The middle of May once again finds me at the Festival of Homiletics with my friends and colleagues David Breckenridge and Dan DeLeon. This year we are in San Antonio. Here's the event website. We'll join 1,200 other ministers in listening to sermons and lectures on preaching all week!
Last year's event, which I blogged extensively (the first post is here) was focused on Prophetic Preaching with pretty much every presenter pounding home every social justice issue imaginable in the midst of the election. More than once Trump the candidate was denounced last year.
So, I'll be curious how this great preachers grapple with preaching the Age of Trump, an issue I continue to wrestle with. And though the location and theme were picked long before the election, it clearly lends itself to engagement with our national catastrophe.
Much has been written about the puzzling support of Donald Trump by Evangelicals (meaning conservative to fundamentalist Protestants and not the more correct theological term of groups descended from Martin Luther, of which my denomination, for instance, is a part).
On one hand, I'm not puzzled by the craven Evangelical leaders supporting him. Many of them gave evidence of their moral vacuity years ago. Importantly, not all Evangelicals have backed him. Russell Moore, for instance, has been an outspoken critic, and maybe now risking his job because of it.
I'm more puzzled by the support of the average Evangelical who I know to generally believe in morality. The Evangelicals I grew up with largely abandoned Clinton because of his draft dodging, pot smoking, and affairs, even though they had been Yellow Dog Democrats until the 1990's. It is these folk who puzzle me. I wonder what has changed in the Evangelical world since I departed it?
This Molly Worthen article in the Atlantic I did not find helpful, because I believe it misrepresents Evangelical history. In particular she sites opposition to the New Deal as being an organizing principle for Evangelical politics. Now, the Evangelical world I grew up in was, as already stated, Yellow Dog Democrat. FDR was a deeply admired person. The Southern Baptists I knew were mostly supporters of the New Deal.
She's not wrong about the conservative Evangelicals who early embraced right wing politics, but this shows that there was a complexity to the Evangelical world often overlooked in mainstream journalist. Let me explain a little.
In the small town Oklahoma Southern Baptist world I grew up in, there was not a widespread embrace of conservative Evangelicalism. Pentecostals of various stripes were often looked down upon as "holly rollers." People like Jerry Falwell, the Bakers, Pat Robertson, etc. had very little to no influence. They were viewed with great skepticism by the people I grew up with and were considered greedy and craven and abusers of religion.
That more mainstream, even moderate Evangelicalism was overtaken by an alliance of fundamentalists and right wing politicians is itself a story that needs to be told in more detail.
Catching upon blogging, I want to share this interesting article from the NY Times on the evangelical roots of the post-truth society. If anything, I think this article needs to be longer, with more in-depth exploration of the topic.
The author discusses how conservative and fundamentalist evangelical Christians embrace a worldview of biblical inerrancy which compels them to reject aspects of science, philosophy, and history which they find incompatible. They are taught to view those things and their purveyors as false or fake.
This was something of my experience, growing up, though I grew up in an era when the fundamentalists did not have complete control of my denomination, but this sort of talk was gaining ground. In some ways it emerged out of conservative Christian rejection of some aspects of popular culture and the culture wars of my parent's generation. I do remember being raised on the evils of rock music, for example. So as those sectarian ideas developed over time, they led to a rejection of even more of mainstream culture and thought.
The Texas textbook fights are good examples. The debate wasn't just about rejecting science books that discussed evolution, health textbooks couldn't discuss condoms in the sex ed section and, later, history textbooks downplayed ideas like the separation of church and state.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
We all cling to our own unquestioned assumptions. But in the quest to advance knowledge and broker peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world, the worldview based on biblical inerrancy gets tangled up in the contradiction between its claims on universalist science and insistence on an exclusive faith.
By contrast, the worldview that has propelled mainstream Western intellectual life and made modern civilization possible is a kind of pragmatism. It is an empirical outlook that continually — if imperfectly — revises its conclusions based on evidence available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs about the supernatural. This worldview clashes with the conservative evangelical war on facts . . .
So, it's easy to see how this brainwashing might lead to people without the critical thinking skills and personal autonomy to judge Donald Trump accurately. Yet, I remain puzzled with how supposed promoters of traditional values could embrace this moral reprobate.
What struck me most about these Norse myths was their darkness. There is a lightness to the fantasies of the Greeks and Romans and an enjoyable humor in the tales of Native Americans. But these myths contain a heaviness.
For example, in the description of Yggdrasill, the great tree which is the axis of the world. It is constantly being gnawed at by the dragon Nidhogg "trying to loosen what was firm and put an end to the eternal." We are told that "Parts of the huge trunk were peeling, parts were soft and rotten. Yggdrasill whispered and Yggdrasill groaned."
Strange to imagine this corruption and rot in the the very core of one's mythology. Plus, the constantly foreboding of the end of the age and the destruction that would come with it.
How strange that there was a time when these were the tales people told about those they worshiped.
I have felt the last few months that the most important task isn't opposition--as important as that is--but reweaving the moral and social fabric which has deteriorated. Which means I, in some ways, viewed Trump as a symptom and not the disease, the cause. This is the motivation behind much of my recent reading, writing, preaching, even the podcast. How to restore morality, decency, faith, society, and democracy.
Today I watched this sermon which David Brooks delivered at the National Cathedral and it expresses so much of what I've been thinking and feeling. This sermon gives more shape to my thoughts and encourages me at a point when I was doubting the direction I had chosen. I encourage you to watch it.
“I know why people voted for him; I know why people voted against his opponent. But, at the end of the day, what I felt from his leadership in this experience was actually horrifying. There was palpable fear in the room. There was thick anger and vengeance. He was counting on it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it would not have taken very much for him to have called this group of people into some kind of riotous reaction.”
And there was this strange, revealing, and also upsetting tidbit:
“The First Lady approached the platform and in her rich accent, began to recite the Lord’s prayer,” he added. “I can’t explain it, but I felt sick. This wasn’t a prayer beseeching the presence of Almighty God, it felt theatrical and manipulative. People across the room were reciting it as if it were a pep squad cheer. At the close of the prayer, the room erupted in cheering. It was so uncomfortable. I observed that Mr. Trump did not recite the prayer until the very last line, ‘be the glory forever and ever, amen!’ As he raised his hands in the air, evoking a cheer from the crowd, ‘USA! USA! USA!’ ”
A Goodreads friend marked this as to-read, curious I pulled the link upon Amazon and thought the book looked lovely. We want to raise our son with an appreciation of many cultures, ethnicities, and faiths, so this is the type of book we want in our house. Plus, there is a Muslim girl in his class at daycare with whom he has been good friends. That this book was about a Muslim girl seemed perfect.
The book arrived a few days later and its quite beautiful. Sebastian enjoyed it so much we read it three times that first evening. He has taken to calling the girl in the book by the name of the friend at daycare!
Even as a child, Dorothy Day was "filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure" (her own words). She is the next person discussed in David Brook's exploration of character. Despite her childhood spirituality, the saintly Day emerged from a life of struggle and a very bohemian young adulthood. Brooks uses her as an example of how character emerges from struggle and suffering.
Brooks uses the opportunity of recounting Day's life to explore the impact of suffering on building character. He makes an important point near the beginning of that discussion, "When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people."
How do we grow from suffering? Brooks makes three points. First that it "drags you deeper into yourself." Suffering compels you to face your sins and weaknesses and won't let you get away with the easy answers. Second, it teaches us our limitations, what we can and cannot control. Finally, it teaches gratitude for the thinks we take for granted in good times.
Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don't come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love. They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.
Three other points I want to comment on in this chapter.
It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it--reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.
I think I read like this, or at least something similar.
Second. He writes about Day's choice to live among the poor and experience their suffering and poverty. I was once drawn to such a Christian conviction , though I never acted on it. In the mid-Aughts I was reading much theology and Wendell Berry. I was influenced by Day indirectly and others. At the time I was coming out and worried about losing my calling as a pastor, I considered that if everything went south, then I'd choose some commitment to poverty. But, life didn't lead in that direction, and my calling was clearly different.
I contrasted Brooks' discussion of Day in this chapter with Kittlestrom's discussion of Jane Addams and her relationship with Hull House in The Religion of Democracy. In my blogpost on that chapter, I wrote about Addams's encounter with Tolstoy and how she ultimately rejected his ethical purity for a pragmatism she thought was more likely to solve problems. These days I tend in the Addams direction.
Finally. In this chapter I began to feel the constraints of Brooks' presentation and further admiration for Kittelstrom's figures. Brooks has yet to explore any figure who advocated for personal liberation. All of his characters are dominated by restraint. I know that is one of the themes of the book, but it's beginning to feel a little stifling. Consider the discussion of Thomas Davidson in Kittelstrom. In contrast to the submission of Day is this idea: " to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe."
Again, my coming out experience has emphasized the important of authenticity, liberation, and self-expression. Maybe a book on the important virtues from the queer perspective?
And, here was my last post in this particular series, on the virtue of moderation as expressed by Dwight Eisenhower.