CT & Teddy: What the Hell Man?!! by Gabriel G. Scheller

What the Hell Man?!!

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Dialogue Replay

CT: What the hell, man?!!

Teddy: Sorry. … Your ears are just so weird! How did they get like that?

CT: The same way you got to be a jackass. I was born that way.

[©GGS circa 2007, all rights reserved.] 

CT & Teddy: End Rabbicide! by Gabriel G. Scheller

End Rabbicide!

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Dialogue Replay

CT: End Rabbicide! … Thousands are dying each day! … Take a Stand! … Don’t you want to end Rabbicide?

Teddy: G*d, why are you bunnies always complaining?

CT: Why? Why?! Because we are being used for lab tests! Because this … your misalogist buerocrasy is killing my people for lucky key chains!

Teddy: You have weird ears.

[©GGS circa 2007, all rights reserved.] 

CT and Teddy: So You Wanna Be, Like, Bugs …? by Gabriel G. Scheller

So, You wanna be, like, Bugs ...?

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Dialogue Replay

Teddy: Hey C.T.

C.T.: Oh, hey Teddy, wassup!

Teddy: Nothin’ man. Look, we wanted you for the class film. You in?

C.T.: O, for sure Dude! I have like 5 years of acting training & been on some commercials. … Do you want me as co-star or lead maybe?

Teddy: Um, we were thinking like the Trix Rabbit or the Easter Bunny.

C.T.: Okay, I’m really diverse though. I could play any part.

Teddy: So you wanna be like Bugs or Peter Cottontail or something?

[©GGS circa 2007, all rights reserved.]  

Mystery Creation by Gabriel G. Scheller

Teen Challenge

This photo was taken at Trinity Bible Church’s annual Teen Tournament, which pitted regional youth groups against one another in various contests. Our team, which I chaperoned alone in defiance of all good judgment, was from Calvary Chapel Four Winds of Redbank, NJ. Gabe sliced his finger with a box cutter within moments of our arrival, sending me into crisis management mode and us to the emergency room midway through the day. We got back in time for him to win the Toilet Bowl Derby. Can anyone tell from this photo what his mystery creation was? It’s a classic. I’ll send a pound of incomparable See’s chocolate to the first person who posts the right answer.  

Update 5pm pst: We have a winner! C.H. correctly guessed that Gabe’s creation is the silver jacket. She surmised aluminum foil, but in fact it was made entirely of duct tape. A true construction family son!

Grieving a Suicide

 

Wheaton College professor John Walford gave a passionate testimony about his brushes with suicide at a recent Wheaton chapel service. There have been three recent alumni suicides in the past year, and the university is rightly concerned about a trend that reflects an alarming three-fold increase in youth suicide. 

While I commend both the university in its desire to address the issue with a strong exhortation and Dr. Walford for his transparency, the message fell short in that it lacks the expert advice that might have provided students with consolation, deeper understanding and tangible help.

Today I’d like to commend to you InterVarsity Press editor and Christianity Today columnist Al Hsu’s excellent book, Grieving a Suicide. I met Al in February at the National Pastors’ Convention and noticed this book on a display table. After Gabe’s death and before we left for the services in New Jersey, I asked him to send me a copy. It was waiting for me when we returned to California. I’m reading it for the second time and ordered 10 more copies for family and friends. (I received the shipment yesterday and will distribute the books forthwith.)

Al’s book is dedicated to his father, Terry Tsai-Yuan Hsu, an accomplished electrical engineer who took his own life after a debilitating stroke. Al brings to the topic both a survivor’s understanding and good scholarship.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • When Suicide Strikes—Shock, Turmoil, Lament, Relinquishment and Remembrance
  • The Lingering Questions—Why Did this Happen? Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin? Where is God When it Hurts?
  • Life after Suicide—The Spirituality of Grief, The Healing Community, The Lessons of Suicide.

 

In Part I, we learn that “the grief that suicide survivors experience is described by psychologists as ‘complicated grief.’ … Those of us who experience complicated bereavement are actually grappling with two realities, grief and trauma. Grief is normal; trauma is not. The combination of circumstances is like a vicious one-two punch. We are grieving the death of a loved one, and we are reeling from the trauma of suicide. The first is difficult enough; the second may seem unbearable.”

Al categorizes the resultant turmoil as follows:

  1. Shock, disbelief and numbness–“‘The immediate response to suicide is total disbelief,’ writes a suicide survivor. ‘The act is so incomprehensible that we enter into a state where we feel unreal and disconnected.'”
  2. Distraction—“Friends of survivors may need an extra measure of patience … traumatic grief has caused an inability to focus.”
  3. Sorrow and Despair—“Survivors often fall into a state of melancholy and depression … In some ways we may unconsciously identify with the hopelessness that precipitated our loved one’s death.”
  4. Rejection and Abandonment—“Suicide feels like a total dismissal, the cruelest possible way a person could tell us that they are leaving us behind … So we feel abandoned. Our sense of self-worth is crippled. All our doubts and insecurities are magnified a hundred-fold.”
  5. Failure—“Feelings of failure may surface any time a survivor had a caretaking role … Our feelings of regret and guilt may seem overwhelming, but they eventually subside as we realize the death was not our fault.”
  6. Shame—“Beyond the combination of normal grief and traumatic grief, survivors of suicide suffer an additional insult to injury—the societal stigma that surrounds suicide.”
  7. Anger, Rage and Hatred—“We may hate our loved one for doing this to our loved one. We grieve the suicide and rage against him simultaneously.”
  8. Paralysis—“A simple phone call had triggered an anxiety-filled reaction.”
  9. Sleeplessness—“We lie awake, with our thoughts flying in all directions.”
  10. Relief–“About half of suicides are at least somewhat expected due to ongoing depression or patterns of self-destructive behavior. In our sadness, we are shocked to discover that we are glad it’s all over.”
  11. Self-destructive thoughts and feelings—“One danger of being a suicide survivor is the possibility of falling into suicidal despair.”

In the chapter from Part II on remembrance, Al offers this helpful advice:

“Because of the corrosive, personality-altering nature of suicidal depression, ‘by the time suicide occurs, those who kill themselves may resemble only slightly children or spouses once greatly loved and enjoyed for their company.’ The days, weeks and years following a suicide may be a time of gradually recovering the memories of our loved one, of discovering true and lasting remembrances of their life.”

The chapter I have most marked up is the Why chapter. From our first conversation at 5:00 in the morning after Gabe died, Aaron Kheriaty gently but firmly instructed us that the suicide will never make sense. And yet we try …

Al writes, “We must make a distinction between causes and triggers. Suicide might be triggered by divorce or the loss of a job, but those may not be the actual causes … Suicidal desires run much deeper, and if one event does not trigger the suicide, another might.”

Nonetheless there are some defining characteristics:

  1. Medical and biological factors—“Studies show that about two-thirds of suicides had suffered from clinical depression or had a history of chronic mental illness.”
  2. Psychological factors—“Psychiatrist Karl Menninger suggested that suicides have three interrelated and unconscious dimensions: a wish to kill (the self), due to some degree of self-hatred; a wish to die, arising out of a sense of hopelessness; and a wish to be killed, coming from a sense of guilt. …  The agony of depression is so great that the suicide musters the resolve to do away with the pain, at the expense of his or her own life.”
  3. Sociological factors—“In the last quarter-century, society has tilted toward the individual rather than the communal … The glue that holds communities and families together is disappearing … [Suicide] rates among the young, more socially alienated generations have tripled … The more socially isolated we become, the higher our risk.”

Al mentions other factors like suicide as philosophical protest, the higher tendency toward depression/suicide in those with artistic temperaments, suicide because of grief (eg. 9/11 survivors) and suicide as atonement.

He says we may be asking the why question when what we really want to know is How could they do this to me?  For him, it is helpful to realize that his father “did what he did to end his pain, not to cause pain for me.” 

Each life and death is both common and unique. Dr. Walford’s experience with the temptation toward suicide sounds familiar and yet very different from Gabe’s. He communicated it in his chapel message through the lens of spiritual battle. That is one lens. The context of Gabriel’s death reads to me like a perfect storm of contributing factors. I see his suicide through a compound lens.

Walford chose a route to suicide that allowed him the opportunity to come to his senses. Gabe did not. Is one man more spiritual than the other because of method or outcome? I think not.

In Part III of Grieving a Suicide, Al talks about life after suicide. In the chapter on the healing community, he gives good advice on the language we use to describe suicide. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide” as if the victim were a criminal, we can say they died by suicide or they took their own life.

The final chapter offers five lessons we can learn from suicide:

  1. Suicide reminds us that we live in a fallen world.
  2. Suicide teaches us that life is uncertain.
  3. Suicide reminds us of our mortality.
  4. Suicide shows us the interconnectedness of humanity. Al was surprised to discover how well regarded his father was by his peers and what a profound impact his good gifts had on them. He and his family were comforted by the outpouring of support they received. We’ve had these experiences as well.
  5. Suicide demonstrates the necessity of hope. Amen and amen.

Our family has been mercifully spared much insensitivity and ignorance in the wake of this tragedy. I can’t imagine going through this without the wise counsel of those who’ve walked the road before. Grieving a Suicide is a book I don’t ever want to recommend again because doing so would mean someone else enduring this type of senseless tragedy. And yet, a suicide occurs every 17 minutes in the United States.

If you are a pastor or lay minister, prepare yourself with knowledge before you try to minister to the grieving and confused. This book will help you do that; it includes a helpful appendix of suicide prevention/survival resources. If you are a survivor, it will be a balm to your soul.

Thanks Al!

[photo ©cas 2007: sunrise at Mustard Seed Ranch, Warner Springs, CA]

NPC Wrap UP

 

The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]

Day 2-3: NPC

I missed Dan Kimball‘s session on Tuesday. Driving down the 5 freeway, through the rugged section of coast that is Camp Pendleton, traffic stopped short—something that poses a particular challenge for someone driving a stick shift with a cup of coffee in her hand. Two border patrol cars flew past me in the left shoulder, a couple helicopters seemed to be circling, then came the ambulances. The crawl was on.

I arrived in time for lunch, an hour or so before my interview with Kimball, or so I thought. Wandering over to the food court at the outdoor mall adjacent to the hotel, I saw a former colleague who I really didn’t want to see. I did what any upstanding Christian would do. I avoided him at all costs and had lunch with a nice Presbyterian pastor on the far side of the food court. The pastor’s son just became a Baptist. We’re all a-mingling now, aren’t we?

As I was lingering in conversation, Leslie Speyers, a gracious publicist from Zondervan, was looking for me because I was supposed to be, not lunching with a Presbyterian, but interviewing Kimball. Fortunately, the snafu worked to his benefit and we got together later in the afternoon. I took the extra time to dig a little deeper into his book, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. As I was reading, I was wondering what could possibly be controversial about this guy. He calls himself a fundamentalist I believe (I gave the book away so I can’t double-check right now), and appropriately defines the term. I’m realizing more and more that sometimes new labels are stuck on incremental changes in that which is normative.

Dan is a pastor rather than a pontificator. I’ve heard some pontification this week; not much, but a bit of it. He is a man in the trenches, and seems like he can’t be bothered with the controversies that distract others. Problem is, the distractors find him. He mentioned a random encounter with a local “brother” who told him he and his church are praying for Dan’s ministry to fail. Sigh.

After my interview with Dan, I caught the tail end of a workshop called “Redefining Power: Finding Our Place in a Global Church.” Very interesting discussion about how to make cross-cultural partnerships healthier and more effective. An African named D. Zac Niringiye wasted no time telling us Americans to repent of our greed. He thinks it is very difficult to be an American and a Christian, and said a lot of so-called partnerships are really sponsorships in which both parties manipulate each other. The solution is confession of sin.

Novel idea.

Niringiye wasn’t ranting against American imperialism, just speaking the truth in love to an American audience. A Philippine speaker named Athena Gorospe likewise advised US missionaries to repent of their manifest destiny paradigm, which she says communicates the message that the Anglo-Saxon race is superior.

Essentially, I heard that we Americans need to get off our high horse and humbly partner with the global church. At the end of the session, the moderator, Mark Labberton, especially thanked a Zondervan vice president, saying that without his support the session would not have happened. What does that tell you?

One speaker I especially wanted to hear was Rwandan bishop John Rucyahana. I have done so twice now and interviewed him yesterday. I wanted to know what the suffering church has to teach us; what critique it offers. Rucyahana gave a rousing sermon and personal testimony Tuesday night. He talked about wrestling with the why questions of the Rwandan genocide when he was living in a Ugandan refugee camp. God, Why did you let this happen? Why do I have no nation? etc.

His ministry in Uganda was so effective that the government there granted him and his family citizenship. It was immediately afterwards that God called him to go back to Rwanda and help heal his nation. He fairly exploded in praise talking about it Tuesday night, shouting, “Jesus is there!” In both sessions I attended, he told remarkable stories of reconciliation. Repentance and forgiveness are the soil in which it grows. He noted reconciliation is not “magic,” but an ongoing process with people in different stages of repentance, forgiveness, unrepetentance and unforgiveness.

As an example of the ongoing process, he talked about when a person who has been wronged avoids their offender, turning away when they see the person in the street. I thought back to my former colleague who, like a number of us, had quit his job at my former church in disgust, but then went back to work there for pragmatic reasons. When he did, I told him he was no longer a “safe” person with whom I could have a casual relationship (which is true). And now the reconciler was telling me I’m wrong to avoid him.

In our interview, I had pressed the bishop a bit by applying his principles to the Anglican split. He didn’t see it the same way, saying one can love and pray for the other side to repent, but that one cannot be reconciled to heresy. Hmmm. Maybe I’m off the hook … but only if orthopraxy matters as much as orthodoxy.

Next, I caught a couple minutes of Shane Claiborne talking about his new book Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. How could any casual observer not like this guy? My newlywed years were spent in the Philadelphia suburbs, so I have an especially soft heart toward his work there.

I snuck out of the session to see a screening of Ben Stein’s new documentary Expelled about the evolution/intelligent design debate. One would have thought it was put out by conservative evangelicals. Stein interviews premiere players in the debate, and poignantly reveals a motivating force. He is a Jew and takes viewers to a German extermination camp for the infirm. Listening to the “museum” guide’s perspective on what the Nazis did there was chilling, both for him and, one would hope, for viewers.

Zondervan hosted a lovely media reception at dusk. I was schmoozing with a senior executive of the company and didn’t even know it until he formally introduced himself to us. He recommended a movie called Once that Dave Zimmerman mentions in his latest post. (Dave, by the way, is at the New Conspirators conference promoting the book of the same name that he edited, and I assisted on.) I also had a nice chat with a producer and online editor for Krista Tippett’s NPR show, Speaking of Faith, and was gratified to know that Tippett had made similar interview choices to my own. This afternoon she will do a broadcast interview with Bishop Rucyahana and N.T. Wright, with whom I will meet tomorrow afternoon to close out the convention.

Today, I’m getting a late start down to San Diego. This afternoon, I have a meeting with an editor about a book idea. This evening Jim Wallis speaks. (There’s a disturbing must-read article about the disposal of 9/11 victims’ remains in the February issue of his magazine, Sojourners.) I may stay overnight with friends again tonight, but this time will have to refrain from staying up into the wee hours of the morning talking. I’m running on E. Empty that is.

Others are blogging the convention. Some of them are indexed here.

Correction: The speaker on evening 4 was N.T. Wright, not Jim Wallis. Wallis was interviewed before Wright spoke.

Correction #2: I checked Dan Kimball’s book; in it he says he sometimes “jokingly” refers to himself as a fundamentalist. He actually described himself to me as a mainstream evangelical. I agree.

PTSD/PTG: Two Sides of a Coin

Last week, in my Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism post, I failed to note a scholar who spoke at the Politics, Pyschology and Ethics seminar that I mentioned at the end of the post. Her name is Cheryl Koopman and she is a professor of psychiatric research at Standford University. Koopman talked about her research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here are some basic facts that I gleaned:

Koopman’s research findings were centered around the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, after which the incidence of PTSD increased dramatically in the United States, particularly in the New York metropolitan area.

PTSD is not just a disorder experienced by war veterans. It is now acknowledged that cancer victims and other trauma survivors can experience PTSD symptoms. Koopman said the nature of traumatic memory is for it to become disorganized. Often either too much or too little is recalled. It differs from narrative memory in that the past becomes indistinguishable from the present. Traumatic memory is not rational and categorical, but sensual. It consists of bodily memories. It is dissociative.

For example, watching footage of witnesses to the terrorist attacks, one can clearly see that they are in shock. PTSD victims get stuck in the shock. It is made worse by continually reliving the horror. Those who watched a lot of news coverage after 9/11 suffered more than those who didn’t. Here was the problem for our community in late 2001. TV or no TV, there was no escaping the reality for a good long time.

Three elements need to be present for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD:

  1. persistent intrusive symptoms
  2. persistent avoidance of reminders
  3. persistent increased arousal

Sleep problems are common and avoidance doesn’t work in the long run. Another finding is that earlier traumas can act as a vaccine against PTSD unless the previous traumas were also severe. For instance, both a rape victim who has been previously assaulted and one who has led a sheltered life will fare worse than a rape victim who has lived through a moderate trauma.

The bad news is that PTSD not only impacts mental and emotional health, it damages physical health. The good news is that, unlike some mental health problems, people recover from PTSD. Koopman suggested these avenues of healing:

  1. Social networks—being with people.
  2. Talking and/or writing about the trauma
  3. Symptom management: meditation, meaningful faith rituals, controlling thoughts volitionally, imagery/hypnosis

More good news is that in addition to PTSD, researchers have observed Post Traumatic Growth. Koopman noted that after 9/11, altruism increased markedly. NY Times columnist David Brooks has talked and written about this in regard to the presidential campaign. He sees 9/11 as the catalyst for our collective longing for unity and self-sacrifice.

PTSD and PTG can exist together. A person can really wish the trauma had not occured and yet be grateful for its lessons.

God in Public?

[Fuzzy San Diego, cas 2007]  

Earlier this year, the spiritual advisor to the Queen of England spoke at a fundraiser for my church’s legal defense. It was my introduction to life as an Anglican in Newport Beach. The fundraiser was held at the yacht club. Jeff and I were seated with some senior citizens, a couple of whom were downing Scotch while singing along with the worship band. A priest wearing ornate red robes stood out amidst the crowd. “Who is that?” we asked. The spiritual advisor to the queen. Ohhh.

The queen’s guy had nothing on N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in terms of crowd-hushing presence. Wright wasn’t wearing robes, but when he walked to the podium at AAR, people seemed to anticipate something profound. I’m not sure he said anything profound, but he resonated with me, partly because I’m neither a “fluffy” postmodernist nor a linear-thinking modernist, and partly, I think, because I’m from New Jersey and we like our Scotch neat. (That’s metaphor; I don’t drink Scotch.)

The Bishop said the idea of God in Public is a topic society should have been addressing for a long time. (Haven’t we been arguing about this in the United States for a couple hundred years?) In the split world of the Enlightenment, even William Wilberforce committed a faux pas by employing a biblically-based political critique in his abolitionist rhetoric. 

Wright said belief in the Bible and in the bodily resurrection of Christ are both fading, but that the rise in fundamentalism is alarming. Once again I heard that the secularist/fundamentalist dance is two opposing modernist narratives that are “running out of steam.” He described the dance as a “stunning example of missing the point.”

(Here he noted, with what sounded like disapproval, that the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature have split under criticism that their relationship was evidence of religious bias in the Academy.)

The Enlightenment dream ultimately “eats its own tail,” in Wright’s view. Reason inevitably descends into spin, which degenerates further into emotivism.

Wisdom takes a different track.

He suggested that much of evangelicalism is based on the Epistles rather than the Gospels and said this mirrors a larger problem of not knowing what the Gospels are for. He believes they provide the basis for the idea of God in Public. In the Gospels, God is reclaiming the world as his own in and through Jesus. They demonstrate what the world looks like with God running the show.

Wright said both Hitchens and Nietzsche work from the perspective of “God as tyrant,” but the coming of God into the world is the confrontation of alientating and dehumanizing tryants.

He suggested an integrated reading of the Gospels and mentioned both Luke 4 and the Sermon on the Mount. He stood the Gospels up against all comers, saying the kingdom Jesus brought was emphatically for this world, defeating both tyranny and chaos, Modernism and “fluffy” postmodernism. He said that the Gospel narrative read this way “resists deconstructionist power games.” It is, instead, the impetus for renewal and the final coming together of heaven and earth.

This is where he called the religious right a “clumsy attempt” at trying to bring God back into public life “without understanding why or how this makes sense.” (He had earlier stated that in England there is no religious right, only a religious left. He seemed to favor neither one.) He then said something about launching a “political hermaneutic of suspicion.” The Gospels, in contrast, are the story of God’s public kingdom project that summons the whole world to repentance and faith.

He quoted Psalm 2, and said the creator God reigns through order, not chaos. He mentioned Jim Wallis’ new book, but said we need a more firmly grounded Creationist order. Even corrupt order is better than chaos, in Wright’s view. He mentioned John 19, I Corinthians 2, and Colossians 2 as a biblical basis for this position. He affirmed the legitimacy of confronting corrupt leaders, saying the rulers of this age inevitably twist God-ordained authority into the satanic possibility of tryanny. However, the cross offers a paradoxical victory. It is tyranny confronted and overthrown (Romans 13).

God is a god of order, even if He has, inevitably, to judge that order.

In the New Testament, Jesus is already Lord of heaven and earth. The Spirit was given so the world would be called to account. The reign of the Spirit is demonstrated in works of justice, mercy, beauty, and through relationship.

He said we must collaborate without compromise and critique without dualism. He denounced our present “glorification of democracy,” which, in his view, stems from Enlightenment dualism. Holding governments to account demands, however, that the church is called to account as well. He suggested that we welcome both prophetic witness and reform within our communities.

Wright said, “In all kinds of ways, we are moving toward post-postmodernism.” He failed to defend this statement.

As to modernism and postmodernism, he dismissed one as boring and trivial and the other as dangerous and dehumanizing. You decide which is which. He didn’t say. I can conjure arguments either way, despite the obvious implication.

The Bishop of Durham concluded by saying we must take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, and develop a wise exegesis for the common good, while rejecting the shrill certainties of fundamentalism and the necessary nihilism of the postmodern reaction.

This is why I liked him. He sounded like a realist.

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?

Atmospherics

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.]