Benjamin Franklin on the “Church at Notre Dame”

gettyimages-89856554-612x612Franklin talks about his visit to the “church of Notre Dame” in this September 14, 1767 letter to Mary “Polly” Stevenson.

The Civilities we every where receive give us the strongest Impressions of the French Politeness. It seems to be a Point settled here universally that Strangers are to be treated with Respect, and one has just the same Deference shewn one here by being a Stranger as in England by being a Lady. The Custom House Officers at Port St. Denis, as we enter’d Paris, were about to seize 2 Doz. of excellent Bourdeaux Wine given us at Boulogne, and which we brought with us; but as soon as they found we were Strangers, it was immediately remitted on that Account. At the Church of Notre Dame, when we went to see a magnificent Illumination with Figures &c. for the deceas’d Dauphiness, we found an immense Croud who were kept out by Guards; but the Officer being told that we were Strangers from England, he immediately admitted us, accompanied and show’d us every thing. Why don’t we practise this Urbanity to Frenchmen? Why should they be allow’d to out-do us in any thing?

Today’s *Washington Post* Piece on Trump and Evangelicals

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If Pew Research is correct, Donald Trump is more popular among white evangelicals who regularly attend church and less popular among those who do not.  I tried to explain this in a piece at today’s Washington Post “Made by History” column.  Here is a taste:

Many white evangelical churchgoers now see the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade as equivalent to their call to share the Gospel with unbelievers. They subscribe to the message that the only way to live out evangelical faith in public is to vote for the candidates who will most effectively execute the 40-year-old Christian right playbook.

The movement’s message is so strong that even when pastors oppose the politicization of their religion, the message is not likely to persuade congregants. Indeed, many white evangelical pastors do not preach politics from their pulpit. Some speak boldly against the idolatrous propensity of their congregations to seek political saviors.

But these pastors cannot control the messaging their flocks imbibe after they leave church on Sunday. And a massive Christian right messaging machine targets these Americans with precision. Ministries and nonprofit organizations, driven by conservative political agendas, bombard the mailboxes, inboxes and social media feeds of ordinary evangelicals. Many of these organizations appeal to long-standing evangelical fears about cultural decline or provide selective historical evidence that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a “Christian nation,” even though this never was true.

Evangelicals filter what they hear during weekly sermons through Fox News and conservative talk radio, producing an approach to political engagement that looks more like the Republican Party than the Kingdom of God.

None of this is new. People in the pews (or in the case of evangelical megachurches, the chairs), have always been selective in how they apply their pastor’s sermons in everyday life. Evangelical Christians, from the Puritans to the present, have always mixed traditional Christian teachings with more non-Christian sources as they cultivate their religious lives. Today, however, cable television and social media expose white evangelicals to ideas that come from outside the church but that claim to be driven by Christianity at an unprecedented rate.

Read the entire piece here.

In Defense of Denominations

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Over at Religion News Service, Trish Harrison Warren argues that the sexual misconduct by former Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels should force evangelicals to rethink their commitment to denominations.  Here is a taste of her piece “Willow Creek’s crash shows why denominations still matter“:

Denominations, however imperfect, often have more robust accountability measures in place for their leaders (these measures do not rely on close friends or parishioners of the accused).

As merely one example, in my denomination, a bishop can “inhibit” a church leader from future ministry or an ecclesiastical court — comprising both ordained and lay members — can conduct a trial and decide to depose a clergy person altogether (more commonly known as being defrocked). His or her ordination would be revoked and there are systems in place to ensure he or she would never be a leader in any other Anglican church.  (If a leader is accused of a crime, he or she is also mandatorily reported to civil authorities for investigation.)

The point of church discipline is both to help bring the accused person to repentance and also to protect the larger, global church body from harm.

I wonder if the Willow Creek crisis signals a tacit end to nondenominationalism as a model for future church planting. Certainly, a conversation is brewing among evangelicals about the need for healthy institutions and older traditions as we navigate our future.

Clearly, there is a kind of denominationalism that is corrosive and corrupting. Likewise, institutionalism, the idolatry and self-protection of institutions, has produced massive evil. As allegations against several evangelical celebrity pastors came to light last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing large-scale sexual abuse of children and a massive systematic cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s utterly apparent that denominations and ecclesial institutions will not rescue us from sin and abuse of power.

Read the entire piece here.

Trinity Church’s $6 Billion Portfolio

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Trinity Church in New York City was formed in 1697 by a small group of Anglicans. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler, three of the stars of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” are all buried in New York City’s Trinity Church.  Alexander and Eliza baptized five of their children at Trinity.  John Jay was also a parishioner.

Today, Trinity Church is very wealthy.  Over at The New York Times, Jane Margolies writes about the church’s real estate investments in the city and its own construction of a $350 million glass tower.  Here is a taste:

While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.

The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.

After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year.

And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.

Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.

But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.

Read the entire piece here.

Does Your Church Have a Trendy Name?

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Over at The Federalist, G. Shane Morris has categorized trendy evangelical church names.  Here are his categories:

  1. “Just Random Words” (“The Journey,” “The River“)
  2. “The Grocery Store Romance Novel” (“Burning Hearts,” “Word Aflame“)
  3. “The Gated Community” (“Centerpoint,” “Grace Pointe,” “Crossroads“)
  4. “The Night Club” (“180 Church,” “Ignite,” “The Alley“)
  5. “The Gym” (“Action Church,” “Champion Life Church,” “No Limits Fellowship“)
  6. “The Internet Startup” (“Catalyst Church,” “Engage,” “Netcast“)
  7. “The Spa” (“Renovate,” “The Healing Place,” “Wellspring”)
  8. “The Jeb Bush” (“Relevant Life,” “Dream Church,” “Compassion Church“)
  9. “Huh?” (“Caleb’s Foot,” “Scum of the Earth Church,” “Cowboy Church“)

Read the entire piece here.

“Loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”  

Christian scholar

Christian academics occupy a very lonely space.

We are not entirely trusted, and often looked upon with suspicion, by our faith communities.

We are also not entirely trusted, and often looked upon with suspicion, by the academic communities we inhabit.

Some Christian intellectuals have chosen to simply abandon the academic community and write within the community of the Church.  Others have chosen to pursue academic lives within the guild and keep their faith private.  But if one is to take seriously her or his intellectual calling in both spaces, companions are few.

I have written about this tension often here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It is a part of my intellectual life that I cannot shake.  It has returned again this month as I have been teaching in my church.  As I was preparing for my last class, I read this passage in Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity:

One must keep a measure of critical distance even from the Church.  The Church in history is not the Kingdom of God, and the alienation inherent in living as a destined member of the Kingdom of God, within history, is inescapable.  One can only give such alienation moral and spiritual form by using it as the basis for prophetic relationship with the world around. And the Church is part of the world around.  Hence, it is subject to prophetic criticism and appraisal.

On the other hand, however, to criticize and appraise the Church prophetically is to be aware that the Church is distinct from the world around even though part of it.  The Church, as envisioned by faith, is essentially different from any other institution.  Hence, critical independence of the Church is different from the critical independence that may characterize an individual’s relationship to other social groups.  Strictures on the historical Church can be true and justified only when originating, consciously or not, in the eschatological Church.  To say, as I have, that the Church provokes spiritual pride, is fallible, and is more social than communal does not presuppose merely standards of a kind any social critic might apply but also faith in what the Church will be at the end of time.  When prophetic hope establishes critical distance between the individual and the Church, that distance lies within the Church, and an individual who opposes the Church as it is can be justified only if called into opposition by the Church as it is destined to be.

Underlying prophetic criticism of the Church, therefore, is a loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism…[The Church] requires our respect for the actual even when our criticisms of it are severe.  Again, we see that a Christian’s relationship with the Church is analogous to his relationship with individuals. We respect individuals in their destinies; yet we respect them in their present actuality, too, and do this without denying their fallenness.  In similar fashion, personal independence of the Church is authentically prophetic only as a paradoxical form of loyalty to the church.

I think we can sum-up of Tinder’s complex language with a sentence from the last paragraph: “Underlying prophetic criticism of the Church…is a loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”

I want to explore this idea more in the coming years, perhaps in writing.

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.

Amy Sullivan: What Religious Communities Can Do in the Wake of the Vegas Shooting

I am sure there a lot of people tweeting this morning about the Vegas shooting.  I found writer Amy Sullivan‘s thoughts to be helpful:

 

How Did Your Church Respond To What Happened in Charlottesville?

People's_Union_Church

Yesterday I was proud of my largely white evangelical church.  My pastor took time to condemn the racists who came to Charlottesville on Saturday and reminded us that “God grieves” at such behavior.  He asked us to pray for the victims and their families.  He asked us to pray for changed hearts among the white nationalists and repent of our own sins of racism.  He read from Ephesians 2.

Did your church acknowledge what happened in Charlottesville yesterday?  If it did, I would love to hear about it.  Feel free to comment below, at Facebook, or at Twitter.

Emma Green has a nice piece at The Atlantic on how some churches have responded.

Church Shopping in the Age of Trump

Grace

Check out Max Perry Mueller‘s moving essay, “Why I Went Back to Church.”

Here is a taste:

SOON AFTER I BEGAN attending Grace Chapel in September 2016, the arrogance of my self-prescribed mandate to become a Christian witness to longtime professing Christians was made abundantly clear. Grace didn’t need me; I needed Grace. Each Sunday, I’ve gone to church depleted, due to worrying about the damage Trump is doing to the health of our democracy, our civil liberties, and our planet. Weekly fellowship with the Lincolnites—some of whom did vote for Trump—fills up my spiritual reserves for the week when I teach and write; when I call my representatives; when I participate in marches. My time at Grace Chapel has also taught me that I’m guilty of the Manichean thinking—dividing the world into evil (Trump voters) and good (anti-Trumpers)—that I found so unchristian in the evangelical churches in which I grew up. I have witnessed at Grace Chapel that my fellow Christians who voted for Trump have also dedicated their lives to support the resettlement of Yazidi, Muslim, and Christian refugees and asylum seekers in Lincoln.

What’s more, my time at Grace has taught me that I’ve made an idol out of politics. I’ve outsourced to politicians both my power and my responsibility as a citizen and as a Christian to work to build the kind of “beloved community” that I want to live in. As Pastor Ben told me recently over coffee, “This election exposed how fragile democracy is, and how fragile the church is. This current moment has exposed the fact that we can’t control much at a national level. So we must build the kingdom in local ways.” Specifically, what Ben means is that, according to Grace’s reformed theology, not all will be razed in the End Times; part of the work we do today builds the kingdom to come. At church, my daughter and I are immersed in a kind of Christianity in which we are loved and taught to love others. Outside of church, during our Sunday trips to the zoo, or doing the dishes together at home, reading books snuggled on the couch, and singing Joni Mitchells’ “Circle Game” before bed, I try to model for my daughter a different kind of Christian masculinity than Trumpist masculinity. Perhaps, this kind of intimate, paternal work is kingdom-building.

Read the entire piece at Religion & Politics.

How Did Your Church Celebrate Pentecost Sunday?

Icon-Pentecost-400x330If you are a churchgoer, I am curious about hearing how (and if) your church celebrated Pentecost Sunday.  Yesterday was the day on the Christian calendar when the church celebrates the the coming of the Holy Spirit following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  According to Christian theology, this is the day when the church came into existence.

A). Your church did not mention Pentecost Sunday.

B).  Your church mentioned Pentecost Sunday and then went forward with a service that had nothing to do with the day.

C).  Your church had music focused on Pentecost Sunday, but the sermon/homily had nothing to do with it.

D).  The entire service, including music, homily, scripture reading, etc. focused on Pentecost Sunday.

E).  Other

I realize that this will be different depending on the denomination.  I came into the sanctuary a few minutes yesterday morning, but I think my church fell into category “B”.

I remember one year when Pentecost Sunday fell on Memorial Day weekend.  The church leadership asked all the veterans to stand up so people could applaud them for their service, but said nothing about Pentecost Sunday.

Daniel Walker Howe Goes There

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As most of you know, many folks are comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson. Frankly, the comparisons are getting a bit tiresome. But when Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848gets into the act, we should probably pay attention.

Here is a taste of Howe’s History News Network piece “The Shameful Way Donald Trump is Life Andrew Jackson:

But the congeniality of Jackson’s nationalism to Trump’s purposes goes deeper. Jackson’s was a racial form of American nationalism. To identify as an American in Jackson’s sense was to identify with the white race. Jackson rallied his followers against the American Indians by promising that the Indians’ land would be made available for white settlement once its present occupants were “Removed.” “Indian Removal,” with capital letters, proved the principal achievement of Jackson’s presidency in its first year, and defined who his supporters and opponents would be for the rest of his term. In practice, Indian Removal meant forcible expulsion of people from their historic lands, marching them under military supervision for hundreds of miles to locations that might be very different in climate and environment from what they were accustomed to. Groups might even be relocated onto lands that had already been assigned to someone else. Indian Removal betrayed earlier government assurances that Native peoples could remain in place provided they pursued the way of life of Western Civilization and assimilated. An analogy exists to Trump’s avowed policy to round up and displace millions of “illegal immigrants.” The betrayal of the promise of assimilation to the Indians seems parallel to the betrayal of the American Dream for many of today’s immigrants, especially if they are Mexican or Muslim.

The Indians were not the only racial group targeted by Andrew Jackson. Jackson not only practiced and profited from black slavery on a large scale, as President his policies consistently supported and strengthened the institution of slavery. He halted the efforts his predecessor, John Quincy Adams, had made on behalf of international cooperation in suppressing the illegal Atlantic slave trade, though all other maritime countries approved it. When Charleston, South Carolina, would jail any free black sailors who dared come ashore from Northern or foreign ships, the Monroe administration declared the practice unconstitutional. Jackson’s administration reversed the finding.

Jackson even sacrificed white people’s freedom and privacy to prevent the delivery of antislavery publications in the South. Federal law required the United States Post Office to deliver mail to the addressee, but when Northern antislavery publications began to mail copies to Southern addresses, Jackson immediately told his Postmaster General how to prevent it. In those days people had to go to their local Post Office to pick up their mail. Put up a notice at the Post Office, he directed, saying that mail had arrived for so-and-so which the postmaster is sure they don’t want to receive. However, if they publicly request it, the mail will be given them, to comply with the law. Jackson well realized that, in the South, anyone known to request antislavery messages would be targeted for persecutions, maybe violent, until they had to move away. The Postmaster General followed Jackson’s plan, and it worked as intended. No one ever requested their antislavery mail.

Of course, President Trump probably doesn’t know a lot about President Jackson’s particular policies. But he is certainly aware that Jackson has fallen out of favor with many historians and public commentators—members of the elite that Trump likes to defy. Like Trump, Jackson came to the political system as an outsider, whose candidacy for President was not taken seriously at first by the political establishment. As a fellow “outsider” to respectable opinion, Jackson appeals to Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran on Christian Support for Trump

9143b-hauerwasStanley Hauerwas, considered by many to be one of the turn of the twenty-first century’s greatest theologians, has written an essay with Baylor theologian Jonathan Tran which, as far as I can tell, is his most thorough treatment of his views on the role of Christians in the age of Trump.

Here are a few snippets from their piece at the Religion and Ethics page of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website:

On the failure of the Christian political imagination:

To us the most troubling thing was not that Christians voted for Trump when they had plenty of reasons and ways not to do so. While regrettable, that mistake follows a more basic one. We are most troubled by the ongoing belief Christians hold that the nation-state, not the church, is the arbiter of Christian political action. This belief obligates Christians to modes of statecraft in order to fulfil their moral commitments. In order to play at statecraft – again, for one’s “vote to count” – Christians will have to prioritize those commitments that will survive the state’s political processes over those that will not.

On abortion:

Take for instance the political issue of abortion, which some Christians cited as their reason for voting for candidate Trump. When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resourced families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marian icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

On populism:

The nationalism of senior Trump advisor Steve Bannon and the so-called “Alt-Right” presents itself as a compassionate friend to those dispossessed by capitalism, bemoaning the loss of virtue and character and intoning a crisis of Western civilization. But when its antidote to global capitalism turns out to be the establishment of a 1950s version of Judaeo-Christian Victorian society without the recognition of that culture’s stewardship of capitalism or America’s guiding role in its operations, then its nationalism turns out to be only that, nationalism, and of the most nostalgic kind: to make America white again. The end result will be a nationalist-because-anti-globalist agenda that can achieve little more than a protectionist version of capitalism and a pseudo-intellectual endorsement of white supremacist activity. Not particularly original, but highly dangerous.

On lying:

Much has been made of President Trump’s shaky hold on the truth. When everything disagreeable is “fake news” then reality goes out the window. One approach to this state of affairs is to get the media to pile on as much discrediting evidence as possible with the expectation that Trump will be found to be caught in a lie. While this strategy has worthwhile benefits, we think it also has serious limitations, not least of which is that it positions the media politically in an endless troll/counter-troll game that will over time erode the public trust that is the source of its authority. The strategy also presumes that Trump is capable of lying. The way he presents himself makes us unsure that he is. Lying first requires an ability to distinguish truth from fantasy, an initial capacity to differentiate how things are from how one wants them to be. For anyone who has given himself to self-deception as constantly and continuously as Trump seems to, no amount of evidence will matter.

On sanctuary churches:

Acting as the church hospitable, Christians welcome those fleeing poverty, violence and oppression. As the powers threaten this hospitality because it challenges unjust political orders, the church militant responds with the grace and truth expressed in the sanctuary statement, against the grain of a crucifying world and with the grain of the universe. Upending oppressive arrangements, the church as sanctuary, a true international, attests to the absurdity of borders when millions starve and the thievery of states in a world given as gift.

On fear:

Shockingly there remain to this day Christians who support Trump’s anti-migration policies because they believe his policies will “keep us safe.” Surely one could not wish for a more misleading understanding of what it means to be Christian. Christians worship at the church of martyrs; they seek fellowship with the crucified Lord. Being a Christian is not about being safe, but about challenging the status quo in ways that cannot help but put you in danger. Thinking it possible to be safe in a world where Christians are sent out like sheep among wolves is about as unfortunate an idea as thinking that war is necessary to secure peace. We can only guess that those Christians who voted for Trump because of his willingness to use questionable tactics to keep them safe have forgotten what it means to be Christian.

Read the entire piece here.

How Do Christian Colleges Serve the Church?

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In my recent piece on Donald Trump, Christian colleges, and the humanities and liberal arts I wrote:

Evangelical churches and their pastors are also to blame. How many evangelical churches have created spaces where conversations can take place about how to apply the Christian faith to culture, politics, art, nature, or our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present?

I am not saying these topics need to be addressed during Sunday morning services. This time and space needs to be reserved for Word and sacrament. But certainly some of our megachurches could make room for this kind of training.

Much of my analysis in this excerpt and elsewhere in the piece comes from my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013). I like to think that there is a lot in this book that applies not only to the discipline of history, but to the humanities broadly.

All this week, Chris Gehrz of the Pietist Schoolman has also been wrestling with these issues.  In his latest post, he writes about the relationship between Christian colleges and churches.  Here is a taste:

Now, should we be preparing students for meaningful work that meets the needs of others? Of course. (I’d argue that history, like the other humanities, does this quite well.) Is it okay for Christian colleges to have business programs? Sure, though they should be embedded in a well-rounded arts and sciences curriculum and emphasize character formation as much as professional training. (That’s why I respect our business department.) Should our programs be responsive to economic change? Yes, so long as institutional leaders make the hard choices necessary to sustain that missional core of disciplines without which a liberal arts college ceases to be a liberal arts college.

But no Christian college ought primarily to serve the needs of a market economy. Nor to baptize capitalism (or any other ideology).

Not just the humanities or the general education curriculum, but every professional program — including those in marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, organizational leadership, etc. — ought to prepare students to identify, question, and, if necessary, challenge the values, assumptions, practices, and structures of the systems in which they will participate — even as they continue to serve their neighbors through such participation.

And he concludes:

I would like our students to come out of a Christian college ready to model what the humanities mean in the mission, ministry, and community of the church. I’m not sure that’s happening right now. Perhaps — by discussion and assignment design or by encouraging internships in churches or faith-based organizations, for example — I need to prepare them more explicitly to translate their knowledge and skills in the context of a small group, congregation, denomination, parachurch ministry, etc.

Read Chris’s entire post here.

How Churches Can Steward the Past

If you haven’t seen it yet, head over to The Pietist Schoolman and read Chris Gehrz’s “History as Stewardship of the Past.”  It is a powerful post about how churches might think about history. Gehrz calls on churches to preserve the past, interpret the past, and to make the past inviting.

Gehrz’s post got me thinking.  In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past I challenged Christian readers to make sure they are using history correctly when they engage the public sphere.  But I say little in the book about how a church might remember its sacred past.  In other words, when a church thinks about its history it usually includes a messy mix of the past, theology, providentialism, and spiritual nostalgia.  I am not sure I would call this history, but it is something that is worthwhile and useful in the setting of a congregation.

Here are Gehrz’s thoughts on preservation:

First, recognizing that all of Creation, after the Fall, is subject to decay, we stewards of the past must work to preserve it. Not time itself — that would be the most futile erosion prevention project imaginable. But we can preserve what the passage of time leaves behind.

First, churches can invest time, energy, expertise, and money in preserving photos, films, documents, and other physical artifacts. Salem not only has an archives, but under the leadership of Kevin McGrew, a Bethel History alum who directs the libraries at the College of St. Scholastica, it has been digitizing some of its resources through the Minnesota Digital Library project.

But better yet — since it’s impossible to preserve all artifacts, or to know which will actually be most helpful in the future — we can preserve the past by sustaining our memories of it. The very act of putting up temporal milestones like anniversaries helps remind us to remember. But it needs to be an ongoing commitment of any community.

McMass

A group of entrepreneurs is trying to raise one million dollars to build a McDonald’s restaurant inside a church.  They are calling the project “McMass.” 


Here is the plan:

Churches in modern times suffer from a number of unique problems. In many places across America church attendance is in decline, and churches themselves are even closing down. Churches need to make sure they are financially stable, and need to engage with the larger community around them. A McDonald’s franchise represents an opportunity not only for revenue, but also to draw a wider audience to the church, reinforcing the church as a gathering point.

Churches are amazing buildings, and their power to add to a business is immense. Churches are often centrally located relative to their communities, enhancing a McDonald’s already considerable audience draw. Traditionally, the space has gravity, ambience, and architecture that make for highly desirable real estate.
The McMass group is in the process of finding a church willing to host its McDonald’s.  I have absolutely no doubt that they will be successful.  If history teaches us anything, it is that American Christians have never had a problem using capitalism to get people in the pews. Today’s megachurches have coffee shops that serve Starbucks coffee.  Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area has a food court.   So does First Baptist Church in Atlanta.  It serves food from Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s, and Boston Market. McDonald’s is the next logical step.  
Perhaps you are a Christian who does not like the idea of having a fast food restaurant in a church. Perhaps you believe church is not a place where people should go to satisfy their personal wants and desires for goods–in this case cheap burgers, fries, shakes, chicken nuggets, and hot apple pies. Maybe you think church should be a place of self-denial–a sacred space where these consumer desires for comfort food should be curbed so that the affections can be turned toward God and fellow believers rather than personal appetites.
Too late.  The train has already left the station.  

Evangelical Churches and Intellectuals

Is evangelicalism anti-intellectual?  As many of our readers know, Mark Noll answered this question twenty years ago with a resounding “yes” in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Do evangelical churches contribute to this kind of anti-intellectualism?  Last October, Stephen Mattson of the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN, writing at Sojourners, answered this question with a resounding “yes” in a piece entitled “Do Churches Alienate Intellectuals?”  Mattson believes that there are three primary reasons why churches tend to alienate Christian intellectuals.

First, Mattson writes, “churches prefer certainty over doubt.”  I would probably phrase this a little differently and say that churches are not very good at dealing with complexity. Now don’t get me wrong.  I expect my minister to preach with authority and exhort the congregation to put truth into practice.  Sermons are not always conducive to complexity, and I am OK with this.

But unfortunately this kind of authority or certainty often informs the way people in a given congregation analyze social, cultural and political issues.  I would assume that all evangelical ministers want the people in their congregation to think Christianly, or biblically, or theologically about the world around them,   If this is the case, then ministers must acknowledge the fact that such thinking does not always lead the thinker to end up in the same place on this or that social issue. Issues such as whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation or whether or not to support Obamacare are complex.  Serious, smart, and faithful Christians can come to different conclusions about these issues.  This is why there are few Christian humanists in evangelical churches.  Most of them flock to denominations or traditions that celebrate the mystery of Christianity and, consequently, the diversity that abounds in the Church on this side of eternity.

What I have described above is part of the reason why I have always resisted joining a small group or participating in men’s fellowship activities at my church.  I applaud these groups for the way that they attempt to cultivate spirituality among attendees, but whenever I have attended them in the past I have always ended up being the only guy in the room who is asking uncomfortable questions about the Biblical text under consideration or questioning the group’s presuppositions on this or that issue.  I try to be polite and civil when I do this, but I always leave feeling like the odd duck.  Sometimes I just stay quiet until I get in the car and start complaining to my wife!  I also realize that this is partly my fault.  I need to work harder at being part of my church community, but it is often difficult when complexity ruffles so many feathers.

One more thing on this front.  Most intellectuals I know are not very good at small talk. But we will often light up when the conversation turns to deeper matters or when you put us in front of a Sunday School class or adult education forum.  Many of us are introverts.  As a result others in church can often perceive us as aloof or even rude.

Do any other church-going intellectuals feel the same way?

Second, Mattson writes, “churches are anti-science.”  Since I am not a scientist, this one does not bother me as much.  But I know it bothers some of the scientists in my congregation.  Frankly, I can’t get my head around the fact that so many people in my church believe that global warming is a myth. I seldom talk about this issue with folks from my church because I don’t want to ruffle feathers or create undue division in the community.  Maybe I should change my approach here.

Third, Mattson argues that the church should be doing a better job at Christian education.  Again, a caveat is in order here.  I have yet to find any brand of Christianity that is better than evangelicalism at forming young people in the faith.  Having said that, evangelical churches could do a much better job of bringing college-level or seminary-level courses in Biblical studies, theology, or church history to their members and attendees.  Mattson writes:  

Unfortunately, churches now depend on higher education to do most of the in-depth training that was once commonplace among lay parishioners. The average believer seemingly knows less and less of the Bible and the historical context of the Christian faith with each passing year. Churches need to remember that very few of their members attend or attended Christian colleges or seminaries. Churches (with a few exceptions) no longer offer classes about church history, Greek, Hebrew, proper exegesis, or groundbreaking Bible studies to churchgoers — these are reserved for Bible colleges and the students who attend them.

Let’s remember that nearly all of the people attending evangelical churches today did not attend a Christian college, a Bible college, or a theological seminary.  It is thus not surprising that people like Noll and Mattson lament the church’s anti-intellectualism.  Why don’t more evangelical churches have a “theologian in residence” or a staff member devoted to equipping the saints in this way.

Mattson concludes:

Overall, modern Christianity has modeled a strategy of comfort, where believers are viewed as consumers that need to be pleased and catered to — not challenged or made to feel uncomfortable. Intellectuals are not the target demographic within churches, so they rarely garner much attention or care, and it’s widely believed that they would be better off in an academic setting rather than a spiritual one. 
It seems that thoughtful evangelicals can do one of two things.  They can either leave their evangelical churches (as many, many, many have done, especially those of us in the humanities) or they can stay within evangelicalism and seek opportunities to cultivate a Christian mind among the congregations where they have been placed.  I have thought long and hard about pursuing the first option, but I have decided to at least try, however imperfectly, to pursue the second option.
During my two years of ecumenical dialogue and conversation as a Lilly Fellows in the Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University I realized that evangelicals were “my people” and thus deserved my loyalty. (Of course it also helps that I believe in the transforming power of the gospel as preached by evangelicals).  But I also realize that as an intellectual in a mainstream evangelical church I will always, it seems, occupy a liminal space.  I am prepared to live with the tensions.

Is Your Church Reading "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?"

When I wrote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction? I hoped it would be read by Christians as part of study groups and Sunday School classes.  I am gratified that this seems to be happening.  In fact, several church groups that have read the book have invited me to come and speak on the subject.

I just learned that the latest church to use Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is the Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream, IL.  Pastor Greg Moser just began a summer-long study on the book.  Here is a taste of the announcement from the church blog:

Is America a Christian Nation?
Discussion Begins Sunday, May 25 at 8:45 am
I invite you to a summer long read of the book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation by John Fea. We will read a chapter each week and I will lead a guided conversation each Sunday morning at 8:45 am, beginning on May 25. So pick up a copy of the book* and let’s learn and grow together. The book is a college level read, but for a history buff … a great read.
“This is a wonderful book—fascinating, timely, carefully researched, clearly written, and deeply helpful. It examines the Christian nation idea as expressed by the founders and also as it has shaped the country ever since (and still does). As a scholar, Professor Fea leaves no doubt of his disdain for those who ‘cherry pick’ the historical record to support contemporary arguments. Rather, he presents such a balanced view of the hard facts that neither the Christian nation advocates nor their critics can feel totally vindicated.”
–Bob Abernethy, executive editor and host of PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly; coeditor of The Life of Meaning