Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

I Am Woman, Hear Me

Some months ago, the controversy du jour involved Vice President Pence’s policy of not meeting women alone. Some found his policy appalling, some found it quaint, and some found it proper. I weighed in on it here because it touched a bit of my own history and struggle as a teacher and particularly as a pastor.

In response to my post I received a kind and insightful email from a young woman whom I had had the pleasure of coming to know ten years ago. She is an intelligent and sensitive follower of Jesus who, as a woman, has had a difficult time finding a home in the church. In her email she shared her experience as a woman in churches similar to the ones I have pastored. I think we need to hear her, and others like her. (She has given me permission to post her comments, though I have edited them for brevity and anonymity.)

Neither she nor I bring these thoughts with any kind of agenda. But understanding the experience of others can implicitly suggest necessary agenda. If it does, I’m glad.
I am grateful for her honesty.

When I first started to engage in Christianity, it was really clear to me that I would always be limited in some way as a woman. When [my male friends] had questions, they’d just go meet with the pastor. When I had questions, it was just not the same, even if that’s not an explicit rule. All the pastors were men and I’m a woman. So the natural supposition was to find a woman, but for many reasons that can be difficult.

To just know that’s not really an option when you have a male pastor, to engage as an individual and share your questions and concerns, subtly tells us “this is for men” and that women aren’t priorities here….

To be taught from a young age that my very biology is evil in some way, not because we’re all evil (total depravity!) but because I am a threat to men in some unknown way that I do not control, that I can be responsible for leading men astray, or that there’s a risk I’ll harm their reputation simply by being a woman, the internalizing of those messages is confusing and hard and leads to lots of feelings of self-hatred and questioning of yourself….

I had an experience of sexual abuse from a church leader as a child and so the argument that women are a risk to men is minimized when I know the opposite (that is, statistically more probable).

Going to church as a woman can sometimes be a heartbreaking experience. Every time I went to church with a male, whenever people would come over to say hi, he would be greeted first. He would be engaged in conversation. My presence there was in relation to the man next to me. There were a couple of times that I would try churches for weeks by myself and really wouldn’t make connections and then a guy would come with me and all of the sudden we’re welcomed. You can definitely make the case that the guys were just more outgoing and friendly, but it was definitely not every time.

Yes, these aren’t huge things. I’m not being stoned when I walk through the door or anything, but it is obviously discouraging to feel, even subtly, as if I don’t have a place because of my gender.

I invite others to reflect on this and to share similar, or contrasting, experiences.

Between the World and Me

An Education

How should a white Christian like me read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book written by a black atheist? With ears open and a heart willing to learn. That is, we should come first as students.

When first exposed to a subject, whether chemistry or theology or, in this case, the experience of being black in America, initial forays into that subject feel foreign to the student. It feels as if she has landed among an exotic people speaking a foreign tongue. The words are all new, and the questions being asked and explored are ones she has never before considered. A good student’s response will be to listen, to be quiet, to learn the language, and to hear how the questions are being answered.

In Between the World and Me Coates speaks to his son but aims his words to we who listen in. As he traces his own awakening self-awareness as a black man from the streets of Baltimore, to a student at Howard University, to a writer in New York City, he provides an engagingly written assessment of life as he has seen it and the world as he has struggled to understand it. His assessment seems at times harsh, at times unfair, at times insightful, and at all times challenging.

Those new to this literature and to this world need to listen. His observations seem foreign, but such is the nature of learning. Some will be tempted to condemn, to judge, or to say he’s overstated his case. Maybe he has. Or maybe he has to. But we must labor to understand before we condemn. And sometimes, too often, if something threatens us, we don’t take the time to understand. He wants to unsettle the comfort and challenge the assumptions of “those who see themselves as white.”

And this does unsettle me. Is the world in fact arrayed in a way of violence toward the black body as he contends? It seems a plausible position, as cursory familiarity with history and the news suggests. As he writes to his son,

“The price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined.” (96)

It was Trayvon Martin’s ‘error’ of walking through a white neighborhood in a hoodie, for example, that got him shot. The price of error is higher for the black man. That sounds right.

I have read and thought too little about the subjects he raises to be able to offer an informed critique of the book. I leave that to others. But we who live lives in an aura of safety and comfort are in need of this education, foreign though it may seem and feel. Our job may be in this case to be quiet and to listen. We need to allow new questions to form in our minds and be considered. This could be the beginning of our education.

[Note: I would not draw attention to Coates’ religious convictions except for the fact that he himself makes a point of his atheism. He laments that he cannot find the sort of perspective that faith has brought to many like him. This explains to some degree his emphasis upon the black ‘body’ and not ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. I respect his honesty.]

Chutzpah in Nashville

I learned the meaning of ‘chutzpah’ the hard way.

As a young seminary student I witnessed an ordination exam which I and a few others felt was inadequately conducted. Somehow the fact that I was a young seminarian and the exam had been carried out by experienced ministers was lost on me. I went to one of my professors who had been involved in the exam and pointed out the deficiencies we had observed.

His response was predictable. “It takes a whole lot of chutzpah for you to walk in here and say that.”

I had never heard the word, but the tone with which that sentence was delivered communicated its meaning perfectly. “Who do you think you are to criticize those who have been doing this for the number of years we’ve been at it?”

Indeed. Who did I think I was?

I’m grateful for that professor. He was angry, rightfully, at my cheek. The impudence involved in stepping out of my role and placing myself in a position to assess my elders and find them wanting was massive.

Perhaps I am engaging in another display of chutzpah in raising a tiny voice of protest against the various scholars and genuinely godly men and women who have attached their names to the “Nashville Statement,” recently issued by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Perhaps they need to stand up as one and stare me down saying, “Who do you think you are?”

But perhaps the shoe this time is on the other foot. I find myself asking, “Who do they think they are?” The CBMW is an agenda-driven independently formed parachurch organization. It is not the church and yet it presumes to raise its voice to scold and instruct the church. The very fact that it demands to be heard with authority and to speak to and for the church suggests that there has been a massive realignment in Evangelical Christianity’s definition of and respect for the church. That which was born to assist the church, the parachurch, has grown in its youthful impatience to swallow its parent and to act with independence and swagger.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement should be re-written in terms that require us to ask questions even more fundamental than those of marriage and sexuality:

“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be THE CHURCH.”

For that is the hidden revolution in statements like this. Whether the content is helpful or not is beside the point. The very existence of the document and the impetus of those behind it reveal that its authors have not only lost patience with the church, they have seen her as no longer bearing any power or weight.

Speaking as I am attempting to do into the independent, consumer mind-set of Evangelical Christianity, I know that many who read this will be mystified by my concern. So far has our respect for the church and her messiness and process fallen. But having not arisen from the church, a statement like this bears no ecclesiastical authority. There is no labor of any church court or body behind it. It lacks the carefully weighed, though painfully slow, nuanced pastoral concern of ecclesiastical process. It was not generated at the request of the church, and it has not been adopted as the stated judgment of the church. Hence it has no authority beyond the respect given to the names attached to it. And though I have respect for many of these, it is an Evangelical Celebrity Document and nothing more.

For a group such as this (complete with a ‘donate now’ button placed dramatically at the end) to speak to and for the church is chutzpah. But it is chutzpah barely noted because before there was loss of respect for marriage in Evangelical Christianity there was a greater loss in respect for the church.

Note: An earlier post taking issue with the statement’s doomsday tone can be read here.

Breathless in Nashville

Call me weary.

A few days ago I was finally able to read the recently issued “Nashville Statement” of which some, but not all, readers will be aware. I have some thoughts about its content, but I need to say that whatever merits it contains or lacks, I can’t get beyond its sky-is-falling tone. A friend calls it breathless, which strikes me as accurate. In my life there’s been a whole lotta breathlessness going on.

I grew up in a mainline church whose doom was pronounced by conservative voices in her midst. I began to flourish in my Christian understanding when the twin terrors of “charismania” and biblical errancy were staked as boding threats to be opposed. Soon we were being told that if we did not stand foursquare against women being ordained, the end would come. As well, all we held dear would perish if we did not take a life or death stand against the theory of evolution. And if we did not make immediate changes to the way we “do” church there would soon be no one to fill our pews as the youth, we were warned, were leaving and never coming back.

I have been hearing of the end of the church and her witness for so long that I can, or will, no longer hear such messages. When we are told that the only path of faithfulness is to Jump! Respond! Take a stand! all I want to do is to take a nap.

The Nashville Statement, addressing the shifting and rapidly evolving Western cultural position on sexuality, strikes the same rhetorical drumbeat:

“Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age?”

Catastrophe is imminent unless, of course, we fall in line with those behind this statement. But I’ve heard this song before. I change the station and move on.

Perhaps I lack the necessary cultural awareness and cannot see how weak the pillars are which hold the sky that will soon collapse upon us. A number of people I greatly respect have signed on to this and perhaps they are right. Perhaps I should awaken from my slumber. Perhaps this is the one issue, the one that rules them all and that will, in the darkness, bind us.

But I’m prejudiced against ultimata whatever its source.

It is not just prejudice, though. I have a great confidence in Christ’s church. In spite of the challenges she has shown herself quite resilient, hasn’t she? I see no reason for that resilience to pass. I believe her people will continue to trust Jesus, to love and serve one another and their neighbors. I believe the church will continue to worship, and struggle, as she waits and longs for the kingdom that will come.

For help along the way, a true consensus statement articulating and defending the traditional view of sexuality offering a humble and compassionate restatement of the historic Christian view of marriage with irenic engagement with some of the emerging counter proposals would be welcome. But that is not what we have been given.

It is the teacher who speaks with a calm and reasoned voice who gets heard in a noisy classroom. That is the voice we need.

While we wait for it, let us continue to serve Jesus through his church. In that we should not grow weary.

Stranger in These Parts

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Though I host this blog, all would be justified in addressing me in this way these days. Yes, I am ‘from’ here, but as any can see, I’ve been mostly an absent presence. Life is my excuse. But there are deeper reasons. Writing, as much as I want to do it, is hard. And like many things that are good but hard, I often shrink from it.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art personifies this tendency as ‘The Resistance’ and challenges writers and other creators to fight against it. The most often suggested weapon against The Resistance is to set designated writing times. I set them, and then ignore them. The Resistance wins.

We all have a God given impulse to create. I sometimes express this impulse by working with words and sometimes by working with wood. When I work with wood the created thing exists in my mind before I touch the first piece of wood. As I build it, it grows and changes but the end result is generally close to what I saw in my head. My best writing occurs in the same way. The idea forms in my head before a word is typed. The writing is hard – words I think are a more difficult medium for me than wood. But eventually, what I have at the end is what first existed in my head.

But that does not come easily for me because I do not write enough, and I do not write enough because I blow through my designated writing times.

There are much better thinkers, much better observers of human nature, and much better processors of cultural events than I. But only I have my point of view and my particular voice. And to the degree that my point of view and voice resonate with others (though only a few, a happy few, my band of brothers) I’ll keep pounding away at the resistance.

I don’t like being a stranger in these parts.

Hello, Darkness:

The Questions of Silence

In March of 1970, pop singer Ray Stevens released his Grammy winning song “Everything Is Beautiful.” In March of 1972, novelist Chaim Potok published My Name is Asher Lev the refrain of which is “It’s not a pretty world.” 2017’s Martin Scorcese film Silence, (carefully based on the 1969 Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo), leans toward Potok while making room for Stevens.

At 2 hours and 40 minutes Silence is hard to watch not because it is tedious, which it is not. It is hard to watch because it raises difficult questions of faith without offering easy answers to audiences uncomfortable with such questions.

As did the book, the movie traces the lives of two 17th century Jesuit priests (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan to find a priest and mentor (Liam Neeson) rumored to have denied the faith. From the ease of their Portugal, the report seems fantastical. They cannot imagine anything that could make their friend turn from his God. They are given permission to go to Japan and find him to prove these slanderous reports false.

What they find is a once flourishing Christianity struggling to survive under systematic persecution aimed at its extermination. They are forced to watch the brutal torture of simple men and women of faith who hold onto their faith as they die. When reunited with the priest they sought, the reunion is not what had been anticipated.

The questions raised are many. Had Christianity not been introduced to this island these people would not be dying. Are there some cultures in which Christianity is not meant to flourish? Is faith so certain that for it we must be willing to die? Would I be willing to do so? In the face of pain, is God silent? Or are we too deaf to hear him? Is there hope for those who are weak and unwilling and unable to die? How should we respond to the apostate? Is there hope for them? Where is beauty to be found? Is it never a pretty world?

It’s a beautiful film about a painful world, a world that is beautiful and not pretty at the same time, a world in which, perhaps, God is not silent.

The Great Commission without the Church? Inconceivable.

Many Christian ministries are driven by a single eyed focus on Jesus’ final words (Matthew 28:19, 20). These words have been sloganized as ‘The Great Commission’ to impel an urgent evangelistic effort to find and develop committed followers of Jesus Christ. This would be admirable if this common use did not eviscerate the heart of this commission by eliminating the place of the local church.

Most properly understand that these words ask for more than finding converts. Jesus says

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…. (19)

Jesus wants his disciples to help others become his followers. This involves clearly

…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (20)

This commission is fulfilled, it is felt, when the new disciple begins to make and teach other new disciples. But it is not.

We have not been compliant to the commission if the new convert is not as well, through baptism, admitted to the membership of a local church. The whole commission reads:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19, 20)

Jesus’ Jewish followers would have heard this in covenantal terms, as should we. In their heritage, when someone from ‘the nations’, not born a Jew, came to faith in Yahweh, his verbal expression of that faith was not enough to mark him as a follower of Yahweh. He could claim faith and live righteously, but he would not be admitted into the life of the followers of Yahweh apart from receiving circumcision, the mark of covenantal inclusion (see Exodus 12:48). Then and then only would he be considered a follower, a disciple, of God.

The only change in the minds of Jesus’ listeners would have been the nature of the mark. Circumcision is now baptism (a subject for another day). Baptism marks a person’s being included among the followers of Jesus. By this act one is marked as belonging to God, as having been admitted to the community of faith, to the church of the living God. This step is integral to genuine discipleship and cannot be omitted from our understanding of it. We have not fulfilled the call of the commission if we do not lead Christ’s converts to Christ’s church.

Groups operating outside the context of the church do wonderful things, but they cannot fulfill the great commission. Any work that fails to establish as its center the act of discipling converts into the church is not being obedient to the final words of Jesus.

My son’s Marine recruiter hung with him long after my son had signed his commitment papers. I later was told that Marine recruiters don’t get credit for the recruit until he steps onto the yellow footprints at Parris Island. Only then has he fully discipled his charge.

Only then has he fulfilled his commission.

Hillbilly Elegy

At one point I had had three people ask me about whether I’d read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. One thought it was great, one thought it awful, and the other was noncommittal. They’re all right.

Published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy shot to the top of many bestseller lists propelled by the thought during the last election cycle that reading it could help the mystified understand the American subculture that was Donald Trump’s base. Director Ron Howard thinks so highly of it that he plans to make a movie of it and it is among the top five books (three of which, intriguingly, are memoir) that Bill Gates recommends in his Time Magazine interview we referenced earlier.

Vance tells the story of his life growing up in Middletown in southwestern Ohio, in a transplanted rural Appalachian (read: eastern Kentucky) culture. I myself grew up in southwestern Ohio well aware and somewhat disdainful of the Kentucky migrants of whom Vance writes. Many grow up in broken homes and many struggle to prosper against adversity, and so many stories like this can be told. The value of Vance’s book is the window it cracks on the fierce family loyalty and regional pride and sense of justice that belongs to his ‘hillbilly’ culture. That he uses the word ‘elegy’ (a lament for the dead) in the title suggests that the culture he inhabited, and which inhabits him, is in some sense dying or dead.

As a memoir, the book is good. Vance’s cast of characters, if truly drawn, are truly fascinating. They can be vicious, and viciously loving. They are complicated, loyal, broken, and real. If only he had been content to write a memoir. But he can’t contain it. It moves from memoir to fairy tale and then to political essay, In so doing Vance prostitutes his story for the sake of a didactic goal. Perhaps it is a good essay, perhaps it is an inspiring fairy tale, but after his grandmother dies, the only characters left on stage are Vance himself and the America about which he wishes to make social commentary. What began as memoir morphs into an essay on the American white middle class, and his stories and characters become merely the platform for his commentary.

And that is sad. Stereotyping and ridicule, of the type I too often embraced as a child toward those we derided as ‘hillbillies’, dehumanizes. As memoir Vance honors his characters, his family, and his culture by humanizing them. He then turns the newly humanized into objects, making them merely the representatives of societal trends, illustrations of his own social commentary.

Bill Gates recommends the book, yes, but he does so with this telling sentence:

“While the book offers insights into some of the complex cultural and family issues behind poverty, the real magic lies in the story itself and Vance’s bravery in telling it.”

That’s it. The real magic is the story. The shame is that Vance and his editors could not let the story be.

Especially in Nottingham

Some of us live squarely, if unwillingly, in Nottingham. We live where those close to us die in childbirth, where innocent drinks become desperate addictions, where brilliant minds descend into dark caverns of mental illness. We live desperate for hope.

If we pray, there are many paths along which those prayers could be shaped. The path followed by some of the Psalms led to imprecation, prayers wishing ill upon their enemies. Such prayers strike our gentle and sentimental sensibilities as too harsh and ill-fitting to be worn by Christians.That is, until we come face to face with our real enemies. Paul reminds us:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)

We can puzzle over the effective power of the forces of darkness, but we ought never doubt that their efforts are arrayed to harm us. It is against THEM, the agents of death and decay, that we pray. Language that sounds violent and inhumane becomes understandable against such an enemy.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:6-11)

Awful words these, yes, but not when aimed at one whose food is the infliction of grief and death and suffering and despair. To pray thus negatively, is to pray this positively:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9, 10)

To the degree God’s will is not yet manifest on earth, we pray that it would be, that our understandable fear would be replaced by the certain hope of the coming kingdom.

We pray harsh words against a bitter enemy, all the while longing for this:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:11)

Which is to cry out, with John and all the saints,

Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

Such prayers are never lost upon the God who cares.

Especially in Nottingham.

Not in Nottingham

At the heart of Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood is a song penned and sung by Roger Miller (and covered here by Mumford and Sons) which captures the heart’s anguish when life has penned us in with sorrow.

Nottingham was home to the poor people for whom Robin Hood robbed the rich. But even with his heroics, life grew grim. It was unfair.

Every town has its ups and down
Sometime ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham

To escape the despair one might flee, but when the oppression is so deep, the sorrow so profound, even that seems impossible.

I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave

Unable or unwilling to escape, an appeal is made for relief, but it meets only silence.

We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham

Pretty heavy fare for a Disney film.

The sequence over which the song plays is an image of rain falling on a people for whom all hope is lost. It’s an honest prayer of lament asking in despair, “Can’t there be some happiness for me?”

For the many who pray such a prayer, the response, it seems, is never more than the sound of rain on the pavement.

In some ways, it’s a biblical prayer. The psalmist prays in this way:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me. (Psalm 88:14-16)

There is, the biblical writers knew, a time for weeping and mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:4). And yet they did not shrink back from penning such honest laments because they knew, unlike the poor stricken residents of Nottingham, that there would, as well, be a time of laughing and dancing (also Ecclesiastes 3:4).

“Can’t there be some happiness for me?” Yes, they knew there would be. There is resurrection on the other side of death. And for that we long.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation. (Psalm 42:5)

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