On Declining Empires: Part Two

In my previous post (part one of this mini-series), I made the argument that when empires decline (as opposed to when empires collapse), the people at the center of the empire are the last to know it.  It’s true for geopolitics, and I even found examples from sports and religion as well.  In today’s post, meanwhile, I want to take a look at two such ‘empires’ that may be in decline in present day America.

The first of the decaying empires is one that many people have already suggested is in decline: the Republican empire in American politics.  The assumption that it is in decline after another loss in presidential elections is normal; lose one election and you’re on the verge of crisis, lose two and the media immediately begins arbitrarily attributing fatal flaws to the party in question.  What’s slightly different this time – as opposed to autopsies of the Democrats during the George W. Bush years or during the Reagan-Bush years – is the media using statistics and demographic trends to assert that unless the GOP reaches voters who are either young, non-white, or both the party is doomed.  For once there’s every reason to assume the media naysayers are correct.

But you already knew that, because the news that growing numbers of educated or urban voters, as well as African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans find the Republican Party distasteful has been shouted from every rooftop by this point.  The counter-claim, of course, is that many of the aforementioned voters are young, and young people never vote Republican; it’s an American tradition that the young become more conservative as they age, start families, and begin to worry about mortgages and IRAs.  Remember our thesis however, and the problem is obvious: the spokespersons for empires in denial about decline always have rationalizations, so how do we know whether the naysayers or the Republican apologists are telling the truth?  Is the Republican Party a decaying empire or not?

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Before answering, note that there’s a second and parallel American empire struggling to attract young people.  In fact, the list of people reluctant to affiliate with this empire matches perfectly with that of the Republican empire: the young, the non-white, the educated, the urban, and many immigrants.  This empire has no formal affiliation with the Republican Party, but it will surprise no one to learn that many of the constituents of this second empire are also Republican, and that some are suggesting that the two declines are linked and may require identical solutions.  I’m talking, of course, about the white American evangelical church.

You may have heard that the white evangelical church isn’t attracting new members like it should, but I’ll wager that you haven’t heard it expressed as the harbinger of (white) evangelicalism’s end in the same way we hear about Republicans.  One reason for this is that many assume God will preserve the evangelical church so long as it remains faithful to Him, but there’s at least one other reason.  Politics has elections, so there are regular points on a calendar at which everyone stops to assess which empire is decaying, and the underlying problems are analyzed and addressed.  The church has no such elections, so evangelicalism has no regularly scheduled introspection.  As a result, political declines are usually checked whereas an evangelical decline could conceivably proceed to the bitter end.

At this point I should also clarify that the global evangelical church is doing fine.  I’m not saying evangelicalism is at an end as such, but evangelicalism within the United States is in jeopardy.  As for the American church, we all know that American evangelicalism is essentially split into the African American church and the white church; I’m focusing on the white branch because that’s what I know best.  Even so, be aware that the African American evangelical church does have a major demographic albatross of its own – the absence of young men.  One could make an argument about the coming decline of the African American evangelical church on that basis, but I’ll leave that to those more familiar with the matter.  Instead, permit me to prod more deeply into the demographic problems of the white evangelical church.

Make no mistake about it: my contention is that the inability of evangelical churches to attract young people will have fatal ramifications if it is not reversed.  People do not join churches or come to faith because of a marketing program, of course, but people do both because of the influence of their peers.  Eventually, however, a tipping point occurs at which the church is so far removed from entire peer groups that none of the people in them will ever be exposed to the merits of evangelical faith.  Take it from a young person: the evangelical church is far nearer this point with people under 40 than anyone seems willing to admit.

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As I write, the Republican Party is having a vigorous debate about its future, and the path forward will emerge both through power struggles within the party and by how the party navigates negotiations – like the one over the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ – with Democrats.  With a role ceded to them by over 150 years of American tradition, you have to like Republicans’ odds of reforming and surviving; at this point Americans expect a 2-party system that simplifies every question into a yes/no dichotomy of positions.  While Republicans may be on the wrong side of a lot of policies today (from a demographic perspective), since tomorrow’s issues will also be reduced to simplistic yes/no questions the GOP will find themselves on the right side (demographically speaking) of at least some of those issues.  Add in the fact that the GOP will undoubtedly take actions in the short-term to avert demographic catastrophe (i.e. immigration reform), and I’m comfortable saying the Republican Party is definitely an empire in decline, but that decline will be arrested, even if the powers-that-be never admit their current predicament.

You’ll notice that none of the reasons for Republicans to believe in the survival of their empire apply to the parallel evangelical empire.  Religious questions permit more nuance in the United States than political questions, so unlike Republicans, the evangelical church won’t survive by virtue of being one of only two options.  Also, unlike Republicans and immigration, there are no major issues on which the church can eat crow and plead for a second chance – some would argue gay marriage as such an issue, but even if evangelicals could reverse the standard position on gay marriage, other tenets of the faith would remain equally inflammatory (the concept of hell for non-Christians, to name just one).  The evangelical demographic problem may look the same as the Republican one, but options to reverse the decline of the evangelical empire are vastly more complicated, and will require more than patience and minor adjustments.

As for what may be done to fight against the decline of the white evangelical empire, I have some thoughts, but you’ll have to wait for part 3 of this post series (posting next week) to read them.

Continue to Part 3 here.

On Declining Empires: Part One

A recent issue of The Economist includes a special report on France with a provocative undercurrent suggesting that France is a country in decline. Although most of the articles in the report avoid explicitly stating that thesis – and I can’t say the authors actually use the word ‘empire’ in these articles either – that’s certainly the idea. France was a great empire and has a history of political and philosophical global influence, and now it has degenerated to the point that it no longer warrants status as a country of consequence on the global stage – or possibly even on the European stage. There’s another vital claim accompanying this argument, however, and it’s all the more provocative: the French have no idea that their empire and clout have vanished. Paris, according to the British (or at least the authors writing for this British magazine) is in complete denial about France’s decline.

If the subtext of the articles seems true (and the notion that the French haven’t noticed a French decline strikes me as plausible at worst), the great irony is to read such suggestions in a British publication. The assumption by The Economist’s writers that they can objectively judge the decline of French relevance is perverse; these same writers fail to notice that their own United Kingdom has undergone a still greater decline since the 1940s. Essentially, the pot has published a special report hinting that the kettle is black.

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After thinking about this for a few days, permit me to offer a thesis that is usually – but probably not universally – true. Empires can either decline or collapse, and if an empire declines, that decline is unlikely to be noticed by those who reside at the empire’s very center. For example, the German Empire collapsed. Germany lost World War I, and everyone knew it, even those who lived in Berlin. Germany’s colonies were seized, Germany’s borders reduced, and the German people made to suffer so profoundly that the advent of World War II was virtually guaranteed. This is one model for the end of an empire.

The other model, however, is one of gradual decline, and it’s one that has many examples. As I wrote above, the British Empire folded years ago, and I’m certain that the Canadians, Australians, Indians, and Pakistanis know this. I’m not sure, however, that the residents of London and Birmingham have caught on yet, as evidenced by the arrogant moralizing prevalent in British news (like when they sit in judgment over French decline). It seems like many who reside in England – and possibly Scotland and Wales as well – have missed the fact that they are no longer a global power “entitled” to judge the world. Consider that when extremists rant, the UK frequently doesn’t even warrant a mention – we typically hear about the U.S. and the West. Today, the UK has completed the journey from global power to another face in the European crowd. The mighty have fallen, whether they know it or not.

This has happened in other places and times as well. Ancient Athens declined slowly, and by the time of the New Testament we find that although the whole world has become Roman, there remain a group of Athenian philosophers carrying on the tradition of Greek philosophy as though Athens retained relevance (see Acts 17:21 for details). The Roman Empire, for its part, slowly degenerated into an empire of two halves, with the eastern capital Constantinople ensconced over the western capital Rome in the hierarchy. In time the ability of the east to put down barbarian hordes in the west declined, and eventually the Western Roman Empire existed in complete anarchy, whereas the Eastern Roman Empire was known as Byzantium but still regarded itself as the Roman Empire. Once again, an empire declined – a fact the people of Rome knew very well – but the people at the center of that empire – in this case the Constantinopolitans – were oblivious to that fact.

This happens outside of geopolitics as well. In the world of sports, the 2010-11 Lakers are the most recent example of this – they had won two consecutive NBA titles (and contested a third), but everyone outside of Los Angeles knew they were finished before that year’s playoffs. The empire had decayed, but the Lakers didn’t notice until the Dallas Mavericks – the eventual champions – proved it by emphatically eliminating them from the playoffs.  Los Angelinos were the last to know.

In religion, the massive building projects of the Roman Catholic popes right before the Reformation are another example. The popes were commissioning great art and massive projects rather than tending to their concerned flock, because those at the center of the Catholic church failed to notice the decay that was so evident to those in Northern Europe. Even then, the struggle with Martin Luther could have been defused or averted – it dragged on for years – but those in Rome didn’t see the problem, and the Catholic empire could never recover from the subsequent acceleration of decline.

In politics, sports, and in religion, history testifies that when empires decline those at the center are the last to know. If my thesis is correct, it raises an obvious question: which empires are decaying around us unnoticed? What empires might be devolving in such close proximity to us that it’s hard to gain appropriate perspective?

I imagine you can think of several candidates, and in part two of this meditation (posting Friday), I’ll look at two such candidates and their symbiotic relationship. In the meantime, however, feel free to add examples that I’ve neglected in the comment section.

Continue to Part 2 here.

Worf and the Gospel of Mark

Installment #3 of an ongoing series on Star Trek character Worf and the New Testament

Klingons – speaking generally – do not sneak. It’s a major motif of the Klingon honor-based culture, in fact – honorable actions are conducted in public, and dishonorable actions (i.e. shameful) are conducted when nobody’s looking. The converse also generally holds true; to do a thing openly is to do it honorably, and to do it secretly is to do it dishonorably. This is a governing dichotomy of Klingon culture, and its parallels with the culture of biblical Palestine make it one more Bible lesson we can glean from Worf.

Consider Mark 5, beginning with verse 25. The rest of the chapter – and carrying on through Mark 6:6 – presents three seemingly isolated episodes that are actually thematically linked by this public/secret dichotomy present in honor-based cultures. It starts in Mark 5:25, with the story of a woman rendered unclean for more than a decade due to a health issue. While being unclean for brief periods wouldn’t necessarily cause a person shame, prolonged uncleanness – and the accompanying severance from Jewish community and identity – would cause a person to feel mammoth shame, and her actions are consistent with such a diagnosis. By sneaking up on Jesus, she exhibits the telltale sign of shame for Klingons and Jews alike.

If it’s shameful to sneak around; it’s orders of magnitude worse to be caught and exposed. The discredit resulting from such a public humiliation would be indelible for a Klingon, and the stakes are just as high for this poor woman when Jesus turns to ask “who touched me?” To Americans, her moment of crisis before she answers Jesus may read like simple embarrassment, but the decision to admit that she had touched Jesus would necessarily have been preceded by a moment of abject terror as she weighed coming forward to accept that indelible humiliation. That she does so anyway demonstrates just how defeated-by-life she is when Jesus intervenes. And intervene he does; rather than further shaming her, Jesus dignifies her in front of everyone, congratulating her for her faith and sending her away by publicly announcing her healing. Jesus didn’t need to know who touched him so he could ratify the healing that had already taken place in her body; Jesus needed to speak to her so he could repeal her shame – a healing that could only happen publicly.

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This happens while Jesus is en route to visit a family with a sick child, and by the time Jesus arrives, the child has died. This part of the story begins in Mark 5:35, and it picks up the shame/honor theme right where the last passage left off, inasmuch as laughter and shame now descend upon the same Jesus who went out of his way to lift shame from the suffering woman only moments ago. Rather than arguing with the mockers (they laugh because he told them the deceased child was only sleeping), he just puts them out of the room and raises the child from the dead in secret. And when that’s completed, Jesus tells the family to keep what he’s done quiet.

To put this in perspective, imagine Worf being laughed at and publicly shamed. He’d probably want to fight, and you can bet that if the reason for laughter at his expense later turned into his vindication, those who had mocked him would hear about it, for more reasons than just pride. In any honor-based culture, honor is power. To reverse your shame into your honor and your enemy’s shame is to effect a power transfer from your enemy to you, and in such a culture seizing power for the glory of your family in one’s greatest aspiration.

With that help from Worf, we can observe two significant reversals in this passage. The first and most obvious one, of course, is the reversal of death itself. The second, however, is Jesus’ acceptance of shame, rejection of the honor that would come from public knowledge of his miracle, and refusal to accept the power transfer due to him for reversing his shame into honor. Whereas earlier in the chapter Jesus went out of his way to destroy the shame of the woman with the bleeding, when it comes to himself, Jesus makes no such effort. He not only accepts shame willingly; he gives instructions that preserve both his own shame and his mockers’ power. Harboring no ambitions for his own honor, he doesn’t exactly sneak, but Jesus definitely disregards the cultural expectation that honorable actions must be done in the open as he chooses a new path.

Mark 6 drives this choice home with a vengeance. At home in Nazareth, Jesus is so poorly received that he utters his famous quote that a prophet is without honor only in his hometown. If we read Mark without the aid of Worf, this might seem to us a sad and isolated anecdote about how people responded to Jesus. With the help of Worf, however, we’ve already seen how this episode continues the shame/honor theme from Mark 5. Here the author of Mark shows us that not even in Jesus’ hometown – among those who know him the best and thus should honor him the most – will Jesus publicly claim the honor he’s due. The people of Nazareth don’t honor him, and it’s their loss. For his part Jesus leaves quietly, accepting shame yet again, and keeping his honor secret.

For Christians – since we try to model our actions after Jesus – the subversive nature of Jesus’ willingness to renounce honor, keep secrets, and accept shame is easily overlooked. But Worf wouldn’t miss it in Mark, and neither should we. Jesus’ aspirations lie elsewhere, and that makes him completely counter-cultural.

This Fall’s Guilty Pleasure

Every fall, my wife and I each pick one new show premiering on network television, and we watch those two shows together from the pilot until such time as neither one of us can take any more of our new show. It’s kinda like launching missiles in fact, in that we both have to turn our “this sucks and we’re not watching it anymore” key before either one of us is permitted to bow out of our new show, and it’s heaps of fun. This is true for several reasons, including the fact we enjoy appointment television, and because it’s a little like gambling (seriously, more than 50% of new shows are unwatchably terrible each year, and that makes weighing the cumulative impact of every badly written line of dialogue that much more fun) but also because we’re petty elitists who enjoy being in on things early.

Basically, we have the fantasy that we’re going to catch televised gold and experience each moment live before the zeitgeist latches on, and that will make us more knowledgeable than others around the water cooler. Never mind that people around the water cooler are definitely talking about things on cable, and neither one of us has a water cooler around which to congregate at work in the first place. We like to be prepared for such hypothetical water cooler conversations anyway, because like I said, we’re elitists at heart.

ANYWAY, so far this year we’ve hung with both of our choices, one of which (my wife’s pick, for what it’s worth) puts the guilt in guilty pleasure for me: Nashville (ABC on Wednesday nights!).

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If you haven’t seen Nashville, it’s a serial drama about inhabitants of Nashville, Tennessee, most of whom have both a connection to the business of country music and piles of cash. Starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panattiere, the show weaves catchy songs (more on that in a minute), predictable plot twists, and decent acting into a very watchable show, in spite of occasionally stilted dialogue and some horrendous – I mean unforgivable – southern accents by certain cast members (I’m looking at you, Clare Bowen. I don’t care that you’re Australian. Take it from someone who’s lived in the South: you sound disabled, not southern). All in all it’s a diverting package.

So why do I feel guilty when I watch Nashville? Because I am 100% certain that the show’s writers are planning to ruin the imaginary lives of every single character on the show, and I can’t wait to see it. I admit that I could be wrong about that, naturally, but since I believe it with absolute conviction, I’ve formulated my opinions on this basis. I tune into Nashville every week eagerly expecting to watch each character’s world burn, and I’m so eager for the personal catastrophes I’m sure are coming that I’m essentially gleefully pouring emotional accelerant on the flames. And I feel terrible about it.

This is a first for me. I usually get sucked into shows when the writing and acting combine to produce characters about whom I find myself caring. For example, many will argue that The Wire was the greatest show ever made, but what sold it for me wasn’t the intricate plots or the great acting; it was the fact that I wanted to see Bodie or Poot get over, that I wanted Bubbles to get clean, and that I loved watching things go right for the characters I liked (1 out of 3 ain’t bad). In contrast, my wife and I have been unable to finish Friday Night Lights on Netflix because we really like the characters, but in every episode three things go wrong for every one thing that goes right, and that makes us hurt for Tyra, Matt Saracen, and the rest of the characters. For me, story is king. If I find the story working in favor of characters I like (in believable ways), I’m in. If not, I’m usually ready to turn the key and bail on a show.

With Nashville, in contrast, I’m basically rooting for schadenfreude, and even though the characters that I want to suffer are all imaginary, it leaves me feeling as guilty as it does certain that I’ll be back for more next week.

On the one hand, this is a little silly, because none of the characters on Nashville are real people, so I probably shouldn’t feel any guilt for enjoying their struggles. On the other hand, of course, is the fact that it’s moderately alarming to discover that I derive so much enjoyment from (imaginary) human suffering. As best as I can explain it, however, what I’m really enjoying is the fact that I’m not watching characters implode so much as I’m watching caricatures deservedly collapse.

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The thing is, Nashville presents a strangely sanitized world of country music. Not in moral terms – the characters are as amoral as one might expect in a slickly produced show about rich mavens of the music business – but in cultural terms. I’m not a big fan of country music, but I’ve heard my share of it, and three things that matter in country music are conspicuously absent from Nashville: God, patriotism, and twangy guitar. Essentially, what Nashville depicts is the world of country music scrubbed of those parts of country that make it a tough sell in Blue America. So while I find myself enjoying the show because I enjoy the fantasy country-world it depicts – it’s basically what I’ve always thought country would have to be like in order for me to like country – I think this simultaneously presents a serious problem for the show’s reality since the moral compass of country music is found in its Red American elements. I may not agree with country music’s fusion of God and nationalism (In fact, for the sake of clarity: I don’t. It makes me wildly uncomfortable), but that fusion represents an ethical polarity that is completely absent from Nashville.

Absent that ethical polarity, the characters of Nashville make decisions in an ethical vacuum of the sort that exists only on TV (or in Las Vegas), and the result is characters that consistently make transparently self-destructive decisions. Decisions, in fact, that nobody would make as casually or unhesitatingly as these Nashville people do. It adds up to a diverting fantasy, but unfortunately for the writers, there’s one glaring wart on this fantasy: because country music has a moral center, it is often about the results of sin seen as sin. So while Nashville’s caricatures are free to make amoral decisions as if there will be no consequences, sooner or later they will have to suffer if only so they can have fodder for their songs. Which means that in Nashville the consequences of sin have to exist, even if the concept of sin itself appears to escape both the show’s characters and writers. It also means that in stripping the show of country’s normal moral compass, the writers have exposed a truer compass from which they’re unable to liberate the denizens of Nashville.

In the midst of all the unreality of Nashville, this is perhaps the most real thing on TV today. Actions have consequences, and in Nashville, the characters deserve what they’re doing to each other. It fits with the natural order of things, and it feels intuitively right. Never mind how we got there; it rings true and that makes it all the more addictive, even if I feel a little guilty for enjoying the bonfire so much.

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #7

GROUND BIBLE

You cannot be too conservative. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tact is the ability to describe others.Abraham Lincoln

If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.Ronald Reagan


The people quoted above really said the things attached to their names. I’m perfectly prepared to admit that each quote seems out of character for the person to whom it’s attributed – MLK was no conservative, Lincoln was far too witty to see tact as simple description, and Reagan was the great enemy of taxes, regulations, and subsidies. Nevertheless, each quote is attributed correctly.

The problem, of course, is that each quote has been severed from both its context and the complete sentence in which it was said. This changes the meaning of each, and that’s why people of integrity don’t generally tinker with quotes like I have here. For me, it also raises the question of why evangelicals treat the words of Lincoln as being more sacred than those of Jesus or Isaiah?

Not sure what I mean? The same selective chopping of quotes is done with the Bible on a regular basis. People who would never muzzle MLK by editing his words so severely do exactly this with passages of the Bible. Understand: I’m not complaining about people quoting scripture anymore than I would complain about people quoting the influential Americans I cite at the head of this post. My problem is when those quotes are so aggressively edited that the fragmentary leftovers lose both meaning and context. It happens with worship songs, congregational readings, devotional readings, in bulletins, and even as topics of entire sermons. Basically, everywhere we look in Evangelical Culture we encounter scriptural quotations disembodied from sentences.

Since evangelicals by definition hold the view that scripture is inspired by God, many people appear to assume that each phrase of scripture has some kind of mystical pixie dust that makes it transcendent no matter how it’s used. This is crazy for myriad reasons, not least of which is the fact that it assumes profound spiritual truths are present in groupings of words that – since they’re not complete sentences – do not themselves combine to form complete thoughts. Unless we’re talking about poetry, that’s laughable. Here’s an idea: the Bible is as long as it is because God didn’t reveal Himself via Haiku.

Scripture’s authors write in sentences and paragraphs. This is because they sat down to write their books for specific reasons, and while they often give us nuggets of wisdom in the midst of their larger points, we shouldn’t be placing a higher value on the nuggets than on the grand themes of the Bible. Unfortunately, evangelicalism loves pithy sound bites. And while it sometimes works to use a familiar phrase to signify a more meaningful whole (I’ve often heard just “For God so loved the world” used to stand in for the rest of John 3:16, and people are seldom confused by this), more often than not, our sound bites of scripture manage to simultaneously obscure a passage’s point while also confusing those in our midst who are less steeped in evangelicalism. Does that sound like a win to you?

Permit me to close with an analogy. Beef is a staple of American cuisine, in pretty much any form. There’s almost no part of a cow that we won’t eat, and those parts of the cow’s meat that are harder to eat (or less desirable) are minced into what we call ground beef. But just because most parts of cow are edible doesn’t mean they’re equal; given a choice between filet mignon and ground beef, everyone I know will choose the filet, because cow tastes best when it’s least processed.

Scripture fragmented into bite-sized pieces divorced from context is much like ground beef – in fact, I even call those bite-sized pieces Ground Bible. But people eat ground beef because filet mignon is harder to find and because they can’t afford to eat filet mignon every time. Ground Bible, meanwhile, costs the same as any paragraph, chapter, or book of scripture and is actually the more difficult of the two to find, since it takes more effort to rip a phrase out of context than to simply leave it in a paragraph. So why should we ever eat Ground Bible?

The Bible consists of complete thoughts expressed in the contexts of larger points, and the evangelical predilection to ignore that fact while quoting fragments of scripture is another reason that Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable.

 
P.S. For the sake of transparency, here are the completed quotations diced at the header to this post:

When you are right, you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves. – Abraham Lincoln

The government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it. – Ronald Reagan