Rebuilding the Temple
Upheaval and hope in the 21st-century church
(image by Makoto Fujimura: detail from Soliloquies—Joy)
Since the dawn of the millennium, a new zeitgeist has emerged in American Christianity, characterized by both cultural upheaval and deep spiritual hunger. Seasons of change always involve the pain of letting go of the old and the thrill of embarking on uncharted paths. This season of ecclesiastical transformation is no different.
In her book The Great Emergence, historian and theologian Phyllis Tickle borrows a metaphor from Anglican Bishop Mark Dryer, who observed a historical pattern that occurs every five centuries or so and that he likens to a rummage sale, when the "empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur."(1) In other words, every once in a while the church outgrows her longstanding traditions and reimagines herself. Old artifacts of the faith, sacred ideas and practices that were once considered untouchable family heirlooms, are put to the curb.
Based either on an intuition that society at large is rejecting traditional Judeo-Christian values or on data that show millennials leaving the traditional church in droves, most would agree that something of this sort is happening today. But ask Christians if this overhaul is reason for lament or celebration, and lines of deep division quickly form.
I contend that this present upheaval, though filled with challenges of its own, is fundamentally good because of the alternative forms of Christian expression it has inspired and will continue to engender in the coming years. The revamped understandings of what it means to follow Jesus in a pluralistic, post-Christian context have the potential to deepen American faith and democracy in ways that will save both from obsolescence.
We could speak in depth about what Western religion and culture must be saved from, but at the core of much of its malaise are two values that have guided it to both destruction and innovation: the traditional ideology of triumphalism and, to a lesser extent, the millennial obsession with technology in the great experiment known as "The Internet Age."
The church needs a resurgence of leaders—broken guides who are unshaken by paradox but committed to truth, who will bravely accept the God-imitating task of creating sense from the intimidating yet wondrous chaos of today, who will ensure that reaction against the old zeitgeist is defined by love and hope rather than adolescent protest and angst.
Dreams of conquest
When Africans first saw the large vessels gliding toward the shores of their homeland, coming along the northern tip where the Senegal and Gambia Rivers spill into the Atlantic Ocean, they were witnessing a strange theology in motion. They saw the wide masts climbing high into the sky and the indecipherable characters carved onto the side of large ships, words they could read only after their freedom was consumed by them: Jesus, Gift of God, John the Baptist, Liberty. Hidden from plain sight was the perceived gift of blessing that fueled these ships as powerfully as the wind filled their sails. The men who sailed them—men like Christopher Columbus and Bartolomeu Diaz—committed their crimes against humanity with the firm conviction that they were pleasing both God and nation.
In his classic work, There Is a River, the late historian Vincent Harding writes that, while monarchs and trading companies funded these explorations, "popes, bishops, and professors provided the blessing and the rationale for their incursions into the lives and histories of other civilizations."(2) The perceived blessing of their God obscured the pathological hypocrisy of ships that bore the name of Jesus on the outside and the shackled bodies of black slaves within.
The slaveholding God of the conquistadors was the logical conclusion of triumphalism: the "tendency in all strongly held worldviews … to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality."(3) Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall observes that religious systems operating under this rule, Christianity included, demand absolute loyalty and leave little, if any, room for questioning. Any presence that threatens the master story must therefore be eliminated.
Church + Frailty = Hope
I see in the church today a fresh sense of brokenness and uncertainty, a people who remember the hegemony of the past and the power-broking position that Christianity recently held, as well as people who've never had the experience of standing on that so-called higher ground. A generation ago we may have called them the committed and the seekers. Not today.
Whether High Mass or house church, I experience a living faith today that seems willing to remain in a place of brokenness, uncertainty, and need. We have a renewed interest in ancient text from Torah to Apocrypha to Paul to Gospel to Didache and St. Benedict. Our questions and our desires to meet God are more profound than ever. Our frailty gives me hope. I think it's godly.
Jon M. Sweeney is an independent Catholic scholar, the publisher at Paraclete Press, and a writer of popular history. His book The Pope Who Quit has been optioned by HBO, and his latest book, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, is just out from Ave Maria Press.
Triumphalism, branded "Manifest Destiny" during the Western expansion of the Americas, was a guiding principle behind the brutal attempts to "civilize" Native American "savages" through the proliferation of boarding schools in the 19th century. This is evident in a letter from Captain Richard Pratt, one of the leading philosophical influencers of these schools, written in 1892: "We have not yet fully learned our lesson nor completed our work; nor will we have done so until there is throughout all of our communities the most unequivocal and complete acceptance of our own doctrines, both national and religious." From this ideology, the motto "Kill the Indian, and save the man" was born. And if ever the man within the Indian was found to be beyond reach, both would have to die. Otherwise, the Native presence would surely kill the colonizers—whether their bodies or, at greater risk still, their worldview. Left unchallenged, Native reality would kill the colonizers' account of reality. Most humans would just as soon wage war than relinquish their cherished worldview.
The triumphant fusion of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern imperialism is, quite possibly, as Hall observes, "The single most insidious cause of global peril."(4) Whereas Christians rarely explicitly kill in the name of Christ today, the church is still susceptible to endorsing nationalistic dreams of conquest that are subtly assumed to be blessed by God. These dreams are nightmares to those precious people who have been labeled "collateral damage" in their wake.
Bringing the outsiders in
One of the most powerful aspects of today's "Great Emergence" is the opportunity to invite a non-triumphant Christianity to the center of the faith, that we would be known by our sacrificial love rather than by our conquest. Indeed, if Western Christianity is to mine this opportunity for all its worth it must recognize oppressed people groups as essential knowledge-bearers from whom all must learn. They are essential because the church is returning to a place with which these groups are intimately familiar—a place of paradox and suffering, a place on the edges of mainstream acceptance. They are essential because the church is rediscovering a call that the oppressed have always borne—a call to redeem an empire that has at times sought to crush them. This call compelled Martin Luther King, Jr., along with the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to boldly claim that their mission was not merely to secure rights for black people but to "redeem the soul of America" (an astounding statement given the context).
We have a biblical precedence for this in the ancient Israelites, a historically rich and beleaguered people. If there is anyone who intuitively lives the life of ancient Judaism through contemporary lenses, it is the socially persecuted peoples of the world: the incarcerated, the indigent, the immigrant, Native Americans, children in black ghettos and foreign slums, women worldwide, to name just a few. After all, much like the ancient Jews, we (I gladly join in solidarity here) know full well the paradox of being a powerful force living beneath the thumb of an American empire. Liberation theology, though an important framework, is not what this is about. If liberation theology is about God's work to free the oppressed, this new movement within the church is about God's spiritual positioning of the oppressed to free us all.
If liberation theology is about God's work to free the oppressed, this new movement within the church is about God's spiritual positioning of the oppressed to free us all.
Years ago my wife and I were walking the piers of downtown Seattle when we saw a shirtless man wearing headphones over his swinging dreadlocks, sitting on a stool that faced the ocean. Passionately drumming an imaginary drum set, he caught my attention, and we walked over to strike up a conversation. He told us he was homeless and that local food banks and churches alike had rejected him. But he also spoke of miracles, like the times he could have been killed by his life on the streets, including one time when a giant pane of glass from a skyscraper fell on him as he slept.
"I woke up in shock with glass all over me," he said. "I patted myself down and checked for blood. There wasn't even a scratch on me. God saved my life." After a beat he asked me, "What are you trying to do with your life anyway?"
"I want to be a pastor," I told him.
His tone switched abruptly from casual to prophetic. Leaning towards me and staring into my eyes with a grave intensity, he said, "Then you better decide what kind of pastor you wanna be. Most of these pastors out here ain't about God at all. They're about money and buildings. They ain't for the people. You gotta decide who it is you serve, God or mammon. God or mammon, I said."
The very presence of the poor among us is a living parable that critiques our national gospel of materialism and unfettered ascent. As we open our ears to them and other marginalized people, we begin to see new layers of an alternate reality—the Kingdom of God—that operates under an authority capable of transforming the world.
In search of roots
In 2006 Time magazine's "Person of the Year" issue featured a computer on the cover, with one word flashing on an otherwise blank screen: YOU. The magazine's bold tribute to the millions of content generators who "control the Information Age" gave voice to the cultural excitement around the promises of technology. The positive effects of the internet have been astounding, but, as with any widespread acceptance of technological advances, it has also come with some unforeseen and staggering consequences. A slew of studies continue to show that our usage of devices like smart phones and apps like Facebook—particularly the way in which we allow them to splinter our attention—has increased our levels of unhappiness and loneliness.(5) Clearly we control the Information Age less than we think. Far too often it controls us.
The collective soul ache caused by this detachment—both from each other and from ourselves—in the disembodied tech world is prompting a growing number of young Americans to seek physical rootedness. Author and cultural commentator Andy Crouch notes that being connected to family, friends, and place matters more for young people today than it has for many decades. Despite booming population growth, travel and transport rates have remained virtually the same over the last 10 years, leading Crouch to observe that whereas the "20th-century American dream was to move out and move up, the 21st-century dream seems to be to put down deeper roots."(6)
In 2010 urbanologist Richard Florida observed that, for young people, the question "Where do you live?" has replaced the previous generation's question of "What do you do?"(7) Crouch again: "This quest for local, embodied, physical presence may well be driven by the omnipresence of the virtual and a dawning awareness of the thinness of disembodied life."(8) It follows then that the Christian faith is also searching for embodiment both within cities, which are increasingly becoming the text by which people read the faith, and within the physical presence (whether symbolic or actual) of Christ celebrated in the Eucharist.
The power of embodiment
One Sunday morning, former journalist Sara Miles stumbled into a local cathedral as an atheist looking for a good story. She sat through the service and ended up taking Communion. As she took the bread and wine, two thoughts appeared in her mind simultaneously: "One was that I was eating regular bread … and drinking disgusting, sticky wine. And the other was that God, who I didn't believe in, was alive and was in my mouth."(9) She has since converted to Christianity and gone on to author a number of spiritual books, including Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and City of God: Faith in the Streets. She is the founder and director of The Food Pantry, and serves as Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
I asked Miles how Christian communities can respond to the cultural hunger for embodiment.
"Most profound is the question of whether you trust the incarnation," she said. "If the incarnation is real, then it means that God is not an idea—not your great idea or my great idea—but God is dwelling among us.
"People are difficult to be with," she continued. "Sometimes you just want to send somebody an email so you don't have to talk to them, or text instead of being with them, but the incarnation means that God makes God's self known to us in the flesh. And it happens through Jesus Christ in a continual way—it's not over."
Miles responds to that hunger, in part, by walking the streets of San Francisco's Mission District, offering to apply Lenten ash in the shape of a cross to the forehead of strangers. This practice is an intimate reminder of our sinful mortality and of our need to repent and accept new life in Christ.
The Great Interrupter
Physician Gary Slutkin spent a decade in places like Uganda and Rwanda fighting contagious disease before returning to the United States for a much-needed leave of absence. While on leave he became increasingly troubled by violence in major urban cities as well as the inadequacy of the threat of punishment as a deterrent. This led him to examine violence through the lens of epidemiology. One day, his team compared maps of violence in major cities to those of epidemics worldwide and found that the patterns of the two maps were nearly identical: Both violence and disease formed in clusters. He eventually realized that the "greatest predictor of a case of violence is a preceding case of violence."(10) In other words, violence spreads much like the flu.
Slutkin's controversial response was to treat violence like any contagious disease. He and his team tested the theory in Chicago's West Garfield neighborhood by sending trained "interrupters" into the streets to disrupt immediate transmission of violence, prevent future spread, and shift the norms of culture. The same technique that slowed the AIDS epidemic in Uganda resulted in a 67 percent drop in homicides in West Garfield, all because a select group of people disrupted the common narrative of domination and retribution.
Slutkin's perspective should sound familiar to Christians, who believe that violence is, as indeed are all sorts of human pathologies, the symptom of the underlying disease of sin. God warned Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest he "surely die." But when Adam and Eve ate, murder quickly ensued; death entered human history; communion with God was replaced by a desire to be like God. From then on, humanity knew only one response to the violence perpetrated against its members: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Our hope lies in Jesus, the Great Interrupter, who stepped onto the stage of human history to give us all a drastically different narrative to imitate.
Our hope lies in Jesus, the Great Interrupter, who stepped onto the stage of human history to give us all a drastically different narrative to imitate: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Societies have always carefully erected boundaries around those whom they deem worthy of love, but Jesus shatters those boundaries: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Jesus gave eternal gravitas to his own words when, from the cross, he spoke forgiveness to the very people who nailed him there. His cure ultimately heals the disease of a death that is far more pervasive, adaptive, and contagious than anyone could imagine. It also provides the power to make his new ethic of love possible. A staggering new Story toppled the universe and altered the course of human history: Love your neighbor. But wait—there's more. Love your enemy, too.
I asked Sara Miles what gives her hope for the church, in light of all the violence it has both perpetrated and condoned over the past five centuries.
"We belong to a tradition that has a great deal of ugliness associated with it," she told me. "In the name of God, the church has done terrible things. But I think that, in the name of God, the church has also kept this thing alive. And the thing at the core of it we're not actually able to kill, because the thing at the core of it is Jesus who lives."
Since Christ's resurrection, a steady remnant of Christians have chosen the way of love over triumph, and most of them remain unnamed in history books. But some of these holy agitators have higher profiles, capturing the world's attention and inspiring Jesus followers around the world. Pope Francis is one such person. His popularity lies in part in his charisma and ability to make deep connections with a wide variety of people. But in a deeper sense, he is admired for his posture of humility, so rare in a person with his degree of authority. How potent was the image of Pope Francis washing the feet of disabled people or embracing without hesitation two agonizingly disfigured men. When asked if he "approved of homosexuality," Pope Francis replied: "Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person."(11)
Pope Francis is not changing Catholic doctrine, but he is speaking about it in a new way—a way that makes it appear new. This suggests that it is not the tenets of the faith that need changing, but rather the way in which Christians live out and speak about their faith with others.
Of old and new wineskins
The new zeitgeist is not about junking everything we've ever done as a church and starting fresh but about reexamining beliefs and expressions of faith in order to make sure we are living authentically rather than habitually. When Jesus cautioned his listeners not to put new wine in old wineskins, he was urging them not to get stuck in old rituals—not because the old ways were bad in and of themselves, but because the people performing the rituals (i.e. fasting, keeping the Sabbath) had lost connection with their original purpose. They had forgotten, for example, that "the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath," and were more focused on the form than on the content of their faith.
Often those who are most wary of seeing the church shift are those who base their security on old forms rather than on the constantly moving, continually renewing Spirit of God. The "former things have taken place," God announces, "and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you" (Isa. 42:9). "From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you" (Isa. 48:6).
As Miles put it, "It's a matter of integrating the richness of our tradition and finding ways to broaden it so it's not just this narrow, little band of people saying, 'This is what Christianity is.'"
This is why it is so important to incorporate the voices of the marginalized—the poor, the minority, the oppressed—and the Bible is full of these stories. "You hear all the time through the gospels that God's Word appears through the unlikeliest people," said Miles, "so you have to keep your eyes open. You could be a Hebrew slave trying to escape because you killed someone, like Moses; you could be a sheepherder, like David; or a baby boy whose mom has a bad reputation, like Jesus.
"The point is not that there is something intrinsically different or special about any one group of people," continued Miles. "It's that if you only look where the dominant culture tells you to look, then you're only seeing a tiny bit of the picture, because God is looking at all of God's people."
Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit Priest who founded Homeboy Ministries to address gang violence in Los Angeles. He has experienced firsthand the value of learning from and giving a voice to those on the margins of society.
Truth sometimes requires the church to draw lines in the sand, but love requires her not to erect walls.
"What Jesus fundamentally challenged was the purity code of first-century Palestine," Father Boyle told me. "For them, holiness was about being away from lepers, but Jesus challenged the purity code, saying, 'It's about inclusion.' And that's always going to be the mark of Christianity and the church. If it's inclusive, then it's always from God; if it's exclusive, it's not of God. Because [excluding] is fear-based. The opposite of love is not hate but fear." Truth sometimes requires the church to draw lines in the sand, but love requires her not to erect walls.
The way forward
There is much solace in knowing that Jesus is responsible for the ultimate well-being of his church. As the old-timers would sometimes say, "Some things ain't up to you!" Our primary responsibility during this shift in zeitgeist, and indeed the key to our journey, is to cling closely to God and to each other, and never let fear conquer our hearts. Tickle warns in The Great Emergence that one of the greatest dangers during this time for the North American church is that "some of her Christians, of whatever stripe, may cease to honor and accept the necessary function of all her Christians."
The way forward for a church facing increasing marginalization, and even persecution, is not one of grasping for the final vestiges of cultural authority but one of open-handed humility. We must challenge the gods of this age without being remade in their image. Practically, this means confessing areas of inadequacy, confusion, and even doubt when appropriate. It means authentically delving into our own questions, especially when they threaten our superficial existence within the comforts of dogma. It means holding firmly to truth while humbly acknowledging that as fallible individuals we will sometimes get it wrong. It means partnering across traditional lines of faith and political orientation in order to seize (and make) opportunities to serve the common good. Most of all, it means finding our security in Jesus, who empowers and anchors our hearts despite the shifting of the times.
Anthony Grimes is the CEO and founder of Urbanmuse Media, as well as the founder of the Park Hill Parish, a start-up organization focused on organizing collective impact and building beloved community in Denver, Colo. He lives with his wife and two kids in Park Hill, the neighborhood in Denver in which he was raised.
1. Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Baker Books; Reprint edition, 2012), 16.
2. Vincent Harding, There is a River (Mariner Books; Reissue edition, 1993), 5.
3. Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context (Fortress Press, 2003), 17.
4. Ibid., 4.
5. Fleura Bardhi, Andrew J. Rohm and Fareena Sultan, "Tuning in and tuning out: media multitasking among young consumers" (Journal of Consumer Behaviour, Volume 9, Issue 4, pages 316–332, July/August 2010).
6. Andy Crouch, "Ten Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade" (Q Ideas).
9. See interview with Sara Miles at WorkofthePeople.com.
10. Gary Slutkin, "Let's Treat Violence like a Contagious Disease," TED Talk (April 2013).
11. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., "A Big Heart Open to God" (interview with Pope Francis), America magazine, September 30, 2013.