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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.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Super Bowl Celebration Illustrates Progress in American Religious Culture

As we have been bombarded by the hype of the approaching 39th Super Bowl Sunday, I suddenly realized there was a key element missing from the traditional build-up to the game: the anti-sports sermon. This sermon, present in so many of my childhood memories, once defined Super Bowl Sunday as a symbol of cultural conflict among American Christians.

Many were the Super Bowl weeks where one could hear messages from the pulpit and in church news bulletins about the apostasy of this event, and churchgoers often found themselves stuck in a competition of their own between the religion of their faith and the religion of their secular nation.

Today, these conflicts have quieted in tone and in volume. In fact, a quick Google search for “Super Bowl” and “church” will yield hundreds of links to church-sponsored Super Bowl parties and socials. And in Jacksonville, the site of the 2005 Super Bowl, the Jacksonville Baptist Association has even launched a Super Bowl ministry in order to promote their message during the pre-game festivities.

To be sure, there are still those who boycott the Super Bowl in the name of their faith or religious culture. And last year’s “wardrobe malfunction” involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake have certainly raised the ire of those who support traditional family values. But, by and large, the Super Bowl weekend, one of the great representations of our civic religion, has been assimilated into our mainstream religious culture. And this assimilation makes a significant statement about how American Christians see themselves in the 21st Century.

Sports and religion have endured various relationships throughout the history of Western civilization. For the Greeks, whom author Thomas Cahill calls the “world’s first sports fans,” religion played an important role in their athletic events. In fact, the ceremonial sacrifice to Zeus before the commencement of the games still survives in spirit in the form of the ritual lighting of the torch before each Olympic Games.

The Romans also incorporated religious rites into their games, and it is from the Colosseum that Americans developed many parallel conventions (eating stadium food at the sports arena, fixating on the potential dramatic opportunities both before and after the competition, etc.) In fact, American football in particular seems to have several thematic similarities with the Roman games, though the American games have a decidedly lower mortality rate among the contest participants.

So why has the American sports enthusiast historically fared worse the sport fan of the ancient world? To get to the root of our current tension between religion and sports, one needs to look to the culture wars of the Reformation era in England. After years of religious strife following the break between Henry VII and the Catholic Church, the long reign of Elizabeth I secured for England the Protestant approach to the Christian faith. However, free of the pope’s religious influence, the Anglican church soon turned inward, giving rise to the Puritan movement, who first sought to reform their religion from within the church.

So, what does this have to do with sports? Quite a bit. Following Elizabeth came the rule of James I, the same king who in 1611 published the version of the Bible that many Christians still use today. During James’ reign, the Anglican Church became so factionalized between the Puritans and the Prelastists that the king felt compelled to take action to undermine the Puritan influence on his subjects.

One of the greatest evangelical tools the Puritans had was their Sabbath sermon, which turned Sunday into a day of preaching and spiritual reflection. To combat this practice, King James directed Bishop Moreton in 1618 to write and publish the Book of Sports, which encouraged Christians to engage in recreational and leisurely activities on Sunday. Though the book was not distributed and read across the kingdom as James intended, it was revived in 1633 under King Charles I and was largely viewed by Puritans as a text in direct conflict with the Holy Scriptures.

Of course, when the Puritans fled to America, they hardly abandoned their attitudes of conflict towards sports and recreation on the Sabbath. The historic American conflict between sports and religion, and particularly between the NFL and the church on Super Bowl Sunday, owes its ferocity to this historic struggle between the Bible and the Book of Sports.

Those who organize boycotts against the Super Bowl today are simply appealing to their Puritan roots. But for many groups, those roots are not leading them towards growth, and so they embrace one of the very attitudes their forefathers fled to America to escape.

Only in American can civic and religious culture adapt to such a degree that the Jacksonville Baptist Association actually embraced the Super Bowl as an opportunity to spread their message. This spirit of adaptability and tolerance should make the Super Bowl celebration more culturally significant than simply a prelude to a (hopefully) dramatic football game.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Religion and Civics: Ornery Bedfellows

This week, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the relationship of American religion to politics, particularly about how our religious views and our civic responsibilities interrelate. This small journey began for me this past Sunday, when I felt compelled to place membership at Skillman Church of Christ.

As I had previously written, Skillman has recently become a place of great interest to me. I’m not really sure precisely what is drawing me there, but I have learned to follow the spiritual leadings that tug at me and figure out the reasons for the tugs when I can look back on my personal history.

I sat in the pew at Skillman last Sunday and was moved once again by the spirit of the congregation. From my limited experience, the members at Skillman appear to be warm and friendly and committed to making a difference in the lives of those in their surrounding community.

But one element distracted me from my spiritual experience, and that element was simply the presence of an American flag displayed behind the pulpit. Now, to be fair, the flag was balanced out by a wooden cross placed on the right side of the pulpit. At least in a visual sense, Skillman seems determined to celebrate both their American heritage and their religious heritage on equal terms.

My first thoughts were about the irony of a church of Christ displaying either symbol during worship. Historically, most of the traditional CoCs have shunned symbols of cultural or religious significance in an attempt to avoid the historical baggage that comes from the 2,000 years of Christian history that our movement was attempting to reject and reform.

I could go on about the nature of symbolism and religion, but that is not the purpose of this entry. The flag was merely the beginning of the journey for me. (And lest anyone be confused, the presence of the flag did not stop me from placing membership, I found its presence more a curiosity than an offense).

On Monday, these thoughts led me back to the news articles I had read on Thursday and Friday about how James Dobson and the Focus on the Family were condemning a video featuring SpongeBob Squarepants (among several other cartoon characters) created to promote multiculturalism because the company who distributed it has posted a “Tolerance Pledge” on their Web site that states:

“Tolerance is a personal decision that comes from a belief that every person is a treasure. I believe that America's diversity is its strength. I also recognize that ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry can turn that diversity into a source of prejudice and discrimination.

In my MTS blog, I wrote a more extended blog about the Spongebob controversy, but the issue itself raised some thoughts in me concerning how religious sentiment and American values. These thoughts continued each morning when I read the morning paper.

If you've been reading the news this week, you've undoubtedly come across the stories about how several key groups in the religious right are now threatening to hold up the president's social security initiative if he doesn't publicly support the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

During the campaign, the President avoided outright support of this issue, stating only his personal opinions and citing vaguely what his views concerning what the definition of "family" were.

Let me mention that I do not believe that this president wants to support this amendment for two reasons:

1) It's not going to pass, and that defeat would mar his legacy.

2)George Bush has repeatedly reached out to the homosexual community, both as a governor of Texas and particularly during his first presidential campaign. I just don't think this ban is consistent with his personal politics.

However, The Bush campaign courted these religious groups for their organizational power and their votes and now they have the ability to mar his legacy and hold up his proposed initiatives.

But where are the divisions between our faith culture and the belief that our country should support and protect the free exchange of ideas? I find myself very uncomfortable with the prospect of using religious influence to shape politics, though I do acknowledge that my faith does dramatically affect my politics. If I did not care for others, if I were not called to put aside differences for the sake of opening communication to deliver the message I am charged with, I would probably be more comfortable with the actions of Focus on the Family and those who would mix religion and civic responsibility into a single homogenous cultural worldview.

But whether we’re discussing bringing the American flag into our religious worship or taking the cross into the White House, I just don’t see how we can serve two masters. From my perspective, the two sets of ideals and principles are at odds with one another (at least, most of the time).

Well, this has bee a rather long and rambling entry. And once again, no answers. Just more thoughts to consider.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Skillman de Novo: where the heart is?

Well, to briefly catch up on my search for a church home, I had almost resigned myself to Preston Road. The holidays had me back and forth between Austin and Dallas, and the weekends I was in Dallas, I attended Preston Road.

I genuinely like Preston Road. It reminds me of University Avenue and I had been thinking that my intellectual approach to my faith would be of use there.

The past few weeks, I have been attending a class that was studying the structure and tenets of Islam, in the hope of understanding how that faith structure works and why its adherents believe as they do. This topic is not new for me, for I have taken several classes during my doctoral studies that surveyed Middle East culture and religion and I have several friends who are devout Muslims (and several who are not quite as devout).

I believe the class was well intentioned. And I strongly believe that all Christians would be served well by a better understanding of the other peoples of the book. However, I found that the class to be lacking both the intellectual honesty and the open-mindedness needed for such a sensitive foray into another world. Needless to say, I could go on for pages about my reservations and concerns about the approach to the content, but suffice to say I was disappointed.

So, this past Sunday, I decided to make the rounds again. I figured that Skillman and Highland Oaks needed deserved another look.

I had attended Skillman several months ago. That particular Sunday, the church was honoring the participants of one of its educational ministries. The church seemed friendly, but I had not been overly impressed.

This trip would prove different. I attended the class for “Friends,” a collection of recent college grads, singles and marrieds. It proved to be an eclectic group, but I felt the interaction was extremely open and honest. Most of all, I could sense a sincere spirit of caring among the diverse group. Though the members come from many different walks of life, the distinctions between them do not impede their warmness towards each other or towards outsiders.

The class was contrasting the fleshy fruits with the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5. As I thought about this discussion, I began to piece together an entry for my prayer journal, one that speaks to my recent walk and the frustrations I’ve recently faced with certain members of my family.

The worship service was far better than my first visit. Not only was the singing more lively (the holidays being over made quite a difference), but the sermon was … moving. The pulpit minister (Dwight Robarts), began to speak about community and responsibility. Using 1 Corinthians as a model, he argued that we are saints, and as such, should overcome our differences. But like the Corinthian church, Robarts said that Skillman is failing to connect to those who desperately need relationships. Citing the divisions in the ancient church, Robarts drew an analogy concerning our obsession with privacy and how that obsession seems to be keeping Skillman from getting involved in each other’s lives. Finally, he challenge the congregation to put the assemblies and communal time above their individual agendas. If the body is made up of saints, then the saints need to be available to help those in need.

I was taken aback by the plain words and the straight rhetoric. A church of Christ minister using the pulpit to challenge the saints to change their ways? Not what I’ve come to expect in Dallas.

But this openness and honesty spoke to me in a way that connected to me. I found myself wanting to bring my efforts to the table, wanting to help make a difference.

Not what I was expecting.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The fruits of my spirit

This past Sunday, I attended Skillman Church of Christ. In the morning class, we contrasted the desires of the flesh with the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5. Though I had some reservations about the nature of the contrast (I see Paul’s focus in Corinthians as outlining things to focus on, not as lists of outcomes per se), the class got me thinking about the fruits of the spirit in a different way.

As I looked at the list of fruits (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control), I suddenly saw them as a pattern and began to link them together in succession. Now, I don’t think for a moment that Paul intended for this list to be seen as a progression of the spirit, but the pattern made me look at the individual components differently, so I jotted down some personal notes in the form of a personal reflection. I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions, but somehow looking back on the year made me realize where I’ve been:

Love. This year God continued to teach me about love. Not the gushy, warm happy feelings most people mistake for love, but the hard work of loving those who are not particularly kind and friendly. When people actively betrayed or hurt me, it made it very hard for me to love them. I think part of the problem is how difficult these situations make being in their presence and feeling …

Joy. Why isn’t joy something I feel every moment? We are commanded to rejoice, to celebrate our love with others, regardless of what they’ve done to us. But I live in a cynical world, and I constantly struggle to keep the cynicism rising from the conflict and betrayals in life from killing my joy. And yet, the command to rejoice does not seem to come on the conditions of feeling rosy. It seems that I have been called to CHOOSE joy, not to experience it. And I think part of what keeps me from choosing joy is my struggle with finding …

Peace. Where do I begin with peace? There has been so much familial strife this year. I take consolation in the fact that I did not seek conflict, that the conflict I did engage in was brought to me by others. But is that enough? I have always been a restless spirit, seeking for ways to become a better person. But that energy works against me when I am pitched into a conflict with another who does not seem to share my ambitions for sacrifice. Which of course, naturally leads me to examine my …

Patience. It is truly amazing how patient I can be with those I am trying to help. I also seem to be far more patient with those who show me love and who respect me for who I am and what I’m trying to do. But I definitely have trouble being patient with those who disrespect me or who cannot see the injustice in their own actions. I am driven by an overwhelming sense of honesty and justice, and those who display dishonest methods and seem to be driven by impulses and desires that serve them at the expense of everyone else strain my patience to the breaking point. They make it hard for me to show …

Kindness. It strikes me as noble to be kind to someone, to be cordial to those who have earned no such response, to offer grace where no duties or obligations are demanded. The heart of kindness is putting the needs of others first, and I am generally good at doing that. However, I have found it more difficult to be kind to those who have been unkind to me or someone I dearly love. But if kindness is truly based on grace, why do I struggle so? Shouldn’t kindness be an offering to the undeserved as well? Isn’t undeserved kindness really the only real kindness (since kindness cannot be earned)? Am I really kind, if I cannot show kindness to those who hurt me most? Kindness taken to a personal level is what makes me consider my …

Generosity. If generosity is sharing who I am and what I have with others, I know I have been generally generous (and surprisingly alliterate) with most people at most times. I can honestly say that I have always given freely of my material wealth (such as it is) and my possessions. Perhaps my greatest struggle with generosity comes with my intellectual wealth. I desperately want to share my intellect with others, particularly when I see them make unknowing errors in judgment or logic that will lead them towards negative consequences. Where I think I fail most often is giving those who do not seem to have equal footing with me on an intellectual issue the latitude to explore their own assumptions. I am too eager (impatient?) to tear away egregious understanding when it presents itself and struggle to give others the respect they do not deserve when they are not as intellectually honest or rigorous as they could be to answer their own questions. This is a failing of generosity. And I think this failing most often grows out of a problem with my …

Faithfulness. I certainly believe in God, and strive to follow the path that is laid out before me, but I think I have a blindspot in my faithfulness. Specifically, I don’t always trust that others can find their own path without help. God has blessed me with much and bestowed a generous spirit in me, and I think my desire to share sometimes gets in the way of my understanding that God blesses others as well. I often think that I am being called to meet a challenge, so I must assume the responsibility for the outcome of the struggle. I have a hard time letting God work through other means than me in these cases, and I think this tension challenges the limits of my faith. When I get charged up with purpose, I take too much on, things seem too important and I begin to struggle mightily with my …

Gentleness. I am not normally an abrasive or rough person, but when I feel that dire consequences await a failed effort, I sometimes lose all sense of gentleness with others. How is it that Jesus can be so commanding and yet so gentle? Why can’t I find that balance more often than I do? I think if I were more faithful, more generous, more kind, more patient, more peaceful, more joyous and more loving that these attributes would show through an increased gentleness when dealing with those that commit wrongs against my person. Of course, deciding to be more gentle may simply be achieved through an increase in …

Self-control. I have worked my entire life to control the impulses and emotions that drive me to passion. Considering the incredible levels of raw emotion I experience, I believe that the level of control I have achieved is nothing short of miraculous. But once again, I am willing to hold my emotions and my behavior in check much better when I am not under attack or being defamed. My idealism and sense of justice lead me to drop my controls when I feel wronged and my obsession with truth often leads me away from the other fruits as I try and explain truth and reveal injustice. And yet, at the core of my belief structure is a story about a man who suffered not just physical pain, but the gravest of injustices. Sometimes, to me, the worst of the passion narrative is the refusal of Jesus to speak out, to express his outrage at the injustice and disrespect being shown him. How can I become so enraged at an attack upon my honor or my person when my example for life endured such indignity without using the power and voice at his command in the name of justice. Perhaps my sense of justice (not listed among the fruits) is the real passion of the flesh that impedes my spiritual walk.

Perhaps my basket is made out of the strands of truth and justice. And maybe this basket is what keeps some people from getting to my fruit.

Verses 24-26 tells us that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”

So why does my overdeveloped sense of justice cry out against the Spirit? Why do I demand truth in place of the Spirit?

Why can’t my sense of injustice be crucified with my other passions? Why does it alone slip out and unweave the basket containing the other fruit?

I certainly know that those who see me in those moments have accused me or conceit (even arrogance). And I have been accused of being competitive and even (bafflingly at times) of being envious of those I am in conflict with. So I understand Paul's connections between an absence of fruit due to passion to be true.

But I'm not sure where this leaves me.