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Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Bill McKibben: 'How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong.'

Earlier this week one of my parishioners sent me a note recommending the essay by Bill McKibben in the current issue of Harpers. The title is "Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation get Jesus wrong." I was dismayed to find that I couldn't read it for free on-line, but elated to find that another parishioner had sent me a copy of the same article in the mail. (Thanks!)

McKibben exposes dangerous misreadings of the Bible by American Christians such as the apocalyptics who justify violence and militarism with a twisted reading of Revelations. However, McKibben really hits his stride when he argues that many American Christians have "replaced the Christianity of the Bible, with its call for deep sharing and personal sacrifice, with a competing creed" of 'God helps those who help themselves', self-absorption, and greed.

McKibben's essay ranges far and wide from skewering the exurban mega-church founders and Christian publishers for offering "treatises on how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals" to taking on voters in Alabama who resisted a Christian appeal for more equitable taxation. The "Christian Paradox" is how so many American Christians ignore completely the radical teachings of Jesus concerning treatment of the poor, the marginalized, and society's "left-behind", embracing a "me, me, me" Christianity instead of the Biblical one which is about how we treat the stranger and the other. I found myself agreeing with most everything McKibben argued.

But I find that I am reticent to preach polemics like McKibben's in my own pulpit. I take the attitude that if my calling were to reform misguided, self-obsessed Christians, then I definitely made a wrong turn somewhere. In a UU context, preaching McKibben is like preaching to the choir, and preaching to the choir risks becoming its own kind of tired, self-congratulatory exercise. I suspect that if Bill McKibben were to instead have written, "The Unitarian Paradox: How a minority religion gets it wrong" he might dedicate at least a paragraph to skewering the Unitarian preacher who indulges in leading the congregation to think they are morally superior for not being hypocrites like those misguided mega-church Christians. My problem with McKibben is that he is writing to an audience of many, I would guess, non-Christians. In that regard, his piece is not an act of reform, or even admonishment. It risks reading as an act of abetting self-congratulation. If Christianity Today or Christian Century had published his piece, then it would be different.

I suppose I am wondering about this question: To what extent can preaching the hypocrisies, errors, and corruptions of many forms of Christianity be considered to be an act that has integrity in the context of today's UUism?

Copyright © 2005 by Thom Belote | Posted 3 August 2005 at 11:42 PM

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August 4, 2005 08:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thom - Have you spent any serious amount of time in churches which perpetuate the things McKibben writes so caustically about? I'm not referring to time spent as an objective observer, as was the case with Jacob's Well. I'm talking about time spent as an authentic participant. I guess I'm just trying to view your question through the lens from which it comes ... before I offer an opinion concerning it.


August 5, 2005 09:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Shawn: I've been a UU all my life, including time as either a member or minister at nearly a dozen different UU churches in New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, Texas, and England. Other religious groups I've participated with on a regular or semi-regular basis at some point in my life include: Quaker Meetings, a Pagan Circle, an LDS stake, Anglican worship, Chapel at Harvard, Jacob's Well (Emergent), and visiting mega-churches in suburban Dallas.

I like my question the way I worded it, but allow me to expand on it just a little bit. I am all for critique and criticism (Chris wanted me to go by Deuterophilocrites, after all) but I wonder about the act of critique without engagement. As a long-time reader of Philocrites, I find myself impressed by the way his blog does not only pluck the low hanging fruit which are easy to criticize. He hits upon topics near and dear to us UUs/Liberals/etc. too.

I wonder if there is a formula for critique that measures its efficacy by examining both its "correctness", intelligence, persuasiveness AND its proximity to or ability to reach those who would most benefit from hearing it. I'm not sure I am explaining this concept as well as I can.


August 5, 2005 01:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thom - Your question was worded just fine. I just wanted to know if you had any personal participatory experiences with those religious issues McKibben addresses. It seems that you haven't, in spite of the broad personal church experiences you do cite. I could be mistaken, but I do not believe any of the churches you cite are actually characterized by the issues McKibben addresses.

I partially agree with you concerning the "preaching of McKibben" in a UU context. It is akin to preaching to the choir, but only if the choir is composed of folks who are totally synchronized in a communally advanced spiritual journey. I doubt this to be the case in any UU or liberal congregation. We should all be beyond McKibben and moving into the next stage of religious/communal maturity, but a procedural step into a next stage implies a prerequisite of a prior stage, and unless one was born and raised in the UUA he/she is virtually guaranteed to have had a need for a McKibben somewhere along their path, as a result of the overarching U.S. religious culture which is inundated with those religious issues at which he takes aim.

I believe there is a place and a dire need for voices like McKibben. Religious communities which perpetuate the kind of things McKibben writes about feed off of people's general "willingness to believe." The "willingness to belive" is a universal characteristic I consider to be the most sacred of natural human qualities. I also consider this trait to be the most regularly manipulated. Religious charlatans, politicians, and generally selfish individuals all find their entry into other human beings through their "willingness to believe." Once they are there it is almost impossible to have a decent discussion concerning authentic alternatives to their present belief structure - regardless of the obvious detriment their present belief structure is to them personally and to others around them.

I was a willing participant of churches which perpetuate such things. I obviously am not presently. I also want to clear the air before any good-hearted UU Christian comes along and cites my need to discuss my formation with a seminary advisor - I AM NOT ANGRY. Those of us who have willingly participated in this sort of Christianity and have since then departed are often branded as simply being angry. I am not one of those folks. I may have been during the time of my initial separation, but am no longer. And who wouldn't be? Here's a few examples from the folks I have known:

1.) A young man gave up a football scholarship to a major university to train for the "ministry" perpetuated by the folks McKibben points toward. It was too late by the time he realized his mistake.

2.) A woman who was raised in the sort of religious environment McKibben speaks of was scared to death to embrace her "lesbian urges" as a young woman - for fear of eternal death in hell - met a young man, was married, had kids, and then discovered it was OK to be who she was in reality. The family, however, was devastated.

3.) A man, who believed God hated birth control, fathered six children to his wife who was forced to home-school them all while he attended Bible classes full time to "fulfill his calling." This man also had "faith" that God would provide them with their needs so he didn't work and refused government food assistance. These needs were not met.

4.) Our urban centers are peppered with religious charlatans who take advantage of poor urban minorities and their social desperation. Surf through your cable channels at night, you'll find dozens of them.

5.) Environmental concerns have long been neglected because of theological dedication to "End Times" scenarios.

6.) Presently, when the Bush administration needs to change the subject or get votes, they simply toss a religious scrap to the religious right - a scrap which the administration really has no intention of following up on. The effects of this manipulation are obvious, aren't they? The latest scrap, in case anyone missed it, was Bush's "endorsement" of Creationism.

It goes on, and on, and on. This and so much more is occurring under the U.S. Christian umbrella. It is wrong. I think voices such as McKibben's are indeed necessary, if not for UU's then for the rest of the world who needs to hear it.

If you have never been the victim - yes, I said victim - of a religious movement or a church which practices those things which McKibben writes about and misuses your "willingness to believe," I don't know for sure if you can really appreciate McKibben's voice, or make room for it in social/religious dialogue. A lot of folks, however, would undoubtedly consider the proclamation to be very Good News.

As long as there is a human religious condition to be improved, we need voices who are willing to proclaim the need to improve it. A pulpit sometimes requires more then just imparted finesse, proper etiquette, and "MP." The fight - and it is a fight - to improve the religious, social, and political condition of humanity sometimes requires a guy like McKibben. Why? Well, simply put, 99% of the human beings "out there" did not attend Chapel at Harvard. Wasn't it Emerson who said, "Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis?"

This all doesn't mean we shouldn't critique our own religious suppositions on a daily basis. We should indeed. I do believe it is a balance and if your point is that this balance is rarely struck, then I agree.

Stephen A.:

August 5, 2005 02:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

The article seems to be good at tackling all great sins of the Conservative Christian churches.

And they indeed *are* sins. They have led to a shallow faith in which works are said not to matter to God, in which emotion always trumps reason - then masquerades as spirituality, and the size and 'comfort level' of a congregation (and how well it's mass marketed) matters more than whether God's will is advanced.

But the article could also very well have taken up the sin of turning the pulpit into a political stump, and by doing so, turning the church into a political party (or the tool of one,) and the sin of being so 'inclusive' that the mere mention of 'God' at all becomes the greatest sin of all.

I've experienced both of these sins in a UU 'fellowship' and they are just as eggregious as the sins of the conservative churches I've visited. One UU minister was fired because she used the world 'God' too often. (Even though she was always careful to refer to God as a feminine deity and "mother-spirit," it was too much for the bitter non-theists in the crowd.) That same congregation spent week after week railing against the Reagan administration and praising those lovely, peaceful Sandinistas (this was a while back.)

That's not what religion is all about, in my view. That cheapens religion as much as those tho sin on the Right.

So where's the article on these OTHER sins?

Scott Wells:

August 6, 2005 10:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Steven, I think Unitarian Universalists need to take care of our own issues, and blogs seem to do a good job of airing the laundry. But I agree the McKibben article -- unseen, but I get the gist -- should have been in Christianity Today, an evo mag that could have handled it.

Just remember this discussion when the bromide "but UU Christians have lots of places to go" because sometimes it isn't true.

Bill Baar:

August 6, 2005 01:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

I didn't even try to read Mckibben since it's subscription only.

As one with many vices though, I'm entirely with Matthew Arnold when he defined hypocricy as "the tribute vice pays to virtue" and would never fault anyone as a hypocrit.

As for false teachings, I don't know how to sort out charlatans and false beliefs from the truth. I'd avoid trying. I'd judge people by their actions and consequences. Not their beliefs.

Our UU minister says don't tell me what you believe. Show me how you spend your money, and I'll tell you what you believe. That makes sense to me.

Ron Robinson:

August 16, 2005 11:49 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here are my comments not so much on the article but arising from it, that I sent out a few weeks ago in the church e-news.
"Why A Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong"

I was reading an excellent article in the latest Harpers Magazine on "The Christian Paradox. Why A Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong" by Bill McKibben, a prominent essayist, particularly on environmental matters, and an active United Methodist lay leader. The gist of the article was certainly not news. About 80 plus percent of people in the United States say they are Christian, but less than half know much about the Bible, and even less about what Jesus said and taught and how he lived, and how in fact Jesus' life and ministry and message are very often completely different from the values and lives and message of those in the 80 plus percent. McKibben wasn't shocked by this either. He said he knows people (including him, he said; and including me I will add) are hypocrites. But very few of the 80 plus percent acknowledge this, confess it, and, most importantly, strive to correct it, in both our personal lives and in how we want our society to behave.

What got my attention was the statistics, again not new, that of those 80 plus percent who are Christian, only some 33 percent on average attend church on anything you might call a regular basis (and although there are regional differences, and here we have higher church attendance than on the coasts, the latest figures I have seen for this area still have it less than 50 percent). Just "believing" in something--a creed, something we were taught, or picked up about what it means to be Christian--is more important to folks than living a certain way, or participating in the spiritual discipline called "being the church" that seeks to continue, however imperfectly, the life and spirit of Jesus, and which should be about helping us to do this in our personal and social lives too, but which can't do this very well when we don't show up. (And I think there is a correlation between the drop in church life, and the drop in the number of people voting, attending civic and governmental events, and anything having to do with "community life"--it is all interconnected but the unchurched society moves us in the direction of "no-society" just enclaves of isolated lives).

Now usually I chastize the church for our failings when it comes to the rise of the unchurched culture, and those complaints still stand. But now I want to say something that might sound radical, or not, coming from a minister---
I don't believe that what you believe is more important than being a part of "the church." Maybe this isn't so surprising coming from one within the free church tradition where all souls are welcome and we focus on "deeds not creeds" and I love it when an atheist is in church next to a Trinitarian and they both love and support one another, but it is going to be surprising for anyone who thinks the free church is all about people being free not to be the church. Anytime you cut off the free part or the church part you are going down the wrong path. This does not mean that everyone has to, or even can, be a part of a church in the same way, or that one's worth in life can be judged on some scale of "church participation." What it means is that in church, in our committments and highest aspirations and in our failings of them, we engage in life at a deeper more sacred level than what is in our heads and our thoughts. Beliefs may lead us into church where we seek to make them real in the world today and for the world to come, but a good free church will deepen, change, grow our beliefs, and in times when we have no beliefs, no hope, the church will be the soil in which the seeds of belief and hope are planted anew.

What does all this have to do with Jesus? He wasn't about building committees and a hierarchy and rules for a new thing called The Christian Church. Thank God, and neither should we. But he was about bringing diverse people together in many different ways and places for the work of healing, liberation, and growing souls. Beyond Belief (as the new book by Elaine Pagels is titled) but Deep Into Life. Amen.


August 18, 2005 11:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

McKibben certainly wasn't preaching to the resident choir at the Ivy League university where I've been living and working for the past twenty years. In that blue-state milieu, ignorance of the content of the gospels is rampant, and the only sociallly acceptable religions are Judaism and humanism. For example, one would never schedule an important meeting or event on the day of Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, but important events are scheduled on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday all the time. What this tells me is that it would never occur to anyone that the major Christian Holy Days would be days of religious observance for respectable intellectuals. As far as I can tell, the elite academy has ceded Christianity to those who know nothing about its primary texts. I was thrilled that the article appeared in Harper's, a place in which the people with whom I work, many of them public intellectuals well-placed to challenge the religious right's Christianity, might be likely to see it and to become educated by it.


August 29, 2005 02:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

One approach to discussing McKibben might be to ask whether he could get away with his critique without labeling himself a Christian. I suspect that half the members of my UU church do not call themselves Christian (myself included), but it seemed clear to me after reading him that if I don't claim membership in the community, I'm not even in the conversation. Maybe a lot of us need to get over our Christian label phobia so that we can actually make a difference. Then again, maybe a "liberal" Christian is as demonic to Mega-church Christians as Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists.

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