Saturday, August 22, 2009

Canning Pickles

Had coffee with a friend of mine last week, whom I hadn't heard from in awhile. He's a (very) part-time music minister at a small church not far from us, and while we're not exactly close, he sometimes seeks me out for counsel. In the right conditions, it's something I do pretty well, and I enjoy it. Part of my psychological makeup is a need to feel useful and competent, which I don't think is terribly unusual, but since I'm being transparent about my dysfunctions I might as well confess that I often enjoy the feeling of being useful (which includes the feeling of being very smart and insightful) more than the person's company. Sick, I know. This is my life.

My friend has a Yoder-inspired "radical discipleship" kind of theology similar to the one I tried to have before I stopped bothering. This tends to get him in trouble. There's a bit of a game to navigating an evangelical church when your theology doesn't quite match up, and he's so adamant that there shouldn't be a game that he refuses to play it. Plus, his situation is interesting: he gets a very meager stipend to lead music, which he thought was basically a staff position, until he learned recently that the elders mostly think of him as a benevolence case. That has to hurt a little.

Recently, his Sunday School class was studying the passage in Numbers about the 12 spies. The spies are sent into Canaan and 10 of them report that the Canaanites are a bunch of preternatural badasses and they might as well turn back, whereas Joshua and Caleb come back convinced that YHWH will fight for them and this will be a cakewalk. 10 were bad and 2 were good, as the old song goes, a conspicuous numbering that probably comes to us (perhaps along with the rest of the story) from the southern tribes somewhere around the 6th century BCE.

One of the obvious take-aways from the story, at the Sunday School level, is to trust in God despite the obvious circumstances. This is the angle my friend took, encouraging them that with God on our side, we can do anything God asks of us. This was met with resistance, however, from a couple of women in the class, who insisted that sometimes life is just too hard. We're human and frail. For good or for ill, they could relate to the 10 naysayers and weren't afraid to say so. When my friend tried to correct their theology on this matter, they began, rather loudly, to discuss canning pickles.

Later, when they got to the part where Moses falls face down on the ground, the class pondered what this might be about. Some suggested that Moses had simply given up, falling on his face out of pure frustration. My friend pointed out that the Hebrew word used in the passage means to prostrate oneself in worship, and that Moses was probably humbling himself before the Lord and surrendering the situation to God's control. He pointed out that it is a corresponding Greek word that is the one most commonly translated "worship" in the New Testament. The pickle canners responded to this by saying something to the effect of "Yeah right. Like we're gonna do that," whereupon they resumed their discussion.

Now, the story comes to me from my friend, so I'm not sure that you or I would have experienced the pickle ladies as quite that rude. Then again, they might have been. I don't know. But I invited him to look beyond both the passive-agressive tactics and the theological content of their resistance and consider their social context. This is a small town in a downward economy. It might not be terribly surprising that they identify more with the 10 "bad" spies. It's quite possible that, however much they might be faithful churchgoers, their religion has never really offered them the sense that they can do anything, and they don't expect it to.

Instead, it offers solace, repose, and a form of community in the midst of a repressive economy -- not just recession but capitalism itself -- that they're not allowed to see for what it is. What I call oppression, from my academic, leftist, nerdy white guy perspective, they call bad luck or hard times. I'm going to guess, and I'm going to sound like I'm stereotyping horribly, that they're probably more likely to have the country station tuned in while they're canning pickles than they are the local Christian pop station. Their theme song is probably less "I Can Do All Things" than it is "Help Me Make it through the Night."

These thoughts are inspired, at least in part, by a book I read for a comprehensive exam called White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans. It's actually a theological work, whose author, Tex Sample (I did not make that up), studied at Boston University and now teaches at St. Paul's in Kansas City. His goal is to help the church understand and minister to working-class culture, using country music as the lens through which to do this, and along the way he offers a challenge to those of us who might look down our liberal bourgeois noses at working-class culture and country fans in general.

I'm totally guilty of this. I remember going to my first demolition derby, on a fluke, and though I admitted to really enjoying it, I qualified this to one of my artsy friends by saying "I felt like I should be eating pork rinds and wearing a wife-beater." The subtext here is that I was allowed to enjoy it only as a form of slumming. I've also made my share of NASCAR jokes. It's true; I confess.

As my friend and I discussed his Sunday School class, "canning pickles" quickly became a trope for the quotitidian, for the daily concerns of people who do not have time for or interest in arcane theological arguments. The pickle canners were saying, to my friend, that his theology was not practical for them. It was literally nonsense. They couldn't see any impact on their daily lives from his reading of things, and being theologically or exegetically correct was not a priority for them. They wanted cameraderie, fellowship, a bit of solace. They wanted their weekly opportunity to check in and be seen, maybe catch a bit of gossip -- to encounter the divine for a moment and then go back home to the roast in the crockpot. This ritual -- from the gossip to the roast, with the numinous in between -- serves to confirm both their perspective on the world and their place in it.

In this, I think they're like most people. Let's face it: the people who go into theology, or ministry, or religious studies, or become militant atheists -- and I submit these people have more in common than they might think -- are kind of weird. They think about religion a lot more than normal people do. It looms large in their minds. I remember listening to A Prairie Home Companion one night and discovering that, as odd as it sounds, I envied the people of Lake Wobegone, not for their idyllic life on the edge of the prairie but because their relationship with religion was so...normal.

Seriously, most people do not think about religion with the kind of frequency or at the level that I do, and sometimes I envy them. In a way, it's been my goal to find a way closer to where they are in spite of the fact that I'm constitutionally unable to be truly irreligious. Hence the turn from theology to religious studies, from being conservative to trying to be radical to admitting that I'm really just a liberal.

This doesn't make a lot of sense to my friend (not that I tried to explain it as such), who takes Jesus more seriously than that, to his credit. I don't find it realistic, and he's constantly running up against the realpolitik of a small-town church. I encouraged him to look at it more like a mission field, and to spend the kind of time learning the culture that a good missionary would, and that this includes the religious culture as well -- even when it clashes with his theology. I encouraged him to think less in terms of what he was there to teach than what he was there to learn. I also told him they wouldn't understand his theology until they knew what love looked like as it flows from his understanding of the gospel. Model that, and teach it, I said, and then they'll have a framework in which the theology makes sense.

In the meantime, he's learning how to can pickles.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

That Old-Time Religion

No story this time. I just want to ponder an old cliché:
Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.
Another version that found its way onto T-shirts and bumper stickers is "Please don't confuse Christianity with religion." Or the billboard ostensibly quoting Bono: "Religion often gets in the way of God."

On its face, I suppose this is correct. Our efforts to live up to some standard or another can blind us to the numinous wherever it might find us. A musician who gets too caught up in the details of a performance might miss out on the magic of the music itself. Clinging too tightly to our self-concepts can choke the shit out of wonder.

The flip side of this however, comes down to special pleading. It's a way of claiming exceptionalism: what we have is a relationship with God (or Jesus, or whatever), something good and pure and wholesome -- all those other people are trapped in something ugly called religion. This includes all those other Christians who don't get it. I recently ran across this in a blog discussion. "You're comparing two concepts of God," one commenter wrote, complaining that the blogger was being too theological, "and I'm talking about the need to trust God himself." Which, you know, isn't theological at all.

The irony of this kind of posturing is that in the early days of comparative religion, Christianity itself was the template of what religion looked like, the gold standard against which other religions were measured. This has changed and is changing, which is good, but we might never fully escape the influence of Christianity on our sense of what religion is supposed to be. Christianity holds a unique place in the West by virtue of having enjoyed cultural dominance for so long.

In a sense, Christianity didn't even become a religion until at least the Renaissance, and perhaps not really until the Enlightenment, when we began construing religion as a discrete sphere of human activity and meaning-making. Prior to this, Christianity, in the form of Christendom, was an entire culture, distinct from other cultures and lifeways on an holistic basis, existing in dialectical tension with the construction of non-Christian cultures as Other, on multiple levels. The Enlightenment shift didn't take political shape until the American Revolution, when the successful dissenters set about to construct as secular a nation as anyone could conceive of at the time, a point that gets overlooked by "Christian nation" apologists.

In the letters of Paul, the primary distinction is between church and world, the kingdom of God versus the Roman Empire. Rome and/or the Jewish establishment were the Other against which the church defined itself. This was accomplished partially by rallying those marginalized and "othered" by the reigning domination systems -- slaves and Jews in the case of the Roman Empire, Gentiles and "sinners" in the case of the religious establishment.

This dichotomy collapsed when Christianity became a tolerated (and ultimately fashionable) religion in 313 under Constantine and then the official religion in 380 under Theodosius. Once a dissident movement, Christianity became the establishment. The Goths were so excited by this that Alaric sacked Rome 30 years later, something that hadn't happened in eight centuries. The empire more or less officially came to an end when Romulus Augustus was deposed by a pagan general in 476 -- not quite a century after Theodosius' decree. At the risk of falling into the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (it happened after, therefore it happened because), the timing is conspicuous enough to wonder if Christianity wasn't, ironically, the downfall of Rome.

In a different kind of irony, perhaps, it is also possible to narrate Christianity's coming to power as fulfillment of their eschatological expectation: the last became first, the weak strong, in perhaps a too-literal sense. They asked, and God gave them the nations. Or at least an empire, complete with enemies they could no longer afford to love.

I've given up on the kind of ideological purity that would allow me to see this as a wholly bad thing, a regrettable cul-de-sac of history. Just as Christianity itself has shaped our sense of what religion is, our sense of what Christianity is has been shaped by its negotiation with empire. It is during this time period that the Christian liturgy begins to take shape, as well as the biblical canon. Even the most radically Protestant movements cannot escape the influence because it is this, and not something else, against which they are protesting.

Negotiating the tangled relationship between religion and politics, facing the challenge of these competing claims on the human subject, is characteristic of Christianity and thus of Western culture in general. In fact, I would venture to say that one could write a history of religion in America by looking at how various groups parsed that relationship. It isn't answering this question in a certain way that is the hallmark of the tradition, at least from an historical standpoint -- it's that the question comes up at all.

The "relationship not religion" trope is ultimately disingenuous. It's a little like me saying that I don't have a job, I have a relationship with a university. And of course I do, it's just that the relationship in question is something most of us call a job: I do certain things for which they pay me. Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. Of course Christianity is a relationship. In fact it is a complex web of relationships on a number of levels, one that most of recognize as religion.

Insisting that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion sets up a false dilemma. Without sounding too trendy, it's a both/and. Furthermore, if Christianity is not, or is no longer, your cup of spiritual tea, you most likely have something to which you relate in way that an anthropologist or religious studies major would describe as religious. And chances are, if you live in America, that relationship is colored in some way by Christianity. I'm not saying that's good or bad or that it proves anything in particular. It just is.

But the claim does make sense. Given the tiny bit of history I've offered here, it is no surprise that evangelicals (who seem most likely to make the "not a religion" claim) don't want their belief system characterized in such a way that it must take a backseat to the claims of democracy in framing public discourse. I must check the claims of my religion in the interest of the common good, but my deep, personal relationship with God surely trumps all that, no? Haven't we noticed a difference in, say, a public leader willing to admit that his or her faith informs decision-making but cannot override democratic ideals, and one who takes marching orders directly from God?

So when someone says that Christianity -- or whatever their religion of choice happens to be -- is a relationship and not a religion, we should nod and smile. We should be polite. We should recognize that they are simply telling us how important their religion is to them. It's like the rabid fan who tells you that their favorite performer does not make music, he or she performs magic. Or something like that.

But we know the truth, and there's really no sense in denying it: of course Christianity is a religion. It functions in the lives of its adherents the way that all kinds of other religions function. Sometimes it is liberating. Sometimes it is oppressive. Sometimes it is life-giving; sometimes it is soul-crushing. Sometimes it just depends on the day. Calling it something else doesn't change that. Claiming exceptionalism doesn't change that. Rejecting it precisely because it is a religion doesn't change that.

But I don't want to be too much of a wet blanket; of course it's special.

Just like all the others.