Archive for category: Market Christianity

Partnering to the Death (A Marriage Reflection)

It’s been six months since I first met my friends John and Margaret Paine. John and Margaret took vows at a tender age, just like Amber and I did. Their marriage started the way so many do, with hope, promise, and a commitment to love. But what happened along the way? The same things that happen to so many. The details are ordinary. Mundane, even. For clarity, though, let’s name them.

Long hours at the office. The difficulties of raising four children. The death of a business or two. The loss of identity. The churn, church, churn of obligation. 

There were years of disconnection, they’d tell you, years where the only thing holding them together was a commitment to spoken vows. You know this drill, don’t you? You know how life grinds a marriage down to nothing but bone and bone, tethered by vows?

In December, I sat with John and Margaret at their dining room table, the couple now fortyish years into their shared vows. If I were a betting man, I’d bet they’d make it another ten, and not because they’ve not learned the secret of sacred fidelity after all those years (although this much is true). They’ll not make it another ten on account of the terminal nature of life–John’s life to be exact. John is in the last throes of his battle with ALS.

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Tender as Cool

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” ~Eph 4:32

“Because your heart was tender, and you have humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard what I spoke against this place . . . I also have heard you, says the Lord” ~2 Kings 22:19

“Tenderhearted: easily moved to love, pity, or sorrow….” Miriam Webster Online Dictionary

1.

These are the things we’ve been taught: survival of the fittest; eat what you kill; climb or be climbed over; be tough. It is a world of do or die, and so society teaches us to do from the outset.

We are taught that brains and brawn are the key to success. “Develop physical strength and mental toughness and the world will be your oyster,” we promise. We point to star athletes who throw game-winning touchdown passes in the closing seconds, to performers who “leave it all on the stage,” and businessmen who achieve the pinnacle of success. We marvel at their mental and physical toughness, extol those virtues above most others, even if only by implication.

What about the others, though?

There is a boy with a lazy eye. His vision leads him to believe that, at times, the sky is the ground and the ground is the sky. He is perpetually off balance and out of sorts. Picked last for ever dodge-ball game, he is ever the first target. He has bruises on his body from every ball he never dodged.

Know this: even at seven the spirit of American exceptionalism can be stolen from a child.

The high school girls model sorority life, make snap-judgments about who’s in and who’s out. Does the newcomer dress like the pack; does she think like the pack; does she have the right apps? They single out the weaker fawn, the one with no thigh-gap, too much tooth-gap, or chronic depression. Then, they bully. Snap judgments, SnapChat—these are the ways to steal the teenage spirit.

Know this: teenagers understand the us versus them dichotomy.

We grow into adulthood, graduate into a survival system. We scratch and claw–often with a smile and a handshake–and fight for the next promotion, reach for the next wrung of promise. We march on, and some of us advance without any thought of those over whom we are advancing. And this is not to say that this sort of progression is malicious. But it’s not to say that it’s tender, either. After all, only the toughest thrive in this system.

Know this: the systems of the world are Darwinian in nature.

2.

The tough-minded persevere and become successful, it is said, and at some very base level this is true. What’s more, this sort of tough-minded perseverance is encouraged by nature.

On the sixth day of creation, when God breathed life into the dust, he wired us with a neurological system that rewards achievement. In fact, according to a Psychology Today article entitled “The Neuroscience of Perseverance,” Christopher Bergland writes,

“[e]verything necessary for the survival of our species – eating, mating, sleeping, and physical perseverance – is rewarded by a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel good. This is a very generous biological design and at the same time necessary for our survival. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain.”

Yes, we are neurologically hard-wired toward tough-minded perseverance, success, and survival. But what happens when this survival instinct goes askew? Are our brains rewarding us for achievement and perseverance at the expense of others?

3.

Yesterday, I was researching tenderheartedness, and I ran across a few notes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In “Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King extols the virtues of developing mental toughness. After all, he says, a tough mind does not settle for easy answers; a tough mind does not settle for status quo oppression; a tough mind is not persuaded by candy-coated television marketing campaigns.

But, he goes on to say, “tough-mindedness without tender heartedness [sic] is cold, and detached[.] It leaves one [sic] life hardened… without the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer. There is nothing more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the displaced heights of a tough minded [sic] and has sunk to the passionless depth of hard heartedness.”

King continues, turning to scripture for examples of this dichotomy. He notes:

“The good Samaritan was good because he was tough minded enough to gain economic security and tender hearted enough to have compassion for wounded brother on life’s highway. … [Lazarus]… went to hell because he was so hard hearted that he guarded compassion and made no move to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother[.]”

King concludes, “[t]he greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both tough minded and tender heartedness.”

4.

We have been wired toward success, toward perseverance and survival, yes. But when we allow our biological penchants to override our compassion for those around us, we fall into Lazarus’ folly. What’s more, when we fail to rein in our children’s penchant toward this sort of survival-of-the-fittest mentality, we lead them into the same folly.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t teach our children that success and perseverance aren’t important, nor is it to say that we discount the achievements of Beyonce, Tom Brady, or the Fortune 500 CEO. This is to say, though, that it’s time celebrate a different kind of cool. It’s time to embody a different kind of cool.

Dr. King had it right: our God is tough-minded, but his tender heart never fails. Jesus was tough-minded, endured the cross; but he was tender-hearted, too, laying down his own life for the life of the world. So if, as scripture says, we’re to be imitators of God, perhaps it’s time for a shift.

Perhaps it’s time to see tender as cool. Perhaps it’s time to live tender as cool.

*****

In this month’s Tiny Letter (my monthly newsletter), I’m discussing the idea of resting  within church practices. There, I’m speaking candidly about some recent changes in the Haines’ household, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Sign up to read along!

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On The Redemption of Cursed Earth

God spoke into a garden and created man. That’s what the good book says. God created man, and then he created woman, and then, he gave them work. Back then, I reckon, it wasn’t all about market economies and building sky-scraping mud huts to heaven. Before the fall, it wasn’t about padding the bank vault or adding another digit to the backend of a 401(k). It wasn’t about the corner office and the leather chair. The cows were still wearing their leather, in fact, and I suppose everyone aimed to let the cattle keep their skin.

Instead, the way I reckon it, work was less about security and more about communing with a good God. It was about engaging the soil of creation and enjoying the company of the fellow workers.

Camaraderie was a real thing back then–how sweat mingled and communed with soil; how soil harnessed the salt and water of sweat to grow good produce; how all of it sang praise to the imagination of a relational God. Doesn’t this feel true? Doesn’t it really? Ask yourself.

There was a day, they say, when men and women broke the rules and found themselves on the outside of this Camaraderie, this connection. It was the day, they say again, that God buried the groan for redemption in men and soil alike. (Rom. 8:22). We men have toiled ever since, but instead of the toil toward camaraderie, we toil toward other things: the sky-scraping McMansions, the padded bank vaults, the extra digits on the 401(k), and the leather chair in the corner office.

There are some that struggle for redemption, though. I want you to meet them.

Work is Redemptive – Dehradun Guitar Co. from Dehradun Guitar Co. on Vimeo.

*Photo by Panos Photographia, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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Ants Marching (A Confession)

I’m continuing to share words on the effect of the market on Christianity. Read here, then swing on over to Amber’s for her series on revolution.

_______

I can see the future.

In the future, we run like ants from sucker stem to sucker stem, suck the sweet from every last discardable ideology. We pile atop each other, voraciously claw for our bit of sugar. I’m atop you; you’re atop me; we’re scratching and clawing to claim the very last speck of what’s useful, and in so doing, we claw each other to the death.

In the future, we’ve forgotten the deep well of intimacy, have traded it for a more white-washed kind. In the media, we call each other “friend,” or “brother,” which is, in all reality, our means of telling the watching world that we know each other. We are connected by this shared artifice, but I have never met your children and you have never met mine. You do not know whether I’m a good father, much less a serial killer who uses holy jargon for my own means. In the future, feigned intimacy is more a means of advancing platforms than a means for genuine human connection.

In the future, we’ve made the things of God fashionable. We’ve packaged love, mercy, and faith into a few quotable characters so that the masses know we care. We splash these talking points across the internet and claim that talking about Christian ideals is the same thing as living them. We grab a buck from the charity bucket on our way off the platform–it’s an administrative fee, we say. We call it good; duty done, we go back to buying baubles. We’ve lost the common beating of hearts.

There churches of the future have monster platforms built by commercial construction crews. The platforms rest under a network of jumbotrons, but it’s not what you think. The construction crews work more in the digital realm than they do in the tangible, and the jumbotrons comprise the millions of computer screens watched by the congregants in the isolation of their own homes. Words like “revolutionary,” and “movement,” are associated with the church, though most movement occurs with a mouse click and the typing of keys on a keyboard, and “revolutionary” pertains more to market building than overturning tables.

We’re all plugged into the marketing machine in the future; we broadcast every Coca-Cola moment, every time we blow our nose with Kleenex. We have traded the taste for eternity with the acquired taste of the temporal. More, more, more: money, followers, digital real estate, sex. We’re always looking for the instant orgasmic.

I can see the future because I can see the past, am seeing the present. What we’ve done, we’ll do again, and we’ll do it with more and more gusto. The trajectory has been set. By definition, a trajectory  is “the path followed by… an object moving under the action of given forces.” The forces that compel us now will keep compelling us unless, of course, we meet an immovable object–perhaps, say, the mountain of Zion?

*****

I’ve been reading Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God by Marva J. Dawn. She touches on some of these trends, recognizes them as products of the “powers” (both spiritual and worldly) influencing the life of the church. She writes:

[t]here is too much subjectivism to recognize our need for substantive doctrinal foundation, too much sexual pleasure and too many internetted multi-relationships to distract us from our need for genuine fellowship, too much luxury to enjoy a simple feast of bread and wine, too much politics to be engaged in to pray, too much technology by which to be dazzled, too much mammon to be gained, too many other gods to waste our time worshipping the crucified Christ–in short, too many competing powers for people to realize that what they long for most of all is to worship God and to be weak so that [the indwelling of God] could ensue.

I am a product of my culture. There’s no denying it. I am a distracted fellow, a man who might opt for the virtual-shallow over the present-deep. Perhaps I elevate the powers because of my own fear of weakness. Perhaps I’m afraid to be poor, unknown, or irrelevant.

This is a sort of confession, but it’s a sort of prayer too.

A blind man once screeched like a raven to the passing Jesus–“Son of David, have mercy on me!” I figure we’d better start taking up the raven’s song.

 

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On the Market Machine, Christianity, and the Idea Factories (Part II)

This is a continuation of my exploration of “Market Christianity.” This piece might not be for everyone, fair warning. After you take a gander here, though, jump over to Amber’s site for her series on revolution.

*****

1.

I wish Christianity would stop being so profitable.”  This he said over his cheeseburger with no hyperbolic flourish. It was an emphatic statement, less of wish and more of a manifesto.

To be clear, he used the word “profitable” in the sense of monetary return, not in the sense used by Paul when he indicated “all scripture is breathed by God and profitable for teaching…” (2 Tim 3:16) I don’t suppose I blame him. He was a Christian businessman in a Christian business that was charged with the task of delivering competing metrics to its investors–a monetary return on investment to the investors, and a spiritual return on investment represented by lives changed. He’d seen the ugly side of things when the desire for inflated metrics set in, when the machine needed more money to grow bigger and affect more lives. 

Eventually, everything becomes about the money, powerful as it is. It is the unfortunate truth: in the free market, monetary return and spiritual formation are often at odds.

2.

The word profitable finds it roots in Old French, and was first used to convey the specific sense of “money making.” In the west, we’ve perfected the process of profitability, have turned everything into a printing press for the Dollar. Goods, services, information, sex, self (celebrity), justice, mercy–these are all for sale in today’s economy, all subjects of profit-motive. And make no mistake, profit is not a bad thing. By profit, we meet the needs of our lives. By profit, we are able to facilitate good and holy work, too.

The profit-motive, though, carries with it unique challenges. Before we consider them, lets first consider the apparatuses needed to generate profit.

An effective market cannot function without the following component parts: (1) raw materials; (2) factories to shape those raw materials into products; (3) marketers to inform the consumer of the latest product; and, of course, (4) the consumer to purchase the product. These component parts are neither good nor bad, neither holy nor evil. They are, quite simply, necessities of an effective market complex.

We see this playing out across a broad spectrum of industries. To take a simple example, in the winter, the consumer demands heat. A workman, then, chops wood (raw material), sends it through a wood splitter (the factory), and takes out an ad in the local paper that says “WOOD FOR SALE” (marketing), which lures the consumer to the point of purchase.

Consider a second example. Needing energy, the market demands coal production. A mining company extracts the coal (raw material), sends it to the power plant (the factory), and produces commercials letting the consumer know of its clean-burning benefits (marketing). The consumers, then, purchase the energy produced to run their homes.

These market mechanisms, just like profit, are neither good, nor bad. They simply are.

But what happens when the lumberjack or coal factory get a taste for the finer things money can buy? What happens when they thirst for more profit, for the increased growth required to generate more profit? In the same vein, what happens when the consumer wants more heat, more power? What happens when the market demands the constant production of the material?

By way of avarice and over-consumption, by way of the profit-motive gone awonk, we cause powerful problems: deforestation and strip-mining.

3.

Let’s not be deceived. Every profit center is subject to the same pitfalls. No matter the market, if avarice and over-consumption sneak into the market apparatus, things go askew. We demand that the factories continue to produce, and produce, and produce. Raw materials become scarce, factories begin to wear out, the market becomes bloated. Eventually the cogs in the machine need replacing. Eventually the forests are no more, the tops of every appalachian mountain are scraped clean. Eventually, the market desires different products and businesses close, marketers are out of work, and factories shut down.

Do we delude ourselves when we believe that tie between commerce and religion is somehow immune from these results?

If Christianity is a marketplace, consider these questions:

1. What is the raw material? The message of God?

2. What is the factory? The messenger of God? The non-profit or missions organization?

3.  What is the product? The book? The sermon? The song? Worse yet, the objects of our ministry (the third-world, tribal nonbeliever)?

4.  Who are the marketers? The church? (Perhaps, here’s where things have the potential to get wonky.)

5.  What is the price of avarice and overconsumption? Are we strip-mining the good news for gain?

Again, Christianity and the marketplace can function together in healthy and good ways. As I asked last week, without this joining of forces, what would have happened to the works of Augustine, Lewis, and even Voskamp? Would their works line my bookshelves, provide me with the encouragement I so often need? Without the ability of Paul to raise funds by making tents, would he have been able to advance the good news?

Anyone who argues that the Christianity has no place within the marketplace, then, discounts the healthy ways in which the market assists in the distribution of good and holy messages.

That being said, what happens when avarice and overconsumption creep into the Christian marketplace? What happens when the producers of the message seek growth for growth sake? Don’t we require the factories to overproduce? Don’t we strip-mine every raw material?

4.

There is a tension here. Can you see it?

We use the marketplace to disseminate ideas. The market, subjected to the authority of God, held in check to the power of God, can be a good and holy thing. The market gone awonk, though, is a beast. When it demands more profit, more consumption, and growth-for-growth sake (even if that growth might have good results, as in the case of fair-trade Christian businesses), it chews up and spits out the messengers of God, and robs the raw materials of their power.

And if I’m honest, this–I think–is the grand travesty of modern American Christianity.

I do not wish that Christianity would cease being profitable. That kind of desire might have unintended consequence. That being said, perhaps my friend was on to something with the insertion of one little word. Perhaps we should hope that Christianity does not become “so profitable.” In the “so” we find the roots of greed. In the “so” we find the seeds of overconsumption. In the “so” we find a market imbued with too much power. 

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