Resisting Tribal Christianity

I had a class together reading and reflecting on the modern history of South Africa.  One of the disturbing things is to see the exploitation of South Africans and then the elaborate design of a system meant to extract cheap labor from them in order to build wealth for the dominant class.  One of the great tragedies of South Africa is that the Dutch and British parties to the oppression (real oppression, not today’s version which is too easily invoked) came from Christian cultures.  The Church of England still had real significance as did the Dutch Reformed Church.  How could it be that countries so strongly influenced by the faith (at least in theory) could form such rotten fruit on the vine?

Consider the following mid-20th century statement from a white South African:

In every People in the world is embodied a Divine Idea and the task of each People is to build upon that Idea and to perfect it.  So God created the Afrikaner People with a unique language, a unique philosophy of life, and their own history and tradition in order that they might fulfill a particular calling and destiny here in the southern corner of Africa . . . We must believe that God has called us to be servants of his righteousness in this place.

The eye tends to focus on the phrase “servants of his righteousness.”  How could it be that systematic oppression (as a conservative I have never written those words together because of their overuse) of the type carried out in South Africa could ever be connected with any idea of being “servants of righteousness?”  I do not know.  But think of something else.  “In every People” there is this special destiny, this special idea.  Surely, the white South Africans knew that the black South Africans were people.  They knew that they had language, experienced emotions, were capable of self-reflection, wanted justice, etc. in the way that human beings do.  If that is so (and it is self-evident), then what “Divine Idea” could a white South African think attached to the black Africans?  And how might that Divine Idea be pursued by them under the conditions of Apartheid (or its predecessors)?

Christianity did not cause the oppression in South Africa, but it clearly failed to prevent it or really even check its advance.  It seems to me that the tragedy of South Africa helps to highlight the difference between a tribal form of Christianity that tends to underwrite the dominant system and the real thing (which is truly submitted to the lordship of Christ).

Always, always be checking to make sure that you are in the second situation rather than the first. It is easier to float over to the wrong side than you might think. This is why we love Bonhoeffer so much. He knew when to resist tribal Christianity.

On the one hand, it is so very good to have Christ followers such as Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer to uphold as opponents of blatant injustice.  On the other, it is too bad that they stood without the full force of the church behind them for too long.

Fairness to Your Opponent: In Praise of the Heartland Institute’s Treatment of An Inconvenient Truth

It has been several years since I watched Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth on global warming climate change.  The circumstances were interesting.  The Heartland Institute sent me the film on DVD.  I believe they mailed it to many people.  They also sent along a second film as a form of rebuttal.  Just as Heartland intended, I sat down and watched both films.

The Heartland Institute could have simply attacked Gore’s film, attacked his character, selectively cited his words, emphasized weak points, etc.  But instead, they sent Gore’s film (the primary document) and said, “Watch this.”  The strategy demonstrated confidence in their own position and charity toward Gore’s views because they had the integrity to deal with Gore in his own words and in full.

How often do participants in arguments of any kind give such respect to their opponents and their position?  There is another important point worth noting.  While Heartland’s approach to An Inconvenient Truth demonstrated respect for Gore and his side of the argument, it also exhibited respect for me as someone who might really want to understand the issue.  Rather than manipulating me, Heartland dignified me.  They treated me as someone who would like to learn rather than as someone they needed to trick into accepting a point of view.

We should look for similar attributes from people who would like to convince us of something.   In other words, pretty much the opposite of the meme generators who rule social media today.

Mario Batali on Management

Mario Batali sat down with Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen to talk restaurants, home cooking, and life.  Lots of interesting takeaways throughout.

One thing really caught me.  Kimball asked the chef how he juggled television shows, family, and 20 restaurants.  Batali focused on the eateries and said he hadn’t opened so many restaurants because he was trying to dominate the field.  He had a different reason and it was a good one.

He said that each time he develops a restaurant, he goes through a process of finding really good people and training them.  He teaches them to care about the details the same way he would. The problem is that they become too big for their jobs.  Too big to be an assistant.  Too big to be a second banana in the house.

And so . . . he opens a new place.  The alternative is to see one of his competitors scoop up talent he has grown and then to see them working against him.  Batali’s rationale for growth was the best I’ve ever heard.

When you train up strong people, you have to find appropriate opportunities for them so that they can flourish.

In baseball, we now hear talk about a player’s “wins above replacement.”  In other words, how many more games do you win with this player than with the average performer?  If you have somebody who can significantly outperform the average because of intelligence, experience, attitude, or any other reason, it makes a lot of sense to keep them.

Growing to match the capabilities of your people is one of the best cases for expansion I’ve ever heard.

Bart Campolo Focuses Things for Us

I remember hanging around Robbie Castleman’s house in Tallahassee nearly a quarter of a century ago with a group of IVCF students.  Robbie got it in her mind that she wanted to show us a video of Tony Campolo speaking.  He was full of passion and energy.  His message was directly related to salvation.  Campolo made an impression.

Sometime later, I became aware of him again as one of Bill Clinton’s spiritual advisers.  I can even recall him speaking at one of the inaugurals for the president.  That gave me pause.  Being a spiritual adviser, I understood, especially in the wake of the Lewinsky case.  A minister should not withhold Godly counsel.  But I didn’t understand his choice to speak at the inaugural because I saw President Clinton as a strong voice for abortion rights.  And in my view, abortion rights called for prophetic denunciation rather than political support.

Tony Campolo has long been a beacon for Christians on the political left.  He has supported Democrat politicians, written books about things such as saving the environment with worshipping Mother Nature, and criticized the religious right.

Now, there is news about Tony’s son, Bart, that puts a spotlight on something important.  Bart Campolo has announced that he is has become an agnostic humanist.  The following clip from Jonathan Merritt’s article about Bart is relevant:

The younger Campolo recounts becoming a Christian in high school. He says he was drawn by the sense of community and the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world.

“All the dogma and the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction,” Bart said.

James Burtchaell once wrote about a similar generational effect.  You have parents who believe and who take on certain commitments because they believe.  But then the next generation wonders why you can’t just have the commitments mom and dad were so concerned about without the accompanying beliefs.  They jettison the faith and keep the ideology.

This is a blade the probably cuts both ways for those of us who have strong political views.  Bart Campolo saw something like the campaign to end poverty and lost interest in the real quest to save the world by shattering the power of sin.  With the kids of someone with a different ideological lens, it could be something like caring more about preserving freedom than about devotion to Christ.

Pondering the situation reminds me of a thought that recurs with greater frequency these days.  I am ready to be corrected, but it seems to me that the church is God’s strategy.  We need to pay much more attention to the church, what happens there, what we do within that community, and how that community witnesses to the world.  And our children should intuit from our priorities that the church is where the action is in the Christian life.

What Makes a Good Podcast?

I discovered podcasts a bit late a few years ago, but now listen to many of them either in the car or while walking.  As a teacher of college students, I pay close attention to what seems to work or not work.  How do you maintain attention?  What makes a podcast worth my time?  Do I walk away with something new?  Do I even manage to get through the whole episode?

Keeping these things in mind, I offer the following advice:

  1. If the podcast is about something in particular, then make sure you stick closely to that subject.  I was excited to begin a new fantasy football podcast.  The hosts proceeded to spend the first fifteen minutes (or more as I checked out) talking to a musician friend of theirs about his new tour.  Hey, remember me?  I was here to listen to you talk about fantasy football.
  2. Do not focus on how you feel about doing the podcast, the dynamics of podcasting, etc., unless, indeed, the podcast is about the great emotional rewards or struggles of podcasting.  Listeners are not terribly interested in your psychological state unless the podcast is about you and your psychological state . . . and is advertised as such.
  3. If you have guests, spend most of your time asking the guests questions and letting them answer.  There is very little point in having guests if you are going to talk over them.  You may have so much you want to say that guests don’t make sense for you.  That’s okay.  Just remember not to bother with guests in that case.  Otherwise, you will frustrate the guests and the listeners who have tuned in to hear the them.
  4. One great thing about podcasting is that there aren’t strict time limits.  A podcast interview need not involve cutting guests off at artificial points as a way of getting to a commercial break.  On the other hand, some guests can talk too long, repeat themselves, filibuster, etc.  After a guest has had a full and fair chance to speak, it may well make sense to ask another question, to redirect, etc.
  5. Perhaps the greatest sin involved in podcasting has to do with hosts who make it a regular feature to banter with one another for several minutes at the beginning of each show.  I recall a podcast with a young, hip, Christian approach in which a gang of younger hosts carried along in the “hey, we’re clever” sort of way for quite some time at the beginning of each show.  Many of the bon mots were punctuated by the almost static-y giggling of one of the members of the team.  Real substance is much more satisfying.  If you need to warm up, go ahead and warm up for 5-10 minutes before you hit the “record” button.
  6. Take advantage of the archivability of podcasts.  Podcasts have tremendous evergreen potential.  If done thoughtfully and with an eye to the kind of material that endures, then a podcast from 2006 can remain interesting for a long time.  Because of this feature of the format, it is important to do a good job with labeling.  Apple’s iTunes podcast store only allows for a little room in which to explain what a podcast is about.  When putting your episodes online, make sure that they can be easily browsed by topic.
  7. If you want to hear a master of the form at work, I recommend Russ Roberts, who does the EconTalk podcast.  Roberts is a professor of economics, but he is the kind of person who has read widely and well and understands a good many things about life.  The combination of education, culture, and courtesy in Roberts makes him an ideal interviewer.  He seems to know how to pick people with interesting ideas, the right questions to ask them, and how to help them make those ideas understandable to the listener.  Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge podcast is likewise highly edifying, but he doesn’t produce nearly as many episodes as Roberts does.  Roberts is the king of high output podcasting that leaves you smarter than you were when you began.

9/11 and Today’s Men in Masks

I remember the morning of 9/11.  On that day, I was employed as a lobbyist with a non-profit organization.  I pulled out the driveway to head to downtown Atlanta.  Almost immediately, there was a news update reporting on a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center.  Interesting, but not a big deal.  Before long, I’d made it to the state department of education to pick up some paperwork.  I don’t remember how it took, but as I drove to our office on the north side of town, a friend from law school called with tremendous urgency to tell me that one of the towers of the WTC had collapsed.  I arrived at my destination to see the second tower fall.

My colleagues and I sat in shock.  The news piled up.  The Pentagon had been directly hit.  There was a rumor about an attack on the State Department (untrue).  We wondered what other shoes might drop.  Would the siege continue?  One thing seemed certain.  I thought life in the U.S. would never be the same.

At first, it seemed my prophecy might be true.  We had booked a trip to the Caribbean well before the tragedy.  Our flight was maybe a week or two after the attacks.  When we went to the Atlanta airport, it was a ghost town.  But there were new inhabitants.  We walked past soldiers with automatic weapons after we checked in with our luggage.  I felt as if I’d moved to some Central American republic of the moment.

Over time, we have adapted to the need for greater security.  Airports are less fun than they once were, but the industry has found ways to become more efficient so as to take some of the irritation away.  We don’t have the level of intrusiveness that I forecast (though some would argue that it occurs without my realizing it, Hello NSA).

The greater cost has been in terms of our national spirit.  Easy victory in the Gulf War of the early 1990’s led us to believe that our response to 9/11 would take the form of another quick hit followed by a victory lap.  And we did get the victory lap (remember Mission Accomplished!?).  But the problem was that we hadn’t won.  The United States learned the same hard lesson that occupiers have been taught throughout human history.  Most of the time, you don’t win.  You are an invader, an intruder.  You aren’t wanted, not even as a liberator.

We don’t seem to be able to solve problems like some benevolent international justice league.  We can’t go knock off the bad guys and then leave while the villagers rejoice.  The only way to win is to take the gloves off.  And we aren’t sure we want that on our consciences.  Taking the gloves off is ugly.  Taking the gloves off hurts people who shouldn’t be hurt.  Lots of them.

More than a decade after 9/11, we seem to have come full circle as we watch men in masks cutting heads off of journalists.  They challenge us.  They goad us.  They threaten.  But they should stop lest they overcome the spiritual restraints we place upon ourselves out of love for God and man.  They should stop before they convince us that limited means cannot achieve a lasting peace.

The Odd Logic of a Graduation Address

I saw an online video which featured a graduation speaker in England. He assured his audience that life has no meaning and that whatever it is you do, it isn’t to your credit or blame because that is just how you were made (by evolution and random circumstance).

For some reason, he kept talking.  He had a list of nine things he wanted to say.  

But I stopped watching and listening because I could not figure out why it would possibly matter if I believed him up to that point.