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Monday, August 08, 2005

Grassroots Evangelicals

Times change. Grassroots and pomo *were* once the domain of liberals and leftists. We felt secure, no matter what the polls said, because of two pieces of knowledge:

1) the Left, not the Right, was teaching children, ministering to prisons, and building communities. We nurtured children, we organized sex education programs, we enthused sixteen-year-olds to save the earth through recycling programs. We were everywhere, and we understood the future.

2) To us belonged an understanding of language, culture, and sociology far beyond what they could muster. Whatever else happened, the least of us could whoop the ass of the greatest of them in a real philosophical argument. We were smart, and education would vanquish ignorance in the last battle.

No more.

The Lausanne Committee on World Evangelicalism (the same people who brought you the Consultation on Spiritual Warfare that equated choosing the right side in Bosnia with combatting Satan in New Age practice and drug culture) is moving into grassroots.
In 1984, Sheriff Leo Samaniego allowed prison ministries in El Paso, Texas, and the result was startling. The city with the third highest violent crime rate in the nation became the second safest major city in the U.S.

Christian News - The Christian Post | Top Christian Leaders Gather to Transform America at Grass-Roots

2) The same Lausanne Committee on World Evangelicalism started moving in the direction of postmodernism about five years ago. They can cite Derrida and Rorty. They know Bonhoeffer and Barth forwards and backwards.

Evangelicals realize that they can't convert sophisticated college Freshmen, concerned about their place in the world and the future of the planet, based on the Bible alone. So they set out to master the terms in which the war was being fought.

Check out these sumptuously crafted websites:

These sites are extremely gentle, although a quick google search brings up fragments of older online discussions now deleted where the evangelical editors told liberal discussants to "fuck off."

Read further, and you can find the gentle editors (who urge their readers to read widely and understand Derrida) slamming relativist theologians who have failed to condemn masturbation.

* * *

I probably write with too much suspicion. But the religion to which I was raised was a theology of individuals coaxed to love God and serve their neighbors above all things. It was equally a religion suspicious of all regimes of control.

If I learned one thing from my years of studying Derrida and Rorty, it was this: all institutions create controlled environments for discussion, but some try to quash the will by subliminal and disciplinary actions as well; among the most effective terms for subduing the spirit is disciplining the body.

Evangelicals who engage postmodernism only to discipline those who aren't like them? I have great suspicions about their Christianity.

* * *

Another and more benign view from Texas Baptists sees this body discipline as it is: the institutional attempt to regulate the individual conscience into a position of submission before the collective, as opposed to treating the entire person as an identity capable of great love, whose particular actions in any instance are less the point than their internal love of God and external acts towards their neighbors.

I am intrigued by those who deal with homosexuality with basically the only criterion or filter for seeing other people is that of sexuality. What does that say?
-- Bill Tillman, writing with Christians for Change

Rev. Tillman's position is well taken from the theological point of view. Yet he glosses over the historical issue at hand.

Around 1890 Americans and Europeans started thinking of their bodies in new ways. It was by then an irreversible process, the result of hundreds of years of innovation in medicine, gender relations, and political relations, and it produced, in a great flurry of self-awareness, the new disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Each of these disciplines was interested in the relationship between the individual and his/her body as the product of social forces.

We are the product of our collective history. The individual in 2005 can no more will him/herself out of a definitively sexual, bodily identity than he can will himself out of a capitalist economy. Many Christians write as if the choice to opt out of one's sexual identity were as simple as switching off MTV: what we must acknowledge is that one can only indeed drown the sexual and bodily in oneself if one can erase the last hundred years of history, the influence of psychology, the subject-matter of a hundred novels, and all the self-understanding that has gone with it.

In that working-out of a hundred years is the germ of a new understanding of sexual ethics. It's discussed ad nauseum in R-rated movies, R&B lyrics, women's magazines, and psychologist's sitting-rooms. It comes down to this great question: if one has a lover, if one has an "alternative" (read minority) sexuality -- if for whatever reason, Christian or not, one finds oneself or one's friends in such a position -- what is the kindest way to act? The answers handled are complicated. They rarely have to do with dropping communication entirely. More often, the ethical solutions that emerge sound familiar to traditional values: good gay relationships depend on openness and trust. Good premarital lovers don't cheat on each other. Good adulterers eventually seek honesty with their wives and husbands, and try to look after their children.

These are deep matters of theology. They are the public theology of our age. In their best form, these reflections are imbued with an ethic of humility, service, and compassion. In less coherent forms, they devolve into paeons to rebellion and self-pitying lyrics of indulgence. But even such counterculture is but the symptom of our age.

At the point that one acknowledges that one is living in an age where most people think about sex a lot, one has two choices. One can set sail for some small island without inhabitants, with some dozen other believers in one's fictitious world, there to rewrite history and forget the past together.

Or one can acknowledge that history is a disease that we all suffer from together, and the one symptom of our disease now is an awkward failure to understand our own sexualities or those of our neighbors, and that the response Christ taught to all those awkwardnesses was the same: to serve one's neighbor, with love and gentleness; to give them one's cloak, to listen, to teach, to learn. Not to discipline. Not to throw stones.


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