The Gospel According to Your Facebook Profile

A couple weeks ago I started reading the book The Hopeful Skeptic by Nick Fiedler. I’m planning on posting a review of the book once I finish it up. For now, though, I want to point out something that makes this book unique from anything else I’ve read. This is the first theology/Christian life book I’ve ever read in which the author uses his Facebook profile religious views as the starting point for a whole book.

A couple years ago, Nick changed his “religion” in his Facebook profile from “Christian” to “hopeful skeptic.” Reading about this got me to thinking about how many people choose to enter something unique on the religion line in their profile, as opposed to choosing from one of Facebook’s preset, institutional options. I did a quick scan of 25 random Facebook friends (and by ‘random’, I mean the first 25 people to either show up on my news feed or comment on my status requesting help with this). Here are the ‘religions’ I saw listed:

“Pastafarian; Former Voodoohist”

“I’ve been relentlessly pursued and mercifully forgiven by the great Lover of souls, Jesus Christ. :)”

“Evangelical Liberal Charismatic Catholic Christian”

“On the path…”

“Pro-Jesus”

“yes. thank you. http://www.huronhills.org”

“anything in isolation cannot be God.”

“see the Nicene Creed.”

“and He said, Follow Me.”

“Yes.”

Among the more traditional choices…

“Christian” Was listed by 6 people.

“Christian – Presbyterian” was listed by 3 people.

“Christian – Reformed – Presbyterian” was listed by 1 person.

“Agnostic” was listed by 1 person.

“Deist” was listed by 1 person.

3 people had nothing listed.

Why do people choose to insert their own, unique title for their religion? I have to admit, when Facebook first added the religion to profiles, I opted not to list myself as “Presbyterian” or “Christian.” I decided to write in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Honestly, I have no recollection as to why I thought it would be better to do that. I can think of a few reasons now, for Christians at least, but am also doubtful any of them are really satisfied by a Facebook profile.

Some people, it seems, have an evangelical motivation. We’re supposed to be witnesses for Christ and proclaim the gospel. We need to make the most of every opportunity. If Facebook is going to ask us about our religion, we’re going to make our answer count. So, if we put something unique and unexpected, people will take notice. I think the intention here is good enough, but there are also so many problems with this. For starters, it assumes that people actually take the time to read our profiles. My guess is most don’t, and of those who do, none of them are going to your profile asking “What must I do to be saved?”.

For others, there seems to be a fear of being misunderstood. Calling ourselves “Presbyterian” or any other denominational affiliation makes us look too institutional. The  term “Christian” carries too many negative connotations with which we don’t want to be associated. So, we’ll enter something unique that our friends won’t be able to misconstrue. Again, one of the false assumptions behind this fear is that people actually read our profiles, and even fewer care whether we’re “Christian” or a “Follower of Christ.” Even fewer will be scandalized by reading that we’re “Presbyterian” or “Episcopalian.”

I think even more problematic is the fear many of us have of being associated with other Christians of a different breed. Saying that we’re “Christian” may in fact  associate us with the Pat Robertsons of our time, or some of the great injustices committed by Christians throughout history. But, we also can’t write our own faith’s prior history, or choose who our brothers and sisters in Christ are. Perhaps we’re called to own up to that history and reputation, and proclaim it with a spirit of humility and confession.

On top of that, maybe Christians listing their religion as Christian will be more effective evangelically. Let’s face it, a bunch of unique religion preferences is pretty poor branding and p.r. Maybe it’s time the Christian community on Facebook took a more united front in their religious Facebook preference.

Then again, I doubt anyone would notice…

Haiti, Pat Robertson, and Our Need to Lament

I’ve been hesitant to write and post this, partly because I’ve been busy with other projects, and mostly because I didn’t want to take peoples thoughts and energies on Haiti away from the still-much-needed relief work. (See my earlier post for opportunities to give if you haven’t already.) That being said, I’ve been mulling a lot over the way people generally responded to Pat Robertson’s comments.

I first learned about Robertson’s comments about Haiti when signing on to Twitter and realizing that his name was a “trending topic.” (If you don’t speak Twitter, a ‘trending topic’ is a name, word or phrase that a lot of people are mentioning in their tweets at that moment.) When I first saw Robertson’s name on the list, my first thought was, “He must have died.” It’s not typical that televangelists “trend” in the world of Twitter. Then I started reading what people were ‘tweeting’ about him. To sum up the comments in one word, they were *angry.* It didn’t take long for me to realize he had said something about the earthquake in Haiti comparable to comments he and other fundamentalist Christians have made about the Sept. 11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina. I began to panic a bit inside, knowing how detrimental comments like these are for Christian witness.

Wanting to see things for myself, I went to YouTube and watched the video of Robertson’s comments. After watching it, my panic turned to confusion. I couldn’t understand why people were reacting as they were. Here are some of my thoughts about Robertson’s comments, and the response of the media and general public.

I think it’s interesting that as some people summarized his comments, they accused him of attributing the earthquake to God, who was supposedly responding wrathfully against devil-worshipping Haitians. If you listen carefully to Robertson’s comments, that’s not what he said. He explained this story about the Haitian deal with the devil during the slave rebellion, and said that since then Haiti has been a country marked by poverty and suffering. He never said that suffering was the work of God. As I heard him say this, I assumed he was implying that the devil was the cause of these things.

Regardless of whether or not the “pact with the devil” is historical, Robertson didn’t make the story up himself. I know a number of people who have served as missionaries in Haiti, and I’ve heard them tell some form of this story  on more than one occasion. The story circulates among a lot of Christian groups in Haiti. However, Robertson left out a detail of the story, and this omission is what I found most offensive about his comments. As the story goes, the Haitians made a deal with the devil because the devil was the enemy of the European Christians who were enslaving them and of their God. If there’s any accuracy to Robertson’s opinion, if it’s true that Haitians today are suffering because of a sin committed by their ancestors, then Robertson should have made the comments in a spirit of confession, because Haitians made this “pact” in response to the sinful acts of oppression made against them by Robertson’s, and our, ancestors.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that so many people responded toward Robertson with anger and not dismissiveness. Most people thought that his comments were stupid, laughable, and historically inaccurate. Why not just say, “O, silly Pat Robertson.” and move on? I couldn’t help but wonder if people, albeit subconsciously, wanted to be angry. Perhaps some of us even fear that Robertson was partly right, that God did cause the earthquake. I don’t think God did, but I also know that human suffering almost always leads to theodicy questions and fears in peoples hearts. I wonder if Pat’s comments verbalized what some people were fearing, but afraid to say.

Regardless of how accurate Robertson’s take on the earthquake in Haiti is, I think his comments do at least hint at something truthful that most of us have not talked about. I think that there is a spiritual reality behind the earthquake in Haiti, just as I think that there is a spiritual reality behind any human suffering, whether it be an earthquake in Haiti, genocide in Darfur, or a crucifixion on Golgotha 2000 years ago. However, having read the book of Job, I also know that this spiritual reality is a mystery that we can’t fully understand and certainly can’t reduce to pat answers (no pun intended).

I think this spiritual reality is the reason Scripture includes the Psalms of lament. The anger expressed toward Pat Robertson was appropriate anger, but I don’t think it was expressed in the right direction. The psalms of lament teach us that honest emotions – anger, fear, mourning, confusion – can be expressed toward God, and they provide words to articulate that. What if, rather than expressing anger toward another human being, it was taken to God through prayer, such as Psalm 60? The psalm begins:

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; oh, restore us. You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters….

I think the Christian community needs to recover the use of Psalms such as this, especially in times of suffering. The psalms of lament don’t provide answers to the difficult questions that are inevitably in our minds when exposed to suffering, nor do they assuage the difficult emotions in our hearts. They do, however, give us a language to express these questions and emotions to our God, and it’s only in that context that we’ll find healing.

An Optimistic Skepticism: My Take On the Manhattan Declaration

In late September, a group of Christian leaders from the Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of the Church gathered in Manhattan and drafted a document now called the Manhattan Declaration. The document was released a couple weeks ago on November 20, signed by a number of Christian leaders representing all three of the branches of the Church. The Declaration is a call to Christians and non-Christians to join the signers in affirming and defending three “fundamental truths.”

1. the sanctity of human life.

2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Since it’s release in November, the Declaration’s website has invited other Christians to sign the declaration. As of my writing this, the document has been signed by more than 208,000 Christians. I’m not one of them…. yet.

When I read the Manhattan Declaration, there was much that I found commendable, but I also thought that too much went unsaid, and I remain skeptical of its effectiveness.

First, I appreciate the emphasis on unity among Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox voices. The signers from all three branches claim a common heritage. The Declaration begins:

Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.

The Declaration then goes on to give concrete examples of this common tradition. It recalls Christians in the Roman Empire rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps and remaining in cities to tend to the sick and dying rather than fleeing, like many did. It celebrates the role monasteries played in preserving literature and art, the role of Christians like John Wesley and William Wilberforce in ending the slave trade in England, and the Christian women who headed up the suffrage movement in America. It even celebrates the Christians who participated in the Civil Rights marches of 50s and 60s (something many evangelicals are less-quick to stand in solidarity with). I think this is easily the best part of the Manhattan Declaration, as it highlights some of the greatest examples of faithfulness and commitment to justice in the Church’s history.

The Manhattan Declaration also very evidently seeks to be honest, thorough, and compassionate. Even as the document celebrates faithful Christians through the ages, it also acknowledges “the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages.” When speaking of issues of life, the Declaration doesn’t only address abortion and euthanasia, but also says that genocide, human trafficking, exploitation of laborers, and innocent victims of war are all symptoms of the sam problem. When speaking of homosexuality, the Declaration says,

“We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter.” (emphasis my own)

In spite of its strong points, I’m still skeptical for a number of reasons.

First, when speaking of marriage, the Manhattan Declaration falls short of fully addressing the problem. The document laments the erosion of the dignity of marriage, evidenced by increasing divorce rates, increasing amounts of sexual co-habitation outside of marriage, and an increasing inability to consistently define marriage. It also confesses the Church’s failure to uphold the dignity of marriage within the Christian community. This is only half of the problem, though. Our culture, and even more so the Church, has lost a healthy view of singleness. The reason so many co-habiate or are sexually active before marriage is not only because we’ve failed to uphold the dignity of marriage, but also because we’ve failed to uphold the dignity of singleness. The word “single” or “singleness” isn’t once mentioned in the Manhattan Declaration.

The main source of my skepticism, though, is in the expectations of those who have drafted and signed the declaration. The declaration does a fine job of articulating the three ‘fundamental truths’ and the threats that are challenging them today. It’s less strong in articulating concrete next steps that we’ll take as Christians.

In his book The New Christians, Tony Jones notes that a critique of the liberal church (those Christians on the opposite side of the theological spectrum from the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration) is that they’ve gone from being “revolutionaries” to being “resolutionaries.” In other words, the liberal Christians who fought for social justice at the turn of the 20th century by the century’s end had gained the reputation of addressing justice issues by (un)simply passing resolutions at denominational meetings instead of getting their hands dirty. It seems that the conservative side of the spectrum has gone in the same direction. Paul Louis Metzger has noted this trend in his book Consuming Jesus, as has Tony Campolo in his book Can Mainline Denominations Make a Comeback?.

I hope  that the Christians signing the Manhattan Declaration will take seriously the heritage the Declaration claims for the Church of Christians through the ages tending the sick, serving the poor, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed and outcast. I pray that they’ll take seriously the problems and threats to justice that the declaration identifies, and that their response will go beyond merely signing a document. The Manhattan Declaration will only bear good fruit if it’s followed by concrete actions. May we be found faithful.

The Gospel According to the Joneses: Christianity and the Middle Class

In my last post, my friend, Lindsay (who has a great blog you should check out), left a comment posing a question too big to answer in a simple reply:

How did Christianity in America become the realm of the middle class?

It’s really a strange phenomenon that if one were to make a mental picture an American Christian, they’d likely see a White suburbanite. In most countries, this wouldn’t be the case. For starters, there simply is no middle class in many countries. However, I think it’s also significant that in most countries, especially in countries where the church is growing, Christianity is more frequently associated with the poor.

So why, then, is Christianity in America associated more with the middle class than with the poor? What does a religion whose leader taught “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” have to offer a class of people who are economically more stable and wealthier than the majority of the world? Why would a class of people so obsessed with “keeping up” with fashion, technology and material possessions be so ready to call Lord the one who told one man to sell all the had and give to the poor? I have a number of theories, and I’m guessing the truth lies in a combination of these and other ideas.

1.) America’s heritage and values. Christian values have been woven into the story of America, at least as many people tell it. The first (European) settlers came seeking religious freedom. Our founding fathers designed the law of the land around Christian values. Even early on, people considered America a “Christian nation.” (This is despite all of the very unChristian pieces of our history, like stealing land from natives and participating in the human slave trade, but that’s a whole other blogpost.) Christianity in many ways is considered as American as baseball and apple pie. And who likes baseball or apple pie more than the middle class?

2.) The evangelical church’s evangelism strategy in the 20th century. I’ve become more aware of this as a church planter. For years, the “church planting model” for evangelical churches in America was something like this: 1.) find a new developing suburb. 2.) buy several acres of land there. 3.) build your church. 4.) watch the people come. This is how most evangelical churches grew, particularly the evangelical megachurches, which are almost always located in the suburbs. The problem is that while this was happening, most were completely ignoring the fact that demographics in the neighborhoods of existing churches were changing, especially in the city. Most urban churches, however, continued their ministries as culturally White, middle-to-upper-middle class congregations, despite their surrounding context becoming increasingly less wealthy and less White.

3.) Our consumerism. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this has been the source of much of the church’s problems in the past 50 years. Along with buying land in a growing suburb and building there, church planters in the 20th century (and many still) stressed the importance of finding your churches ‘niche’ ministries. The underlying assumption was that everyone was looking for a church; your church just needed to provide what ‘seekers’ were looking for. This resulted in church buildings that resemble shopping malls and movie theaters, church music that imitated top 40 pop music, and ministries targeted to very specific demographics. This consumerist model of doing church led to divisions among Christianity; most evangelical churches today can be linked to a particular race and economic class. (The consumerist model also led to the church losing it’s appreciation for beauty and shifting its focus more toward cultural imitation as opposed to culture making. But again, a whole other blogpost…)

4.) We’ve watered down the gospel. A friend of mine who used to work for the administration at my alma mater, Grove City College (a college that’s about as Christian middle-class as you can get) once said to me, “Grove City College talks a lot about ‘Christian values,’ but they never talk about Jesus. Jesus is far too radical for Grove City College.” I think this is an absolutely true assessment (at least in terms of the administration and overall culture of the place). The Christian values of the Christian American middle-class are an incomplete, if not at times inaccurate, representation of the teaching of Christ and his first followers.

To sum up, Christianity has become the realm of the middle class mainly because the evangelical church in America has targeted them in the past century. The evangelical focus on church-planting in growing suburbs often left many urban and rural areas neglected. Our focus on the middle-class included ministry models that reinforced already-present class divisions in America, and failed to challenge middle-class Christians with portions of the gospel that challenge middle-class values.

“Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays”… part two: the issue isn’t persecution. it’s effective witness.

Last week, I began reflecting on the “battle” fought every December over whether the greeting “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is more important in public discourse. I questioned whether Christians ought just to give up the battle and begin seeing the “Holiday Season” as a holiday completely different from Christmas. You can read it in its entirety, along with the comments, here. The post generated more comments than anything else I’ve ever written on here (granted, soliciting comments through my facebook status probably helped that). Based on people’s comments, and on my own further reflection, here are some conclusions I’m coming to:

It’s simply erroneous to imply that stores instructing their employees to say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas” is anything resembling persecution for customers who happen to be Christian. Not to mention, doing so would also be insulting to those saints from previous ages and currently in other parts of the workd who have faced actual persecution and even martyrdom. That being said, if a store clerk wanted to say “Merry Christmas” and faced negative consequences from his employer for doing so, that would raise some free speech issues and be closer (but still probably not equivolent) to persecution.

The fact that this battle is happening, though, does raise contextual issues for Christians seeking to give faithful witness. Christmas has been commercialized. So much so , I would argue as I began to do in the last post, that the result is a completely different holiday bearing little-to-no resemblance to its original significance. The problem is that most Christians have responded one of two ways. Either they’ve completely given in to the whims of the culture and no longer celebrate Christmas as a Holy Day, or they just complain a lot and expect the culture to change back to the way things were. Actually, most Christians, paradoxically do both.

Christians need to find a new way to respond. For the church to simply go along with this cultural change is to give up on giving faithful witness to Christ. For the church to try to change things by flexing the flabby remnants of its influential cultural muscle is simply delusional, and borderline unethical. Christians need to respond in a way that is subversively counter-cultural, not for the sake of winning back Christmas, but for the sake of showing the world the value of following Jesus.

So, what does that look like? I have a few ideas, but I”m more curious to hear what you all think? How do Christians faithfully celebrate Christmas and subvert our culture’s commercialized “Holiday Season”?

“Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays”… Part One:Is It Time To Give This One Up?

For about 20 years or so now, my mom has owned a Hallmark store. I would work there when I was in high school and during college breaks. Obviously, I would work more at Christmas time. On several occasions there, I would have conversations with other employees about the appropriate phrase to say to customers after ringing them up. Some insisted on saying “Happy Holiday” (or something similar), and claimed that saying “Merry Christmas” would be offensive. I, being the proud (and stubborn) Christian that I am insisted on saying “Merry Christmas,” and a few others did with me. People did notice, and some even commented. Interestingly, I never once heard someone say they were offended. Instead, I kept hearing people (Christians, or at least nominally) tell me how much they appreciated that, and they couldn’t stand hearning “Happy Holidays.”

Christians seem to think that they’re losing something in a culture that says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” To give another example, just check out this new song by the Christian Singing Group “Go Fish” called “Christmas With a Capital C.”

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if it’s just time for Christians to give this fight up. Maybe it would be better for the sake of our witness simply to recognize that American culture, broadly speaking, does not celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a holiday marked by worshiping God for sending his Son, Jesus Christ into the world. Our culture celebrates “The Holiday Season,” a holiday that’s not Christmas, but happens to be celebrated at the same time of the year. Maybe instead of insisting that our neighbors and local businesses acknowledge our celebration of Christmas, it’s time for us to acknowledge that our culture is no longer interested in celebrating Christmas per se. Then we can respond missiologically rather than by fighting a culture war and longing for a return to Christendom and the cultural privileges that came with it.

For the half dozen or so of you who read this, I”m curious to know your thoughts. Has the American “Holiday Season” become something entirely different from Christmas? Should Christians acknowledge this? If so, is it ok for Christians to celebrate both Christmas and Holiday Season, or should Christians reject the alternative?

And since WordPress now lets you create polls:

We Need to Repent: A Reflection for the Beginning of Advent

If this article from the NY Times isn’t a call for us to repent of our consumerism and greed, I don’t know what is. The article reports that this morning (the morning after Thanksgiving) a Walmart employee died after being trampled by a stampede of shoppers who broke down the doors of the store just 5 minutes before it was supposed to officially open. Jdimypai Damour was one of a handful of employees trying to keep the doors shut until the store’s opening by pressing themselves against the door. They were eventually overcome by the large crowd of shoppers pushing on the other side. The doors snapped open, and people began falling onto one another. Mr. Damour was at the bottom of the pile. As he layed there, shoppers ignored him, stepping over and around him. Even as police arrived and tried to give him CPR, shoppers continued to ignore him and even pushed the police.

I’m tempted to rant about how shocked and appalled I am, and I could do that very honestly. More than anything though, I feel sober and humbled. This tragic act shows the ugliness of our culture’s (or perhaps our race’s?) greed and consumerism. Human beings are actually capable of being this greedy; so greedy that we’ll step around a dying man, even push the police officers trying to help him, so that we can get a good deal on an item from Walmart. On top of that, most of the items sold that morning were probably some product of injustice (unfair wages, not environmentally friendly, etc.).

I wonder what those shoppers who were there are thinking now? What about the parents who were there, ignoring this hurt man and rushing to buy toys for their children? What’s going to go through their minds on Christmas morning when their children open those presents and say to them, “Mommy! Daddy! Look what Santa brought me!”?

Sunday begins the season of Advent. It now has the reputation of being the time that begins the Christmas season. We think of it as the four weeks or so that we spend shopping for gifts and decorating houses. It’s also the time we start going to party after party, giving and receiving gifts, and eating more in one evening than some on this earth will ever see in their lifetimes. It grieves me that this is what Advent looks like for most people, including myself.

It’s time for Christians to put an end to the consumerism of Christmas, and a great way to start is to recover the original meaning of Advent. Advent was originally meant to be a penitential season (like Lent). It’s a season in which we reflect on this world’s need for Jesus to return and bring the Kingdom of God in it’s fullness, and a time for us to spend waiting and praying for that day to come. In the past (and in the present still for some Christians) Advent was a time of fasting and self-denial, not feasting and self-indulgence.

I’ve often heard it said by pastors to their congregants that we should take time to “pause” in the midst of the chaos Advent and Christmas bring and remember “the reason for the season.” I don’t think this is enough. We can’t just pause. Pausing won’t bring change. We need something more radical than pausing. We need to stop. We need to stop expecting to give and receive gifts that put us into debt and that we don’t need anyway. We need to stop consuming more than we need and start loving our neighbors. If we don’t our consumerism and greed will continue to reveal the worst in us, as it did this morning at Walmart.