Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Tom's posts appear via RNS.
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If the Internet Isn't Killing Religion, What Is?
A smart professor in Massachusetts noticed recently that religion’s decline in America coincided with the rise of the Internet.
He theorized that the two may be connected. Headline: “Is the Internet bad for religion?”
It’s utter nonsense, of course. The decline of mainline churches began in 1965, not in the 1990s when the Internet became commercially available. It would be more accurate, from a timing standpoint, to say that the American League’s designated hitter rule (1973) caused religion’s decline. Or maybe the “British invasion” in rock ‘n’ roll (1964).
Lessons for Our Democracy from the Not-so-distant Past
As latter-day partisans fling terms like “dictator” and “Nazi,” I decided to read William Shirer’s classic book about the real thing.
In “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” the historian describes Adolf Hitler as a sad little man — a layabout and chronic failure — who discovered his larger-than-life quest, convinced himself he was above all normal constraints and found the combination of scapegoating (blaming Jews and Slavs for Germany’s woes) and delusion (grandiose master-race theory) that would justify trampling on lesser lives.
COMMENTARY: Deliberate Distortion of Reality Won’t Work for Long
I was dismayed when I learned that Mozilla Foundation, maker of the Firefox Web browser, had named an anti-gay activist as its new chief executive officer.
Brendan Eich wasn’t a hard-core activist. He had donated $1,000 in 2008 to a California campaign to ban same-sex marriage.
Even so, his ethical stance struck me as unfortunate. Mozilla’s naming him CEO struck me as tone-deaf. And his refusal to discuss his views seemed too aloof for a high-visibility enterprise like Mozilla.
I didn’t join the crowd demanding his resignation. I did the one thing I could do: I stopped using the Firefox browser.
Sex and the Never-Ending Christian Adolescence
I don’t know about young girls, but I know from experience that young boys obsess about sex.
They crave it, fantasize about it, do everything in their meager power to obtain it, worry about their adequacy, get confused by their longings, and for the duration of adolescence — and often beyond — see people in terms of “getting laid.”
I suppose this obsession is natural, and that it serves some fundamental purpose, such as perpetuating the species or giving us something to think about besides our gangly bodies, weird thoughts, and being young and insecure.
I don’t know any adult who would willingly repeat adolescence. Yet here we are — we Christians seeking hope, grace, mercy, and purpose, we believers in a God of justice — treating our faith as an endless adolescence centered around sex.
Phelps Touched on Fears and Anger Many Feel
As anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps passes on to whatever is his reward, we need to ask how he managed to inspire a following.
His was hardly an exemplary life. One neighbor remembers seeing his children in Topeka, Kan., in the 1970s and noticing they were bald. He was told Phelps sent his kids out to sell some product, and if they didn’t make their quota, he shaved their heads as punishment.
Many tell how Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church sent vicious faxes when gay men were dying of AIDS, picketed military funerals with “God hates you” signs, and blamed terrorist attacks and fallen soldiers on America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality.
He was consistent, that’s for sure. Brutish and bullying from home to pulpit to public forum. Filled with anger and hate. And totally unrestrained in how he expressed his rage.
Spring Is Victory Lane
Some day soon, pop music will start wafting through the urban canyons where I live.
Styles will collide, and they certainly will drown out spring birds. But no matter. The longest winter on record — or at least the longest since last year — will have ended, and the city can breathe its annual sigh of relief.
We did it. We survived the snow and bitter cold. We survived urban indignities like skyrocketing rents and public servants who care little for the public or for serving. We survived snow days when families who depend on public schools not only for education but also for day care and basic nutrition found themselves trapped, and entitled folks complained when schools were kept open after snow to serve those basic human needs.
Openness, Diversity, and Magnanimity
I’ll just say it: I thought “ashes to go” was a great idea.
Thousands of clergy and lay liturgists did “to-go” this year. From all evidence, it was a great hit.
Not everyone appreciated the innovation, of course. But then not every Christian appreciates a liberation-minded pope, or songs on projection screens, or preachers in jeans, or services at any time other than Sunday morning, or ditching denominational hymnals, or coffeehouses doubling as worship venues.
A Parched Patch of Prejudice
Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.
That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.
The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.
The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.
COMMENTARY: Rallying the Troops with Self-Righteous Fury
If you wonder what a right-wing political agenda laden with phony morality would look like, here are two signs.
First, from the increasingly shrill patriarch of Silicon Valley, venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the argument that rich people like him should get more votes in elections than poorer people.
Second, from the ever vigilant Kansas Legislature, a bill that would legalize segregation of gays in the name of protecting the religious freedom of those who loathe gays.
Perkins, of course, rode the gravy train to great wealth by backing those who actually did the work, took the risks, and built something.
Between Repression and Freedom
I stopped drinking Coca Cola years ago — not in protest but in a bid for health. But I want to applaud their presenting "America the Beautiful" sung in seven languages.
In a 60-second Super Bowl ad, and now a 90-second version at the bizarre Sochi Winter Olympics, the soft drink company showed people of different ethnic backgrounds singing in English and six other languages.
I found it charming and warming. It spoke eloquently to the America that I know today — and the America that my ancestors knew when they arrived many years ago speaking German and Norwegian.
What Shopping Malls Can Learn from Churches
The enclosed mall at Hillsdale Shopping Center had everything on a Friday morning: 1.3 million square feet of glistening space, top-drawer retailers like Nordstrom, reliable outlets like Macy’s, and teen-focused shops like American Eagle Outfitters.
It had everything except people.
The fabled mall — opened in 1954, enclosed in 1982 — felt like a ghost town. Or, in my frame of reference, like a big mainline Protestant church on a Sunday morning.
Winning and Whining Are Insufferable
Venture capitalist Tom Perkins took a beating by his former employer for likening today’s class warfare to the Holocaust, with the mega-wealthy 1 percent as victims of “Nazi” repression.
In what The Wall Street Journal obediently termed a “Progressive Kristallnacht,” the grand old man of Silicon Valley said those who criticize wealth inequality are like Nazis pursuing “class demonization.”
The firm he founded, known as Kleiner Perkins, immediately disavowed the 82-year-old Perkins, saying, “We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ and do not agree.”
Where Are the Referees?
First, without referees (judges, umpires, arbiters, monitors), much of life would be a chaotic ordeal dominated by cheats, bullies, and dirty players. That’s why dictators refuse to allow election monitors, corrupt politicians defame the media who report their corruption, and bankers lobby incessantly against regulators.
Second, even with referees, action moves too fast for certainty. In baseball, even the most skilled umpires miss calls at first and enforce idiosyncratic strike zones.
Third, even-handed justice requires trust in the referee and a belief that missed calls tend to even out over time. If the referee is a cheat — as happens frequently when regulators get paid off by the regulated — trust in the game vanishes, and no one feels safe.
Church Shouldn’t Be This Hard
After 36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant, I came to a startling conclusion the other day.
Not startling to you, perhaps. I might be the last person to get the memo. But the conclusion drew me up short.
My conclusion: Religion shouldn’t be this hard.
Lessons Learned by a Young Priest
In the perfection of hindsight, I see that I was clueless when I knelt before the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis on a snowy December night 36 years ago and claimed my prize: ordination as a priest.
I had no clue how to serve a congregation. Other than planning Sunday worship — the easiest of all clergy tasks — I was unprepared.
How to make a hospital visit; how to lead a council whose only instinct was not to spend money; how to grow a church; how to comfort the lost and to humble the found; how to hear what the world needed from us — I knew none of it.
Yearning for the Pleasing 'Bubble' Version
“Bubble living” might be delusional, but it expresses deep and serious yearnings.
Take “Champagne music” maker Lawrence Welk. His music variety show on ABC was built on perpetuating the squareness of a prewar world being challenged by postwar change.
My father was still watching Welk reruns 40 years after it ceased production in 1971. They reminded him of a world long supplanted.
How Much of Christ Can We Stand in Christmas?
I’d say the moment is ripe for “Christ in Christmas” — the real Christ, of course, who shunned the privileged and aligned himself with sinners and outcasts, whose heart went out to sufferers like the homeless of Rome whom a new pope risks serving.
I’d say the moment is ripe for new life being born in stables and forced to flee the powerful and greedy. We have seen Mammon’s insatiable maw, power’s absolute corruption of the human soul, and thugs murdering the many in order to protect the few — and we know our need of something better.
So, yes, it’s time for Christ in Christmas. Time for new life, time for hope, time for the faithful to say yes to God. Time for peace, not war. Time for repentance, not comfort at any cost. Time for justice and mercy and the even-handed goodness that God promised.
This, of course, isn’t what zealots mean when they vow to “defend” the faith from a culture’s “war on Christmas.” They want a free-fire zone where moralizers can denounce all but the like-minded, and churches with huge budgets can frighten or seduce worshippers into donor mode. They mean using Jesus’ name to impose the very cultural and political oppression that Jesus escaped once as a child but couldn’t escape as an adult.
The Engine of Change Is on Full Throttle
My first career: print journalism. Current status of that field: on life support.
My second career: pastoring neighborhood churches. Current status of that field: on life support.
My third career: writing and publishing books. Current status of that field: on life support.
My fourth career: implementing client-server data management systems. Current status of that field: on life support.
Do you see a trend here? I did. So now I try to stay nimble and to keep moving. My publishing business is entirely electronic. I have cycled through three websites and three subscription systems in 10 months. I do more of my church consulting online.
Making a Difference in a World That's Falling Apart
While church planners listened, a five-person focus group described life outside the congregation’s doors: A world falling apart.
Families are in disarray, the group said. Parents are refusing, or unable, to do the basic work of parenting, from giving guidance to saying “no.” Instead, they are prepping their children to join a national epidemic of narcissism.
Obesity is rampant, along with obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. Infant mortality is worsening as pregnant girls routinely continue smoking, doing drugs and drinking during pregnancy.
Clueless parents are buying heroin — today’s drug of choice — for their children, so the little ones don’t get beat up by dealers. Parents buy cases of beer for their underage children so they can drink at home, rather than drive drunk. Methamphetamine usage is widespread.
Sunday Mornings Are Broken
In a tech newsletter I read, two colleagues addressed the end of the world of the personal computer that they spent three decades mastering.
There will be no more building PCs from scratch, no more tinkering with the innards, no more fine-tuning the operating system.
“The evolution of the PC industry over the last several years has not been good to the old-school PC professional, particularly for those whose careers have been heavily hardware-oriented,” said the writer.
Many clergy and lay leaders are in exactly this position.