Wednesday, 29 March 2017

‘Running for Cover’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part five)

Categorisation isn’t the only hidden force that negatively affects our group relations; matters of identity and self-esteem also play significant roles in segregating people. The processes relating to identity and self-esteem arise largely from ‘our unmet desire to feel good about ourselves’ (Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ, p. 80) and can be seen, for example, in high school/secondary school dynamics:

Most teenagers will do almost anything to gain significance. This includes banding with others who are similar—those who agree with them, affirm them and confirm that they are in fact valuable and good—and together waging war against other individuals and groups. And lest you think that this sort of behavior is solely caused by adolescent immaturity, it is worth noting that social psychologists have witnessed it in full among adults. The truth is that many of us are still stuck in our high school identity wars. (p. 81).

The need to know who we are and that we matter is important. Cleveland notes that self-esteem helps us to consolidate our place in society. Low self-esteem might encourage us to adapt our attitudes and behaviour to further our chances of survival (sometimes literal survival) within a particular group. High self-esteem enables us to deal with disappointments and other negative pressures in life. But self-esteem is also linked to how others perceive us, ‘because our self-concept, the part of our self that holds information pertaining to our identity, is extremely susceptible to outside influences. We rely on feedback from other people to gain information about our identity’ (pp. 82–83). And our self-esteem and identity can be severely distorted when the information communicated to us is primarily negative. This is why, Cleveland avers, we find it immeasurably beneficial to be part of groups that affirm us as valuable:

According to social identity theory, self-esteem is closely tied to our group memberships because our group identities often overlap with our sense of self. For example, not only do you think of yourself as an individual, but you also probably think of yourself in terms of your many group memberships: gender group, social roles groups (such as mother, spouse, friend, etc.), ethnic group, occupational group, church group, even hobby-related groups (book club, fly fishing, etc.). To the extent that these groups are important to you, you will expand your sense of self to include them in your identity. (p. 84).

Moreover,

research on social identity theory has discovered that when it comes to group membership, we do four things to maintain positive self-esteem: (1) We tend to gravitate toward and form groups with similar others; (2) once the group is formed we engage in group-serving biases that defend the group’s positive identity; (3) we try to increase our status by associating with higher-status groups and distancing ourselves from lower-status groups; and (4) if all else fails we literally disparage other groups because in doing so, we elevate our own group. (pp. 84–85).

In short, it is easier and more comfortable to achieve cognitive balance by associating with those who are like us and distancing ourselves from those who are different from us. When these processes occur in the body of Christ—when, say, we draw strength from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dethroning of mammon but sneer at the US Bible Belt for encompassing Donald Trump’s political girth—when these processes occur in the body of Christ, the body as a whole suffers because we have exercised one part of the body but ignored another. I quote Cleveland at length:

We can’t literally walk away from the “teammates in Christ” that we don’t like or value. So we do the next best thing: we start to identify less and less with them. We stop caring about their needs and struggles. And we stop spending so much time with them in public. Ultimately, we decrease our identification with the church full of the low-status ethnic group, or the not-so-trendy church that is still living in the twentieth (maybe the nineteenth) century, or the socioeconomically disadvantaged church, or the rigid fundamentalist church, or the super liberal church that is sliding uncontrollably down the slippery slope, because to identify with them would make us look bad. We accomplish this by exaggerating our differences with culturally different Christians . . . and by clinging to our subordinate identities (e.g., identities based on ethnic, denominational, theological or political affiliations) while distancing ourselves from our common identity—our identity as members of the worldwide body of Christ. It’s more important for us to feel good ourselves than to embrace other members of the body of Christ. This is how we compensate.
In the end, we may technically share group membership and the label of “followers of Christ,” but we are no longer a team. We are driven by our own needs, not the needs of the entire group. We are teammates in name but not in heart. Our ability to unite with the entire body of Christ is seriously impeded when our primary concern is to preserve our self-esteem. (pp. 93–94).

The way to suppress these processes of associating and distancing is to recognise that our identities are not static and change according to the varying contexts in which we find ourselves. And this in turn requires us to acknowledge that our identities can be expanded and diversified to include those whom ordinarily we might exclude. Cleveland concludes:

We like people with whom we identify and whom we consider to be a part of our ingroup. If we diversify our friend groups . . . and start to invest in friendships across cultural lines, our identity will expand to include those culturally different groups. To the extent that culturally different members of the body of Christ are included in our identity and ingroup, we’ll resist the urge to ditch them when the going gets tough or in order to save our self-esteem. This idea gives me hope that members of the body of Christ can experience significant and much-needed identity shifts that will bring us closer toward unity. (p. 100).

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

‘Beyond Perceptions’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part four)

The third chapter of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ explored how categorising erects false divisions and barriers between the ingroup and the outgroup. In this fourth chapter, Cleveland pushes her analysis further to show how ingroup perceptions harm interactions with the outgroup. She notes that ‘the tendency to cling to rigid and oversimplified categories of other groups quickly leads us to exaggerate differences between us and them. We want to be perceived as different from them so we exaggerate our differences with the other group’ (p. 67, italics original). Again, the process of categorising helps to conserve mental energy and is not inherently problematic; but the danger lies in focusing so much on those things that make the ingroup different from the outgroup that any commonalities are erased. Cleveland continues,

This natural inclination to obsess over the characteristics that distinguish our group from other groups is exacerbated by the fact that we spend the majority of our time with fellow group members who confirm our beliefs, culture and way of life. The only people who are contributing to the important conversations of our lives are the people who already happen to agree with us! As a result, we’re likely to adopt more extreme and inflexible opinions about our way of doing things. (p. 70).

Cleveland labels this as ‘perspective divergence’ or the ‘gold standard effect’:

Basically, the gold standard effect leads us to believe that not only are we different from them, but we are also better than them. (p. 70).

This is where ingroups assign certain values to themselves in order to make their particular ways of being and acting the norm by which other subgroups or outgroups are measured. Within the body of Christ, this effectively means that our way of being Christian is better than any other way of being Christian—if there really can be any other way, of course! But this leads to cross-cultural confusion and antagonism:

We can’t understand why the language, opinions, actions and characteristics of other Christian subgroups are so different from ours. We also can’t understand why they think that they know what is best for the body of Christ when clearly the opposite is true. We each have our own perspective on the situation, and our perspectives are very different. (p. 71, italics original).

Moreover,

if two church groups [let’s say progressives and conservatives within the Church of England] believe that they best represent the larger body of Christ and automatically require the other group to live up to their unspoken [and spoken, I would say] standard, they can easily misunderstand and devalue the other group’s viewpoint.
These dynamics lead to disastrous crosscultural interactions. Not only do we distance ourselves from our group’s rivals, we also have the audacity to think our increasingly extreme opinions, unique characteristics and distanced group members wholly and accurately represent the larger group. In this way, different groups are further marginalized because they are perceived as “out of touch” and “incompetent.” Meanwhile, we are convinced that we have a perfect grasp on reality. (p. 73).

The gold standard effect prevents the ingroup from listening to the outgroup, even when the outgroup has something vital to say. Thus

the sinister effects of normal categorizing—inaccurate perceptions, inaccurate metaperceptions, false interpretations and memories, group polarization and perspective divergence—are working to maintain homogenous church groups and widen the divide between different church groups. These processes need to be overcome in order to begin to create meaningful interactions between differing groups and ultimately break down unbiblical divisions. (p. 74).

It’s clear from what Cleveland describes that the ‘sinister effects of normal categorizing’ must be transcended. This, I would suggest, is part of what it means to be a new creation in Christ: to overcome whatever remains part of the ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) so that we can live the life of the age to come in the here and now. Once more, Cleveland doesn’t go into much detail in this fourth chapter about how to transcend our natural but fallen cognitive processes other than to call for an intentional focus on the things that unite than the things that divide—namely, the fact that all Christian ingroups are part of the larger body of Christ. ‘If Christians focus on similarities between themselves and culturally different Christians and keep in mind that their identity as Christians is more important than other cultural identities, then they should naturally begin to like culturally different Christians’ (p. 75, italics original). Cleveland also commends good old-fashioned empathy, of trying to see and feel things from another person’s perspective. She concludes,

Focusing on shared characteristics and taking the perspective of the other are small but powerful steps that will lead us toward unity. Together, they can overcome the divisions caused and maintained by categorizing processes gone awry. (p. 77).

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Slut or No Slut? The Woman of Samaria

It’s very easy to leap to conclusions about why people find themselves in certain situations. Today’s Gospel reading—John 4:5-42—is a case in point. This is quite possibly hyperbole, but the woman of Samaria is traditionally a bit of a tart: Why else would a woman be married five times and be living with a man not her husband (4:16-18)? But this ain’t necessarily so. Here’s a quotation from The Women’s Bible Commentary, rev edn, ed. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (London: SPCK, 2012):

The popular portrait of the woman in John 4 as a woman of dubious morals, guilty of aberrant sexual behavior, derives from a misreading of John 4:16-18. In these verses, the Samaritan woman tells Jesus she has no husband (4:17). Jesus responds to the woman’s words by telling her the story of her life (4:18). The text does not say, as most interpreters automatically assume, that the woman has been divorced five times but that she has had five husbands. There are many possible reasons for the woman’s marital history, and one should be leery of the dominant explanation of moral laxity. Perhaps the woman, like Tamar in Genesis 38, is trapped in the custom of levirate marriage and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her.

Gail R. O’Day, ‘Gospel of John’, p. 521

What other reasons could there be for the woman’s serial monogamy? Back in 2014, I posted this on my old blog:

I first came across the idea that the woman of Samaria (John 4) wasn’t all that immoral in Gill Rowell’s The Spiritual @dventures of CyberCindy, but now Margaret Barker—whose perspectives on Scripture often are as refreshing as they are unconventional—has added impetus to this interpretation:
The woman is often presented in commentaries as having a dubious past, but she may well have been a victim of her own society. She had had five husbands, and in a society where it was not easy for a woman to leave her husband—divorcing a spouse was usually a man’s prerogative—this means she had been abandoned five times; or she had been widowed five times and married in succession to her brothers-in-law (Deut. 5.5-6; Mark 12.18-23 and parallels). In both cases the reason for the multiple marriages would have been that she was childless: bearing no child was grounds for divorce, since a man was obliged to father two children; and for the same reason, a childless widow had to marry a brother-in-law in order to give her first husband an heir. These were the Jewish customs, but something similar in Samaria would account for the woman’s having five husbands, and then coming to the well alone at noon, to avoid the other women who would have seen her childless state as a punishment from God.

Margaret Barker, King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel (London: SPCK, 2014), p. 216
I’m no Johannine scholar, but I have to say that Barker’s interpretation—that the woman of Samaria was repeatedly divorced because she had not been able to conceive—seems reasonable to me. So why do the (male) authors of the commentaries on John that I own seem to accept almost without discussion that the woman’s effectively a slut (Kruse is kinder in his commentary than, say, Beasley-Murray)? One of the things I find interesting here is that, if correct, Barker’s interpretation shows how easy it is, even in scholarship, (a) to assume the worst about others, and (b) to treat people as objects whose worth lies in their utility to us. What does it say about us, even today, when we’re more inclined readily to assume the woman of Samaria’s immorality than to probe harder (no innuendo intended) and consider alternative, perhaps more charitable, readings of her story?

And seeing as I mentioned The (Spiritual) @dventures of CyberCindy:

It is often argued or assumed that the Samaritan woman is a person of loose morals, who, because of her low standing in the community, comes to the well alone, at the height of the noonday sun, because of her shame and exclusion from society. However, when Rebekkah in Genesis 24:17ff. does the same, it is not regarded as odd that she goes to the well apparently alone. The most telling evidence against this woman is that the man with whom she is now living is not her husband (v. 18), and although she has had five husbands, we are not told why. Women did not have rights then as they do today, and wives could not divorce husbands. Her situation could have resulted from a lack of responsibility on the part of her successive husbands, who may have regarded her simply as a commodity whom they could dispose of when she displeased them in any way. Or she may have outlived her husbands, whose brothers may have married her in obedience to Levirate law. Maybe a mixture of both, we do not know, but five marriages and one live-in boyfriend don’t necessarily make this woman a prostitute, they may simply make her a (dependent) commodity for men to pick up and drop as they fancy. No wonder she takes issue with Jesus (v. 9).
From the manner with which she talks to Jesus, which is one of cantankerous well-ingrained nationalistic pride, and from her history of having had five husbands, and from her desire to be relieved of this onerous task of water collecting, we may surmise that the woman is elderly, or at least no flighty young thing. She is steeped in her own culture and religious teaching, and going to the well for water she meets an apparently ignorant young Jewish rabbi. Far from being a simpleton, or a flirt, this Samaritan plays Jesus at his own game and questions theological truth from her own perspective and identity as a Samaritan. . . .
One wonders if the woman, with such a sound grasp of her own identity and theology, is a prophetess, for she is clearly looking forward to the day when the Messiah comes (v. 25), she clearly has a theological agenda (vv. 9, 12, 19, 20) and she is clearly in good standing within her community (vv. 30, 39, 40).

Gill Rowell, The (Spiritual) @dventures of CyberCindy: Dialogues in Cyberspace (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003), pp. 195–196

Finally, to conclude, back to Gail O’Day:

When interpreters speak of the woman as a “five-time loser” or a “tramp” (as has been the case in scholarship about this story), they are reflecting their own prejudices against women, not the views of the text.

O’Day, ‘Gospel of John’, p. 521

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge . . .

Anti-intellectualism is antagonism towards the life of the mind and the mistrust of experts. However, it is not anti-thought as such, because each human possesses the God-given gift of thinking: to make sense of its environment and its place in the animal world, to try fresh ideas, to learn new things and to reflect on them, and to make decisions and take action on the basis of those reflections . At the risk of displaying an extraordinary level of ignorance or misunderstanding on my part, even those who have special educational needs are able to think and learn, even if not especially well according to certain pedagogical standards. Thus anti-intellectualism is a stance that attempts to deny a major element of those things that make us human and seeks to attack those who profit financially or otherwise from attending to the life of the mind.

Anti-intellectualism is also a matter of authority, of whose authority is acceptable. It will not do to romanticise the attitudes towards specialists of previous generations or the past more generally; but once upon a time, the expert—the one who has sacrificed his* life (and perhaps the lives of others, too) in the attempt to push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding—and his learning together were considered valuable, his advice and wisdom worth heeding. Now, that very same expert is vilified because his education is regarded as suspect in a world where not everybody is considered necessarily equal but is nonetheless equally considered. The current wave of anti-intellectualism is a refusal to accept that my own knowledge and understanding are in any way limited. Such a refusal takes flesh by demanding a podium in the marketplace of ideas alongside those whose knowledge and understanding are not quite as limited. The content of the speech is nothing, but the act of speaking, the voice, is everything. Once, the expert had authority because his voice proclaimed meaning and wisdom sourced from learning; but now people are able to cast themselves as enlightened authorities due to the wealth of information at their fingertips (though often with an inability to process that information wisely) and a newly discovered confidence in the related powers of gainsaying and self-assertion.

This is why anti-intellectualism is especially egregious in the Church. The Church is the body of Christ and the new humanity living the life of the age to come in the here and now. While many people in the world welcome the death of some experts and witch-hunt others, the Church is called to champion the life of the mind renewed in Christ. When the Church is committed to ignoring the specialist in favour of an ill-defined egalitarianism; when Christians dismiss the relevance of theological thought or its need; when the body of Christ ignores the advice of those inside and outside the Church who have gained knowledge and understanding through a lifetime of dedicated study; when these things happen, the Church has betrayed its Christological foundation by accepting a disenchanted materialism impervious to the transformation of the Holy Spirit. An anti-intellectualist Church ignores the fact that it is comprised of human beings and denies what human beings in Christ already are and are becoming.

Perhaps the Church’s anti-intellectualism arises from a perceived lack of equality among equals in the body of Christ. But the way to address this is not to reduce theological learning to the lowest common denominator but to raise the lowliest members of our churches to the unimagined heights of an expanded, Spirit-enlivened theological imagination. The way to address this is not to ignore ‘expertise’ (the quotation marks are deliberate) or to presume that the specialist desires the splendid isolation of her ivory tower but to challenge everyone to aspire to become experts themselves. And so the way to address this is not to deny Christians the oxygen of theological thought but to inhale the breath of God so necessary for good theology so that, in the name of Jesus, prayers may be exhaled for the world.


* In ages past, the expert was invariably male. Oh, and the title of this blog post is from a quotation by Isaac Asimov.

Monday, 13 March 2017

‘Divisions Erected Out of Thin Air’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part three)

It is so easy to make assumptions about different groups of people and to slot individuals into particular groups. Sometimes our assumptions are proven correct, but much of the time they are shown to be invalid and even prejudicial. But if our assumptions about others more often than not are deeply mistaken, why do we even attempt to categorise people? We categorise, says Christena Cleveland, to conserve mental energy. It takes a lot of mental energy for us to process the amount of information we take in every day, and so by categorising, I can focus on certain things—though at the expense of others. Cleveland writes:

We can conserve our valuable and limited cognitive energy by spending time with people who are like us and whose behavior we can easily predict. Conversely, our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing. (p. 45).

This leads to stereotyping, where we (prejudicially) assume groups of people will behave in certain ways based on our interactions with one member of that group.

Cleveland points out that categorising is not always harmful precisely because it is a cognitive process designed to increase the efficiency of processing information (it would prove extremely cumbersome and inefficient if we had to identify a certain kind of four-legged object as a chair every time we saw one). But there is a danger:

Most importantly, in our haste to conserve mental energy we often erect divisions out of thin air by grouping people into smaller homogenous categories. These are typically based on less significant but easily distinguishable features like physical characteristics, language and theology that indicate membership in specific homogenous groups rather than less obvious but more important features that indicate membership in larger diverse groups. (p. 48).

When this happens, says Cleveland, the focus tends to settle on whatever divides the groups rather than on the things that unite them. This is especially harmful when it happens within the body of Christ:

By dividing larger categories that are very diverse (such as the body of Christ) into smaller, less diverse subcategories (such as ethnic or denominational groups), we’re better able to make assumptions and predictions, thus conserving mental energy. For example, if I come upon a Korean Christian, I can conserve more mental energy if I conceive of this person as a Korean (a relatively smaller and more homogenous groups) rather than a member of the body of Christ (a relatively larger and more heterogeneous group). The larger group is too diverse to enable me to make assumptions about the Korean individual’s theology, worship style, language, food preferences and so forth. It is significantly more energy-consuming to predict the actions of a member of a large, diverse group because one cannot make as many assumptions about the characteristics, values and tendencies of the group. (pp. 48–49).

And so:

By focusing on smaller, distinct categories for church groups, we erect and fixate on divisions that are far less important than the larger, diverse group of members of the body of Christ. (p. 49).

This is why, Cleveland avers, there are so many groups within the body of Christ. Positing clear boundaries between groups helps us preserve mental energy—but such boundaries tend to push us towards creating ingroups (‘us’, Right Christians) and outgroups (‘them’, Wrong Christians), along with the acceptance or rejection of the theologies that drive these particular groups. Also, in this context, it becomes difficult to accept that an individual person within any given outgroup might have different views from others within that same outgroup:

Perceptions of outgroup homogeneity [e.g. a progressive liberal supposing that all conservative evangelicals are complementarian; a young-earth creationist presuming that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 leads to a denial of biblical authority—and notice that I’m assuming certain things about these particular groups by using them as examples] often lead to prejudice. By perceiving the ingroup as heterogeneous and the outgroup as homogenous, group members are less likely to believe that their group would benefit from more diversity, more likely to perceive the outgroup in unflattering and oversimplified ways, and more likely to believe that the outgroup has very little to offer them. Thanks to the outgroup homogeneity effect, our perceptions of outgroups tend to be inaccurate and arrogant—not exactly a winning combination. (p. 55).

But if categorising people and groups of people tends to be so harmful, why do the divisions between ingroups and outgroups persist? Our metaperceptions—our assumptions about what other groups think of us—discourage us from taking the risks necessary to engage with people not from our ingroup. Cleveland contends,

Inaccurate metaperceptions go hand in hand with perceptions of outgroup homogeneity to form a dynamic and divisive duo. If we assume that we already know what they are like, then we can assume that we already know what they think of us. Unfortunately, in tandem, our perceptions of outgroup homogeneity and our metaperceptions lead us to believe with a degree of certainty that the other group doesn’t like us and doesn’t want to interact with us. This results in further divisions and infrequent meaningful interactions. (pp. 56–57).

Thus the process of categorisation affects our interpretations and memories simply because it offers us a framework by which we can recall people, events, or situations and complete any gaps that might exist, all the while strengthening the validity of the categories we have developed.

The sinister side effects of categorizing—erecting divisions between us and them, thinking that they are all the same, automatically thinking that they think poorly of us, recalling false memories of them, and inaccurately interpreting their behavior—are reinforcing the divide between different church groups. These processes need to be overcome in order to create meaningful interactions between different groups that break down unbiblical and unloving divisions. (p. 60, italics original).

Cleveland doesn’t offer too much in the way of resolution of these issues, at least not in this chapter; but she does suggest that once we have identified the hidden cognitive processes that lead to prejudice, we can take steps to ensure that our language intentionally includes:

If we begin to use inclusive language such as we and us (rather than they and them) when we refer to the different groups in the body of Christ, we will begin to associate the different groups with the same positive attributes and feelings that we associate with ourselves. . . . By relinquishing divisive us/them distinctions and adopting inclusive “we” language, we would begin to treat different members of the body of Christ like we tend to treat ourselves—graciously, generously and lovingly.
As a bonus, we would also begin to build bridges with different members of the body of Christ. By referring to other group members as us, we would implicate ourselves whenever we decide to offer constructive criticism to the other group. No longer would we perceive the problems of other groups in the body of Christ as solely their problems. As newly minted members of us, their problems are now our problems. We can no longer stand at a distance, point our fingers at them and shake our heads in disgust. We must lovingly and wisely engage because to fail to do so would only hurt ourselves. In this way, consciously avoiding us/them distinctions in the body of Christ changes the way that we approach and perceive each other. (pp. 63–64, italics original).

The implications of what Cleveland writes here are immense.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

An Alternative Worship Song: Seems Like God’s Spirit

There’s no denying that contemporary worship music chimes with the thoughts and feelings of many Christians today. Indeed, I’m beginning to appreciate the need for inspiring lyrics that consist mainly of adjacent and juxtaposed lexemes that allow individual worshippers to express themselves before God. But I am unsure as to why so much contemporary worship appears to require the individual to audition for a part in Coldplay or to SingalongaMattRedman. Some worshippers might prefer to worship God using cracking choons more suited to their own preferences. And so, without further ado, I now present to you a song I’ve entitled ‘Seems Like God’s Spirit’. I’m no songwriter (unlike many contemporary worship artists), but I thought I would write some alternative lyrics to a song by a little-known American band called Nirvana for the jaded plaided within the Church.

Kneeling before the Lord
Seems Like God’s Spirit
© Terry J. Wright 2017

We’ve come to church on Sunday morn
We’re here to praise, not look forlorn
We’re never bored before the Lord
And for the world we have a word:

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, seize us [x 3]
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

In our worship, we praise Jesus
As the Spirit comes to please us
With the Father, who is gracious
Yes, we’ll worship—we’ll praise Jesus!
Word of knowledge
Speaking in tongues
A prophecy
And the Bible
Yeah, hey, hey

I feel the praise pump to my brain
As I live now against the grain
If you could all be just like me
We’ll be in heav’n eternally

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, seize us [x 3]
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

In our worship, we praise Jesus
As the Spirit comes to please us
With the Father, who is gracious
Yes, we’ll worship—we’ll praise Jesus!
Word of knowledge
Speaking in tongues
A prophecy
And the Bible
Yeah, hey, hey

And when we take the bread and wine
We realise that life’s just fine
It’s dandy, too, and often swell
’Cause it’s God’s love we’ve sworn to tell

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, seize us [x 3]
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

In our worship, we praise Jesus
As the Spirit comes to please us
With the Father, who is gracious
Yes, we’ll worship—we’ll praise Jesus!
Word of knowledge
Speaking in tongues
A prophecy
And the Bible
Yeah, hey, hey

God’s on speed dial! [x 9]

Monday, 6 March 2017

‘How Divisions Are Killing Us and Why We Should Care’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part two)

In Disunity in Christ’s second chapter, Christena Cleveland explores the dangers of homogeneity, especially as presented in local church settings. Cleveland begins:

In theory, we support the vision of a diverse, integrated and interdependent body of Christ, but we certainly don’t want to venture outside of our neighborhoods to live the vision. (p. 26).

Hence why there are so many different kinds of churches, even within the same denominations. Cleveland is writing from within a US context, but I dare say that her observations have UK parallels. I know that the reason I don’t worship at my local parish church is because (in my opinion) its worship is far too chaotic for me—and you may interpret that as you will. So while I am sure that God has lead my family and me to worship at a particular church, I suppose it is far easier to hear God say that sort of thing about a church when it meets my desired level of familiarity and comfort. Worship should never be safe, of course, but some churches feel safer than others.

And this idea of safety seems to be crucial for Cleveland. The reason why we tend to associate with the familiar and the similar is precisely because we assume that someone like us is not going to endanger or threaten us. Even a single shared experience with a stranger—seeing as I live in London, let’s say the shared experience of a delayed bus—can help to make an uncommon or unwelcome situation more bearable. Cleveland writes,

This idea of shared experiences can help us understand why Christians often form strong bonds with people who share their very specific experiences and keep even slightly different others at bay. Christians are so good at erecting divisions that we don’t stop at the major ones (e.g., race/ethnicity, class and gender); we also create divisions within divisions. For example, while the body of Christ experiences significant intergender (man vs. woman) division, it is also plagued by intragender (woman vs. woman and man vs. man) division. For example, Christian women contribute to divisions between egalitarians and complementarians, stay-at-home moms and working moms (the infamous “Mommy Wars”), feminists and traditionalists, married women who take their husband’s last name and married women who don’t, unmarried and married women, urban and suburban women, black and white women, mothers and nonmothers, and young and old women, to name just a few. The women in these specific groups are profoundly bound by their shared experiences. As a result, they tend to gravitate toward those who share their experiences and away from those who do not. (p. 31, italics original).

I see this dynamic in my own life. When starting my undergraduate studies, I approached someone intending to befriend on the basis that his fashion sense indicated we had a shared experience of a particular genre of music. It turns out that we had much more in common than music and we remain friends to this day. But that proves Cleveland’s point, of course. Shared experiences can unite. However, there is a danger even here:

Since we spend most of our time with people who are demographically and attitudinally similar to us, our most common shared experiences are with people who look, think, act and experience the world like us, which further solidifies our bond with them and increases our liking for them. As a result, we fall deeper into our homogeneity. (pp. 31–32).

So I approached someone on the basis of a presumed fondness for the same musical style—but would I have approached him if, despite his attire, he looked to be a thirty-something (I was twenty) . . . or even black!?

Cleveland highlights the dynamics of group polarisation as found in local churches. ‘Unfortunately,’ she writes, ‘the more we spend time with people who are essentially identical to us, the more we become convinced that our way of relating to both Jesus and the world is the correct way. Over time,’ she continues, ‘our convictions grow stronger and our attitudes toward different ideas and cultural expressions of worship become more negative.’ (p. 27, italics original). And so group polarisation—which is not, of course, a phenomenon restricted to the Church—leads or gives rise to genuine prejudice:

Prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice. What begins as seemingly harmless homogeneity often snowballs into distrust, inaccurate perceptions of other groups, prejudice and hostility. (p. 33).

The upshot of this is that the members of any given group have a tendency to act well towards other members of that group, which is why, says Cleveland, Christians are more likely to show love towards those perceived as Right Christians and not Wrong Christians. We apply the term ‘Christian’ to our particular group of Christians, not to the whole body of Christ. But the whole body of Christ consists of people whom we would regard as both Right Christians and Wrong Christians, and Cleveland draws from Paul’s metaphor of the body to emphasise the interdependence of Christians:

To respond to God’s call fully, we need to express our interdependent diversity in individual churches, denominations and organizations as well as in the worldwide body of Christ. We must be connected to those who are different within our respective churches and we must be connected to those who are different in the larger body of Christ. (p. 39, italics original).

But why? Cleveland refers to studies that show how internally diverse groups are far more creative and effective than homogenous groups because they naturally benefit from a range of different perspectives and resources that non-diverse groups cannot hope to receive. Diverse groups will also not be so prone to groupthink, a dynamic where some members of a homogenous group are more likely not to raise alternative or even conflicting views in order to present a united front. I have to ask: Are PCCs hotspots for groupthink?

To close this post, here’s another quotation from Cleveland:

Leaders hoping to build diverse teams should be aware that in order to fully utilize the wider range of resources and increased learning that diversity offers, each member of the diverse group must be of equal status. Group members with lower status may lack confidence and express their opinions less frequently. (p. 40).

I suppose the difficult task here is to look at the dynamics that continually keep some people from holding equal status with others. Leaders—particularly if they’re white, Anglo-Saxon, male, middle-class, straight, etc.—might assume that everyone in the group holds equal status, but that might not be true at all.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

‘Right Christian, Wrong Christian’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part one)

Back in the summer of 2014, I declared Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013) the most important read of the year (I’ll leave it to you to decide if I meant the year I read the book (2014) or the year it was published (2013)). And seeing as the world hasn’t improved in the three years since I first read Disunity in Christ—apparently there have been some unexpected political developments recently in the Western world, and the Church of England (of which I am a card-carrying member) continues to model ecclesial discord—I thought now might be a good time to revisit it.

The first chapter (‘Right Christian, Wrong Christian’) identifies how easily we in the Church categorise Christians into two main groups: ‘Right Christians’ and ‘Wrong Christians’. Right Christians are those who tend to share our own convictions about things; Wrong Christians are those who hold opinions that are clearly not aligned with the good news of Jesus (as Right Christians see them). I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I find it difficult to understand why a significant proportion of Evangelical Christians in the United States voted Donald Trump for President. In my eyes, this demographic is clearly composed of Wrong Christians. Similarly, I am baffled by any Christian who voted for Brexit rather than remain. These Christians are obviously Wrong Christians. But in both cases, I need to recognise that these Christians are not Wrong Christians but my brothers and sisters in Christ—and they may well regard me as a Wrong Christian (and need to recognise me as their brother in Christ).

Cleveland writes, ‘We represent Jesus well when we draw near to other believers, regardless of differences. This is how we show unbelievers Jesus’ heart.’ (p. 17). This doesn’t mean that theological, ideological, and cultural differences between Christians aren’t real or important, but, following Proverbs 27:17 (‘iron sharpens iron’), Cleveland is persuaded that good friendship allows space for challenging one another. ‘Friends who share their different ideas about faith or life can help us to avoid some of the nasty effects of group polarization’ (p. 18). It is not easy to work for unity, Cleveland admits, but it is essential to do so.

I’ll close this post with an extended quotation from towards the end of the chapter:

Culturally homogenous churches are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.
For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. (p. 21, emphasis original).

Quite how an introvert such as me is going to be involved in all this cross-cultural work is anyone’s guess!

Monday, 27 February 2017

Book Review: Ian Paul, Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World

Ian Paul, Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World: The ‘Now’ and ‘Not Yet’ of Eschatology (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2017)

I am grateful to Grove Books for a review copy.

I came to faith in my early teens while attending Sunday School in a Brethren-influenced independent evangelical church. The eschatology espoused here was of the sort found in this Chick tract and the wonderfully and increasingly camp Left Behind series. Almost thirty years on, I cannot help but wish there had existed at that time a book on eschatology as effective as Ian Paul’s Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World. Reading a short book such as this back in the late 1980s and early 1990s not only would have saved me some theological blushes among my peers, but also have given me a wider framework in which to read Scripture as a whole.

Paul first considers the ideas of kingdom and hope as expressed in the Old Testament. The Creator God is king of the world but delegates divine rule to men and women, God’s vice-regents. However, in a fallen world, humanity fails to live up to its high calling, and so God elects Israel to demonstrate how people are to live in the world in continuous relationship with God. The emphasis here is on the prophetic expectation that God will eventually exercise divine rule through a true successor to Israel’s king, David. This, Paul contends, means that the fulfilment of Israel’s future expectations is not simply a matter of God intervening in human history but of God acting sovereignly to establish a new creation.

Old Testament eschatology
Paul goes on to affirm that the various New Testament books point to this very fact: a new creation has been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus, even though there is still a ‘surplus of hope, the difference between what we see already realized of the kingdom in Jesus, and what we do not yet see realized in the present age’ (p. 12). This is the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of the book’s subtitle.

New Testament eschatology
Thus all the Old Testament’s future expectations find completion in Jesus. This is not to say that there is nothing in the New Testament that some would label ‘end-times prophecy’, but that finally everything is centred on Jesus and not on the execution of some kind of divine blueprint. As Paul writes, ‘At no point does any NT writer suggest that Jesus does anything other than fulfil all God’s promises in the OT. We might not see their complete fulfilment until his return—but it is his life, death and resurrection, and not some other historical events, which meet all our hopes’ (p. 17).

Needless to say, I regard Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World as a very good addition to the Grove Books Biblical series. Admittedly, those familiar with some of Tom Wright’s writings, or those who have somehow escaped the influence of Scofield-style hermeneutics, will be unlikely to find much novelty here. But this is not a criticism. The strength of this slim volume is that it manages to convey a lot of detail about eschatology in relatively few words, successfully demonstrating the extent to which eschatological themes pervade Scripture and how these themes continue to be important for Christians today. Paul writes clearly and fluently, and his discussions of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24–25 and parallels) and the book of Revelation are standout examples of how a carefully considered understanding of eschatology helps to exegete difficult biblical passages. Some might find Paul’s careful survey a little too tidy: Should we not expect to find at least a few loose ends or unresolved tensions in Scripture simply by virtue of it being a collection of diverse texts? Also, I notice there is no treatment of eschatology as found in the New Testament from Hebrews to Jude. While I appreciate that inclusion of such might not add too much to the overall analysis (as well as making this particular Grove Book longer than others in the series), I do think Hebrews has some uniquely interesting things to say on how the life of the age to come impacts on the life of the present age.

In short, I commend Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World. It contains a lot of good material for individual study and could also be used effectively in a home group setting. The book is available here.