Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe had me instantly hooked, and I think that it’s the most important book I’ve read this year. The scope of this book is amazing: in only 136 pages it covers issues ranging from war and PTSD to social institutions and politics to work/life balance and family to rituals in tribal societies. It seems like everything Sebastian Junger is talking about in this book is directly relevant to me and my thought processes in the last few years, which not only makes it clear why I found it so engrossing but also deserves explanation.

The central premise of Tribe is that human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history as tribal people who live in groups of around 50 deeply interdependent people, and that much of our social and psychological malaise today is rooted in the fact that this is no longer the case. Our wealth and technology have allowed us to become individualistic and self-serving, balancing the benefits of less physical need and disease with sharp increases in mental and social disorder. Money cannot buy us happiness, and in many ways it actually costs us our happiness.

Junger begins by reflecting on the fact that early European settlers in North America ran off to join indigenous tribes with alarming frequency, and even prisoners of war who had been taken by the tribes often refused to be repatriated into settler society, sometimes even sneaking back to join their former captors. Meanwhile, there was no traffic the other way: nobody was lining up to join “civilization”, even with all of its technological advances. Indigenous culture was very egalitarian and free; European culture was based on strict rules and laws that regulated every aspect of life under hierarchical structures of authority. Tribal life had relatively little work, while the pilgrims worked exhaustively. European settlers almost invariably held the notion that they were better off than the “savages” – but those who had experienced tribal life tended to never come back.
Junger goes on to talk about war and disasters. As a war reporter over the last 30 years, he’s seen a lot of war zones and noticed that soldiers, and even civilians in war zones, often miss the war. This is because they had such close and intimate bonds with the people around them during those difficult times, when common needs and the drive to survive tear down all social divisions and hierarchies. In the wake of an earthquake, or when a city is besieged, people look out for each other in ways that they don’t in good times. That social cohesion has an incredible psychological effect. During the Blitz of London, for example, the government had expected people to break down under the strain in large numbers, but the reality was that admission to mental hospitals went down. In a study of child soldiers, those children who returned from war to socially integrated societies mostly recovered, sometimes completely; but children who returned from war to socially stratified villages remained traumatized. Chronic PTSD, he suggests, is an issue of disordered recovery, not an automatic result of trauma; short-term PTSD is a normal response to trauma, but chronic PTSD, which is increasingly common even among troops that see relatively less action in war, has a lot to do with the fact that soldiers are unable to properly integrate into our individualistic, materialistic society where the close bonds they had with their unit no longer exist.

Why is this relevant to me? Aside from thinking a great deal about war and peace, trauma, social psychology, and policy, I have also recently made very large changes to my life because I have become disillusioned with the way that we live and work in our society.

Less than a year ago, I had a career. I had reached the Director level in my profession, and was making plans to pursue a PhD. I was doing everything right: at 30 years old I was moving upward, had a Master’s degree, had built my first house and had no other debt, and was married with one child. If I carried on that trajectory, “success” in life was virtually guaranteed. Except that in order to get that Master’s degree and that job, my wife and I had to move very far from our families; to pursue that PhD we would need to move farther still; and that my passions were only incidental to my career, so even if I could get a job in my field of study it would be low-paying and obscure, which meant that I would probably always be pursuing my passions at the expense of either my career or my family or both. My passions, then, took a backseat to family and career; and eventually, family took a backseat to career too.

No career is worth losing your family. It seemed that in order to pursue work that seemed meaningful, we had to be willing to be separated from our tribes. This seemed okay at first, when it was just the two of us, but as time wore on we missed our parents, siblings, and cousins. When I was growing up I was very close with a lot of my cousins, but at this point I haven’t seen some of them in over 5 years, and I’m not sure we’ve all been together in 15. Now we’re spread over three provinces, going where the work is or getting pushed out of places with high living costs. I miss them with a depth that shocks me to acknowledge. My parents come to visit, but their ability to travel is not unlimited, and video calls are no replacement for a tribe. Once we had a child of our own, the lack of close family bonds and support became so much more apparent; we felt we couldn’t be good parents without having grandparents around too. Because my son deserves his grandparents, and they deserve him.

So at the beginning of this year we moved away from our careers (my wife was also at the Director level in her department) and settled in my wife’s home province. Crashing on your in-laws’ couch for months, unemployed, is a far cry from working overtime at an “important” job, but it was surprisingly fulfilling. We had moved based on the instinct that our “successful” life wasn’t what it seemed, and even while my self-worth plunged on the basis of being unemployed and homeless, I found a growing sense of connection with my own little tribe, my wife and son, that was deeper and more powerful than any sense of purpose and self-worth that I had gleaned from my career.

My priorities have completed shifted this year. My goal is to find a job that allows me to be at home as much as possible, and I’m just starting a job that allows me to work only two days per week. I’ve been thinking about the need for jobs like that quite a bit over the past year: in an information economy in which information is cheap, producers of information either need a Guaranteed Livable Income (Mincome) or part-time work that pays a living wage but still gives them time to be productive in their own field. I’ve unexpectedly come across the latter, and I’m looking forward to being a family man five days a week and writing during nap times.

A few days after I was hired for this incredible new job packing cheese two days per week, and as I was still coming to terms with how that would reorient my life away from being centred on work and toward being centred on my family, I picked up Tribe and suddenly every hard choice we’ve made over the past year made sense. This book has given me a conceptual framework within which to understand and express why I was so dissatisfied with a seemingly successful life, why we were so motivated to put family first, and why, somehow, our society needs to find a way to help other people to make that priority shift if we want to address the growing social and psychological problems we face.

Tribe is a short, page-turning read about a host of pressing issues, translating anthropological and psychological research into a very accessible and concise narrative. Five stars.

You can listen to Sebastian Junger talking about the book here.

The Church as a Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (2000) is a fascinating exploration of how ideas spread. Given its incredible popularity, it’s just as fascinating that we don’t seem to have done much with this information over the past fifteen years. I picked up the book thinking that it would be a good primer on the sociological notion of “tipping points” or “threshold theory” to explore in conjunction with Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers and Principalities (which turned out not to be the case), but the implications of this book for the church immediately jumped out at me. I’ll give a brief outline of the book, examine its implications for the church, and then explore the notion of the church as a tipping point in society.

The basic idea of Tipping Point is that ideas and behaviours spread like epidemics. A disease tends to spread slowly until a certain point, often called the “tipping point”, at which it starts to spread exponentially. The same thing is true of ideas or behaviours: a fad or trend is a behaviour or fashion or product that went from relative obscurity to being totally commonplace, usually in a short amount of time. Some trends stick around forever and become a real social change; others are fads that disappear as quickly as they began; but Gladwell is interested here in how they spread.

A social epidemic is the result of one or more of the following: “The law of the few” (certain types of people who make ideas contagious); “The stickiness factor” (what makes an idea stick with us enough that we pass it on); and “The power of context” (an environment that encourages or causes a particular behaviour).

The Law of the Few

We’re well familiar with the law of the few, which states that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. When it comes to spreading social epidemics, Gladwell distinguishes three categories from within the 20%: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.

A Maven is someone who is in the know – the type of person who nerds out on a particular subject, learning about it for its own sake, collecting bits of information like they’re pokemon. The Maven is the person you go to when you have a question or need advice on a particular subject. We all have a friend who is a “car guy”, who probably isn’t a mechanic but knows everything about every model of car, and if you were going to buy a car you’d probably get their advice. Mavens do the hard work of digging up the idea or information that influences the idea.

A Connector is that person who knows everyone. They have a million acquaintances, and if they hear that you’re headed for a lovely holiday in Cleveland (because who doesn’t love The Cleve, and your travel maven friend has already told you all the best spots to hit there) they’ll give you the contact info for someone they know there who can give you a personal tour and put you up for the night. Connectors bring together not only a wide range of people, but often people from a variety of fields or walks of life, which means that they can connect ideas as much as people. Connectors get people and ideas together, where they can proliferate.

A Salesman is someone who can, well, sell an idea. They have an infectious personality that impacts people on an emotional level, often just by being in the same room. These people are influential not because of what they know (like the Maven), or who they know (like the Connector), but by merely being themselves. Through unconscious things like micro-motor mimicry and social/psychological cues, we take these people and their ideas seriously and find ourselves agreeing.

The Stickiness Factor

But no matter how good the salesman, no matter how connected or complex the knowledge or idea, it has to be something that sticks with people if it’s going to spread. It is very important to note that stickiness has nothing to do with the actual truth or value of the idea: some of the most important ideas in history remain open secrets, simply because the way they’ve been presented doesn’t stick with people. Meanwhile, some really terrible ideas and falsehoods are almost universally accepted because they connect with people on a fundamental level.

Stickiness is largely about psychology, and the examples Gladwell uses are Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, both of which were designed by child psychologists to be sticky for kids in order to keep their attention and, hopefully, teach them something. Each episode of these shows is thoroughly analyzed by a team who studies the reactions of children in test audiences, including tracking their eye movement and distractability, their response to repetition, etc. Gladwell’s point is that many of the things that make kids love these shows, and that make them remember them, are counter-intuitive. Nobody believed, for example, that taking long, long pauses and speaking slowly would make for an interesting show: adult attention spans are geared toward fast-paced shows with lots of content. But not only does Blue’s Clues have a snail’s pace, they play the same slow episode five days in a row, and kids love it. Those aspects of the show play directly to a kid’s developing brain, in which a slow pace and repetition helps kids develop the ability to construct sequences, form concepts, and remember things.

Gladwell’s point is not that we should all watch Blue’s Clues (though it might not hurt), but rather that the psychology of what makes something stick with us is not always obvious. We need to understand our audience and present our message accordingly. Some tricks: the more your audience can relate to the message (even something as simple as connecting the idea to their own town or neighbourhood), and the more engaged someone is (making them play a game with the information, or even just take notes with a physical pen and paper), the more something will stick. Teachers and preachers and politicians and advertising agencies have all studied this, and we’re getting very good at making messages stick.

The Power of Context

One of the things that shapes us and our thoughts the most is the context or environment around us. We talk a lot about the impact of nurture, as though parents can program their children (“raise up a child in the way that they should go…”), but we tend to neglect or ignore the rest of our context (peer influence, political climate, physical environment).

As an example of the power of context, Gladwell looks at the New York crime wave of the 80’s and 90’s, which declined very suddenly and rapidly without a clear cause. One criminologist suggested the “broken window effect”: a broken window in a home or business gives everyone passing by the impression that nobody cares for that building, and even that nobody is in charge (i.e., nobody takes responsibility to fix it). This functions, on a subconscious level, as a type of permission: nobody did anything about one broken window, so maybe I’ll break a window too. Using this theory, New York authorities launched a campaign to clean up major crimes like stabbings by tackling little crimes, like graffiti and fare jumping in the subway. Attention to little things in the environment had a major effect on the people, and major crimes reduced drastically. (I should point out that Freakonomics has challenged this theory, but it’s a digression here.)

Another example Gladwell gives of the way context shapes our behaviour hits close to home. A study of this concept featured Seminary students who were giving lectures on the story of the Good Samaritan. Before their lecture was supposed to start, some were told that they had extra time while others were told that they were already late. On the route to the lecture hall, the experimenters had positioned someone dressed as a homeless person who pretended to be in obvious distress, so that the seminarians would have to walk right past them. Of those who were told they had extra time, 63% stopped to help the person; of those told they were already late, only 10% stopped to help. Obviously these pastors-to-be are aware of the command to love thy neighbour as thyself – they were going to teach others to do that very thing! – but something in their context shaped the way their eyes saw the scene, their perception of other people and needs in relation to their own.

Some Criticism of the North American Church

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because I don’t think I want the church to be a social epidemic like a fad (I think one of the reasons that it’s so shallow in North America is because it is pretty fad-ish already), but there are some obvious things we can learn here to address the much lamented notion that the church is in decline in North America.

  1. We’ve cut out the theology mavens. The North American evangelical church has a history of anti-intellectualism, and while the extent of this viewpoint varies from one denomination to the next, at the parishioner level it is extremely common. In my own tradition (Pentecostalism), one of the founders of my movement quit school because he believed that his learning was interfering with his ability to be led by the Holy Spirit. Theology mavens still exist – there are more seminarians than there are churches to pastor – but they often sit quietly in churches where their input is not welcomed, much less sought out. Increasingly, they leave evangelical denominations for other traditions in which their knowledge is valued, following the “Canterbury Trail” to the Anglican tradition, or the “Road to Rome” (Roman Catholicism), or increasingly, seeking the contemplative and mystic traditions of the Orthodox church. The church is full of highly important knowledge and ideas, and there are plenty of theology mavens to spread them around, but they’ve been almost systematically silenced or marginalized. (One solution, I would argue, is to increase education requirements for clergy; in my experience, churches that have highly educated clergy do not have the same level of anti-intellectualism.)
  2. We’ve limited the connectors. A connector is a person who has their feet in a lot of different circles, but the insular nature of North American evangelical culture tries to bring all aspects of society into a shared, smaller, christianized circle. Rather than Christians rubbing shoulders with people with different backgrounds and ideas at business events, we have Christian business events. Christian music, movies, societies, businesses, publishers, shipping companies (yup, even there)…for a connector in the church, there may only be one circle: the church itself. We have never lacked for connections within the church, but we should not be surprised at our lack of connections to the world when we’ve worked so hard to create a subculture that is insulated so thoroughly from it.
  3. We’ve overstated the abilities and responsibility of our salesmen. One of the things that Gladwell points out is that when marketers saturate one particular form of connection, it becomes so commonplace that we tune it out. We screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, and filter our emails to avoid spam, and refuse to make eye contact with people handing out flyers (or preaching redemption) on the street. The Protestant church has always emphasized the role of preaching, and the North American evangelical church in particular has always celebrated our preachers. We have no lack of salesmen, and we’ve honed the craft to an incredible extent, but I think we’ve saturated the potential for that format. Even for faithful Christians who attend weekly, how many remember even decent sermons a few hours afterwards? (I must admit, I don’t.) Further, without theology mavens to continually bring forward new theological ideas, our salesmen (preachers) often end up recycling content, or writing topical sermons with little theological grounding, depending more on their salesmanship than on the stickiness of the message.
  4. We’ve tried too hard to make our message sticky, and in the process made it stick even less. I’ve been seeing a culture war within the church over the past decade or more, between those who want to accommodate the message to the outside culture and those who want to control the inside culture. It seems to me that both sides of that equation are using Christian subculture as the metric, defining their message as either cultural or counter-cultural in relation to a culture that is just as far from Christian tradition as it is from mainstream secular culture. In my experience, the churches that are actually reaching out to the people around them aren’t concerned with a Christian subculture at all, whether to reinforce it or differentiate themselves from it; they’re just busy being like Jesus in the world. And that sends a message that was always, and remains, incredibly sticky.

But the thing I most want to talk about, if you can stick with me a little further, is the role of the church in forming the context or environment in which we all live.

Hacking the Context

One of the big messages of The Tipping Point is that effective social epidemics (and social change) is usually very subtle. You can’t just put up billboards or run a political campaign to change the world. The most subtle influence of all of those mentioned is context, and I think that’s where Christians can have the greatest impact – not to make a “Christian” environment or nation, but to make a better one, and in so doing to glorify God. Let’s look at the examples that Gladwell uses.

New York’s crime wave dropped off suddenly, and Gladwell attributes that to city officials putting more resources into sprucing the place up a bit and enforcing vandalism laws effectively – but it took them a decade to catch on. What if the church, seeing degrading conditions, voluntarily stepped into the breach and spruced up their neighbourhoods themselves?

In another example, Gladwell looks at the way that the spread of syphilis in Baltimore fluctuates not only based on the weather (it slows down in winter, and picks up again in summer), but also based on how well-staffed medical clinics in the area are; when medical budgets were cut and lineups at clinics increased, people who had syphilis had less access to the clinic and might be passing the disease for several additional weeks before discovering they were infected. But there was a time when churches funded needed medical services in their community – why wait for politicians to address needs?

We have given over responsibility for our context to the government, and then organize politically to try to control the government. The point of the church as an organized entity, though, is to serve the needs of others as Christ did. Jesus could have lobbied the government of his day to purge the Gerasenes of idol worship in order to improve that context, but instead he went over there and cast out demons. The majority of the Gerasenes did not benefit directly from Jesus’ visit (they were terrified and asked him to leave), but you can bet their lives improved now that a legion of demons were no longer terrorizing them in the form of a crazed man who slept among the tombs and wailed through the night. In that sense, the concrete action of Christ helped them far more than any government action there could have. Their environment was transformed in a positive way.

I recognize that not every church is in a city with a crime wave or syphilis epidemic, but I do wonder what our towns and cities would look like if churches took responsibility for their neighbourhoods and addressed those contexts without waiting for government action. Do the people who live in our neighbourhoods even know we’re there? Aside from seeing the programs advertised on our church signs, do they notice us at all? Is the neighbourhood better off for having us there? Do the neighbours benefit from our presence?

I’m not saying that every church needs to advertise their presence all over the neighbourhood – quite the opposite. Nor am I suggesting that the church should be a hub of gentrification, fixing shutters and repainting walls whether people want it or not. But I know that there are needs everywhere, and with some careful thought we can address the needs in our sphere of influence without hammering people over the head with programs and sermons, and actually improve our context with results disproportionate to our effort. But that means finding out how we fit into our context, how we affect our environment. Hard work, but worthwhile.

What do you think? How can your church serve as a tipping point to improve the context of your neighbourhood?

A Church Referendum

Last week I wrote elsewhere about how a referendum, while a useful tool of democracy, is only a tool – and one with serious limitations and weaknesses which make it a poor choice for something as complex and important as deciding what type of voting system Canada should adopt. Last month, the church we’ve been attending had a referendum over the question of whether to allow women to be elders; this morning, more than a month later, there was still a lot of talk about the frustration and anger and grief that resulted from the “No” vote. This seemed to me to be a good case to discuss the limitations of a referendum as well as to talk about church governance models in general.

Church Governance and Democracy

I appreciate democratic forms of governance, even in a church. They arose in the church long before European governments gave up their monarchies, largely in response to the oppressive hierarchies of the Roman Catholic church. The Reformation provided a break from the RCC that went beyond theology, especially among the Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists), and among Protestant churches there are a variety of different forms of governance. Some vote about almost anything, while others elect representatives to serve as Elders, sometimes also called Board Members. Some choose a pool of good candidates and then draw lots to see who will be appointed, as in Acts. The powers of the Board of Elders vary from church to church, and Deacons play varying roles with varying levels of power in different churches. At some point, all of these types of governance were justified with Scripture, and were considered important enough to cause division between groups that were theologically very similar – which is in part why there are so many types of Baptist today. But for the most part, governance bodies are dry and boring, mostly only relating to financial matters and building maintenance.

Arguing about church governance models at the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

Until they aren’t. Churches are used to being divided by mundane issues such as what colour the carpet should be or which side of the sanctuary should house the organ, elevating those things almost to the level of theological importance; but what happens when a church Board, or the congregation, has to decide on matters of theology?

That was the case at this church. The issue of women in leadership/eldership has long been a contentious issue of theology, and was contentious enough that the denomination refused to hand down a single position, instead allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves. This was presumably to avoid conflict and schism in the denomination, but by passing the buck the denomination only passed the potential for division down to individual churches, which lack the authority to decide upon it.

Elitism and Democracy

I have been accused, in my recent post about the nature of referendums, of making an elitist argument: “you don’t trust the Canadian people to make the right choice,” I was told more than once. And to some extent that’s correct; I don’t trust the Canadian people to have enough knowledge of the complex models of political engagement involved to make an informed choice about which model of electoral reform would maximize the value of each vote. I argued that a referendum is good for deciding on a value or opinion, but not for writing policy, which should be left to experts. The same is true in the church, and we have a long history of saying so.

The reason that the Anabaptists went to democratic models in the first place was because the church had historically been ruled by elites so far removed from the everyday life of the congregation that they could not even relate to, let alone value, the lives of their people. The church had a system of education and worship that actually kept people from reading the Bible for themselves, continuing to use Latin long after the language had otherwise died out among the general population as a way of safeguarding the Bible from misinterpretation (though sadly not from their own misinterpretation). The idea was that biblical interpretation was such a central aspect of life that uneducated people could not be trusted to interpret it for themselves, similar to the notion that Homer Simpson should not be in charge of safety at a nuclear power plant – such things take expertise, and should not be taken lightly. We require a certain level of expertise for all sorts of things in life, especially things with the power to harm others or disrupt lives, so doctrines which relate to the eternal destiny of human beings was left to the elite of the elite.

The Reformation changed this to a large extent, with reformers translating the Bible into numerous languages and printing it so that some people could own their own copy. This surely came at least partially from the revelation that the Catholic hierarchy could also not be trusted to correctly interpret and communicate the Word of God, and that opening it up to the people would not only provide access to this wonderful text to the masses but would also create more room for accountability. But the reformers themselves, and even later Protestants, did not give up the notion that we must be educated before we can accurately interpret the Bible. In Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a 20th century Lutheran who certainly urged extensive use of Scripture by all Christians) said “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation” (294-95).

The notion that all Christians have equal understanding of Scripture simply because we all have equal access to it is more of an American evangelical idea that really proliferated through the 20th century. Fundamentalists in particular largely believe that “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The idea is that the Bible is written directly to us, for our salvation, and is therefore perfectly understandable without interpretive models. Face-value readings are all that is required to know exactly what God meant in a book written thousands of years ago in a different country and language. This view ignores the fact that we really do have interpretive models whether we recognize it or not, and it also gives the impression that anyone, regardless of their training, can interpret the Bible just as well as anyone else. It throws out experts altogether.

I’ve studied theology formally for eight years, and have continued to study it on the side since graduating with my MA. I get irritated sometimes when long-time church attenders with no formal study of Scripture under their belt take a know-it-all tone with me, as I’m sure people with PhDs and long teaching experience sometimes are irritated at my more passionate assertions that turn out to be incorrect. “Knowledge puffs up,” sure, but we can get pretty puffed up without any real knowledge too, and I know my irritations are minor compared to some of the issues that come up when we throw out our theological experts in favour of a model of interpretation wherein expertise means nothing. I’ve seen Bible and Theology professors have to ask for professional courtesy from their colleagues from other departments who disagree with them about interpretations of texts – something, it was suggested, that would probably never happen in the other direction. A theologian, no matter how accomplished, would probably defer to a trucker or mechanic about how to install a drive shaft, but I’ve been in Bible studies where truckers and mechanics scoff at educated people before sitting down to interpret ancient texts.

A Referendum on the Facts

A referendum is useful for matters of values or opinions, but when it comes to deciding issues of policy or theology there need to be experts involved. A referendum can never decide what the facts themselves are, as if reality is decided by vote. In the case of women in ministry, it is a theological issue concerning the reality of what Scripture is saying. It is a matter of determining exactly what Paul was talking about in a few key texts, and why. It is a matter of facts, not opinions.

When facts are in dispute, informed opinions about them are relevant. If we have no real respect for expert opinions, and believe that the text is equally understandable by someone with an advanced degree in the subject and someone who just picked up the text and read it at face value, then all opinions can be considered informed opinions, and a referendum is a fine way to resolve disputes about contested facts. But if there is a reality that doesn’t depend on the opinions of people who may or may not have even reflected on the relevant texts before, or understood their own cultural and systemic biases, or explored the original context and interpretive history of the texts, then perhaps we should rely more on the views of those who have studied the matter in depth.

I don’t think that this church holds to a strong fundamentalist view of interpretation, nor do I think that it is well-stocked with Bible scholars. Instead, it is a normal church stocked with average people: teachers, tradesmen, truckers, gardeners, marketers, engineers, etc., who read their Bibles about as much as any other Christian and have about as much theological education as most (usually limited to a few church Bible studies). They are not inherently misogynistic, but they have deep cultural roots, and for many this issue is a canary in the coal mine, a sign that liberal values are overtaking their own. This does not make them bad or stupid people (they’re quite lovely, so far as I know them), but it should give a general sense that they are not those who are best qualified to decide this issue of biblical interpretation. Their elders are representative of the church, and are similarly unqualified to weigh in with expert opinions on the relevant passages; again, this does not imply anything bad about them, but merely that they are not career scholars on this subject (and nor should they be – that’s not their function as Elders).

The only person in the church who is reasonably expected to have a strong enough credential to weigh in on the issue is the pastor, and if I understand their church governance structure correctly, he doesn’t have a say in this, though he can make recommendations. The denomination is adequately stocked with pastors and professors who could weigh in on this, but they declined to do so as a body, again likely because of the politics that comes with it. But the fact that church politics can get in the way of biblical experts clarifying a biblical text in a Bible-believing church shows how deeply flawed this notion is that we can all read the Bible and be experts enough that our opinions can settle disputed facts of deep interpretation. Some issues are so contentious that they undermine not just the very notion of expertise, but even the authority of an international denomination.

Conclusion

Some people are quite upset. I don’t blame them; I can’t imagine being told that I’m a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God, or that my God-given gifts are inappropriate for service to the church because of my gender. As a newcomer and non-member of this church, it’s not my place to say anything (and I don’t get a vote anyway); but as a theologian and someone who analyzes systems and institutions, this is a great example of a falling power. An institution becomes fallen when it undermines its created purposes in order to maintain its own power or self-perpetuation. A denomination that shirks its role in providing expertise and authority in theological matters is shooting itself in the foot, and forcing churches to decide matters of biblical interpretation by vote rather than by determining truth. In the process, more than half of the church population is made unavailable for service to the church as elders, and the theological implications of this decision for women have yet to be worked out. The message this morning, from a series of elders in announcements, sermonettes, and prayers, and then from the pastor in the sermon, and from the choices of songs, was a resounding call for unity; the subtext was “can we all just move on now?” That’s the thing about a referendum, though; they always come back around. This issue won’t go away until it’s resolved, and a referendum isn’t capable of resolving it.

No Buts

I’ve started attending a Bible study at my church, working through Romans. This morning we were talking about Romans 3-4, but I missed last week, so I read 1-4, and I was glad I did; after Paul’s greetings, his argument in the first four chapters is fairly unified: no buts allowed.

This is one of those passages that surprises me when I take my time and think it through, because I realize that I’ve been reading it and taking the opposite point from the one he’s making. For example, it’s easy to read Romans 1 and focus on the list of sins there; this chapter is also especially prominent in the debate about homosexuality for that reason. Taken in isolation, chapter 1 is a vision of life without God, of profanity and depravity that has no place in a church. It’s very easy for us Christians to read that and be glad that we’re not like those awful, sick people who hate God.

In context, though, Paul isn’t talking about irreligious people; he’s talking about the Gentile Christians in the church in Rome, for whom all of that was part of their culture and religion before they became Christians. Even so, we think, we’re glad that we were raised Christian and don’t have all of that nasty sin in our lives.

But Paul doesn’t let us off the hook, because then in chapter 2 he moves on to the Jewish Christians in that same church, and tears them apart for thinking those very same things. His scathing diatribe against hypocrisy points out that we (the religious) are in absolutely no position to judge others because we are similarly sinful. Our religious pedigree doesn’t matter.

It’s at this point that I’m prone to read this and think “I’m glad I’m not one of those religious Jews who depend on the Law,” forgetting already that I had previously counted myself on that side when I was disdaining those who did not have the Law to break.

With a small aside in chapter 3 about how having the Law does provide some advantage for the Jews, he rolls right on with his argument: that we’re all sinners, and nobody is righteous. This is where, taken in isolation, we get to feel some quality Christian guilt, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I memorized that verse in Sparks when I was a little kid, having no idea what it meant, and I wonder now how we manage to keep it so disconnected from its context.

We’re all willing to acknowledge that everyone is a sinner, sometimes even wearing this as a badge of honour because it is so central to evangelical Christianity – that everyone needs Jesus, even us. But we’re not able to identify with the two groups that Paul is referring to leading up to this key verse; we stand at a third point, from which we have managed to look down on both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

What’s worse, we actually question their salvation, which we can only do by chopping off chapters 3 and 4 almost in their entirety. Paul goes on to say that, because we’re all sinners (as he has pointed out in chapters 1 and 2), we can neither boast nor judge. In one place he formulates it as “so that every mouth will be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That is, under the law or not, we’re all going to stand before God for judgment, not each other. But he continues, and makes it clear that it’s not just that we cannot earn our own salvation and therefore not brag, or that we are all sinners and therefore cannot judge, but that we cannot speculate about the salvation of others because of the nature of salvation itself.

Salvation, or redemption through righteousness by faith, is described as something that existed before there was a Law to obey. By referring back to Abraham, Paul points out that the Law is not a precursor to salvation but rather a sign of it. But the sticking point for me in this reading is the nature of Abraham’s faith: it is not that Abraham believed that God existed, which was a given; it is not that Abraham believed the Scriptures, which had not been written; rather, it is that Abraham “believed God.” He took God at God’s word. That’s it. God made Abraham a promise, and Abraham believed that God would make good on it, and God credited that to him as righteousness.

What Paul is saying about faith is that simply believing God when God says that we are redeemed is enough.

But…but…but. We fight Paul when we read this book, setting up objections that he tears down one by one. He shows us life without God, and we feel good about ourselves and say “but we’re not like that.” And he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “but we’re not like those Jews and Pharisees” and he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “oh yes, we all need salvation (especially those other people), but we need to do the right things;” and he says “there is nothing you can do to earn this.” Then we say “right, but we need to believe the right things,” usually meaning that someone must have our precise notion of all of the Bible and church doctrines, and he says “you only need to believe, like Abraham, that God is faithful.”

Jesus talked about people like me when he told a parable about workers being hired in the town square. The landowner came by the square every hour to hire more workers, so that some were hired at the first hour of the day and some even at the last hour of the day. At the end of the day every worker received the same wage, whether they worked all day or just one hour, and the ones who worked all day were very upset about this; they hated the generosity of the landowner, who paid them a fair and agreed-upon wage but also gave the same wage to those who had done less. Salvation, Jesus points out, is not fair; it is grace.

We’re wired to desire fairness and hate unfairness, but grace is always and by definition unmerited, unfair. So we read a gospel of grace, and come up with all sorts of reasons to excuse ourselves to receive grace (because we need it), and all sorts of excuses for why others should not receive it. We’re full of buts.

Biohacking/Transhumanism/Self-Evolution, and the Doctrine of Creation

I’ve been on a Note to Self kick lately. If you’re into podcasts, I highly recommend it. It is a “tech podcast about being human”, or basically about how we interact with technology and whether or not that enriches our lives. They’ve just been through a mini-series of episodes about biohacking – that is, tech that manipulates the way our bodies function. They tried out apps that will supposedly help you kick your sugar habits, wearable tech that uses electricity to manipulate your brain states (to give you your morning boost without coffee, for example, or your evening chill time without wine), and finally talked to a guy who tracks biometric data and experiments on himself in order to increase his body’s performance.

At one point in this episode about biohacking, the term “self-evolution” came up. Dave Asprey, the biohacker, firmly believes that we can take control of our own evolution, at least as individuals, through applying our knowledge and technology to improve the performance of our bodies and the quality – and length – of our lives. This is not a new concept, and for years I’ve been hearing about “transhumanism”, which often takes the dream of living forever through technology to the point of androids (human/robot hybrids) as a way of preserving human consciousness in a body that will not break down or be vulnerable to disease or damage. That doesn’t seem to be the way that Asprey is going, but it may be that he’s simply too practical for such dreams; he wants to know how he can live better today, rather than speculate about technologies that could possibly allow us to download our consciousness into a robot body.

This concept, and especially the term “self-evolution”, immediately made me think of the Christian doctrine of Creation. Many Christians are deeply opposed to any notion of transhumanism or biohacking based on their understanding of Creation. If God created us precisely as we are, ex nihilo, then biohacking takes on the appearance of tampering with the sacred. Who are we to “improve” on God’s design? Traditionally, this has been an argument against tattoos and body piercings. This is often also the basis for Christian opposition to transgendered rights: many believe that transgendered people are simply delusional, and that a sex change operation does not in fact change their sex or gender, resulting in a person who is now biologically confused as well as cognitively confused about themselves. In their view, allowing transgendered rights (as simple as going to the bathroom that matches their perceived gender rather than their biological sex) is only compounding the problems and pains of transgendered people, who ultimately need to find peace with the body that God, in his infinite wisdom, has given them. This view is typically based in a literal, 6-day creation reading of Genesis, but not necessarily; it is possible to hold that God used evolution to achieve his ends, but still had very specific ends in mind in regard to human bodies, and therefore it would still be problematic to change them drastically.

But the first thing I thought of in regard to the doctrine of Creation is not that transhumanism somehow violates it, but that it may indeed be a continuation of it. In Human Significance in Theology and the Natural Sciences, Christopher L. Fischer examines the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Protestant), Karl Rahner (Catholic), and John Zizioulas (Orthodox), with the aim of showing that we ought to hold to a critical anthropocentrism – that is, that both science and Christian faith both hold that humanity is somehow special in comparison to the rest of the universe. But what he shows along the way is that all three of these theologians (and by representation, all three major strands of Christianity) fit well with the notion of evolution; that is, they hold that God did not create us ex nihilo, but that creation is an ongoing process – that is, we are always evolving and growing. What stood out to me when I read it, especially in the summary of Rahner’s views on this, is that all three to some extent hold that creation is something that God allows us to participate in as co-creators. That is, we have a hand in how the earth and its creatures will continue to evolve and change – and we also have a say in our own evolution.

That we have a hand in our own evolution seems obvious: our ability to biohack has grown exponentially over the past century, and even over the past decade. While I do not share Asprey’s confidence in technology allowing us to live to 180 within my lifetime, technology has certainly changed the way that we live in the distant past (think of the difference between hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies) and the recent past (think of the difference in quality and length of life in the past century). There has also been much written about the way that our socially constructed world has taken a major role in our evolution, while the role of the physical environment in our evolution has been minimized; that is, while evolution is “survival of the fittest”, the natural world is no longer the thing that kills us off, as our survival depends more on our ability to cooperate with other humans than it does on our ability to escape wild beasts or find food for ourselves. Many Christians deny that we have any ability to affect the direction of human history, whether by warming the planet or by any political actions – that is, they hold that God is totally in control of all things, and “progress” is either a myth or a result of God’s sovereign hand guiding history. But these three theologians say otherwise, holding that the thing that makes human beings significant is precisely that we, as co-creators, have an active role in shaping what we are becoming. The ultimate end of our becoming or our evolution is to be like Christ, the true human, and we are invited to participate in this and have the freedom to do so – or the freedom to become something else, at least on an individual basis.

In light of the notion that humanity participates in its own ongoing creation (or evolution), the notion of self-evolution that Asprey is talking about doesn’t seem so blasphemous. Foolhardy, maybe, as he experiments with his own brain function and heart rate, but not blasphemous. If God allows us to participate in our own progress toward Christlikeness and the Kingdom of God, surely living longer and healthier than our current bodies allow is not a contrary goal, is it? If we are co-creators with God, are there theological limits on our ability to tinker with our physical bodies?

What do you think? Is biohacking and transhumanism the next step in human evolution? Is it a way to participate in God’s ongoing work of creation?

Thinking and Feeling

A trend that has caught some attention recently is the increase in “trigger warnings,” which allow people who have been traumatized to know if they should avoid a particular article, lecture, film, course, etc. that might trigger difficult emotional responses or even flashbacks to their trauma. Such trigger warnings are increasingly commonplace, and controversial: some argue that putting warnings on anything that might trigger a negative emotional response sanitizes the world and makes it nearly impossible to talk about anything. This is seen as an extension of the so-called doctrine of “politically correct” or “PC” speech that politicians and talking heads like Donald Trump say is emblematic of a breakdown in society. Some take it as an infringement on their right to free speech, others merely an inconvenience, and others as a sign of weakness.

This post is not about being politically correct. I brought this trend up because it points to another trend, which is that we’re more aware of mental health issues than ever before, and presumably we have more mental health issues than ever before (though that’s hard to tell, if we did not identify them in the past). Put differently, we’re aware of our feelings more than ever, and we’re taking steps to protect them. Counselling was only for the weak when I was a kid, but is commonplace now. Anti-bullying groups and legislation are working to stop playground – and increasingly, online – harassment and assault against kids and teens, and such programs are usually very well supported by the community (unless they are specifically aimed at those who bully gay kids, but that’s a story for another day too).

But not everyone, even among those who support anti-bullying clubs (at least in principle), thinks that this increasing awareness of our feelings and the desire to protect those feelings is a good thing. And not just for free speech concerns either. There is a legitimate argument here: sometimes we’re offended by things that we shouldn’t be offended by, and sometimes being offended can be a good thing. For example, I regularly see Christians get offended by things they feel go against their religion; as a Christian who has studied Christianity extensively over the last dozen years, the things that some Christians take to be anti-Christian often baffle me. I’ve even seen examples of Christians offended by genuine expressions of orthodox, mainstream Christianity, showing their ignorance of their own faith tradition. When that happens, I feel offended by their ignorant backlash, and I’m glad that I haven’t become so cynical as to not be bothered by the way my religion gets absolutely butchered and misrepresented in such situations. I’m offended when people are cruel or cold to others, too, because I see our shared humanity being disrespected. If we cover up all of the things that offend us because we don’t like feeling offended, how can we ever actually address injustice? If survivors of the residential school system hadn’t come forward to tell their deeply unsettling stories, would we ever move toward reconciliation?

But some take the concern further, saying that this awareness of our feelings and desire to protect them undermines our ability to think. I came across this meme a few days ago:

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This is obviously an old quote, but it’s making the rounds on Facebook. I don’t know the original context, but the way it is presented here draws a distinction between thinking and feeling that should not exist. It is somewhat possible to separate them, and the fact that it is possible is evidenced by the way people devalue feeling and elevate thinking when they pass stuff like this around. It is evidenced by the way that an entire generation of apologists value being right more than they value the feelings of those whom they believe are wrong. Me saying so is undoubtedly unfair: most of these apologists are explicitly concerned with the eternal salvation of those with and about whom they debate. But nevertheless, they continue to say and do things that hurt people, and when those people complain about being hurt they resort to this theory that people simply feel too much and think too little, and confuse their feeling with thinking.

Here’s the thing about feeling: it is entirely subjective. We have never had the myth that feeling is objective, like we have with thinking. For the past few hundred years (the “modern” era) we have held the delusion that we can think objectively, that what is obvious to one person ought to be recognized as truth by others because it merely reflects reality. This way of thinking was challenged by postmodern views, which point out that our thinking is almost entirely subjective and that true objectivity is either nearly or entirely impossible. But we’ve always known this about feelings – some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are moved to tears by a sunset, while others have no pity for a puppy with only one leg (remember Strongbad, anyone?). We’ve historically found social uniformity with feelings mostly by making sensitive people suppress their emotions (usually by calling them names like “wuss” and “pussy”), which is probably why it took us so long to realize just how crucial mental health is to a healthy person and a healthy society. We now know that emotional trauma even has physiological effects, and are discovering that many people with physical symptoms like obesity or drug addiction have been using such things to hide/treat childhood trauma. So while the extent and importance of feeling is becoming increasingly apparent, we’ve always known that people feel differently and for different reasons – but compared to the universal objectivity of critical thinking, subjective feelings were deemed illusory, contradicting, and maybe even dangerous.

But now that we realize that thinking is not objective, we can no longer make such a separation. We now recognize that we see the world through a unique lens that is shaped by our previous knowledge and experience – the same things that shape our feelings. We are able to think about almost anything, but inevitably our feelings reveal our true beliefs and worldview, which we hold largely subconsciously.

Christians deal with this all the time: we recognize the difficulty of turning our beliefs into actions or a way of life is terribly difficult. In church this morning, the pastor pointed out that Peter really believed that he was ready to die with Jesus and would not abandon him. The scene in which Peter realizes that he has abandoned Jesus so is terribly poignant. Did Peter’s feelings and instincts for self-preservation overcome his belief, or did his actions simply exemplify a level of commitment that turned out to be less than he believed it was? Was it his feelings that were at fault, or his thinking? Did he just lack courage, or did he overestimate the amount of courage he actually had? The answer, of course, is both.

Traditionally, the church has upheld three integrated points of discipleship: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. The fact that my spellchecker only recognizes the first of these three words goes to show how much we have valued one of these above the others. Orthodoxy, or right belief, has unfortunately taken precedence for I-don’t-know-how-long.  Orthopraxy, or right actions, has been deemed too Catholic by most Protestant churches, which emphasize the saving grace of God over (and apart from) works or actions. And orthopathy, or right “affections”…well, I had to look the term up, and I only became aware of its existence at all halfway through Seminary. The point is, these three things are interrelated: we can say that we have integrity only if our thoughts, feelings (desires), and actions all align, but for at least the last few hundred years we’ve only seen integrity as an alignment between beliefs and actions, leaving affections out of it entirely.

With that in mind, I think it is absolutely fantastic that feeling is in fashion right now. Yes, many people are feeling things that are based on wrong beliefs, and that’s a problem! But the problem is their wrong beliefs, not their wrong feelings; their connection between thinking and feeling is an important one, and while it is totally legitimate to correct wrong beliefs, we must recognize that their feelings are not right or wrong at all. Feelings are objective, in the sense that we cannot choose or change them – they just exist, as a natural response to our experience and beliefs. We cannot criticize someone who is overly sensitive for feeling, nor can we dismiss their feelings without dismissing them as human beings. Our feelings are part of us, and rarely subject to our rational choices.

What we can do instead is recognize a person’s feelings, validate them as a legitimate response to their perceptions and experience, and then address any misperceptions they may have that led to their emotional response. Because not only is it rude and dehumanizing to dismiss or ignore or ridicule someone’s feelings, it’s actually counter-productive – because no matter how much we talk about the primacy of logical reasoning, in a stressful situation our feelings guide our actions more than our thoughts do. When we experience great stress, our prefrontal cortex (the decision-making, logical, rational part of our brain) shuts down and we go into a sort of auto-pilot (often referred to as fight-or-flight mode), and we take actions that are based on things much deeper than thought – but our feelings are still powerfully present even when we can’t think straight. So the next time someone asks for a trigger warning, take it as a sign that they would prefer to remain rational rather than being plunged into the high-emotion low-rationality state of recurring trauma.

My son is a constant reminder to me of the importance of recognizing and validating the feelings and desires of others. Toddlers are experiencing many emotions, sometimes for the first time and always uncontrollably, and it often causes them to act out in ways that they would actually not prefer. When a kid has a tantrum, it’s almost always because they’re feeling something and they don’t know what to do with it; telling them that you know what it is they desire (“I know you want that toy”) is usually enough to calm them down, because they know that being understood helps them to understand themselves. That’s the brilliance of human community: we know by being known, and we deal with emotions by sharing them with others. We call this compassion. All of this is just as true for adults as it is for children.

So be careful with the affections of others, and recognize that their emotions may precede, but certainly inform, their understanding and knowledge. Just as our own integrity depends on the interplay between our beliefs, affections, and actions, so too our health, relationships, and ability to communicate also depend on all three things. So rather than pitting thinking against feeling, recognize that it is only by recognizing someone’s feelings that you can find out what they really think.

Kevin Garcia burst my bubble, and it hurts

Kevin Garcia posted an article today about being in an abusive relationship with his church. It’s good, you should read it. In it, he talks about how difficult it is for a queer Christian to feel truly welcome, loved, and accepted in a church that is not affirming of homosexuality.

We are the ones having to be brave, sensitive, nuanced, vulnerable, and accommodating in nearly every scenario. And often times, we’re expected to give a full apologetics on our theological backing for living fully outside the closet as queer Christians.

That’s not relationship or conversation. That’s playing defense.

And it gets super tiring.

I walk into a space, and automatically I’m having to justify my existence. I can’t ever just be. Even with my small group, the place where I’m most longing for that intimacy and connection, there is tension.

This is a great example of the need for what Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter calls “Generous Spaciousness,” or creating a space where people can just be without having to justify themselves. This should be normal in church, a place completely covered by grace so that no sin or perceived sin can place conditions on or otherwise influence our love for one another.

There’s so much in Kevin’s article that I agree with, but I’m having trouble getting past a few things:

It is easy for a straight person or pastor trying to figure out how to love their queer parishoners well to say things like “we need to choose love and relationship over agreement.”  As a heterosexual individual, you don’t have to justify your life or your existence or your marriage or your theology to the vast majority of our culture, let alone the vast majority of Christians.

I get a lot of people who look at me and say, “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love you and love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?”

My gut reaction to that? It must be nice not to have to pick a side.

And I bet if I didn’t show up at your church, in your small group, you wouldn’t have had to think about it at all. Sorry to burst your bubble.

And that may sound harsh, but honestly, really, all you straight people out there are so damn lucky.

I really get that it’s much more difficult for gay Christians than straight Christians – that somehow generous spaciousness already applies to me, and not to queer believers. There are no elephants in my room, so to speak. But as much as it may be easier for me, I think Kevin does allies a huge disservice by saying that it’s easy. Please allow me to illustrate with my own story.

I’ve been studying theology formally for the past dozen years. Eight years ago I was pretty staunchly in the anti-gay camp, not in the sense that I wanted to stone anyone, but in the sense that I couldn’t read the relevant texts any other way: homosexuality was clearly a sin in the Bible, and the Bible shaped my whole worldview. I had studied the issue extensively, getting right down to the Hebrew and Greek of the relevant verses, and I felt very secure in my view of homosexuality on that basis. Arguments for different readings were becoming more and more common, but they seemed to me to be attempts to justify or get around what were obviously very unambiguous texts. I was grieved by the negative way many people perceived these texts, but felt sure that the text outweighed any other factors: homosexuality must be a choice in order for it to be sinful, and if it’s sinful it must be a choice, with the subjective perceptions of individual experience by homosexuals being, sadly, just plain wrong.

As I continued to study, my hermeneutic changed. I learned a lot more about the literary nature of the text, and changing standards of morality throughout the Bible. The tension between the prophetic and the priestly. But those particular texts are deeply priestly, and as much as I prefer the prophetic and can recognize the tension, I can’t dismiss the priestly, and I still have trouble with the arguments that dismiss those texts as referring to something else – the evidence for that, even after years of study and better arguments appearing, seems just a little bit too weak. Other arguments have become more helpful: more than ever, I read all of the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and I have a hard time imagining Jesus selectively and aggressively picking on homosexuality over and above other sins; I read the Bible theologically more and more, and my theology is similarly not so selective, and more concerned about systemic evil and God’s identification with the oppressed; and I am frequently comforted by the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, whose presence and empowerment of Gentile believers caused the early church to accept that God loves whomever God chooses regardless of the rules. But those problematic texts are still there, alongside the ones where God commands genocide.

During this period of theological development, I also learned a lot about homosexuality. I’ve watched friends from Bible college come out with enormous backlash from their churches. I’ve watched friends from high school come out and carry on long-term and seemingly very happy and healthy relationships. I’ve had friends who are staunch queer allies correct my assumptions about homosexuality and gender normativity. I’ve read about a gender spectrum, a sexual spectrum, chromosomes, and socially constructed gender. I’ve even had friends confide in me about their own journey of accepting their sexuality in the church. Knowing just a little bit about the depth of their hurt, it became increasingly clear to me that I need to love and serve them unconditionally, no matter what those problematic texts say.

And that’s where it isn’t easy. While I’m no longer a biblicist (that is, I now see the Bible as witness to God in Jesus Christ, rather than itself being divine revelation floating down from heaven), the Bible is still fairly central to my identity as a follower of Christ. To count myself as an ally to LGBTQ+ people, believers and non, I live with a dissonance that cuts to the core of who I am. I’ve found a way to keep that dissonance from ripping me apart, and I do that by subordinating the importance of certain texts to the importance of loving and serving unconditionally. I really do say things like “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?” I don’t usually include the second sentence, or even specify “gay people” rather than just “people”, but my point is simply that saying this costs me.

By saying this, I have chosen a side. I have chosen to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people, even when I feel like I might be encouraging them to sin, might even be working against God. I don’t feel that way often, but those texts nag at me whenever I think about them, so I mostly choose not to think about them at all. I’ve chosen to sacrifice my integrity as a reader and interpreter of the Bible, to stop revisiting the same texts over and over again because resolving them is too hard and comes with too high of a cost. I’ve chosen a cop-out answer to the most difficult texts, even though by doing so I not only feel like a fraud, but I get called on that cop-out by people on both sides of the issue.

What compounds this for me is that I’m trained to be a pastor as well as a theologian. My theologian side is okay with mystery, but still has a lot of pride tied up in my ability to interpret the Bible well. But my pastoral side is subject to denominational faith statements and the views of any church that might hire me. They’re not exactly knocking my door down with job offers, but even if I were in high demand, I have to satisfy both parties (the denomination and the congregation) with clear, unequivocal statements. By being an ally, I have actually limited my influence in church circles where it is perhaps needed most. But while my theological and pastoral training compounds the issue for me, it also gives me the tools to continue to work through the theological and pastoral issues; for the average person in the average church, it must be much more difficult to navigate those difficult texts. For the average believer becoming an ally must be an even bigger deal, because it probably means going against the word of someone in a position of pastoral and theological authority in their lives. Their cognitive dissonance and professional pride might be less of an issue, but their social dissonance is probably much bigger than mine.

So no, it’s absolutely not easy for straight parishioners or pastors to choose love and relationship over agreement. Our identity as followers of Christ is central, and the Bible is central to our understanding of Christ. We do not set aside texts lightly, and we cannot do so without a deep cost. I look forward to a day when I can read the whole Bible without any sense of dissonance and love everyone without reference to the text, and I think that day might actually come. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to feel uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality in the church, not because I need you to explain yourself, but because I can’t explain myself or feel okay with the fact that I’ve ignored parts of the text that I can’t come to terms with. My room, and the church, are full of our own elephants. It just might be that constantly calling on queer people to explain their theology and sexuality is projection of our own discomfort with the texts, not with you.

Our “unconditional love”, as Kevin’s friend Matthias points out, is rarely unconditional or even particularly loving. We suck at this. I’ve had super awkward conversations with other believers – hopefully not condescending, as he describes – but they were with seniors or people with very different political views more than with any gay believers. There are so many things that divide us, whether it is generations or politics or theology or just plain social awkwardness. I’m not saying any of this to minimize the struggle that queer people deal with in the church – it is so, so real, and we need to hear more about it and be reminded of it. But I’m saying this simply to point out that it’s awkward all around, and not all of it is outward-oriented; very little of my awkwardness is about you, it’s almost entirely about me. And I’m willing to bet that that’s the rule, not the exception.

Sometimes when we feel rejected, we say “what’s your problem?!” or “it’s your loss!” I’m recognizing the truth of those statements more and more. So if you ever feel like an outsider who’s been pushed aside, or feel like your allies offer cheap support, remember that it really is our problem – we’re just exhibiting our own issues, self-consciousness, and sinfulness. I’m sorry that it hurts you; it hurts us too, and we need to be aware of your hurt and ours, because most of us are in denial about it. The more we all realize that, the more likely we are to create genuine generous spaciousness, and give and receive the real grace and acceptance that we all need. So please, keep sharing these stories, they make a difference; I hope mine has too.