Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review: Persecution Complex by Jason Wiedel

I now believe that Christians in America are not persecuted or oppressed. I will go so far as to say the persecution of American Christians is a myth, a fiction that serves to bind many American Evangelical communities together. It is a legitimizing force for our religious activities, a motivator for evangelism, and an excuse to behave badly toward those with whom we disagree. Worst of all, it distracts us from the real problems of human suffering, to which Jesus instructed his followers to attend. What many Christians perceive as persecution is actually fear of losing their privileged place in society, a fear that is exploited by the very people who have the most to lose from this shift in status. - Jason Wiedel, Persecution Complex

I was part of several campus ministry groups in college, several of which had some evangelical leanings. My junior year, a couple members worked to bring a Christian band to campus, which would include a speaker and opportunity for inviting attendees to talk one-on-one with those trained in the typical procedure of prayer and proselyzation that accompanied it.

A week or two before the concert was to be held, I happened upon a conversation in the student activity center where several of those who oversaw the scheduling of campus events were expressing their confusion as to what group was sponsoring this. I chimed in and told them to put my campus house organization's name on it, thinking this would resolve the situation. A few days later, the local church co-sponsoring this concert appeared on our doorstep saying the college told them they wouldn't be able to host due to paperwork not being filed properly. Rather than seek to reschedule while following proper procedures this time, we decided that this was an attempt to stifle Christian witness, and saw this as a call to fight back toward the oppressive administration seeking to silence us. In reality, we probably could have just filed some forms and been okay.

This felt need always to frame pushback against Christian ideas or actions as persecution has a long history and some suspect theology, not to mention that it can often be avoided as in the case of my group's concert. In Persecution Complex: Why American Christians Need to Stop Playing the Victim, Jason Wiedel explores why many Christians in the U.S. seem to constantly behave as if they're a put-upon minority when the opposite is often the case.

Wiedel begins by exploring where the persecution narrative comes from and how different groups, organizations, and individuals promote and perpetuate it. He examines what the world looks like from this perspective, the Biblical texts on which it is based, and some of the historical movements that have contributed to its rise including Dispensationalism, Christian fundamentalism of the late 1800s, the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s. Wiedel illustrates how each of these helped stoke fear of losing ground to non-Christian ideas and behavior.

"Persecution Complex" actually serves as a double entendre for Wiedel, as not only does he use it to describe a mindset out of which people operate, but also an industry that helps perpetuate it through movies, books, and certain news outlets. Examples given include the recent God's Not Dead and Left Behind franchises, as well as the so-called "war on Christmas" that we inevitably hear about every December. Wiedel argues that a persecution narrative is profitable both financially for media companies, but also politically for candidates and parties that tap into it.

Wiedel examines why this narrative is so attractive, but also why it is so dangerous. He explores how this perspective can inspire people to band together against a common perceived enemy and take action against them. Again, this can come in handy for politicians but at its worst it can also be unquestioning and absolute, with persecution becoming equivalent to being right and just no matter what.

In both the early chapters and in the last, Wiedel argues against the validity of this perspective in several ways. First, he points out that what people call persecution is usually a loss of privilege: things like removing mandatory prayer from public school or a display of the 10 Commandments from a courthouse is less oppression and more making room for those with other religious beliefs or no belief. He also presents a theological case for why certain texts are misread by those who hold this narrative while stating that Christians' calling is more to help the poor and the downtrodden rather than seek to limit the rights of others or hang onto one's special place in society.

Wiedel presents a decent introduction to the Christian persecution complex, both as a personal mental state and as a framing of the world pushed by organizations and coalitions for the ultimate benefit of a few. I did not find parts of the book well-written: I didn't appreciate an early example he gives equating this perspective with schizophrenia, and some chapters are only a few pages and could have been fleshed out more or folded into other parts. But if you're looking for some basic insight into why many Christians believe they are persecuted despite continuing to enjoy cultural dominance in many ways, then this will still serve as a helpful beginner's guide.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Vintage CC: This Day in History

This Sunday is the 60th anniversary of my denomination, the United Church of Christ. I wrote this post back in June 2008 to make light of all the trouble the UCC has had educating people that it isn't the same as the Church(es) of Christ. I look forward to being at General Synod next week to celebrate this milestone.

Date: June 25, 1957
A group of church members gathering in Cleveland, Ohio

Guy: All right, everyone. We've pretty much worked everything out except one detail. What shall we call this new church of ours? I propose that, since we are a newly united church, we should call ourselves the United Church of Christ.

Second Guy: Um...pardon me for a second.

Guy: Yes, you'd like to speak to the name?

Second Guy: Yeah, about that. Don't you think that if we called ourselves that, people might confuse us with the Church of Christ?

Guy: Why would people do that? It's a totally different church.

Second Guy: Well, yes, but Church of Christ, United Church of Christ...they're pretty similar.

Guy: You answered your own question. Clearly, our name has the word "United" in front of it.

Second Guy: But people might not get that they're different.

Guy: Of course they're different. They're just the Church of Christ. We're the UNITED Church of Christ.

Second Guy: I'm just saying that maybe we should think about something more distinctive...

Guy: We'd have the "United" in front, plus we use organs. No one could ever confuse the two.

Second Guy: I don't know, man...they seem pretty similar to me...

Guy: Not possible. People will be able to tell the difference. Our own members, non-members, the media, the governor of Connecticut...they'll all easily recognize that we're not the same and always call us by our proper name.

Second Guy: I'm not so sure...

Guy: Of course they will. UNITED Church of Christ. It's can't-miss. We'll never ever have to explain to anyone that they're different.

Second Guy: But is adding an extra word going to be enough? They still seem really close...

Guy: All in favor of "United Church of Christ" as our new name, say "Aye!"

Everyone Else: Aye!

Happy birthday, UNITED Church of Christ.

Monday, June 19, 2017

What is the Labyrinth?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?

The first thing that you should know is that the labyrinth is not a maze. It annoys me when people refer to it as such, so I wanted to mention that right away.

Rather, a labyrinth is a single path with one entrance and one exit (which are the same), usually arranged in a circular pattern with the center designated as a place to stop, rest, pray, or reflect. Because of the way the path bends around itself in this traditional design, each layer of the path between the edge and the center is called a "circuit." The number of circuits helps the walker know how large and how long the labyrinth is.

There are two common numbers of circuits in a labyrinth. The "classical" design has seven circuits and dates back to ancient Greece, where it originated as part of a myth to keep the Minotaur contained. The other most well-known design is the 11-circuit labyrinth often called "Chartres-style," named after the Chartres Cathedral in France which helped popularize it.

Today's labyrinth practice is a form of pilgrimage, a time of spiritual reflection where the walking itself is an act of prayer. As you walk toward the center, you are journeying with God as your guide. You may or may not experience any grand revelation; the meaning is in the walking.

Here are a series of steps to observe when walking the labyrinth.

1. Stand at the entrance. Take several deep breaths in preparation for your walk. Say a brief opening prayer, asking God for guidance as you begin. If you come to the practice with a particular question or concern, include it in your prayer and then let it go, entrusting it to God as you walk.

2. Begin walking. Take your time; do not hurry toward the center or look too many steps beyond where you are. Focus on the walking, the movement. If you feel moved to pause, do so and let what inspired you run its course until you think it's time to continue. If others are walking at the same time, be mindful of them so that you may pass each other with minimal disruption. If a thought or insight comes to you while you walk, allow it to linger until it becomes a distraction, and then release it.

3. When you make it to the center, linger for as long as you like. Find a prayer posture that is comfortable for you, whether sitting or standing, arms raised or lowered. Much like as you were walking, remain with insights as long as necessary before letting them go. When you feel ready, begin your walk back out the way you came.

4. Much like your journey to the center, focus on the walking. Pause when moved to do so, be aware of fellow walkers.

5. When you reach the entrance, turn and face it. You may say a closing prayer of thanks or simply bow to acknowledge the conclusion of the exercise. It may be helpful to journal about the experience in order to process what happened. It may lead to further realizations about thoughts or feelings you had while doing it.

In my experience, the labyrinth can be useful particularly when sitting still to pray is not an option due to restlessness or temperament. It is a form of movement prayer, embodying the journey of faith on which we are constantly traveling.

Work consulted: Walking a Sacred Path by Lauren Artress

Thursday, June 15, 2017

To My Self 15 Years Ago on His Wedding Day

Dear Jeff,

Greetings from your future, and congratulations on your--or, I guess our--special day. I'd acknowledge how much planning and effort has gone into today's festivities, but let's be honest: most of it wasn't yours. But you're here now, stomach full of chicken wings from the night before and not running on much sleep due to nerves, preparing to make things official with the woman you've come to know as the love of your life.

I'm sending you this letter because I want you to know some things about the next 15 years. I'll try to keep things spoiler-free with specifics, but if I can help you with some general points to expect or live by or beware of, I think it might help us both out.

First, call all your groomsmen right now and make sure they've eaten and are well-hydrated. Just trust me on this.

Second, don't worry too much about remembering anything from today. Your photographer will have you on a schedule that will make you believe it's more about everyone other than you. Just get through it. There will be more important memories to be made later on anyway.

Okay, now that I have the wedding advice out of the way, let's talk about the marriage.

You're going to be broke for a while. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by telling you this. You're a seminary student, she doesn't even have a job yet. And I know that you have visions in your head of living some kind of romantic hipster lifestyle in your little apartment where you're both going to be students cooking cute little trendy dishes for each other.

Let's just say it's going to be more complicated than that. In fact, finances will be one of your top struggles for a few years, and not only will it be a strain on what you can afford but on how well you'll support and understand each other as you each try to help make ends meet. That stat you once heard about money being a big cause of divorce is no joke. So pay attention to your spending and give her in particular a lot of leeway because she'll be the one doing the heavy lifting in this area while you prance to and from your classes. Seriously, man. Don't take this or her for granted.

And that leads me to my second thing: communicate. Tell her how you're feeling about things, whether stress about classes, frustration about school, what you're worried and excited about. Later on, tell her stories from your first job. Just share yourself as well and as completely as you can. I know how difficult this is for you; how much you worry about saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood. You get better at this even though you'll never stop worrying about it. But the more you talk about what you're thinking and feeling, the better she'll get where you're coming from. It still won't excuse some of the dumb stuff you're going to do over the years, but there's a good chance it'll help.

While you're at it, listen to her. All those ways I just told you to put yourself out there for her benefit, receive those same things from her with care. She's already better at doing this than you, but you also have to open yourself to what she's saying. She's got her own frustrations with school and career coming, and you have to be ready to hear her out. She's trusting you with this, and you should appreciate that.

Okay, here's one spoiler: you have kids. Two of them. And I can tell you they're both beautiful, hilarious, intelligent, curious, and fun, and they're two of the best outcomes of what you're doing today. I'd attach a picture, but I know that it'll just cause you to blubber your way through the vows later. And I'll save the parenting advice, because you'll get way more than you'll want or need when the time comes. Instead, I'll say this: the adjustment will take a while and at times be a pretty big strain. So keep three things in mind:

1. All that stuff I just said about sharing and listening? Keep doing that, except harder.

2. Make sure to keep being a couple, not just roommates with kids. They're really important, but not at your relationship's complete expense. You'll figure out how to do this, I'm just saying be prepared.

3. I mainly wanted to tell you about the children because holy crap, do things get amazing for the two of you. I mean really, I can't even describe with words how good it all gets. I mean, yeah, there are some frustrating times, but I could just keep going on and on about...

Sorry. Where was I?

Okay. Let me wrap this up, because this is getting long and the photographer will be coming for you any minute.

Enjoy your day. Really, enjoy it. There's a lot to celebrate and you and I both know how wonderful she is. And make sure you keep celebrating her long after today, when you're stuck eating Ramen for the third night in a row and when you're up with one of the babies again and when one of you are working late or have to get up stupid early and when you're enjoying geeky things together (They're going to bring back Doctor Who in a few years...start watching that as soon as they do instead of waiting for Netflix to pick it up. Wait, you don't even know what Netflix is yet. Just trust me, okay?).

It's not going to be perfect, but it's going to be worth it. And it'll take some work, growth, and change on your part to make it so. Be open to that, because she's going to make you better.

Congrats again,

P.S. Seriously, call your groomsmen.