Two different blog posts today show how two different communities wrongly thought they were victims of persecution. Firstly, Michael Spencer shows convincingly that evangelicals were not killed for their faith by the two teenage gunmen at Columbine. Nor was it about video game nasties, atheism or the occult. The information has been seeping out for years, he says, but a major piece in USA Today has put it all together. Yet because many of the victims were related to local churches, a quick assumption was made. A mythology grew up, books were published, songs were recorded.
Secondly, there has been outrage in recent days over the removal of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books from Amazon’s best-seller list. Search for #amazonfail on Twitter and you’ll find thousands of upset tweeters. But today comes the news that it wasn’t the consequence of anti-gay policies. It was a technological error. Clay Shirky, himself strongly in favour of gay rights, reports the truth in detail.
Here, then, is an issue where the evangelical community and the gay community (if both are truly communities, but that’s another issue) have something in common. Both have reasons for presupposing that opposition is persecution. Evangelicals are fuelled by church history and parts of the Bible; gay people have very recent history that predisposes them to the assumption.
To speak personally about this, I remember a few weeks after the Columbine shootings seeing a report on BBC television’s Newsnight which cast doubt on the martyrdom theory. At the time, I just assumed it was simply the BBC’s liberal bias against conservative Christians and dismissed it. I found the testimony of Cassie Bernall‘s family to her faith as a reason for her killing as more persuasive. I am not remotely suggesting they were insincere or dishonest at all, but now it seems I have to admit the BBC was right. They were modelling good reporting rather than showing bias.
Isn’t it true, though, that Christians – even in the West – are facing more opposition? Yes, it is, and I have argued frequently that our best posture for shaping our witness today is that of exile. It is a view eloquently given biblical and historical precedent in Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare for Exile‘. However, there is a vast difference between that posture and that adopted by the wider Christian community in the wake of Columbine. Exile requires humility. It embraces the fact of being a minority in a ‘Babylonian’ culture. In contrast, according to Spencer, American evangelicals interpreted Columbine as part of the disastrous ‘culture war’. That meant taking a stance from a position of power, not of weakness. Ordinary people in society often have little sympathy for those in power.
And power seems to have been one of the mistakes in the pro-gay protests against the Amazon error, according to Shirky. Amazon is now seen as a large corporation and thus not worthy of sympathy.
Of course, it’s ironic to suggest evangelical Christians and gay people are or have been in similar positions. There is mutual suspicion, if not worse, between the groups, although Tony Blair thinks that situation is softening with younger evangelicals. It may even be the traditional Christian position on sexuality that helps send the church into exile, given recent trends in legislation. I’m thinking about laws that prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and the way they have affected organisations such as Catholic adoption agencies. Not that all Christians are agreed on this matter, as we know so painfully. I still hold the traditional conviction, much as I would sometimes like to believe differently, because it would ease my tensions with today’s society. However, quite a few friends who read this blog disagree with me. That is just a microcosm of the bigger picture.
What, then, if there is opposition? One thing’s for sure: a ‘culture war’ power play is just not the way to react. Whitworth suggests new attitudes, spirituality and approaches to mission in his book that I cited above. With regard to attitudes, he cites the Beatitudes and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon as decisive for Christians. That means humility, the acceptance of persecution and a willingness to hunker down for the long haul (contrary to certain prophecies of revival, I wonder?).
Might we have a more Christlike witness if we took this approach?
Co-Operative Funeralcare have done another survey on popular music and hymn choices at – er, funerals. Church Mouse has the chart rundowns and some commentary. This would be the excuse opportunity for me to re-run my favourite funeral music story.
About ten years ago, a woman asked to have Celine Dion’s (hideous) ‘My heart will go on’ played as we brought her mother’s coffin into the crematorium chapel. When the undertaker, pallbearers and I were ready outside the chapel doors, I gave the nod to the crematorium attendant.
The music began. It was Celine Dion. It was ‘My heart will go on.’ Only trouble was, it was the dance remix.
As drums thumped all over the melodramatic Canadian warbling, one pallbearer looked at me and said, “Do we have to take the coffin in at that tempo?”
“No,” said another, “It’s the deceased knocking, wanting to get out!”
How I remained calm and dignified to take the service, I’ll never know. It was all I could do to suppress laughter.
The next day the bereaved woman kindly phoned me to thank me for the service. I thought I ought to raise the issue of the music delicately. “Did you notice it wasn’t the normal version of the song but the dance remix?”
“I just thought I ought to mention it in case anybody was upset by what happened.”
“Oh no,” she said, “it wasn’t a problem. Besides, my mum was a bit of a goer, and she’d have loved it!”
Angie Ward has an excellent piece at Leadership Journal entitled Don’t Stuff The Dog. She talks of how pet owners have deceased animals stuffed and left in the house as a sign of denial and also sometimes to scare off strangers. She makes this telling comparison:
Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward “stuffing the dog,” maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it’s sometimes much easier to stuff a church’s pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.
These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the “pet projects” and ministries of influential leaders who don’t want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper!) than a new animal.
… stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren’t familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it’s a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something’s not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.
It’s so hauntingly familiar. How often as church leaders we are called to exercise spiritual terminal care over a church group that does not realise or want to contemplate that it is dying. For all my interest in contemporary ministry, the classic meeting that fits this idea wherever I go is the Women’s Fellowship. The formula is predictable. They meet on a midweek afternoon for an hour. There are always three hymns taken from a long-superseded hymn book, an opening prayer that remembers the sick who cannot be present, and a speaker who may be religious in theme or not. It meets a genuine need mostly for elderly widows who would not otherwise see many people from week to week apart from Sunday morning.
However they often cannot understand why the women in the congregation who have more recently reached retirement age don’t want to join them. There has been a culture change, and these women generally prefer the home group. It’s more informal and in the best ones more opportunity for vulnerable openness and mutual support.
But while it’s easy to look down on outmoded Women’s Fellowships, we may miss the likelihood that the home groups may themselves soon need terminal care. A Bible study where the challenge of the material is dissipated by a quick closing prayer and the opportunity over tea and coffee afterwards to move onto less uncomfortable topics of conversation, anyone?
In truth, all such new formulations are prone to this danger before too long. It isn’t just about culture change, it’s about losing the vision and the passion. What am I doing, both to give outmoded activities terminal care and a decent funeral, but also to help ensure that our whole focus remains on life and discipleship? Jut introducing something new as if ‘cell’ or ‘base communities’ or whatever were the answer is to miss the point. To change the metaphor, what am I doing to promote new wine and new wineskins?