19 February 2009

Evangelical machismo, part two

(part one here)

A Marty Marty Center "Sightings" essay, "Hyper-Muscular Christianity," by Joseph Laycock, got me to thinking about evangelical machismo again. I've been hearing noises about Mark Driscoll and Seattle's Mars Hill Church for a long time, but until I read Laycock's essay, I hadn't heard of Justin Fatica's Hard as Nails ministry.

I continue to have mixed feelings about the phenomenon summarized by Laycock's essay and by Molly Worthen's recent description of Mars Hill in the New York Times magazine. It's hard for me to be totally negative about expressions of church that break through the in-group domesticity that seals so much of the world out of our communities. I've been part of a good number of congregations now, and I've visited hundreds. The majority are solidly mild, middle class, and conventional, and maybe I should be grateful; for the most part, so am I! (And what a coincidence--so are most of the people I know.) But those attributes should define neither the full range of the church's hospitality, nor the shape of its access points.

Access is important to me; it's central to my understanding of evangelism. The Gospel is an invitation, not a description, and woe to us if we block the entrance with our stated or unstated prejudices. If we say "God loves you" and truly affirm the universality of that "you," it has to apply to people who may be completely unlike us. How might they be unlike us? Not only in the obvious ways--appearance, ethnic identity, socieconomic status, preferred addictions and sins--but also in their maturity, their own prejudices, their capacity to understand the universality of grace. They may in fact respond to forms of invitation, such as the in-your-face methods and authoritarian styles of Driscoll and Fatica, in part because of the match with (or the refreshing contrast with) their own experiences. How reasonable is it for us to expect a deep level of leisure-class reflectiveness from everyone who yearns to know more about Christ?

So I think I'm ready to honor experiments in evangelism that may have far more adrenaline or testosterone than I require in my own faith community's culture. At the same time, don't we need to be in these authoritarian leaders' faces about the ways they themselves may be cheapening the Gospel? To throw open access to the household of faith is a good thing. But to use spiritual language to gain power, to trash others' very different approaches to completely different audiences, and especially to freeze male-female relationships in a power lock of inequality--these are legitimate and urgent controversies.

(Maybe our passionate and public arguments--about whether these sensation-driven ministries represent the Gospel adequately--can themselves serve the cause of evangelism. "How these Christians love each other--they love each other enough to argue assertively but ethically about their methods, audiences, and prejudices.")

On that last point about male-female relationships--Driscoll and his church apparently toe the complementarian line that men and women are spiritually equal but have different functions, and that among those functions are men as heads of household. (How that leads to a prohibition against women preaching is beyond me--even if the general rule were granted, what if the husband as head of household believes that his wife is a better preacher--it happens!!--and therefore asks her to preach?) The fundamental flaw of "different function" theology to me is that it confuses description (even biblical description) with prescription. Spiritual gifts and functions may be distributed unevenly among various groups for various reasons, including cultural biases, but a general tendency should never require a compulsory decision. What is "manly" or "hard as nails" about refusing to subject gender role decisions to discernment, prayer, and dialogue? (Why are biblical cues about situational decisions taken as eternal laws, trumping scriptures about liberty and equality in Christ?) What else is going on? For one thing, sheer abuse of power--let's just name it. For another, a fear-driven search for certainty, sometimes masquerading as courage or manliness. All of this shows how desperately we need a new willingness to analyze how much wishful thinking pervades biblical interpretation.

This week's crop of righteous links: An old but good trick lives again: pastor tests congregation's compassion. (Thanks to Monday Morning Insight.) ~~ A powerful testimony from our own Yearly Meeting, New Life Mission: Possible. (But note this alarm signal.) Thanks to Gar at the Yearly Meeting office for these leads. ~~ Global Poverty Prayer Week. ~~ Books I want to read: here's one about an African Christian movement that rejects the Bible, the Friday Masowe. ~~ Ever wondered whether goal-setting has its down sides? Read this. (Registration may be required.) ~~ Petitioning for Pete Seeger's Nobel Peace Prize nomination. ~~ My grandfather Knut Maurer was a captain most of his life for the Bergen Line, which operates this service. ~~ Sean's Russia Blog on "Beatlemania Soviet Style." ~~ Friday PS: "Fight against poverty unites Christian left and right" (thanks to Pew Forum for the reference).

John Lee Hooker and his hypnotic storytelling style, from a British television appearance 43 years ago.

John Lee Hooker 1966 - The Beat Room - BBC Live


RichardM said...

I like the phrase "a fear driven quest for certainty." I think it neatly identifies the central weakness of conservative Christianity. What would be an equally apt phrase to identify what's wrong with the liberal wing? A fear of certainty?

As someone whose childhood origins are distinctly working class I find the upper middle class bias of most Quaker meetings generally OK but a little offputting at times. Upper middle class people may be more sensitive (that's good) but they are also more vain and less honest than working class people (bad of course.) These are generalizations to be sure but true none the less I would contend.

Johan Maurer said...

"Fear of certainty" might be one of the liberal counterparts, or perhaps fear of loss of control. Come to think of it, that may be a universal fear, except for those who know they never had control in the first place. See Becky Ankeny's sermon, "Fear of the overwhelming enemy."

A variation on the loss-of-control theme: fear of conversion.

RichardM said...

That was an interesting little essay on fear. Fear and faith are opposites. Some Christians seem to think that faith is a matter of "believing what you know ain't true" as Mark Twain put it, but I would say that faith is overcoming fear--or something like that, my theology is pretty vague.