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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Sunday, February 24, 2002

Faith in an Academic's Life

As an academic, I am particularly frustrated at the notion that exists in the academy that intellectual pursuits ("reason") and spiritual pursuits ("faith") are incompatible. A historical perspective of the academy suggests that our current academic philosophy was born out of an environment of faith, and not simply by coincidence. We would not have academic institutions today were it not for this environment, for the modern academy is an extension of the early schools of theology that were created for intellectual pursuits. We would not have books, for the desire to having a Bible that could be navigated in a quick and efficient manner created the demand that caused that medium to become popularly acceptable. And for that matter, we would not have journalism itself, a social institution that grew out of the desire to express moral and theological thoughts and interpretations of the world to others.

Now, I will be quick to point out that I am not trying to advocate that all scholarly work should be devoted to spiritual matters (or to be expressed as such). Certainly the academy has developed and evolved in interesting and valuable ways. What I do find ironic is the present climate that somehow suggests to scholars that we should divorce knowledge or values derived from personal faith from the official voice of the academy (the very voice that owes its formation to the development of personal faith).

This climate, in my opinion, is a reflection not of scholarly progression, but rather of social and political pressures from the world that exists outside the academy.

During the course of my M.S. work, I can across a book by Stephen Carter titled "The Culture of Disbelief." Carter, who if I'm not mistaken is coming from a legal background, seems to be denouncing what he sees as a peculiar American trend to regulate religious belief to the personal identity and that the public persona of a person involved in a profession, political career or public service in this country must at least appear to check religious sentiment at the door of the office. Carter's analogy is that to good Americans, religion has become a hobby or matter of personal taste and as such has been removed from the public and professional sphere of their lives.

Though I do not wholeheartedly agree with all of Carter's observations (I still tend to think that at least a significant portion of the citizenry is downright brazen in their proclamation of their faith), I do agree that faith does seem to marginalized as a source of truth in contemporary American society.

Friday, February 22, 2002

Mixed Messages in Church Worship

This is just a case study of how worship can send mixed messages to those participating, citing examples from worship services at the University Avenue Church of Christ.

Often UA's worship will begin with a warm introduction only to be followed by a prayer that indirectly contradicts most of the sentiments that the song leader has just offered. Or sometimes we sing songs that slip in phrases and words that just don't sound like the message the sermon or the greeting puts forth.

A specific example that jumps to mind (I can cite this one since I've already talked to the song leader about it) was a few weeks ago. One Sunday, I took exception to one of the songs that was lead. I usually do not approach the song leader about it, but this time I did.

The song's original title was "Rise Up O Men of God." First of all, let me admit openly that that song has always frustrated me. I don't agree with its meaning or its calling. If you place it back in its original context (in the early 1900s when the Church of Christ was making its big fundamentalism statement), that song is a call for men to push women out of the leadership roles of the church because they were being too compassionate towards open sinners, other races and other undesirables (which incidentally is why I thought it a poor choice for a theme song for a certain Wednesday night men's class, but that's getting off the topic).

The way it was presented in the bulletin that Sunday, it had been altered to say "Rise up O Church of God." It was a nice sentiment. However, the third verse (the one I have always absolutely disagreed with) remained unchanged. Let me quote it:

"Rise up, O sons of God! The Church for you doth wait, Her strength unequal to her task; Rise up, and make her great."

Now, even without the historical context, this verse presents some interesting messages. Let me do a (possibly slanted) superficial textual read: "Onward Men. God created the Church (notice the capital) for you. But this institution (pronoun feminine) that God created is not good enough without your efforts. It's your duty to make the Church (capital C) great. God either cannot or will not do it for you. Your effort and works are required."

When you add in the context of female activism in the church, you get a better sense of why the men thought the church was weak in its current incarnation (in my opinion). I can go on and on about that one, but the messages we send about women is a whole other discussion for another time.

This song tells us (whether we're talking about men only or both men and women) that our efforts are needed to make God's church (as an institution, a new temple, and possibly, if I may be so bold, an idol) great. And great by worldly standards. We should be dedicating our worldly gifts towards THIS institution, not the other institutions. Our efforts can make it great, and the power of a great institution is our goal. And even altered, you get hints of this in the other verses as well: "lifting high the cross," "bring in the day of brotherhood," etc.

I just can't agree with this song theologically, morally or intellectually.

Now, I realize this seems like a lot of steam over just a few words (buried in a single song no less), but that particular Sunday, one of the scriptures read was 2 Corinthians 4:5-15, where we seem to get a message that says our power is meaningless. That the only "duty" we have is to allow others to see God's work, not ours. Glory goes to God, not man. And not the Church (capital C).

Note the disparity?

Again, none of this is meant to be read as angry, malicious or even critical. I know this was not the intended reading. And I told the song leader that I will sing anything he picks out and I will. And I will not unduly criticize him or anyone else when examples like this occur.

But I can find examples like this most Sundays. I can certainly get worked up when special announcements (often by well-meaning elders and servants) introduce very odd statements. And just about every public statement concerning the ESSC (Elder Selection Steering Committee) business had me cringing in embarrassed frustration.

Again, I usually just hold my "analysis of the day's meaning" to myself. Most people go to church to consume, not to think. Our culture teaches people not to engage. "Let a professional thinker or preacher or elder do the thinking."

My comments are not about personalities or individual efforts. They are simply about how all these efforts fit together. Each church service, class or social outing is an aggregated statement of our faith. What are we saying to visitors? What are we saying to each other? Most importantly, what are we saying to God?

And what are we saying to those around us?

I was struck by a conversation I had with a young man that I played basketball with last year. His name is Kenny, he is African-American. In the course of playing basketball with him, I and several others tried to get him to attend UA. His wife has family ties to us, and we generally enjoyed both of their company. One Sunday, I was reading a scripture and I saw him and his wife sitting in the back section. When the service was over, I made my way back there to greet him. I was really joking when I asked if he was going to join UA. He muttered sheepishly that they weren't. Well, puzzled by his response, I pressed him. After I convinced him that I seriously wanted to know why he wouldn't ever consider attending UA, he became very blunt. He said, "I'm not like you. I'll never dress like you, I'll never talk like you. And I don't really like to worship the way you do. It's cool for you guys to {worship} this way, but my worship isn't hanging out with white folks in formal clothes saluting God."

Now, not even addressing the racial element of this story, I just want to say that for Kenny on that Sunday morning, UA communicated to him quite a few messages we never intended to. And visitors get these messages, even if UA members do not.

None of the example I have raised in any of these communications have been about intentional statements we've made. It's about the indirect, the implied.

And I would hope you agree that others judging our fruits as more important than our words is a very Biblical concern.

The last thing I want to do is offend you or anyone else devoted to serving the needs of our family. But if communication is a serious concern of UA, then UA might need to learn what it is communicating to others.

I apologize for my arrogance, my assumed authority and my aggressiveness in this discussion and others. I am in the same position as all of the UA family and consider my efforts no better and no more effective than others. I just want us to be truthful with one another.

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

A Primer to Communication and the Church

What is communication and why is it important for church life?

On the face of it, this question may appear so rudimentary that one may wonder if asking it is useful. In previous conversations concerning the need for an increased level of communication at the University Avenue Church of Christ, the need was expressed in rather superficial terms. For example, when asked what benefit better communication might bring, members were likely to say "so we can know what's going on," or "so we can keep up with the announcements and events."

Certainly an increased number of channels for information orientation is desired (and needed) in the UA church body. However, communication is far more than simple information presentation. The verb "communicate" in its Latin root form is a term that most literally means "to share" (our communicate) or "a mutual participation" (our communication). Christians might be interested in the fact that the original usage of the word was not, in fact, denoting the exchange of ideas or information, but rather was used in the terminology surrounding participation in Communion, or the Lord's Supper.

This observation is not intended to deconstruct the development of the language of communication as a concept throughout history, but rather to draw emphasis to a very critical understanding of what communication does. Communication is about sharing meaning.

Communication can be the mutual sharing of information, ideas, values, concerns, perspectives, worldviews, feelings, perceptions, criticism, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, lunacy, sentiment, observation, wit, truth, error, misconception or commentary. In fact, it is most often several of these things at the same time. Above all, communication is the transferal of culture among the members of community. When discussing "communication," it might be helpful to first think of it as the terms as the sharing of community.

In this light, we should see communication as any activity that seeks to share portions of our lives with others: talking, singing, praying, writing, reading, decorating our building or even choosing what clothing to wear. All of these choices communicate to others, whether we are aware of it or not.

This communication is made up of many messages, some intended and some unintended. Messages can convey meaning by their content, by their tone, by their structure, by their framing, by their timing, by their presentation style, by the reputation of their source and at times, by environmental factors that cause any of these other variables to be perceived differently by different parties.

Before a church can lead others, the members of it need to learn who they are, what they have to say and how to be effective in saying this.