Extraversion, Covid-19, and Spirituality

Bonhoeffer_closeupIn the midst of our present global scenario—of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, of distance learning, work from home, and digital churches—a phrase from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together keeps coming to mind: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.”

Bonhoeffer’s meaning is simple enough. We regularly make use of either solitude or groups to hide our insecurities—whether those insecurities are the stillness of being alone or the energy of being with others. Whole people need both. The Church needs both.

Drifting prominently across my news feed these past weeks have been the increasingly urgent concerns of my more extraverted friends. Typically, it is the introverts in my life who post plaintive image macros about how much they’d rather be inside, alone, and about how much they relish cancelled plans. But a notable reversal sees my extraverted friends panicking that they have to stay inside. Desperate for connection, they’ve jacked up their online presence: they’re posting photos and videos of themselves doing things (any number of things), they’re standing in their doorways and shouting to their neighbours, and they clarify with some urgency that “social distancing” isn’t human, or humane, that we’re not made for this, and then follow up their concerns with a correction: “Social distancing isn’t right—it’s physical distancing that matters!”

cancelled plans macro

Go ahead and google it. “Introvert memes.” They’re a dime a dozen.

In these moments I hear Bonhoeffer in the background: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community.” With this in mind, I think there are two things I want to speak into this situation. One is to the church generally, the other is to clergy.

To the Church: Our present situation warrants serious reflection on Bonhoeffer’s warning. In particular, it seems to me that certain extraverted church members have collapsed being social into being the Church, while certain introverted church members have collapsed being alone into being spiritual. No doubt the Church is a social entity; no doubt significant spiritual activity happens in solitude. It is also beyond doubt that neither tells the whole human story. Today, however, I want to focus on the distortion of my extraverted friends.

jungIn case you’re not familiar with the terms, ‘extraverted’ and ‘introverted’ are personality types devised by Carl Jung, based on his broad observations of a multitude of clients. Some of them, he came to see, were recharged by being with people, while others, he perceived, were recharged by being alone. I’ve put ‘recharged’ in italics both times because it’s the key phrase here—extraversion and introversion are measurements of energy, not social skill, as is commonly thought (there are socially incompetent extraverts and socially expert introverts).

See, my extraverted friends, I used to be one of you. I used to be addicted to being with people, around people, and they gave me immense energy and I was energized and enlivened by being among you. But something happened during the ten years I was a pastor. People went from energizing, to utterly draining. I still loved my congregation, and still used a lot of energy while in groups, but it would take me, on average, about double the time in solitude to recover from any meeting I had. I suddenly needed lots of time alone. I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’m an introvert.

I tell this story is because I want you to know that I’m not one of those smug introverts who, confident in the superiority of being alone over being in groups, is taking advantage of your present confinement to tell you how bad you are and to dish out a little of your own medicine. All the same, the person who cannot be alone should beware community. What is Bonhoeffer teaching us right now? Many of you are revealing that you cannot be alone, and I suspect that this incapacity to be alone is impacting how we think about spirituality. More to the point, I fear that we’ve collapsed the complexity of communal spirituality into the simplicity of energized gatherings. We get together, we chat and visit, we sing and listen to a sermon, and we go home feeling good about ourselves, but the ‘good feeling’ may or may not be spiritual in origin. It might just be that a group of extraverts have been recharged by being together and doing extraverted things. Doing ‘churchy’ things is no guarantee of spiritual benefit. Neither, for that matter, is feeling ‘churchy’ feelings.

Babylon Bee Introverts

The Babylon Bee even posted about the joys of introverts during the quarantine.

To put this another way, I fear that a lot of our spiritual practice may be dominated by extraverted dispositions. Extraverted pastors, cultivating extraverted churches, where extraverted people engage in extraverted forms of spirituality. And I see evidence of this domination in our ecclesial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Why should not being able to meet, temporarily, result in such panic for so many of the people I see? Why should staying home for two weeks be so deeply frightening? Why is it that we must immediately set up a host of Zoom meetings to keep our Churches meeting, meeting, and meeting?

Christmas a mess

Even this little one can’t enjoy Christmas.

Face it—we’re really bad at being alone. We’re even worse at being still. We fill and populate our minds and our time with noise and things so that we can hold the stillness at bay. I feel this general noisiness especially around Christmastime. For years now I’ve felt that there was something deeply wrong with how we approach Christmas. Busy, busy, busy! Buying, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, preparing, getting Christmas cards together, gathering the last of the shopping—and then, finally, we all take one day off to rest, Christmas Day. But by the time we get there we’re so knackered from preparing for a day off, that that day itself is nearly ruined.

The reason this seems so odd to me is because even when I was growing up, the world was much better at taking a weekly Sabbath. This wasn’t that long ago, but on Sundays all the shops were closed. Need to shop? Do it another day. Need groceries? Get them another day. Need to look at cars? Do it next Saturday. Need to make a business call? Wait till Monday. When the world was in the habit of regular retreat from the busyness of life, Christmas was a bonus sabbath in a year of Sabbaths. Nowadays, it’s the only one we take—and we’re so busy we ruin it.

The point, my friends, is that we have been given a gift—the gift of solitude, of extended Sabbath. Why are we trying to ruin it with our excessive busyness? Why are we struggling to remember the Sabbath Day, and its joy of retreat from the normative busyness of life? Now is the time to be still, to reflect on being alone, and to really learn what it means to be the Church in solitude—to separate our spirituality from our extraversion. That’s where the clergy come in.

Empty churches

Pastor Troy Dobbs at Grace Church Eden Prairie in Minnesota on Sunday.
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

To Clergy: One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry, I believe, is the unfair ratio of visible to invisible work, of tangible to intangible objectives. What I mean is that pastors typically get credit for their time for those things that appear to the church. For a small to mid-size church, that means an hour’s visible work on Sunday morning, maybe two if you teach Sunday School. People look at this visible work and conclude that you’ve got it easy. They say things like, “Well, you’ve done your hour’s work for the week! I wish I could get paid to do so little. Ha ha ha.” (You find you never laugh with them.) Members can ask, “So, what is it you do all week?” Their intonation makes it clear that they don’t think you do very much at all. The average time required for sermon prep, I understand, is between 8-20 hours per week. But you don’t get credit for that time, because it’s invisible. You don’t get credit for visiting sick families, teaching a weekly bible study, answering your phone, reading spiritually to enrich your own faith, praying for your congregation, or attending a board meeting. Pastoral ministry is dominated by the intangibles, and if we’re not careful this can be deeply frustrating.

Comic_You're not busy

The first reason this is frustrating is because clergy can fall into this visibility trap and come to believe that their chief value is in their visible work. This involves a severe flattening of the pastoral office—prayer, solitude, personal spiritual development; care, concern, support; vision, planning, implementation, management—each of these categories is a significant part of the clerical office. They are also invisible. The pastor who puts all of his eggs into the basket of visible actions will distort the office and enervate the life of the church. It’s like a gardener who spends more time posing for promotional pictures than tending to the trees. The pictures may look great, but the invisible work has to go on.

dont-skip-leg-day-bro-24045203-1jw8jmjBut we can compound the problem further with a second reason. Let’s imagine you’re a pastor who is extraverted, who gets a charge from being with your people. Suddenly, not only has the visible portion of your work been taken away from you, but you are also prohibited from connecting with the people who give you life. If you’ve only focused on extraverted spirituality, to the neglect of introverted spirituality, then there’s a good chance you’ve been skipping leg day in your spiritual workouts. And Covid-19 has commanded you to lift a piano with your legs.

To tie this all together, I suspect that, suddenly, a lot of the pastors in the world find themselves feeling the need to justify their existence. Their visible work is removed from them, and now they have to find a new and creative way to prove their value. It is all too easy in the pastoral office to allow identity to be intertwined with visible busyness, and visible busyness militates against stillness and solitude. Finding oneself in a place of hollow busyness, many pastors attempt to justify their busyness as spirituality. But the more activist we are in ministry, the less our contemplative muscles get worked. We need both. But for some pastors who are now forced to be alone and still it may amount to a crisis of identity, if not of faith.

But pastoring is so much more than public teaching, and there’s no time like now to show people what that looks like. I’ve got four suggestions:

1) Let the big churches be the big churches. There are a whole ton of great preaching pastors out there who are better than you, more professional than you, and who already know how to use the technology better than you. Why not just outsource your teaching for this season? Send your people out on ‘visitation’ to see how the big dogs do their digital ministry. Then, instead of you teaching, you can hold a discussion group for after the teaching. Go ahead and have your Zoom meeting, but instead of being the one talking, you get to do the listening and hear about what other people learned in their digital churches this week.

2) Focus on your people. As clergy, your job has always been your people. That hasn’t changed; the only thing that’s changed is the ability to gather in a big group. So this is as great a time as any to get out the phone list and call every single parishioner on it. Write down a few key questions ahead of time. Do you have everything you need? How are you holding up? How’s your spirit? How can I pray for you? If your people don’t like the phone, send them a chat or text. Your care for your people will be evident more in your connections than in your digital sermons.

3) Make the most of your time. What a time you have to plan for the future! To pray, reflect, and read, to listen to God and attempt to hear what He wants for the future of your congregation. This is the best of times to write out some sermon outlines, or plan some Sunday School lessons, or just to take a break. Put your feet up and listen to some music, or spend time in your garden, or prepare a feast and eat it, or play games with your family. Now is the time to remember that busyness is not spirituality. Live it, and then you’ll be able to teach it better.

4) Be still and alone. The best of all is time to simply be still. Recently I’ve read through Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—a book that argues that the training of attention is essential to the achievement of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi writes, that “unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided attention.” This is your chance, O clergy and parishioners, to develop your attention, to piggyback on enforced solitude as an opportunity for personal development. Take the time! Stop being so busy! And… just rest.

Elitism

When Christianity Today published its recent article calling for President Trump’s removal from office, I watched the ensuing mayhem from a distance. While I had shared the article, from the start I had resolved not to blog or comment on the piece—too many people were already talking about it, and I didn’t consider it useful to add my voice to the chaos. I’m still not planning to comment on the article or its content today—what I do want to talk about is a particular response to the article that I began to see repeated in many places: the accusation of elitism.

In brief, a very visible (and visibly agitated) group of Evangelicals responded with some hostility to Mark Galli’s editorial, and one of their key accusations was that Galli—and by association so-called “Christian” never-Trumpers like him—are elites who are missing the point. “Evangelical elites,” Carl Trueman wrote in a rebuttal published in First Things, “are clearly as out of touch with the populist evangelical base as is the case in society in general.” Our needs and desires, he suggests, as the “people in the trenches” are different from what you think they are, Mr. Galli. The Ivory Tower has rendered you desperately out of touch.

Ivory Tower Image

There are two things to say in response to this deeply troubling accusation. The first is to note that it is not, in fact, an argument. In this circumstance, and in the subsequent repetitions of the phrase I’ve encountered, to accuse someone of being an elite is a handy way of dismissing that person’s ideas outright. This person doesn’t have to be listened to; he’s not like us. Elite—like other shorthand terms (Libs, Libtards, Snowflakes, the Dems)—is a handy label for summary dismissal of the person with whom you are having a conversation. It allows the label to make the argument for you, without any actual engagement at the level of what’s been said. Ironically, the accusation of elitism smacks of the communist accusation that someone is bourgeoisie. Your disposition, the argument goes, renders your thinking irretrievably irrelevant.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that this is a deeply un-Christian way of approaching the world. Explicitly in Matthew 5, when Jesus tells us how to respond when a brother has an accusation against us, we are told that to label our brother “empty-head,” or “fool,” is to commit a form of murder. In other words, to reject our brother by means of a label when he approaches us with a concern is to violate the Ten Commandments. To discourse in this way is beneath us.

A second thing to say in response to the accusation of elitism is that if it is an argument, it is a bad one. The best I can figure is that the argument goes something like this. We in the trenches have to make real-world decisions, and you elites are so removed from the world that your input is irrelevant. What we need is marching orders, and reliable trench-obedience, not uppity moral platitudes pronounced by people who claim to have clean hands. Those things may work in peacetime, but this is war, and war is ugly. So shut up.

Great War Modern Memory_Cover

Paul Fussell’s book offered fantastic insights into the mindset of average soldiers during The Great War.

The problem, of course, is that there is no more important time for truth, beauty, and goodness than in times of deep confusion. I am reminded of a strange irony. Recently, while reading about the First World War, I found out that the most commonly read book in the trenches was The Oxford Book of English Verse. Those English boys, with soaked feet and tattered uniforms, surrounded by rats, trench-fever, and dead bodies, a waste-land of unimaginable horror around them, turned in their spare moments to the sublime. They craved, in the midst of their horrors, something ‘elite’ to remind them of what mattered, of what was real. Similar examples abound. A key principle of Biblical interpretation is that you judge the unclear by means of the clear; you don’t judge the clear by means of the unclear. In times of uncertainty you appeal to what is eternal in order to make sense of the murky present, rather than projecting our murky present out onto the eternal. In other words, the solution to bad ideas is not no ideas, but good ideas. And good ideas are to be found among people who, by most accounts, have the time to think and reflect on them. In other words, the elite.

roger-scrutonRoger Scruton, who died this past week, was reading de Gaulle’s Memoires when he was impacted by de Gaulle’s claim that a nation is defined “by language, religion, and high culture [and that] in times of turmoil and conquest it is those spiritual things that must be protected and reaffirmed.” It is during times of chaos that we require the clearest presentations of the true, the beautiful, and the good, and to dismiss an ‘opposition’ by throwing these things under the bus is a betrayal of our stewardship for the future. Get rid of the ‘elites’ and you get rid of whatever it is you think you’re fighting for.

I write this, of course, as someone who very likely qualifies as one of these ‘elite.’ I’m currently writing a PhD in Scotland, am well fed, am comfortably housed, and it is only wind, and not war, that clambers to distract me from outside my office window. Nevertheless, not only do I believe in ‘elitism,’ I believe that a certain elitism is the call of every Christian on earth. We are not called to be grunts for Christ, but elite troops; not minimum-wage workers in the Kingdom, but elite service providers; not jobsworths, but elite problem solvers. It is our very business to raise people up in the Church, to train, to teach them to read, to teach them in moral reasoning, to form in them the ‘mind of Christ’ so that whatever is good, noble, and true—on those things they will think and reflect and exhibit to others. In other words, we want Christians to inhabit an eternal, kingly, godly perspective in every situation—and what could be more elite than that?

Cathedral St Andrews

This is literally steps from my office.

The problem, in my estimation, is not that the elites are out of touch, but that there are too few of them. The whole business of catechesis—that is, of training people in the life of faith—is the business of educating them for greater effectiveness and godliness. It is the training ground for elite and effective Christian disciples. That, in point of fact, is something I am very passionate about: to call everyone into greater Christian ‘elitism’—more reading, thinking, reflecting, questioning, asking, sharing—and, stemming from those things, more faithful action as well.

Trauma and the Houses of Healing

In my work as a pastor I’ve walked with a host of people who live under the shadow of trauma, whether active or remembered. Over time, I’ve come to realize that each person—whatever the source of their trauma—requires for their wholeness a similar set of steps. I want to call these steps the “Houses of Healing.”

Return of the King_Houses of Healing

Tolkien, in one of his most obviously Christological moments, writes that “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer.”

The name, of course, is adapted from Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, where the Houses of Healing are the earthly place of restoration where doctors and knowledgeable old wives minister to the sick. I suspect that Tolkien chose the word, “Houses” specifically because it evokes something of the power of a home—a safe place for restoration and recovery, a house with rules, of course, but not the less a home for that. A place where rest, food, and sleep play as much a role in the healing of the person as do the advice and medicines of a physician. ‘Hospital’ is too associated with death and sickness; ‘Home’ can be a place of safety and wholeness.

In my experience, there are three houses of healing—the house of gentle love, the house of faithful love, and the house of healing love. For too many people—and for each of the ones who’ve found their way into my office—they are eager to begin in the third house. They want to be well, are weary of being sick, but they are not ready for that house until they’ve journeyed through the first two. One of my all-time favourite Kung Fu movies is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, where a young ruffian escapes trouble to a Shaolin monastery. There, he eagerly begins to study Kung Fu. Overestimating his abilities, he attempts to start learning at the level of the 35th chamber. He is quickly shown by the monks that he knows nothing—of his body, of the minds and hearts of others, of technique. Humbled, he turns to the first chamber and works his way up. It is the same with the healing of trauma—until we have some experience of the first two houses, we cannot learn the lessons of the third.

36th-chamber-of-shaolin

Gordon Liu, in what is seriously one of the best all-time Kung Fu films.

The first house of healing, then, is the house of the gentle love of God. Matthew 12:20, describing the ministry of Jesus by appeal to Isaiah 43, says that “A bruised reed he will not break; a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.” A key characteristic of the ministry of Jesus, in other words, is his essential gentleness. The bruised reed is fragile, so fragile as to nearly fall apart—but these he does not break. The smouldering wick is at the last moments of its life, but even this he will not snuff out. Instead, he comes down to the level of our weakness; Christ is a lord who attends to the weaknesses of the weak, and will not aggravate them.

smoldering-wickFear is the constant companion to the traumatized—fear of memory, fear of situations, fear of helplessness, fear of the word ‘again.’ To those who live in the fear that accompanies trauma, no word seems to me more important than the word of God’s gentle love for them. He sees you, He knows what you’ve experienced, He knows your fear—in the midst of all that, He is deeply, compassionately gentle. He will work with the smallest, smouldering desire you have for wholeness. He will bind and strengthen the weaknesses He sees more keenly than you yourself know. But before you can do any of the work towards personal healing, you must draw near to the gentle Lover. You must allow the Gentle Lover to draw near.

The second house of healing is the house of the faithful love of God. 1 John 4:18 says that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Every human love and every human lover is imperfect. We experience uncertainty about the quality and motives of other people’s love, and it is in the violation of the trust of love that our greatest wounds are located. But unlike human lovers, God’s love is perfect. It is so perfect that it can’t be violated or ruined, even by the worst of our actions. One of the common narratives told by the traumatized people I’ve known is that their experience of trauma renders them un-lovable. They have so identified with their wounds that the wound itself corrupts their self-perception before God. But such persons, approaching the gentle love of God, also need to be assured of its faithfulness. “What can separate us,” Paul proclaims in Romans 8:38-9, “from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus?” What indeed? Can any person or situation be stronger than God? Can any angelic power be stronger than God? Can any memory be stronger than God? Can any fear be stronger than God? No!—the faithful love of God is stronger, and deeper, and more efficacious than anything we can know or experience.

Many of us—not only the traumatized—struggle to accept that we are beloved by a faithfully loving God. We continue to believe—because it’s all we’ve experienced—in a performative love. Do the right things, and God will love you; do the wrong things, and God will cease to love you. But that isn’t Christian teaching—that’s a modification of karma, a universal doctrine of just deserts. The foundation of the Christian understanding of God is that He loves us while, and in spite of, our unloveliness; that He continues to love us in spite of our failures; that, in fact, the only thing keeping us together at all is the unfailingly faithful love of God. This is why Malachi 3:6 reminds us that “I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” If it depended on us, we’d be stuffed. Thankfully, it doesn’t depend on us, and therefore we are not destroyed.

old-faithful-geyser-evening_istock_680

Old Faithful has its name because it erupts like clockwork. Even so, one day Old Faithful will cease to boil; the faithful love of God will never fail.

These are the first two houses—the house of gentle love, and the house of faithful love. They provide the precursors for any work of healing because they frame all our work in right understanding. Both loves reassure the beloved, both loves strengthen the beloved, and both loves equip the beloved for the work ahead. Without these loves, the work may only aggravate the harms.

With these loves in place, an individual may begin to enter the third house, the house of healing love. But this house, naturally, is as varied as the wounds people bear, its principles governed by the personal narrative of its inhabitants. But this is, indeed, a house of work. There are seasons of self-disclosure and of self-discovery, periods of grieving and of anger, times for documenting harms, and times for forgiving harms done to us—and for seeking forgiveness for the harms we have done. Each of these tasks, performed outside the frame of the gentle and faithful love of God, can re-traumatize, aggravating wounds, leading to despair.

But the goal of this work—the fulfillment of the house of healing love—is wholeness. He who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps 147:3), promises also that those who were not his people will be his people, and those who were not loved will be loved (Hosea 2:23). You were lost, but have been found, and under the ministrations of the One True King, are being brought into His abundant life.

Joshua Harris’s Fall and Christian Higher Education

I kissed dating goodbyeIf you, like me, were a kid who was a teenager in church in the 90s, then you know the name Joshua Harris. He wrote THE book on dating, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but then again, I didn’t need to. We all knew what was in it. Dating was bad. Courtship was good. Romance was dead. Christians should retrieve romance and courtship in their relationships, and all this should be done with a commitment to purity. At the time, it all made perfect sense. In many ways, it still does.

However, there were unforeseen problems. When Harris wrote the book he was only 21 years old—hardly experienced enough to opine about all dating and all relationships. The book also contributed to a broader movement that is sometimes called “purity culture”—a movement which prioritizes sexual purity in the ethics of the young, with the unfortunate effect of both minimizing other aspects of formation (character, charity, mercy, peacemaking, etc.), while idolizing sex and marriage. In some people, it appears—and especially in certain young women of the time—sexual purity came to be seen as a bargaining chip for a good marriage. Save sex for marriage, the logic goes, and God will bless you with both a great marriage AND great sex. Christian teaching undoubtedly holds that sexual purity matters, but to turn it into a kind of bargaining chip for God’s work in your future relationships is to try to leverage God. In this respect, it’s a kind of prosperity gospel: if I do this action in faith, God will bless me.

Like I said, I knew the basics of Harris’s thinking without having read the book, and if the prosperity exchange of purity for future pleasure was taught, I didn’t hear it.

The book, like the 90s, faded into memory, until once again Joshua Harris’s name came across my newsfeed. This time it was 2015, and Harris had announced he was leaving his church to get some formal theological education—something he’d never had, despite serving as a pastor for more than a decade. The reason it was of interest to me was because he would be attending Regent College, the seminary I had attended. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was a great thing. I’m always happy when Pastors get educated.

regent1

In the intervening years, Harris’s name popped up again—this time as he began to distance himself from the claims of his famous book. He helped to produce a documentary, called “I survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and eventually formally recanted the teaching of the book and asked the publisher to stop selling it. I read through the information at the time, and felt then that these seemed very much like the moves of someone coming into maturity. Harris was growing up, theologically speaking, and we should all rejoice about this.

I survived I kissed dating goodbyeThese changes weren’t without concern, however. A growing reaction against what had been “purity culture” was growing in the church. Women (it seems to me especially) from the 90s who had grown up on Harris’s logic were frustrated with how it had idolized sex and marriage, and how the realities of those institutions didn’t match up. Perhaps no greater image of the rejection of purity culture can be found that that of Nadia Bolz-Weber, gathering purity rings from her female members and (without any apparent awareness of Aaronic irony) causing them to be melted into he shape of a giant vulva. Those who had sacrificed themselves to purity would redeem the image of the vagina.

Harris emerged again last week, of course, with two subsequent bombshell announcements. The first (through Instagram) that he and his wife would be separating (apparently amicably? a kind of Gwyneth Paltrowian ‘conscious uncoupling’?), the second (also through Instagram) that he had left the Christian faith. Harris’s journey of ‘deconstruction’ (his own word) appears complete.

joshharrisshannon_si

This was the (cheerful?) picture posted along with the instagram announcement of their divorce.

The news was met with grief (from Christians) as well as joy (from atheists and other former Christians). Naturally, the circumstances invite speculation, as well as unfortunate puns. What happened to Harris? Why did he kiss Christianity (and his wife) goodbye? I don’t intend to answer either of those questions, especially since the answers lie in Harris’s heart, to be discerned between him and God alone. But there are two things I want to point out as frames for thinking about his trajectory—both publicly known. The first is the nature of the church he came from, the second is the nature of Christian Higher Education.

First, Harris’s church home. Harris had been trained, and nurtured, under the direct tutelage of C.J. Mahaney, once powerful and respected megachurch pastor. Harris was, to my understanding, Mahaney’s chosen successor. Over the past several years, Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries has come under serious fire. There was a series of accusations from former members and leadership about Mahaney’s abuse of power and controlling nature, then a series of members (11, I believe) who accused the church of covering up child sexual abuse. The church has denied these allegations, but the fallout has still been immense—Sovereign Grace has lost a number of its member churches, a number of its members, and Mahaney has lost much of his influence (Al Mohler publicly severed ties with him). It was about this time that Harris left his ministry church to pursue education, declaring in a sermon that now he sees there were “flaws in the system.”

mahaney

C.J. Mahaney

(As a fascinating, if tragic aside, when Rachael Denhollander, the Olympic gymnast, began to speak up about the abuse she had experienced, her church wanted her silenced, and she and her husband were eventually asked to leave their fellowship. That church was one of the churches which worked to restore Mahaney to leadership.)

It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace story is a key component to the trajectory of Harris’s faith journey. He was raised (homeschooled as well) in a very conservative, apparently controlling environment. Tutored under a controlling, apparently power-hungry leader. Educated on the job in a self-protecting institution which hurt its members. Neither Mahaney nor Harris were seminary educated, and it appears (from Harris’s own account) that Christian Higher Education was something actively dismissed by them.

The point is this: we might look at Harris’s story and conclude that he’s left our Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that he’s left Mahaney’s Christianity. He’s left a Christianity of control, of fear, of rules, of power, of hurt, and of a lack of grace. If this is accurate, then Harris’s honesty (about his faith) is something that should genuinely be applauded. In his public statements he displays a remarkable self-awareness and honesty. Of course, that honesty is marred by two things—one of them being his divorce, which is fundamentally dishonest, the other being the snazzy marketing means of the announcements. Instagram is a weird place to cheerfully declare the destruction of all you publicly held important.

Covenant Life Church_Harris

Harris was pastor at CLC, a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church.

This leaves us with the question of Christian Higher Education. Mahaney and Harris are not alone in their belief that seminary—and with it education—is dangerous to faith. In this, they tap into a longstanding trend in American thinking: that intelligence is dangerous. John Erskine, famous American educator, wrote the following over 100 years ago:

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.

A certain kind of Christian piety continues to hold today that an increase in intelligence is cause for suspicion, that blind obedience is to be preferred to carefully thought-out action. To those pious reasoners, Harris’s loss of faith is easily accounted for: he went to school. If he hadn’t gotten that seminary education, he would have stayed in the faith.

pew+research+center+logoCuriously parallel to this is recent data from the Pew Research Center. In one study last year, they showed that there had been a significant uptick in those who identify themselves as religious “nones”—that is, people who claim no religion at all. “Nones,” Pew astonishingly found, account for as many Americans as Evangelicals. In a more recent study, from just a few weeks ago, Pew showed that Jews, Atheists, and Agnostics outperformed all Christians on tests of basic religious knowledge. One way to tell the story is to claim that education is linked to lack of, or loss of, faith.

While some read these data with alarm, I find it encouraging and challenging news. First, it is encouraging that if more people identify as religious ‘nones,’ then we are equipped with a better understanding of the evangelistic task. If these are the same people who previously identified as “Christian,” but now identify as not, then there is an increase in honesty of reporting. Too long has a kind of cultural Christianity swayed American self-perception. Honest answers frame an honest mission. Second, the gap between education and faith presents itself as a challenge. It appears that Christian education is sorely lacking in American faith. It suggests that, in the command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we’ve opted instead for the wisdom of doves (and therefore the harm of serpents!).

im-stupid-40218973

But with education does come danger. And here we might return to Harris. I remember my own time at Regent, and the laments of my peers about the nature of their own deconstructions—learning that the Church was bigger than expected, learning that the text must be carefully interpreted, learning that the history of the church was more fraught than anticipated (and, in some cases, that it began before 1906). Through it all, the faculty wouldn’t tell you what to believe—that wasn’t the methodology—but would present, and leave the work in your hands. For many students, this new knowledge, combined with the freedom to think for yourself, was simply too much. In this respect, I don’t think the problem was completely Regent’s—I think the problem is the educational state of American Christianity. (And, for what it’s worth, I think Regent could have done a better job of shepherding people through this process.) Once again, I don’t think it’s right to speculate on the shifts in Harris’s heart, but it would not surprise me if he discovered, while educating himself about the Christian faith, that the faith he’d publicly believed in wasn’t quite the Christianity he was learning about. And if that’s the case—in fact, either way—it presents us with a mandate to pray.

What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.