Richard Beck on finding Common Cause

Richard Beck has a fantastic post out today reflecting on a passage from Barack Obama’s recent memoir and how materialism affects our ability to find common cause across ideological boundaries. Here’s the Obama quote:

T]emperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.

Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality…a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.

Barack Obama, from A Promised Land

Beck contrasts Obama’s Christian non-materialistic optimism with the atheistic, materialistic pessimism of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hope, and a pragmatic politics, says Beck, are rooted in a non-materialistic view of reality.

I have leaned politically left in the past decade but been frustrated by the inability of much of the progressive left to share a hopeful view. Beck’s paragraph here turned a light bulb on for me:

…Obama is correct, there are shared values between the materialists and the non-materialists. And those shared values lead us to think we can share “common cause.” We want to. And we try. All the time. But that “common cause” is perpetually undermined as these values are embedded within two very different metaphysical worldviews. In the non-materialist worldview, grace and hope season hate toward political enemies and impatience with the lack of progress in our lifetimes. Non-materialists can play the long game, graciously and hopefully, because they believe in a long game. By contrast, non-materialists [sic, Beck clearly means ‘materialists’ here], since there is no long game and the winners write the history books, will be driven to hate those who oppose them and become violently impatient in the face of conversation, compromise, and incrementalism. Given the pressing urgency of the Revolution hope and grace are moral failures, each dampening the passions needed to change the world. 

This is as good an explanation as I’ve seen for the tension between those two groups on the left. Count me among the hopeful non-materialists.

If you go read Beck’s whole post (which you should), you’ll find he also has a couple rather (to borrow a word from my friend Dan) spicy things to say about conservative evangelicals. While I feel his frustration, I wish he would’ve spelled out his reasoning a little bit more to justify such strong words. It would be fascinating to explore why conservative evangelicals, non-materialists in Beck’s schema, seem to so frequently use the materialist’s political playbook. Of course as frequently as Dr. Beck blogs, that piece may already be on its way.

Recommended Reading: Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

How could the vast majority of white evangelicals support Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020? To understand it as Dr. Kristin Kolbes Du Mez tells it, there’s a clear, direct line to trace between the muscular revivalism of Billy Sunday, the virile energy of Billy Graham crusades, the Religious Right’s embrace of the American military in the 1980s, and the eventual election of the 45th president.

In Jesus and John Wayne, Dr. Du Mez (a professor of history at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) details American evangelicalism’s attraction to the rugged manliness epitomized by the actor of classic westerns and the corresponding clearly delineated male and female gender roles. Whether manifest in Phyllis Schlafly’s fight against the ERA, the ascendancy of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the religious right’s embrace of Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North, or the later “Biblical manhood” emphasis of John Eldridge and Mark Driscoll, a common emphasis on manly men and submissive women threaded through it all.

Dr. Du Mez traces through politics, theology, and also education. While men like Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips are less well known outside of conservative evangelical circles than, say, Jerry Falwell or Tim LaHaye, Du Mez makes a case for their estimable influence. This embrace of patriarchy then makes its way to popular TV like Duck Dynasty and the Duggar family’s 19 Kids and Counting.

I grew up in evangelicalism. The picture Dr. Du Mez paints of the late 1980s and 1990s is very familiar to me. The details she fills in provided some “aha” moments, too. The devastating penultimate chapter details how so many of these champions of Christian manhood and patriarchal gender roles ended up in personal disgrace. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Ted Haggard. Paige Patterson. Mark Driscoll. C. J. Mahaney. Bill Gothard. Jack Hyles. Jack Schaap. Doug Phillips. Whether it’s fair or not, it seems almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that the message these men taught about manhood and gender was frequently cover for deep, unaddressed sin.

Where evangelicals go from here is an open question. Just this week pastor Andy Stanley said in an interview with The Atlantic that the Trump era of evangelical history will all fade “into a bad dream” within “a year or two”. After reading Jesus and John Wayne, I’m skeptical. The plant that sprouted Trump’s presidency has hundred-year-old roots. It’ll take more than a year or two of faded memories to banish it, if American evangelicals even take up the task. I’m thankful, though, for historians like Dr. Du Mez who at least tell the story.

Michael F. Bird on Social Justice as Christian Love

Don’t buy into the lie that all social justice is driven by Marxist ideology. It is not! It is what the prophets commanded, what Jesus expects of his followers, what the church has accepted as normal, and what constitutional democracies with a Christian heritage should aspire to, not in spite of, but precisely because of their Christian heritage.

Let me be clear, love of neighbour requires you to be concerned for the just treatment of your neighbour, whether they are Black, Hispanic, First Peoples, LGBT, migrant, Muslim, working-class, or even Baptist. Any derogation of a Christian’s duty to be concerned about the welfare and just-treatment of their neighbour is an attack on the biblical love command itself.

Michael F. Bird, from “The Fundamentalist War on Wokeness is a War on Christian Love

Yes, yes, all of this.

By the Waters of Babylon – Joey Weisenberg

I don’t remember who shared this on Twitter the other day, but I listened to it once and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. Joey Weisenberg leads this Jewish musical group singing a song inspired by Psalm 137. It’s sort of like if The Lone Bellow started writing music for your local synagogue. So dang good.

He’s got a bunch of albums up on Bandcamp, but it appears that this might be the only song in English of the whole bunch. My lack of knowing Hebrew isn’t stopping me from enjoying the rest of his music, though.

First Day of School, 2020

It’s hard for me to express how big a deal today is for my household. Back in January we first floated the idea with an unmotivated daughter that switching from home school to public school might be a good step. She was very excited. In late February we went to an open house at the local high school and then in early March we got her registered for fall classes.

Two weeks later, COVID shut everything down and the spring and summer became a long slog. For months we’ve been holding on to the lifeline of knowing that in late August school would start and we would get some structure back. The school district instituted a 50/50 virtual/in-person scheme that would have the kids at school at least a couple days a week. We bought school supplies and marked our calendars.

Then in mid-August, a week before school was set to start, the derecho hit. We were 11 days without power. And almost every school building in the district was damaged. The girls’ high school lost part of its roof and sustained significant water damage to the gym, auditorium, and much of the rest of the building. School got delayed by another month, and will be 100% virtual until January at the earliest.

But finally… today is the day. At 7:50 AM the first class hour started and our middle daughter was logged into Google Meet with 19 other tired-looking freshmen (freshpeople? first years?) to start her German class. (Our oldest daughter had first hour off but is now logged in for second hour.)

It’s been a long year, friends. Today is just one day, just a start, but it’s a significant milestone. And there are better days to come.

(Oh, and it’s September 21, so we started the morning with this song…)

And then the middle daughter suggested this one instead:

“Get freed”

The other day I posted a belated review and recommendation of Lyz Lenz’s book God Land. Today I’d like to tell the story of why this review was delayed a year.

Lyz is, as I am, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We have some small personal connection. Her (now ex-)husband works for the same huge employer that I (and 8000 other people in town) do. We have some of the same friends. And for a short time a decade or so ago, we attended the same church. That last bit is what made this whole thing complicated.

God Land is about religion in the Midwest, liberally strewn with Lyz’s stories from her own life. In the first chapter of the book, she recounts bad experiences at a church where she and her husband were members. She wanted to discuss women’s roles within the church. She got brushed off by one pastor with a series of nebulous promises that it could be discussed later. Later, on a mission trip, another pastor refused to let her lead prayer during morning devotions, saying it wasn’t a woman’s place to do so. Eventually she and her husband left that church to join a church plant. (The Guardian published a long excerpt from that chapter if you want to read it.)

A year ago, when reading and reviewing the book, I was still a member of that church. Not only that, I was being paid to lead the music ministry. So when I published my review on Goodreads early on a Monday morning and it got auto-tweeted on my feed, before lunchtime I had a phone call from the new senior pastor telling me that, as a church “staff member” (the first time anyone had called me that!) I shouldn’t be recommending the book. It was gossip, he told me, and I shouldn’t be spreading it. I wasn’t ready to die on that hill that day, so I discussed it with him for a little while and then deleted the tweet. But it still really bugged me.

No one that I’ve talked to has disputed the broad strokes of Lyz’s stories about our church. She privately told me the same basic stories a few years before. In the book she changes the names of the pastors and doesn’t name the church, but if you’ve been in the Cedar Rapids evangelical church scene very long you can probably guess who they are. I’ve been told by others in the know that the events she described on the mission trip did indeed happen that way. And I’ve heard second hand from the other pastor that he didn’t remember his episode “quite that way”, but didn’t dispute the basic facts. (He did confirm Lyz’s note that he has tried reach out again to her on several occasions, and that she hasn’t responded.)

So if the accounts are basically true, why should their mention be suppressed? If someone hasn’t read the book or doesn’t know the people, they won’t be any the wiser. If someone has read the book and does know the people, trying to suppress the discussion only makes it look like the church has something to hide. Why can’t we just speak honestly about it? I count the pastors involved as friends, and I love the people of that church. I don’t want to hurt them. But suppressing truth, even painful truth, isn’t beneficial. Better to acknowledge and learn from mistakes than try to pretend they didn’t happen.

Back last year when the book came out I attended a reading & signing that Lyz did at a local bookstore. During the Q&A after the reading I mentioned that I, too, was trying to figure out if or when my route should lead me out of the evangelical churches where I’ve spent most of my life. Later on that night when she signed my copy of the book, she wrote this message inside: “To the Hubbs’ — get freed!”

I don’t feel that implied level of joy from having left our last church. While I have significant disappointments, I don’t feel any personal animus toward any of those church folks. I feel like we left on good terms. But I am glad to now feel free enough to tell this story. Truth will out. Sure, truth can be spoken in ways that are harmful. But speaking the truth peaceably, in love, is a necessity for the church to become the loving, safe community God intends for it to be. This bit of truth from me is overdue.

To drag knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task…

Rebecca West, from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, describing her experience observing a worshipper at an Orthodox Easter service:

One can shout at the top of one’s voice the information that the 11.15 for Brighton leaves from platform 6, but subtler news has to be whispered, for the reason that to drag knowledge of reality over the threshold of consciousness is an exhausting task, whether it is performed by art or by experience. She made no spectacular declaration that man is to be saved; simply her attitude assumed that this Easter would end with no more fatality than any other Easter she had known, and her body, wasted yet proud in its coarse and magnificent clothes, proclaimed that death may last five hundred years yet not be death.

Beautiful.

God Land by Lyz Lenz — A Belated Review

It’s been a year since Lyz Lenz’s book God Land came out. I wrote a review on Goodreads at the time but for various reasons didn’t publish it here. It’s overdue.

In the mean time, Lyz has published another book, which is still sitting unread on my shelf. (Soon.) She’s also joined the staff of The Cedar Rapids Gazette and has become a strong opinion voice there. I can’t wait to see what she writes next. But in the mean time, here’s my short review/recommendation of God Land.

God Land is an insightful and challenging critique of Christianity in Middle America. Lyz Lenz clearly still loves her Midwestern home, but laments that the predominant Christian voices are conflating Republicanism, gun culture, and male-only leadership with the message of Jesus.

God Land doesn’t try to paint an overly cheery “we just shouldn’t let politics divide us” picture. Lenz’s own story illustrates how divisive these issues can be on a personal level. She doesn’t pull punches as she recounts the end of her marriage, leaving one church, having a church plant die, and her struggles to find supportive community.

God Land’s clear affection for Middle America and portraits of small-town Americans combined with Lenz’ beautiful prose and painfully honest diagnosis make it a must-read in 2019 America.

2020 Reading – July/August Roundup

I guess I don’t need to wait until the end of the year to do another summary… August suffered for reading much (thanks, derecho), but there’s still been some good stuff to recommend over the last couple months. Here are the highlights:

Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 by Kevin Kruse
A very readable recounting of the last 50 years of US history, showing how these “fault lines” formed that have resulted in the fractures we see today. Kruse is a great follow on Twitter, too. I’m not sure I was really ready to read a “history” of so much that still feels very current, but it’s good to have a book like this out there.

The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Edward Veith
This was recommended by a friend when I was looking for a good book on Lutheran theology. This is fairly short and high-level, but the chapter on vocation was worth the whole book all by itself. (The rest of the book was very good, too.)

The Power by Naomi Alderman
What would happen if women suddenly developed a power that gave them a physical advantage over men? What would the world look like? Such is the tantalizing premise of The Power. It could’ve been 100 pages longer and I wouldn’t have complained.

Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird
A short introduction to the practice of contemplative prayer. Very practical in its discussion of techniques, but also delving into the spiritual purpose and background of contemplation. I’m lousy at it, but it’s something that I find beneficial when I set aside a little bit of time to just be still.

Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink
I wrote about this one a little bit already. Just as relevant today as it was when it was written.

The Mystery of Christ & Why We Don’t Get It by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon in his typical informal style here, pressing the point that he makes just as bluntly in his wonderful Between Noon and Three. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation. If that’s really true… you are not condemned. You are forgiven. Grace is free. What are you now going to do with yourself? I love me some Capon.

There were others, but these were the highlights.

September

Suffice it to say I’m happy to have August 2020 in the rear view mirror.

We have completed our house repairs after the derecho. Having a brother in construction sure makes that easier! Repaired the cracked rafter, rebuilt the broken dormer, reshingled the roof… Tree guy is working this week to take down the trees that won’t survive (which is most of them).

School in Cedar Rapids is starting three weeks late due to all the storm damage, and will then be 100% virtual rather than 50/50 in person. This change has probably been harder on the kids than the storm was. They are so ready to have a routine again and see people.

Wonder where we’ll be when October 1 gets here? In 2020 every month feels like a year. I wonder how long that’ll last.