The Christian Art of Incivil Discourse

John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio used to be compatriots. Until they weren’t. Calvin was initially so impressed with Castellio that the iconic Reformer invited him to serve as rector at the college of Geneva. Things changed when Castellio started to disagree with Calvin. The two Reformers began to take aim at one another, with Castellio publishing tracts that criticized aspects of Calvin’s theology and Calvin answering him in kind. One of Calvin’s responses was entitled A Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person. The first line reads, “There has come to my notice the foolish writing of a worthless individual, who nevertheless presents himself as a defender and vindicator of the glory of God . . . .”

I thought of Calvin’s essay recently, when the furor over John MacArthur’s dismissal of Beth Moore’s ministry erupted. When MacArthur was asked what he would say to Beth Moore in one or two words his answer was, “Go home.” MacArthur’s remark was relatively tame compared to Calvin’s, at least when you consider that in the Reformer’s day theological disputes often ended in prison or even death for those who disagreed. I guess we live in a kinder and gentler age by comparison. But that doesn’t make disagreement more comfortable for us. Especially when it is between people that we look up to. Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight. We aren’t sure whose side we should take. We just want it to stop.  

Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight.

In our digital age, where it only takes a click of the mouse to enter the fray, it is easy to turn a disagreement into something more. Like players pouring out of the dugout to protest a bad pitch, each side piles on the other using their words as fists. The fact that our theological brawls are mostly verbal may not be as much of an improvement over the old days as we thought. It is true that we no longer burn people at the stake. But we do occasionally burn one another in effigy via social media. Words can be weapons. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

 I suppose it might be different if our verbally violent exchanges led to mutual agreement. But they do not. How can they, when the views in contention are mutually exclusive? Neither side can capitulate to the other without compromising their convictions. Each finds it equally difficult to speak in moderation. The greater the conviction, the stronger its expression. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that both will eventually agree to disagree, but neither side can say that the other is right.

Don’t misunderstand me. The tone certainly matters. 2 Timothy 2:24–25 warns that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if we are going to disagree, and we are going to disagree, we need to learn to disagree like Jesus. But what does that look like? Is it the gentle Jesus of the children’s hymn, who is meek, and mild? Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels. The Jesus of Scripture called those who rejected His teaching “blind fools” and “hypocrites” (Matt. 15:7; 23:17). He grew angry when the religious leaders tried to accuse Him of Sabbath-breaking for healing a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple courts (John 2:15).

Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels.

Likewise, the same apostle Paul, who wrote that the Lord’s servant must be gentle, is the one whose disagreement with Barnabas over ministry personnel was so sharp that the two of them went their separate ways (Acts 15:39). Was their dispute a sin? I guess it might have been, but the Scriptures don’t call it that. Paul also said that he wished those who were preaching circumcision to the Galatians “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

If we look beyond the New Testament, we can find other examples of strong disagreement expressed in passionate language. There is Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets, of course. When the returned Jewish exiles compromised their lifestyle, Nehemiah rebuked them, called down curses, beat some of them, and pulled out their hair (Neh. 13:25). I am not saying that moving forward we should adopt Nehemiah’s behavior as a pattern for our disputes, only that we shouldn’t be so shocked to find believers with opposing views expressing themselves with conviction.

For those who already agree with his views, MacArthur’s remark was simply a tersely stated biblical correction. For those who disagreed, it was a case of mean spirited bullying and prejudice.  But given the nature of MacArthur’s convictions, it is hard for me not to see the resulting outrage as somewhat disingenuous. How could MacArthur have said any different, given what he believes? Of course, he might have said nothing at all. I suppose that would have been more polite. But when he said that Beth Moore should “go home,” I suspect he meant it literally. Likewise, I think Beth Moore was right to be equally dismissive of John MacArthur’s suggestion. Her implied response to him, posted on Twitter, stated, “I did not surrender to a calling of man when I was 18 years old. I surrendered to a calling of God.” In a subsequent tweet, she added, “Whether or not I serve Jesus is not up to you. Whether I serve you certainly is. One way or the other, I esteem you as my sibling in Christ.”

The real rancor in this dispute didn’t come from MacArthur or Moore, so much as it did from their followers and other observers who piled on via social media. Those who took issue with MacArthur criticized his tone, but what they ultimately objected to was his view. Would they have felt any better if he had expressed his remarks with a sweet smile and a soft-spoken explanation, supported by extensive Scripture references? I doubt it. What was really at issue for them was not whether he should have used a different tone, but whether he had the right to hold his convictions at all. The same is true on the other side. In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away. Neither is likely to do so anytime soon.

In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away.

So how should we manage disagreements like this in the church? We can start by recognizing that complete agreement is unlikely, if not impossible. Our differences matter and they are not always able to be reconciled. If merely holding the opposite conviction is incivility, then incivil we must be. But it may help to recognize that not every doctrinal disagreement is a matter of life and death. It has helped me to sort through these matters by drawing a distinction between three levels of doctrine. First, there is a basic shortlist of fundamentals. These are the truths that are foundational to the Christian faith. They are so essential that if you eliminate them you no longer have Christianity. These are the truths that show us which hill we should die on.

Second, there are those truths over which Christians disagree and which are important enough to warrant a separation in fellowship or practice. These doctrines are essential to one’s theological identity or express convictions which shape essential ministry practices. But we would still consider those who hold views different from ours to be Christians. The difference between MacArthur and Moore falls into this category.

Third, are doctrines that we might call disputed matters. These are doctrines about which we will agree to disagree. We cannot all be right about them. Perhaps we are all wrong. But we will fellowship and minister together in spite of our differences. These truths are important, but they are not so important that tolerating those differences does damage to our identity or compromises our practice.

Of course, distinctions like these, which look neat on paper or in a diagram, are always messier in practice. One person’s disputed matter is another’s distinctive and sometimes even their fundamental. We will not always agree. Where convictions are strong, we should expect that their expression will be equally strong. Beth Moore is right when she observes that even in our differences we remain siblings in Christ. And anybody who has taken a long trip in the family car knows that siblings don’t always get along.

Anti-Hero Worship

Everybody needs a hero. When I was a small boy, Superman was mine. I dashed around the house with a towel tied around my neck and my arms stretched out in a vain attempt to fly. When I realized that I couldn’t leave the ground, I asked my dad to teach me how. He told me that he didn’t know either but I refused to believe him. Although I had never actually seen him “slip the surly bonds of earth” on his own power, I was certain that he could. I was convinced that it was a secret he was keeping for himself.

When I got older, I abandoned Superman for heroes who were more flawed. By that, I mean that I stopped reading DC Comics and started reading Marvel. I admired the way they combined angst-ridden insecurity with wisecracking bravado. It appealed to me, perhaps because this was the way I wanted to see myself. I felt like I lived most of my life hidden behind a secret identity. Underneath my ordinary exterior, I was sure there was some kind of greatness just waiting to burst forth. Someday everybody would be surprised.

These days there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between DC and Marvel. All our comic book heroes are flawed (with the possible exception of Wonder Woman). Meanwhile, although our flesh and blood leaders have the patter down, they lack the necessary skills. The bravado is there but without the superpowers and corresponding humility that is required to wield them safely.

Now that I am old, I see myself in them too and find the identification less than alluring. My secret identity is a secret no longer. It seems that myopic vision, insecurity, and a mild-mannered demeanor were my true nature all along. There is no inner superhero waiting to burst forth. I’d say something clever and dismissive about being in such a predicament if only I could think what it might be.

In Amazing Fantasy #15 the Spiderman origin story ends with the narrator’s observation that, in this world, great power brings with it great responsibility. But I think the narrator is wrong. That is how things are in the world of fantasy. In this world, great responsibility is usually shouldered by those who are ordinary…or even less. We are all anti-heroes now.

Real Authentic

When I ask my students what matters most to them in worship, they don’t have to think long before they answer. “Authenticity,” they say immediately. “Worship must be authentic.” However, when I ask what they mean by authentic, it’s another story. Apparently, authenticity is one of those things that is hard to define but easy to spot, at least in the negative. We can’t exactly say what it is, but we know when it’s not there.

On the whole, I think authenticity in worship is probably a good idea. But I doubt that my vision of authentic is the same as my students’. Sometimes my authentic self is the one who would prefer that woman two rows up to stop waving her arms around while we sing about God’s reckless love. It would also prefer to stop calling God reckless. The real, authentic me would rather be somewhere else doing something else.

My pastoral students feel that authenticity is important in ministry too. Most tell me that authenticity is foundational to the pastoral task. But if I ask them how they know whether a pastor is authentic or not, their answer is just as vague. When I press for an example, they usually describe someone who isn’t afraid to talk about their failures to the congregation.

This definition of authenticity seems somewhat problematic to me. In the old days, we used different language to speak of a pastor who told you what to do and then admitted that he himself was unable to live that way. I believe the term is hypocrite. But of course, that is not at all what people mean when they talk about someone being authentic. They mean real. No masks. The public persona is the same as the private. Fair enough. But the truth is, we really don’t want the pastor to be authentic. Not completely authentic. Just authentic enough to make us feel comfortable with our own failure.

Despite what we say we want, in actuality, the fabric of human civilization is largely held together by a set of behavioral codes that teach us to be inauthentic. We call them manners. They include rules and responses which basically amount to socially sanctioned lying. You say you want the truth? As Jack Nicholson famously declared, “You can’t handle the truth.”

Imagine that one evening you are visiting someone in their home. You’ve been having a good time but you notice your host yawning. “It’s getting late,” you say. “I really must be going.” “Do you have to?” they reply. “Won’t you stay a little longer?” Most people know that this is really code for “You should have left an hour and a half ago.” The few people who don’t know this are the ones whose visits you dread.

Several years ago, one of my students wanted to introduce me to his fiancée. I really liked this student. He was the kind of kid I would have wanted my daughter to marry if I had a daughter. So I was looking forward to the meeting her. She was nice enough, I suppose. But I’m glad that afterward, he didn’t ask me for an opinion. The authentic answer would have been, “I think you could do better.”

People often tell me that my preaching is authentic. They also say that it is prophetic. I think what they really mean by this is that I am irritating. I suppose I could ask them to clarify. But I’d really rather not. I suspect they’re just being polite.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog

Sometime in the early 1970’s, I stumbled across the Whole Earth Catalog. It was expensive. It cost five dollars, a lot of money for someone in my income bracket in those days. The edition I purchased said that it was the Last Whole Earth Catalog, which made me wonder what had happened to the others and why I had never seen it before. But I had to have it. It was the cover that first caught my eye, a huge color photograph of the earth as seen from space. I was even more captivated by the content that covered its pages. In a way, this giant volume functioned as a kind of Sears catalog for the counter-culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. But it was really much more than that. The Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of manifesto. To someone like me, in my late-teens and creeping reluctantly toward adulthood, it seemed like a revelation. To use the vernacular of the day, it blew my mind.

I was intrigued by the design and the scope of the project, which somehow managed to seem both carefully crafted and haphazard at the same time. But it was the utopian ethos of the catalog that really gripped me. This was an Edenic vision of a future marked by community, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence. I read about Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and saw pictures of resources that were meant to enable people to live off the land. I lived in a working-class community in the heart of the rust belt. My father and most of my relatives worked for the automobile industry. I did not want to work in a factory. Indeed, I did not really want to work at all. I wanted to live on a commune, where we grew our own food and with people who spent their time having deep conversations. I did not know anybody who lived this way. It did not occur to me that living this way, if such a thing was even possible, would probably involve more work than any factory job I might get.

I also did not realize that I had come of age during the closing days of 60’s counterculture, which was starting to look more like a failed social experiment than a cultural revolution. I doubt that I could have articulated this at the time but I could sense it. From a distance, the freedom which the counter-culture reveled in was starting to look more like squalor. Love was hard to differentiate from debauchery. Too many of the kids who left their families looking for utopia found homelessness, addiction, and a lifestyle of grifting instead. By the time I was fantasizing about joining them, the smell of decay was already in the air.

Was it the protection of Providence or simply a lack of courage that kept me from following? Perhaps it was a little of both. I fantasized about moving to the West Coast but couldn’t bring myself to take the risk. Besides, by the mid-1970’s I had decided to become a Jesus freak. They seemed to possess a similar utopian vision, although it was one tinged with apocalyptic flames. There was no commune but there was a kind of community. They addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” They talked about the peace of Christ. It all seemed so familiar. So much like the Whole Earth Catalog but without the Eastern mysticism, drugs, and sex. Maybe it felt safer to me.

I won’t say that this Christian vision of community was borrowed from the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. But it certainly was influenced by it. It was no accident that many of the Jesus freaks I knew had initially been part of the counter-culture and had grown disillusioned with it. I met more than one who told me that their first encounter with Jesus had come during an acid trip. Also, like the utopian vision of ordinary freaks, the idealized community of the Jesus freaks never really realized its full potential. This was not because of drugs, debauchery, and grifting but as a result of something far more mundane. We got older. We got married and went to work. We had children. We ran for the school board. We left the coffee house and joined the church.

Looking at it from the distance of age, it seems to me that there was something infantile in the utopian vision that first attracted me to both these movements. Was I looking for some version of Neverland, a place where I would never have to grow up? Perhaps I was searching for an alternate family, one that felt less broken than my own. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that utopian idealism is the enemy of community. “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” he notes. “Only the fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy, and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I confess to feeling a certain nostalgia for the golden vision of those early days. But if the gates of Eden are closed to us this side of eternity, the reality of community is not. The Christian community is an earthly community in every sense of the word, one that is as earthy in its limitations and its failures as it is in its location. It falls short of the vision I had for it more often than it fulfills. There are times when I consider walking away from it. On those occasions I remind myself of Bonhoeffer’s warning: “A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of the Christian community.”

They lose it, not as a punishment, but as a natural consequence. What they call community cannot survive because it is a vision that is not grounded in reality. “Sooner or later it will collapse” Bonhoeffer warns. Either the vision will collapse under its own weight, as a result of the imperfections of those who espouse it, or it will dissolve into the mist like the mirage that it is. The church, however, will survive. When the old earth is remade the church will be remade with it. I realize that this is still a kind of utopian vision. What has changed is the point of origin. It is no longer a community that we create for ourselves but one that comes down from above. It is still earthy in terms of its location. But its foundations lie elsewhere. It is the city whose builder and maker is God.

Strive for Mediocrity

At the school where I teach I have a colleague who likes to tell us that we are the best at what we do. It gets on my nerves. I think we’re pretty good. Maybe we are the best. Yet I can’t help feeling that there is something unseemly about saying such a thing out loud. It’s a little like a pretty woman or a handsome man telling you that they are good looking. If it’s really true, it should be obvious. Besides, what if the people who hear you say such a thing aren’t so bad looking themselves?

A few years ago we invited someone from another school with a mission similar to ours to give a series of lectures. This colleague of mine was running through his usual litany, saying that we were the premier school in this speaker’s particular discipline. “You know, we don’t do so badly ourselves” the speaker finally replied, in that patient but slightly irritated way people have when they are reminding you of the obvious.

I realize that I am saying here is out of step with the culture. We live the age of vision and confidence. We have been told since childhood that we are unique and above average. We are all destined for greatness. I often see this in churches and Christian organizations. I have yet to find one that says that it’s just run of the mill.

I can see that the same is often true of me. When I was a pastor, I could never understand why some people who visited our little church would choose to attend anywhere else. They certainly wouldn’t find better preaching there. I am always astonished when a publisher rejects my idea. I feel hurt when a student drops my class. I usually figure that the problem is with them. They just don’t recognize greatness when they see it.

There is an ancient word for this kind thinking and it’s not confidence. It is what the ancients called hubris or pride. Instead of being the secret to success, the ancients considered hubris to be the fountainhead of all other sins. Of course, to modern ears this kind of talk sounds like a return to worm theology. We don’t want to view ourselves with contempt. We don’t think it’s healthy. Spend too much time talking like that and in twenty years you’ll find yourself in therapy working on your adequacy issues. But I suspect that a little self-contempt might actually be good for us. If not contempt, then at least we might leave room for just a smidgen of self-doubt.

Years ago Avis, the car rental company, launched an advertising campaign built around the idea that they weren’t the best in the business. Their slogan was, “We’re number two; we try harder.” I don’t know how it made their employees feel but as far as marketing went, it was a stroke of genius. There was also a measure of wisdom in their slogan. The trouble with being the best is that it removes any room for improvement. What is more, being the best at something is usually a moving target. Ask any record holding athlete who has seen their accomplishment surpassed by some up and comer. In a way, when you’re the best, you’re never really the best. Somebody is always gunning for you. Sooner or later they will overtake you.

Oh sure, being the best has some value when it comes to ego. But if we are being brutally honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that it’s probably not a realistic assessment for most of us. Being the best is certainly not a good position to be in, if you are aiming for significant improvement. If you really are the best, well then, I suppose the most you can hope for is to maintain the status quo. Either way, we should probably opt for a new goal. Here’s one to consider: strive for mediocrity. It always leaves room for improvement.

Baptists Gone Wild

The first Christian movie I ever saw was called A Stranger in My Forest. I don’t know when it was made but I watched it in the 1970’s. I was attending a Baptist church that wouldn’t let its members go to the movies. But films like this one, along with Moody Science Films, were considered a righteous alternative. It was New Year’s Eve. I guess they were trying to keep us off the streets and out of the bars. The thought of watching a movie in the church felt like living on the edge. This was our vision of Baptists gone wild: sing a few hymns to organ accompaniment, watch the movie, then end the evening holding hands and singing “Blest be the Tie that Binds.” We were home by 9 pm.

The plot of Stranger in My Forest was your basic reworking of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. I had never heard of any of the actors and the production quality of the movie was a little lower than cheap television. If I am remembering correctly, the turning point in the story’s plot was a car accident, which was also the occasion for the film’s only moment of graphic violence. It was a zooming shot of the shattered paws of the little dog who was killed in the wreck. There was an invitation to believe in Jesus at the end of the film.

The most famous Christian film of that era was A Thief in the Night, a movie about the rapture of the Church. This was before Left Behind became a cultural phenomenon. For those who don’t know, the rapture is a term that some Christians use to speak of the church’s being caught up to be with Jesus Christ in the end times. The word puzzled me in my early days as a follower of Jesus. It sounded too much like the title of a Christian romance novel. Not Baptist’s Gone Wild exactly but maybe something like Rapture in the Pews. They could have made a movie based on the book and showed it in church on New Year’s Eve.

I soon learned that most of my Baptist friends were ignoring the church’s rule about not going to the movies. I eventually broke the rule too, when the first Star Wars film came out. I can still remember hearing gasps during the opening scene when the star destroyer first comes into view. I think I actually ducked. I had never seen anything like it before. Certainly not in any Christian movie. The film’s underlying pagan philosophy didn’t bother me too much. I was mostly interested in the explosions.

Now those original Star Wars look a little like A Stranger in My Forest to me. Sort of quaint and outdated. Low production quality. Or at least, lower production quality than we usually see today. Meanwhile, the Baptists are making films for the movie theater. They often star actors whose names you actually know. I think Billy Graham started it all with The Prodigal, a film that was loosely based on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Graham actually appeared in the film somewhere toward the end and gave an invitation to believe in Jesus.

The other night I rented a Christian movie from the video store. You might have seen ads for it when it was first released in theaters a few months ago. The movie had at least one major star in it. If I told you his name, you’d recognize it. The acting was pretty good. The soundtrack was full of popular songs. You really couldn’t tell a difference from any other Hollywood film, except that there was no swearing or sex in it.  Also, Iron Man, Thor, and Wonder Woman did not appear in any of the scenes.

There wasn’t any graphic violence either, except for the one scene where someone breaks a plate over someone’s head. There was some implied domestic abuse. The plot was a basic reworking of the parable of the prodigal son, only Jesus was hardly mentioned in the film at all. The movie was really more about the Christian music industry and the importance of following your dreams. There was an invitation at the end to call a phone number, if you had any problems with domestic violence.

Baptists gone wild.

Saved by Science Fiction

I started reading science fiction in Junior High School. It was a matter of survival. My Junior High School career began inauspiciously with a punch in the gut. I was standing outside the door to the gym and feeling awkward on the first day of class when a giant walked up and punched me in the stomach. “Nice shoes,” he said as he turned to walk away. I don’t think he meant it. Later I learned that his name was Greg Savage. Somehow it seemed appropriate.

If this had been a movie, the two of us would have been forced to sit together in a class where we would eventually become best friends. Oh, sure, we would suffer a falling out over the same girl, but in the end, true friendship would win out. We would dump the girl and stick with our friendship, or the girl would decide it was better to be a buddy to us both, or another girl would come along and we would all walk into the sunset holding hands. You know how the story goes. But, of course, it wasn’t a movie, so I pretty much tried to steer clear of Greg for the next two years.

Unfortunately, there were plenty of other predators roaming the halls of the blackboard jungle. Someone once told me that a disproportionate number of our alumni were incarcerated. I could easily believe it. The school seemed like a war zone to me. In gym class, new fish like me were subjected to daily flicks, tweaks, and the occasional kick down the bleachers from upperclassmen, who always managed to carry out their assaults when the teacher was looking the other way. You don’t want to know what they did to the guy in the locker room who asked what the athletic supporter was supposed to be used for. Of course, this was all in addition to faculty enforced and federally mandated group nakedness in the showers, a function of the government’s desire to see that the youth of America were more physically fit than the Russians.

Between these two activities, the first of which took place at the beginning of the period as the teacher took roll and the other serving as the closing ceremony for the day’s class, we were regularly subjected to a demanding regimen of exercises and games which seemed especially designed to shine a spotlight on students like me. They laid bare the soft underbelly of the rising baby boom which was quickly filling up the school’s halls, proving why we would never be worthy of epithets like “the greatest generation.” We were the weak link in American culture. We were out of shape and lacked stamina. We couldn’t climb the rope. We threw the ball like a girl. Unless of course, you were a girl. If the Russians had invaded, we would have been sunk. In other words, gym class, like the rest of Junior High School, was basically Lord of the Flies and I was Piggy.

But it was study hall, not gym class that was my real undoing in Junior High. Because it was there that I was smitten by a vision of loveliness two rows away named Jeannie. I just kept staring. I couldn’t help myself. At first, it was because I was stunned by the sight. Then it was because I figured it was the best way to get noticed. It worked. After about ten minutes, Jeannie glared back at me and stuck out her tongue. If this had been a movie, she would have hated me at first. We would have traded witty barbs for a few months. Eventually, we would have attended the Junior High Prom with someone else as our date. But by the end of the night, we would have left hand in hand, while our original dates were out on the dance floor falling in love with each other. You know how the story goes. But, of course, it wasn’t a movie, so things pretty much went from awkward to downright embarrassing.

A guy from gym class told me that Jeannie “liked” me. He said she wanted me to write her a note and tell her about my feelings. I know, I should have seen through his ruse. But I thought I had seen this movie before. I knew how the story was supposed to go. I wrote the note. It got passed around the school. When I tried to start a conversation with Jeannie in study hall, she screamed and ran away. By the time it was all done, I was generally regarded as a weirdo. I felt like a weirdo too. I desperately wished I was living someone else’s life.

This is where Robert Heinlein, the dean of science fiction writers, enters the story. He rescued me. Actually, I didn’t know it was him. It was just some book, Podkayne of Mars. I’m not sure why I picked it up. It might have been the title. Or maybe it was the cover. I started reading it in class when I should have been paying attention. Suddenly, I was transported. I felt like I was a different person. Clever. Brave. Funny. I felt like I was living in a world where the underdog wins the day and the misunderstood weirdo proves to be a hero. I spent the rest of the year reading Robert Heinlein along with a lot of other science fiction authors too: Theodore Sturgeon, Andre Norton, and Isaac Asimov.

But Heinlein was my favorite. I read so many of his books, it got so I could recognize his voice. He seemed like a favorite uncle to me. If I met him, I was pretty sure he would be my friend. If this were a movie, I would have written a letter to Robert Heinlein. We would have struck up a correspondence. He would have become a mentor to me. Today I would be a science fiction writer. But life is not a movie. It never occurred to me to write.

I went to the library’s annual used book sale the other day. There in the stacks was a weather-beaten copy of Podkayne of Mars. It was only a dollar. I picked it up and smiled. For a minute, I thought about buying it. But the truth is, I’ve already got a copy. Thanks, Mr. Heinlein. You never knew it, but you and your friends probably saved my life.

The Geography of Somewhere

The landscape of my childhood was a subdivision in Roseville, Michigan. My parents moved there from their apartment in Detroit in the 1950’s. Roseville was the kind of suburban space that sociologists would later contemptuously describe as “the geography of nowhere.” For them, suburbia’s monotonous uniformity and non-descript architecture epitomize the cultural decline of the United States. Although our neighborhood was not nearly as uniform as Levittown, the prototype for all American suburbs, it was similar enough. Most of the homes were small and built in ranch style. They had screen doors, a milk chute, and a basement. Sidewalks ran up and down each side of the street and the blocks were laid out in a criss-cross pattern, running north and south or east and west.

Still, there was enough difference between the houses on our block to at least differentiate them from each other. One might have awnings and another a garage. Some had trees planted on the parkway near the road. It is true they sat in a uniform row but there was relatively little danger that you might walk into someone else’s house by accident. What is more, each block had its own kind of flavor. Belleair, the block behind us, always seemed to be a little more upscale to me. Perhaps it was because it had been developed after ours. Or maybe it was because of its pretentious sounding name. Some blocks were older, others poorer.

One of the most significant landmarks in our neighborhood was the field to the west of our street, a swath of undeveloped land that we always referred to using the definite article. It was not “a” field but “the” field. We spoke of it as if it were the primeval field of the world, the garden where God planted His first tree. In actual fact, there weren’t many trees in that field. Yet to my childhood imagination it was a wilderness, as mysterious as it was wild. We spent hours there, exploring its boundaries, hunting crayfish or frogs and hiding from bullies among its weeds. It was dotted with wildflowers, a few strawberry patches, and smelled of milkweed and uncut grass.

The field was bordered on its east end by a farmhouse, which stood across the street and kitty-corner from our brick ranch. An old two-story home, I always believed that it was the first house in our neighborhood. I wondered if we were living on the remains of someone else’s farm. In my memory, that old house was green and inviting when it was inhabited and dark and mysterious when it was not. I visited it only once or twice, entering by the back door into the kitchen. I remember a red plaid tablecloth. After while it stood empty, and we were certain it was haunted. It was eventually torn down and replaced by three new, brick ranches which fit the look of the rest of the neighborhood better. I was sorry to see it go.

Mr. Wooten lived in one of the new houses. Our neighbors whispered that he was shell-shocked. Something had happened during the war, but nobody knew what it was. On some nights we could hear him shouting at his wife in their home across the street. They argued loudly until he finally stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him. In the early morning hours, he reappeared on our doorstep, hammering at the screen door and ringing the doorbell. At first, I thought he had mistaken our house for his own. But with a mumbled apology, he explained that he had forgotten his keys and needed to call his wife to let him in. When she seemed unwilling to do so, he slammed the phone down and with another mumbled apology wandered off into the darkness. I was never sure whether she let him in or not.

On the field’s northern border was a small party store that my father used to call “the great facility.” He got the title from the owner, who told him when it first opened that he planned to provide the neighborhood with “a great facility” that would sell them cigarettes, beer, and bread. But my brother, sister, and I always called it “the little store,” once again employing the definite article in a way that seemed to suggest that there was no other. My father bought his vodka there, while we purchased penny candy by the fistful.

The western border of the field was marked by another old house. We viewed its inhabitants with some suspicion because the children who lived there had a reputation of being unruly. How could they not be wild, living on the border of civilization as they did? Our homes rested on neatly measured property lines and along a paved street, while they lived on a gravel road that went past the little store. Who knew where their property began or ended? To the rest of us, they seemed like mountain people living deep in some Appalachian holler, strange and exotic with customs that were foreign to our own way of life. Our suspicions seemed confirmed when some years later the father of one of our friends abandoned his wife and ran off with the woman who lived there. We did not usually venture that far into the field. If we had drawn a map, we might have etched the warning “Here be Dragons” in that spot.

On its southern border, the field was hemmed in by Church Street, the block where the Baptist and Catholic churches were located. Those two landmarks made a deep impression on the landscape of my soul. It was where I first sensed the fear of the Lord and became God-haunted. It was in that space that I first heard the gospel.

The emotional memory of much of my childhood is contained within these boundaries. On the one hand, there was the teeming life of the block with its orderly row of homes, each one a cultural universe of its own. The overall topography of the block may have seemed the same but the smells, customs and values of my Polish and Italian neighbors seemed quite strange to me. What is more, every house was a center of drama. Each one the site of its own daily morality play, where husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, loved and fought, defended or betrayed one another.

Then there was the other world that lay in the direction of the horizon and the setting sun. This expanse, although it was really only a few blocks square, seemed to my child’s mind to be almost infinite in scope. I thought I could spend my whole life exploring there. The wild beauty I saw in its weedy shambles lit the spark that granted me my first vision of the undiscovered country. It shaped some of my earliest images of what heaven might be like.

Sometimes, I go back to the neighborhood where I grew up. The streets seem the same but my friends are all gone. I drive past their houses and remember what it was like to stand on the porch on a summer’s day and call them out to play in singsong chant. I imagine them appearing at the door and tumbling out into the yard. The field is gone too, having given way to more developed land and nondescript office buildings. The few trees that once grew there have been cut down. The old houses that marked its borders have disappeared. The little store is still there but it is no longer as little as it used to be. You can still get your beer and bread there but you can no longer buy a fistful of candy for a penny. As I turn the car toward the expressway, I drive past the place where the gravel road used to be and recollect the scent of milkweed and uncut grass. In my mind’s eye the old boundaries of my childhood reappear. Once again I see the familiar geography of somewhere.

Falling Into the Culture Gap: The Allure of “Hipster” Christianity

Recently Gap Inc. reversed its plans to change the company’s familiar logo because of the widespread unpopularity of its new image. Visitors to the Gap’s website scorned the new logo, ridiculing it for its ugliness and complaining that it was something a child could have created using clip art.

 It seems reasonable to assume that Gap Inc. returned to its old logo because they were afraid that consumers’ dislike of its new symbol would adversely affect corporate sales. I am not criticizing the Gap for changing its mind in this matter. This seems like good business sense to me. Some have even speculated that the whole thing was merely a publicity stunt–perhaps an ingenious variation on the old “new” Coke strategy.

 But I do wonder what all this says about us as a culture.  Are we really so image conscious that we would refuse to purchase a product because we didn’t like the company’s logo? I suspect that for many the answer is yes and I fear that the church is not immune. We live in an age where image is everything and cool is king. Congregations care more about a preacher’s style than the content of his message. It is the age of what Brett McCracken calls, in a recent article in Christianity Today, “hipster Christianity.” This is a Christianity that is not so much a faith as it is a style and whose chief vulnerability is “its fundamentally disposable, moving-on-to-what’s-next transience.”

 Our fashion conscious culture lends itself to a style oriented church. I do not see this as a new problem. It is essentially the same mentality that prompted the Corinthians to so align themselves with their favorite teachers that one said, “I follow Paul” and another “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor. 3:4). Paul, despite having a following of his own, adamantly refused to adopt the trappings of Corinthian coolness, preferring to cling to the decidedly unhip message of the cross. He might have been more “effective” if he had paid more attention to Corinthian tastes. But for him the cost of being hip was just too high.

Read Brett McCracken’s interesting article on the Christianity Today website: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/september/9.24.html?start=7

Ministry Monday: The Future of Ministry

In a recent blog post, William Willimon proposed ten theses about the future of ministry (http://willimon.blogspot.com/2010/04/ten-theses-about-future-of-ministry.html). A Methodist bishop, Willimon looks at this issue through the lens of the mainline church. He expects mainline Protestantism to continue to experience numerical decline and to continue being pushed to the margins of culture.

The solution he proposes is theological. “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right)” Willimon observes.  The best way forward is mission related not methodological. Willimon explains, “The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.”

Willimon’s ten theses make me wonder how conservative evangelicals would answer the question, “What is the future of ministry?” How would you reply this question? What does this mean for training institutions like mine that seek to prepare students for future ministry?