No Need for Sunday: A Theory on the Making of Donald Millers

imagesFar be it from me to theorize about a person, or make that person a type…but I’m going to for the sake of trying to process a couple things that appear to be endemic to evangelicalism as a church culture.  I should say that while I haven’t read much of his work, I like Donald Miller and this post is more about trying to see a process, a natural nearly unavoidable process as I see it, inherent to the evangelical style that makes for Donald Millers, that is, an eventual “meh” response to going to church on Sunday. Don might not even agree with my analysis and I’m not even really analyzing him so much as a loose type. So, I won’t even really be address the particulars of the recent hubbub over his statements. To be honest, some guy not going to church anymore shouldn’t really be news, but as a phenomena, there’s something culturally telling here.

Put simply, I think the individualistic, consumptive, experiential model of evangelical church, a style I would argue that is as the heart of American evangelicalism, is the root of it’s own eventual irrelevance in the lives of someone like Don Miller.

Whether staunchly Calvinistic or vibrantly charismatic, while the material of the experiential reality may be radical different (say between an awareness of ones depravity/enmity with god/chosenness and a spirit-filled encounter), there is a profoundly “believer and God” shaped core to evangelicalism. It’s commemorated (testimony), memorialized (in ‘what God has done for me’ worship songs), rigorously offered (evangelism and alter calling). It’s very much you and God. Whether warm and fuzzy or austere and penal, the foundation seems to be a kind of intimacy of experience or acknowledgment–both of which happen within me, in an honest encounter with God.

With such an experiential ground and motivation for going to church on Sunday, experience of God (again, widely conceived and measured by widely divergent conditions for sure), the vivacity or consumptive value of that time spent, is the subtle but ever present measure of a church’s value. As a Donald Miller matures, experiences the world and life in a more and more world-affirming way, that is, evangelicalism appropriates the NT Wrights (etc.) of the scholarly world, they have these experiences well apart from Sunday, in the fabric of newly affirmed aspects of life. God is met elsewhere. Sunday services, however well-crafted, become trite by comparison. A Christian “On the Road” kind of experience becomes a much richer representation of the former experience.

So, the consumer experience model has a timeline which leads towards it’s own irrelevance. Hire creative directors and evolve with all their might, the very aim of the service engenders  the roots of it’s eventual shortcoming in the life of a Donald Miller as they become Donald Miller.

No doubt, the root of the problem, the heart of why american evangelicalism has long been shaped like this (but might be changing?), is the the white privileged ethos at the core. Church culture is founded the community’s needs. With nearly every other material need in order (to varying degree’s of course), the only thing many evangelicals need(ed) out of church is (was?) to feel something. Everything else is in order. We come to church to inculcate a feeling, get right with God (deal with individualized guilt), or any number of others things–the things that consume those who’ve got all their material needs sorted based on their cultural and economic affluence.

So the experiential drive, sadly still roped into the consumptive model, is the foundational individual need church practice swirls around. And keeping attendees feeling church is worthwhile calls for a dizzying mechanism of constant stylistic evolution (e.g. creative directors). But how can the most in touch creative director, keep pace with the world? Even singing the world’s songs within church walls paradoxically makes God seem less there than when they’re sung in rejection of, or sheer ambivalence toward, God.

In this way, I think this process is inevitable, a natural progression rooted in the soil of privileged evangelical culture itself. A culture I myself continue to find myself bathed in, much to my chagrin.

There are of course all kinds of great theological and ecclessial discussions to help ask what church is, and what it really should be, but I even want to simply it a bit more. What if church was actually more about the material needs of those attending? What is church participation and commitment like among communities all over the world that go because they have many more needs than to feel something? Where church works more like labor organizing, or banding together to make ends meet as a collective? Experientially rich or not, this body of Christ is forced to think about the health of it’s stomach, spleen, lungs, even before it’s “heart.” I bet these churches don’t worry about the somewhat progressive writer types that they birth leaving, because what they are offering is not an experience, but a solidarity with the felt needs of others. Sunday, whether you come or not, is a means to and end for these bodies, just as the Sabbath seemed for Jesus.

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Justin Lee on Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay-vs.-Christians Debate

After a delightful anecdote about Christian’s daughter and a painful listen to the worst version of “O Holy Night” ever recorded, Christian and Jordan welcome Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, to the show.

Justin was raised in a conservatives evangelical culture, and around the time he reached puberty realized he was gay. He has since found a call from God in his ministry of reconciliation between those in the LGBT community and those in the church currently wrestling with issues of sexual identity. The guys ask him about clobber passages, the potential pitfalls of trying to bridge such an explosive cultural divide, and whether the Apostle Paul might’ve been gay.

In the Christian Echo Chamber, Pat Robertson says something entirely reasonable about science! Then Bill O’Reilly said something about Christianity being a philosophy, which he was either wrong or not wrong about, depending on your perspective. Either way, the War on Christmas is stupid, and Jordan gets kind of upset about it at the end.

 

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HBC Top 11 Blogs of 2011

Here are the top 11 blogs of Homebrewed Christianity in 2011  :


1. Theology Nerd Book Survey 

2. That’s “Too Gay” – Brian Ammons’ Banned Chapter from Baptimergent

3. Your First Steps into Biblical Universalism

4. 31 Reasons I Left Evangelicalism and Became a Progressive But Not a Liberal by Michael Camp

5. God Takes Sides….or When Karl Barth Was Right

6. Defining the Secular: Charles Taylor (pt. 3) by Deacon Hall

7. Rob Bell Wins 

8. The classic ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem revisited

9. Are you a Bellian or Piperian?

10. a big difference between Christianity and Islam 

11. Goosing Emergents into the Mainline

 

Thank you all for your amazing participation and feedback – that was a wonderful year of conversation and theological brewing!

Let us know if you had a favorite that didn’t make the list.

 

From Chad, Tripp, and Bo – thanks for a great year, Brew On!  and don’t forget to share the brew.

 

 

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Goosing Emergents into the Mainline

Back Ground : Brandon Morgan attended the Wild Goose Festival and came away with some concerns/critiques that were posted at Roger Olson’s website and responded to by Tony Jones with some great new suggestions .

Tripp and I had some fun recording a Theology Nerd Throw-down (TNT) last week where we discussed Tony’s suggestions for replacing Emergent-Liberal-Progressive as unhelpful and antiquated terms that are unclear and carry too much baggage.

But none of that responded to Brandon’s actual concerns and questions. I appreciate and respect Brandon’s position and involvement  – SO since we are on the same team – I wanted to honor his questions with an honest attempt to dialogue about it.

Question 1: Why haven’t Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations?

Response: The simple answer is – because they are doing two different things. People emerge out of something-somewhere. Those backgrounds are varied and diverse, but primarily they emerge into a more open, less institutional, more casual, less hierarchical expression. It doesn’t have to be a full fledged movement (sorry Dr. Olson) for there to be both an appeal and an organizational framework. It is providing a communal and spiritual environment that nurtures and facilitates a less defined- more adaptable entity (expression) in the post-colonial, post-christendom ecosystem.

To me, the better question is “Why WOULD emergent folks join mainline denominations?”   They are going two different directions. I mean, except for some behaviors and convictions (ordaining women, justice work, etc.) the mainline is a historical-institutional behemoth that one would only want to take on if there was a significant impetuous. Otherwise the decentralized- organic-contextual capacity of emergence spirituality and practice are much more attractive than the albs & stoles, acolytes and adjudicatories, the liturgy and lectionary of the Mainline.

Why would an emergent type volunteer to take on all of that plus the Bishoprics and Books of common practice?

I want to ask you: what are you picturing when you say something like this?    [it is an honest question since I do not know you and do not know what you are picturing when you say ‘mainline’ and what exactly it is that you think would appeal to an emergent type?]

I think the reason that your post has gotten the response that it has and your questions have not been answered is that you must be picturing something when you ask the question that seem outlandish to those of us who are not in your head. Have you had a different experience of the mainline that we have? What aspect of mainline did you think WOULD appeal to emergent types?

Question 2: Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so easy to describe and virulently rebuke, while the negatives of the mainline denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns?

Response: I think this comes down to two quick thoughts:

  1. most emergents have either emerged from an evangelical background or against an evangelical background. It is the reality of our era. TV preachers, mega churches, Christian bookstore chains and the Religious Right have made it so.
  2. The mainline has it’s endowed seminaries and publishing houses to document it’s slow decline. It is neither the primary drive nor the main attraction for most theologically charged conversations.

Question 3:  Another way to ask this question would be: Why hasn’t the Emergent critique of evangelicalism’s involvement with the American nation-state and it’s tendency toward creating theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of mainline denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with nation-state interests?

Response: I hate to oversimplify it, but it seems really clear. If mainliners are theologically over-aware (maybe even hyper-aware in some cases) then their involvement in the political system may tend toward liberation, justice, and equality. Whereas those movements who are newly energized toward “Theo” heavy themes may tend toward conserving romantic ideals of past formulations without consideration (or awareness) or their capacity and tendency toward institutional hegemony.

So those are my genuine, non-cheeky, responses to your honest questions. I would love to hear your and other people’s thoughts in order to dialogue about this. 

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David Fitch and the Great Emergence

I was on a long road trip over the past two weeks and one thing that was stuck in my head while I drove was an article by David Fitch. He is an Anabaptist and had just come back from an event with Phyllis Tickle.

The part of his post that kept coming to mind was this:

Phyllis sees a Christianity that comes together (eventually) through conversations. I see a Christianity that is splintering. As a result Christians look antagonistic to the world. Consequently, I don’t see a Great Emergence in our future. I see something that looks more like a Grand Disappearance exacerbated by this unappealing internal Divergence.

As an Anabaptist, David has an automatic assumption – a built in critique. Anabaptism is , by its very nature, a critique of the State Churches and the orphan (bastard) offspring that mutated in America after the Reformation in Europe. Phyllis is a Episcopal (Anglican-Church of England). You can see where the might disagree on some pretty foundational stuff.

There were several points of connection for me:

Fitch goes on to talk about his comfort with being a minority – it is the Anabaptist way after all. On this point, I don’t think that Phyllis would disagree with him too much. I had said in my earlier post that I think there will be 50 percent fewer Christians in America in 50 years than there is now. On that point, I don’t think that David would disagree with me too much.

The only place then that there seems to be genuine disagreement is found in what we think the smaller remnant will look like. I am hoping for an irenic emergence with a few ornery fundamentalist still using their megaphones (but commanding less attention). My hope is that once we settle into the reality of being a minority religion that we will adjust our expectations which will in turn transform our expressions.

What are your expectations? What do you think it will look like? Is that a good or a bad thing?

You can get Fitch’s new book “the End of Evangelicalism?” at Amazon and for Kindle

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Žižek and Evangelical Christianity–The End of Evangelicalism?

- From Deacon Fackenthal

David E. Fitch’s new book, The End of Evangelicalism?, brings together about the two most unlikely conversation partners I could imagine–Slavoj Žižek and American Evangelicalism.  And it does so with surprisingly good results.  I have to admit, since I don’t really consider myself an evangelical and don’t generally accept the major tenets of evangelical theology (Biblical inerrancy or substitutionary atonement), I approached Fitch’s book with high intrigue and moderate expectations.  But I can honestly say that every expectation was greatly exceeded.

The End of Evangelicalism? begins with the premise that evangelicalism in North America has experienced a crisis.  Fitch agrees that we may well be living in what can more appropriately be called a post-evangelical age.  In order to diagnose this crisis (and death?) of evangelicalism, Fitch employs the critical theory of Slavoj Žižek, the left-wing Hegelian, Lacanian, atheist who has in recent years become the rock star of postmodern philosophy.  Fitch examines three dearly held convictions among evangelicals–belief in the inerrant Bible, the decision for Christ, and belief in the Christian nation–using Žižekian analysis to demonstrate through each how evangelicalism has devolved into a set of beliefs that are empty at the core.  In his analysis Fitch is clear to say that, unlike Žižek, he does not believe that Christianity itself is empty at the core.  He does not think that Christian beliefs “are somehow necessarily false or illusory,” but he argues that the way in which evangelicals voice and practiced them leads toward a reified set of beliefs which then become ideology.  For both Žižek and Fitch, it is this ideology that is truly empty at its core.

If you have read only a bit of Žižek or are completely intimidated by Žižek, fear not.  Fitch takes some difficult concepts and makes them easily accessible to those uninitiated in contemporary critical theory.  The first chapter of the book provides some background into Žižek’s social critique and draws out the concepts that Fitch employs in the next three chapters, which deal with the three beliefs he sees as signaling the devolution of evangelicalism into ideology.  The most important Žižekian concept for Fitch is that of the master signifier–”a conceptual object around which people give their allegiance thereby enabling a political group to form.”  Yet master signifiers don’t actually stand for anything concrete, and hence they are “empty signifiers.”

Fitch argues that Biblical inerrancy, the decision for Christ, and the Christian nation are all master signifiers, since they shape an ideology around which evangelicals organize themselves and their witness in the world.  Biblical inerrancy becomes nothing more than an identifier or a “badge” to prove one’s evangelical standing, since it doesn’t actually say anything about what a given church or organization believes regarding Biblical interpretation.  In fact, what the master signifier of Biblical inerrancy does (and what each of these master signifiers do) is allow us “to believe without believing.”  Each of these master signifiers organizes people’s allegiance and belief around an idea that remains empty at the core.

What Fitch suggests instead is that these empty signifiers be replaced with beliefs and practices informed by the fullness of Christ.  Out of this will come a politic of mission that adopts “a posture that embodies socially the incarnate presence of God in Christ that participates in his mission in the world.”  The important word here is “participation.”  It is only when evangelicals (or Christians of any stripe) embody the gospel, embody what it means to be a follower of Christ, and live out a Christ-centered politic in the world that empty-at-the-core ideology will be replaced with the fullness of an incarnational theology.  The last chapter of the book articulates exactly how this might happen, taking again each of the three beliefs in turn.

In the epilogue, Fitch looks briefly at four evangelicals who are practicing the sort of politic of mission described here:  Peter Rollins, Brian McClaren , and Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost.  While Fitch has points of contention with each of these authors, he sees in them promise for the future of the post-evangelical world.

Whether you are an evangelical, a progressive, or a progressive evangelical, I highly recommend reading Fitch’s book and grappling with his critiques.  The fun thing about master signifiers is that we all eventually fall into their trap.

 

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