermons are not just for the ears of churchgoers anymore, and they may be held against you at some future date by those who have no interest in the contextual nuances of your biblical preaching.

But is that it, then? Is the culture war settled? Have all Christians with beliefs that conflict with the agendas of certain political-interest groups been served notice that they are now persona non grata at public ceremonies like the presidential inauguration because their values are considered hateful or out of step with mainstream ideas?

Or is it possible for both Christians and their cultural opponents to extend an olive branch, seek common ground, and in the words of the Lord via the prophet Isaiah, “come and reason together”?

 

Obama the Reconciler

What gets lost in these sad but predictable controversies is the fact that we have a president who perhaps more than any other modern occupant of the White House has befriended a wide range of evangelical leaders. Though evangelical voters generally do not support President Obama, this hasn’t stopped him from seeking commonality with them. The president selected Giglio in part because of the work he’s done to battle child slavery and sex trafficking. In fact, someday when the first real histories are written on such matters, it might be argued that Barack Obama was not just our nation’s “first gay president” but its most evangelical one as well.

The irony of this latest debacle is that it undermines Obama’s intentional efforts to be a president of inclusivity. When you’re the nation’s first African American president, the expectation (or, unfortunately for some, suspicion) is that you’re going to be a president who promotes diversity. For the same reason, President Obama has been obliged to demonstrate that he’s the president of conservative white people too, and not just people of color or those who agree with his policies.

That’s why the lineup for the inauguration was so inspired: it offered a little bit for everyone. President Obama’s civil rights side was represented in the choice of Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the opening prayer; his support of both Hispanics and the homosexual community was reflected in the choice of having gay Latino poet Richard Blanco recite a poem; and his identification and shared aims with evangelical Christians was reflected in the choice of Louie Giglio closing out the proceedings.

Some might say he’s a calculating politician playing identity politics, and they probably aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to recognize that Barack Obama’s background uniquely prepared him to be a president of many groups and constituencies.

One reason why many Christians have supported this president, even though they’ve disagreed with some of his policies, is because they sense that he gets it, that he’s willing to try to see the world from perspectives other than his own. He wants to understand the other point of view. Even though he might support an opposing position, he demonstrates empathy and a willingness to listen to others. This is an invaluable trait that we’ve rarely seen in other presidents. It seemed to emerge in Lincoln as both his presidency and the Civil War unfolded. FDR appeared able to step outside his privilege and display it. LBJ, for all his defects, had it enough to pass landmark civil rights statutes. Jimmy Carter has shown it more since leaving office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrated flashes of it at various times, especially in the early parts of their presidencies. But Obama gets it honest because as a mixed-race kid who grew up in rural, urban, and international settings, he’s lived it. As biographer David Maraniss observed:

Obama … spent ten crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up … a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did.

There was no greater evidence of Barack Obama’s intrinsic empathy than his brilliant “race speech” in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Though presented in part to do damage control after YouTube videos of his former pastor’s blistering critique of America surfaced, it became Obama’s signature statement on race relations and reconciliation in America — his most eloquent and comprehensive comment on the subject to date. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he said. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression…. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners…. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

In that speech, Obama revealed the depth of his understanding of race and class in America — his empathy for the “the doctor and the welfare mom … and the former gang-banger” who all occupy pews at black churches like Trinity Christian in Chicago, as well as for “working- and middle-class white Americans” who have “worked hard all their lives … only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.” No other presidential candidate has spoken with more realness and credibility about the modern American condition because he was a product of it all.

Unfortunately, both that speech and President Obama’s gestures to show inclusivity at the inauguration were politicized by warring factions. The cynicism runs so deep that it has become impossible for our nation’s political parties to view their ideological rivals as anything but the enemy.

 

Lincoln, King, and Our House Divided

It was announced last week that for his swearing-in ceremony President Obama will use Bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — two leaders who thoroughly understood the importance of dialogue and conciliation with those from “the other side.” President Obama has been symbolically and directly tied to both of these leaders’ legacies from Day One for a variety of reasons. Like Lincoln, the tall and lanky law expert Obama earned his political wings in Illinois and went on to become an unlikely occupant of the White House, where he now presides over a divided nation. And journalists and scholars have written breathlessly about Obama as the human fulfillment of King’s “dream” of racial integration.

But the comparisons are not unwarranted. Lincoln presided over a nation that was ripped in half by a literal culture war whose manifold consequences continue to stymie and divide our nation today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he presciently said as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, echoing the words of Jesus. He worked boldly, first to keep the Union together but later to eradicate the sin of slavery that enslaved it. Many have compared the state of contemporary American politics to that of a new civil war, with Obama charged with somehow bringing the Union back together.

And King, the southern Baptist preacher trained at northern theological schools, brought a social-gospel vision and evangelistic impulse to the challenge of leading African Americans and eventually the entire nation toward a new understanding of community and citizenship. On segregated battlegrounds such as Montgomery and Birmingham, King was able to work out the ideas of nonviolent resistance that he had studied and witnessed in the activism of Gandhi, the writings of Thoreau, and the New Testament teachings of Christ. Obama likewise has tried to work out his ideas about a multicultural citizenry in the Red State/Blue State context of our current segregated culture.

When President Obama decided upon the symbolism of using Bibles from these two great men, he surely was cognizant of their legacies, as well as the legacy he would like to leave.

 

Our Shrinking Humanity

The historic symbolism of the inauguration — and the tragedy of Louie Giglios’s withdrawal from it — is underscored even more by the fact that the public event falls on January 21, which this year marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It has become popular to suppose which positions Dr. King would take on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The truth is, conjecture can be fun but no one knows for sure how King would have evolved on specific matters. I am willing, however, to go out on a limb and say King would be supportive of Barack Obama’s efforts to represent and reach out to America in all its complicated and contradictory diversity.

In Stride Toward Freedom, King said that one can only “close the gap in broken community” by meeting conflict with love. “[I]f I meet hate with hate,” he added, “I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” For King, the systematic depersonalization of other human beings was at the root of our nation’s sins of racism and social inequality. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how we continue to depersonalize other human beings today through sexism and classicism, xenophobia and homophobia, and — yes — through political smear campaigns as were done on Shirley Sherrod and now Pastor Giglio.

Though his organizing committee may be backpedaling now, President Obama knew there would be stark differences in the worldviews of those he invited to participate in his inauguration. At some intrinsic level, I’m betting he saw value in putting those differing ideas on the same platform together.  It’s a shame that our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.

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Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.

One of the big holiday releases this year will no doubt be the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Les Misérables. Anyone out there planning to see it? I’m not sure if my wife and I will be able to squeeze in a couple of hours to check it out (with the kids usually in tow, we’re more likely to catch fare like Rise of the Guardians — which wasn’t that bad, by the way). But I’m sorta curious about the buzz of contradictions swirling about Les Miz — lots of early Oscar buzz for Anne Hathaway for instance, and it was directed by Tom Hooper who won an Oscar in 2011 for The King’s Speech, but the movie is also getting a lot of mixed reviews from critics. 

However, what really caught my attention was a recent piece in Time magazine about the film’s story line, which of course is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel about class struggle and redemption in 19th-century France. In the article, actors Hathaway and Hugh Jackman spend a couple of paragraphs contemplating the religious dimensions of the story. A couple of soundbites. First from Hathaway, who portrays the desperate mother Fantine:

The religious overtones of Les Miz … resonated with Hathaway, who was raised Catholic. Her close-knit family left the church in opposition to its anti-gay stance. “Where I’m at now is that I love all religions that don’t hurt anyone. The religion of this film is love.”

And then Jackman, who plays thief-turned-rescuer Jean Valjean, on how his father’s life was changed after hearing Billy Graham:

Jackman grew up watching faith in action too. His father, a single parent — “What he did was herculean, to bring up five kids with a full-time job” — was born again at age 30, inspired by Billy Graham’s crusade. “I remember asking him if he told people at work he was a Christian, and he said, ‘No. What you say is immaterial. It’s what you do that matters.’ If you think about it, that’s very Valjean,” he says.

I know that Hollywood figures typically try to personalize whatever the subject matter is of the films their currently promoting in order to have something to chatter about on talk shows and in magazine write-ups, and Hathaway’s and Jackman’s reflections on faith are no exception. But I’m not cynical enough yet to believe that these roles don’t at times have a deeper effect on the lives of actors. That’s why I found both Hathaway’s and Jackman’s comments refreshing in their honesty and insight about what real faith looks like to people who aren’t living within the protective (and often alienating) bubble of evangelical Christianity.

I’m not suggesting that Hathaway’s apparent perspectivism is without its problems, or that genuine faith is entirely about what we do and not also what we say (though I think a good argument could be made for why the way we treat others must always testify to the veracity of what we believe). Still, I don’t think it would hurt today’s Christians much at all to follow the examples of Jean Valjean and Hugh Jackman’s dad.

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Three recent articles have got me thinking about the current state of the American church. Each article explores issues related to the mission and future of specific subgroups and movements within the church. The various groups, one racial and the others formed around doctrinal and ecclesiological emphases, seem to reflect where we are today as a body—desperately searching for an identity and purpose that aligns us with God’s call, but sadly fragmented and self-centered in our attempts to get there.

The first article, “The Black Church Is Dead,” by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, caused quite a stir when it was first published in The Huffington Post a couple months back. In fact, the article inspired the Religion Dispatches website to convene an entire forum around the subject. Glaude’s clearly provocative and attention-grabbing title overshadows an important point that he makes in the article: that many Christian leaders in African American congregations must move beyond the pomp and circumstance of the black church’s illustrious and prophetic past and concentrate on what it means to be faithful and relevant in this current era. I think this is a good message, not just for African American believers but for the American church as a whole.

The second article, this one from Sojourners, finds my good friend Professor Soong-Chan Rah asking the inevitable question: “Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?” This is not a new issue, but it’s interesting to see it wrestled with by Soong-Chan (a friendly but honest critic) and others who are slightly more sympathetic to the movement. The money line from Soong-Chan’s portion of the article:

In truth, the term “emerging church” should encompass the broader movement and development of a new face of Christianity, one that is diverse and multi-ethnic in both its global and local expressions. It should not be presented as a movement or conversation that is keyed on white middle- to upper-class suburbanites.

I couldn’t agree more. Yet, another part of me wonders if there’s a need for something like the “emerging church” in the first place. While I resonate with certain aspects of the movement (particulary its challenge to us to reexamine our traditions and cultural practices and ask whether they truly line up with what God’s calling us to be), I’m also put off by the whole branding and commercialization of the thing.

The third article, from ChristianityToday.com, is Brett McCracken’s excellent report from two recent conferences, the Wheaton College Theology Conference and the Together for the Gospel (T4G) gathering of Reformed leaders and scholars. As McCracken observes:

The juxtaposition of these two sold-out conferences, which represent two of the most important strands of evangelical Christianity today (the neo-Reformed movement and the “N.T. Wright is the new C.S. Lewis” movement), made the question (problem?) of unity within the church impressively pronounced.

In describing the differences between the two groups, McCracken writes:

For the T4G folks, protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise….

The exact opposite point was made at the Wheaton Conference by Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Wheaton, who suggested that theologians like Wright (and, presumably Christians in general) are more often correct in matters they collectively affirm than in matters they dispute. This statement reflects the contrasting spirit of the Wheaton Conference as regards unity: It’s what we affirm that matters.

He goes on to note that “the elephant in the room” at both events was an ongoing debate on the doctrine of justification between the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and the Reformed preacher John Piper. Reportedly, both men took rhetorical swipes at the other during their talks, and drew cheers from their respective audiences.

I’ve been privileged to attend past theology conferences at Wheaton College, as well as events sponsored by those who would fall under that “neo-Reformed” heading. My sense is that God is doing good things in both camps. Conferences inherently are designed to bring together groups of people who share some likeminded affinity. Unfortunately, in the church those affinities are often framed in contrast to what some other group that we disagree with is or isn’t doing.

Even events that don’t have a readily apparent ideological agenda often feature undercurrents of elitism or snobbery. I love the Christian Community Development Association’s annual conference. It’s one of the best events at which to network, learn, and worship with other Christians who share my commitment to racial reconciliation, social justice, and incarnational ministry. However, even at CCDA we can sometimes give off a condescending vibe that suggests we’re the only ones who truly “get it.”

It occurred to me while reading those three articles that we spend a lot of time reflecting on who we think we ought to be as the church. Then, once we’ve gotten a critical mass, we brand it and stake out our special turf. Before long, we’ve got our own special line from Zondervan, IVP, or some university press and we’re packing them in at our annual conference. Unfortunately, over time, we wind up sounding like our way is the most effective way, if not the only way.

Emerging, missional, seeker-sensitive, Black, Calvinist, multicultural, Dispensational. And the list goes on.

It’s important to know who we are and what we believe in, but perhaps we waste too much time attempting to respond to or live up to historic monuments and cultural trends that we’ve proudly embraced as a way of defining ourselves or distinguishing our group from others. Usually what we’re saying when we do this is that the other parts of the church have gotten something wrong and we are preserving or reasserting what’s most important. That’s not always the case, and we may not always be that self-aware about it, but think about it a minute. Think about the labels you wear as a Christian—as a church. Then ask yourself why. Would you feel comfortable or secure giving up those particular labels and simply going about your business as a generic follower of Christ?

In the conclusion to his report from those two very different theology conferences, Brett McCracken wonders:

What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved?

What if?

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MillionMiles-cover175x275If you’re a Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz) fan, you’ll want to click on over to UrbanFaith.com and check out our interview with the author about his new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. And, if you’re game, you can get a free copy of Miller’s book by leaving a response to this question:

Donald Miller discovered deeper meaning in life by applying the storytelling principles of a good movie to the way he lives. If your life were a movie, which one would it be and why?

Readers have left some very interesting responses to that question already. So, if there’s a particular film or film character that encapsulates your life journey so far, please head over to UrbanFaith.com and leave a brief comment about it. UrbanFaith will randomly select five respondents to receive a free copy of A Million Miles, but the contest expires Oct. 19, so share your responses now.

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urbanfaith logoThe past week saw a spike in public rudeness and incivility, at least in the worlds of politics and pop culture. By now, you’ve read the tweets and watched the YouTube clips of the various offenses, right?

Most of the incidents have led to multiple apologies (both sincere and compulsory), as well as a surplus of opinion and chatter that has confirmed the central role of Twitter and Facebook in relaying real-time commentary on breaking stories. But most of all, these outbursts have demonstrated, in often shocking fashion, just how impulsive, mean, and disrespectful the human heart can be.

(This is the intro to a new commentary I wrote for UrbanFaith.com. Click here to read the rest of the article.)

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urbanfaith logoSorry that I haven’t updated the blog in a while. I’ve been busy with work and family outings (trying to get in some final summer activities before the kids return to school). To be honest, most of my blogging energy is being used up over at UrbanFaith.com, which I’d like to encourage you to visit and bookmark, if you’re not familiar with it already. UrbanFaith is an online magazine that I work on as part of my day job at Urban Ministries, Inc. Here are a few of the interesting items we’ve posted recently:

• Redeeming a “Teachable Moment.”  This one goes beyond the beer summit to try and get at the real lessons from the Henry Louis Gates arrest and the subsequent racialized fiasco. We solicited commentary from seven Christian scholars and pastors, including William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston. Pannell and Loury, especially, offer a trenchant analysis of President Obama’s handling (or mishandling) of the matter. The topic’s a bit dated now, but please check it out and let us hear your feedback.

• Justice or Socialist?  The legendary Christian reconciler and activist John M. Perkins shares insights on pursuing biblical justice without letting our politics, ideology, or suspicions get in the way. Very relevant in light of the current health-care debate.

• How to Handle Panhandlers.  Should we give without constraint, or does God want us to be more discriminating. My friend Arloa Sutter allowed us to adapt this one from her blog. This one will always be a timely issue for us to wrestle with.

• Aliens vs. Racism.  A review of the new film District 9, which isn’t your typical UFO flick. For starters, it’s set in South Africa. Plus, the human heart turns out to be a lot more frightening than the ugly extraterrestrials.

• Three Days in 1969.  Remembering Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, and our continuing search for peace and love. If you’re a fan of Hendrix or the Woodstock era, you’ll want to check this one out.

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Seeing the news reports today about Rev. Ike’s death reminded me of a post I did a year ago about the pervasiveness of the prosperity gospel in black churches. In the comments section, I got a little push back from a member of T.D. Jakes’s church, which I appreciated. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to engage her in a conversation, and I worried that my post might’ve offended her or others.

Still, I’d be interested in hearing from any brothers or sisters out there who are members of churches that subscribe to a prosperity message. Would you be interested in interacting around some of the questions I asked my guest last year? If so, here they are: 

1. Do you feel insulted or offended by the negative theological critiques of the prosperity message? What are these critiques missing?

2. My guest said the term “prosperity” has become something of a cliché. What would be a better term to use? 

3. What do folks like me who don’t “get it” need to understand to get beyond the stereotypes about followers of the prosperity message?

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