Living in a Secular Age

It really would have been helpful if I had actually read philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age before trying to summarize a two-and-a-half hour discussion of it, so this post will not be comprehensive. By way of introduction, here is what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Secular Age:

“In his characteristically erudite yet engaging fashion, Taylor, winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize, takes up where he left off in his magnificent Sources of the Self (1989) as he brilliantly traces the emergence of secularity and the processes of secularization in the modern age. Challenging the idea that the secular takes hold in a world where religion is experienced as a loss or where religions are subtracted from the culture, Taylor discovers the secular emerging in the midst of the religious. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on breaking down the invidious political structures of the Catholic Church, provides the starting point down the road to the secular age. Taylor sweeps grandly and magisterially through the 18th and 19th centuries as he recreates the history of secularism and its parallel challenges to religion. He concludes that a focus on the religious has never been lost in Western culture, but that it is one among many stories striving for acceptance. Taylor’s examination of the rise of unbelief in the 19th century is alone worth the price of the book and offers an essential reminder that the Victorian age, more than the Enlightenment, dominates our present view of the meanings of secularity. Taylor’s inspired combination of philosophy and history sparkles in this must-read virtuoso performance.”

The belle of this ball was not Taylor, however, but Robert Neely Bellah, Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus as U.C. Berkley. In the AAR newspaper, Bellah was described as a “sociologist, moralist, communitarian, and Episcopal deacon.” Bellah and Taylor were the two celebrated award winners at AAR. Taylor received the Templeton Prize and Bellah was the recipient of the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion. One award winner critiquing another. How much fun is that? Before I get to Bellah’s critique of Taylor, here are a few tidbits from the other three papers.

The first paper was given by F.B.A. Asiedu of Middlebury College. His was a response to critics, one by the name of Skinner, who view Taylor’s “turn toward transcendence” in this work as nothing more than an apologetic for Christianity, an endeavor I am guessing Skinner thinks inappropriate to philosophy. Asiedu thought it odd that Skinner called himself an admirer of Taylor, while rejecting the essence of who Taylor is. His was an eloquent denunciation of Modernism, something my notes are not.

I didn’t catch (or later find) the name of the second presenter. He was the co-chair of the Philosophy of Religion group at the conference. His was the talk most critical of A Secular Age. He found the absence of “conversation with theology” in the book puzzling. It seemed to this speaker that questions of theology are central to Taylor’s topic. He said Taylor focused on the “conditions of belief” rather than engaging the ideas of Barth, Niebuhr and Tillich, for example, whose works deal with the content of belief. The speaker quoted Shakespeare here, saying the play is not the thing—meaning conditions are not the thing, content is. Taylor later expressed mild regret at not having included a chapter on theology.

This philosopher said Taylor “talks as if reference to God isn’t problematic.” Taylor’s world is black or white, either there is God or there is Humanism. He said there are many theological options between these two choices, but provided no examples. (This speaker was non-Western, so perhaps he was drawing from his Eastern heritage here.) He merely concluded that a dualistic conception “lurks behind Taylor’s picture.”

The third paper, by Jennifer Herdt of Notre Dame, was read by the moderator. Hers began with a description of A Secular Age as a “masterful work.”

Herdt said it is not the case that religious practice and belief have declined in any significant way, but instead, faith and religious life continually remake themselves. The Christianity of the 20th century saw the emergence of “narrative forms” and “virtue ethics.” Believers sought to reshape the world rather than conform to existing reality. She said God can seem superfluous in such an environment, which favors immanence over transcendence.

Herdt argued that Christian Ethics reinforces secularization. She quoted Taylor here: “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.” She believes that any attempt to return to the premodern will ultimately fail, and believes secular civilization should be welcomed because it returns us to the martyred life. This is because Christian faith cannot be taken for granted as a structural reality in a secular society. She advocated getting back to basics rather than escaping to the past. She contrasted excarnation, a set of beliefs/doctrines that justify, with incarnation, a life of devotion, prayer, and community.

Herdt’s paper concluded with something about being careful not to cast people off. There’s a difference, she said, between bad faith and genuine searching. The difference is real. Genuine searching beckons the pilgrim onward.

Finally, a frail old gentleman took the podium. Throughout the presentations, he was hunkered at the table, sometimes resting his head in his hand. I couldn’t imagine that he would be engaging, and remember this was a warm, uncomfortably packed room. I was wrong. Robert Bellah was a passionate orator, even as he struggled physically to get through his presentation. He would cough out a few sentences or paragraphs, choke and sip water and then throw himself back into it. This cycle repeated for a good 20-30 minutes. At one point he took his jacket off and loosened his tie. It didn’t seem to help. He was thoroughly engaging, and apparently sick from too much travel.

Bellah introduced Taylor’s book as among a handful of the most important ones he’s ever read, but then offered a good bit of critique, most of which centered on Taylor’s reference to the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Bellah edited a collection of Durkheim’s work, which included an essay called “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” which I am guessing Taylor must have quoted. I won’t even attempt to translate what Bellah’s criticism was all about—something related to Taylor’s use of the terms “paleo,” “neo,” and “post-Durkheimianism.”

Bellah said that in Durkheim’s framework, radical individualism is dominant over and above commitment to nation and God, especially amongst the educated class. But in Durkheim’s view, individualism is not the same thing as egoism. For Durkheim, individualism is the glorification, not of self, but of all that is human. Durkheim never imagined individualism apart from a social context. In fact, Durkheim himself prophesied post-Durkheimianism. Got that? Taylor later conceded this point and suggested that “double-Durkheimianism” might have been a better turn of phrase. (Really, distinguished sir, as an editor, I must object!)

Bellah seemed to hold out hope for our nation, saying he believes that the values held by both religious and non-religious youth are admirable ones. He named among them: justice, tolerance, nature, humanitarianism.

Finally Taylor stood to speak. He surprised me. With so much praise heaped upon him, I expected charisma. There was none. He responded to the critiques with grace and humility, however, saying the 800+ page book could have expanded indefinitely. The primary thing he was trying to accomplish was to explain what had occured from the 16th century to the 21st. He didn’t attempt to tackle his subject through a history of ideas or theology, but wanted to see how the conditions of how we function have changed.

Taylor said he thinks Skinner is “terribly wrong-headed” to focus on Christian atrocities that emerge from certain readings of Scripture, as if only religion produces such evils. The faster we “get over” the idea that the other guy is the problem (Atheist/Christian/Muslim), the better off we’ll be. He cited a book called The Late Christiandom by Frenchman Emanuelle Munier as having influenced him significantly and said we are in a post Constantinian/post-Christian age.

Taylor offered the idea of “Cosmopolitanism” as a solution to the problems of our time. Here he mentioned German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, but I can’t recall if he said the idea originated with Habermas. Taylor traced the origin of the word to the Greek Stoics and defined it as “citizen of the world.” He said the word was never translated into Latin because the Romans thought they were the world, just as Americans now think we are the world. In talking about multiple modernities that need to be deconstructed, Taylor mentioned ethnocultural variations.

I take it then that we are to be citizens of the world, rather than just citizens of our own backyards.

These are my notes on this session. It was much better than they suggest. I’m ill equipped, however, to work from memory when the discussion is philosophy. I do love to listen and learn.

Update: I did eventually read a good chunk of Taylor’s 800 page tome.

The Covenant with Black America


My notes from talk show host Tavis Smiley‘s speech are short, which isn’t surprising. He only spoke for about 10 minutes and did so reluctantly. He even joked about praying that God would let the cup pass from him, but said that when his friend Cornel West called, he couldn’t refuse him.

This session was not an academic one. It was more like a gospel pep rally. There were standing ovations for each of the panelists, pats on the back across the podium and a series of inspiring soundbites.

Here’s what I wrote down:  

Smiley described lying in a hospital for 10 days as a 12 year old, not knowing whether he would live or die after a severe beating by his father. It was during this time that he discovered a hero in Martin Luther King Jr. He grew up in a Pentacostal church and said he has been trying to be like Jesus his entire life. He’s still trying to be like Jesus.

Smiley said he believed everyone in the room wants the same thing as Americans, and that is to live in a nation that is as good as its promise. He believes God has given each of us gifts to match some communal need and that using our gifts in service to others is a condition of citizenship.

Smiley based his speech on three points from Walter Rauschenbusch’s pivotal book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. This classic influenced both Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gahndi. It has been updated and expanded for its hundreth anniversary. (Along with Cone’s book and Oden’s, this one is on my reading list.)

Quoting Rauschenbusch, Smiley said a nation as good as its promise will include these elements:

  1. Justice for all
  2. Service to others
  3. Love that liberates

He said it takes courage to hope that such a society is possible, and denounced those who would celebrate men like King and Gandhi, while dismissing their methodology. Love is non-existent in today’s public discourse, according to Smiley, but he still believes it is the most powerful force in the world. He said it is this power that will transform the world, in contrast to the love of power. Then he dissed George W. Bush.

He borrowed some quotes from West, something he said he does often, so I don’t know which of this next series are his and which originate with West.

  1. You can’t lead folk if you don’t love and you can’t save if you don’t serve.
  2. If you call yourself a leader and nobody is following, you’re just out for a walk. 
  3.  What is the depth of your love for those you lead? What is your quality of service to them?

Next Smiley reminded the audience that everyone is worthy to receive love just because. He believes the promise of our nation and our public policy are currently “nowhere in sinc.” As a member of the media, he tries to interview those whose voices don’t ordinarily get heard and asks questions others don’t ask. Imagine that.

He quoted West again:

Justice is what love looks like in public. Then he mentioned King, saying, Cowardice asks: Is it safe? (Courage obviously asks a different set of questions, although I don’t recall him saying what they are.)

That was it for Smiley.

The incoming president of AAR spoke briefly as did an academic from Princeton, but neither said anything noteworthy. Everyone seemed to defer to West, whose rhetorical gifts would intimidate most public speakers. It’s not so much what he says that impresses, but how he says it. He’s a rap/poet/preacherman. Is it fire in the belly or performance art? I don’t know. Maybe a bit of both. He has presence, knows it and uses it masterfully in service to his cause. 

West’s verbal gymnastics were delivered with such ferocity that it was nearly impossible to record. I caught one bit of truth: He said a person can’t talk about justice without learning how to die.  This isn’t just “PC chitchat,” but giving it up and turning it lose—to quote James Brown. It’s about loving folk and hating unfair treatment. It’s about “unsettling the numbness” and taking power back from the elite, which Smiley had earlier said only operates with the deference of the people.

Loving and dying lead to justice. That’s all I got. I think it’s enough. Who takes notes on a pep rally anyway?

Emerging/Emergent San Diego

Emerging San Diegoemerging san diego

[ San Diego, CA, 2007]

Some readers of this blog post are waiting for me to pronounce judgment on emerging/emergent after listening to one two-and-a-half hour panel discussion. So let me get this out of the way: I came away from the AAR session on this subject identifying myself as emerging, if not emergent, but also as someone who might even be willing to add that little “Friend of Emergent Village” logo to my blog. I can use all the friends I can get, can’t you?

This was a great opportunity for me because the subject of emergent comes up so frequently in conversations. My uncle is writing a book denouncing emergent (do we need another?), which he talks to my father about, which my father talks to me about. My Calvary Chapel friends ask me about it. Just yesterday I heard that a musician who has co-written a book on Emerging Worship has been canceled from at least one big Calvary Chapel event because of his book. I find myself defending something I don’t thoroughly understand, simply because I am so well acquainted with the thinking that reflexively denouonces it. The irony here, of course, is that some of the denouncers were, in fact, a previous generation’s emergers.

Scot McKnight, Tony Jones, and Diana Butler Bass did a great job of clearing the fog. Jones will be posting a podcast of the session on Emergent Village. Listening to the session yourself is obviously the best way to evaluate it. In the meantime, I will do my best to summarize what I heard. I must confess, however, that my notes on this session weren’t as good as I had thought.

The discussion began with introductions:

Jones said that Leadership Network discovered Bill Hybels and Rick Warren in the mid-1980s. Their ministries resonated with Boomers who were coming back to church, but that the GenXers were leaving church and not coming back. When his band of peers was trying to determine how to reach out to the this group in the late 1990s, there was an immediate rift in the group. Half wanted to make the gospel relavent, while the other half was reconsidering the gospel in America altogether. This half was interested in epistemology rather than relevance, and founded emergent.

At only 10 years old, Jones said there is still a lot of immaturity in emergent, and that there have been mistakes. He also credited the internet as a factor in its growth. As an example, he mentioned having given a paper at a theology conference (was it at Wheaton?), which was excluded from the official conference book because it was “off message.” He posted the paper on the internet and it was downloaded 2500 times. (I’ve had a similar, if less fruitful, experience.)

Jones described himself as a “gadfly.” He spends half his time as coordinator of Emergent Village, is a doctoral fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary, travels prodigiously and is a volunteer police chaplain and a cub scout leader. (I hope a good husband too; I don’t recall him mentioning that.)

Butler Bass came to emergent by a different path. She said she knew, and broke, all the rules of the evangelical subculture, having graduated from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and later having been fired from an evangelical institution of higher eduction. In 2000, she received a Lilly Foundation grant to study examples of vitality in mainline churches, one of which she attends. I believe she said she shared a publisher with Brian McLaren, and was told by her editor that she and McLaren should meet because they were “writing the same book.” I’m not sure which of his books this was, but they met and talked for 4+ hours and, indeed, found parallels in their work.

She mentioned reaching back to the past in order to move forward, and defined emerging as a larger reworking of things—a set of patterns of cultural change—that transcends religious groups and even religions. There is emerging Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

She asked: What is it emerging from and what is it emerging toward?

Scot McKnight first encountered Brian McLaren when McLaren spoke at the institution where McKnight was teaching. He thought McLaren was “thoroughly boring and uninteresting.” But then, a magazine editor suggested to him that he might enjoy blogging (Mark, was that you?). Nothing much happened until he blogged about the book gallies of a D.A. Carson work that he said picked on one dimension of emergent. Jesus Creed took off, much to Scot’s dismay. He said he started following emergent because of the blog and woke up one day to discover that he was a part of a movement with which he doesn’t always agree. Even so, they welcomed him with open arms, which he thought was pretty cool.

After the introductions, a discussion ensued that was intermittently about faddishness vs. substance.

McKnight, who described himself as a linear-thinking modernist, compared emergents to a blue parakeet that invaded the turf of his backyard sparrows. The sparrows were thrown into a frenzy by its presence. McKnight said the emergents are asking questions the traditional church doesn’t want to hear. He also identified emerging as a phenomenon, and emergent as a dimension of it.

These are the questions McKnight hears emergents asking:

  1. What kind of truth can be found in Scripture?
  2. If evolution isn’t true, why did God make the world to look like it is? (He said the younger generation doesn’t care about Creation Science.)
  3. If Paul says we are new creatures in Christ, why are there so many old creatures in the church? (He talked here about church scandal fatigue.)
  4. Is everyone who hasn’t heard the gospel really going to hell? (He said this question isn’t going away.)
  5. The fifth question is about a moral critique of the Bible. eg. Why is Jeptha heroized in Hebrews 11?
  6. The sixth had to do with what he called “social location”—a chastened epistemology that doesn’t seek a universal theology, but is sensitive to cultural context.

McKnight thinks, as do I, that the church should be a safe place for asking questions rather than a place that locks them out. He later coined the term “ironic faith” to describe the generation of students he encounters. Because their environment does not allow for questions, they live with ambiguity, ambivalence, and, consequently, anger. He said genuine conversation lets kids explore answers.

Butler Bass responded that there was not one question on McKnight’s list that she wasn’t asking in the 1970s. She’s asking different questions now. For example, she told the story of visiting the Seattle church where Rev. Ann Holmes Redding has embraced a dual Christian/Muslim identity. Butler Bass was there for what sounded like a beautiful baptism service on the same weekend that she spoke at an emergent event. She compared these experiences and concluded that orthopraxy centers both groups. Both are interested in transformation re. people, institutions, and cultures. With transformation comes tension. The Seattle church is wrestling with the implications of Holmes Reddings’ choice and the questions it raises about identity, meaning and spiritual practice. 

There followed a debate between Jones and Butler Bass of an event at the National Cathedral at which Marcus Borg reportedly said that if he had to bet his last dollar or his life as to whether or not the tomb of Christ was empty, he would have to say that either the tomb was empty or there was no tomb. Jones derided this statement, saying it is no stretch for him to believe that God can defy the laws of physics. Butler Bass took exception to his characterization of what Borg had said, stating that Jones and others had missed the essential sentence, in which Borg affirmed his faith.

Jones said he thought Borg and John Piper are guilty of the same sin (my language, not his), which is wanting an airtight Christianity. They come at it differently, but both expressions are functions of the Modern enterprise. He said emergents have no interest in either expression; they are comfortable with paradox, uncomfortable with liberal answers and unwilling to say that the Bible is not inspired.

Both parties cited studies that found that the numerical ascendancy of evangelical churches over mainline churches is actually a function of birthrate rather than supposed weaknesses in liberal theology. Evangelicals have more kids. [But if those kids are leaving church in droves, what does this portend for the future? That answer came in the Q&A: By 2050, someone stated, 125,000,000 Christians worldwide will no longer be connected with a church.]

Jones launched into a denunciation of bureaucracy, which rightly bothered Butler Bass. They bantered about this a bit. In the midst of the banter, Jones made this statement: “The problem isn’t with gay bishops, but with having bishops.”

Here, in my opinion, is where the immaturity shows up, esp. because he later said all kinds of people are asking to join emergent. Who decides? Him, a board? Is it arbitrary or bureaucratic? In the Q&A, a sharp young female Episcopal priest from the Diocese of Los Angeles asked him how emergents deal with issues of accountability and the protection of children from sexual abuse. I recall that his answer to this question was both disappointing and naive. All I have in my notes is that he said his church has procedures for dealing with such things, and added something about trusting the “other” to be open to talking about their sin. I’d love to hear something more substantive on this topic.

It was in the context of the conversation about faddishness vs. substance that the Theology of the Couch came up. Jones said that what appears to be faddish within emergent is often reflective of theological reasoning, eg. why Solomon’s Porch has couches rather than pews. It has to do with wanting to foster interaction between congregants. I’m embarrassed to say my notes are sparser on this point than I had thought. I recall something about what we do with our bodies being important, and the way pews orient people in the worship experience. Jones said it is much easier to innovate than to reform existing communities. When making decisions about what to purchase for a sanctuary, for example, why not think theologically and innovatively about it?

Personally, I have never had difficulty engaging a neighbor in the pew, but my home church, which is Baptist, arranges the  sanctuary chairs into a u-shape that surrounds the Communion table for its Thanksgiving eve service. There is music and preaching, followed by testimony and corporate communion around the table. Facing one another in worship and sharing our stories like this is one of my favorite events, so I get the thinking behind the couches at Solomon’s Porch. How we orient ourselves in church has meaning. It says something that these leaders care about this. More importantly, the example highlights the importance of being gracious and giving our fellow pilgrims the benefit of the doubt as they  thoughtfully live out their faith and calling.

My notes on this section conclude with an excellent point made by Jones. He said that theology has always been a conversation. He talked about contextualization (an idea that N.T. Wright, unfortunately, derided in his lecture), and said the gospel has always been fully incarnated in a cultural context, which is true.

Next came the Q&A:

Becky Garrison from the Wittenberg Door was in attendance, and mentioned Tall Skinny Kiwi as a chronicler of what is going on with emergent. Most readers probably already knew this; I only knew that the blog is popular.

In response to a question that I didn’t write down, Jones said that emergents are not trying to convert other Christians to their way of thinking, but that for a lot of people, emergent is their last shot at organized Christianity.

He talked about sharing a meal with Tony Campolo at which Campolo had advised him to resist the pressure to emerge into something because that’s when Jones will start “working for the man.” Campolo advised him to keep pushing the boundaries for as long as he can.

Now, this statement gets at what I grapple with re. emergent. I’ve lived organic innovation 30 years down the road, and have been flattened by what organic can morph into when it, in fact, becomes institutionalized, while simultaneously denouncing bureaucracy. 

I think Campolo sounds a wise warning. Ten years of deconstructing a philosophical framework that has dominated Christian thought for a couple hundred years is not a long time. They could keep on questioning indefinitely, although I suspect such an endeavor would eventually wear most people out. However, it seems to me—as both a writer and book editor acquainted with the tensions between markets, thinkers, and publishers—that the emergents are already “answering to the man” to some degree, at least the ones who are published authors, conference organizers, speakers, etc. Do they have their own t-shirts yet?

So, while I gladly embrace the idea of an emerging faith, I think emergent’s day will, like so many others, pass, and its leaders will have to figure out what it means to hold a moment in their hands that was unique to their time. I, for one, am grateful for the emergent contribution and for the rigorous critique of it. The conversation assures me that our faith is both vital and dynamic.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]


Gaslamp Musician

San Diego is unique among cities I’ve visited; the air is soft rather than kinetic. Nothing jars (at least in daylight), save perhaps the thick homeless population downtown. These aren’t the cleaned-up homeless of Mustard Seed Ranch, but gritty street sleeper types. I paid the gentleman in this photo $5 for the privilege of taking his picture. When I dropped my bill in his hat, he asked me out, so I don’t feel like I exploited him. In fact, I wonder if he exploited me, given the fact that he managed to blow enough air into a saxophone to play entire songs despite the tubes and tank …

Because the atmosphere is so calm in this border town, it was a great place to ponder the weighty ideas I grappled with at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

My first day began with a reprimand from a stodgy old man in a suit and spit-shined shoes. He objected to my cushiony red, open-toed sandals and blue jeans. I could have been offended (Miss Manners would say that his rudeness was a worse breach of etiquette than my inappropriate dress), but I played along, and even commiserated with him about the general decline of formality in American culture, citing dapper novelist Tom Wolfe, who, I believe, wrote about this very subject a few years ago for The New York Times.

I was relieved to see Scot McKnight wearing his brand new blue jeans at the session about the emergents. Or was this simply another indication of the decline of rigorous thinking as Mr. Suit suggested? After all, on Sunday, N.T. Wright dismissed the postmoderns as “fluffy.”

The discussion between McKnight, Tony Jones and Diana Butler Bass was more helpful to me in understanding what emerging/emergent is all about than anything I’ve read thus far, which, admittedly, isn’t much. (I’ll detail the session in a separate post tommorrow.) Here I’d like to note that McKnight attends Willow Creek Community Church and Butler Bass is a liberal Episcopalian. As Jones described it, each has one foot in emergent and one foot in their respective communities. Having spoken to Butler Bass after the session, I suspect she might frame her involvement with emergent differently.

Jones said he had grown up in a combination mainline/Young Life congregation and was unaware of the tensions between evangelicals and the mainline until he went to college. Jones credited Leadership Network for snatching not only him and other emergent leaders out of obscurity, but Rick Warren and Bill Hybels before them. So what exactly is Leadership Network and who funds it? Briefly, it’s a parachurch organization founded in 1984 to “identify, connect and help high-capacity Christian leaders multiply their impact” with the support of corporate “Alliance Partners.” One wonders about this interplay of corporate and sacred at the forefront of contemporary evangelical/emergent culture. Maybe it’s nothing; I suspect it’s something, especially since Jones mentioned book publishers’ role in emergent’s ascendance.

The session was moderated by Keith Matthews of Azusa Pacific University. I had interviewed Matthews for my profile of Dallas Willard, but that interview was cut from the final draft. Matthews was assistant pastor to Brian McLaren in McLaren’s early days of ministry and said in his introduction to the panel discussion that he has a “love/hate relationship” with emergent. I asked him about this in the Q&A. He mentioned Dallas Willard as his mentor and repeated what Dallas had said to me a couple weeks ago: some things needed deconstructing–like Modernism, but at some point one must reconstruct. Matthews thinks the emergents are still somewhat stuck in deconstruction.  To be fair, Jones called emergent a safety net for those who are about to abandon organized religion altogether. Tommorrow, a full outline, including what I am titling Jones’ “Theology of the Couch.”

This theme of deconstructing modernisms and reconstructing something in their place transcended the sessions I attended. In this post I’d like to make some observations about this overarching idea and briefly describe my sensory perception of the conference. In the next few days, I’ll post highlights from some of the individual sessions.

After the emergent panel, I attended a plenary session with Tavis Smiley. The contrast was striking. Jones had mentioned that 85-95 percent of those who preach in both evangelical and mainline churches are white men. At his church, the voice of the white male preacher is not amplified above the rest. I didn’t get how this works, but some technique is employed so that everyone can hear the person who actually does the talking without them talking over congregants. At the “Covenant with Black America” session, standing ovations for black men and women were generous. First for the incoming president of AAR, a black woman, next for PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, whose book, The Covenant with Black America, was the first non-fiction book by a black-owned publisher to top The New York Times bestseller list, then for Cornel West, whom Smiley described as the leading public intellectual of our time, and for a scholar who is about to be promoted to department chair in his field at Princeton. These mostly African Americans were celebrating the haphazard deconstruction of a racialized society and the equally haphazard and lurching reconstruction of one that Smiley hopes will run on love.

After this enthusiastic event, I attended a session called “Radical Life Extension: Implications for Eschatological Visions of the Religions.” Forget deconstruction; Aubrey de Grey, a biologist with The Methuselah Foundation,  is a zealot and self-proclaimed humanitarian who believes human beings will eventually live into the 4 digits. Like all utopians, he gives little credance to the possibilities for his dream to morph into a nighmare. The world he would like to reconstruct is one where Scientism does in fact rule, even if, as he suggested, aging has no evolutionary purpose. Human beings are ultimately fair and rational in de Grey’s utopia, as evidenced by the way we allocate funds for education. They will, therefore, allocate life-extending interventions judiciously.   : )

de Grey was no advertisement for his work. At 44 years old, he said he runs and thinks as fast as he did when he was 24, but his long hair is greying, his eyes are sunken in with dark circles beneath them, and his abdomen length beard did nothing to advance the picture of youth and vitality that he is selling. I snuck out before the discussion of eschatology.

I wandered the Gaslamp District for a bit and ate a platter of Baja lobster taco, burrito, and chowder. Then it was on to a reception for journalists. There I met a documentarian from the BBC, the news editor of The Christian Century and his lovely wife, a freelancer for Religion News Service, a couple of award winners for in-depth religion reporting from an Ottowa newspaper, and one PR person who promised to help me win the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship that I was turned down for earlier this year.

I left my apartment at 5:30 am and crawled into bed exhausted sometime after 11pm.

Yesterday I left home at 7am and made it to San Diego in an hour. My day began much more pleasantly the second time around, with a discussion of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor‘s book, A Secular Age. I had this session on my agenda, but my new best friend, the PR guy, had said I shouldn’t miss it, so I scratched the other possibilites off my schedule. Lo and behold, Mr. PR was thanked in the introductory remarks because AAR has been trying to get Taylor to speak for years, and he was responsible. If he can accomplish that, perhaps he can indeed help me with the fellowship. One never knows.

Taylor was less interesting than those gently critiquing his book, but he humbly conceded their points about the 800+ page tome. The tightly packed room made the session more challenging physically than any other event. The talks were worth enduring physical discomfort however. Here again Modernism and Atheism were eloquently deconstructed, while “Cosmopolitanism” was offered as an alternative to any particular religious perspective. I’ll expound on this theme later in the week.

After the end of the Q&A was announced, the moderator pointed unexpectedly to the back of the room, where Cornel West boomed out his question with poetic force. He wanted to know if Taylor had ever been tempted to abandon faith as a member of the Academy. Taylor reiterated something Dallas Willard had said when I interviewed him two years ago. Taylor said that when he and a friend arrived at Oxford or Cambridge, I can’t recall which, many years ago, they lamented together the philosophical junk that was being peddled. The friend was eventually converted and became a renowned analytic philosopher, but Taylor decided that his only choices were to either leave philosophy or confront the ideas that he found vacuous. He remains a practicing Catholic and a philosopher. John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, later told me he plans to write something on Taylor’s book for B&C. While he likes the man, he has problems with the book.

Next I sat in on a session called “Black Theology: New Times, New Methods” at which a name came up that I had heard from Tavis Smiley: James Cone is apparently the dean of Black Theology and any black pastor who doesn’t know this should, according to a panelist from Fuller Seminary, be ashamed of themselves. What needs to be desconstructed, according to these brilliant minds, is white, European modernist Christian theology, to be replaced by one that relies on the earliest texts, which are African. Indeed, IVP was advertising a book called How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas Oden. I had gone to this session hoping to gain some understanding about the unique contributions of African American theologians to the community of faith, but even the elder-statesman of the panel said there really was nothing new in what was said by the participants. They said it brilliantly however. The high proportion of black attendees at the conference made me wonder if they are overrepresented in religious studies and underrepresented in other fields, or if black cultural identity has been so interwoven with faith that it makes what N.T. Wright later said about God’s absence from public life sound almost foolish, or at least neglectful re. civil rights movements here and elsewhere.

Wright made me glad to be an Anglican, and believe me, I’m not always sure what I’m doing as an Anglican. It seems to be the best available option, however. My particular congregation is politically conservative, it being located in Newport Beach and all. I am not a conservative. I’m a moderate, as evidenced by my broadly pro-life views on immigration, racial justice, embryo issues, etc. So it was good to hear Wright critique the religious right in his talk “God in Public?” He called it a fumbling attempt to bring God back into public life. The White House apparently doesn’t like this assessment and let him know it.

Wright also talked about deconstructing Modernism, which by the way, isn’t a monolithic thing. He suggested, with audible relief, that we are moving into post-postmodernism, or need to. He suggested a radical kingdom theology for public engagement based on the gospels (again reminiscient of Willard), and advocated a trajectory entirely separate from the Fundamentalist/Secularist deathmatch. This session was the most packed of any I attended. When I got up to leave during the Q&A, I literally had to climb over people who were jammed into the aisles.

It was at this lecture that I ran into both John Wilson and Ted Olsen of CT. Ted was one of those unlucky floor dwellers that I waded past on my way out.

Then it was off to the session I had most been looking forward to, but which was the least interesting. It was called “Evangelicals and Southern California: Factors Shaping Evangelical Identity.” I had thought this discussion was going to be about how the culture of Southern California shapes evangelicalism nationally—a topic that greatly interests me, but instead it was about factors that shape SoCal evangelicalism. There were only two panelists. Daniel Rodriguez, of Pepperdine University, gave a paper on Hispanic ministry that could have come out of the Calvary Chapel play book. He studied two SoCal church networks: Victory Outreach and Praise Chapel, both of which started around the time Calvary Chapel did, but were not outgrowths of it. The other paper, if one can believe this, is the subject of a bright young scholar’s doctoral dissertation on the theology of sports ministries like Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The salient point in her talk was that, in the case of Athletes in Action at least, the theology appears to have been influenced by the writings of … are you ready? Arnold Schwarzenegger, and perhaps, as one audience member suggested, Maharashi somebody.

I intended to wrap my evening up at an InterVarsity Press reception, at which Alistair McGrath was scheduled to speak. It was postponed for 90 minutes and I was famished so I crashed the Yale University reception, surmising that the Yalies would have the best food. Smart girl. I ate sushi, brie quiches, rich blue cheese on date nut bread, accompanied by a few sips of Cabernet.

Afterwards, I met an evangelical Lutheran scholar from Hungary who had, oddly enough, connections to both my past and my present. She has friends who attend a Calvary Chapel in Budapest, and had been there to hear Chuck Smith. She wanted to know if there was a thelogical basis for the way Communion was served at the service she attended. The elements were simply placed on the stage with little commentary and no pastoral interaction. I told her this is possible because low-church Protestants tend to believe in the priesthood of all believers. She also happened to have become acquainted with, I think she said, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. She described sharing a cozy dinner with this eminent member of the clergy, at which he spewed profanity-laced vitriole at my church.

The IVP reception included some exquisite chocolate desserts, but McGrath had canceled and I was conflicted between the engaging replacement topic, “The Legacy of John Paul II” and a photography presentation. The thought of leaving the conference without attending a session on the Arts was anathema to me, so I ditched the pope.

In the exhibit hall, there was a stunning photograph of a transgendered sex worker. Sounds out there, I know, but I hoped to see the rest of the series. It was a grand way to end the conference. Golden States of Grace is a traveling exhibit that looks at the spiritual lives of marginalized communities. The artist’s work deconstructs assumptions about those lives and inspires compassion and respect for the humanity of every person created in God’s image.

You might notice that I generally did not choose sessions dealing with doctrinal minutiae, but instead went for big picture themes. Not only does doctrinal minutiae bore me silly, but I’m a journalist who wants to understand our world and where it’s going from the perspective of a variety of voices. In the end, N.T. Wright resonated with me the most, while a couple of African American Phd. candidates from Duke University impressed me the most. I’ll outline Wright’s talk in a couple days. He made me feel safe in my new Anglican identity and for that I’m grateful.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]


When I read Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Bella, I assumed it was reflexively negative because of the movie’s POV. He dismissed it as “a saccharine trifle,” “a mediocre cup of mush,” and, more generously wrote, “nothing — not even significant plot glitches and inconsistencies — is allowed to get in the way of its bear-hugging embrace of sweetness and light.” 

Then I read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s review in CT and wondered if hers was obligingly positive for the same reason. She points out some weaknesses, but finds things to praise—the interesting scenery, the way “time is layered.” She concludes, “I can see why the film won a standing ovation and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. If Bella affects others the way it did me, that’s only the first in a long line of awards that are coming its way.”

I saw the film Thursday afternoon, by myself. Movie-going alone on a weekday afternoon is not something that I normally do, but as I identified in unexpected ways with the story, I was glad I’d chosen the time and place I had. I left the theater in tears, for reasons I’d guess would be unique to women who’ve faced unplanned pregnancies.

First let me say that I loved the richly textured atmosphere created by the Mexican family that embraces the unwed mother, for it is within the context of loving families that women and their children are nurtured best, and the warmth of this family wraps around the lonely woman. But the story was a bit contrived. The final heroic scene, for instance, is framed by a sign that says Lifeguard on Duty. There’s also too much unlikely intersection, kind of like Crash without the action. (Then again, people who’ve survived tragedy, as the protagonist has, often see life more clearly.) The story lopes along so slowly that I found myself getting impatient, and I generally prefer dialogue driven movies to frenetic adventure tales.  

Mathewes-Green thought the lead actress, Tammy Blanchard’s performance “graceful,” but I found the actress unconvincing. She didn’t inhabit the anguish of her situation the way a more seasoned actress might have, and, more importantly, the way an unemployed, uneducated, unwed pregnant woman would. The male lead, Eduardo Verástegui, reminded me of Jim Caviezel, a pretty boy actor who depends too much on the intensity of his own earnest gaze. Verastegui has a sweetness about him, however, that Caviezel lacks.

Mathewes-Green outlines the actor’s history: “Verástegui is an interesting character in his own right. For years he was a hugely successful soap opera star and singer, ‘the Brad Pitt of Mexico.’ But after experiencing a deeper commitment to his Roman Catholic faith, Verástegui began to regret his part in reinforcing adulterous ‘Latin lover’ stereotypes. In a speech this past May to the annual pro-life Rose Dinner in Ottawa, Verástegui said that some of his earlier work had sent messages that are “poisoning society.” He went on, ‘It broke my heart. I realized that I was offending God.’ He summed up, ‘I wasn’t born to be famous or rich. I was born to know and love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.‘ ”

Words spoken with the conviction of someone who’s been to the heights and found them wanting. How could a fellow pilgrim not root for him?

The movie coincided with my experience in more ways than are obvious. Nina finds out she is pregnant and her friend Jose’ enters her dilemma, finds purpose in it and shows her another way to go. They spend time with his family and at the beach. This is my story. I ran into the guy I married on the day I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn child. We went to the beach and talked about my predicament. Like Nina, I said I was not ready to be anyone’s parent. Abortion was never an option for me, but the guy predicted rightly that I would keep my baby. After my baby was born, we spent a lot of time together surrounded by my loving family.

In both my own and Nina’s situation a man comes to the rescue (although the movie doesn’t end as one might expect). Abortion reinforces male bad behavior, as I alluded to in “A Laughing Child in Exchange for Sin.” It is right and good that men come to the rescue of women and children. This element of the film is a good metaphor for what ought to happen in society. It would be wonderful if chivalry re-emerged as a reigning value, if men really did lead by putting the well-being of women and children before their own lusts, and/or, absent that, if they atoned for their sins (as Jose’ does in this film) by doing a better job of nurturing the single-parent families within their communities.

I could write a book about how the circumstances of of my son’s birth impacted my family, each of us in unique and personal ways that I won’t discuss here. 

The cost of Nina’s pregnancy is merely hinted at in this film. It is a sweet movie, with a bit too much message and too little of the mess of real life. I wish it had been grittier, but it is a sweet story, and we need those, don’t we? They inspire us to live beyond ourselves. They remind us of God’s tender grace.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved]

Pigtail Ordinances at Doheny

I didn’t know the following bit of history when I attended a lecture this week at USC’s Doheny Library:

“In 1892, Edward Laurence Doheny Sr. struck oil in Los Angeles, setting off a major land boom. The Dohenys built a financial empire based upon their success in the oil-producing business. Their son, Edward L. “Ned” Doheny Jr., studied at USC and remained involved in the university after his graduation in 1916. Tragically, he was murdered at his home in Beverly Hills in February 1929. As a memorial to their son, the Dohenys contributed the entire $1.1 million needed to build the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Libraryand actively participated in the design and construction of the facility.

In 1930, the president of USC, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, in conjunction with the Doheny family, settled on the Boston firm of Cram and Ferguson to design the library. Ralph Adams Cram, an expert in Gothic church architecture, believed the primary goal in the design of institutions of higher learning was to instill in visitors a sense of reverence for a building’s purpose. …”

No wonder it’s such a stunning landmark. A parent’s memorial to their child would inspire incomparable passion. The Intellectual Commons where this lecture took place is a graceful room bordered on three sides with richly detailed and arched Mahogany windows. Gold and rust leaves shimmered in the sunlight just beyond the lectern. It almost felt like New England. If you ever have opportunity to visit USC, don’t miss this library and the Hoos Library of Philosophy in Mudd Hall. Two stunning buildings inspired by places of Christian worship. How far we’ve fallen!

The lecture I attended was the first in a year-long series called “Opportunities and Challenges of Immigrant Integration.” Michael Olivas, a highly accomplished Mexican-American (he made this distinction several times) professor at the University of Houston Law Center gave the inaugural speech. It was titled, “The Return of Pigtail Ordinances: Immigration-Related State and Local Ordinances—Preemption, Prejudice, and the Proper Role for Law Enforcement.”

The title comes from a 1870s “anti-pigtail” law aimed at Chinese immigrants and nicely hints at his contention that immigration ordinances are primarily motivated by racial bias. He noted several cases to demonstrate his point. For example, four passport-less Latino teenagers from Arizonawon a trip to Buffalo, NY in a national robotics competition and decided to cross the border at Niagara Falls to see the sights from the Canadian side. (Anyone who’s been there knows this was a very smart move.) The students were denied re-entry because they “looked” like illegals. Conversely, Andrew Speaker, the Caucasian groom with a drug-resistant strain of TB who flew into Canada when barred from re-entering the United States, rented a car, was identified on a watch list and allowed to cross because the Customs and Border officer said he “didn’t appear sick.”

Olivas also listed a number of local ordinances that smack of bias. In Clinton, Georgia, the mayor declared only the “American” sports of baseball and football as fit for the city’s parks, thus outlawing soccer, a Latino favorite.  He noted a rise in municipalities failing to provide municipal services in “undocumented” areas, along with “harsh” school, rental and English-only ordinances. He believes the real target of these ordinances is “birthright citizenship.” Americans do not want Latinos entering the country illegally and giving birth to children who automatically gain citizenship. He says restrictionists surmise that if they remove parents, the children will go too.

He contends that community policing is impeded when immigration law becomes a responsibility of local law enforcement. On the issue of giving undocumented migrants driver’s licenses, he says invisible drivers are unaccountable and often abandon accident scenes. I’ve seen it on SoCal’s freeways.

Olivas—who, like all of us, affirms the need for secure borders—believes that ultimately city insurance carriers will no longer pay to defend cases that municipalities know they can’t win. Indeed, he says not a single restrictive ordinance has been held constitutional by a higher court.  “The adults simply have to take over on this,” he argues, and, absent political progress, insurers will be the adults who act. Olivas believes statutes that extend benefits to the undocumented will continue to be upheld while those that restrict them will be struck down.

Before I moved to Southern California, my perspective on undocumented migrants was pretty conservative. They shouldn’t be here; they should speak English; they should get legal and stop marching in parades with the flags of foreign nations. Then I began living among them, as they served me in businesses, kept our apartment complexes groomed, picked the fruit we eat and worshiped with us.

Living together changes everything—or ought to.

The next lecture in the series takes place on Monday, November 12. “The Poverty of the Current Immigration Debate” by David Gutierrez, UC San Diego. I’m really looking forward to the one after that, however: “Religion and Integration among New Immigrants to the United States” by Douglas Massey of Princeton University.

(Conservative readers will be happy to know that Anne Coulter, the paragon of moderate discourse, was a recent lecturer at USC and received a favorable write-up in the campus paper by a Republican student.)

Educate yourself, before you react:

Pew Hispanic Center provides accurate data on the lives and attitudes of undocumented migrants.

Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform is a faith-based coalition with rational goals.

In my CT article, A Delicate Hospitality, those who minister to and among the undocumented speak.

Kate and Me on Immigration is my response to National Review columnist Kathrine-Jean Lopez on this issue.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]

Kate and Me on Immigration

Kathryn Jean Lopez:

Christine A. Scheller:

[Orange County Register, April 2006]

Responding to my Christianity Today article, “A Delicate Hospitality,” Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote that the attitude I encountered at a meeting of Hispanic evangelical pastors in southern California was “almost completely accommodating to lawbreaking.” That’s one way to look at it. The “Don’t ask; don’t tell” approach of the pastors at that meeting and elsewhere is more complex than Lopez makes out, and I think she knows it.

In an article entitled “Borderlands Praxis: The Immigrant Experience in Latino Pentecostal Churches,” which appeared in the September 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Notre Dame doctoral student Daniel Ramirez traced the history of Mexican Pentecostal “solidarity” in the U.S./Mexico borderlands through five decades, beginning with the Azusa Street Revival of 1909. Ramirez found in Apostolic Pentecostals “a de facto biblically informed hospitality that transcended—and all but disregarded—national borders and legal status. For Apostolics and for many other Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico continued to constitute a ‘single cultural province,’ one in which people migrated (as opposed to immigrated) in search of better economic opportunities but not necessarily different social arrangements.” He concluded, “When U.S. law would capriciously raise barriers to divide people historically united through blood, language, music, cuisine, hardship, and faith, a higher law … called for a social ethic built on brother and sisterhood and charity toward the sojourner, with scant regard for de jure distinctions.” Sociologist Julian Samora evaluated the United States’ fluctuating immigration policy covering the late 1800s until 1971 in Los Mojados: The Wetback Story, published by University of Notre Dame Press. He said the evolution of policy toward our neighbors to the south “may best be understood as an extensive farm labor program—an efficient policy representing a consistent desire for Mexicans as laborers rather than as settlers.”

Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a historian at Azusa Pacific University in Pasadena, California, explains that white evangelicals are socialized around piety, law, organization, and individualism instead of around the “communitarian effort of survival” that is common among Hispanic immigrants. She says Hispanic pastors generally don’t preach about the immigration issue at all: “It doesn’t come up either as being illegal, terrible, and sinful, and it doesn’t come up either as a communal response to reform laws.”

Wiley Drake, pastor of multiethnic First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, models the approach Lopez prefers. Drake once sponsored an undocumented Guatemalan pastor in the process of becoming a United States citizen—after confronting him about the sinfulness of his illegal status. He says, “Real help is making them legal.” If only it were that easy. According to Anita Calvillo, owner of United Immigration Services in Santa Ana, Mexico is assigned the same number of entry slots as say, Norway, or any other country—making it impossible for most Mexicans to ever enter the country legally.

Coincidentally, I met Drake at a meeting of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), where Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minutemen Project, was a featured guest. Gilchrist said he hoped churches aren’t ministering to illegals “at all,” and amidst the propaganda and conspiracy theorizing at the meeting, one audience member let the word “cockroach” slip to describe unauthorized Mexicans. Drake got involved with CCIR after returning to southern California from a stint on the East coast. He says he was surprised to find that Buena Park had become “heavily Hispanic.” He adds, “Most of the gang bangers, most of the lawbreakers, were illegal immigrants.” Sgt. Gary Worrall, the media relations representative of the Buena Park police department, says Drake’s claim is both debatable and unverifiable. (To be fair, I don’t know another pastor who houses the homeless on church grounds, as Drake does.)

White evangelicals have been largely silent on this humanitarian issue because we resist antinomianism and because we would like those who violate immigration law to view it from our individualistic, pietistic perspective. Perhaps because I am relatively new to a county where scores of my “pro-life” brethren drive luxury cars, wear $200 jeans, and have the chutzpa and wherewithal to indulge in all manner of flesh preservation, I find it obscene to point out the splinter in our poor brothers’ eyes—especially when we employ them to do our household chores. It causes me to shudder, in fact, to think how God must view the richest “Christian” nation on earth walling off its borders to the poor.