Monday, April 30, 2012

Truth and Imperfection in the Church

"Unfortunately, though, the ramifications of telling the truth shouldn’t be considered. The only thing that should be considered is obedience to God. And He wants us to tell the truth." - Donald Miller
"Paul criticized the church, as did John and Christ Himself. We want to deify the church, or, more honestly, market the church. We shouldn’t. We should confess our sins and be open and honest about our depravity, both individually and collectively. Those who walk in the light have more, not less of their sins exposed. The very idea that those who make up the church pretend to be perfect indicates they do not walk in the light."  - Donald Miller
My small group at church is wending its way through Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  Next week we'll be talking about chapter 12, which is about how Miller, who dislikes organizations, came to stop disliking church.  Blue Like Jazz was published in 2003, so it's probably been ten years, and I found it interesting to read the above post on what Miller thinks of the church now.  The post also identified some of the reasons why I was feeling so enraged when my alma mater was trying to have it both ways (get away with things the church gets away with while simultaneously pretending it's a business and thus can't be held accountable like a church).

I also find it interesting (and sad and maybe a bit ironic) that this is yet another post that got yanked after being published.  Maybe he just realized he wanted to use it in a book.  Maybe the comments got out of hand.  Maybe his publisher made him pull it down because of pressure from the church.  I should remember to copy the entire contents of his posts and save them somewhere for later use in case I try to refer to them, and they are gone.

In chapter 12 of Blue Like Jazz, Miller talks about a pastor he knew who basically restored his faith in the church as the church he was going to wounded that faith simultaneously.  This pastor was doing really great loving and acts of service, but Miller's church friends were telling him to avoid the guy because this pastor swore.  This pastor was doing God's will in terms of loving his neighbor. Meanwhile, Miller's neighbors were stumbling over cusswords and missing the truth coming out of the cussing pastor's mouth.

I want to be someone who values truth over superficial conformity, reality over appearance, actions over words.  I think Jesus wants me to do this.  I think He was pretty clear about this during His life in both His words and actions.  This belief alienates me from some people in the church, and that breaks my heart a little (but not that much since I am not a big people person).  I think my philosophy that God puts you around all sorts of people who need you and can teach you if you just look around applies here.  The ones I'm here for aren't the ones who are "healthy."  They can keep themselves company.  I'm okay offending them by doing God's will.  But it sure makes it hard to really feel like part of my current local church.

I've found a church I'm going to try on recommendation.  Honestly, I'm pretty iffy on them because their "doctrinal statement" is pretty mushy, and that's somewhat important to me.  I guess the question may be whether a church with true but very basic doctrine will be where I can fit and be needed or whether it will make me a little crazy like the bad doctrine at my previous church did.

I'm game to find out because I think I agree with Derek Webb's song that says, "If you love Me, you will love the church."  I'm trying, God, but right now, love is feeling a lot like duty, and my duty muscles are severely strained . . . 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Challenging Horizons and Stuff, Part II

So people might be watching me, and they might potentially do what I do without thinking it is sin--even if they think it's wrong--just because I'm doing it, and that would mean they are sinning.  (If you missed Part I, be sure to read that first.)  How am I supposed to live with that in mind?

Should I stop doing anything that might cause anyone to stumble?  No more art museums, no more science fiction and fantasy, no more theater, no more anime or manga, no more Monty Python, no more gay friends, no more poetry, no more drinking (root beer because alcohol smells gross and is expensive) at bars with classmates after a reading, no more music, no more MPR, no more movies, no more trousers . . . ? 

It gets ridiculous fast. If I'm not allowed to engage with anything or anyone for fear of it causing someone else to sin, then I really need to go to a monastery.  In fact, we all do.  Except there will be people there, and people are sinful and . . .  Solitary confinement for life seems the only way to go.

My contention that if someone thinks something is wrong, s/he should voice that they are not comfortable with it and then not participate is shot down by those who are or know those who are incapable of such standing up for their beliefs/personal convictions.  I respect people who take that stand and say, "This is not appropriate for me.  I'll see you later."  I've seen it happen, and I've told people who did it how much I respect them whether I personally find the thing they object to sinful or not. I think it's maybe part of being salt and light if it's done right.

When people make a big, public deal about it and deny the challenging, learning, and growing that could have belonged to others sans sin, I get angry and sad.  Why do others have to get dragged down to the lowest common denominator?  Just because it is your struggle does not mean it is everyone's struggle.  Just because it is sin to you does not mean it is sin to everyone.  This sounds postmodern, but it's biblical.

The arts always get a lot of flak for this, especially in conservative Christian circles.  Often the assumption seems to be that all artists are liberals (unless they're propaganda artists or PR folks).  Some artists are about pushing boundaries and making people uncomfortable and trying to force them to think in unfamiliar ways; that's certainly true.  But really, what is so inherently wrong with wrestling critically with ideas?

I look back on who I was in college and how (yes) liberal I must appear now.  I remember how I used to organize and sponsor these critical thinking and engagement forums where the honors student organization would partner with another organization and bring speakers from different perspectives on an issue to campus and invite students to listen and bring questions (faith and politics, faith and Harry Potter, ect.).  One of these events was a failure in terms of turnout because our location kept getting moved around and then we were forced to change the date at the last minute due to scheduling problems with the rooms, and the new date was right before a break or midterms/finals or something.  That was the forum on faith and art. 

One professor and a working actor he knew were all we could get in terms of speakers, and only a handful of students showed up.  Technically it was a failure, but it was incredibly valuable to me.  I spent a lot of time talking to that actor.  One thing I still remember is how he said that if a role came up that he liked and thought said something important, he wouldn't care if that role was a homosexual one, and that blew my mind.  I still lived in a subculture where the underlying assumption seemed to be that depiction = endorsement, and the fact that a thinking Christian could believe otherwise had never come over my horizon. 

I was getting increasingly uncomfortable with that depiction = endorsement equation because if this assumption were true, it meant that, as an artist, it wouldn't be okay for me to wrestle with important ideas and questions or have characters who were realistic.  And I wanted to challenge people (including myself) to think critically no matter what I did.

One of my writing professors said my work at the time was too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.  I think that's still true.  But since I'm not writing for the liberals or conservatives, it doesn't really matter to me. 

I guess I'll end this ramble with a paraphrase of the words of a wise man (found in Matthew 15 and Mark 7): What you take in isn't what makes you unclean; it's what you do with it, how you act on it.  As a teacher and a writer, I encourage people (including me) to think about the hard stuff and then do right things, so that what we do matches what we say we believe.  Good luck with that.

Any thoughts on the whole depiction = endorsement thing or how you practically deal with the catering to the weaker brother out of love or any of the other myriad topics brought up here? : )

Challenging Horizons and Stuff, Part I

"It seems as well that students are hearing from the media and their parents about the supposed liberal indoctrination going on in the academy, and they are thus more likely to view unfamiliar topics and somewhat uncomfortable feelings not as signs that they are being challenged to learn and expand their horizons but as the intrusion of ideology in the classroom."- tsylvain
I came across this comment about an article.  It stopped me and made me think even more than the article did.  I remember this one kid at my conservative Christian college who pitched a fit every time our honors art history class watched a movie about art that showed paintings of nudes or discussed nude sculptures.  He complained so strenuously about the book we were required to read for one portion of that class that the professor was told he couldn't have us read that book. 

The book in question was The Intellectuals by Paul Johnson.  It was about how brilliant and revolutionary thinkers often lived lives full of personal depravity and immorality, and if actions are motivated by beliefs, what do the actions of their lives say about what they really believed?  I think one of the lessons in question was supposed to be that we can't dismiss great ideas just because flawed people came up with/promoted them, but we also have to be careful that we don't get caught up in charisma and ideas with no substance.  The idea behind reading the book was probably to encourage critical thinking so we wouldn't grow up to be anti-intellectuals who dismiss good arguments due to distracting but simple ad hominem and straw man attacks. 

I don't know for sure what the point of the assignment was because we never got to read or discuss the book with our professor.  The reason this student complained so stridently about the book was because it took great pains to clearly depict the depravity in question, and the student thought it was liberal indoctrination, and he wasn't going to put up with it.  At least I think that was it; they didn't really tell us, so I only know what I heard.

Another student told me that maybe lust was an area this student really struggled with, and he just had to get out of any situation where he might be encouraged to lust or think about things that would encourage lust.  If so, that's fair.  If you struggle with a sin to the point where even getting close to it seriously messes you up, then of course you should avoid any similar situations.  But just because something causes you to stumble/leads you toward sin does not mean the same is true for everyone else. 

Romans 14 gets into this in verses 12-23.  I find it easier to sling around verse 14 (which says that if you think something is a sin, then you shouldn't do it because if you do it believing it is a sin, then to you it is a sin) than to figure out how to apply the rest of the verses about catering to the weaker brother.  This is complicated stuff, made more complicated by living in a community made up of people at different places in life with different struggles. 

Frankly, what makes this whole concept/dynamic hard for me to understand is the fact that I have never been much of a herd animal; giving in to peer pressure was never a problem.  Half the time I was so oblivious that I didn't even know it was there, so the idea that people might do something they think is wrong just because others are is kind of a foreign concept to me.  Why would someone do that? 

But while I'm living in verse 14, maybe others watching me are stumbling over my behavior because to them it is sin, but they are following me, so they do it.  I would like to think this is not true because I am antisocial by nature; I do not have many close friends who could watch my behavior in the first place, but the possibility exists.

How shall I then live?  (Look for more on that in part II.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Yes, once again trying to decide important things, part III

Well, now that I've had a positive performance review at work, I have more to think about.  I mean, when I say that I focus on the job I have now, I don't mean in a corporate ladder climbing sort of way.  I have no interest in that. 

It's funny to think back.  When I graduated from college, I would have been the go-getter whose work-life balance was way out of whack.  I would have been interested in everything and tried to do too much and kind of been a know-it-all out of sheer curiosity. 

That is not what I want or need or can do now, so I spent the first year trying to make sure to set managements' bar of expectations low for me.  I didn't want them to expect more from me than I was capable of giving, so I used my slacker voice, dressed really casually, made sure they knew about my disability and diminished capacities. 

And they still liked what I did (even if I was slow at it or got sick at bad times), which makes me happy.  After years of ridiculous and pointless and terrible (below my expectations) reviews at RetailEstablishment, it felt nice to get a raise (even a "small" one) and kind feedback from peers and managers.


I can't throw teaching over the side of the boat based on a good performance review.  My first two reviews at RetailEstablishment were good before they started bringing in terribly incompetent managers, changing their policies to be more misguided and inefficient, and generally making increasingly terrible management decisions.  These are things that could happen at any business, including my current employers.  I have to remember my new policy of keeping my expectations low, remembering my increasing limitations, not taking on too much and grinding myself down. 

What will I do if I give up on teaching now and find myself 5 or 10 years down the road hating my job and unable to get back into teaching because I don't have any recent experience?  But what will I do if I try to do too much now (teaching and full time work) and resent teaching for all it's taken away from me in 5 or 10 years?

Any suggestions of angles I'm not considering?