Traditional Worship in a Digitally Dependent World?: Part I
June 25, 2015
by Lauren Smelser White
Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece for the Washington Post that many of you probably saw as it made its way through online networks. I want to reflect a bit more on what she says, thinking further about why it might be that millennials crave something other than “cool” worship. One of the primary reasons she is onto something is because, I believe, 20- and 30-somethings experience uprootedness in ways that previous generations may not (though, undoubtedly, younger generations already experience it more intensely). This is in no small way due to our dependence upon digital technology for much of our interpersonal interaction. My main suggestion is that, in a highly mobile, digitally dependent society where uprootedness is commonplace, when it comes to corporate worship we may need more of tradition than of an atmosphere that simulates the rapid changes and virtual reality of the environment we inhabit all week. In fact, mindfully retaining some of our traditional forms of worship may be a vital aspect of the church living out its mission in this particular time and place.
For the sake of keeping my thoughts on this topic manageable, I write my reflections in two separate posts, with hope that each makes some sense on its own.
For starters, what do I mean by rootedness? It’s a notion that I find in a statement from William Faulkner, the literary master who created an entire fictional world out of one small county in his home state of Mississippi. He explained why: “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
If you’ve lived anywhere long enough to feel like a local, I bet you know what he means. You’ve experienced rootedness. Rootedness depends upon prolonged physical presence in a place, but it’s not enough just to exist there—to be rooted you must live there as a contributing ingredient to its flavor. Its seasons and landscape have to be part of your own inner geography. Its people have to be your people (even if they drive you crazy at times)—you know how to talk to them; you know what foods they like; you’d defend them if an outsider cut them down. Like Faulkner, you feel that there is something worth knowing about your place and its long-time inhabitants, and you know that the further you press into it the more you can learn about it. This is rootedness.
In North American, rootedness is a phenomenon that we are less and less acquainted with. Cohesive local communities are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Consider the fact that these days, on average, Americans move more but vacation less than just about anyone else on earth (or so I recently heard on NPR). I wonder what that says about us? If nothing else, it says that we are itching to pick up and move on. We don’t care much about living in one spot long enough to root down into it, to learn its geography and seasons, to get to know our quirky neighbors and to leave something of our quirky selves there. On the other hand, we rarely vacation (even cheaply). The real pleasure of leisurely traveling, even a few hours away, comes from witnessing how plants and animals and people display rootedness in new places. But we are largely missing out on this too—not only because those sorts of communities are disintegrating, but also because we simply aren’t vacationing. We don’t have time and money for travel; we have to pay the note on our bigger barns.
These are generalizations, of course. There are plenty of holdouts. But the point is that more and more we are becoming an uprooted sort of people. I’m not qualified to identify all of the causes for our uprootedness. However, I’d wager that the list includes our cultural addiction to consumption. Deep in our cultural psyche we assume that new things bring joy. Perhaps this is why we church hop so often, and why infidelity is as commonplace among Christians as it is anyone. With every change, we lose most of what we’ve built with the people we leave behind. We are not only geographically uprooted; we are interpersonally uprooted as well.
20- and 30-somethings are experiencing an extra dose of uprootedness in the interpersonal domain, as I see it, largely due to our dependence on online social media for our interaction with each other. According to neurologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, “an ironic revelation of the television-computer age is that what people want from machines is humanity: stories, contact, and interaction” (198). But digital machines only deliver “imprecise simulations” of these sorts of connections. “Small wonder,” they say, “that Internet use in adults actually causes depression and loneliness” (199).
Some may protest these statements, pointing out that the online world actually facilitates innumerable, valuable human interactions. And there is truth in this—ask anyone who has been able to raise awareness for a good cause on Facebook, or who keeps up with a loved one across continents via Instagram, or who finds a way out of isolation on the blogosphere. Most of us find real enjoyment in keeping up with our friends and family by way of these mediums, and many of us have also uncovered unique opportunities there to communicate what we value—that is, we’ve found voices that may otherwise go unheard.
So are Lewis, Amini, and Lannon simply wrong about Internet usage causing loneliness? If they could answer they may acknowledge that, yes, good things can come of our online access to one another; however, we should also consider the extent to which we need to have these sorts of interactions.
We’ve all noticed it: most of us generally keep our heads down in public spaces, checking our cell phones, much more than we tend to look around at the people in front of us. One problem with this, it so happens, is that the hypertext medium of communication doesn’t utilize the parts of our brain—the right temporal neocortex, to be exact—that deal in intercepting and producing the emotional content of speech. This is why, Lewis and company point out, we easily misunderstand each other on these mediums. “In our increasingly digitized world, [online interaction] is a convenient substitute for dialogue, but it does not convey the richness that humans unthinkingly transmit when they use emotionally tempered speech and facial expressions,” they say (60). Furthermore, “minus the perceptible cues of voice tone, eye contact, and expression,” online interaction makes it highly convenient for people to assume fabricated identities—“simply because they can” (59).
So, by being constantly plugged in to social media, we not only exclude the richness of more face-to-face interpersonal exchange (likely lowering our social IQs as a result). We are also constantly tempted to present highly fabricated versions of ourselves for online audiences, especially if we’re any good at such fabrication. Sounds exhausting, huh?
From many conversations I’ve had, I can verify that plenty of 20- and 30-somethings do find it exhausting. I think it’s because there’s something extra on the line for us, something more than just socializing. Generally speaking, we’re the demographic of folks who feel most compelled to keep up with the Joneses via online social media. Most of my friends who own small businesses feel immense pressure to have dazzling Instagram accounts; many of my colleagues in academia trying to make a name for themselves feel they must wow the world via Twitter; all of us wonder if we should be blogging. If we join in at all—and it’s hard not to, because of course we also enjoy keeping up with each other in all of the ways these technologies afford—we must battle the compulsion to self-sell via social media. Even if we resist that compulsion (each in our own ways), it’s pretty hard NOT to feel like we’re marketing ourselves as a product commoditized by “likes.” It’s exhausting, but we keep participating—because it’s also fun; because we have to advertise our businesses; because it distracts us from the mundane responsibility of adulthood; because we don’t want to be irrelevant…
All of this is what I’m thinking of when I say that my generation experiences an added layer of uprootedness. And all of it said, I would argue that the last thing we need when we gather for worship on Sunday mornings is another venue for feeling plugged in, like consumers receiving a polished marketing bid. And even if we feel we need it, dare I go so far as to suggest that we do so out of habit rather than authentic spiritual necessity? What we do seem to need is access to rootedness. And when it comes to worship, rootedness goes hand in hand with tradition.
That final statement warrants some explaining, especially because “tradition” can signify all sorts of positive and negative things for Christian believers. Because it’s too much to tackle here, I’ll attempt it next month in my next post.
1. The piece is titled “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’.” It can be found here.↩
2. This is not exactly “Millennials,” a term that designates the generation born somewhere between the early 1980s and early 2000s. Because of my age (33) and part-time occupation (college instructor) I am in better touch with folks whose birthdays range from about 1975–1995.↩
3. William Faulkner, The Paris Review Interviews, vol. II (New York: Picador, 2007) 57.↩
4. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (New York: Random House, 2000).↩
5. See this article if you’re curious about how our digital interaction might negatively affect our interpersonal intelligence, not to mention that of those being raised in this environment.↩
Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.
Everything Changed at Auschwitz
June 19, 2015
by Michael McRay
It was December 2008. He said only one sentence to me, but that was enough. Everything changed.
Poland was cold. Snow covered the ground, and the occasional drizzle of rain sent shivers down our already shivering spines. I had heard of Auschwitz death camp for years, a hell-place where the Nazis murdered over one million Jews, a nightmare I’m sure many survivors never wanted to mention again after liberation came.
One by one, my father and I walked through the red brick buildings of the compound. In one room, behind a glass partition, rested a nauseatingly large pile of human hair, shaved from the heads of Jews, gays, gypsies, and others imprisoned at the camp. In a neighboring room, thousands of old dilapidating shoes rose from the floor; and in yet another, ownerless luggage, some with names inked or etched on the leather. Face-shots of those brought to Auschwitz covered the walls. I felt utterly inundated, desperate to escape the debilitating physical reality of the Nazi’s Holocaust. My mind could not comprehend over one million people dying in the place where I stood, murdered because they were different. And the majority of those murdered were Jews, who many believe are the chosen people of God.
That’s why when my dad spoke, I knew I wouldn’t be the same.
I grew up in the South, in America’s Bible Belt. We had more churches in my small town of Jellico than we had restaurants. Religion pervaded people’s perspectives. Whenever tragedy struck, the response seemed scripted: “Everything happens for a reason,” or perhaps, “God’s ways are mysterious.” I heard this refrain echo constantly. Whether in youth retreats, at Halloween hell houses, in church, sports events, or looking for parking spaces outside Walmart, the prevailing belief was that God controlled everything.
Anything good that happened was God’s doing; and the bad? Well, God supposedly allowed that to happen so that we might learn some greater truth or achieve some deeper faith.
I remember when I was kid hearing youth pastors pray when we all arrived at the retreat center safely, thanking God for God’s many gifts and for sending angels to guide the van safely to its destination. Such language was commonplace for me to encounter and recite. I consistently heard and believed that God was looking out for me, and would care for me no matter what. God would keep me safe.
But there, standing in the crematorium of Auschwitz, a place of ash and screams, the gallows just behind us, something changed in me. With one sentence my dad broke the silence, and he broke down my theology. We stared at the brick ovens; and they seemed to stare at us. Then, without looking at me, he said, “Whatever you believe about God has to make sense right here or it can’t make sense anywhere.”
Though my father had diligently taught my siblings and me “the sacredness of questioning everything,” to use David Dark’s book title, I had believed, or at least still wanted to believe, that God watches out for each person with steady eyes and ready hands, eager to pluck us out of our trials if we have enough faith or if it fits into God’s greater plan. But Auschwitz shattered this culturally-conditioned idea that God rescues us from our problems, and I began to wonder if God rather exists in the very midst of our suffering, perhaps even hanging on the gallows as Elie Wiesel wrote in Night.
When I returned home to Nashville, I felt dissatisfied and depressed. In many ways, the safe God of my youth had become another casualty of the Nazi’s death camp. I no longer knew how to pray or what to believe. Before Auschwitz, God was expansive and powerful, full of devotion to each person. After Auschwitz, nothing was certain or solid. My faith seemed to disintegrate into the ash that once filled those ovens.
I now needed a new way to understand the faith I inherited. I wanted to be a Christian, to remain true to my roots, but I needed to find my own reasons to follow Jesus. I began to realize that if God’s place among humanity was with the suffering, if God swings from the gallows and Jesus was crucified among criminals, if he dines with the outcasts and “sinners” and the parabolic feast table of God is open to the ones us privileged folks don’t want around, then maybe my faith should have far less to do with proving God’s omnipotence and far more to do with my presence among the “least of these.” Perhaps Matthew 25 should indeed be my creed, as my dad had often encouraged. The posters of the fictional terrorist-fighting American operative Jack Bauer disappeared from my dorm walls, and the faces and words of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. took their place. Over the next several years, this faith led me into the streets, prisons, and conflict zones to learn, love, and live peaceableness, justice, and hospitality.
Auschwitz taught me that God is not safe. I’ve slowly begun to realize that perhaps my discipleship shouldn’t be either.
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective, founder/organizer/co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. In Fall 2015, he will spend three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.”
Tokens Bloggers Return
June 18, 2015
We’re delighted to announce that our Tokens Blog will have a team of bloggers sharing items with us throughout the remainder to 2015. In addition to Lee and myself (Dusty), we will be featuring pieces from Michael McRay, Lauren Smelser White, and Jeannie Alexander. We’ll be sharing bios and stories as the summer progresses. Stay tuned.
Our Most Outstanding 2015 Sponsors
June 11, 2015
We are grateful for the partnership and support of our Most Outstanding Sponsors for our 2015 season. Find out more about our sponsors by visiting their websites.
Christ is Contingency: Embracing the Unknown
June 11, 2015
by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens Show
Christian Wiman—poet and our featured guest on our recent show in Abilene—asserts that “Christ is contingency.” It is perhaps something we might expect of a poet who goes to writing theology: language that is propositional but simultaneously subverts static, propositionalist claims. Contingency—that which can be different, cannot be predicted; a fact that is, in fact, so, but not necessarily so, does not have to be so.
It is instructive, I think, to consider a phrase in common currency in our technocratic age: we prefer to “nail down the contingencies,” a striking idiom when juxtaposed with “Christ as contingency.” Whatever—in the world of commerce, or in the world of theological inquiry, or in the business(!) of making ourselves happy—we somehow have become convinced that the fundamental business of living is nailing down contingencies, to get everything fixed and sorted out and certified; thereby, we think we avoid not only suffering but the slightest inconvenience.
That old religious word “grace” denotes a direct affront to certifiability, to having it all nailed down. “Grace” is a notion that celebrates not merit but gift. But “grace” may carry with it such religious overtones that we may miss the point of Wiman’s assertion that “Christ is contingency.” This assertion seems not so much to be a religious claim, some private, personal opinion about God, as much as it is a claim about the nature of existence, about what it means to live according to the grain of the universe rather than our furious attempts to cut against it, refute it, nail it.
“Grace” can just as easily get reduced to yet one more non-contingent truth claim, all the sudden a mechanism for determining who is in and who is out, a mechanism for division rather than reconciliation, a proposition to nail down in order to soothe our aching anxiety about the contingent nature of the universe.
But if the language of grace is to be true, it will yield no such nailing down, but I suspect will evoke a wonder that is, as Wiman says elsewhere, “the pre-condition for all wisdom” (My Bright Abyss, 64). It will “speak and be love’s fluency,” will hold doubt and faith together, the ache of loss and the joys of the excess energy of love together.
You may listen to the second half of our Abeline show this Sunday, June 14, at 1:00 Central, in West Texas on KACU 89.5 FM and available globally online at KACU.org.
Creating “the Last Christians” in Iraq
June 3, 2015
by Craig “Dusty” Katzenmiller
Recently, my wife and I ventured to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a family wedding. As we walked around Sylvan Lake one morning, we reminisced about our past selves and our own journey to marriage. Inevitably, in such moments of reflection, we reach the conclusion that had we met each other in college we would have despised each other. So much of life is timing.
While in South Dakota, I read Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity; in my judgment, it’s impossible to overstate this book’s importance. I finished the chapter chillingly titled “The Last Christians” while lying in our cabin the morning after our walk. It’s a sobering chapter, chronicling the decline of Christianity in Asia, in the Middle East particularly. Christian communities, Jenkins tells us, thrived in Asia well into the fourteenth century. (This relatively unknown millennium and a third of thriving constitutes part of the “lost history.”) The decline came as a result of various factors—changes in states’ religious zeal and changes in climate are but two examples. Even into the nineteenth century, there were still Christian-minority communities of substantial importance in Asia and Africa. These were decimated in various ways: Copts in Egypt were persecuted at new levels; Armenians were victims of systematic genocide; Iraqis experienced backlash because of invasions at the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
That last observation struck me especially hard because we did that invading. We Americans. And largely, we Americans who think ourselves great Christians contributed directly to the demise of a fellow Christian community. As I read, I recalled, during the invasion of 2003, being in a hotel in Tampa, FL, on vacation with my family, and, to my lasting shame, I recalled my excited reaction to news of the bombings in Baghdad. My excitement over that deadly invasion betrays the main reason my wife and I would not have gotten along at the time.
About a year later, in 2004, I read the book that would change my life—Richard Hughes’ Myths America Lives By—under the tutelage of my now-dear-friend Richard Goode. Later, in 2005, I would get to know Lee Camp, our Tokens Show host. These two gentle-men exposed my allegiances as neigh unto idolatrous, and that exposing shook me to my core. Everything had to change. Through much self-examination, I realized that my god was not the God who is Trinity, but the god who is American military might, the god who is Fox News, the god who is Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.
That may sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. My hope for salvation was bound up in “the spread of democracy.” For me, and I dare say for many other American Christians, our gods were on full display during the invasion of Iraq—and it was awesome in our sight.
Now, over ten years later, I am still trying to work out just (a) what it means to live a life free of such idolatry, and (b) how I could have been so idolatrous in the first place, while thinking myself such a great Christian.
While the answer to (b) traces its roots back to my religious upbringing in a tradition that, at least in places, has wholly capitulated to the might of the state as its source of hope, the answer to (a) has remained more elusive. That elusiveness weighed heavy on me in that cabin in South Dakota, itself a place where wholly capitulated Christians systematically exterminated entire cultures not so long ago. Idolatries run deep, especially in American Christianity, and I have been reminded of that—and of my own hopefully former idolatries—as I read Jenkins’ words on the ruin of Christians in Iraq.
Lee used to say, quite often, that we Christians in America have more in common with the baptized Iraqi than with the unbaptized American. May this elusive truth grow ever more deeply in our hearts, and may our idolatries cease, and may we live lives worthy of the name of Christ.
Craig D. Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor for Tokens and a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.
Chris Wiman joins Tokens in Abilene, Texas
May 21, 2015
Tokens on the road: Our merry and most outstanding band of musicians, tale-spinners, scholars, and song-singers makes its way to the Historic Paramount Theater in ABILENE, TEXAS June 4, 7:30 p.m., with very special guest Chris Wiman of Yale Divinity School, along with Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, Brother Preacher, Abilene’s Revolution Strings, the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, and host Lee C. Camp. This brand new episode entitled “The Language of Grace” is sponsored by the 2015 Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference. Tickets for the ABILENE, TEXAS SHOW are available HERE.
Download the PDF of the print ad here.
Watch our Abilene Promo video here:
Authority and Alasdair MacIntyre: What Learning to Fly Airplanes without Engines Reminds Me about the Moral Life
May 12, 2015
by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens
I am learning to fly sail-planes. It is a fine hobby for someone who enjoys an adrenaline rush. I feel like a little kid, a 48 year old kid, when I am coming in on final approach, and know that there is no throttle which can be advanced, no engine upon which I might rely. There is just gravity, and a glide path, and the energy stored up in height and velocity, the graceful lines of the sail-plane gliding toward the almost mile long grass strip at Puckett Field, Eagleville, Tennessee.
Sitting in the cockpit before our second or third tow one day, my instructor asked me to run through the check-list. He is a very fine instructor, and I come away every time having learned something. I was particularly pleased in the immediate flight prior to have learned how to do wing-overs, a marvelously graceful move in a sailplane, that makes a novice like myself feel all the sudden like I’m flying a fighter jet.
So I dutifully and quickly ran through the check-list. “Ready,” I said.
He simply replied, “There is one thing you’ve left untended that will kill us.”
I ran through the check-list again, and realized I had failed to lock the spoilers, devices which extend vertically from the top side of a wing for the purpose of “spoiling” the lift generated by a wing, typically used during a landing to assist the pilot in landing at the desired spot. But try to take off with those things unlocked and they will pop out when you get a little ways down the runway—to ill and possibly deadly effect.
The non-judgmental, factual, non-shaming way my instructor said what he said—“There is one thing you’ve left untended that will kill us”—is an example, I do think, of rightful and good authority.
This experience reminded me of a beautiful autumn day on the Notre Dame campus, sitting alongside the reflecting pool which sits below the 14-story-high mosaic of Touchdown Jesus, re-reading some passages from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, when I came across one particular line that made that beautiful day memorable: we are all, he asserted, legalists in the modern era.
“Legalist” does not mean “conservative,” or even some mode of theologically oriented “works-righteousness.” Instead, MacIntyre was taking aim at the “legalist” who sees a rule as an end in and of itself. In modernity, as MacIntyre has famously argued time and again, we stopped thinking about life and morality having an end, a purpose, or a telos, to use the term the Greek philosophers employed. For the ancients—both biblical and Graeco-Romans—virtues were not merely timeless universal rules that simply had to be kept in order to be “moral.” Instead, virtues—skills, habits, dispositions—were always intended to help a practitioner move toward the desired end.
Also of significance: different communities and traditions, MacIntyre argued, have different sets of virtues because they have different conceptions of the end or telos for which life is being lived, or a given endeavor is being pursued. As one example, consider the different virtues embodied in the practices of soldiering or playing basketball; or consider the different virtues typically embodied among the Japanese as opposed to citizens of the United States. Those different virtues arise from different conceptions of what the purpose of life is, or the purpose of the particular endeavor.
In such a scenario, authority is then, not something to be avoided in principle. But for any good modernist, authority (and tradition) typify the great foe. For the modernist, autonomy—self-rule—is the gold standard. “’Have the courage to use your own reason.’ That is the motto of the Enlightenment,” said Immanuel Kant. Thus authority becomes increasingly suspicious, in and of itself, for the modernist. Any authority from outside oneself gets a nasty sounding name: heteronomy. Unless one wants to be an arcane pre-modern, then heteronomy is surely to be avoided.
But for MacIntyre, and for me in learning to fly sail-planes, and I am increasingly convinced, in learning to live a life worthy of the name, authority now sounds much less a foe in and of itself.
I am not advocating some sort of mindless “return to authority.” Instead, it is a more honest appreciation of the fact that, even in our assertions of “autonomy,” we are still living according to various forms of authority, various presuppositions shaped by varied traditions.
Instead, the question becomes whether it is good authority or bad authority; and this is a question that can typically be answered by considering the fruit of the life or community under consideration.
And often, such concerns may, in fact, be a matter of life or death, even when as simple as checking well the check-list prior to take off.
Rattlesnakes, Friends, and Stand by Me
May 6, 2015
On Tuesday night we did a show in Malibu, and I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of hiking up on the Santa Monica mountains while here. Last time we were here with the family over spring break, one of the boys just stopped himself as he stuck his hand in a hand hold where lay a young rattlesnake.
I’d recently heard tale of two friends who had been hiking in such environs but many decades ago; one had been bitten right in the midst of his right butt cheek, and problematic symptoms began to manifest quickly. His friend said he would run into the village and get the doctor, while he should sit still and not move about much. Thus the friend ran quickly, found the doctor, who was unfortunately indisposed—due to the fact that one of the women in the village was in the midst of childbirth—and he could not leave. He gave directions though: go back quickly to your friend, take your pocket knife, cut an X-shaped incision over the bite, and suck out the venom, and tend to your friend until I can get there.
The friend hurried back, finding his snake-bitten friend now in rather dire straits, who asked immediately, “What did the doctor say?” Out of breath, he replied hesitantly, “The doctor said, he said that you are going to die.”
It is an immense gift to have those who will in fact stand by us when we are snake-bitten, and we were reminded this week of the artistic power of such fidelity, with the passing of Ben E. King, who famously sang the pop song “Stand By Me.” Less known is the beautiful old hymn by the same title by the pastor Charles Tindley, famed African-American Methodist pastor and hymn-writer. Tindley’s “Stand By Me” served as the fore-runner to the pop song. We performed the old hymn on our most recent show in Nashville. So, in honor of good friends, and in honor of the passing of Ben E. King, we share with you that performance here.
Sex in Your 40s, Self- Loathing, and Cellulite: Why Nietzsche Was Often Right
May 1, 2015
by Lee C. Camp, host of Tokens
Critics are, well, so critical. But nonetheless much is to be learned from them, even if I say so begrudgingly. I do think that one of the finer parts of being raised Southern is our suspicion of those who speak in such (over) confident, (over) authoritative ways. The Southern pejorative use of “Yankee” is, in large part, a judgment upon such (over) esteem for one’s viewpoints. For all the foolishness of the Lost Cause mentality, there is something about that ethos that serves a constructive social function of questioning the powers.
So, as a Southerner, I have often enjoyed reading social critics, as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Reinhold Niebuhr, and even one of the greatest of modern haters of Christians, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I first started reading as an undergraduate many years ago. There are many supposedly cultured despisers of Christianity who, with condescension oozing from their blog comments, frankly don’t know what they’re talking about. But then there are people like Nietzsche who may not be dismissed so easily.
There is a discomfiting ring of truth in his insistence that Christianity appears to be a religion of “everything low and botched,” a religion for the slave class. He gets personal sometimes: “Whoever had the blood of theologians in his veins stands from the start in a false and dishonest position to all things.” Christians, he says, have a “deadly hostility to reality.” And then there’s this, one of the things that has often disgusted me too with the southern Christianity with which I have often crossed paths, and, forgive me God, have too often contributed to: that the Christian “turns the spirit of life into fear and suspicion, joy into self-loathing, passion into paranoia.”
Out of all this, Nietzsche will provide this sort of summary objection: “They will have to sing better songs before I believe in their redeemer.” (All quotes cited in Marsh, Welcoming Justice, 67-68).
Whatever those better songs sound like, I suspect that they will have to provide an anti-dote for the self-loathing that Bible Belt Christianity often fosters in good hearted men and women and children, that looks something like joy. Having recently come through a season of a great deal of depression that was often accompanied by self-loathing and self-hatred, I saw again the ways in which roots of much of that self-hatred had been fertilized by the theological pettiness I often saw parading as matters of great substance.
So I’ve been thinking a great deal more about “joy” and “happiness” and what that might look like. The Apostle Paul speaks of “joy” as one facet of the “fruit of the Spirit.” I find this metaphor of “fruit” fascinating because it holds together two loci often kept separate: there is both the locus of “gift” (it’s from “the Spirit,” not something we manufacture) and it’s “fruit” (which is cultivated, something in which we must participate).
Somewhere I came across the snarky story about farmer Ben who did not much like church and church people, turned off by their incessant piety. He had a beautiful farm and excellent crops, well tended and carefully cultivated. The pastor went out for a visit, perusing the fields with Ben, and said in a pious tone, “The Lord sure has blessed you with a beautiful and bountiful crop.” To this farmer Ben replied, “You should have seen the place when the Lord had it all to himself.”
There is wisdom here: for those of us raised in the works-righteousness side of Christianity, we often focus upon petty concerns to the exclusion of large and broad and beautiful concerns, and, as in time it seems we get caught up in the self-hatred that comes from such legalism, such inability to keep all the rules we’ve made up for ourselves and others. When such works-righteousness does not work, we either quit the Christianity thing all together, or we discover that we are “saved by grace through faith,” but there then is given us no framework or way of life by which we receive and experience a graced existence to overcome our powerlessness, except “pray more,” “read your Bible more,” and such as this. That’s all fine advice so far as it goes, but is about as helpful in leading a joyous Christian life as it would be to say to a baseball player, simply, “pray more” and “read the Baseball rule-book more.”
Many of the medieval Christians, Aquinas for example, insisted first and foremost that Christian faith was about happiness; this itself seems shocking to many American Protestants, because we are so much like what Nietzsche said we were like. But Aquinas, drawing off numerous sources, one of whom was Aristotle, insisted that the end of life is to be happy. I like the fact that he liked to eat and drink; he saw such imbibing and enjoying the table not as in tension with his faith but as part and parcel of it.
Happiness ultimately comprised friendship with God. This “happiness” was not then mere indulgence. Instead, Aquinas held together in his notion of virtues both gift and work, grace and cultivation. To be happy, one needed to be schooled in, given the gift of, the cardinal virtues—temperance, justice, prudence, and courage or fortitude—along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These were the primary practices by which such happiness were cultivated.
As I’ve begun to observe a typology of happiness, or varied ways happiness or joy get defined, it seems there are at least three in wide spread usage: (1st) is that most typically meant of happiness, that is, the experience of pleasures or delights, whether carnal or intellectual, aesthetic or appetitive. (2nd) is “eudaimonia,” the term Aristotle used, a state of blessedness that is multi-faceted and related to one’s whole life, personal and communal, pertaining to both intellect and appetites. Some contemporary psychologists have suggested that this might be similar to what has been described as the “state of flow,” in which an individual is at one with the world in one’s work, calling, and passions, in which time almost seems to be irrelevant, a non-recognized reality in that moment. I have tasted such sweet moments in writing, teaching or lecturing, speaking or performing. (3rd) is that altogether non-circumstantial joy which rises above difficult circumstances, a sort of irrational happiness in the face of daunting or even painful realities, even in the midst of suffering.
Some brief observations about this typology, which might contribute to the “better songs” to which Nietzsche calls us.
In my experience, Christians too quickly claim that (3) is the “Christian joy,” discounting the others. Such a rush to a sort of unhappy happiness as the meaning of Christian joy gives too much fodder for Nietzsche’s critique. So let us pause a bit, and think about the first two types of happiness.
It may be that with regard to category (1)—the happiness arising from delights and pleasures—requires a great deal of maturity and human development to really get these delights. It takes a lot of human development, for example, to get really good at enjoying sex. I’m much better at sex, and my wife is too, in our 40s than either of us were in our 20s. For example, in his book Passionate Marriage, the psycho-therapist David Schnarch says there is a correlation between (more) age and (better) sex. (He actually says there is a correlation between better sex and more cellulite, but that’s harder for me to, well, envision or wish for.) Good sex as a virtue around enjoying pleasure might be thought of this way: We can all get a mere orgasm on our own. But to get good at sex with one’s spouse requires growth as a human being, a sort of basic human maturity in facing one’s own fears, learning to practice open communication, which in turn requires overcoming our fear of judgment; it requires, too, dealing with the self-hatred and shame with which our Christian tradition too often belabors us, especially around sex and bodies; and, somewhat like a contact sport, good sex is often made better by getting and staying fit physically as well. And so forth. The point here is simply that “happiness” as it relates to pleasure is, in fact, a very legitimate Christian endeavor, for being a Christian is about becoming fully human, fully alive, with the most joyous expression of our capacities known and experienced.
One more example: We are quickly losing the art of eating, in our fast-food consumerist world. But to learn to eat good food around well appointed tables adorned with good conversation, hospitality and temperance, patience and provocation to love and good deeds: this is a beautiful art, which requires numerous skills, and some of the greatest joys I have known are around good tables with good friends where we’ve talked long into the night, imbibed temperately, and done all things lovingly and hospitably.
So, to enjoy delights and pleasures well is, in fact, a learned gift, a cultivated grace. Similarly with regard to category (2) above, it may be that in our varied squelching of passion in life, we forget that we were created out of divine love and creativity, and that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” said Irenaeus. I like the story supposedly from the Talmud about Akiba, who on his death-bed, confessed to the rabbi his sense of failure, that he was fearful of facing the judgment of God, confessing that he had not lived as did Moses. He began to weep. The rabbi leaned in and whispered in a kind way: “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”
There is a sort of liberty and freedom in that story that occasions a deep sort of joy, akin to that of which Frederick Buechner speaks when he insisted that one’s vocation is where one’s deep gladness and the world’s great need meet. To experience such “flow” is not some indulgence, which needs be squelched in some pious rejection of passion in life, but may, I think it more likely, be part and parcel of what it means to be a child of God.
So, perhaps one lesson learned from Nietzsche: let us give ourselves a break from our indulgent self-loathing, loosen up, live a little, and learn how to grow up by tasting a bit of joy.