The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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War and the Stories We Tell

I would rather call it Armistice Day, truth be told. I’ve got nothing against veterans. I simply want us to celebrate the coming of peace, even through the horrors of war, rather than celebrate the fighting. I wonder if we called it Armistice Day our “thank you” to vets and troops might not sound so hollow and trite. I wonder if we as civilians might have a better sense of what these men and women have done, what the nation has asked them to do, and what it all has done to them. Today we have heard the stories of vets today, and some have even told the lesser known stories of Conscientious Objectors.

I have been an objector to war for about as long as I have had to think about it. I am a child of the first Gulf War. I can remember the press conferences shown on school televisions where the generals commented on the videos of smart bombs crashing into buildings and bridges. “Here you are about to see the luckiest guy in Iraq,” one general said as a car moved across a bridge that was dust seconds later. I even found myself in debates about the merits of war and the Christian response on the bus rides home.

We are told that today’s army is a professional one. My father’s generation is the last one to see a true draft. Since then all our combat has been carried on the shoulders of those who supposedly choose to fight. Even when I signed up for selective service there was no place to signal my objection to war, no box to check, no line on which I could make my case. Yet I signed up anyway, putting the letters CO in the upper corner in the unlikely event of a draft. It was meaningless really. Two letters out of place would not really signal anything if my number did come up. I know of others who refused to sign up altogether. I calculated the risk, thinking a draft would never come in my lifetime. And so far, several wars later, my calculations have proven true.

And yet, I just spent my late nights writing the story of a soldier. My wife’s grandfather served as in a tank destroyer battalion as a gunner in the last years of World War II. He crossed into France less than six months after the horrific battles of D-Day, and joined the push east towards Berlin. He witnessed the V-2 rockets pulse overhead, saw the trees shatter in the snowy Hurtgen Forest during the Battle of the Buldge, endured shelling and hid from snipers, and even met the Russians as they neared Berlin. After peace came to Europe he stood guard over German Prisoners of War on their way to Nuremberg.

I poured over After Action Reports that calculated the progress of war in map coordinates, shells fired, and the nameless tallies of the wounded. I read unit histories that recounted the decisions of combat and the movement of troops. And I learned the names of the young men of his unit awarded stars for valor and of men killed. Honestly, I tried to tell a war story as a labor of love. I wanted to find out what this gentle and loving man experienced as a soldier in the second great war. And I wanted to do it as an objector.

When I talked to Fritz and asked about his military days I never sensed a spark of pride. It was simply what he did. He seemed never to want thanks or praise. He had fired that large gun on the destroyer, and seen his friends wounded. His story never seemed to be one of glory, just truth. Even the few hand written pages of his service are matter of fact, no details beyond the dates and places. I told a similar story, as a historian, without judgement so that those of us who love him as a milk truck driver, loving father and grandfather, might not lose his story to the passing of time and his memory.

In his book “The Things they Carried,” Vietnam veteran Tim O”Brien says that “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes a cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, expect maybe ‘Oh.’” (84)

That is how I feel after hearing the war stories of Fritz and the Conscientious Objectors. It is true, I can only say “Oh.” For many on either side of the decision to fight these stories are a rally cry. Through their celebratory moralizing these story tellers try to stir in their hearing a similar passion, for either peace or war. I find no such moral in either story. In fact, I mourn either kind. For there are many whose conscience knows no choice. Some men fought and some others served in other ways. Neither seem to have had the same luxury of choice as I did when I wrote those two simple letters on my selective service card. They did what they thought they had to do when nations fought nations. I don’t know if Fritz would have chosen otherwise had he known the stories of war objectors, just as I don’t know if those objectors would have chosen otherwise if they hadn’t heard of other options. Yet I am not sure if they really had a choice to begin with. All they could do was follow their conscience and pray they came out on the other side when the fighting stopped.

Today, we appear to have a choice. Some serve in other ways while others join up. Yet, it seems that there are still no options. Nations still war against nations, and the threats to life and prosperity still remain. And in it all fear runs deep.

I have three sons who I pray will choose not fight, even when there seems no other option. I pray they too will write those two meaningless letters on their selective service registration. Yet I want them to hear the stories of both kinds of heroes that had no choice— those who objected to fighting and those who fought. For in hearing the moral-less stories of war and alternative service, I want them to choose to conquer with love, and the towel that dries feet, rather than sword. I want them to build rather than destroy. And yet, I know they have no real choice. I want them to ask for another story.

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Discipleship in the Empire

There are times when the questions of someone else linger like the sweet taste of honey. These are the kinds of questions that you savor, and long for the answer but know deep down that the answer will never be quite as satisfying as the question itself.

My sister in faith Dana Cassell asked me one such question over lunch. “How do we live faithfully in the midst of Empire?” As soon as the point of the question mark lifted her intonation, I knew it was that kind of query. And it was one I knew that any thoughts would pale in comparison to the penetrating insight the question itself revealed. It was the question of first Christians as the Apostles spread throughout Rome. It was the question Hippolytus tried to articulate in his list of jobs a new Christian must renounce before baptism. And it was the question that drove the likes of Augustine and Chyrsostom to preach against attending the “spectacles” in the colosseums and theaters of the day. And though each one offered a short answer, it is in the question itself that we find the heart of our discipleship. So long as we can finally dig beneath the answers themselves to articulate the question itself. And like so many other times, Dana put words to the sweetness of the quest.

So I only attempt an answer with fear and trembling, and hopefully not gnashing of teeth.

In his book “The Way of the Heart” Henri Nouwen presented a captivating description of the desert in the spiritual life. In the desert, the monks sought a solitude that would transform them. This furnace, Nouwen said, refined them by melting off the bits of illusion that ran deep in their souls. Though we might think of the ascetic project as relative late comer into the history of the church, Nouwen pointed to Jesus’s journey in the desert. With forty days alone in the wilderness, Jesus confronted the temptations we all face, temptations that are precisely what Empire wants us to pursue.

Here is Nouwen’s account of the temptations:
“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give all these kingdoms’). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter— the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” 25-26

The stories of Jesus’ temptation were foundational for the growth of early Christian asceticism. By withdrawing to the desert wilderness, Jesus prefigured the necessary withdraw from the confines of Constantinian Rome, from the Empire. The wilderness, it was said, was the place where the demons could be confronted face to face. It was their domain, just as Satan confronted Jesus while he fasted and prayed.

As Christianity grew in social privilege and became increasingly intertwined with the Empire, throngs of people fled to the desert. There were those who sought to follow the example of Jesus, and those who came just to see how these spiritual athletes fared in the wilderness. Those spiritual athletes embodied a detachment that seemed admirable to many, all except those who found new power and influence in the relationship between church and empire.

However, the mythology of the desert hermits reveal that the retreat into the wilderness solitude was no easy feat. There are paintings and icons that depict the first monk Antony wrestling with demons who pulled his hair and beard, his body often in postures reminiscent of the cross. As Nouwen says, it was like a furnace that sped up transformation.

There in the desert, alone without the distractions of “normal” life, the monks confronted the illusions the Empire sought so hard to maintain. The same is true for us, though we clearly don’t see the struggle with solitude as a battle with demons. When we finally pull away from the drone of images and stories from our culture, we are left to hear the inner monolog— all the stories we have internalized both about ourselves and the world around us. Those tapes in our head are there all the time, it is just that in solitude there is nothing to distract us.

I remember my first day of solitude retreat. Honestly I kind of fumbled around. I took a nap for a couple of hours, and I walked around the grounds of the retreat house. But that only took up like two and half hours. There was a whole day yet. So I sifted through the book case, stared at the crack in the wall, and only fueled what I could only describe as boredom. There was nothing to do… no email to answer, no tv shows to catch up on, no commercials to make fun of, and no one to talk too. I honestly spent most of my time that day trying to avoid any kind of self-reflection. I simply did not want to do the work of solitude.

We are culturally shaped to avoid that kind of work. Marketers and TV execs do their best to keep us distracted. In fact, they work to make sure that we think and behave in ways that support the political economy of the society. That means keeping people from asking the tough questions. And they try to make sure we have a common understanding of what is good and right. Our flourishing, they tell us is tied to a thriving economy of goods and services, and the power and prestige of the state.

Even when they hold up the lives of significant men and women, they do so in ways that make them seem almost super human— they were powerful, relevant, and spectacular. They were able to meet the needs of the time, with insightful action, and do it in ways that captured the attention of everyone around them. And the spin doctors do their best to hold them up as icons of our time while trying to not make them too inspiring so that people don’t get the hair brained idea that too much needs to change around us. In order to be important people, we need to seek power and influence, and most of all be charismatic.

As Matthew tells us in the scriptures, this is nothing new. Even Jesus confronted that image of the charismatic and powerful leader. Or, in more theological terms, he too was tempted by the false stories about power, prestige, and relevance. As Thomas Merton has said, these were the stories of the false self— that self-understanding that is fueled by the needs and desires of the Empire. However, in facing these temptations head on, Jesus also reveals to us a way to hear the story, not from the perspective of the Empire, but from the wisdom of God. At each point, he rebuffed the false temptations with the words of scripture. He was not, then, alone in his solitude, left to face the temptations without another story.

The desert monk Evagrius of Pontus wrote an entire collection of sayings that followed the model of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan. In a small tract aptly titled “Talking Back” Evagrius offered the monks battling the stories of the Empire in solitude a list of scriptures that could be recited to rebuff their own temptations. Like Jesus, if they found themselves battling the temptations of particular demons, the monks could recite the promises and truths of scripture. As he says in the open of the book, “In the time of struggle , when the demons make war against us and hurl their arrows at us, let us answer them from the Holy Scriptures, lest the unclean thoughts persist in us, enslave the soul through the sin of actual deeds, and so defile it and plunge it into the death brought by sin.” (49)

This kind of instrumental approach to scripture, using small verses apart from their context, flies in the face of all the interpretive values we have learned in Sunday School. What is more, the idea that we combat demons contradicts our modern understanding of the world. So it is no wonder that many readers of Evagrius psychologize his system. By recalling the scriptures to mind in the moments of angst in solitude, the monk re-ordered his mind. The words of the Bible countered those tapes in their head that celebrate power, vice, and prestige. In the moment of distraction and temptation, the holy scriptures were a kind of detox from the false images of the self the empire banked on.

In solitude, accompanied by the scriptures themselves, we find a new way through the loop holes of Empire. How do we live in Empire, as disciples of Jesus? We follow his example. We make time for retreats into solitude, and confront our false selves with the words of scripture. This isn’t an easy answer to the beautifully sweet question Dana asked a few weeks ago. It isn’t even a complete answer. However, in our work around the denomination, it is one that pulls us from temptations to be powerful, relevant, and spectacular. For in rejecting these temptations with the holy words of scripture, we too might be attended to by the angels.


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Domesticated Ritual

Any one who talks theology with me, or just skims this blog, probably already knows this: I like ritual and liturgy. Whether it is the rich practice of the Brethren Love Feast or a simple celebration of the Eucharist, I like me some ritual.

Yet, despite the beauty and significance of Love Feast for the Brethren, it seems we are about as anti-ritual as we are anti-intellectual. That is, we don’t like too much formability or structure. Never mind the fact that a collection of bulletins from any congregation will show just how much we are set in our ways.

Such antipathy to ritual comes in many forms— It is too formal, not enough room for the Spirit; Ritual reinforces a hierarchy foreign to our priesthood of all theology; Too much pomp for our commitment to simplicity; Too much like what Catholics do, and we don’t do sacramentalism.

Brethren come from a long line of radical traditions that, among other things, rejected clericalism and sacramentalism. It is this latter rejection that quickly surfaces in any conversation about the rites and ordinances of the church. We steer clear of any theology or practice that implies something is actually happening when we break and share bread, or when we stoop to wash feet. In good Kantian terms, we simply do our duty in obeying what Christ told us to do. So we often feel most at home in theologies of communion that lean heavy on the memorial aspects of the practice. We follow Zwingli who emphasized not the presence of Christ in the Eucharist but the “remembering” of the event.

With such an emphasis on memorialism we do two things. First, we argue for a thin understanding of a symbol. It is all “just symbolic”— it only points to an idea we hold in our head. Second, because it is symbolic, it must have a limited range of meaning and so we dare not do it too often for fear of the rite losing its meaningfulness. There is a limited range of what can be thought of, so repetition somehow erodes the significance.

To be blunt, I think this is all hogwash. First of all, while the rites of communion or feet washing are symbols, they are thick symbols. They involve our whole body in ways that typical symbols do not. We literally sense the meaning of what we are doing, way below the conscious level of remembering. We feel the implications of what we do on our tongues and with our feet. And when we put these feelings along side the scriptures, our prayers, and songs a whole range of meaning opens up before us. This is what liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop calls juxtaposition. When texts, materiel things, musical notes, and body movements come together meaning erupts.

Second, we tame this eruption of meaning with heavy-handed explanations of what we are doing. We tell the congregation that the bread and juice are “just symbols” of Christ’s sacrifice and love. We over determine the act of washing feet by saying it is symbol of service. To be fair, all liturgies and rites have moments in which we describe or interpret what is being done. However, when we have an anemic theology of symbols, we domesticate the action by limiting their meaning.

I remember a class on the Eucharist in seminary in which we were required to read several sermons by Augustine. I was amazed at the meanings he could elicit without sounding like he was determining exactly what the Eucharist meant. It hit home for me when in one sermon he could say Christ is present in the bread and wine and in the very next sermon he could sound very Brethren and say that Christ is present in the congregation of believers who call on his name. Both are true, and yet one statement does not contradict the other.

To be honest, our fear of all things ritual leads us to a place where we domesticate the rites of the church. When we over-determine the meaning of course we would shy away from regular and repeated practice. The meaning is exhausted as soon as we confine what is possible. And the only resort of such a thin conception of meaning is to rely on “meaningfulness,” that inner emotional response to the moment. And when the newness of that emotion wares off, we are left with an over-determined symbol and a nostalgia for the past. However, when we let the texts, songs, and postures play in the field of juxtaposition, highlighting the range of possibilities, the rite comes alive. It reorients our vision of the world and ourselves. It brings new perspective to the things happening around us at this very minute and draws us paradoxically from remembering to the present.

It was Annie Dillard who said that if we had any idea of the power we invoke when we gather for worship we would bring hard hats to church. Unfortunately, it seems we don’t actually believe in that same power, or at least we are afraid of it. We determine and confine the meanings of our rituals, and spread them far a part in time so that we might remain comfortably stagnant in the past, and domesticate the very wild idea that God will meet us in the present and set us on new paths, opening new possibilities with these ancient practices.

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Failure is Always an Option

I love Mythbusters. Of course the big explosions, ridiculous set ups, and humor go a long way, but it is more how they deal with failure that stands out to me. Adam Savage has a line he almost always repeats that plays on the famous words of NASA’s Gene Krantz— “Failure is always and option.” Or, in more scientific language, an experiment always produces a result. It may not be the result we expect, but it is a result nonetheless. 

That is how science works. Propose a hypothesis, test it, and learn from the results. Then, adjust the hypothesis and try again.

However, with so many technological advances in our culture in the last century, it is really hard to appreciate the role of failure in our everyday life. Nearly everything we use in a day is designed to work. It wouldn’t be in our hands or on our desks if it had not been tested for months and years. In fact, many of our common tools such as phones and computers are now designed to take away any friction in their use. Graphic interfaces make it so that we do not have to deal with the layers and layers of computer code that make the device work. All the possibilities of failure have been worked out, and the mechanics are covered over so that we can use the tool with as little effort as possible.

However, it is when something like a computer or phone does not work that we come face to face with failure. The object in front of us does not bend to our wishes or will, and thus we have to fix it. In trying to fix it, or in scientific language adjust our hypothesis and understanding, we are the ones who have to bend to the object in front of us. As Matthew Crawford notes in his book “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” fixing things takes humility and honesty. 

This is why Crawford argues that moral formation and work go hand in hand. For the mechanic, the computer technician, or even the doctor the object of their work is not of their own making. They haven’t constructed the car, computer, or body and thus must submit to the ways the thing actually works. No matter how ideal the picture of the object is in their head, they are confronted with the reality. So they must test, explore, and learn from their mistakes. Getting the car, computer, or body working is not so much a matter of the ideal portrait in their heads, as it is dealing with what actually exists and making it work better. 

Confronted by an object like this, something that does not follow my best of intentions, forces me to confront my own stuff. If I am sitting on the ground next to my motorcycle trying to figure out the latest hiccup, I am not only facing the breakdown of the machine, I am confronted by my own pride and frustration. I have to cultivate a new patience and new humility in the very process of trying to fix it. And at times, I have to give up and seek out others so that I don’t end up doing more damage to the thing in front of me. In classical terms, I work on my virtues (humility, patience, and honesty) in the very process of working on something else.

In our day of instant response, frictionless computing, and professional standards, we have lost sight of the necessity of failure. If someone misspeaks, spin specialists swoop in so that humility and honesty are set aside in favor of a spotless image. Or, even worse, we project the blame on others and on systems that fail to meet our expectations. The ego, then, trumps everything as we all seek to save face and skirt the humiliation of failure.

Unfortunately for our culture, failure is always an option. In fact, failure is necessary. For the early desert monks, failure was an opportunity to cultivate the virtues. Though they mythologized the desert or wilderness as the home of the demons, it was in fact the place where they were stripped of all the conveniences of city life and were thus brought face to face with nature as a thing beyond their control. Just like the mechanic faced with the engine that just won’t work, the monk was confronted with an environment that had no regard for his own health, well-being, or intentions. His pride and arrogance, fueled by such things as social class or even the ease with which he could find water in the city, had to be shattered in the wilderness. In essence, he was stripped bare of the conveniences that shielded him from failure so that he could see the state of his own soul. 

At some point, we must confront our own arrogance and pride. Though the late Roman city seems downright hostile compared to the conveniences of modern life and the glitches of our computers (#firstworldproblems), we do confront the world and our tools as something beyond the full reach of our will and intention. It is why the modern idea that ethics and knowledge (the formation of our character and the accumulation of knowledge) are never separate projects. Instead, in the midst of inevitable failure we come to know ourselves and cultivate the virtues of humility, honesty, and patience. For a world that often turns virtues into vices, this welcoming of failure is downright counter-cultural.

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