Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Church's Billy Bush Moment?

As Crusty flails through the dystopian nightmare of this election season, he's at least thankful to be back in pastoral ministry, preaching every Sunday.  This is something that COD missed about serving in academia: the way that preaching every Sunday, week in, week out, is one of the most fundamental aspects of pastoral ministry.  It's part of engaging in an extended conversation with God as revealed in Scripture, and how we are to make sense of the world around us.

The past few weeks have been interesting, to say the least.  But in the midst of the many varied ways in which this election season is bringing to light many profound rifts and changes in American society, Crusty has also been watching how religion and the church (small c) has had its own dark places laid bare.  Just a few examples:

--We have the fact that the U.S. Catholic bishops, by and large, seem to have abrogated any kind of teaching function the episcopate supposedly has.  By reducing the role of the church solely to
Hey Catholic bishops, remember this guy? He spoke truth to power in June 2004.
opposing abortion and supporting "religious liberty" (as they define it), they seem to have been unable to stand for the Catholic Church's historic teachings on anything else, incapable of addressing a candidate spouting racist, anti-refugee rhetoric and openly advocating torture, when, in fact, there are lots of Catholic teachings supporting refugees and immigration, and opposing torture and racism.  COD is not talking about endorsing or electioneering, but simply speaking truth to power and advocating for issues, something that the Catholic Church, including its current Pope, oftentimes seems to find the time to do.  Crusty finds it interesting that more elected Republicans seem to have disavowed their presidential candidate than Catholic bishops have made clear where the church's teaching differ from policies proposed by that candidate.

--There is the revelation of divisions within evangelical Protestantism.  This is the story here, friends, and COD has been annoyed by the predominant narrative that "Evangelical Protestants paradoxically support Trump."  While it is certainly the case that the majority of persons self-identifying as evangelicals will be voting for Trump, and that many religious leaders have served as little more than spiritual money launderers for Trump, willing to explain away and excuse anything if it gets their hands closer to the levers of power, evangelical support, particularly from evangelical leaders, has been far from monolithic.  There have been consistent voices in opposition.  The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest conservative evangelical church in the United States, has approved  supporting refugee resettlement.  Some of its top leaders, sich as Richard Land and Albert Mohler, have openly, consistently, and regularly disavowed Trump's policies.   Others include Max Lucado, Tony Campolo, Beth Moore, and Jim Wallis, among others.  Saying "Why do evangelicals continue to support Trump?" is like saying "Why don't Muslims condemn violence?"  Moderate Muslims have been condemning violence for over 15 years, it's just that most media doesn't report or pay attention.  Prominent evangelicals have been disavowing Trump, it's just that most media doesn't report, pay attention, or have any modicum of understanding of the dynamics involved.

Crusty was also pondering some of the responses by religious leaders to the audio recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women.  Reading a few articles, Crusty also saw that producer Mark Burnett has hundreds of hours of videotape from Trump's TV show, footage never meant to be aired of background conversations.  As he did, COD suddenly found himself thinking:

What if we had hundreds of hours of videotape of church meetings and church leaders?  What if we had hot microphones that recorded some of our own conversations?  What would it lay bare about our own sins and self-serving lies?

There is the reality that in some cases, in some places, more often than we might like to admit, we would learn that the Episcopal Church has an ordination process that borders on spiritual and emotional abuse, if not, at times, downright misconduct.  The following are all actual stories from the ordination process.

--I asked someone once how their interview with the Commission on Ministry went, and the person replied, "Well, I'm not sure how well I responded to one question."  I asked what the question was. The person said that they were interviewed not by the Commission as a whole, but had two interviews with smaller groups of 3-4 Commission members.  In one of the small groups, a male clergyperson asked her, "How will you deal with the fact that you are so attractive you will be a distracting presence leading worship?"  She then told me what her answer had been, and said she couldn't tell by the members' responses whether it was the right one or not.

I said, "I just want to say that I'm sorry that you were sexually harassed as part of the ordination process.  And I'm even sorrier that the apology had to come from me, and not from anyone actually involved in the process."  She looked startled that I had named it as such, but then she paused and said, "That's what I thought, too, but since none of the other people said anything about it, I thought that I was overreacting."  Since the person who had asked the question was a clergyperson, I informed her what her rights were under the Constitution and Canons should she wish to pursue a complaint.  She quickly said, "No, I couldn't do that, the person would torpedo my ordination process."

--Another person shared with me that his Commission on Ministry interview was prefaced by the following words: "We're going to ask you some questions, and don't say you can't answer some of them, because the church is exempt from what may be considered discrimination under the law.  And if you don't answer them, you will be considered as not complying with this process."  Apart from being untrue, or possibly an outright lie by someone who knows better, this is simply normalizing abuse as a way to begin an interview process.

--A young woman in her mid-20s was told, "You will have the most intimate details of people's lives in your hands.  You need to get more life experience and come back in a few years."  This despite the
Welcome to your Commission on Ministry interview.
fact the person had been active and engaged in the Episcopal Church in all sorts of ways since birth.  This person wasn't having it, and said to one Commission member, "You son is my age and is in law school, he'll have people's lives in his hands.  Did you tell him to go get life experience first?"  This also despite the fact the Commission had just approved a 45-year-old with a successful first career who had been a churchgoer of any kind for barely eighteen months.

--A friend of mine shared in his Commission on Ministry interview that he had entered Alcoholics Anonymous several months previously.  A member said, "If you're just saying that so we'll be sympathetic to you and not ask any difficult questions, that's not the case, we're going to treat you like we do everyone else."

There's been a lot of talk of "gaslighting" in this election season.  Named from the classic movie where Charles Boyer convinces Ingrid Bergman she's losing her mind by imagining flickering gaslights that he himself is causing, "gaslighting," loosely defined, is a process by which one person manipulates another through abuse, lies, and deception to get that other person to doubt their own perception of reality and impose a power dynamic of the abuser's choosing.  Many have noted how politics, presenting starkly
Coming soon: Gaslighteucharist?
different perceptions of reality, has ventured into this territory.

Friends, our ordination process is just one way in which the church has its own gaslighting, justifying sometimes offensive, insensitive, and abusive behavior as perfectly normal. Yet because the people being gaslighted have no agency and are powerless in the ordination process, we'll never know how many more stories like this are out there.

Trump's bragging about sexual assault has been rightly condemned by some church leaders.  In doing so, however, Crusty wonders what the church's Billy Bush moments could have been, had we been caught on tape with our own sins of sexual abuse laid bare.

--Perhaps if we had a Nixon-like taping system at 815 we would have known about former Presiding Bishop Ed Browning covering up sexual abuse of minors by the former bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania.  This has been public knowledge since 2010 and there has never been any kind of acknowledgment of the failure of the Presiding Bishop to be held accountable for his actions.  And please, no sanctimonious protestations that we shouldn't bring this up because of Bishop Browning's recent passing.  He was a public figure, and, like public figures, he is the sum of his actions and his legacy is part of the public record.  We do not treat other public figures, even religious figures, this way.  Several news outlets noted some of the controversies surrounding Nobel Peace Prize winner Elise Wiesel in their obituaries.  Crusty bets many people who would protest we shouldn't bring up PB Browning's actions will pile on when war criminal Henry Kissinger is finally called to account for his genocide when he meets his maker.  Bishop Browning was a great leader and gift to the church, but never was held to any kind of accounting for, let us repeat, covering up sexual abuse of minors.  There was no reporting to police, there were no ecclesial charges.  The already-retired bishop was asked to resign from the House of Bishops, refrain from performing any clerical duties, and seek counseling, all of this in private.  This is does not undo all the good that PB Browning did for the church, but it is a stain on his legacy, and it is to the church's continued shame if it consistently refuses to address this in the rush to hagiography.

--Perhaps the coverups at Episcopal schools like St. Stephen's in Texas, St. George's in Rhode Island, would have been more difficult if we had audiotape of the conversations of those in power.

--Perhaps we could call to account all those still held unaccountable of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.  Crusty has heard stories than he cannot share about sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, and sexual abuse, especially by female colleagues, because they have been told in confidence.  We have to denounce the continued coverup of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in our own church, and set in place some real efforts to hold not only the perpetrators accountable, but those who ignore, excuse, rationalize and flat-out cover up this misconduct before we congratulate ourselves for rightly condemning it in our political sphere.  Would that there was a Spotlight movie for the Episcopal Church.

Trump's numerous attempts to blame others for his behavior, including that he was "egged on" by Billy Bush, has led to the twitter hastag "#BillyBushMadeMeDoIt."

What if, in addition to mockery, we asked ourselves:  what if Billy Bush was there to expose the church's sins?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

It's the End of the Church As We Know It

Crusty has noticed some buzz in the interbloggerwebotwitfacesphere around the Episcopal Church's release of annual membership statistics, which can be found here.  The news, friends, continues to be not good, very bad, alarming, four horsemen of the apocalypse, dogs and cats living together, bad.

Among the tidbits:

--A drop from 1,923,000 members in 2011 to 1,770,000 in 2015.

--More alarming in Crusty's opinions is the number for Average Sunday attendance (ASA), which is, in many ways, the more significant one, since it reflects those actually engaged regularly in the worshipping life of a congregation.  This has dropped from 657,000 in 2011 to 579,000 in 2015.  That's 12% in four years.

--The average ASA of an Episcopal Church is 58.  We are increasingly a collection of small churches.

Crusty has said before on this blog that the church on every level, from the parish to the diocese to the denominational structure, needs to address this reality.  Crusty's said this several times.  We need to be merging congregations and dioceses, strengthening ecumenical cooperation and collaboration, revamp our churchwide structures...basically just stroll through the blog posts that aren't bashing Justin Welby and you'll get an idea of what COD has been Cassandraing about for the past five years.

Hey, here's three times Crusty has written a post covering some of the same topics as this one, going back to 2011 when he posted on the release of the membership statistics back then. If you'd like some specific deja vu, read here, and here, and here.
Once, twice, three times Crusty.

OK, glad you're back.  I had a lovely gin martini while you read those postings.

Here it is, five years later, and yet another round of terrifying attendance numbers.  Crusty was not surprised in the least when he read them, and, hate to break it to you, Sunshine, but Crusty also thinks it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Couple of things to keep in mind:

1)  This decline is a complex collection of various factors, involving some elements particular to The Episcopal Church, and some elements shared by all religious expressions in the United States, if not those areas culturally "Western" (Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, other similar places).  Part of this is demographics.  Some examples:

--Anglo components of the Roman Catholic Church show the same kind of decline pattern as The Episcopal Church, but the Roman Catholic Church's decline overall is much less (about 1% per year) because of growth in its Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Asian American components, Catholics that emigrate to the USA, and other diverse populations contributing growth.

--The Episcopal Church is overwhelmingly old and white (87% white and average age of 58 last time Crusty checked) in a country that is increasingly racially diverse and whose average age is much younger than the typical Episcopal Church (63% white and average age 37.6 according to 2010 census).

--We have seen tremendous internal shifts of population, and the Episcopal Church has had historic strength on the losing end of this: the Rust Belt versus the West, for instance.

--In a related vein, Episcopalians have never kept up with these shifts.  Around the year 1900, 90% of Episcopalians lived East of the Mississippi.  In the year 2000, a whopping 12% of Episcopal
White was obviously not a Village People fan, given his reluctance to Go West.
congregations were founded after 1968.  This is nothing new; William White became Bishop of Pennsylvania in 1787 and never even set foot in Pittsburgh until the 1830s, and only on the urging of a mission-minded priest in his diocese named Jackson Kemper.

2)  Part of this decline, however, is due to massive, systemic failure in evangelism and discipleship at all levels of the church.  Our churchwide system seems to exist solely for the purpose of holding meetings.  At the 2015 General Convention, the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards (CCABs) were thoroughly overhauled, and we were constantly told this would make is more "nimble" and would save money.  Well, we ended up budgeting MORE money for meetings at General Convention 2015 than GC 2012.  We appointed a blue ribbon task force to consider restructuring, and then implemented practically nothing it suggested.  Convention decided it would keep doing more or less what it had been doing, and spend more money on it.

This from a church as a whole that has slashed campus chaplaincies and Christian Education and formation.  We seem to be increasingly a church that has a General Convention whose main purpose is to hold General Convention and pay for meetings in between General Conventions, and dioceses whose main purpose is to prop up single-priest parishes.  We are blessed in having a new Presiding Bishop who is trying to return our focus to mission and evangelism, since we truly are part of the "Jesus Movement."

A fundamental question is whether it's already too late, and whether the structures for organizing ministry that we have simply need to collapse and we create new ones.  Crusty wrote about this at length four years ago here, so won't rehash that posting.  Suffice to say not much has happened in the past four years to change any of the thoughts COD had when he wrote that post.

Part of this decline is undoubtedly due to conflict in the past generation about theological matters, such as the ordination of women and the ordination of LBGT persons to the priesthood and later the episcopate.  Please don't think Crusty is saying all of our decline is due to demographics or failure to evangelize; part of it is undoubtedly due to conflict in the church.  But we honestly have no real way of knowing just how much.  COD thinks that much of the decline in the past generation is due to members dying and not being replaced with newer members, but part of it -- maybe 5-10% -- has to do with persons leaving the Episcopal Church for theological reasons.  But that's just a guess.  COD is open to something other than unfounded polemical arguments that a decline from a peak of 3.6 million in the 1960s to 1.9 million today is due solely to the church becoming more liberal, but hasn't yet come across one that's convincing.  The decline is due to a combination of factors, of which one is certainly, but not solely, internal conflict.

Now, Crusty would also like to point out that he also has no time for hand-wringing, pearl-clutching sobs that the "church" will somehow die out.  Hell no.  The church cannot die because it is of God, and God is not dead. What COD is saying that the church as we know it is probably already dead.  The (by and large) racially segregated, denominational ghettos we call most American expressions of Christianity that we have lived in are crashing down.  To that, Crusty says, thank God.
The church hasn't died despite challenges it has faced far greater than our denominational, suburban captivity of the church of the past 60 years.  Mao couldn't destroy the church and Stalin couldn't destroy it, so we sure as hell can't destroy it despite our failure to live into the Gospel.

We also cannot give ourselves over to weak resignation in the face of massive changes sweeping over the North American religious landscape.  The number of parish clergy Crusty encounters who are quite aware of these changes and their implications for their congregations but are more or less just waiting it out till they retire is shocking and appalling.  There is a lot we can and should and must do.

However, we didn't get here overnight, and we're not getting out of this overnight, if at all.

Crusty thinks ASA will dip to the 400,000 level, congregations to the 5,000 level, over the next 10-15 years.   The church will get to a tipping point when it realizes -- or doesn't -- that massive, thorough, top to bottom change is needed in how we organize and structure ourselves for mission.  The demographic tsunami (the Episcopal Church is shockingly old and white in a country that averages younger and less white) will have had more years to deepen.

Right now we are demonstrating the worst of both worlds.  We are too decentralized right now to address the crises in mission and evangelism with any kind of coordinated effort, and on the local level (the diocese and parish), parochialism and insularity have the tendency to result in either denial or survival at the expense of the larger picture.

From a big picture perspective, Christianity in the 21st century in the West is entering into a post-denominational landscape, and we are living among the wreckage of denominationalism.

However, just like with other crises (climate change, or economic inequality) there are those who, frankly, aren't helping.

Crusty here is referring to the latest crap bomb from the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the North Korean journalism of American religion.  When it comes to the IRD, Crusty should hasten to add it's a free country, and the IRD is perfectly entitled to their beliefs, opinions, and perspective.  While COD disagrees with the IRD, he doesn't begrudge their right to exist or hold their opinions.

Let's take the so-called "Juicy Ecumenism" blog, and its recent entry on the latest round of statistics.   IRD's narrative that it has been pushing for years  is that the liberal trends of mainline Protestant denominations have caused its decline and is pushing members away.  This narrative has been more or less debunked by reasonable, non-polemical sociologists and historians of American religion. Many, many theologically conservative denominations have been declining as well.  The Southern Baptist Convention has been losing members for years, for example.  Liberal=decline and conservative=growth is a canard that no responsible observer should believe.

The title alone reveals the Institute for Religion and Democracy's perspective:  "Episcopal Church Continues Uninterrupted decline."  Right from the headline, we can see that this article doesn't hold water:  after all, the very text of the article notes eleven dioceses which have shown growth.  So is it
If we don't adopt some cool rules pronto, church growth is going to get more bogus.
uninterrupted decline or not?  This calls to mind the incisive words of Jeff Spicoli.  When Jefferson's brother points out that Jefferson will not be pleased that they have wrecked his car, Jefferson's brother notes "He's gonna s**t!  He's gonna kill us!"  In response, Spicoli adroitly notes the obvious discrepancy: "Make up your mind, dude.  Is he going to s**t, or is he going to kill us?"  Make up your mind, IRD -- the decline clearly isn't interrupted, because you yourselves note eleven dioceses showing growth.

Also in the article, they themselves acknowledge there are external factors involved.  They note that Bishop Michael Curry's diocese of North Carolina escaped decline because it was "aided by a booming state population" and point out that the pattern of decline in the 2015 statistics "is consistent with past years, in which dioceses in New England, the Rust Belt [COD feels need to go sic here because of the appalling lack of an Oxford comma] and predominantly rural areas post sharp declines, while diocese in the South either retain their numbers or decline at a more gradual rate."

These two statements show that IRD knows damn well that demographics are significant components in matters of church membership.  As COD has said before, this cuts both ways.  We weren't necessarily geniuses when the church was growing from 1920-1980, because we were riding a demographic wave.  The town where Crusty is currently rector grew from 1,900 in 1950 to 20,000 in 1990.  My predecessor at that time, now pushing 90, told me, "It seems all I had to do was open the door and people came in."  Guess what?  Since 1990 population in that same town has stagnated at around 20,000 (there just isn't much more land to build on), and has significantly aged.  Census projections are that the only demographic in this town that will grow in the next 10 years will be people over 55.  COD has spoken with Christian Education leaders in the parish that this doesn't absolve us of our responsibility to invest in Sunday School, youth group, and discipleship, but we also need to know the headwinds we are facing.

The Episcopal Church is not declining because of its liberal bent; there is no direct correlation between theological standpoint and growth or decline.  The Unitarian Univeralist Association, far more liberal than the Episcopal Church, has shown stable membership in the past 15 years while The Episcopal Church's has cratered.  Church decline and growth are a complicated blend of a number of different factors.

That said, the numbers are real.  This is the fifth post Crusty has written on the shocking decline in membership numbers in five years for The Episcopal Church.  The question still remains:  are we willing to have an honest, open, and frank conversation, and make an effort to try to do something, or are we going to wait for the structures to collapse and build something from the ruins?  And don't say we can't do anything; that just means you are unwilling.  We have done this before.  This is not the first time this has happened.  Anglicanism collapsed after the American Revolution.  Membership dropped by 50% in a DECADE (and we bemoan a 40% drop over nearly 50 years as the end of the world), the state of Massachusetts had one functioning congregation, and Anglicanism was in danger of splintering into competing, regional expressions.  Our forebears did what was needed to revive the church:  they kept some aspects of their Anglican heritage but radically reimagined others.  Can we do the same, or will endless meetings and comfy CPG pensions keep us from being faithful in our own day and age?  As the great hymn puts its:

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore
left the gift of your salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grand us wisdom, grant us courage
serving you whom we adore
serving you whom we adore.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Breaking News: Archbishop Sanctions Own Brain

LONDON,  September 3:  Breaking news from Lambeth Palace.

In a move likely to send ripples through the Anglican World, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced he is imposing consequences against part of his own brain.  Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain of Grantham has announced that he is in a long-term gay partnership (albeit celibate) and that the Archbishop knew of this before his appointment: "People know I’m gay, but it’s not the first thing I’d say to anyone. Sexuality is part of who I am, but it’s my ministry that I want to focus on."  He also
Intelligent, attractive, crime solving priests? Clearly fiction.
helpfully clarified that he is bishop of Grantham, not Grantchester, and unfortunately his long term partner is not the smoking hot priest from the television series of the same name.  "Yeah, I wish," he responded when asked by a confused American reporter.

Archbishop Welby confirmed Bishop Chamberlain's statement that he knew of the bishop's sexual identity, stating that "I am and have been fully aware of Bishop Nick’s long-term, committed relationship. His appointment as bishop of Grantham was made on the basis of his skills and calling to serve the church in the diocese of Lincoln. He lives within the bishops’ guidelines and his sexuality is completely irrelevant to his office."

The ensuing backlash, however, has caused Archbishop Welby to impose consequences on that part of his brain that believes sexual identity to be irrelevant to the episcopal office.

In January of 2016, the Primates imposed "consequences" on The Episcopal Church for amending its marriage canons to permit same-sex marriage.  For a period of three years, The Episcopal Church will not participate in any discussions on doctrine or polity at the Communion level, or represent the Anglican Communion in ecumenical committees, or be permitted to serve on any decision making bodies.  Subsequently, Archbishop Welby has confirmed  that although this was initially presented one-time decision, it turned out after all not to be a one-time decision, but that a disciplinary process has been put in place that will be used for any other decisions taken by any province which contradict whatever the primates think at a given time.

And the Primates have spoken.  "Celibate? Does he really think that we're buying this?" said one Primate.  Another released an official statement declaring that, "Lambeth 1998 condemned homosexual 'practice' as contrary to Scripture, and living in a long-term committed partnership, even if it is celibate, certainly sounds like they have been practicing at being gay for years."  A third primate declared, "We must close the 'homosexual practice' loophole.  At the next primates meeting, I
Remains to be seen whether there will be a gift exemption.
will introduce a resolution that owning more than one item from the Williams Sonoma catalogue should be the standard for defining homosexual practice."  On the basis of these statements, since the primates function with no transparency, Archbishop Welby stated, "After consulting with myself, I have determined I have violated Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and thus must face the same sanctions with which I have repeatedly threatened other provinces of the Communion."

At his press conference, the Archbishop outlined how these sanctions would work. "It is important to separate the different ways the Archbishop functions," he said.  "I will no longer take any advice from that portion of my brain that thinks sexuality is irrelevant to the episcopal office ONLY when functioning as an instrument of communion of the Anglican Communion," he helpfully clarified.  "In my office as Primate of All England, or diocesan of Canterbury, I am free to take advice from that portion of my brain."

Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion and also present at the news conference, provided helpful clarification as well. "I have made it clear my belief that Lambeth I.10 is binding on the Anglican Communion even though Lambeth Conferences are not binding and therefore agree with Archbishop Justin's imposition of sanctions on that part of his brain which has deviated from this. For the
next three years I will no longer take direction from Archbishop Justin on matters of ecumenical relations or doctrine and polity, given the westernizing progressivism he has demonstrated.  I will, instead, report to the shell of Archbishop Laud's dead tortoise for oversight in these areas."

The shell could not be reached for comment.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Unicorn Appears: Racism, Progressive Christianity and the Media

A great discovery has occurred.  Not since the New York Times was dumbfounded by noticing that Brooklyn had reappeared after hiding in plain sight has the mainstream American media been this
Back in '92, NYT discovered "grunge."
astounded by noticing something which has surrounded them for decades.  After the Democratic National Convention last week, the following facts which have existed for decades if not centuries have been noticed by media outlets:

Hey, African American Christians tend to support the Democratic Party.
Hey, there are progressive Christians.

This has revealed a yawning gap in the mainstream media's coverage and understanding of religion in America.  The term "Christian" is all too often been synonymous with "evangelical", which actually is a term that in reality defines "a politically conservative person who goes to church maybe once a month."  This overidentification of "christian" with "evangelical" and the fact the term "evangelical" doesn't really mean anything as commonly used helps explain the utter incomprehension of why people can't seem to fathom why "evangelicals" voted overwhelmingly for Trump than, say, candidates like Rubio or Cruz.  Because we have an unthinking, uncritical definition of what an "evangelical" is.  The reason Trump carries these voters is because the term "evangelical" actually defines a constituency which barely goes to church, self-identifies as an evangelical, and is really a political and not religious label. Russell Moore, the Director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, certainly no liberal himself, even announced he was going to stop calling himself an "evangelical" because “The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Now, to be sure:  yes, there are lots of people out there who identify as evangelical, are deeply immersed in the theological components of evangelical Christianity, and who are politically and socially conservative.  And yes, there are people who identify as evangelical who are pretty much doing the equivalent of faith money-laundering for Donald Trump.  Dozens of religious leaders have sacrificed their own integrity to vouch for a man who has no discernible connection or understanding of the Christian message, solely because doing so gets them closer to the levers of power.

No arguments to any of these and other concerns, my main concern here is the oversimplified approach to "evangelical" and unsophisticated grasp of the American religious landscape, with attention only really given once every four years during a presidential election cycle.  What the media and broader culture simply have to understand, because failure to do so clouds the ability to perceive the actual dynamics at play, is that

a)  not even all conservative theological persons fit the stereotype of "evangelical" that is peddled and accepted as definitive.  Real evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist Convention, have staunchly supported immigration and support for refugees.

b)  there are ALL SORTS OF OTHER CHRISTIANS OUT THERE.  The Roman Catholic Church alone has huge numbers of conservatives and liberals, as well as a substantial charismatic movement which has links to Pentecostalism.  Look, Crusty knows he has a PhD in this subject and doesn't expect everybody to know every nuance or detail.  That's fine.  But just do a little f****g research.  Much of religious coverage, to Crusty, is the equivalent of having someone writing for the science and technology beat marvel about how incredible it is the world is round and the internet is a series of tubes -- a series of obvious, ill-informed, over-simplistic caricatures.

So, now on to the unicorns the media have breathlessly discovered in their hyperventilating wanderings around the Wells Fargo Center this past week:

At Vox: "The Democratic convention's most surprising argument: Christianity is a liberal religion", which somehow stated that "Just think...of how Christian [emphasis in original] it’s been, and how the convention tried to argue for Christianity as fundamentally liberal. Yes, there’s always been a Christian left, largely dominated by Jesuits and the black church. But the Christian left has been positively anemic in influence since the end of the civil rights era."

This is so utterly mindbogglingly oversimplistic it's hard to fathom. "largely dominated by Jesuits and the black church"? Maybe you could have done more than just name the first two Christian
organizations you could think of.  Seriously, just because you read that Kaine had been a Jesuit missionary, and saw some African American Christians, you leap to saying progressive Christianity has been dominated by Jesuits and the black church?What about groups like Sojourners or Evangelicals for Social Action? What about faith based organizations coming together around climate change? What about progressive women's religious orders, everyone from Sister Helen Prejean's anti-death penalty activism to Nuns on the Bus? But that would take, like, research and not just walking around the Convention floor.  Positively anemic? What about the religious left groups that been at the forefront of marriage equality and LGBT rights?  that helped rebuild black churches after they had been burned during arson attacks in the 19090s?  Hey, here's a married Episcopal priest and her wife who is part of the group challenging Mississippi's religious freedom bill.  "Anemic"?  Sure, while dynamics have changed, spend a little time with Google.

In Slate, "Bright Shining as the Sun: Infused with the spirit of the black church, the Democrats became the party of optimism."  Jamelle Bouie came a little closer by noting how "What is remarkable is the extent to which this kind of patriotism—and much of the mood surrounding the convention—is rooted in black traditions of political and religious rhetoric. In ways small and large, the lifeblood of the Democratic National Convention was the black church."  This is true, absolutely, but also leaves out the central place faith has played, and continues to play, in the lives of Hispanic/Latino and white Democrats.  To name two of the top of my head...hmmm...let's say HILLARY CLINTON who
Remember, in 1980 "evangelicals" preferred a divorced guy who was never really a member of a Christian church and whose wife was more into astrology than Christianity than this guy who regularly testified to his faith, taught Sunday school every week, has been married to the same woman for more than 70 years.
has been shaped by her Methodist upbringing.  Or perhaps one of the most powerful models of what it means to be a progressive Christian, JIMMY CARTER  who was PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, won the Nobel Prize, has done more for the world than any ex-president, and even beat cancer's ass.  Seriously, I think he's going to live to be a 120.

While Bouie is on target to note the influence of traditions of the African American church on the Convention, it's also important to note that Conventions themselves, as a whole, are inheritors of aspects of American Christianity.  There's important historical work done that argues that political Conventions are the descendants of the camp meetings and religious revivals of the 19th century -- here's a decent distillation here.  Mass spectacles, with series of speakers, designed to evoke social action.  Kind of like birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, Bare Naked Ladies are descended from They Might Be Giants, and Coldplay are descended from U2, Conventions as a whole are descended from camp meetings and tent revivals.  So in addition to the influence of the African American church, there is the important context of how American religion has shaped many institutions.

In the National Catholic Reporter (admittedly by far the best of the lot of these articles):  "The divided soul of the Democratic Party," noted that "To judge by public perceptions, and more than a few pundits, the Democratic Party is the default home of secularists and atheists, with practicing
Popularized in the 80s, the movie slow clap is descended from Charles Foster Kane.
believers shunted to a side room only to be trotted out when a political event needs a gloss of godliness. But walking around the Democratic National Convention taking place here this week and talking to delegates and activists reveals a much different picture, with people of faith -- almost every faith -- eager to testify to their beliefs and how they in fact bolster their political choice for a party some view as inimical to religion."  Way to go, NCR:  you are honored with a Crusty 80s slow clap for your awesomeness.

OK, so we've noticed the special snowflakes that are progressive Christians.  While Crusty's glad that this kind of light is being shone on the role of progressive Christianity, there's also a couple of things which also need to be called out:

One of the first is to call out the inherent racism and privilege in "suddenly" noticing things that have always been there. The New York Times ignored Brooklyn when it was predominantly poor and people of color and only noticed when white people started moving there.  Does it really take going to a political Convention to notice black Christians?  Is this like the trope popularized by the movie "The Help," that people of color don't exist until white people notice them?

Another is the anti-Christian myopia of the secularized left.  Crusty, frankly, is tired of the knee jerk ignorance and prejudice from lots of folks on the secular left who simply assume all Christians are hateful, bigoted, stupid, homophobes.  Here's just a few examples:

--Someone once asked me how I could possibly be a Christian given all of the injustice done in the name of Christianity.  This person was(is) a huge soul music fan.  I replied, "How do you listen to the music of James Brown, given that he was repeatedly arrested for domestic violence?"  The person then went on an extended discourse about separating the music from the person involved.  I said, "Yet you don't offer me the same right to separate myself and my actions from those of others."

--Ok, here's another example.   Circulating around Facebook this past week, at least in Crusty's feed, was a photo of the Obama family, stating that they were scandal free, the kids never got caught doing anything wrong, and "MOST WHITE CHRISTIANS HATE THEM BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE." Can't find it in my Facebook feed, Crusty points to anyone who can dig it up.

Crusty's first reaction was, "The glib and incorrect identification of 'most white Christians' as racist is not quite as offensive and ignorant as the racism this calls out, but undermines the point."  This should have been recaptioned, "Let me show my own ignorance while calling out that of others."

--Here's an example Crusty used in an old blog post on Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary:

COD admits having a larger bone to pick. COD has problems with people reading back the disgust and disagreements many have with the religious right in this country at this time into their view of religion at all times and in all places.

COD was outraged in a similar vein many years ago when he saw Spielberg's film "Amistad," which tells the story of Africans who were captured and for the slave trade, who overtook their slave ship, and landed off the shore of Connecticut, sparking a legal battle for their freedom. What shocked COD was the simplistic way Spielberg presented religious abolitionists. There is an appearance in the film of some abolitionists, whose response to the situation of the Amistad captives is to kneel and pray for the slaves outside their prison. This was such a ludicrously inaccurate portrayal that COD burst out laughing in the theater, prompting several folks who were being properly indignant in their reaction of those religious folks on screen briefly to take a break from their indignation and glare at him.

The fact is that abolitionists were actively involved involved in the plight of the Amistad captives. Members of Christian churches were intimately connected with the legal battle for the kidnapped Africans, including raising money for their legal defense. Attorneys who were members of New Haven churches offered their services gratis. Reducing Christian abolitionists to pious do-gooders who do nothing except praying for the slaves was simultaneously insulting and ignorant of historical fact. It does, however, play on the general impression in the culture that religious persons are hypocritical and sanctimonious, whose only response is prayer when action was needed.

True today as when Crusty wrote it four years ago.

--There's the privilege and racism inherent in this ignorance of Christianity.  At a party one time, someone asked me what I did, and I replied "I'm an ordained minister."  Crusty then got a speech on all the evils of Christianity.  The (white) person then said, "The only church I could see myself going to is an African American church, given their commitment to justice and equality."  "Oh really?" Crusty replied. "Are there any you have in mind?"  The person then named a church just down the block. "Oh," Crusty said, "I'm not sure how happy you'd be there.  Their minister brought a resolution to the local ministers' association asking us to condemn homosexuality, and, when we declined to approve it, he walked out and said he'd never come back.  That particular denomination also doesn't permit women to serve in the ministry."  This person, from their place of privilege, revealed their own ignorance and racism.  That had their own assumption of what the "black" church was, untroubled by any actual interaction with the diversity of the black church tradition.  The problem for the secularized left is believing that having African American Christians at their Convention makes them hip to Christianity just like voting for Obama finally gave them the black friend they don't have.

The kind of broad generalizations evoked by the secularized left with regards to Christianity, would, simply, be considered unacceptable when applied to almost any other group.  Picture your reaction to these kind of over-generalizations with regards to Muslims, or Jews.  Or African Americans.  Or "Most women..."

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Crusty says this is a lifelong and proud member of the progressive left, both politically and religiously: he was registered in the Green Party for a while and did his first same sex blessing in 1995.  This frustration comes from someone inside the tent, not outside.  And in calling this out, it is in not meant to equivocate with or excuse the excesses of the religious right, including preposterous "religious freedom" laws intended to enshrine discrimination and efforts to force a particular set of beliefs on a culture.

Get back to your summer, people. Crusty's back to swinging on the flippity-flop.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Great and Holy Crusty on the Great and Holy Council

Several years ago Crusty served on the International Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue (before he was removed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2010, not because of anything Crusty did, mind you).  Hey, here's a photo of the group, see if you can pick out Crusty! (The reason we are all squinting is not because, like St Gregory of Palamas, we are gazing at the uncreated light, but because they had us seated facing the blinding Mediterranean sun on a cloudless day.)  While at the meeting, we also held a caucus of just the Anglican members of the dialogue, to make sure
Hint: Crusty is not wearing a cool hat, unfortunately.
we were all on the same page.  Someone wondered what we should do if the Orthodox members started pressing us on issues of human sexuality.  "Easy," Crusty said, "if they start pressuring us, just get them to start arguing with each other, the Orthodox love to bicker with one another much more than they like fighting with other Christians.  It doesn't take much."

You may not have picked it up over the years of suffering through this blog, but Orthodox Christianity has been an important influence on Crusty.  He was a Russian language major as an undergraduate, and would sneak away to the local Orthodox church down the street from his dormitory during his semester abroad in Moscow.  Crusty earned a degree from an Orthodox seminary (Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, MA -- where my Hellenic College peeps @?).  COD has just returned from a weeklong research project in Ukraine, looking at how
COD at the Baptists' HQ in Ukraine two weeks ago.
churches in that country have reacted and responded to the upheavals of recent years.  Crusty kind of stuck out like a sore thumb in many of these Orthodox sojourns.  There are, by and large, two main groups of not-by-birth-Orthodox Christian North Americans, at least as Crusty experienced it over the years.  One large group are evangelicals who somehow discover that church history didn't skip from Jesus to John Wesley.  It's a natural extension for some evangelical Christians:  if you see the Bible as supremely authoritative and definitive, wouldn't you also think that the earliest Christian church that interpreted that Bible would be uniquely authoritative as well?  There's been the remarkable phenomenon in the past 30 years of evangelical Christians converting to Orthodoxy.  Seriously, just google "evangelical converts to eastern orthodox" and you'll see what Crusty is talking about.  The second group consisted of Anglicans, Methodists, and others from mainline churches with strong liturgical convictions who were upset or otherwise disagreed with the theological perspective of their churches.  COD kind of stuck out like a sore thumb because Crusty didn't fit into either category, he just loves the liturgy and the theology and chalks up some of his most important spiritual moments and connections to Orthodoxy.

Crusty is thus reflecting his Orthodox sojourns and further narrowing the already limited church geekery audience of this blog with his thoughts on the imminent and upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, to be held on the Greek island of Crete June 19-26, 2016.  What, you say?  You're aren't sick already of the torrent of social media and endless talking heads, or the saturation coverage on cable news?  Don't have enough commemorative swag, because what better way to commemorative important theological events in the life of the church than cheap swag? I thought not.  While the mainstream media covers every hiccup and random thought Pope Francis seems to have, sadly,
Get ready for Ecumenical Patriarch holograms!
unless you are plugged into Orthodox news networks (and, admittedly, unless you speak or read Greek or Russian; Crusty, luckily, reads Greek and speaks Russian) you may not even know that this event is taking place.  Crusty has been continually perplexed at the systemic ignorance and marginalization of Orthodox Christianity in much of global, if not North American, consciousness.  It is, after all, the second largest group of Christians in the world but gets about 1/10th of the coverage that, say, the next stupid thing that Franklin Graham will say.  This is, in part, due to its "otherness."  In the United States, Orthodox were late to the game in immigration, not arriving in large numbers until the 20th century.  Orthodoxy in North America tended to be strongly connected to its immigrant communities, with liturgies often not only in native languages, but in ancient versions of those native languages (the liturgy in many Russian churches was in Slavonic, almost but not exactly parallel to Chaucerian English, an ancient, archaicized language).  Globally, Orthodoxy has been "other" because of its historic strength in areas which were not part of the world stage: strong in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia when the story of the 19th and 20th centuries was Western Europe and North America.

It is further "other" because of a profound and inescapable fact, something which is crucial for those in the West to understand:  Many Orthodox churches have been under some kind of non-Christian domination for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years, while at the same time in the West Christianity had a close relationship with culture, society, and the state.  The cradle of Christianity in Asia Minor, what is now the Middle East, and Egypt was predominantly Christian for hundreds of years but has been under Muslim domination for nearly 1400 years in some places.  Orthodox Christian countries in what is now the Balkans were under Muslim domination for almost 700 years in some cases.  For those which escaped the Muslim yoke, things weren't much better.  The country with the greatest numerical dominance of Orthodox Christians -- the Russian Empire -- underwent 70 years of the one of the most sustained and systemic efforts to eradicate Christianity the world has ever known, as did other areas behind the Iron Curtain with significant Orthodox populations (to differing degrees).  North American Christians complaining from their places of privilege about religious
Icon of the Coptic Christians martyred by ISIS in 2015.
liberty would be comical if it weren't insulting to the price paid by Orthodox Christians over the years, and continues to be paid daily.  When we speak of persecution of Christians in our present day, we are speaking largely of the persecution of Orthodox Christians (though certainly not exclusively) in places like Syria and Egypt.

So:  let's give Orthodox Christianity it's closeup on the world religious stage! 

Here follows Great and Holy Crusty's answers to all of your questions about the Great and Holy Council!

1)  So how did we get here?

The Council has been in various stages of preparation since 1961.  Now stop laughing!  You may think 55 years is a long time to plan something, but a) for Orthodox Christians, this isn't that long of a time at all.  Orthodox Christians have spent longer than 55 years arguing over the authenticity of various texts.  Plus b)  keep in mind the tremendous upheavals in the Orthodox world in the past 50 years, from Pan-Arab Nationalism to decolonization to the collapse of the Iron Curtain that have impacted countries with large Orthodox populations.  Yes the Orthodox think in centuries and 55 years is a blip.  But there's also been a lot going on.

When you're a hesychast it's the swinginest thing.
2)  Why is it in Crete?

Because, much like the gym in West Side Story, Crete is considered neutral turf.  The Pope can hold huge church councils in Vatican City because he's head of state and it's his 'hood.  The Ecumenical
Patriarch of Constantinople has some disadvantages.  Turkey is technically a secular state:  you can't dress as Christian clergy in public, for instance, while there are concurrently rising Islamist pressures on the government and society.  Plus, with current tensions between Turkey and Russia, there were political concerns as well (the Turks shot down a Russian jet and there have been diplomatic recriminations).  Crete seemed like a good, safe, neutral choice: not on the territory of Turkey, but still under jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

3)  What is it all about?

Keep in mind that Orthodox Christians have not only had a different political history, they have had a different social and cultural history.  The vast majority of Christians in North America share a kind of Western European historic and cultural hegemony.  Orthodox Christians never went through the
An ecumenical council without Twitter?
Reformation or the Enlightenment.  While there have been decisions made by individual member churches, there has not been a collective Orthodox Church effort to respond to the massive changes brought about not just by the 20th century but by the last, say, 1,000 years or thereabouts.  When you haven't had a universally acknowledged Pan-Orthodox Council in 1,229 years (since Nicaea II: Electric Boogaloo in 787) there are some issues you need to catch up on.

4)  OK, what is it REALLY about?

An epic smackdown is brewing between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.  Since the fifth century, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been considered the "first among equals" among Orthodox Patriarchs.  The Orthodox churches are divided into 14 "autocephalous" or autonomous jurisdictions.  The Ecumenical Patriarch has a primacy of honor, but no direct authority or jurisdiction in other member churches.   After the collapse of communism, the struggle for supremacy in the Orthodox world between Moscow and Constantinople was renewed.  The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest by far of the Orthodox churches, claiming perhaps 200 million of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.  The Ecumenical Patriarch, however, has over 1500 years of history and tradition on his side.

This is, in part, what was behind the Russian Patriarch's bilateral visit to Cuba to meet with the Pope in February of last year:  an effort to claim the mantle of pre-eminent Orthodox leader.  It was odd for Crusty to read press releases about the "historic" meeting which had the chance to "heal" the 1000 year old schism between the Orthodox and the Catholics.  Since Moscow didn't even exist 1000 years ago when the schism took place, and since the Ecumenical Patriarch is the first among equals and Patriarchs have met numerous times with Popes over the last 50 years, it's odd to think this meeting would have the ability to bring about a healing to that schism on its own.  This media narrative was, in fact, advanced energetically by Russian news outlets like Russia Today, and picked up and unthinkingly repeated by American news media.

If you've studied church history at all, you can see that like Battlestar Galactica, church history tends to be cyclical.  "All this has happened before, and will happen again," as BSG put it.  Crusty doesn't
Talk about primacy of honor.
necessarily ask anyone to endorse or approve it, but the 5th century also saw an epic smackdown between Constantinople and Alexandria, resulting in the church councils called in 431 in Ephesus, a disputed council called in 449, and another council called in 451.  We're seeing it again.

And yea, verily, just days in advance of the council, the Russian Orthodox Church announced it would not be attending the council (as are three other churches, for different reasons.) Which leads to...

5)  What are the big issues?

The meeting of the heads of the 14 Orthodox churches met earlier in the year and finalized the following topics for discussion:

·       The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World
·       The Orthodox Diaspora
·       Autonomy and the Means by Which it is Proclaimed
·       The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today
·       Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World
·       The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments

Let's break each down to what it is really about.

The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World:  See above.  Will the Orthodox Church continue to be a loosely affiliated network of autonomous churches with the Ecumenical Patriarch as first among equals, or will the Patriarch of Moscow wrestle the mantle (and the awesome hat, to be sure) to stake the claim as big kahuna of the Orthodox frat house?  Can the Orthodox churches transcend their hard-wired links to national. cultural, and ethnic identity and truly be a global expression of apostolic Christianity?

The Orthodox Disapora:  Originally national, ethnic churches centered around a particular group of people -- Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, etc. -- but this model is creaking under modernity and globalization.  Orthodox faithful have been flung all over the world through immigration.  There are over a dozen different Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, for instance.

On the one hand, to base church organization around language or ethnic identity seems to fly in the face of the Scripture that in Christ there should be no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free.  On the other hand, the connection between faith and community and culture and identity is strong and powerful, especially when forged in the crucible of persecution on the one hand and being severed from that homeland in a diaspora on the other.

Autonomy and the Means by Which it is Proclaimed:  Anglicans, stop when this starts to sound familiar.  Concurrent with the diaspora, and the realization that Orthodoxy is a global communion, has been extended discussion on how, exactly, one is a member of this Orthodox communion, and by what means member churches are officially recognized.  This has been evident in places like North America, where there are currently 13 different recognized jurisdictions, with wildly different relationships to their historic churches.  Some are semi-autonomous, some are entirely independent, and some are still structurally part of their historic sending church.  There's also debate about who gets to grant the right for a church to be autonomous -- what is the extent of consultation needed? (Like I said, Anglicans, stop when this starts sounding familiar.) Then there's the question about communities whose political boundaries have changed: should their be corresponding rethinking of church structures? The big elephant in this respect is Ukraine (though there are other areas of disputed jurisdiction), which in the 1990s had a split, with a good number of churches saying that since the country was now politically distinct from Russia, it should be its own autonomous church, while others argued it should remain under the Moscow Patriarchate.  The result has been a deep and lasting schism.

The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today:  The Orthodox(technically) fast a lot more than Western Christians.  There's the Lenten fast, which makes Roman Catholics look like wusses.  Not only no meat, but no dairy or anything which comes from an animal at all.  There's also expectations to fast on
Maybe fasting isn't so bad.
every Wednesday and Friday, as well as other, shorter periods of fasting.  So fasting's important.  

Crusty thinks it's likely that this agenda item will be focused on Posers and Nagging. In some Orthodox cultures, it's become almost hip to follow the Lenten fast, with some restaurants having meat and dairy free menu options.  Fasting can almost be like Kabbalah, becoming trendy with people following the rules for it without really knowing what it is about or for.  So on the one hand they'll be singling out the posers.  On the other hand, they'll nag those who don't follow fasting rules into following them by reminding them of its importance.

Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World:  This will be a big one.  There's a strong strain of conservative, quasi-fundamentalist Orthodox believers who feel that the Orthodox Church is the only real church and all others are invalid.  When COD was at the Orthodox seminary he saw a bumper sticker which read, "Orthodox Christianity: Founded 33 AD."  There are Orthodox who believe that inter-Christian, ecumenical dialogues with other churches are either irrelevant or even heretical.  There are those who are unwilling even to designate the Roman Catholic Church as a "church", believing it has fallen into heresy and apostasy.  Heck, there are Orthodox churches that still cling to the hopelessly outdated Julian calendar because they think the Gregorian calendar is a Western, papist invention.  On the other hand, the Orthodox churches have been involved in a number of ecumenical dialogues, are members of the World Council of Churches, and many are members of regional ecumenical organizations (like the National Council of Churches here in the USA).  Ecumenical ties are particularly important for those Orthodox churches suffering persecution: under communism, ecumenical partnerships were important in helping to lobby for religious freedom for embattled Orthodox churches.  A showdown is brewing between those who want to flex their fundamentalist muscles and those that think that dialogue with other churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, is an essential part of the future of the Orthodox church.

The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments:  Like a lot of minority religious groups that link identity to religion, marriage can be seen as a threat, as an erosion of identity and an agent of assimilation, if there are mixed marriages where people marry non-Orthodox and drift away from the faith.  Crusty has a rabbi colleague who for years declined to do marriages between Jews and non-Jews because of the way mixed marriages, in his opinion, led to assimilation and were a threat to the survival of Judaism in North America.  There will be an emphasis on those couples married in the Orthodox Church do so not only because of the majesty and beauty of the ceremony (it truly is). but to commit themselves to living faithful lives as engaged Orthodox Christians.  There will also be unequivocal affirmation that marriage is between a man and a woman, and a complete rejection of any understanding of same sex blessings.

Well, that's an overall rundown.  Enjoy the hats, smell the incense, light a candle in front of our favorite saint's icon, and see what happens.   For decent coverage of the Council in English there's https://cruxnow.com/, run by John Allen (formerly of the National Catholic Reporter).

As always, with Crusty's predictions, all are guaranteed 100% correct or your money back.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hamilton, Text, and Trumpism: or, Religious Studies Rules!

Before Crusty Old Dean was a dean, or the Rector of all Sandwich, he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, where he was a Russian language and literature major.  The snooty high school where Crusty attended oppressed him by requiring three years of a foreign language, and, frankly, French, Spanish (nice thinking, Crusty!), or German didn't appeal.  So COD
went for the exotic choice of Russian.  In a sign of the time, Crusty's high school no longer offers
Crusty's Soviet student ID, 1990.
Russian but now offers Mandarin Chinese and Arabic.  Crusty took four years of Russian in high school, then went off to college, planning on being a Russian Language major.

Until Crusty wound up in Religion 212: Introduction to the New Testament, one of those classes changes your life.  The instructor was funny, energetic, irreverent, and cursed regularly in class.  It was there that Crusty was introduced to the academic, textual study of religion.  For better or for ill, there would not be a Crusty Old Dean had I not taken that class with Ron Cameron nearly 30 years ago.  Ron once said, "I don't really care what the New Testament says definitively about Jesus, I'm more interested in what early communities which produced it said about Jesus."  He was (is) a member of the Jesus Seminar, the group of scholars that looks at sayings of Jesus and votes to determine how likely they think he actually may have said them, using a color-coded system, voting either red (definitely said it), pink (probably), gray (maybe), or black (didn't say it).  Ron once confided while meeting with Crusty, smoking his pipe in his office (back when you could do that), "Ferguson, I only once voted f*****g pink." (In case you're wondering, it was the phrase "Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.")  We also engaged in some epic softball battles in the intramural softball league with the Religion Department team.  Ron  has been a great mentor to Crusty, and profoundly helped COD rethink how we look at texts and the telling of history.

Crusty became a joint Russian language and Religious Studies double-major.  It completely re-oriented how COD looked at Scripture, and as noted above, started him on the path towards Crustyhood. In addition to courses with Ron in New Testament and Early Christianity, Crusty also took classes with the school rabbi, Roger Klein.  Given that this was the late 1980s, the Rabbi had
Stand down rabbi, stand down please.
two popular nicknames.  Since a similar-sounding movie took the nation by storm in the summer of 1988, we called him Roger Rabbi.  For those who were fans of the English Beat, he was Ranking Roger.  Rabbi Klein himself preferred the nickname "RBI Klein," as part of his demonstrable prowess on the aforementioned Religion Department softball team.  He credited his hitting and fielding abilities at his advanced age to his "I-Thou relationship with the ball."

Crusty also learned much from Rabbi Klein, who got him started down a re-examination of the life of faith in addition to the academic study of religion.  He learned that there are something we couldn't know from religious texts, and that what we could begin to know were things about the people and communities who wrote them.  Further, with the Rabbi COD learned about the power in the process of reception, that meanings and interpretations can change over time.  One class Crusty took was called, simply, "Exodus."  We spent the whole semester reading different interpretations of the book of Exodus: from the Talmud, to Marxist interpretations, even Schoenburg's atonal Moses und Aron opera.

By now, if you were somehow googling "Hamilton" or "Lin-Manuel Miranda" and stumbled across this blog (poor you! leave now!) you're wondering what any of what has been written so far has to do with the purported title of this posting.  However, veteran readers of Crusty Old Dean know by now that the lede is always buried, drowning under a sea of prelminary remarks, opening remarks, and jokes and references nobody gets.  Well, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Crusty Old Dean share the same alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.  (And Wesleyan is badass because it gave Lin-Manuel his honorary degree BEFORE he came out with Hamilton.) While a proud Wesleyan alumnus, Crusty is perfectly content to let folks like Brad Whitford, Dar Williams, and Lin-Manuel Miranda carry the torch for Wesleyan University's awesomeness. (And, interestingly enough, of those three, the only one Crusty hasn't met is Lin-Manuel. True story(ies).)

This common alma mater came to Crusty when he read Miranda's remarks upon receiving the Edward Kennedy Award for Drama Inspired by American History.  In accepting the award, and speaking about his interpretation of the Alexander Hamilton story, Miranda commented that "History is so subjective.  The teller of it determines it."

The first thing Crust thought was this:  Did Lin-Manuel take a class with Ron?  (The rabbi had left by the time Lin-Manuel arrived at Wesleyan.)  This is exactly what Crusty learned from Ron!  In fact, this very perception was the cornerstone and concept for Crusty's slightly less wildly successful adaptation (that is, his dissertation) of potentially the same learning.  No way, COD thought, more likely is the broader emphasis in looking at how communities shape texts, which is certainly not confined to Religion 212 but a crucial component of many literary and historical schools of thought.

But then came Lin-Manuel's interview with Rolling Stone which produced the smoking gun.  He specifically mentions the same course with same instructor.  In his words:

"I remember taking a great Gospels and Christianity class in college that really made Christian history interesting to me. I grew up pretty Catholic, and the Bible was just a thing that existed. This was a class that was like, 'Well, people wrote it after he died, and even the original accounts disagree, and there are stories about Jesus that didn't make it into the Bible.' I was like, 'Oh, shit!' That was the first time the notion of history as being up for grabs, and the teller being just as important as the subject, really occurred to me. Thank you, Professor Ron Cameron."

Crusty wasn't just trying to think up a connection with Lin-Manuel's "Hamilton" and my "The Past is Prologue: the Revolution of Nicene Historiography",  and to bask in our shared coolness:  it's f*****g true!  We really did both learn about how the teller of the story shapes the making of history from Ron Cameron, and applied that in different contexts.  For Crusty, this was looking at the oft-overlooked formation of the genre of church history in the fifth century in a book that a handful of people know exist, let alone have read; for Lin-Manuel, one of the most wildly popular musicals in American history which has become a truly cultural phenomenon.  I tell you, the parallels are staggering, aren't they?

This formation under Ron and the Rabbi ended up influencing how Crusty shaped his doctoral work.  Looking to learn what we can discern from communities which produced texts, as well as looking at other kinds of texts, allows for suppressed narratives and voices to begin to emerge.  Crusty first got interested in exploring the interplay between "heresy" and "orthodoxy" in the first centuries of Christianity, particularly the so-called "Arian" controversy.  (No, Crusty's shift key is not spasming, all of those quotation marks are intentional.)  Yet while engaging the excellent historical and theological and textual work done in the past fifty years, Crusty was struck by the glaring omission:

Hardly anyone was studying the church histories produced during the period.  Scholars had attempted to determine which theological treatises of Athanasius were authentic or not, had parsed the dates of various letters written by Basil of Caesarea, had explored the minutiae of any number of theological texts.  But, by comparison, very little was done with the church histories written. It doesn't take long to figure out why: they were considered "flawed" and "subjective" and only really used to help flesh out other narratives or supplement other work.  Why else would anyone read Eusebius or Rufinus?

Crusty thought this was ridiculous for a couple of reasons. First off, all history is subjective, all that matters is that you take that into account; that you acknowledge you shape the narrative in the study of history as much as those who wrote the texts your studying shaped theirs.  Here, Howard Zinn was equally important to Crusty along with the Rabbi and Ron.  Hearing Howard Zinn speak in person in
COD keeps trying to get Zinn nominated for sainthood.
high school blew Crusty's mind.  Being subjective can be perfectly fine so long as you acknowledge that paradigm; Zinn specifically chose to write history in a certain way to recover suppressed narratives.  A second reason that overlooking church histories seemed flawed to Crusty was that it treats church histories to a different standard, instead of subjecting them to the same process of seeing how it was produced by a community and shaped a narrative.

Which brings us back to Hamilton.  Reading Lin-Manuel's comments were enormously revealing to COD, and, in turn, shines a light on other aspects of the Hamilton phenomenon that have bemused COD.

One aspect is the inevitable pushback, including criticism that Hamilton plays fast and loose with historical fact, that it is somehow nothing more than a kind of fan-fiction.  (Let Crusty explain fan fiction to those who might not know what is is, because, believe me, you do not want to google Fan Fiction or all you'll get are largely sexualized takes on Harry Potter.)  Fan fiction is when devotees of a certain work write their own versions of it: prequels, sequels, alternate takes on the work itself.  Prior to the internet, these works would have had limited ability to be shared.  With the internet, self-publishing has brought this to the mainstream.  To this criticism, Crusty, thought:  So what?  Of course it is.  All of history is, in a sense, fan fiction: our take on events which are removed from us which we write about because we're interested in it, with our own biases and perspectives.  The pushback is utterly absurd because it still presumes a "right" way to present history, when, as Lin-Manuel and Ron agree with Crusty, the teller determines the narrative.

Another is trying to understand the phenomenal popularity of Hamilton.  I think, simply put, it shines and incredible ray of light in an otherwise dark world (that is, our contemporary context).  We have seen so many interpretations of the "founding" period which reflect some of the worst aspects of American society: repeated efforts wrongly to characterize the founding of the United States as a "Christian nation," to efforts to whitewash the role of slavery, to name just a few.  In our current world, we have seen a revival of nativism, open expressions of racism, and economic stratification, along with these efforts to bend history.  Crusty sees Hamilton, in a sense, as an unintended rejoinder to both Trumpism and Bernieism: a musical predominantly featuring people of color with inspiration from sources largely outside of musical theater, about someone who overcame a poor upbringing to become one of the most powerful and influential persons in the United States.  This is, perhaps, why (among many other reasons) it is striking such a broader chord.

So, in sum, the staggering parallels between Crusty's doctoral work and Lin-Manuel's work make sense: we both owe Ron Cameron a tremendous debt, and we have both thanked him (Lin-Manuel in Rolling Stone, mine in my PhD dissertation introduction). 

And here let's give a shout-out to all teachers, and to liberal arts education.  

To the teachers: One course with one professor so many years ago shaped two people's lives (mine and Lin-Manuel).  Teachers, don't think you work is not important, and don't think you don't have the power to shape lives!

To liberal arts education: it's because of the power of liberal arts education to teach people to read, write, analyze, and think that got Lin-Manuel to where he was, got Crusty to where he is, and so many countless others.

So to all you who denigrate the teaching profession, and all you who sneer  at liberal arts education and want to dismantle our public university systems to become trade schools: f**k off.  People like Lin-Manuel are an awesome example of why liberal arts education matters, and why teaching matters. To the rest of us: Get out there and start "passionate smashin' every expectation! Every action's an act of creation!"

There's a million things we haven't done: just you all wait.