Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I got an email the other day from someone I once considered working with in ministry. It was one of those things where I hadn’t heard from this person in a long time and was surprised to see anything. Then I was disappointed. Then I was angry. See, it was a mass email about the Northern Illinois University shooting last week. The general gist of the message was that the sender had been really unhappy about it, had prayed about it, then heard from god that it was all okay. See, god’s gearing up for a revival and the NIU shooting and last year’s VT shooting are all just Satan trying to stop it from happening. I sent a couple of the offending passages to a friend of mine for his perspective. He pointed out that it’s little more than an attempt to say, “God, make me feel better,” on the part of the sender. He also pointed out that it’s inherently childish. There’s no effort made in a claim that god is creating revival and evil, demonic forces are getting people to shoot up lecture halls to take or lay any sort of personal responsibility for, well, anything. I have tended to try to avoid personal discussion of my own religious beliefs or feelings, beyond identifying where I once was and indicating I ain’t exactly there no more. It really isn’t appropriate, for lack of a better word, for what I try to discuss around here. This, however, is one of those places where I think it’s actually worthwhile to offer something like a personal testimony. This issue is one of the central issues in my split from that place where I once was. You’re (that being the editorial you) not allowed to do anything in an evangelical Christian environment. It’s a sort of hyped-up Calvinism that both makes proactivity impossible and sets up an unhealthy self-centered universe. I’ve touched on the latter at various points in the past, most recently when I pointed out that a 15 billion year-old universe is tough to reconcile for people who want to be the sole focal point of the totality of existence. But it bears elaboration here. The structure of a thought process in a situation like this is externally very selfless, but at its core it’s actually quite selfish. Let’s take an evangelical Christian stereotype. We’ll call him Billy. Billy hears about something to which he only has a tenuous connection. In the case of the NIU shooting, Billy doesn’t go to NIU, but he does know people who may or may not be going there now, or maybe he was thinking of going to NIU but instead decided to go to U of I and now sees some sort of divine providence in that. All of the sudden this whole thing freaks Billy out. He wants to know that everything is going to be okay, so he goes and prays. (At this point it’s worth noting that in the real world I didn’t receive a similar email after Virginia Tech or that Omaha mall shooting and it doesn’t have to be said that I haven’t gotten an email about how all of those suicide bombings over in Iraq are really a sign of revival.) Not surprisingly, he finds out that god does, indeed, have a plan. So Billy goes and contacts everyone he knows to let them know that god’s on top of things and encourages them to pray about it, too. But what’s the prayer? Ask god to cause ever increasing revival and make everything all better. Later in the day I accidentally heard Steve Cochran, the afternoon drive DJ on WGN, talking to Jim Wallis. Upon realizing what was going on and what was being discussed, I decided to stick around and listen. Wallis is one of the few evangelical thinkers I’m still capable of respecting, mostly because his head is on straight and his interest is in actually trying to make a better world. Wallis, too, was talking about revival. But to him revival is something different. He, too, saw the roots of revival and, in some way, related the revival to things like school shootings and war. For Wallis, though, the revival came from seeing all of the screwed up things that were going on and actively looking for something better, something transcendent, something that can stop the pain. He posited that the Civil Rights Movement was one born of revival. Consider the active role the clergy, religious activists, and places like the Koinonia community played and you’ll realize that he was at least partially and maybe almost entirely correct. But although the clergy was involved from the very top all the way through, they were attempting to spark a revival in spite of opposition from Christians who thought that god had ordained segregation and considered white people inherently more worthy than any others. The first example of revival is about as useful as draining a bottle of Maker’s or shooting heroin. What good is it to sit around and talk about revival and how god’s gonna be here any day now to clean up the mess? I’ve experienced a few spiritual highs and gotten spiritual hangovers from them and in the end have never once seen god, at least not that I know of. It’s a function of self-deception, where nothing makes sense, but you really, really want things to have a purpose, so you mentally write god in to the script. Sometimes it’s an, “I see god moving,” proposition, sometimes it’s a retcon, but it’s all an attempt to make the world make sense for the benefit of the self. But it’s done in a way that requires no personal sacrifice at all because god’s going to do it/god did it in the first place. There’s a level of childishness in this type of revival. Those who rely on it end up looking like a small child who breaks a toy, then cries until a parent arrives to fix or replace it. I don’t think that’s what the writers of the Bible had in mind when they called everyone “children of god.” I’ve gotten in the habit of saying recently that if god actually is a parent in the way that this strain of religion says, then god is an abusive parent. A good parent teaches the child to make decisions and grow in to a fully functioning adult. I know of no parent who actually wants their adult child living at home until they’re eighty (well, maybe one) with no life skills and no ability to solve problems. So why would a god who is supposedly the greatest parent ever want that for humans? We can’t stop the next Virginia Tech or NIU shooting. It’s impossible. It has no real root causes that can be systematically removed, nor does it have any sort of easily created future defense. Moreover, it’s one of those situations where any attempt to make sure it never happens again will probably do far more harm than good. In effect, it’s the perfect issue for a helpless child revival. The incidents are random and anything that happens can be interpreted as a sign that god is involved. We don’t have to do anything and can attribute any result to good or evil as necessary. There’s none of that proactive search for justice or marching or risking looking like an idiot that Jim Wallis would call for. Of course Jim Wallis’s version of revival requires a lot of work. See, it requires looking at the world, seeing injustice or pain, and doing something about it. You have to see the systematic injustice of a Jim Crow law and try to stop it. You have to be willing to risk your own resources to make a better life for the impoverished or abused. You might have to stop praying and start working. On some level, too, I think there’s a level of existential fear. Fighting for equality might actually require contact with people who are outside of that tight, safe bubble. That might require a re-alignment of beliefs and most people are afraid to face that possibility. In the final analysis, my personal experience indicates that it’s a lot easier for many Christians I’ve known to expect god to do everything, then try to rationalize and make all of the pieces fit after the fact than it is for them to try and, in trying, fail. Failure, after all, may invite a crisis of faith. And nobody wants that.

It might require some sort of revival...

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