Tag Archive | Patheos


It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced – The General Rules Of The Methodist Church

Then there is what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face–especially in their relationships with their parents and their fellow believers (when they’re believers). Depending on the family and its unique fixations, it can be far worse than declaring oneself an atheist (or seen as not as bad since at least one still believes). In either case it’s bad enough often enough that any reasonable inference must put at least some significant blame at the feet of Christian parents for the epidemic of LGBT teens who wind up on the street, dead, or on suicide watch.  While homophobia is not a phenomenon unique to conservative Christianity and while school bullying plays its own serious role in this crisis,  in contemporary America, the war of demonization of homosexuality is carried out endlessly by conservative Christians, be they evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, or some other sort. Were these groups of people to flip their ideological stance overnight, full gay legal equality would be guaranteed within a year. – Daniel Fincke, “The Gay Enemy Threat In The Christian Home”, Patheos.com, May 21, 2014

Implications: S[exual]M[inority]Y[outh] who mature in religious contexts, which facilitate identity conflict, are at higher odds for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt compared to other SMY. Internalized homophobia accounts for portions of this conflict, but does not explain the whole of this phenomenon. Although leaving one’s religion due to conflict may appear to suggest an adaptive response to intolerance for SMY, it is also associated with higher odds of suicide. Not only do clinicians have the extra responsibility to assess for suicide in this population, but they also need to consider the implications of a client leaving his or her religion. Because of the increased risk for suicide, these finding suggest that clinical best practices do not involve encouraging SMY to leave their intolerant religion of origin. Further research is needed to investigate this complex relationship. – from the Abstract for Jeremy Gibbs, MSW, PhD Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA and Jeremy Goldbach, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, “Growing Up Queer and Religious: A Quantitative Study Analyzing the Relationship Between Religious Identity Conflict and Suicide in Sexual Minority Youth”, presented at the 2014 Conference of The Society of Social Work and Research, January 18, 2014

Marriage and Sexuality

We believe marriage and sexual intimacy are good gifts from God. In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union. We believe that God intends faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.

Human Dignity

We believe that every person must be afforded compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity. Hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes directed toward any individual or group are to be repudiated and are not in accord with Scripture nor the doctrines of the WCA. – Wesley Covenant Association, “Statement of Beliefs”

By obsessing over sexuality, our churches continue to contribute to high suicide rates among sexual minority youth, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, and non-gender conforming youth.

I know I’ve probably made this point before, but with Annual Conference Season just around the corner (it begins Sunday here in the Northern Illinois Conference) it bears repeating: The ongoing anathematizing of the peronhood of sexual minorities contributes to the ongoing crisis of suicide among gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer youth. As long our official bodies declare “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching”, we automatically excommunicate hundred and thousands of young people, undermine any claim to moral authority the church might have on other issues, and make a lie of our insistence that we have Good News to preach to the world. We find ourselves in the peculiar position of aiding and abetting both the psychological and physical destruction of already-vulnerable young people and demonstrating to a world increasingly uninterested in religion just how irrelevant we are.

Take a look at the statement of beliefs regarding marriage, sexuality, and human sexuality from the Wesley Covenant Association. By making the specious claim they are in tune with some ongoing historic doctrine regarding human sexuality that denies the full humanity of sexual minorities, they then go on to claim the full human worth of all persons. The blatant falsehood of this latter claim lays bare the harsh truth their basic reason for existing, denying full participation in the life and ministry of the church to sexual minorities due to some never-quite-made-clear “doctrine” regarding “homosexuality”.

The Three General Rules of the Methodist Societies, first set out by John Wesley in 1738 in response to a request from a small group of earnest followers are summed up quite nicely by their titles: Do No Harm; Do Good; Attend Upon All The Ordinances Of God. Because Wesley was always one who preferred clarity and thoroughness, however, he sets out examples of each and in none of them are matters of human sexuality mentioned. Except in “Do No Harm,” where Wesley writes, “Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.” When we tell people that, because of who they are, they are inherently and irrevocably separated from God; that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching; and then somehow claim we affirm the full dignity of all persons – you deny the humanity of these very same people. To me, that smacks of harm. Worse, it smells like evil.

Suicide rates among sexual minority youth, particularly among youth who identify as trans or nongender conforming is appalling, a scandal that hovers just over the horizon of our consciousness. We in the churches, especially we United Methodists with our dedication to mission, discipleship, and the transformation of the world, should be at the forefront of efforts to help vulnerable youth feel welcome and loved. Instead, we are engaged in a decades-long argument, the terms of which have ceased to have any meaning, all the while making our claims to moral authority more and more ridiculous and the general discourse of welcome, hospitality, of love and generosity and new blessed community meaningless and irrelevant to more and more people. Having spent far too much time, energy, and money arguing about human sexuality, we have made ourselves a laughingstock. As an institution, we in the United Methodist Church just don’t matter to more and more people precisely because we bicker and quarrel, claim to honor human dignity while dehumanizing sexual minority youth.

As we begin our march toward St. Louis in 2019, perhaps we should ask ourselves a very simple question: Do we uphold a statement regarding human sexuality that is doing very real harm to very real people for the sake of some never-named principle? Or do we look at the faces of our vulnerable young people and say their lives matter more than our fear and bigotry? Let’s not fiddle while Rome burns, shall we? Let’s not walk past the person beaten and forgotten on the side of the road because we believe they represent some threat to our holiness? Let us, perhaps, rededicate ourselves to doing no harm, to declare all persons, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, not only worthy of full human dignity but worthy participants with us in our Kingdom-building project.


A Certain Sacrifice

Simple Definition of sacrifice

  • : the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone

  • : an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god

  •  a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice


Methodist seminaries train their pastors in critical methodologies for studying the Scripture. Those methodologies teach that the Bible’s inspiration is not undermined by acknowledging the biblical authors’ historical context, the ways in which the biblical text developed, and the process of its canonization. But it does teach us that the Bible is far more complex than the common dictum, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” allows. – Adam Hamilton, “The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC – Part One”, Ministry Matters, April 27, 2016

Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage . . . .

My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points – Ben Witherington III, “A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality”, Patheos, April 28, 2016

[T]he most we can say about Jesus’ position on queer identity is that we simply do not know. To say otherwise is exegetical malpractice, which results in bad ethics by promoting discrimination that isn’t explicitly sanctioned by Jesus. – Morgan Guyton, “Making Jesus Answer Questions He Wasn’t Asked”, United Methodist Insight, May 2, 2016

The Angel intervenes just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac.

The Angel intervenes just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac.

I’ve said it often the past few years: We have rehashed and rehearsed the same arguments concerning same-gender love so much seeing them, yet again, isn’t so much insightful as it is tiresome. The latest iteration of these arguments began between Rev. Adam Hamilton and Dr. Ben Witherington, with Rev. Morgan Guyton taking Witherington to task for yet another of the same argument. It makes me want to clap may hands over my ears and shout, “Enough!”

Ours is a faith that has at its heart sacrifice. The LORD called Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir – the heir, also, of the promise the LORD made to Abraham to make of his children a great nation. The Law of Moses has sacrifice-as-reconciliation at the heart of its priestly code. When challenging the priests of Baal, Elijah specifically used a sacrificial ritual to discredit both Baal and his priests. When challenging politically and morally corrupt governance in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophets would often declare the sacrifices – the heart of the national cultic practice for repentance, ritual cleanliness and reconciliation – were meaningless because of the lack of justice and pervasiveness of oppression in the nation.

Part of the way we understand Jesus death on the cross is as sacrificial death – what’s often called subsitutionary atonement. While we may have forsaken animal sacrifice, we Christians still call for “sacrifice” for the good of the ministry of the whole Church. Single people are called to a life of chastity (not celibacy; celibacy means they won’t ever get married, thus unmarried people are celibate by definition). We are called to sacrifice a tenth of our earnings to the Church’s work in the world. We are called to sacrifice the good opinion of our peers and the powers that be in order to stand firm in the faith. We are called to sacrifice our preferences and surrender to the Will of God, an odd situation for St. Paul to call “freedom”.

We are to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, if called upon to do so.

As General Conference approaches – yes, this is yet another General Conference post – perhaps we should remember this call to sacrifice. We should be willing to give up the urge, yet again, to say the same things to one another. These ways of dialogue and argument have achieved nothing. I don’t think, really, they’re at fault for the poisoned atmosphere between and among some over the matter of sexuality and sexual difference, precisely because they’ve become meaningless. Like reciting anything by rote, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer of the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning slips away when we mouth words without thinking they might actually be the most important words we may ever say.

When we gather as a denomination in Portland this coming week, perhaps we should give up the urge to start yelling at one another about Biblical interpretation, tossing verses at one another, saying that “liberal” Protestants are “the only ones” who seem to be OK with gay marriage and ordaining sexual minorities (part of Ben Witherington’s argument in the linked piece above; as if, somehow, that means anything at all, that different people in different places and living out different histories would understand the Bible differently). Perhaps, just perhaps, we should sacrifice our own desire to be right, to have not only the best argument but the best way of arguing, to show the gathered delegates just how smart and educated we are. Maybe it might be a good idea to start talking to one another in different ways, better ways, meaningful ways. Ways that build up the Body of Christ instead of seeking to silence, intimidate, and (best of all) defeat those with whom we disagree.

I know I’m quite tired of listening to people who say one way or another of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible to one’s life is either the best way, or perhaps the only way. To be honest, as soon as someone starts down this road, I’m quite convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about. There are as many varieties of Biblical interpretation, as many lenses of Biblical hermeneutics, as there are denominations, individuals, and congregations. Looking back over the complicated and varied history of the Church, it would be absurd to insist that the Church, at any historical moment, had a predominant hermeneutic. It might certainly at this or that time have offered an official statement regarding Biblical interpretation; in practice – and it is always in practice that these words have any meaning – the Church has always been “the churches” when it came to figuring out how to make those words in the text mean anything for our lives here and now.

So for the love of God please stop arguing about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, what Jesus did or didn’t say, about anything. My New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Sharon Ringe, said that starting down this road will always land you in trouble because, maybe just maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. It might be a good idea to give up our desire to be correct, to be right, to defeat and embrace our ability to be wrong, to be unsure, and to accept difference as just that rather than some ultimate divide that shall always separate “us” and “them”.

“Not To Prayer But To A Spectacle”

The most committed (and often the most obstinate) defenders of contemporary worship is rapidly becoming the older generation. While their influence remains in many places, it is waning. Within a few short years, contemporary worship will have lost its original impetus and driving force.

Millennials are seeking old ways of doing things. This (thankfully) doesn’t mean a return to the church of the 1950s, but it (thankfully) means an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool. – Jonathan Aigner, “3 Reason Contemporary Worship IS Declining, And What We Can Do To Help The Church Move On,” Patheos, September 4, 2015


Bad taste has, however, degraded even religious worship, bringing into the presence of God, into the recesses of the sanctuary a kind of luxurious and lascivious singing, full of ostentation, which with female modulation astonishes and enervates the souls of the hearers. When you hear the soft harmonies of the various singers, some taking high and others low parts, some singing in advance, some following in the rear, others with pauses and interludes, you would think yourself listening to a concert of sirens rather than men, and wonder at the powers of the voices, which the nightingale or the mockingbird, or whatever is most tuneful among birds, could not equal. – John of Salisbury (1120-1180), Bishop of Chartres, quoted in Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church And Music, pp.124-125


But certain practitioners of the new school, who think only of the laws of measured time, are composing new melodies of their own creation, with a new system of note values, that they prefer to the ancient, traditional music. The melodies of the Church are [now] sung in semibreves and minims and with grace notes of repercussion. Some [composers] break up their melodies with hockets or rob them of their virility with discant, threevoice music, and motets, with a dangerous element produced by certain parts sung on text in the vernacular; all these abuses have brought into disrepute the basic melodies of the Antiphonal and Gradual [the principal chant books]. These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere. . . . – Pope John XXII, Papal Bull Docta sanctorum patrum, 1324


THE TALLIS SCHOLARS; 40th Anniversary Concert; St Paul's Cathedral; London, UK; PETER PHILLIPS - Conductor; Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

40th Anniversary Concert;
St Paul’s Cathedral;
London, UK;
Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

If you’re following the revived Bloom County you’re probably aware that Opus and Bill The Cat are running for President. Again. You’re probably also aware that Opus believes he’s found a “wedge issue” he can use to increase his standing in the polls. For those who may not know, a wedge issue is a topic to which people react out of all proportion to its social or political value, and one that tends to be impervious to legislative solutions. For Opus, it’s the matter of how many spaces appear after a period. Cutter John lost a girlfriend over the issue. It certainly seems to be something that really does get folks aroused online.

You want to get some church folk all stirred up? Forget sex or politics; offer an opinion on styles of worship and church music. Congregations have been known to split apart over the matter. Battle lines are drawn and there seems to be little room for any kind of middle ground. Defenders of traditional hymnody are portrayed as fuddyduddies out of step with the times, technology, and the people. Proponents of contemporary worship styles and music are often portrayed as theologically shallow, offering entertainment rather than worship, and songs that have very little theological meat on their catchy tuneful bones. That these same “praise songs” are part of a multi-billion dollar industry usually also comes up, portraying people as unwitting dupes of a massive capitalistic swindle. That both these portraits contain a whole lot of fact certainly doesn’t help. Articles like Jonathan Aigner’s above are all too common. Like Dick Cheney’s statement that the Iraqi resistance was in its “last throes” just as that same resistance entered a period of heightened violence, we too often allow our wishes to dictate how we see the world.

That’s why historical perspective is important. In the mid-12th century, the Bishop of Chartres wrote scathingly of developments in church music. Another 12th century cleric, a Cistercian monk named Aelred, wrote similarly. It is from Aelred the title of this post comes. Two centuries later, Pope John XXII issued a Bull regarding church music, quoted above. While extolling Chant and Plainsong (something that Popes tend to endorse, right up to the late-19th and early-20th centuries), John referred to “the ancient, traditional music” which was the very style John of Salisbury found so horrific.

For us United Methodists, more recent history (over the past century and a half or so) includes, first, the introduction of staved music  our hymnals; the introduction of the “Catholic” organ; the introduction of the “sinners” piano; including popular religious songs like “How Great Thou Art”; the controversy over the 1987 Hymnal; the creation of a separate hymn and song book for the African-American churches. Up through the mid- to late-19th century, clergy either lined unfamiliar hymns or congregations sang them to accepted metrical songs. That’s why there’s still and Metrical Index in our hymnal. It wasn’t until the flowering of 19th century hymn-writing that tunes became set.

In John Wesley’s “Rules For Singing”, he admonishes congregations to learn common hymn tunes; if people knew hymns using different melodies and harmonies, he instructed them to learn the new ones as quickly as possible. Uniformity certainly helps unify a group geographically diverse. All the same, it does remind us that “the way we’ve always done it” has no more meaning in worship music than it does in any other area of church life.

Contemporary worship and praise music entered the life of the church for a number of reasons. I think it’s important to remember that it did so because it served a need for people, to worship and sing to God in ways that connected their lives more closely together. For all that at least some CCM, as its called, is fatuous and theologically questionable, one could say much the same about many hymns, not only those dropped from more recent publishings, but more important those no longer included. During the quadrennium leading to the final proposed 1987 UM Hymnal, both “I Come to the Garden” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” were dropped from several initial proposals. The reasons the committee offered were theologically sound. The church, however, wasn’t quite ready for such changes, sentiment overriding theology. Using traditional hymns less and less is not necessarily a sign of American superficiality or a surrender to commerce over content or a sign of dwindling theological understanding. It can be, of course. That doesn’t mean it is. On the contrary, there are excellent theological reasons for using contemporary instrumentation and songs rather than relying on sometimes centuries-old hymns and tunes. For one thing, we aren’t 17th century German Reformed Christians, 19th century Anglicans, or late-19th or early 20th century church  and social reformers. We’re early 21st century Americans who need to sing our faith in our own voice. The Psalms and Prophets often call for “new songs”, for being ready for God to do “a new thing” that has never been experienced. At the end of the Revelation of St. John, from the throne the Father says, “Behold! I make all things new!”. New things can always be a sign of innovation for its own sake. It can also be a sign of the coming Kingdom. Because we are always between the times, living our lives with both the “already!” and the “not yet!”, because our lives – the whole Universe – is both on its way to salvation yet still sinful, it can be both at the same time. We should never be so dedicated to a particular theology, style of worship, or how music is used and sounds in worship that we refuse to hear the whisper of the Spirit.

To all those who insist that “contemporary worship” is “on the way out” or facing its imminent demise, I can only say, “Enjoy the wait!” As long as it serves sound worship and theological purposes, it isn’t going anywhere. On the contrary, the greater challenge is going to be teaching both clergy and congregations how better to integrate differing musical tastes and styles, instrumentation into wholistic, meaningful worship experiences. If you think that the emotional and intellectual impact of the whole worship experience for the people isn’t important, then perhaps you need to rethink why you’re worshiping at all. Yes, worship is about the people offering God the Glory God is due; if our worship is either bland or shallow, or if our people are either disengaged or too emotionally or intellectually engaged, how is that worship offering God a living sacrifice? Of all the things about which our churches bicker, wouldn’t it be far better if folks sat down and asked, “How do we worship in an age of computers and sampling? How do we bring the voice of the people together when the people’s voices all sing different tunes?” Far better than declaring for one “side” or another because there are not “sides”, we should be working to offer worship worthy of God. That would include the enthusiastic and theologically sound words and music that all the people can sing together.

Talking About Class Without Talking About Politics

The relevant questions, then, relate to how the New High/Lowbrows can learn from the errors of the Old Highbrows and shrinking Middlebrows. How can we respect the value of vocational diversity without assuming that “these sorts of people” belong in “those vocations”? How can we ensure that individuals are fairly compensated for diverse, fulfilling careers? And how can we promote an egalitarian society without being unified by greed? – Nathan Roberts, “Farewell, Middle-Class Morality? Capital In The 21st Century By Thomas Piketty”, patheos.com, January 14, 2015

A book review looking at the increasing economic divisions in industrialized society should, at the very least, consider the sources of that inequality in the various legislative, international, and private actions of governments, international bodies, and private companies over the previous generation, including stripping unions of bargaining rights and leverage; making it easy to transfer business and manufacturing across national boundaries without undo burdens or liabilities; international treaties and transnational bodies that center their focus on trade at the expense of environmental and broader economic concerns.  Nathan Roberts, however, states up front he isn’t the least bit interested in these matters.  Rather, he follows the lead of another reviewer, A. O. Scott, who, being a cultural critic, is far more interested in the cultural ramifications of losing what is commonly termed “the middlebrow”.

To which I can only say, “Whoa, fellas.  Is this really the most important question to be asking?”  Scott’s review at The New York Times seems a bit too concerned with Virginia Woolf’s denigration of “middlebrow” culture, as if somehow the pursuit of egalitarian socio-economic policy resulted in the dulling both of the aesthetic sense as well as a desire among those not fit for “highbrow” culture to try to do so.  This is the long lament of the elite that American-style egalitarianism results in a dull mediocrity, rather than a lively arts community pursuing “the best” as already previously defined by those “highbrows” who “naturally” understand such things.

Is this really something about which we should concern ourselves, when considering socio-economic disparity?  Is it even possible, morally, to wonder whether the loss of the middle class is a good thing?  Is it possible to write the following with any seriousness?

[N]ow, as distance between the rich and the poor increases, the greediness that underlied an egalitarian 20th century made way for a stratified, polarized 21st century. Occupy Wall Street gave us a sneak preview: blasé tightfistedness from the “haves”; entitled, jealous bullying from the “have-nots.”

Because the demand for economic justice, for jobs, for a return to the more egalitarian tax and employment policies of the generation immediately following the Second World War is obviously rooted not in a desire for a better society, but “jealousy” and “entitlement”.  These are complaints I’ve heard before, yet I have yet actually to see or read anything that makes the claim true.

The loss of the middle class is devastating, economically and socially.  The question of its effects on culture are, in the long run, neither here nor there, compared to the devastating impact on human lives struggling to make a way in the world that is more and more harsh.  To write a review of a book on economic equality and wonder whether it might not be a good thing because middle class culture was some kind of malignant mediocrity that was a drag both on “lowbrows” who understood their place and “highbrows” who had to deal with “middlebrows” constantly trying to edge their way past their station is offensive, to say the least.

At the same time, it is par for the course for The New York Times, a paper that does not hide its appeal to a readership filled with their own sense of success and a dismissal of those who have not succeeded.  That Patheos, a website dedicated to religious discussions, would further this immoral tactic is both sad and offensive.  It might be nice to read what Piketty had to say about the effects upon democratic governance, and possible prospects for reversing a generation and more of policies pursued that have led us to where we are.  This is no accident.  It can be reversed.  One wouldn’t guess that was either wise, let alone a possibility, from reading these reviews.

Knee-Jerking Ourselves In The Face

Put yourself in their shoes.  Look at the world through their eyes. – Pres. Barack Obama

– – – – –

Reza Aslan provided some helpful commentary on CNN yesterday regarding the cultural and socio-economic underpinnings of these terrorist actions. Underlying this violence are questions about identity, marginalization (or perceptions thereof) and culture-clash than it about religious doctrine per se (although these are intertwined). There are reasons (beyond theological or religious ones) that fundamentalist ideologies attract social castaways and others who have either isolated themselves or have been isolated by the larger culture. – Kyle Roberts, “It’s Better To Mock God Than To Defend Him,” Patheos, January 9, 2015

At the risk of being misunderstood by pretty much everyone, I want to take just a few moments of your time to consider the possibility that pretty much everyone who has said something about events in and around Paris last week is not only wrong, but making things worse.  It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that most people – and by extension, groups – aren’t all that clear on their motivations for their actions.  All too often, we act, then defend our actions afterward, regardless of what we may tell ourselves.  Political action by groups is little different, although the mechanisms of social psychology are more complex.  That we are so willing to take at face value the “reasons” offered for the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which has suddenly become world-renowned when a week ago I doubt all that many Americans (for instance) knew it existed, is as much part of the problem as the attacks themselves.  We refuse to do something that, one would think, would be part and parcel of being a truly moral, Christian, and civilized country: That we might just take a moment and look at the world through the eyes of other people.

Yet, rather than do that, thousands of people are reprinting the cartoon that prompted the attack; journalists and others are insisting that freedom of expression is under attack (as if it never were before from any other source, up to and including the conglomerates that own news outlets, the PATRIOT Act, and even just social pressures), and generally reacting in ways little changed from the terrorists: Acting out of anger at perceived slights to social, legal, and cultural norms that are considered important, we perpetuate a cycle of violence that, in the end does nothing but leave bodies in its wake.  Which is not to say that I am “excusing” the attacks; nor am I insisting that a bunch of Facebook posts are the same as mass murder.  What I am saying is that we are, for all intents and purposes, acting out – out of fear, out of anger – rather than just acting.  We are not considering the world from perspectives different form our own.  We are not considering that the attacks in France had as much to do with real and/or perceived social and political marginalization, both within their own societies and in the larger global context, as it did with any insult to the Prophet.  By rushing to the defense of “freedom of the press” or “freedom of expression”, we are not only forgetting the hundreds of ways those freedoms are under real threat from forces within our own society (thus relieving us of the difficult task of self-examination as a people); we are forgetting that different societies have legitimately different ends and taboos, rules and ethics.  That we may disagree about these – sometimes violently – has been true pretty much forever.

Yet, we in “the West” hold ourselves to a higher standard, at least in our rhetoric.  We call ourselves Christian, yet how many people slept outside in the freezing cold last night?  We call ourselves “civilized”, yet how many deaths have we in the West brought about through our wars over the past decade and a half?  We believe that “freedom of expression” is a higher good than the expressed feelings of others in other societies, which only demonstrates not only deafness to their needs, but our insensitivity to the lives, health, and even religious and emotional expressions of others.  In a sense, our rhetoric creates the conditions through which others outside the West understand us.  Yet, our actions make the lie of our rhetoric.  Along with a history of centuries of exploitation, colonialism, and racism, what are those who live outside the power structures both within their societies and the larger, emerging, global consensus to do except act out as they have been taught by the West?  And we continue the cycle of misunderstanding, cultural disrespect, and mutual ignorance.  What, precisely, do we achieve by perpetuating this cycle?  That our social priorities are superior?  That we have a more clear social moral vision than others?  Which insulting notions are precisely part of the problem.

And the body count rises.  The “Othering” of Muslims, of people outside the West in general, goes on.  The loudest voices, usually the most violent and extreme, drown out any call for calm, for consideration, to look at the world through the eyes of those we call “Other” and consider how we appear to them.  I’m not sure it matters all that much; we are so locked in to this ridiculous, mutually destructive cycle that even the most considered appeal to mutual understanding and humanity doesn’t even register.  A thought, though: Are those dead folks at that magazine of which most folks hadn’t heard before this past week really worth us, we in the West, being right and better than the rest of the world?  How much difference is there between a terrorist cell leader to straps a bomb to the chest of a confused young man or woman and prattles on about sacrifice and martyrdom, and those safely away from the danger demanding that others reprint insulting things about the Prophet, drawing the attention of those who will kill them?  Are those folks are Charlie Hebdo little different than “the martyrs for the cause” that we keep hearing about?

Stating The Problem

Lately, it’s been very necessary when the music is playing and we’re supposed to be singing, you know, to God. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Maybe all the “seekers” are enjoying it, but I’m finding it hard to sincerely engage in anything resembling worship.

Instead of feeling the joy of joining with other believers in offering praises to the Almighty, I often feel insulted, bored, and disconnected from 2,000 years of worship history. And just when I think that maybe it’s just me having a selfish and sinful attitude — a very real possibility — a flamboyant electrical guitar solo breaks out. I’m left deciding whether to waive my iPhone and buy the t-shirt or just shut up and go home. – Bill Blankenschaen, “Why I’ve Stopped Singing In Your Church”, Patheos.com, July 15, 2012

Among the many challenges the contemporary church faces is worship.  Specifically, how do we construct worship services that are faithful to the goal of worship, offer something both for the regular attendee as well as those who come only occasionally or the newcomer, is rooted in the Gospel and Biblical witness, and is faithful to over 2,000 years of church history even while speaking – and singing – in an idiom that is recognizable.  Clergy, worship planners, and church musicians face these challenges each day as they struggle with the balancing act necessary to make worship just that even while preventing the experience from being either stale or nonsensical.  If anyone thinks this is easy, I’d invite them to try it just once.

In the article linked above, Bill Blankenschaen gets to the heart of part of our problem: church music in “contemporary” worship services.  The article has over one thousand comments, and while I won’t pretend to have read them all I will say that the discussion covers the gamut that has been at the heart of discussions and arguments about church music since New Testament times.  That this is not a new issue is cold comfort, however, to those who are forced to work with limited material resources, limited ability among many church musicians, and limited appreciation from many congregants.  The responses, too, seem to suggest that the matter of church music occurs in a vacuum.  What some, like me, are left with – despite some excellent beginning suggestions from Blankenschaen – is little more than recognition that we are at an impasse where church music is concerned and little direction other than an understanding of church history on the one hand and the contradictory requests/demands from church members about what they would like.

One of the lessons I’m learning from reading Adorno on music is that the best music confronts us with the truth of our contemporary world.  Thus, for example, for Adorno Beethoven is the true Hegelian composer, offering not just the antitheses of early 19th century, but their synthesis in a hopeful, Enlightenment-infused belief in the secular perfection of humanity through a combination of reason and sympathy (thus the first stirrings of Romanticism in Beethoven’s later works).  At the other end of the spectrum, Arnold Schoenberg shows Europe in the early 20th century the collapse of the Enlightenment project through the use of atonality; Schoenberg offers no solutions – music, like all art, isn’t a problem solver but rather a problem-definer – but precisely because of the clarity of his musical vision, his works are rejected because who wants to hear the truth that one’s world is collapsing?

Our church music should be no less cognizant of the social realities of our time than is the best secular music.  Indeed, what has always made the best music in church is the confrontation between the Biblical witness and the contemporary world as the hymn or song writer experienced it.  Even as we praise God, we should always be doing so with an understanding that our praise is limited by our ongoing life lived this side of the eschaton.  We cannot escape the world, with all the ambivalence the Bible ascribes to that world, in which we live.  Nor should we; it is this world in which we live and to which and for which we should be living as a church.  Our music, no less than our prayers, should resonate with St. Paul’s dictum that we just don’t know how to do it as we ought.  We should be willing to approach Jesus and ask, “Teach us to sing,” no less than the Disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.

Finally, as a guide toward a path through the thickets of opinions, ideas, suggestions, demands, theological and Biblical concerns, and a history that is as confounding and contradictory as all history tends to be, I would suggest that this is a “problem” without solution.  There is no answer to the question, “What’s the best way to offer music that praises God while engaging the congregation?”  There is only the experiences, good and bad, of churches who keep working on this conundrum, week in and week out.  No one gets it right.  Many get it very, very wrong, but at least they keep trying.  Being thoughtful, knowledgeable, aware both of the needs of the congregation and the world in which it worships and works, and most of all prayerful – these are the best ways to begin moving forward in the full knowledge there is no end to the path, and it is always one surrounded by thorns, steep cliffs hidden in shadows, and mobs of angry church-goers who are quite ready to demand something different even if they don’t quite know what that might sound like.

The Vocabulary Of Outrage

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more."  Peter Finch, the voice of outrage.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Peter Finch, the voice of outrage.

It was primary week in several states this past week, including Oklahoma.  This reddest of red states produced what is perhaps the most . . . interesting . . . challenge from an opponent to the incumbent’s victory: that the incumbent Representative, in this case, Rep. Frank Lucas, is a body double, because the real Frank Lucas was executed in 2011.   Tim Murray. the person making this accusation, said in a press release:

I am contesting that this matter has happen [sic] since his election was blocked, because of the U.S. Defense Department’s use of Mr. Murray’s DNA. To my knowledge, the U.S. Defense Department has not released to the public that information, as it is their confidential information about many people . . .

According to one conspiracy website I tracked down, this is all part of The Simulacra Conspiracy, replacing persons in positions of power with androids.  Now, purveyors and adherents to various conspiracy theories tend to express their view of the world not so much in the language and tones of anger but rather of calm, dispassionate assurance.  The most interesting thing about Murray’s press release is the insistence that the things he is claiming are “well known”.  Thus, there is no reason for outrage or anger.  Just disappointment that no one, except Tim Murray, is brave enough to speak the truth.

Yet, conspiracy theories such as this are really just the logical extreme of the far too common phenomenon of the expression of outrage at public events.  Whether it’s the outrage of some on the far left who continue to be outraged that Pres. Obama didn’t push for a more comprehensive health care payment and delivery reform, to the latest outrage pushed by right-wing talk radio, usually but not always associated with the President, ours is a country awash in the language of public anger, the demand that others share the anger and that something be done to correct the perceived and announced miscarriage of justice.  Conspiracy-mongers spin elaborate tales of intrigue, including wild claims that sometimes include secret societies, advanced technologies, and the like; yet how different in kind are they, really, from a former Senator and Presidential candidate, claiming that people who oppose gay rights in the United States are being sent to re-education camps?

“You now see situations with bakers and florists and photographers who are being forced to provide services for same-sex weddings or get fined, lose their business,” Santorum said during the appearance on the American Family Association’s “Focal Point” radio program on Monday.

“In the case of Colorado,there was a Colorado case recently where someone had to go to a re-education camp if you will. And the amazing thing is that in Colorado gay marriage isn’t even legal!”

According to the website, Politicaldog 101, the case to which Santorum refers is a baker in Colorado who refused service to a same-sex couple, was convicted of discrimination, and had to submit policy-and-procedure changes to the court demonstrating an adherence to non-discrimination practices.  Adding the “if you will” is an interesting rhetorical trick on Santorum’s part, one that allows him the luxury of having it both ways: he can say there are re-education camps to which people are sentenced, when addressing one group, and insist he was only making an analogy when challenged.  Yet neither Redstate.com nor Stormfront (I refuse to link to a neo-Nazi site) are as careful.  The message is clear enough: the state is now actively pushing an agenda that some insist violates both their religious freedom as well as freedom of conscience, and instituting “re-education” as a practical measure.  Who wouldn’t be outraged to hear the United States government, or one of the states in the United States, not only had such a thing as a re-education camp, but was putting people in them?  Despite the fact this isn’t happening, it seems from a quick scan of the internet that many are, indeed, enraged that such a thing, while not happening, is happening.

The language of outrage is a curious thing.  I was reading a piece at Patheos written by Benjamin Corey, entitled Meriam Yehya Ibrahim and The First World Problem of “Religious Persecution”.  He writes:

[P]ersecution in America has become just another example of the way we view “problems” in a first world setting. Regardless of what actually is occurring elsewhere, we’re consumed with what we perceive is happening here, and behave on a practical level as if our “problem” is way worse. The way we’ve come to view persecution is no different than how we’ve come to view so many other issues. Just weeks ago, I sat in orphanages in the Congo where kids were lucky to eat on a daily basis and drank contaminated water that could kill them. Yet, the moment I step off the plane in the US, it was right back to listening to complaints about cellphone coverage.

This is not an uncommon complaint.  There is an entire website, Whitewhine.com, highlighting the too-often privileged and ridiculous complaints to be found on social media.  Yet, this, too, is part of the language of outrage.  We are invited to look and laugh at people being angry at things and events that are not really problems.  Many, however, become outraged that such people exist.  Corey is outraged that Americans are angry about cell phone coverage while people in the Congo struggle with basic survival issues.  Is that what people should be outraged about, American cluelessness?  Shouldn’t we, rather, be angry at the reality of deprivation?  Shouldn’t we move beyond the language of outrage, and actually do something to help these people?

At some point, demanding that others become as angry as we are over a particular issue, or a particular set of issues can become tendentious, even annoying.  Several years ago, someone was angry that I was not outraged over the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti.  The death toll was astronomical, and efforts to rebuild were slow, mired in local corruption, and exacerbated by a cholera epidemic that too few even noticed.  I was indeed, angry about what I thought was indifference on the part of too many to what was happening in Haiti; all the same, I felt others were in a better place to make the case for Haiti than I was.  My response was greeted with even more anger, and a demand that I be angry not only at the people and structures and even nations that seemed to be working to inhibit Haiti’s recovery, but that I be angry at God for visiting upon Haiti yet another in a series of calamities, natural and human.

I do not and will not express anger at God over either natural disasters or human stupidity, violence, corruption, or general malice.  For one thing, wrestling with matters of theodicy – the reality of evil in a Universe claimed to be the provenance of a loving, all-powerful God – can distract from paying attention to those responsible.  For another, I try not to become “outraged” over things in general.  We have far too much of that flying around, as demonstrated by a few recent examples above.  While certainly angry and frustrated about our current discriminatory policies toward sexual minorities in the United Methodist Church, for example, I do not and will not consider it an “outrage”, at least in the current use of the word.  The language of outrage has become far too prevalent.  The demand that others share our sense of injustice has reached the point of absurdity.  Rather than deal with what is in front of us, and work to create solutions that serve the interests of people, we have become flooded with nonsensical, too often fabricated instances of injustice and claims of persecution to satisfy some need.

This past week, a friend of mine reported a claim denial by a health insurance carrier, then turned around and expressed anger at President Obama.  All I could think is, “Really?”  As if a health insurance company had never denied a claim before; as if the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was something Pres. Obama had created and forced on the United States; as if this instance of claim denial had any relationship to any provision of the current health care law; yet we have been so conditioned by the language of outrage, and the preponderance of news coverage about the new health care law that anything that happens becomes the fault of one person.  So, too, with those claiming religious persecution.  American Family Association head and radio host Bryan Fischer can talk about “the Gay Gestapo”, and far too many will rush to his defense, insisting his description of events in America is accurate.  The language of outrage has dimmed our ability to perceive the absurd and false, and dulled our ability to distinguish between real injustice and what too often passes for injustice.  We hear the vocabulary of outrage so often that too many of us see all negative life-events as a source of anger and outrage.  Rather than confronted with a human problem that calls for a solution – sometimes difficult to achieve – the language of outrage allows us the glory of being among the victims of power without needing actually to do anything to fix things.  The insistence that others share our anger is not a call to action.  It becomes a way of promoting inaction.

Whether it’s politics or religion or some social or cultural sphere, it is long past time to set aside our fondness for anger.  The use of the vocabulary of outrage solves nothing.  It becomes parasitic, devouring any other attempt to address real problems as it is so much easier just to be angry.  It becomes cancerous, invading our public discourse with perceived, sometimes even fabricated examples of injustice in order to feed the need for ever more rage, without any solution needed.  Finally, outrage becomes not only self-destructive, it destroys the ability for public discussion of real challenges and possible solutions.  The near-constant low-level rage exhausts itself and the ability to be somewhat dispassionate in our search for common solutions to common problems.  That the most calm and dispassionate expression of anger – as well as a pursuit of a solution – has come recently from someone insisting that a person of public prominence (several, not named, in fact) are in fact body-double robots only demonstrates the complete exhaustion of the language of outrage, and it’s logical conclusion in absurdity, paranoia, and delusion.

I’m not sure what anyone can do about this, except perhaps plea for an end to anger.  The demand for outrage on anything and everything no longer serves any purpose.  All any of us can do is work in whatever ways we can to make our little corner of the world, or several corners if we have the ability, a bit better place in which to live.  We only have a short time to do these things.  Resorting to the language of outrage only compounds the problem.  Don’t get angry.  Get busy.