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.

Tim Tebow: Media Phenomenon

With the long-anticipated news yesterday that the New York Jets had severed ties with Tim Tebow, it seems likely that both his NFL career and his flash of celebrity have timed out.  And I’m irrationally disappointed about it.

Look, Tebow has myriad gifts, among them exceptional athletic ability, legendary leadership, and a great attitude.  The skills needed to play quarterback consistently in the NFL, however, appear to be missing at this point, at least according to the experts.  And since quarterback is nothing more and nothing less than a job, I can’t justify my disappointment that he may not excel at a job for which he lacks the requisite skills.  I don’t sit at home and worry about engineers who can’t remember calculus, nurses who can’t manage to administer the correct medication, or office assistants who can’t type, so why should I worry about a quarterback who can’t get the ball to his receivers?  Nobody else gets to keep a job they can’t do, so why should Tebow be any different?

The answer, of course, is he should not be.  But he is and we all know it.  And the reason why he warrants such special consideration provides an informative glimpse into the relationship between evangelicalism and media.

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Many have argued that Tebow became famous because he’s an evangelical and a self-promoter, but that’s false.  Tim Tebow’s fame began for one reason only: he won football games in college.  Not only did he experience mammoth successes, he earned them.  Tebow played well, he led even better, and he was a major factor in two national championships for the University of Florida during his time there – a fact confirmed when he was awarded the Heisman.  This is all easy to forget now that he’s struggling to put the football where it needs to be in the NFL, but in college, Tebow had enough skill to excel.

He became a media phenomenon – as opposed to being merely famous – because his evangelicalism was so unexpected: the handsome, muscular, national champion and Heisman trophy winner of a Florida university is supposed to be a self-involved party boy; he’s supposed to exist as the perfect archetype of all things jock, and we’re supposed to revile him accordingly, unless he ends up leading our favorite team to greatness.  Instead, with bible references in his eye black and a commitment to evangelizing the Philippines, he torched the stereotype and surprisingly managed a feat still greater: he proved interesting.

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Tebowing was a thing.  Now it’s not.  For some reason, some people seem to think that the originator of Tebowing ceased to be fascinating the minute dropping to one knee and posing ceased to be interesting.  I don’t understand why.  For one thing, you may have Tebowed in your life – hopefully before it stopped being a thing – but Tim never did.  He prayed.  He didn’t Tebow.  And the fact that some people can’t tell the difference is everything if you want to understand why he didn’t stop being interesting when his initial luster wore off.

To me, Tim Tebow remains interesting for several reasons, but none more vital than his ability to say, ‘no.’  His faith – that which so many missed when he would drop to his knee and pray – both required and empowered him to abstain from an unrivalled cocktail of temptations, and in his apparent success at rejecting such alluring opportunities, he became fascinating.  Look, even Solomon, when given all the fame and wealth life had to offer, turned into a debauched cautionary tale.  But this home-schooled Florida evangelical looks like he’s threading the needle and walking a path not even Solomon could manage, and I admit I’m not ready for the ride to end yet.  I want to see more because I’m still interested, and because I believe Tim Tebow might actually be able to handle the pressure of being such an icon.

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I’ve never met Tim Tebow, so I don’t know if he truly lives the spiritually upright life he clearly wants to live, but I have the strongest of suspicions he does.  The clearest evidence for this hides in plain sight in many of the media stories about him; at this point we’ve seen and read five uninterrupted years of stories about his humility, hard work, endless optimism, financial generosity, indomitable leadership, and general good-guyness.  The subtext of these stories, of course, is often that his poor passing is a shame, because he’s such a nice kid.  In fact, it often seems like journalists don’t know what to do with the fact that he’s so nice, so they visibly battle to fend off the clichés.

Which makes sense, if you’ve never heard of the fruit of the Spirit.  Since most readers of this blog have heard of the fruit of the Spirit, however, you can join me in observing that when the media report on Tim Tebow’s character, what we’re actually seeing is people who have no concept of the Holy Spirit trying to describe what it does in a person (in this case Tim Tebow) guileless enough to let the Spirit work.  When the media see optimism, we can read between the lines and see faith and hope in something far larger than an NFL paycheck.  The newspaper articles describe him as upbeat in the face of major setbacks, but we see joy, patience, and peace.  The television reports describe him as media-savvy and polished, but we see gentleness and self-control.

Sadly, however, in this case the fruit of the spirit seem invisible to those who aren’t already familiar with them.

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Tim Tebow would never have become so iconic if he weren’t an evangelical, and in that way, his evangelicalism has equipped him with a platform virtually impossible to earn via merit alone.  But as we reach what may be – but maybe not! – the end of the TIM TEBOW era, we can observe at least this one thing: no matter how large his media presence, he couldn’t control his message.  He prayed, and the media saw Tebowing.  He lived the fruit of the spirit in full view of America, but it emerged from the media filter as niceness.  His life story remains interesting, but it gets told in such a way as to make Mr. Rogers seem bacchanalian next to Vanilla Tim.  And therein lies the lesson.  As much as we may dislike admitting it, the media can never be a promotional tool for evangelicalism, because the media cannot tell stories they do not understand.  And Tim Tebow is exhibit A.

All of which make me more than a little disappointed that it may be over; I had hoped it would last until everyone could see what I see.  At any rate, that’s why I don’t care how he throws the ball, and that’s why I want more Tebow.  I want him to prove me wrong.

The Library of President W

Yesterday the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened in Dallas.  If you follow the news at all, you’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of the five presidents still living – and their wives – smiling at the ceremony.  As I reflect upon the tenure of our most evangelical President, I admit that while my feelings about his presidency remain mixed (he saved millions of African lives, but what about New Orleans?), I find the man himself fascinating.  So permit me to join the cacophony and share a few thoughts and reflections about President George W. Bush and the opening of his library.

The longer a President has been out of office, the bigger their smile as they wave at the ceremony.  Did you see the photos?  George W. Bush looks a little nervous, which makes sense since it’s his shindig.  Obama looks smug.  Clinton, meanwhile, looks pretty excited by the hoopla, while George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter are smiling like freshman girls asked to the senior prom.  Seriously, I don’t think they could smile any bigger if they were trying to prove they still had all their teeth.  This may have to do with the evolution of media, of course; Barack Obama and George W. Bush – being presidents in the age of the internet – are accustomed to today’s media, and thus wary of it.  George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter never had to deal with the modern press, so they smile and enjoy it, absent the Pavlovian conditioning that makes the younger Bush and Obama fear it.  Bill Clinton, meanwhile, is Bill Clinton.  When he’s on the verge of death, the doctors should probably leave the defibrillator on the shelf and grab a camera to revive him instead.  Follow that advice, and he may live forever.

Speaking of living forever…  Jimmy Carter still looks good.  I saw him working his butt off at a Habitat for Humanity project in South Africa in 2002, and I’ll never forget how much the secret service agents were sweating in the heat while the (then) 77-year old moved in fast forward.  With that said, I remember reading news stories that President George W. Bush’s resting pulse was in the 30’s during his presidency, and that he could outrun his supremely-fit protection detail.  Add in the advanced age to which both of his parents have thrived, what are the odds that George W. Bush might live long enough to one day attend the funeral of a former president who wasn’t even old enough to vote for/against him?

Every major newspaper has run a story this week on how President Bush isn’t loathed like he was at the end of his term.  This isn’t to say that he’s not loathed at all, and to be fair, most of the newspaper articles I’ve read struggle to hide the authors’ conflation of shock and horror that equating President W with Stalin or Pol Pot will no longer go unchallenged.  But even the liberal elites who give us news and have always felt that Vice President Gore got jobbed in ’00 have noticed that by demonstrating class and leaving politics when he left the White House, President Bush began a rehabilitation-by-absence.  It also doesn’t hurt that he turns out to be a half-decent painter, with subject matter suggesting introspection impossible for someone with the IQ the media have always assumed he has.  Best of all for his rehabilitation: the Tea Party hates him.  Could anything be more endearing?

While we’re on the topic, this re-evaluation of W was inevitable.  Look, President Bush might have been a total idiot, and he might have been unfathomably evil.  But he couldn’t be both, so sooner or later his reputation was guaranteed to rebound.  Evil of the type generally attributed to President Bush requires inspiration if not genius.  Idiocy of the type attributed to him precludes the capacity for exceptionalism of any kind.  These are mutually exclusive attributes, and history notices things like that.  Consequently, his reputation had to improve with time, and it has.  Even progressives have begun to gradually concede that he was neither despotic villain nor half-wit.

Also, as with all political stories in America, the unspoken and unnoticed truth has to do with fear.  Our opinions of former presidents always rise after they leave office.  Explanations for this abound, including the fact that our memories always dull with the passage of time.  We may remember our last fit of apoplexy, but given time, the intensity of our feelings when we think about it tends more towards ‘mildly distempered’ than ‘blackout angry.’  So it is that our animosity towards former presidents subsides as a matter of course, and most of the media reports have acknowledged this.

What the media haven’t acknowledged, however, is the role of fear in politics.  Massive numbers of people harbor indefensible distrust and malevolence towards President Obama right now, but let me suggest that it generally has less to do with who he is or with what he has done than it does with fear of what he might do.  The Affordable Care Act has its problems – some of which won’t emerge for a few years yet – but it’s not nearly as frightening as what many Republicans fear/imagine Democrats might do to compensate for those problems.  The strength of that fear has a direct correlation to the strength of their dislike of President Obama, and the day he becomes former President Obama, the fear will evaporate, yielding a corresponding moderation in their dislike of him.  We hate presidents when we’re afraid of them, but once they’re finished in politics, it becomes possible to evaluate them absent that fear, and that always aids popularity.

Just don’t expect to read that in your newspaper.  If news were food, fear would be MSG, and the media refuse to admit that they stoke it to help their bottom line.

Bush, despite what you’ve heard, was a moderate.  And that explains everything.  Democrats and the Tea Party both despise him.  He was very conservative – he’s a southern evangelical, after all – but he wanted to soften immigration laws, he massively expanded entitlements by making medicine affordable for the elderly, and he saved the United States from a depression by passing Keynesian policies before leaving office.  He was also preposterously unpopular, and in his wake, the Democrats became more progressive, and the Republicans continue to be cannibalized by reactionary Tea Partiers.  The dearth of moderates in our current political climate has everything to do with what happened to Bush; his personal unpopularity doomed an entire generation of moderates, and the parties responded accordingly.  We probably won’t have a functioning congress – an entity always glued together by moderates – until it’s OK to be moderate again, and that probably doesn’t happen until Bush is fully rehabilitated.

I still find his personal story inspirational.  President Bush made some terrible decisions as president.  The thing is, I’m sure not even he would dispute that.  This is a guy who was an alcoholic ne’er-do-well into middle age, but became president by 54.  Infallible he ain’t, and his willingness to explain how faith in Jesus transformed his entire life rings true.  It’s the only rational explanation for his transformation and rise, and oh-by-the-way, it makes perfect sense that many of the people who reject the veracity of his faith are the most perplexed and incensed by his ascent.

At any rate, Bush is a sinner who freely admits that fact, but reached the pinnacle of American politics anyway.  He’s a politician who generally kept his word, which counter intuitively made things worse.  He managed to enrage the entire political establishment, but no group hates him more than the anti-establishment Ron Paul types.  And in spite of the unprecedented scope of his late-presidency unpopularity, he seems like he’d be a fun guy to take a vacation with.  And I don’t even think that about most of my friends.  As I said, he fascinates me.