Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Confessions of a Non-runner Running

Save it! I don't want to hear it. Seriously. You know who you are...

Whenever I share how much I've ran recently, someone always comes out of the woodwork to declare how much more they run on a regular basis. "Oh, you ran three miles last week? I run that every morning." Yeah, I get that you're a natural-born runner, and that time is your moment to give your mind and body the indulgence of what comes instinctive to you. More power to you.

Can we please, though, stipulate that there are two types of people? Runners and non-runners.

Runners need to run. The adrenalin, the freedom and exhilaration are a genuine nourishment without which they experience a metaphysical emaciation. I know quite a few. Their posts on social media reveal that they are indeed "runners" and the miles they log dwarfs my remotest aspirations. The urge to get out and hit the trail or the road takes no great measure of discipline since it comes so instinctively to them. They often are natural athletes, and even may devote themselves professionally to a sport. It's a pleasure to witness them perform at the highest levels, and their example serves as an inspiration for what the human body is made to do.

Non-runners do not have the same instincts and appetites as runners do. Some exercise is intuitive, but mostly out of a sense of desiring fellowship with the more "naturally athletic." Non-athlete/non-runners have entirely different appetites. The "high"that the runner gets from running, the non-runner gets from a good book, learning something new or shooting their favorite firearm. While it's uncommon to find a runner who is out of shape, the non-runner could easily go in that direction. Unless they find an exterior motive to fuel the necessary discipline, exercise is not their default setting.

Contrary to perception of perhaps some of my friends, I would classify myself in the "non-runner," non-athlete category. When I was younger, I was more "athletic," but that was mainly due to teaching Kung Fu on a regular basis. Because I was a teacher, with responsibilities to train for and with my students, I trained martial arts regularly. This contributed to the perception of being "athletic," but it was always because I had established a sense of responsibility about it. I KNOW I will train kung fu multiple times this week...because I have multiple training times with students this week. At times when I was not teaching regularly, the discipline to train regularly - on my own - was far more difficult. The same can be said of other exercise. I've never been a bodybuilder, and haven't been one to work on muscles just for display (look up the new term "spornosexual"). Metabolism wise, I had a naturally slim physique up through my thirties, whether or not I taught kung fu regularly. Turning forty, though, changed that and for the first time I began describing my "disrespectful pants" which mysteriously had begun tightening for no particular reason.

The "disrespectful pants" were the "wake up call" to be mindful of what I ate, and make reasonable efforts to remain physically active even though my opportunities to teach kung fu were few and far between. For the non-athlete, developing an exercise regimen is not dissimilar from asking Helen Keller to first assemble a Rubik's Cube and then solve it. Where do you start? What do you work on? How do you exercise, workout, train? When should you do this? Who can offer reliable advice? The puzzle pieces are so daunting that many non-athletes simply elect to maintain the non-athletic lifestyle that a culture driven by information technology affords them. Such a divide has arisen between the athletes and non-athletes in a society catering to the non-athletic, that increasingly the imagery symbolizing both are the professional athlete at one end of the spectrum and the obese at the other. I found I could easily slide toward the latter since my days of being paid to be the former were far behind me.

So exercise and responsible eating became new foci; however, without a sufficient reason to maintain the discipline, workouts were sporadic at best. "Oh yeah," I'd say to myself, "it's been a while since I exercised. Better do some soon." Usually this was associated with some other stimulus like watching a "Rocky" movie (whichever episode; it doesn't matter). This is common among non-runners. About four years ago, it seemed wise to re-interject some outside motive back into the mix, and the decision was made to run a local 5K race. The thought was: "If I schedule it, then I'll train for it." This worked a bit in the short term, but I still had control over how often I entered a 5K race. I did one and found the sense of accomplishment from getting the finisher's medal appetizing. Still, it was a 5K race that happened once a year, so if I was to do more I'd have to find other races. Nothing grabbed me, so that phase quickly dissipated. Runners WILL find another race because they just HAVE to run. Non-runners will look at the one medal they got and say "I should do another one sometime."

In 2012, quite by random through clicking on an internet banner ad, I discovered Spartan Race. Spending time browsing it's web site, the "Spartan" motif appealed to my innate sense of adventure. In addition, the obstacles attracted a non-runner for breaking up what I found to be a normally boring enterprise (running) with a series of tasks that tested strength in other areas. That first year, it was clear that the registration fee would be cost-prohibitive for a family of five; however, Spartan Race has a program wherein one can volunteer for the race and then have their registration fee waived (paying only the nominal insurance fee). Thus we volunteered for a race in December 2012 to pay for registration in a race the following May. In May of 2013, we all participated in the Spartan SPRINT (3+ miles with 15+ obstacles). It was then that we "caught the bug" and decided that the Spartan races would be regular events for us. Having done one Spartan Race in 2013, the assumption was to do more in 2014. Fortunately, Spartan Race had scheduled multiple races in Texas for 2014. For this reason, we increased our participation goal to the vaunted "trifecta" (finish a SPRINT, a SUPER and BEAST in one calendar year). With the race expenses largely handled through volunteerism, the travel expenses were our chief obstacle. Spartan Race seemed to have addressed this also. Therefore, 2014 is seeing greater participation in athletic events than I have ever previously performed.

Having already planned the 2014 participation in advance, the schedule now required sufficient training to ensure that this participation resulted more in a positive experience than a negative one. This non-runner/non-athlete had planned to participate in several athletic/running events, and now must train for them, or else risk making them more bad memories than good ones. In a way, I had created similar accountability to what my teaching schedule did for me almost twenty years prior. I was not about to flake on a student back then, so I was honor-bound to train as much as the schedule required. In like manner, I was now going to prepare for regular participation in a Spartan Race because the schedule required it. Add to that my children's participation (for whom I needed to set an example) and the camaraderie of new "Spartan" friends, and the race schedule quickly became "etched in stone." As a result, each day I've been mindful of the next race coming that requires daily training.

A non-athletic, non-runner receives the Spartan Race WOD (workout of the day) email, logs miles of running (40+ in July) and concerns themselves with fitness related posts on social media, employing the power of "peer pressure" to connect with naturally athletic people for reminders of the who, what, where, how and why of fitness training. This makes some on social media think of me as "athletic." Instead, this confession must serve to clear the air. None of the training taking place is instinctive. No running session occurred because I love running. Visits to the gym are always more a matter of discipline than enjoyment. I use a Runkeeper app for the iphone that tells me how far I ran, and then shares it with social media, but that is only part and parcel to the "Spartan" lifestyle that has developed as a result of always seemingly training for a race. Nevertheless, this non-runner runs because the next Spartan Race is coming up, and I want that to be challenging joy...not a regretful drudgery.

I appreciate the runners in my life. They inspire, enthuse and set an example of life energy; and I enjoy having all of them in my circle of friends and acquaintances. However, someone must also speak for the non-runners; the non-athletes that perform these tasks as a matter of discipline; those for whom it's never gotten easy, never gotten instinctive, not become second-nature...
  • to get up early or stay up late, 
  • to strap on the shoes and head out the door, 
  • to head to the gym and sweat like a pig, 
  • to collect training gear like tires, ropes and weights, or
  • to run the extra mile
...because the next race is coming and they won't change the date if I'm not ready.

Someone has to speak for the non-runner who is running because they have to, but has no instinct to; for the non-athlete whose language has switched from "exercising" to "training" because they always are working out thinking of a date on the calendar, but had little inclination to otherwise; for the non-athletic/non-runner who suddenly finds themselves seemingly always fitness-minded because the vacation was planned around an athletic event they never thought they'd do in life.

For those that are training for an athletic event like Spartan Race, and preparing for it requires every ounce of discipline and willpower because it's never gotten to the point where it comes naturally, I salute you. I feel for you. I'm in the same boat. But this non-runner will keep running so long as some creative soul keeps concocting cool events that I can't wait to join in on one more time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mary as a "Church Growth" Model

As an Anglican Christian (or "British Orthodox" as my friend Johnny Simmons puts it), I maintain a position on certain matters firmly in the middle-ground of historic Church debate. Regarding the nature of the Sacraments, particularly the elements of communion, the Roman Catholics have asserted the "real presence" of Christ in them with Transubstantiation, while the Baptists have asserted the "real absence" of Christ from them with "memorialism." The Anglican position has been to declare them both falling victim to the folly of over-explaining what remains a mystery. Likewise, regarding authority in the Church, the RCC has over-emphasized papacy and church canons to a place arguably equal to the Holy Scriptures. On the other end, Baptist tradition has over-individualized the Faith by suggesting anyone owning a Bible is as authoritative as anyone else. The Anglican view is to see the Scriptures as supreme and uniquely authoritative, yet interpreted within the context of a faithful episcopate; a middle ground.

In addition, another "middle ground" taken by Anglican tradition is a view of Mary, the "theotokos" (the "God-bearer"), the mother of Jesus. From an Anglican view, the RCC takes the veneration of Mary to an unhealthy level, elevating her to co-redeemer, ongoingly influential with the Savior, worthy recipient of the prayers of the devout. The Baptist tradition however, at least in the American Evangelical strain, is to avoid her veneration at all. On the contrary, often Baptists will consciously avoid any hint of reverence regarding Mary because of fears it can appear "Catholic." The Anglican view does not suffer these fears though, for the Church of the 1st millennium venerated the memory and example of Mary without the imbalance that Rome would later fall into.

It is no small matter to remember the Saints like a tribal custom of venerating the ancestors. In fact, many cultures that revere their ancestors consider their lives and examples of such import as to see them as living concurrently with the living. Archaeologists frequently find burial of these ancestors below the floor of the house because the living wanted to keep the honored dead nearby. The Church knows much of this custom, with burial crypts often located under the floor of historic churches, or at least nearby in the courtyard. "Tribal Christianity" has been among those cultures keeping the ancestors of the Faith ("Saints") front of mind in this manner, and among those Saints few can be more relevant - apart from Christ himself - than Mary, the mother of Jesus. For this reason, her life is rightly examined for examples of how the Church is to operate; chief among them being "His mother told the servants, 'Whatever he tells you, do it'" (John 2:5), when she articulated the Church's timeless message to the world.

While there are many ways that Mary, the mother of Jesus, serves as an example to the Church and to believers everywhere, her life also offers a paradigm of "church growth" in the midst of a world full of corporate fads and business seminar models imposed upon the Bride of Christ. Since first entering Bible college over twenty years ago, I've spent my time since then in and around church ministry paying close attention to the trends and directions churches take in the ever-present pressure to grow their ministry, extend their influence and establish systematic methods for perpetual expansion. In other words, I've been an attentive student of the "church growth" models, paradigms and plans that have been fed churches of varying sizes, ages and demographics. Over these 20 years I've observed that most attempts to grow "a church" are based on corporate business models that, when applied to a church, rob it of essential characteristics of the Body (as described in New Testament texts, usually containing a "one another" phrase). Instead, churches grow most legitimately when they mirror the example of Mary. I'll offer a summary of this below and flesh it out after...

Mary was a young woman "betrothed" (sort of like "engaged" but more serious than our culture treats it) to Joseph. By all Gospel accounts she was a virgin, having engaged in no activity from which she could expect to become pregnant. Nevertheless, on a particular occasion an angel shows up and tells her - a faithful Jewish maiden - that due to no effort of hers, she's going to have a child - a son, to be specific. It seems God has caused new life to spontaneously grow within her, so that from her, no thanks to her, God's chief new work will be born. None of the cause is attributable to Mary, other than her faithfulness as a Jewish woman at the time. She had not prayed to get pregnant, as in the case of Hannah in 1 Samuel. She had not planned for it, for indeed the angel's announcement was a surprise. She had not worked toward it, for Matthew is specific that this was BEFORE she and Joseph "came together" (Matt 1:18). She's called "the virgin Mary" and Jesus is referred to as "born of a virgin" because this is well-establish tradition in Scripture.

Let us now consider the physiology of a young woman. When she becomes pregnant, she grows and expands. Her body swells and it is clear she is "with child," but this is for the specific purpose of growing an entire other person waiting to leave it in a few months. Can we be frank? When a woman grows and expands like that, and it is NOT because another person is soon to be born, we call that "getting fat." Mary was NOT about to expand and grow due to obesity. She WAS expanding and growing because from her would be born the Son of God, the Messiah, the unique work of God into the world, Emmanuel..."God with us." Mary's "growth" was not attributable to her activity, planning or preparation. It was all a work of God who had designated her from which to birth his Work.

Most "church growth" models are interested in growing "a church" more than "The Church." Lacking a strong Ecclesiology, they default to business paradigms most familiar to their Evangelical elder boards stacked with corporate middle-managers and executives. The marriage of north American Evangelicalism and a free-market economy is on full display when church consultants advise pastors to "structure for growth," develop your "5 to 10 year plan," consider locations and buildings as transient, develop strategic processes and "remain visionary." The advice typically resembles something similar to the following plan:
  • examine the congregational makeup (demographics, distance, etc.)
  • determine the congregational values (actual vs aspirational)
  • formulate the congregational mission that will most likely affect ministry success
  • articulate the congregational vision to be pursued into the future
  • plan and execute the congregational strategy for realizing the vision by pursuing the mission
The congregational elders love it because it so resembles the process whereby their respective businesses have achieved success in the marketplace. The consultants love it because it appeals both to the church and corporate marketplaces. Because of the cross-pollenizing that naturally occurs between pastors and corporate peers, it appears a "win-win" all around (homage to Stephen Covey). Businesses do well following the principles outlined in advanced strategic planning, but do churches do just as well? Is all growth for a church positive when they strive for it as businesses do?

Remember, Mary was not planning to "grow," nor was she doing anything to cause it. It was an act of God. She was simply being faithful, and God decided the timing. If a church experiences spontaneous growth, due to no effort of its own, this may be Providential timing to expand "The Church" by starting a whole new Body. Otherwise, bodies are designed to be a certain size, and beyond that they are unhealthy. Most "church growth" models, by applying business growth paradigms to an organic entity are simply a "weight gain program" (as opposed to a weight loss program). Somehow, having a fat, sedentary, "expanding" body is a mark of success. In some societies this is actually the case. The fat chieftain's obesity is a sign of the abundance supposedly enjoyed by community. Is that the type of "body" that a church should really pursue?

Not to dive too deeply into a fitness analogy, but we know that when bodies become too obese they lose much of the abilities that a "normal body" is supposed to have in terms of running, jumping, climbing, digestion, health, circulation, etc. My experience has been that churches can grow too big, to expansive, too "obese" to perform those tasks that the New Testament describes for a local church body. Churches in the New Testament, particularly those to whom is addressed the Pauline epistles, are normal sized "bodies," fit and able to perform all the "one another" admonitions...having the "body" of a normal sized Galilean woman (a.k.a. Mary). If they expand due to a spontaneous decision of God, then it's to send out people and start a new church, not just get fatter, bigger, larger.

In twenty years I have witnessed churches grow and lose their capability to "be a church" in the process because of numerical "obesity." I've witnessed other churches TRY to grow in the same manner, only to die off because people perceived this move toward business models and decide they'd rather go to a "church" down the road than become part of a corporate flow chart. I've also witnessed churches remain faithfully the same size, and IF they experienced any growth, it was Providential for them to "birth" some new work out from them (a new church, sending out missionaries, training new clergy and sending them out). In this the last category was following the example of Mary, though without calling it that.

Corporate growth models are fully appropriate for businesses, but when applied to churches they have a negative effect often not perceived by those elated by the expansion of the enterprise. After all, in a culture where success is always interpreted as "Divine blessing," success is seldom scrutinized as to whether we succeeded at the right things. Particularly in relationship to the Body of Christ, it's frequently true to "climb the corporate ladder, only to discover it was leaning against the wrong wall." If there is ANY business model than can be applied to churches, it should be noted that under the "Starbucks model," the Church overtook the Roman Empire  - the most powerful regime in the world for it's time. Under the "Walmart model," however, Evangelicalism in North America has been a "flash in the pan," experiencing rapid decline after a relatively short period of cultural dominance.

A church is a "body," not a business; and like a body, it's designed to be a certain size, with certain capabilities that require a certain size. The Church conquered the Roman Empire by making many such bodies, not by making any of them in particular obese symbols of abundance. A church is a body, and even resembles a "body" in the young, Galilean, Jewish woman sense. If, for reasons which seem good to him, God causes her to expand, it is with the intent to "birth" some new work (a church, a missionary, a minister). If she is "pregnant" with new life, then that church must plan to "birth" that new work by training those families they will send out as a new church, training the missionaries they will send out into a new culture, or training those clergy they will send to lead a new congregation. But they are content that they are the size of a normal body, and should not expand beyond it otherwise.

Let's talk real numbers... with 100, or 120+/- (150 maximum) members (accounting for seasonal attendees), a church is a "normal sized body," able to operate in a manner described in Pauline Epistles. At this size a pastor is still a pastor; able to know names, be present in peoples' lives and keep the pastoral connection to people without the need to delegate pastoral duties to other staff. I once had "church growth" professor suggest that visitation was no place for a pastor, but instead that should be assigned a staff member or volunteer so that the "senior pastor" is free to focus on vision-casting and strategic planning; that a congregation should not get tied down to a building because it restricts the possibility for growth; that worship processes should remain fluid, and be regularly evaluated for widest appeal; and that supposedly everything "but sound doctrine" was "on the table" for a church dedicated to strategic growth planning. When I asked him, "What about developing a sense of 'scared space' for the congregation in a building through reverential architecture?" His response..."Sacred space? Where do you see THAT in the Bible?" This prof, who had little to no sense of sacred space, sacred times, sacred offices, sacred objects or sacred rites was a church growth and strategic planning professor, author and consultant whose influence has been widely felt in Evangelicalism. His advice fit well in the halls of Dallas Theological Seminary, but is wholly out of place in an Anglican context, or any other church wanting to resemble the triumphant Church of the 1st millennium.

A healthy, local church should strive to resemble Mary, the mother of Jesus. It remains faithful as a local body, not planning to grow by any effort of it's own. However, should God decide that it begins to swell, it is in preparation for "birthing" new life, a new ministry, a new minister. In this way, "The Church" grows even though "a church" does not. "Purpose-Driven" churches, strategic planning churches, seeker-friendly churches, "cell group" churches...all are striving to be the fat chieftain, symbolizing abundance. They no longer fit among the warriors, the maidens or the sages. They are the "fat man" sitting at the far end of the smoke-filled tent. That's what "strategic growth" churches are working to resemble, not Mary. Instead Mary, the "God-bearer," gives us an example for growing The Church that local churches should learn from.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Evaluating OCR experiences

My sons and I just enjoyed completing and volunteering at an OCR (obstacle course race) near Austin, TX today. Now it's time for the post-race evaluation...

Miles of Mud is an OCR company that organizes races reflecting an increasingly popular recreation/sports activity; that being, the challenge of a 5K race (or longer distance) with the inclusion of obstacles designed to test strength and athletic endurance in the rest of the body. For the rationale behind this trend, one need look no further than the playgrounds frequented by children in which they can run, climb, hang, crawl and exercise all their muscle groups. Our first exposure to this fantastic activity was through participating in a Spartan Race. There's a sense in which we were spoiled by Spartan Race (a company leading the field in OCR organizers), and all other experiences have been measured against that benchmark.

For Miles for Mud, we devised four categories to measure the experience. Our experience is twofold in nature: (1) as racers, and (2) as volunteers. Many OCR companies (including Spartan Race, though some do not) have a process wherein volunteers can race for free, having donated time and labor to help the event come off well. For those with a limited budget, this is a great option that also includes the satisfaction of helping others have a positive experience. Financially, our family needs this option to participate in the race, but also we enjoy being part of the "team," the crew, the network of labor that helped make the race a success.

As the boys and I spoke about Miles of Mud on the way home, the four categories we came up with were as follows...

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)? 
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
For each of these categories we rated it on a scale of 1 to 5; with 1 being completely lame and inadequate, and 5 being excellent with no improvements imaginable. Spartan Race has always scored so high on all of these levels that - in all honesty - we're likely just comparing these other OCR organizers to that standard. Nevertheless,  it's a place to start. This year we've experienced three other OCRs besides Spartan Race: Trojan Race Series, Gladiator Rock'n Run and today Miles of Mud. We should have applied this eval to the first two while they were still fresh in our minds, but I offer our assessment of the third below.

Our evaluation of Miles of Mud today scores as...
  • Staff (5/5 points) - We found the event staff very friendly, warm and accommodating. I had even received a personal phone call from them two days before confirming that I'd received all the volunteer news and directions. Once at the event site, they were welcoming and fully willing to find volunteer assignments where the boys and I could be in close proximity to each other. We were thanked regularly for our volunteer time with "You're the ones that make this all happen." When it came time for us to run the course (following our volunteer shift), even the announcer made a big deal of us starting out on our own since we were - quite literally - the last racers on the course. As we ran the course, the head staff person met us at strategic places (driving the four-wheeler) to explain obstacles and ensure we had adequate water. We found the entire staff patient with us as we completed the course, being the last racers to return back to the festival area.
  • Logistics (2/5 points) - While I'm loathe to focusing on the negative, an honest assessment is needed. Too few t-shirts were ordered to supply volunteers with appropriate sizes and, because they were so sparse, it was requested we turn ours in when the shift was over. Too few finisher shirts were ordered to supply racers with the requested size. For such a hot day, little to no shade was offered. No canopy or covered structure existed with seats or benches for people to escape the sun. No radios were supplied volunteers, or other communication method, in case of emergency over an injured racer. Six port-o-potties were present at the site, but no changing tent. While they did make accommodation for us to race after the volunteer shift, it was not part of a "volunteer's heat." The announcer was quite surprised that three more racers were leaving the starting line. We received no bib numbers, timing chips or means of tracking the time we took on the course. Half way through the course, our motivation to finish quickly was so that all the remaining finisher medals wouldn't be packed away and the festival area broken down when we got back.
  • Obstacles (3/5 points) - Though the event is called "Miles of Mud," approximately 20' of mud still existed when we went through the course. Very little mud had been built into the course, and the majority of what had been prepared was all dry when we went through. No process was established for keeping it wet in case of a final "heat" of volunteers (speaks also to logistics). No water obstacles were built into the course, which for such a hot day would have brought welcome relief. Some obstacles did not function properly, such as the hoist wherein the rope was passed through a top carabiner instead of a pulley, obstructing the rope's movement for lifting the weight. Some of the obstacles were well-designed however, such as the tire drag, the cargo nets and 4, 6 and 8' walls. While the wires over the low crawls were sagging, showing haphazard assembly, the climbing ropes were secured well and high enough to offer timely challenges twice on the course. For obstacles we found a middle score fair.
  • Trail (5/5 points) - Whether by virtue of the ranch it was held at or the selection of the trail for the course, the running path was excellent. Snaking through the trees and brush, it offered a variety array of hills and canyons, climbs and descents. After running up a hill, which excited the heart rate and burned the legs, we would descend down into a creek bed with zigs and zags that made each turn a thrilling discovery. As trail runs go, a better track could not have been mapped out. In many cases, an OCR might be held in a field or venue that does not offer a trail run such as that. This one was outstanding and challenging in all the right ways. 
Overall this gives Miles of Mud 15/20 points from our perspective, or 75%...a solid "C" grade. Admittedly, some of the lower scores we encountered may have been because of our experience as volunteers (e.g. late race start). Nevertheless, from our perspective it still was a fun day and we're glad we went. The boys thanked me for the taking them and we would have done it again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On Redemption and the Spartan Race 30 Burpee Penalty

       I don't think it's too much hyperbole
to describing my family and I as having "fallen in love" with  Spartan Race. It's provided a shared activity that enlists our sense of adventure, promotes camaraderie, gives common goals and offers a fun struggle that we enjoy on even more indescribable levels. Spartan Race has achieved something that many other Obstacle Course Race (OCR) companies attempt (but in my opinion do not do nearly as well); that being, to offer a holistic experience that follows the participant home and promotes an integrated lifestyle - combining fitness, community and networks of fellow racers striving to better themselves. The race itself is at the heart of the "Spartan experience," wherein one trains for the event, participates in the struggles and strives to complete it in the shortest time they can. In concentric circles resonating out from that are the training guides, the inspirational stories, the subculture of being "Spartan" and the group chatting lines from the "300" movie.

       No small amount of analogies come out of this themed fitness cult, and I have not been sparing in pointing them out. Another one came out during a conversation with my son the other day. As we walked together during an 8 mile workout, the subject turned to painful life lessons I had undergone from which he could benefit (learning from some of my mistakes instead of having to repeat them on his own). Around mile four, I shared the difference between the truth of redemption found in Jesus Christ versus the legalism I had been taught in the fundamentalist tradition on my youth. I explained how, in some church traditions, parents are so desirous that their children avoid certain mistakes (sins) that they "over sell" the permanence of consequences and "under sell" the possibility of redemption from those sins. The resulting effect can be that a defeatist attitude, "cursing" the young impressionable believer with a sense of everlasting brokenness. "What? Not a virgin when you got married? You're forever screwed!" Many that grew up in this tradition wound up losing their faith altogether when they realized that the perfection required to be a "good Christian boy/girl" was either not really possible, or was achieved at the cost of necessary wisdom for functioning off the Evangelical "reservation."

       Fortunately, not all react to this by punting their Christian rearing altogether. Some are able to later critique that legalist/defeatist warping of "God's Law" by learning more of the Father's character and the redemption offered through the Lord Jesus Christ. Are there consequences for sin? Often. Are the consequences permanent? Could be. Is redemption available? ALWAYS! The thing about God's grace is that it's not predictable, not expected and not deserved...but it's always there, lingering in the background available to the penitent. It is this same grace that says to the sinner, "Yeah. You blew it. Own it. Take your lumps, and then let's back to work." It's the grace that, no matter how severe the consequences of the failure, keep the penitent on life's track, moving forward in developing the person whose life is meant to glorify Christ. It is this grace that invades the mind of the sinner, during the darkest moments of self-condemnation, and says, "You're not out of it. You're still in the race. Let's keep going. Yes it hurts. Good for you in taking responsibility, but there's still more race to run. Let's get going."

       By analogy, the legalistic tradition of my youth would have said, "Failed an obstacle? You're out of the race. Go home." But not Spartan Race. They require a 30 burpee penalty for missed obstacles. This is in contrast to many "mud runs" that offer no challenge to those failing obstacles, allowing participants to walk around if they don't want to scale that wall, traverse those "monkey bars," carry that weight or climb that rope. Those would be akin to the traditions that so "over sell" grace and "under sell" consequence as to produce in their followers a sense of license to "do as I want." We've all seen those people too. "Pregnant in high school? How can this be happening to me? It's so not fair!" Yeah, we're all sorry for your plight, but cannot join you in the deflection of responsibility onto anyone else. But Spartan Race has offered a living analogy what is closer to the actual truth: unsavory consequences that keep you in the race, able to keep going and finish strong.

       By having the 30 burpees penalty, the motivation is kept to train for the obstacles, to strive for the fitness to complete them when we encounter them. I do not like burpees. They are an excellent exercise technique ahead of the race, but during a race they can deplete valued energy, producing a cumulative effect of making the next obstacle even more challenging. Nevertheless, I'm thankful for them. They mirror redemption in the real world. Only in someone's Pollyanna world are there no consequences for failed ethical, moral, character obstacles in life. But neither does failure kick us out of the "race" of life either. The examples range from the extremes of a recovering from a failed grade in school to turning toward a life of virtue while serving time in prison for a previous crime...and everything in between. No failure, regardless of how many "burpeess" one has had to do in life, ultimately prevents us from making those continuous steps toward the finish line, to take our place among those that never gave up either.

       To be clear: giving up, checking out, a choice. I know of racers that performed 300+ burpees at a race, lacking the strength or technique to complete 10 obstacles or more; yet they completed the penalties and crossed the finish line, resolved to train for future races so that the obstacles could be successfully overcome. Penalties are like that. They motivate us to train harder and overcome that life "obstacle" the next time we encounter it. Without them, where is the motivation to grow, to develop, to strengthen those parts of our character that are weak? And yet the penalty, though unpleasant and unwelcome, keeps us in the race, on the course, at the struggle and among those striving too. Some act (and even teach) as though the proper response to a failed life "obstacle" would be to walk off the course in defeat, but the reality is that it is God's grace that says "30 burpees!" so that we will BOTH feel the need to grow AND stay on course.

       This is the analogy of redemption I have seen in the Spartan Race. 30 burpees "redeems" the racer by offering consequence for failure and motivation to grow, but also keeps them in race and moving forward. This is closer to the true nature of grace we see for sinners in this life. The legalists says "Failed obstacle means out of the race." The licentious (also "antinomianism" for theology geeks) think there are no penalties and it's all just a fun "mud run." But the "Spartan" sees those burpees as redemptive penalty that motivates more training, more focus and renewed determination while keeping them in the race, on the course, at the struggle and numbered among pilgrims all doing burpees together and then advancing toward the end with shared understanding of what life is all about.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Does America's "God" Even Exist?

The problem with using the term "God" as a proper name is that it's akin to how people speak to or about the "President." All U.S. presidents have had proper names in the past (i.e. "George Washington," "Abraham Lincoln," "Dwight Eisenhower" or "George Bush"), but in addressing them protocol demands people say "Mr. President." In the future, someone might actually needed to use the term "Madam President." But that use of the title as the proper name only works when addressing them directly, or speaking of them in a conversation wherein all that are part of the conversation know which "president" you're referring to. It doesn't work to simply say "back when the President ordered the buildup of American troops..." because another will rightfully ask, "Which 'president' are you referring to? Lincoln during the Civil War? Roosevelt for WWII? Bush '41 or Bush '43?" The use of the title as a name only works when everyone knows which entity you mean when using the title, either by direct address or through conversational context.

No one would question this principle in referring to U.S. Presidents, yet this truth is assumed not applicable when referring to "God." The title of "god" has, prior to monotheism becoming dominant in the West, been ascribed to those deities that a culture venerated and worshiped, entreating said divine entities for favors related to war victories, health, propagation and timely rains for yielding abundant crops. The famous pantheons of Rome, Greece and even the Vikings have latent cultural influence, shaping our calendars and being preserved in the names of our weekdays (Thor's Day = Thursday); yet none of the proper names of those ancient cultures find their way into our modern descriptions of "God" when we say it. We acknowledge that those bygone cultures had their "gods," but our culture means something very different when we say "God." Or do we?

What exactly is meant in American culture when people use the title "God" as a proper name?

In a house of worship, when everyone is in concert together over a mutual understanding of what is meant by "God" or which "god" they're referring to, then the use of the generic title of "God" is no problem. In a mosque, all of those praying to "God" know that they are referring to Allah as described in the Muslim tradition. Likewise, in a synagogue, referring to "God" has the shared understanding of Jewish traditions and Hebrew Bible to give shape and meaning to the title/proper name. In a Christian context, all in attendance understand that by "God" they mean the Triune God that has revealed himself to eternally be three persons as one (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and clarified this agreement with frequent references to "the Lord Jesus Christ." Thus using the title/name "God" isn't problematic in the least because of the shared meaning in the gathering or religious context.

This shared understanding, though, cannot be assumed too broadly. In an increasingly pluralistic society, the number of world religions represented in the population are growing exponentially. This is not the greatest challenge to a shared understanding of what is meant by "God" though. What makes shared meaning of "God" so improbable is the triumph of individualism in matters concerning faith, religion and spirituality in American culture. Ask one hundred people, who profess belief in "God," and you will get at least seventy-six different descriptions of "God" as people make up, on the spot, a deity that is an amalgamation of all their favorite virtues. "I think of God as being like" they will begin, and then proceed to craft a deity that (1) makes sense to them, and (2) gives them the most comfort and affirmation. Whether or not such a "god" is attested in any ancient literature, or is represented in any of the world's major religions, is not relevant. It IS the deity that they can imagine when using the term "God," and therefore the authority of their own pronouncement is all that is needed to construct it.

The challenge we face, though, is that the deity they have described may not have "existed" prior to them describing it. (1) Is it attested in any literature prior to this person imagining it? (2) Is it represented in any religion other than merely in this person's own mind? If the answer is "no" to both, then it can reasonably be concluded that the person asked "what is God like?" just made it up on the spot. This might be taken as not the most tolerant position to assert, but I think it can responsibly suggested that if you make something up, there's a good chance it's not true (Yikes!). Some atheist skeptics might assert that all descriptions of "God" are made up, but I'd like to suggest that along a sliding scale, the probability increases something is "made up" when someone - on their own - makes it up.

Now, in all fairness, many in America "make up" their "God" having already inherited a Judeo-Christian framework out of cultural exposure. They will "name drop" things like "Bible," "Jesus" and "Father" without any doctrinal association to those terms, not knowing where they first heard them. Nevertheless, even with Judeo-Christian cultural assumptions as a guide, many still make up the rest, often with little regard for how credible their beliefs might be, or if their descriptions of "God" resemble any deity previously worshiped in history. What's more? "God" is the only proper name used along with the elective ignorance as to the history of that "God."

The triumph of individualism, as applied to peoples' views of "God," has been fully realized in America, in that I can make up my ideas of "God" on the spot, unconstrained by the specificity of having to NAME him, or cite historic ideas about him as my heritage. Generic theism is the default setting, and greater specificity is a divisive pursuit to be avoided. In fact, affirmation of the generic "God" is necessary for smooth interaction in the American civil society where the Constitution requires government not legally endorse one religious tradition over another. So then...what is meant by "God" when we say, in the Pledge of Allegiance, "one nation under God," or "In God We Trust" on our money? What "God" comes to mind at sporting events when people hear "God Bless America" sung? Well...frankly...anything you want.

Making up your own "God" is not just a right; in America, it's expected. "Can't you think for yourself?" comes the charge to anyone confessing to adhere to historic doctrines that predate their culture. In addition, keeping God generic is needed as to appear accepting of other religions one encounters. "Tolerance" is such a foundational doctrine of American civil religion, that monotheism (the belief that there exists just one God) must give way to henotheism (the belief that there are many gods, but one is loyal to just one of them; or that yours is your favorite; the "high god"). Though American culture would not revert to polytheism (the belief in many gods; pick your favorite; mix and match; assign each to geography and natural elements), what IS encouraged is a form of relativism in descriptions of "God" to mean whatever people want it to mean. It is distinctly "American" to keep "God" generic and undefined.

To invoke any proper names (e.g. the Lord Jesus Christ) beyond the "proper name" of "God" is seemingly to disenfranchise those that would not call "God" by that name, and to render uncomfortable those that would rather not delve into that specificity. Thus, America's "God" must, by necessity, be the generic construct that anyone - individually - can mean when they hear that "name" mentioned in nationalistic events (i.e. Pledge of Allegiance, money, "God Bless America," etc.). At the time of the nation's founding, a much more common understanding might have been enjoyed that "God" meant that deity traditionally taught in the Christian tradition. Now though, individualism has taken root so that America's "God" must instead be the what one makes up on the spot.

Unfortunately this generic, individually constructed, "God" is not well attested in history and does not enjoy a vibrant following in any religious subculture even today. Within the doors of mosques, synagogues and churches, "God" enjoys a high degree of specificity. Proper names are invoked and God's history with people is rehearsed to differentiate "God" as distinct - NOT generic. America's "God" does not exist outside of the spiritual ambiguity needed for nationalistic elements.

I am not a relativist. I'm a Christian; which means I own the "closed-mindedness" of being not only monotheistic, but also believing that the ONE God has revealed himself through the Incarnation and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, which was subsequently (and faithfully) explained through the writings of New Testament authors ("Apostles"), which have been reliably interpreted in the collective mainstream of later followers (The Church). Christian traditions have differed on some peripheral matters, but enjoyed two millennia of agreement in the doctrine of the Trinity*, codified in ecumenical creeds and confessions of Christian traditions throughout the world. And as a Christian, I belong to a "tribe" that confesses that the God who IS is Triune; and there is no other.

[*Can we finally dispense with the tiresome rebuttal "The word 'trinity' isn't in the Bible"? Neither is the word "gravity," yet evidence of it is found ubiquitously throughout its pages.]

But even if I were not a Christian, but instead were Jewish or Muslim, I still would scratch my head at the American instinct to keep "God" generic and unspecified, so that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean when they say it. Such a "God" is not historical, has no houses of worship, has written no sacred texts, has called no clergy into service, pronounces no moral codes, offers no redemption, provides no comfort. America's generic, made up, "God" does not exist.

Oh God exists alright...and he has existed long before I began trying to imagine him in forms I can manage with my finite categories. He existed long before the invention of American civil religion. He existed long before our culture came into being, and will exist eternally after it has vanished from the Earth. Not only this...but as a Christian I am also Trinitarian (there really doesn't exist a different type). So everyone should know what I mean when I say "God," but I'm also kinda weird that way.

Nevertheless, this new imagining of "God," as an individual creation of any given American, is a fairly recent concept; only about 200 years old. This new "doctrine" has grown though, causing conflict with those seeking to maintain historic specificity. It's not just Christians that may find themselves at odds with the American doctrine of generic theism though; Jews and Muslims may find similar conflicts (but I can only speak as a Christian). I can't be the only one that, when hearing the words "One Nation Under God," wants to ask "Which one do you mean?" Those advocating the return of school prayer never seem interested in specifying "prayer to whom?" Allah? Adonai? Jesus Christ? Odin? Amun?

The conversation goes like this...
Well meaning post: "We, as a country, need to put God first?"
Me: "What do you mean by 'God'?"
Posting person: "Well, to me God is like..." (and they proceed to make something up)

Admittedly, "One Nation...Under the Lord Jesus Christ" doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same, and I don't see any school board adopting that level of specificity anytime soon. However, if that's not what's blaring in the Christian's head as they say the Pledge of Allegiance, then it's possible they are slowly becoming more American than they are Christian, replacing the specific Triune God in their mind with the generic deity required by the culture. The uncomfortable conclusion is this...if the generic "God" of America, the creation of the individual, doesn't really exist, then adherence to American civil religion is - by necessity and practice - a functional "atheism" that is increasingly producing "One Nation Under no 'god' at all."

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why I race...

Spartan Race

As someone that is not an "athlete," doing things considered very athletic would seem out of the norm. Oh yes, I've had hobbies that have taken me outside into the mountains. I've enjoyed mountaineering (when I lived near mountains), which included hiking, rock climbing and camping (often in the snow). Many considered this exceptional, but it was not "athletic" as much as it was adventurous. I've enjoyed swimming all my life, riding bicycles and just about anything else that was a fun and rigorous activity that took me out into nature (including skiing and kayaking). These also, though indicative of an "active lifestyle, " do not make one an "athlete." I've known many that are serious athletes, and I've revered them for their discipline, their drive, focus and the results of being able to perform such incredible physical feats.

So then, the decision to engage in such an "athletic" enterprise as the Spartan Race is seemingly a step up from dabbling in just being an "active person." After all, there are plenty of fun opportunities, in the marketplace of activities now, to merely get muddy while trampling along a trail with friends headed to the beer-flowing party at the end. Why the decision to test myself with a race that, though also fun, enjoyable and "family friendly," is also a seriously athletic event that requires significant training in advance? Why engage in a race that required lifestyle changes and discipline I had not previously maintained? Why voluntarily sign up for something that mandated so much transformation?

Spartan Race offers a wide variety of races to participate in...

The Spartan "Sprint" is a race billed as "3+ miles with 15+ obstacles." The "+" is an important caveat because each course is custom designed. Thus, the "+" could mean a few more miles AND many more obstacles. You never know what you're going to get (*says in Forrest Gump voice*).

The "Super" Spartan is advertised as "8+ miles with 20+ obstacles," and the Spartan "Beast" being "12+ miles with 25+ obstacles." The Sprint is an athletic event in itself, but is also designed to be the most accessible of their races, wherein a person could enter who had never gotten off the couch before. The Super is where it starts requiring some training in advance in order to have an enjoyable experience, rather than a miserable one. The Beast is a half-marathon in length, but the inclusion of the obstacles make it, according to the testimony of some athletes, more difficult than a normal marathon (which I have never considered trying). As seen from the graphic above, the events that Spartan Race conducts go well beyond the Beast. Nevertheless, to set a goal for achieving the "Trifecta" (completing the first three - Sprint, Super and Beast - in a calendar year), is by far a more athletic pursuit that I have ever considered before...

...yet that is exactly what I am attempting in 2014 (the Spartan Beast is on November 1st)!

Spartan Race (and admittedly other race companies has risen up attempting to duplicate this function) has provided an activity that challenges many to push themselves beyond where they have been before. However, I have found, along with multitudes of others, that these races are indicated of more than merely physical struggles. They wind up being a physical, athletic analogy of other "obstacles" in life that must be overcome as well. 

The opening line of their promotion video is "Could a race change your life?" One might not think so, but an unexpected internal event occurs on the course. Suddenly what started out as a fun idea for the day turns into a test of will, and a nexus of mental, spiritual and emotional struggles. It demonstrates the folly of the ancient gnostic heresy that sought to separate body and spirit (it lingers on today in many forms). We are integrated complexities of matter and energy that cannot be separated even at death (thus the Christian doctrine of resurrection). Disciplines of the body cannot help but have a corresponding affect on the soul. The religious practice of fasting is an example of this. Several Biblical passages either elude to this or downright proclaim the connection.  The apostle Paul says "Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27). The classic spiritual disciplines have all had this as their motive. Training of the soul via discipline of the body. The connection is inescapable. Does this mean that all who discipline the body are spiritual growing? Not at all. But the connection is such that seldom do people find internal development that was not manifested externally also.

Classic spiritual disciplines have included both abstaining and engaging disciplines; meaning that one either abstains from an activity as their discipline (fasting), or engages in an activity (study/meditation) as their regimen. In most cases, it's a choice that involves activities of the body, and comprises actions of will, speech, choice, appetite, rigor and difficulty. Many perform these spiritual disciplines with full expectation that they will be changed as a result of it.

"Could a race change your life?" Those that understand and appreciate spiritual disciplines would answer in the resoundingly affirmative. For in training for the race, decisions are made regarding schedule, exercise and motivation that disciplines life and brings it into an order that might not have otherwise occurred. Encouragement and accountability is sought from other racers to prepare well and plan to gather for the event. The race itself brings all of this together, serving as a living analogy for struggles and trials faced in other categories of life.

Why do I race? Because of all of the other aspects of life that benefit from the decision to struggle and emerge. Because the discipline of it that hones the senses and sharpens the spirit. Because of the camaraderie among those racing for the same reasons. Because of the spontaneous moments of community evident on the course when people help and encourage each other. Because of the accomplishment of attempting and achieving something out of the norm. Because even training for it develops a fitness level, with the accompanying positive health benefits, that seemed out of reach before now. Because I believe that, were the apostle Paul writing much of the New Testament today, he would have used these races as analogies to make his point in at least a few places (along with the other sports, gladiatorial and military analogies he used). Because the course is all a physical, spiritual and mental challenge all put together. Because being "Spartan" has taken on meaning that applies to myriad struggles off the course as well.

Certainly this is not why everyone does it, but it's why I race.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Spiritual vs Religious

Why pretend? It's confession time. I've never really thought of myself as all that deep. Peers have said they thought I am, but I think they're just acknowledging my attempts to sound like I'm deep. Seriously. It's probably some sort of compensation mechanism. Freud would have a field-day with it. I think I like to sound sounds deep when I can really come off sounding deep. Do I think I'm really as deep as I can sound? Oh heck no! Yeah, yeah. I know. Kind of a funky self-image for someone bent on an academic career. TELL me 'bout it!

Here's a problem that goes with that though...Spirituality is deep.

At least it is in experience-driven North American evangelicalism. The inward experience, the transcendent journey, the connection to the Divine is viewed as paramount. For this reason, the person of exceptional piety, of regular Bible study (I'm speaking within the Christian context), of verse memorization, of ubiquitous artwork and inspirational reminders following an uplifting saturation principle, of negligible faults and flaws is lauded as the greater believer.

Now, don't misunderstand. Those traits are all quite positive. But when they are juxtaposed against the "religious" person that finds the trappings, traditions, gatherings, history and structure of Christianity comforting, that's when spirituality - unfortunately - can actually be net negative.

How could I assert such a "heresy?"  Isn't life all about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and my assurance that I'm saved by grace through faith? Again, I say there is nothing wrong with that at all. However, it often is used as an excuse to perpetuate the triumph of individualism in the America, which has done more to erode the work of the Church in the West that perhaps all other exterior attacks combined.

Years ago, when I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with how little my spirituality resembled the "Christian experience" a millennium ago (American Evangelicalism often prides itself on being un-moored from tradition and history), a friend of mine admonished me to consider a different tack. I often spoke of martial arts as holding value far beyond the mere pragmatism of fighting skills, but also containing history, heritage, tradition and trainer successions that I was pleased to be a part of. I spoke of the necessity to find these things within The Art, as opposed to just learning some MMA moves and then calling one's self a "martial artist." He challenged me, saying, "Aaron, if you ever get to the point where you think of being a Christian the way you think of being a martial artist, you'll find yourself in a liturgical tradition (Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox)." He was right.

Developing as an Anglican Christian, some of the old individualism is starting to come into stark relief against the backdrop of the Church in its communal and historical (even "tribal") glory. Increasingly I am recognizing the interlinked needs to both believe AND belong. Growing in my faith is fine, so long as it runs parallel to growing in The Faith. They are two sides of the same coin. Heads=belief/tails=belong. A coin lacking the validating image on either side would not be legitimate. Both sides are needed for the coin to have value.

This "balance" of believing and belonging, though, is seldom the focus of those touting their spirituality. On the contrary, great pride is taken in the fact that "I can believe in Jesus without having to go to church." They typically don't like it when I reply, "Indeed. Similar to how I have encountered many a firefighter that can fulfill their dream of fighting fire without having to belong to a department." Yes, so foreign is the concept of considering one's self a part of "the family of God" (enjoying all the benefits) without any regard for belonging to the visible "family of God" that the idea of a Christian not belonging to a church would have stymied the ancient church fathers of the 1st millenium. Their bewildered glance would have conveyed the rhetorical: "Who would claim to be THAT who did NOT?"

Nevertheless, many who seek to be "deep" and "spiritual" often do so specifically to differentiate themselves from the rest of the mindless simpletons that blindly attend services week in and week out, just committed to a tradition and ritual that seemingly doesn't help them grow. What the "deeply spiritual" person fails to account for are the advantages that the simple, tradition-driven person (whom that often denigrate) has over them; namely, continuity, community and comfort. In those churches services whose praxi fide is all about the individual's spirituality, countless sermons on "achieving" a sense of community are constantly necessary. Whereas those that already have a sense of belonging through a communal faith find it happens more naturally anyway.

In the choice between being "spiritual" or "religious," a balance is always the bulls-eye. But in a culture that already champions individualism and personal autonomy, I don't benefit from my faith discipline echoing that message. Considering what is most often meant by "spiritual," I find I'm better off weighing more heavily as "religious." In that case, I can belong to something that transcends how I feel any given day, that has a sense of tribal ancestry (Church Fathers), and meets my needs of socio-cultural integration without even having to try very hard.

I encounter often the person that confesses, "I consider myself spiritual, just not religious." Without batting an eye, I declare back, "That's fine. I consider myself religious, just not very spiritual." In this way, I can quickly concede that they are the "deeper" of us two, and move on without much debate. Of course, in my mind, I know I have a sense of belonging (regardless of how my belief fluctuates any given day), and that they will likely struggle with that once the effort needed to maintain "their faith" all the time starts to wear on them.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Christians in the Academy

Early in the 20th century, as American Christian fundamentalists perceived a growing threat from modernism, the divide between science and religion, that started in the 19th century (thanks in no small part to the diverse applications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution) began to rapidly widen even further. Having largely abandoned the arts as a "secular" pursuit following the Second Great Awakening, fundamentalism was already pulling away from higher education in the mainstream. The Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925, however, sealed the fate of hopes for the populist devout considering the bastions of science and art to be a welcoming environment. The perceived gulf betwixt science and religion was fueled by fundamentalist and atheist hostilities alike until it became clear that Christians needed their own "safe" schools; thus giving rise to the Bible college movement.

An interesting dynamic evolved from this mixture of antagonizing currents: both the "sacred" and the "secular" seemed to agree that neither territory was right place for each other. This informal truce resulted in science being held with suspicion in Bible colleges (after all, aren't all scientists just atheist, evolution evangelist bodysnatchers intent on undercutting everything our teens learned at Youth Group?), and Christian fundamentalists saw Bible colleges as the preferred (if other options were even considered) option for higher education following graduation from the private school conducted in the local Baptist church. "Don't send your kids to that secular college," grew the refrain, "they'll come home all eat up with the science and won't believe not'in you taught'em." The arts, the sciences and literature were fed them within the confines of the fundamentalist sub-culture of the Bible college movement. In like manner, because of the Fundamentalist pulling away from the universities, mainline institutions became progressively more accustomed to operating without them. Thus, a Christian behaving and thinking like a Christian on the university campus became increasingly counter-culture, out of place and odd.

My own experience is testifying to this rift between education and fundamentalist religion on various fronts. It's one thing to enter an arena deciding not to argue evolution with anyone, but it's another thing altogether to realize that the evolution they're teaching in the mainstream science disciplines doesn't remotely resemble the "evolution" I was taught to hate at the Bible college. To imagine a theological equivalent, it would be as if university professors teach that Christian preachers are still using Bible verses to argue in favor of slavery. The Fundamental Baptist response would be, "What? That hasn't been the case for 150 years!" And yet, Bible colleges similarly misrepresent universities as a means of demonizing the "other." The resulting effect is that when a Christian actually enters the university setting who can "play nice with others," it's something of an anomaly.  But surprisingly, it hasn't taken a lot of "bravery." The "attacks" to my faith simply have not materialized that I was taught were lurking around every marble-columned corner. The "monsters" of M. Night Shyamalan's "Village" just are not pouncing like I was trained to expect.

It's a shame that more Christians (that haven't also shed their faith in order to enter academia; thus confirming the fears of the parents sending their kids to Bible college) aren't moving back into the academic arena. Genuine faith has a legitimate voice among the messages of circulating around campus, and the "ivory tower" could use more input from those that didn't leave their piety at the entrance  - like shoes that are left in the lobby so as not to track dirt into the house. All it takes is an willingness to operate within the unique cultural dynamics of academia, which the proudly counter-cultural fundamentalism is ill-equipped to prepare you for. Many evangelicals are willing to do to this for the sake of missionary work. They adopt the language, fashion and many customs of the "culture" they wish in "infiltrate." The result might not be a rash of growing new churches in the target culture, but at least they will have demonstrated that Christians can function in that culture, being friendly and intelligent. Not that I think Christians should approach academia with the "hidden agenda" of converting those they find here; it would be enough just for more Christians to demonstrate they can function here, advancing the research and contributing positively to the education of young people off of the evangelical "reservation."

My experience is proving positive, and I haven't had to shed my faith to get it. I can only imagine that both academia and the Church would be served well by more having my experience also.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sacred Offices of State Religion

     As we discuss various elements of religion found throughout the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, all the categories of the sacred are on regular and prominent display. The sacred elements such as:
  • sacred times
  • sacred space
  • sacred offices
  • sacred objects
  • sacred rites
are all present, and demonstrate just how minded the authors are to instill in the readers normative religion both at the official and popular levels. Even the "sacred myths" ("myth" is well recognized in literary analysis to denote the importance of the story to the culture; not to deny it's factuality.) all are told with an emphasis on the theology to be derived from the structure and details of the tale (e.g. for all the similarities with other creation stories of the ancient Near East, Genesis 1 stands in stark contrast to them for its clear monotheism.). In every way, the aspects of religion that are all part of the natural human condition are on clear display.

     Among the sacred offices we find exercised in the Bible, three are on display in the Old Testament that find similar expression even outside of ancient Israelite culture: the prophet, the priest and the king. Each of these serves a particular function in religious culture, and all of them are sacred in that they perform some service of the Divine will.

     The prophet brings the message of God. Through various means, they hear, receive, intuit, witness, convey or perform the "word of the LORD" to the people. Without this office, no Divine revelation will be forthcoming; no divine direction in collective decisions, no divine judgment in matter of great dispute, and no vital cultural critique in which the divine perspective on the people (their attitudes and behaviors) is given. Where there is no prophetic vision, the people descend into self-destructive chaos (Prov 29:18).

     The priest brings the presence of God. Through conducting sacred rites (i.e. sacrifices, invocations and offerings), the priests facilitate conditions wherein deity and laity are brought near. This benefits not just the supplicant, but has a radiating effect outward to the rest of the culture as well. Sacrifices are often offered on behalf of entire regional populations or cultural demographics since not all who should benefit from this can spatial be fit into the sacred precinct.

     The king brings the order of God. Through careful and wise administration, the king is charged to see to it that the order of the world is maintained. The Egyptians referred to this order as "Ma'at," or "the ways things ought to go." In Genesis 1, the first male and female are said to bear the image of God "so that they may rule" over creation, thus keeping it running right. From that time on, the competing themes of order and chaos run through the Biblical narrative. The expulsion from the Garden represents an ejection from "sacred space" that immediately begins the effects of chaos on the world. The first murder shortly thereafter and the descent into complete societal disarray results in the Noah flood story. Order is seen as good when achieved in a manner in line with divine will. Order that opposes divine will has been attempted (e.g. the Tower of Babel), but that is no "order" at all because only that order in accord with divine will is seen as legitimate. The Christian tradition argues, from the New Testament scriptures, that Jesus of Nazareth embodies all of these sacred offices in one person (Prophet, Priest and King). Nevertheless, these various functions are observable in other religions as well. In any culture where the religion has developed beyond animism, these functions are observable.

     In the Christian tradition, the "prophetic" function is carried out primarily in the expounding of the sacred text. Considering it "the Word of the LORD" already, no higher speech supposedly can be given than to pronounce "the Bible says..." or "that is Biblical." Do all that invoke such authority faithfully expound its true meaning? No. But at least in a text based religion, the hierarchy of "prophetic" speech sees messages having authority to the degree they are, if not exposition of, at least in agreement with, the Holy Scriptures. The "priestly" function is performed, in a Christian context, through a variety of means involving sacred rites as well. Weddings, funerals, invocations at gatherings or even the rites performed in official, communal worship services, a "holy man" is required. Some Christian traditions even use the title "priest," in keeping continuity with Old Testament norms, while others (typically stressing a post-Catholic, Protestant heritage) prefer terms such as "pastor" or even "chaplain" (in a para-church ministry context). Regardless of the titles, it's all the performing of sacred rites by those designated to do so after the manner of authorization within that sub-tradition. The "kingly" function is reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ, whom all Christian traditions venerate as "king" over all, though earthly administrations much be navigated until such time as "thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

     As we said above, these elements are observable wherever religion has developed into complexity beyond mere animism. In like manner, where these elements are all present, one can be confident they are dealing with organized religion. It therefore can be reasonably observed that the "religion of the State" (Statism) has developed sufficient complexity to find these elements all present also. We find the Biblical antecedent for Statism in the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11:1-9. Collectively, the people form their own order - quite apart from divine will - with humanistic goals ("'Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaven so that we may make a name for ourselves.'" 11:4a). In this instance, the collective "we" replaces God as the "will" driving the pursuit of order. It is the first recording in the Bible of replacing God with the State (the "state" being the collective will of the people). One could say that, in making the will of the State their "divine" mandate, they are - in essence - worshiping themselves, but it's unlikely they would have thought of it that way. People like to select an exterior source of authority to appeal to that trumps personal opinion. Statism offers people a "god" to follow - without God; a "religion" - without religion.

     Those attempts to be non-religious fail though, for inevitably, Statism - like all developed religions, flesh out their sacred offices. It has "prophets" (those that convey to the people the will of the State), "priests" (those bureaucratic functionaries that facilitate interaction with the State) and "kings" (those that order society according to the will of the State). Statist societies all have developed these offices to their benefit, much like any other religious culture has. From Nazi Germany to Stalin's Soviet Union, the rulers order society according to the State's elevation to comprehensive "deity" that will not tolerate any competing "gods." The propagandists convey the will of the State in classic "prophetic" fashion, so that those listening only to those voices are quite persuaded in their devotion to the State. Lastly, the people approach those "priestly" functionaries, holding bureaucratic positions, to entreat the deity (the nebulous, but all powerful government) for mercy on their behalf regarding matters of guilt or need (taxes, fines, regulation or benevolent assistance).

     A culture can be trained, over time, to adopt Statism as its national religion, though not realizing they have so thoroughly accepted it. Statism is a curious paradigm in that its devotees bare all the identical characteristics of the religiously pious, though quite convinced they are minus any religion at all. For this reason, even some in the Christian tradition are unwilling to acknowledge the degree to which they have syncretized the two competing religions into a strange hybrid. In the current political climate of the U.S., the religion of Statism is on grand display on a daily basis. Its sacred offices are being executed flawlessly, and the result is a population of the devout that are as dependent on the State as ancient Hebrews were upon the Lord.

     The "prophets" on NBC, ABC and CBS conduct their broadcasts so as to venerate the need for the State in everyone's life, and the will of the State being paramount. As messengers of Statism, they cannot report in such a manner that casts a negative light on the theoretically benevolent government that is the source of all good. Some try to attach a clear link between the propagandists of the State and the State rulers themselves, but no such tangible link need exist. Ideology demands that the State is venerated by those charged with persuading the population of the benevolence of the State. Whatever journalism of yesteryear used to be, it is now most certainly a vocational ministry of declaring the glories of America's new god.

     The "priests" of the State serve in the various offices of the government bureaucracy. They are the ones who determine the worthiness of your sacrifice (taxes, fines and paperwork), or the approval of your pleas for assistance (welfare, healthcare, disaster relief, etc.). Because of the ability to defer to a disembodied higher authority above them, the futility of questioning their decision is obvious to any without the wealth to "buy" access to higher bureaucrats. They perform the sacred rites (in triplicate), and render a judgment whether the sacrifice was received or if one must do penance. Through the bureaucrat, the omnipotence of the State is demonstrated in the life of the citizen/supplicant.

     The "kings" of the State are those who reign is achieved and maintained by means of the State religion. Their behavior is self-evident in how they view themselves ruling by "divine right," outside of the confines of a 'sacred text' for some other philosophy (e.g. the U.S. Constitution). They are no more bound by the Constitution than is a Christian bound by the mandates of the Qur'an (or vice versa). Some may charge that the current President is acting as though he sees himself as "kingly," but this is shortsighted. He is merely a devout Statist. It is na├»ve to assume that any other that shares his philosophy would not act similarly in the same position. In fact, Barak Obama's behavior is echoed rather well in others throughout government that share in his Statist devotion (i.e. Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Eric Holder, et al.).

     For this reason, all the elements of religion are evident in Statism both at the official and popular level. Critique the President to a Statist that voted for him, and witness the impassioned defense of their "king" not unlike how an Israelite would defend King David as "a man after God's own heart." Critique Obama to a bureaucrat functionary and observe the spontaneous difficulties that arise on getting a building code or tax-exempt status approved. Critique Obama on the news arena and witness the "prophets" battle for the hearts and minds of the people in a manner reminiscent of Elijah on Mount Carmel. No "separation of Church and State" exists. The "Church" (specific denominations of the Christian tradition popular in the Colonies when the 1st Amendment was penned) has been replaced with the "church" of the State (a religion, though thoroughly religions, has been effective at convincing it's followers they are irreligious in doing so).

     It can be discussed later those other elements of religion that Statism wields. It indeed has sacred times (Tax Day, days related to war memories, Independence Day), sacred space (monuments, political structures, military bases), sacred objects (flags, statues) and sacred rites (inaugurations, parades, fireworks) as well, and not all of these are necessarily sinister in their expression. Yet they all form the network of conveying something as comprehensive to the human experience as religion typically is supposed to do. There is not space here to go into detail regarding those. It was enough that the "sacred offices" of Statism were examined further, for in the current national religion of the U.S., those of faith in things greater than the State (e.g. I, myself, am a Christian) will find it (1) tempting to syncretize Statism with your own religion, or (2) puzzling why the commandment "you will have no others gods before me" is suddenly being used against you.