Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Everybody Is Trying to Steal Your Heart: Billboards, Aesthetics, and Formation

 

This billboard in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was installed and subsequently removed in the last few weeks. The first time I saw an image of the sign, it provoked a strong response in me. I noted my response to the sign because it was mix of unsettled and disturbed on the one hand and mournful and resigned on the other. Earlier this summer, I had preached a sermon on Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17. I imagined for a moment that I experienced, in some small way, a distress similar to Paul’s as he approached and entered Athens. I thought that this billboard was obviously and self-evidently blasphemous, sacrilegious and heretical (that was the unsettled and disturbed part of my response); but then it occurred to me that this billboard was likely paid for and erected by someone who would identify themselves as a Christian (that was the mournful and resigned part of my response). And given the ascendancy of Christian Nationalism in the American Church broadly, and within American Evangelicalism specifically, I had to wonder to myself whether this billboard represented a rogue outlier within America’s embodiment of Christianity, or the vanguard of the shape of the church to come.

I wondered this, because I never dreamed I would see the day that any portion of the American Church would attribute scriptures dedicated to the description of the Messiah as also descriptive of an American political leader. I wondered because I am firmly convinced that aesthetics matter and have shaped the church, as it exists, worships and practices now, and will continue to form the church moving forward. I wondered because I believe that signs like this contribute to that formation. I wondered because this billboard represents an instantiation of the theological commitments and imaginations of a segment of the Church in the United States, a segment that through the installation of this billboard is seeking to form the theological commitments and imaginations of others using an aesthetic means of persuasion. I wondered because this is the aesthetic employed toward something like evangelistic or apologetic ends. It is a public invitation toward a certain mode of perception; to see and perceive the world in the same way as those that created the image on the billboard. I wondered because it is also the assertion that those who do not perceive the world similarly perceive the world incorrectly.

 I also wondered this because this billboard is not the first of its kind. As an example, a billboard akin to the one above was erected outside of St. Louis in November of 2018. It featured a photo of Donald Trump speaking. In the top right were the words “Make the Gospel Great Again” to the left of an image of the American flag with a cross behind it. In large letters across the bottom of the image were the words “‘The Word became flesh…’ –John 1:14.” This of course also seems blasphemous, sacrilegious and heretical on its face to me. So in the face of these extreme aesthetic texts, and myriad less extreme ones, I am ultimately left wondering, what am I, and what are we to make of brothers and sisters in Christ who would post such things on the roadside of America’s byways?

 I believe the best answers to these questions such as these are aesthetic. By that I mean that the best answers to these questions are not rooted in rational processes of decision making, but are more fundamentally rooted in what visual culture scholar David Morgan calls the, “sensuous, imagined, embodied experience of meaning…”[1] In other words, a person or group does not spontaneously decide to erect one of these signs. That work is the result of a process that has shaped their perceptions, loves and affections through their practices, habits and communities. You go through the trouble of paying for and erecting a sign such as this because you love something so much, that you feel compelled to share it with the world around you. You can see a glimpse of this in in the way the group “Make the Gospel Great Again” clarified their intended message for the their billboard outside of St. Louis. They wrote on their Facebook page,

 Our billboard IS NOT equating Jesus with President Donald Trump. Salvation comes only from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not any man. But God does send his messengers to us, and just as King David liberated the faithful in his day, President Trump is doing this today through his protection of the unborn, defense of our land against foreign invaders and standing up for Israel. He surrounds himself with champions for Christian Rights –Mike Pence, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh…. how is this not the “word become flesh” for Americans?[2]

 Whether you agree or disagree with their framing of the Gospel and its fundamental cultural manifestations in America, I would argue we must recognize their love for that framing of the Gospel and those cultural manifestations. They are expressing a perception of the Gospel and its cultural expressions that is as clear to them as the nose on their face. It is these perceptions of the cultural outflows of the Gospel that shape their perception of Trump’s political undertakings as an expression of “the word become flesh,” and it is the same perceptions that inspired them to post that message on a billboard for all St. Louis to see.  

 If our perception is formed over time by our affections and the practices, ideas and people that we love, then we must recognize that our perception is not rational. The way we perceive the world has been and is being shape by these loves and affections. They represent the sieve through which we filter, understand and interpret the world around us. Our loves and affections filter the words we hear, the cultural, political, religious and institutional expressions we see, and the emotions we feel and makes meaning out of them. To be sure, we bring our rationality to bear on these loves and affections, and we are by no means solely irrational creatures; however, we are also not solely rational creatures either, and are as, if not more, shaped by these aesthetic processes as we are shaped by rational ones. It is because of this that I believe that we must be consistently mindful of the aesthetic forces working to shape our loves and affections and ultimately our perceptions toward the preferred ends of creators of the texts that embody those forces. This is particularly true of Christians as we endeavor to bring our loves and affections in line with the love, grace, justice and mercy of God, particularly as they are articulated and embodied in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I would also argue, in the shadow of these billboards, that our vigilance of the aesthetic processes forming us should not be let down inside the walls of the Church.

 Church is designed to form us through aesthetic processes. This is a part of what worship and liturgies do. Author David Foster Wallace provides a pithy account of the manner in which worship forms us. He writes,

There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship... is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough...Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified in myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

 

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more selective about what you see and how you measure value without being fully aware that that's what you're doing.[3]

 When we consistently participate in the local church as a community of faith, we are engaging in a process of formation where we are ideally formed through the ministry of the Holy Spirt by the scriptures and the worship and the teaching and the fellowship toward Kingdom ends. We are formed to embody and enact the love, grace, justice and mercy of God in and for the world that God loves. I say ideally, because we can be, and perhaps are often malformed by the same processes because a church is also a community of sinners who are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. I would argue that the erection of these billboards represents an aesthetic expression of a particular set of malformations. These are loves, affections and perceptions formed and reinforced through worship, teaching and fellowship; through the repeated liturgical practices and habits repeated week after week.

 When I was a teenager growing up in the church, I was taught to be suspicious of the culture in which we were embedded. I was taught not to listen to secular music, or go to the wrong types of movies, or watch the wrong types of television shows. In short I was taught to regulate my consumption of the media. We were taught axiomatically, “Garbage in, Garbage out.” While I recognize that, particularly as Christians, the tenor of our interactions with the broader culture is far more complex and nuanced than expressed in that axiom, it at least describes the aesthetic nature of those interactions. I would also argue that it applies not only to the culture outside of the church but inside of the church as well (though we must also recognize that the imagined wall between the two is far more permeable than many might be comfortable with). In both instances, we must come to recognize the aesthetic efforts underway to claim our loves and affections. We must come to recognize that, in the words of the Canadian Indie band Fast Romantics, “Everybody Is Trying to Steal Your Heart.”



[1] David Morgan, “Protestant Visual Piety and the Aesthetics of American Mass Culture,” in Mediating    Religion, ed. Jolyon Mitchell and Sophia Marriage, (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 107. 

[2] Alexis Zotos, “‘Make the Gospel Great Again’: Large Billboard of Trump Removed in North County,” KMOV.com, 11/9/18, Accessed 9/21/21, https://www.kmov.com/news/make-the-gospel-great-again-large-billboard-of-trump-removed-in-north-county/article_538f78d0-e0a9-11e8-b68e-4735053c1e10.html.

[3] David Foster Wallace, “Plain Old Untrendy Troubles and Emotions,” The Guardian, September 20, 2008, 2, referenced in James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 22.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Every Nation, Tribe and Language: Mike Pompeo, Multiculturalism and the Project of Redemption

 

 

In his final week as Secretary of State of the United States, Mike Pompeo posted a tweet declaring that, among other things, multiculturalism is not who the United States of America was. Now I understand that multiculturalism can be something of a cipher (as is much of our contemporary cultural and political discourse) however, at bottom multiculturalism denotes the presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society.[1] I would suggest Pompeo was referring to the latter, the cultural support for several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within the United States, and was suggesting that cultural and political support did not represent what he understood to be America’s identity. To be fair, we don’t know precisely what he meant because of the fundamental brevity of tweets. In any case, I argue that marginalizing multiculturalism as an expression of a political philosophy of governing is wrong-headed and misguided, and I ardently disagree with Mr. Pompeo; however that opinion is not the reason for this post. The reason for this post is to express why I disagree with Mr. Pompeo’s position. I particularly want to explore the theological roots of my disagreement. I find this particularly important to articulate because I am concerned that Mr. Pompeo’s position may also be influenced by his theology, which I believe must be contested and critiqued by his fellow Christians.

            Why do I believe his position is a reflection of his theology? Mr. Pompeo has connected his official governmental responsibilities and his Christian faith on many occasions. For example, in a speech as Secretary of State addressing the American Association of Christian Counselors in Nashville, Pompeo noted, “I want to use my time today to think about what it means to be a Christian leader, a Christian leader in three areas. First is disposition. How is it that one carries oneself in the world? The second is dialogue, talking. How is it that we engage with others around the world? And third is decisions, decisions that we make.”[2] As a Christian who fundamentally coupled his governmental responsibilities with his faith, it seems Mr. Pompeo may be voicing an underlying theological commitment that is expressing itself in his decision making. Since Mr. Pompeo does not express those theological commitments in his tweet, I will not attempt to parse them here. What I do want to do here, is briefly articulate my understanding of the theological relationship between the Christian, ethnicity and culture, and how I believe that theology diverges from the cultural and political vision cast by Mr. Pompeo.

            I recently preached a sermon on Acts 11:1-18. Interestingly, this blog (in a first for me) almost ends up serving as an addendum to that sermon. I want to start with this passage and the passage that preceded it in Acts 10 as a diving in point. I want to argue that multiculturalism represents a fundamental Christian value that must shape the Christian’s disposition toward both the cultures in which they are embedded, and the cultures that they experience as foreign and unfamiliar to them. In Acts 10 Peter is directed by God to eat foods that the Hebrew Law had declared unclean, an act that was so anathema to Peter that he had to be directed to partake three times before he even began to consider the request. In the meantime, God had given a vision to, as the text describes him, a “God-fearing” Roman military officer named Cornelius to send for Peter, which he did. His men arrived soon after Peter’s vision, and request that Peter come to their master’s compound in Caesarea. Peter and six men followed them to Caesarea, where they shared fellowship and food. In what follows Peter shares the Gospel with Cornelius, the soldiers under his command, and his family. In the following chapter (11) there are many in the Jerusalem church who were upset that Peter had apparently broken the Law’s prohibitions on eating unclean foods. His defense is something to effect of, “yes I did it, but God told me to, and here’s why.”

These chapters make clear that God, to the surprise of Peter and his Jewish brothers and sisters, had included the Gentiles in his project of redemption from the beginning. Part of the take away from this passage is that there can be no such thing as an ethnocentric, culture-centric, or nation-centric Christianity. The call to faith in Christ respects no social, national, political, ethnic, or cultural boundaries. In addition, there is no call in Acts 10 and 11, or anywhere else in scripture, that demands that one’s ethnicity or culture must be entirely left behind in favor of a Christian expression of ethnicity or culture. When one comes to faith in Christ he or she begins the process of reorienting the manner in which they ascribe value to their culture and its values. God doesn’t demand that the Jews adopt a Gentile way of life, and vice versa. Each begins the process of becoming this third thing, inhabiting a new identity that shares the commonality of Christ and an appreciation and even a respect for their cultural and ethnic differences. This multi-cultural, multi-ethnic project of redemption continues through the book of Acts and through the rest of the New Testament. It culminates in the book of Revelation as John records witnessing, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” in chapter 7 (and earlier in chapter 5). This is the telos of the church, and it is fundamentally multi-cultural.

I would argue that this is a part of what Jesus is expressing when he declares that “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son,” in John 3. If I am correct, and this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural gathering in Revelation represents both the church’s telos, and a value bound up in God’s affection for the world and the people God created, then it represents something that God values now as well. The same God that gathers all those differences in Revelation is working toward that end now. God seems to value our nations, tribes, peoples and languages while simultaneously transcending them. It is important to note that nations, tribes, peoples and languages are expressions of culture, and to quote theologian William Dyrness, culture is what humans make of creation. To be human is to make creative use of creation, and thus to participate in and to create culture. While God transcends those cultural differences, we must note that in Acts 10 and 11 and in Revelation 5 and 7 God does not obliterate those differences. God draws them into the project of redemption, to the extent that those differences are present still at the culmination of time.

            We can have a conversation I suppose about the presence of political expressions of multiculturalism in our political life in America. However I am concerned that those who desire to marginalize the manifold and parallel expressions of ethnicities and cultures in our common spaces and in our public square may be doing so because of a misguided theology that does the same; Or perhaps equally as troubling is allowing particular sets of political commitments to produce malformed expressions of Christian theology. I fear one of these scenarios may be coloring Mr. Pompeo’s assertion that multiculturalism is not consistent with the identity of the United States. I make no judgment other than asserting what I already have in disagreeing with Mr. Pompeo’s brief thesis. At any rate, I pray that Mr. Pompeo’s assertion is not who the church in the United States is.


[1] This definition is taken from the Oxford Dictionary

[2] Cortellessa, Eric, “‘My Walk with Christ’: Pompeo Give Contentious Speech on Being Christian Leader,” The Times of Israel, 12 October 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-secretary-of-state-delivers-contentious-speech-on-being-christian-leader/


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Law, Order and Shalom


Photo courtesy EV on Unsplash.com
Justice is incidental to Law and Order – J. Edgar Hoover

I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line – Isaiah

Law and Order has been a hot topic of conversation recently. It has also been a consistent part of the political conversation over the past several years as the present administration has often touted the virtues of law and order. In addition, notions of law and order are not just confined to questions of governance and law enforcement. Many Christians in my life support notions of law and order as it is framed by the current administration, and even understand their support of it to be in direct relation to their Christian faith. Thus law and order has embedded in it something that Christians (and folks of other faiths) understand to be compatible with the tenets and practice of their faith. As I am interested in Christian theology, I want to try to ever so briefly tackle this overlap between law and order and the Christian faith and ask the question whether there exists some compatibility between the two. Should Christians support and advocate for law and order? I want to be up front and note that I will be arguing that I believe Christians should embrace notions of law and order, however they should not be embracing, condoning or advocating for any notion of law and order that is not firmly rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom. I argue this because as I understand it, shalom represents the notion of law and order as it is framed by God in the Old and New Testaments.

In order to make my case for this I am going to have to lay out what I mean by shalom. I think theologian Cornelius Platinga has articulated my favorite definition of shalom. He describes shalom as, “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight... In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” To demonstrate this, let me provide a few examples of how the Hebrew word shalom is employed in the Old Testatment. I want to acknowledge first however that I have very little utility in ancient Hebrew, and I am far from a Hebrew scholar. However, I believe this is an important scriptural concept to grasp in our current cultural and political environment, so I will do my best in spite of my limitations.

Shalom of course is generally translated as the word “peace” in the English language, however it is far more than that. In scripture, shalom is framed often as a gift from God (see Isaiah 66.12 and Jeremiah 33.6-8, I Kings 2.33, Psalm 29.11). It is identified as the fruit of righteousness or justice (see Isaiah 32.16-20). Shalom, of course is associated with the absence of conflict (see Deuteronomy 20.10), but it is also the presence of justice and even material prosperity (see Psalm 72.1-7). In fact shalom is consistently associated with notions of righteousness (rightness) and justice (see Psalm 85.10-13), which are consistently and strongly associated with one another in the Old Testament. In fact there are times where the notions of righteousness and justice are interchangeable. In addition, Isaiah 9 frames the coming Messiah as one who establishes this type of just and righteous flourishing (see Isiah 9.6,7)

So if we were to make a collage of these scriptural passages we would have an image of a type of thriving and prosperity, gifted by God, that results from the establishment of just and righteous practices, and perhaps even institutions that administer those practices and that justice. I argue that you see just this type of establishment in the practices associated with provision for widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor articulated in the books of the Hebrew Law (See Exodus 22.21,22, Leviticus 23.22, Deuteronomy 10. 18-19). Carrying this forward to the New Testament, we see the Apostle Paul describing the notion of the Kingdom of God to include just these characterizations as well. He writes in Romans 14.17 that, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Kingdom of God here includes the establishment of justice and shalom (righteousness and peace). This is important because this means that the Kingdom of God and notions of peace are not relegated to one’s internalized experience of God, but, because of the inclusion of notions of justice and shalom, embody active practices necessary to make the Kingdom and thus make shalom a visible, material reality. So what does all this have to do with law and order? I am glad you asked.

If as Platinga articulates it, humans are fundamentally created to be webbed together with their Creator, each other and the creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight, then this image should be the plumb line against which Christians shape their understanding both of order and the laws established to govern that order. Those laws and the practices of enforcement associated with those laws should promote rightness and justice. In the book of Deuteronomy (16.18ff) God instructs Israel through Moses to, “appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes…and they shall render just decisions for the people.”  The Hebrew here literally reads, “that they shall judge the people with just/righteous judgements.” Moses goes on, “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” This justice is to be measured against the priorities of the God who values every created person, and who ascribes particular value to those on the social margins of human cultures because humans do a poor job of appropriately valuing them. In the case of Hebrew culture those on the social margins were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners (the ethnic and cultural other), women and the poor. Because of the human tendency to abuse these classes of their brothers and sisters for the benefit of both themselves as individuals and for their group, family or nation, God institutionalizes their protection in the form of the law. In doing so God articulates and institutionalizes God’s priorities which, I argue, are rooted in justice, love, grace and mercy. If as Christians we are to embrace law and order, I argue the law and order we embrace must enact and institutionalize these same principles and reflect our valuation of the people on the margins in the same way God values them.

The founder and long time director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover is credited with saying that, “Justice is incidental to Law and Order.” In other words, justice is to be measured by order, not the other way around. Here, order is the sole evidence that justice has been enacted under the law. I argue that this construct is the exact opposite of the notion of justice articulated in scripture. I am afraid that Hoover's description of justice, law and order describes the notions of law and order as they are articulated by this administration. I am even more concerned by my perception that many Christians may reflexively go along with these sentiments. I am concerned because these sentiments miss the Divine heart at the center of justice, and the miss the Divine measure of justice as something rooted in the very character of God. They miss the justice, fulfillment, flourishing and delight for which humans have been created. They miss the Divine concern for the flourishing of those on the social and economic margins, and they miss the Divine concern for righteous justice, mercy, grace and love. So yes, Christians should support law and order, so long as it is this law and order that in the words of the prophet Micah does justice, loves kindness and walks humbly with God. Christians should be holding every other iteration of law and order up to this standard, and insisting law and order reflect these priorities. Christians should be dissatisfied with anything other than shalom.