Persuasion and Preaching

NOTE: I realize this is incredibly long, but I posted it as one piece because I thought breaking it in two would ruin one of my better bits of writing.  Also, because this IS so long, next week will likely see only one post.  We’ll see.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, Mrs. Frankenfeld and I vacationed last week in the Appalachians.  As we drove through ceaseless rain in Kentucky on our way down, we surfed the radio and discovered that although there were myriad stations, they all fell into just two categories: Christian and country.  Since I object to country music in all forms that do not involve Connie Britton in at least a peripheral capacity, that left us to choose between maybe a dozen Christian stations, almost all broadcasting sermons from local churches on account of this being a Sunday.  So, we listened to some preaching.

Of course, I should probably say preechin, because that’s what this was.  Grammar bad enough to qualify as a foreign language, breathless ranting, and massive rural helpings of anti-government paranoia violated our ears on whichever station we chose, usually at a speed fast enough to impress Twista or Busta Rhymes.  The gentlemen in the pulpits gasped audibly for breath at the end of each explosion of words, only to curtail the same gasp by launching into another voluble eruption of machine-gun paced hillbilly-twanged wisdom.

Not everything they said was wrong, by the way.  But they spoke so quickly that it was impossible to sort the wrong from the right and also listen to what was new, and so the result was that we and our car flew through the rain, propelled by the force of their arguments, without time to process.  And from the sounds of the congregations’ cries of affirmation audible on the broadcasts, we weren’t the only ones.  The preechin had power.  I cannot deny it.

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The timetable for our sojourn placed us in Tennessee for breakfast on Monday, and we stopped at the town in which I experienced the most miserable year of my childhood.  The details of my suffering from August 1, 1988 until August 1, 1989 are rich enough that I’ll save them for another time, but I’m serious when I say the town in which we lived actively persecuted me and my whole family as retribution for the Civil War.  We were Northerners, we were the enemy, and my mother swears I cried myself to sleep every night for a 3 month stretch at one point.  God’s children shouldn’t hold grudges, but I do.  Believe me when I say that.  I do.

At any rate, my wife is from Georgia.  And her family cabin – the one to which we were meandering – is only a few hours from the site of my inner 8 year-old’s visceral hatred.  So as we stopped for breakfast in the contemptible hamlet, an unspoken competition commenced between us.  She felt that I had always been unfair to the town, that my family probably exacerbated our struggles by failing to adapt to a new culture, and that returning as an adult would show me the error of my ways.  I, as you would expect, sought vindication.  I didn’t want her to hate this unspecified town.  I needed her to.  And so we each sought to shape the other’s perceptions, without acknowledging the game it became.

To those of you familiar with my pathological competitiveness, it will not surprise you to know that I won the game.  Not at first, admittedly.  Our waitress was a delightful southern stereotype out of a Hallmark movie, so my prospects of maintaining my scorn looked correspondingly bleak, but I ate slowly enough for my wife to realize the dearth of culture, civility, and awareness of the last 30 years of progress amongst the other patrons and employees of the restaurant.  She doesn’t hate the town or its people, necessarily.  But she did acquire a deep dislike of the town, she accepts that I feel more strongly about it than her, and she accepts that I’m not exaggerating when I tell my Tennessee tales.

I don’t feel great about this, by the way.  I helped my wife to dislike a few thousand strangers, and I did it because I wanted her to think as unhealthily as me.  As I said, I probably even needed it.  This victory doesn’t taste as sweet as most.  It might even taste sour.  But I did win.

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My most relaxing vacations generally involve 19th Century literature.  Simple but long novels, covering concerns from an era so long gone as to render them frivolous curiosities to me.  For this trip, my choice was Mansfield Park.  It proved exactly what I wanted in almost every way – the story carried my interest, but I didn’t exactly lose any sleep over what would become of Fanny.  It lasted me the whole week, but took only one additional day to conclude and set aside.  It was, basically, the perfect vacation read for my tastes.

Except for one thing.

My enjoyment of the novel (as will yours, if you have not read it) hinged upon my willingness not merely to accept, but to actively hope for a marriage between first cousins.  Unaccustomed as I am to rooting for incest, this absolutely complicated my ability to enjoy the read.  At times Jane Austen convinced me to want it, but in the end, I couldn’t.  I get that this used to be common practice, that it still happens in many parts of the world, and that it even – dear golly why? – remains legal in some circumstances in the state in which I reside.  Even so, I couldn’t go there.  Not this reader.

What redeems the book from being a total failure, however, is what Austen did accomplish in my mind.  If she couldn’t make me actively desire a marriage between first cousins, she could stop me from being opposed to it.  In the end, I didn’t want it, but I didn’t hate it either.  The book depended upon my signing off on incest, and that’s what I did.  She needed to bend my mind to her view, and she found a way to bend it just far enough.

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Which brings us back to Kentucky.  And not, as I know you’re thinking, for wisecracks about marrying first cousins; that happens to be illegal in Kentucky.  Back to the preechin, which is – as with preaching – the central moment of an evangelical worship service.

It is, right?  I mean, we sing songs aplenty at evangelical services, but the role of each song in a service is frequently more like a small helping of an appetizer from one of those pick-3 or pick-5 platters you order during a night out with friends.  You know, some of the repetitive choruses that divert your attention to your next blog post topic are rather like the always-promising-but-never-satisfying garlic bread, certain hymns are akin to reliably-filling-but-never-transcendent mozzarella sticks, and so on.  At any rate, without the appetizer tray, your evening wouldn’t be nearly as full and enjoyable, but it’s not the filet mignon.  It’s not the main attraction.

And never mind whether or not the role of music (or elements, like prayer, dramatizations or responsive readings, etc.) should be more important than this.  In most evangelical churches, they are not.  They’re part of a larger whole, but they aren’t the center.  Preaching is.

And as we drove through Kentucky, propelled by the momentum of some truly ill-conceived sermons, that started to bother me even more than it usually does.

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Essentially, all preaching breaks into two main categories: teaching, and persuading.  I’ve never heard a sermon that wasn’t at least a little bit of both, but every sermon leans more to one side or the other of that continuum, and can be categorized thusly.  But the sermons we heard going through Kentucky (Which, while we’re on the topic, should in no way be assumed to be representative of all Kentucky evangelicalism.  They’re simply what we heard in one profoundly limited sample) were so heavy on persuasion and so light on teaching that they illustrate perfectly the danger of making preaching the absolute center of evangelical worship.

If there’s a lesson to be gained from my Tennessee breakfast, it’s that when we need someone else to think a certain way, we’ll find a way.  Even though I now regret my quest to shape how my wife sees that town, I got so caught up in my efforts to persuade her that I found a way.  In this case, I chewed my bacon slowly enough to give the town time to reveal its true colors, and don’t think for a second that it was an accident.  My persuasion had taken on a life of its own, and the act of persuasion became more important than the topic it concerned.

That’s also true of Mansfield Park.  If the act of persuading me to be ambivalent about the cousin marriage hadn’t had a life of its own, there would have been no story, and thus no book.  It took every page of that huge book to soften my revulsion at the prospect, and that’s probably one reason why the lengthy act of persuasion that is Mansfield Park endures.

Not all of preaching should consist of teaching, and there’s no reason that sermons shouldn’t feature prominently in many (can we avoid saying all?) services.  But if the sermon is the whole of every service and the sermon is entirely persuasive, what happens when that persuasion takes on a life of its own?  When that happens – and I’m sure most of you have seen this in person yourselves – the sermon can acquire a momentum that seems inspired, even if it’s on hating Southerners or marrying cousins.  Which means that an entire worship service gets redirected.  We have a word for that: idolatry.

I realize that seems harsh, but what else can we call misdirected worship?

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In four years of seminary classes, I never heard anyone suggest that the weakest link in worship is often the sermon.  But it is, because it’s typically the only moment of a service that depends entirely upon one person to remain self-controlled and resist the urge to self-aggrandize and embellish his (or her) message.  It’s the only moment of the service that hinges on whether or not one person can vanquish the temptation to allow persuasion to be an end rather than a means, and it’s usually the only moment of a service that can completely rewrite how everyone experiences and remembers the rest of the worship service.  And while that’s not insurmountable, it is a pretty big ask, week in and week out.  My vacation illustrated why: persuasion may not automatically lead to idolatry, but if it’s the center of a church’s worship, that church is playing with fire.

Which doesn’t mean that persuasion doesn’t belong in the pulpit; we just shouldn’t necessarily give it priority of place over teaching, celebrating, remembering, lamenting, or any other corporate action in worship.  And maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on preaching in the first place.  It might lower our collective risk of idolatry, not to mention the risk of being talked into marrying our cousins.

Can Christians Save Detroit?

Mrs. Frankenfeld and I returned from a week of vacation this weekend (Leaving behind a sunny, warm, and flower-filled Chicago spring to spend a cool, cloudy, and rainy week surrounded by swarms of hornets the size of your big toe in the Appalachians), and one of the first stories to catch my eye in the news – apart from Mark Sanford completing a comeback that still leaves me scratching my head – is the fact that we can finally put numbers to the story of Detroit’s decay-pocalypse.  The news reports vary slightly, but the AP reports that the city is projected to fall roughly $386m short of what it needs this year alone, and the Detroit Free Press says Detroit has long-term debts totaling $17-22 billion dollars.

We’ll get to the numbers, but in order to grasp the topic we should first highlight this idea Detroit is still a city, or at least what we understand by that word.  Once home to millions, Detroit presently has about 700,000 residents, most of whom are presumably too impoverished to leave town and join the millions who have already fled to the suburbs.  The result is a vast urban expanse of abandoned and decaying buildings and houses, and a mess that’s nearly impossible to police or protect from fire.  So while an aggregation of 700,000 probably is best termed a city, we won’t pretend it resembles any other city in the developed world.

At any rate, Detroit’s population plummeted while its debts exploded, which means that every man, woman, and child in Detroit would owe between $24,000 and $31,000 if the debt burden were divided amongst the citizenry.  Bear in mind, this is a city in which – according to Trulia.com – the average listing price for a home was $44,318 as of May first, and the median household income is only about $25,000.

So the situation has deteriorated such that the state of Michigan has taken over the city.  As well as disclosing the financial catastrophe in Detroit, reports ordered by the state have also added color to other elements of life in the city, with depressing results.  For example, one report suggests that the police force can be improved, so long as they procure “more and better technology, equipment, police cars, and personnel.”  Which I suppose at least implies that their buildings would be satisfactory, so long as everyone and everything in them changed.  At least Detroit has that.

You get the picture.  Detroit has problems.  My point in all of this is to float one crazy idea: what if the United States’ Christians banded together to bail out Detroit?

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I know.  Churches are not in the business of handing Jesus’ money to degenerate municipalities.  But hear me out.

For one thing, let’s establish that we could.  It is a feasible course of action; if 100 million American Christians – which is roughly equivalent to the number that regard themselves as born again, and thereby excludes tens of millions of additional generous Christians – were to pony up the cash, the upper limit estimate of Detroit’s obligations would amount to $220 per person.  Not easily met, but doable, and we actually need only a fraction of that much – some of Detroit’s obligations are pensions; a bailout today doesn’t really need to come up with pension cash that will be needed 5 or 25 years from now.  There’s also the option of simply making Detroit’s budget good for a few years – this year we’d have to raise $3.86 each, and future years would hopefully demand less.  Good idea or bad, it is possible.

Secondly, permit me to argue that Detroit is a special case.  There are tens of thousands of places on earth worthy of special attention from the church; this tends to function as a particularly effective excuse to address none of them since we can never decide where to start.  With that said, there is no place in the United States as bad as Detroit.  It’s barely part of the first world; consequently, if we want to help somewhere in the U.S., Detroit may be the least arbitrary starting spot.

Thirdly, Detroit’s plight makes the entire city one of the “least of these.”  In addition to Detroit’s third-world police force and Robocop-like urban blight (and let’s pause to admire the prescience of setting that film in Detroit in the first place), the city boasts an unemployment rate some estimate to be as high as 25%, a poverty rate three times higher than the nation as a whole, and a median household income less than ½ the national median.  Every urban area contains concentrations of people in need, but Detroit essentially lacks concentrations of anyone else.  To help the city of Detroit is to help the people Jesus told us to help.

Fourthly, Detroit is a chance for the church to take a visible stand for justice and redemption at the same time.  Look, no municipality reaches such dire straits without loads of corruption.  Detroit’s population decline has been a financial catastrophe, but it’s also seen enough corruption to make a Sicilian blush, and in fact lost a recent mayor to prison for it.  And while we could blame Detroit’s voters for making some poetically disgraceful decisions in the voting booths, we should also remember that Detroit’s voters were educated in Detroit’s schools.  Their critical thinking isn’t as honed as yours.

Anyway, Detroit is collecting the fruit of corruption that has little to do with the little old lady who can’t get the police or fire department to come when she needs them.  Not only could our money go far to ensure that such little old ladies have access to justice, not only could our money go far to prevent renewed corruption (as always, it’s about the strings you attach to a gift), but our money could go far to give 700,000 people a second chance.  We can reverse years of injustice and redeem an entire city.  Can you think of a better witness?

I know many of you will remain unconvinced that we should do this.  You’ll argue that it creates a moral hazard; if Christians start footing the bills incurred by corruption, you’ll argue that this incentivizes corruption.  Maybe, but that’s missing the point.  Christians – and evangelicals in particular – spend too much time worrying about what we must do or should do.  What about what we can do?

In this case, what we can do is take a massive public step that reminds the world that we’re about more than conservative political causes.  Like Jesus, we’re also about forgiveness, second chances, and generosity, and now is a great time to remind the country of that fact.  My checkbook’s ready, so how about it?  Wanna bail out Detroit?

Note: uncited statistics in this post are from the Detroit Free Press or http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2012/09/detroit_has_half_the_median_in.html

Mohamedou Ould Slahi on My Mind

There are things worse than death, and torture is one of them.  Rape or a certain kind of loneliness almost certainly count, too, and you might be able to dream up one or two more if you really want to send your mind to some dark places.  Anyway… torture.

Since I was studying international politics in college during the time spanning between the Tuesday, September 11, 2001 attacks and the Thursday, March 20, 2003 commencement of the United States’ second invasion of Iraq, we discussed torture in my classes frequently.  One of my professors had known several people over the years who had been victims of torture, and he assured us that what was left of a person after they were tortured was never quite the same.  Not in the poignant, end of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King kind of way where they say, “some wounds never heal,” but more in a can’t-form-normal-relationships, prone-to-violence, and never-sleep-normally-again sort of way.  A cries openly in a culture in which men do not (maybe cannot?) cry openly sort of way.  A never comes fully back sort of way.

It is, obviously, a PTSD that doesn’t seem to abate, even when it’s treated.  Tortured people are never again whole, thus torture is worse than death.

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I tell you this because I’ve been reading some of the Guantanamo memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee who remains in America’s Cuban hell even now.  They’re being published as a book, and Slate.com has been running excerpts this week.  Good luck making it through one of his Slate pieces in one sitting; the experiences of torture they describe are so vile you won’t want to keep reading, let alone believe they actually happened at American hands.

Even so, read them.  I know I’ve sometimes recommended a piece here or there, but this isn’t like that.  Read these excerpts.  Do it.  I’m not asking.

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I don’t believe everything Slahi says.  His claim that it was all a massive coincidence that he knew and associated with terrorists in 4 or 5 countries on 3 or 4 continents (everywhere I go, I see McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and al-Qaeda trained jihadis!  Globalization rules!) causes my BS detector to beep like it’s trying to avert a plane crash, and if he’s lying about that, he’s telling other lies too.  But I don’t believe for a second that his entire narrative is fictional, either.  Which means we – American taxpayers – paid despicable thugs – American and otherwise – to torture him.  So we’re clear, I’m not talking about waterboarding, either.  We’re talking about something even the neo-cons have to admit was beyond any gray area.

While that’s disturbing in its own right, it gets still more perverse.  The first Slahi excerpt run by Slate tells the story of how the detainees at Guantanamo – speaking to one another in Arabic, since that was the common tongue to unite people from so many corners of the world – were divided on the kind of treatment they anticipated from American captors.  Initially, those from Middle East dictatorships assumed they’d be harassed, mistreated, and tortured in an effort to garner information, whereas those detainees who had lived at any point in a Western democracy assumed they would be treated justly and in accordance with Western legal principles.  Obviously, those that had lived in the West – including Slahi – were horribly mistaken.

At the time the detainees had that conversation – presumably at some point in 2002, although I’m not entirely sure – such hope in American idealism wasn’t as embarrassingly naïve as it now seems.  The very first American document, the Declaration of Independence, sets out the idea that we all have certain unalienable rights, and while it doesn’t name torture specifically, that omission was fixed pretty early in American history with the 8th Amendment to the Constitution.  Which means that torturing people is inconsistent with how Americans have conceived justice since the moment our country began.  So the naiveté of the detainees was really just the perfectly defensible assumption that Americans would act like Americans.

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What’s particularly interesting about this, of course, is the fact that in choosing to abandon centuries of we-don’t-torture tradition, the Bush administration chose to abandon the one thing about the United States that the detainees seemed to admire.  If there was ever an issue on which the Guantanamo guests might be persuaded to see the United States as anything other than the Great Satan in need of annihilation, that was it.  If there was ever a moment when the War on Terror might have been nippable in the bud, it was then.  Instead, we chose the path of medievalism.

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Since this is an evangelical blog, you might ask what any of this has to do with evangelicalism.  It’s a fair question, but one that misses the point entirely.  The question of torture is one of justice, and thus a concern that transcends the relatively small boundaries of evangelicalism.  There are things about which all Christians can agree, and the notion that God demands justice from those who would claim him is one of those things.

Torture is not just.  It damages people created in God’s image in a way that no person could ever defend to the creator.  It treats someone God has made as less valuable than information, and – in the sickest of ironies – it yields only information of dubious reliability.  It fundamentally elevates the value of the torturer and the torturer’s need for information over the tortured’s wellbeing and soul.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something evangelicals can condemn unequivocally as wrong.  So while I hear a lot more evangelicals worrying about whether or not gay people can marry or Obama’s a socialist, this should be on your radar too, even now that America has forgotten all about it.

The problem, friends, is that Guantanamo is still open.  And the victims tortured with our tax dollars – including Slahi – are still basking in the Cuban heat.  At least, what’s left of them is.

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Meanwhile, the Arab Spring.  The detainees skeptical that the U.S. would offer them better treatment than the torture they received at home hailed from countries that have since largely overthrown the torturing governments in favor of democracy and (at least in theory) human rights.  So while the U.S. adopted the barbarism of Arab dictatorships, the Arab Spring saw those same dictatorships collapse in favor of governments paying lip service to Western notions of justice.  We chose their historic path, and they chose ours.  Guess who won that trade?

And while we’re busy forgetting our choice – as though forgetting could wash the evil from our hands – those new democracies are busy grasping for the next steps.  You’ll notice that Americans are full of advice on that score, by the way.  But you’ll forgive Egypt’s President Morsi (and others) if they don’t want to hear our advice.  After all, from their perspective (and from mine, after reading Slahi’s tale), it might be time for the Arab Spring to yield to an American Spring.

What would that look like?  I’m not entirely sure.  But after reading Slahi’s excerpts on Slate (you did read them, right?), I know that I don’t trust our government so long as Guantanamo remains open.  I know that we owe those detainees who will not be prosecuted more than it’s possible to repay.  And I know that I’d like to hear evangelicals have something to say about all of this, and I suspect God might like that too.