C. Christopher Smith is co-author of the recent book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, and is also editor of The Englewood Review of Books. His next book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, July 2016).
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R.I.P. White Church?
AS THE BLACK LIVES Matter movement has shone a light on police brutality against black people across the country, the public conversation in the United States has been unable to ignore the legacy of racism that shapes many of our nation’s most vital institutions. In his important new book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), makes the bold claim that White Christian America (WCA)—the fertile ground that gave root to and energized the legacy of American racism—is dead. Granted, this does not mean the death of racism. But for those of us striving for racial reconciliation, the changing societal narrative that Jones offers here is a hopeful one.
Jones begins the book with a tongue-in-cheek obituary for WCA: “Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century.” He ends the book with a eulogy for WCA that is much more serious in tone and draws upon the stages of grief named by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her eminent book On Death and Dying.
Jones defines the WCA as a distinctly Protestant entity, with two primary branches, white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants. Jones notes that although these two subgroups are often at odds, together they comprise the “single dynasty” of WCA. “For most of the nation’s life, White Christian America was big enough, cohesive enough, and influential enough,” Jones writes, “to pull off the illusion that it was the cultural pivot around which the country turned.”
People of the Books
NOT LONG AFTER graduating college, I read everything I could find about various expressions of Christian community. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon the stories of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the other Catholic Workers who would follow in their footsteps. I remember being immediately captivated by the Catholic Worker vision for hospitality houses that were community hubs for both action—growing food, feeding the hungry, protesting American militarism—and learning—cultivating conversation and reflection on radical Christian faithfulness and the socioeconomic vision that defined the movement.
Although perhaps more widely admired for their activism and works of mercy, the Catholic Workers have long published a newspaper that is a catalyst for their social vision—fusing the stories of scripture, saints, and literature with the ubiquitous challenge to live faithfully in an age marked by greed and violence. In the words of Maurin, an essential part of their mission is to make “workers out of scholars and scholars out of workers.”
Unsettling Our Cultural Christianity
Since the beginning of the modern era almost 500 years ago, Western culture has been marked by a distinct aversion to history. Thus we have come to narrate our lives primarily through our stories as (seemingly) autonomous individuals, instead of through the social stories of the peoples and places to which we belong. One of the unfortunate consequences of this shift is that we often become blind to the socioeconomic narratives that have set the stage for our present lives.
One of these is white supremacy, which has shaped the geographical, educational, and economic systems of our land over many generations and played a formative role in the life of almost every American. In his excellent new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Drew Hart turns our attention to this story and particularly to the ways it misshapes our Christian faithfulness. Hart begins the book with a description of how racialized our lives are. Historically, nonwhites were excluded from many important spaces in U.S. public life: schools, governmental positions, and even churches. Although few, if any, of these spaces today explicitly exclude nonwhites, our socioeconomic systems are rooted in these earlier eras and continue to promote a highly segregated way of life. “When we can be honest about how our entire society is deeply racialized,” Hart says, “we will be ready to move forward.”
Hart reminds us that race is not simply about the color of one’s skin but also about power and the question of who gets to dictate the course that our society will follow. Early in the book, he spends a chapter exploring how our understanding of Jesus is often too white. We are inclined to imagine Jesus as an influencer, one who works in the upper echelons of our hierarchical society and who has the power to control the course of society. Hart emphasizes that this is not the Jesus that we find in the gospels, who aligned himself with the marginalized and who mostly rejected hierarchical society. “Where the old order dominated and violently lorded over others,” Hart observes, “the kingdom of God arose from the bottom, margins, and cracks of society, freely inviting people to share in the peace and justice of God made available in the presence of Jesus.”
THE GLORY OF God is humanity fully alive, to paraphrase St. Irenaeus.
If Irenaeus is correct and Christian discipleship is centered on following Jesus toward a life that is more compassionate and more alive, then Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is perhaps the most important Christian book of 2015. Granted, Turkle steers clear of the language of faith, but in calling us to become more fully human, she has penned a profoundly religious book that Christians need to read and reflect upon.
Western culture has long been losing the capacity for conversation. Embodied in the current partisan climate of Washington that competes at all costs, rather than converse and collaborate, this aversion to dialogue is symptomatic of cultural changes that have unfolded over the last 500 years. From Enlightenment philosophy to industrialization to automobility, these cultural shifts have disintegrated communities and diminished our capacity for open conversation. More recently, Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort highlighted how the increasing homogeneity of our relational networks erodes our capacity to converse with those who differ from us.
Turkle focuses primarily on an even more recent concern, the ubiquitous tyranny of the smartphone. Although not a Luddite who would advocate abolishing phones, Turkle fiercely describes the ways our phones inhibit our capacity for connection, conversation, and empathy. “We are being silenced by our technologies,” she maintains. With joint Harvard doctorates in sociology and psychology, Turkle backs her claims with a vast body of research. Even a silenced phone sitting on the table during conversation, she notes, changes the dynamics of what we discuss and how.
Face-to-face conversation, Turkle argues, is the most basic human activity. In conversation, we learn to listen and to be empathetic. Our mobile devices also impede our capacity for solitude, a skill that is vital to our development from childhood onward. Turkle emphasizes that it is in solitude that our minds are formed and we develop a distinctive voice. In exercising this voice in private conversations with family, friends, and lovers, and in public conversations, it is refined and our capacity for solitude and self-reflection is further enhanced, drawing us ever-deeper in this virtuous cycle.
Working for the Economic Flourishing of our Places
Over the last quarter century, groups like CCDA have challenged churches to be involved in community development, but there has been significantly less conversation about churches entering into the work of economic development. To do economic development well requires cultivating a wide range of collaborations – with government, corporations large and small, funders, non-profits, etc. – which is not only a slow, complicated, and intense work, but one that might raise theological red flags from many churches. I would challenge churches that might be uneasy about these sorts of collaborations to consider the image of the church in Ephesians 3, bearing witness of God’s wisdom to the powers and authorities. How better to bear witness than in relationships that focus on the health and flourishing of our neighborhoods?
None Shall Make Them Afraid: 5 Virtues of Responsible News Consumption
It was difficult to be a Hoosier last week, particularly as one caught in the crossfire between Indiana’s narrow-minded lawmakers on the Right and the rage of the political Left. The battle cry “Boycott Indiana!” reverberated through social media channels even though many Hoosiers vehemently oppose the discriminatory new RFRA law. My very own neighborhood mourned one of the casualties of this battle: a major economic development that was canceled when the funders heard about RFRA.
It was amidst this firestorm that I read Gareth Higgins’ superb essay “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015). Given my present frame of mind, Higgins didn’t have to twist my arm to convince me that fear was a prevalent factor in the version of reality that we are fed through media channels.
Higgins’ essay reminded me of the prophetic hope of the Israelite people that is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible: “None shall make them afraid.” If God’s people are indeed shaped by a perfect love that casts out fear, how then, I wondered, do we begin embodying an alternative to the newsfeed of fear in the way that we read, tell, and embody stories?
Higgins suggests that the answer to this question involves practicing the virtues of context, compassion, attention to detail, and pause. Space didn’t allow Higgins to elaborate on these virtues, so I would like to suggest my own interpretation and offer an additional fifth: gratitude.
Making Jesus a Patriot
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin Kruse
Conquering A Great Divide
This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. Convergent Books.
Slow Down and Know That I Am God
Why it's time for a conversation about Slow Church.