identity

Subversives in Christ

I WAS RAISED in an African-American church, but as an adult I discovered Anabaptism. Since then I’ve sought to learn from both the wider black church and Anabaptist traditions, to the point that I now consider myself an “Anablacktivist.”

Two experiences at my undergraduate Christian college helped propel me to see the significance of these two Christian streams. The first time was a chapel service, maybe a year after 9/11. The speaker, the Catholic priest John Dear, challenged us about U.S. violence and militarism—arguing that these weren’t consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. I leaned forward in agreement, captivated by his message, feeling that it rang true and faithful to Jesus.

Then I noticed some movement in the darkened auditorium. Droves of students disruptively got up from their chairs and headed straight for the exits, in protest of the speaker and his “subversive” message that refused to affirm everything that the U.S. was doing in the world. I found myself deeply troubled by the defensive response of my (mostly white) Christian brothers and sisters to Dear’s thoroughly Jesus-shaped critiques of U.S. empire.

The second time was at a smaller “multicultural chapel service,” with just a few white peers present. The speaker spoke of U.S. history and present reality. He directly named white supremacy, racism as a system, and the experiences of black and brown people in the U.S. Once again I leaned forward, not wanting to miss a phrase. And again I watched many of the white students walk out.

As a follower of Christ, our speaker challenged us to live differently because of our faith in Jesus Christ. Yet something inherent in my peers’ socialization had them clinging more to their white identity than to the Christian challenge. These two chapel experiences helped me contemplate the depth of the church’s troubles in the U.S. and its insubstantial Christian formation.

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Defining Identity: Person of Color. Woman. Poor. Fatherless. Undocumented.

Handprint identity concept, Cbenjasuwan / Shutterstock.com
Handprint identity concept, Cbenjasuwan / Shutterstock.com

Some of you may know the experience of having a secret about yourself that when revealed makes you have to completely reframe your identity. This happened for me in my junior year of high school when I was offered the opportunity to travel through a college bound program. That is when I learned I was “undocumented.” The reality of the broad impact of this label set in with each evasive answer my mother gave when I asked if I’d be able to not only travel, but drive, or work to help pay the bills. Being undocumented threatened my dreams of going to college; it threatened the possibility of a better future.

I was born in Mexico, and as proud as I am about my ethnicity, there is only one place I know as home, the United States. My father abandoned us when I was 3 years old and this set everything in motion that would lead me and my family to the U.S. When we struggled without his support, my older brother left for the U.S. in search of a better life at the age of 14. My mother’s love for her oldest son drove her to leave her home as well. When my brother learned she was considering leaving me, his young sister, in the care of my uncle while she visited him, he insisted she brought me along. I have now been in the U.S. for 25 years.

What Rock and Roll and the Church Have in Common

Rock guitar, Sinelyov / Shutterstock.com
Rock guitar, Sinelyov / Shutterstock.com

I grew up with music in my life. At first, it was a combination of my dad’s Willie Nelson and Ray Charles with my mom’s old southern Gospel hymns. I’d sit under the piano, feeling the vibrations as she played “Blessed Assurance,” and then lie on the floor in front of the speakers as Ike and Tina belted out “Proud Mary.”

And then I discovered my own music, in the form of rock. Eventually, I sang lead in several hard rock bands around Dallas hitting all the local hot spots and singing until I was hoarse and exhausted. It was during my decade away from church that I did most of this, but I didn’t realize until recently that, despite the pretense of countercultural rebellion the music offered, it actually gave me some of the same things I experienced as part of organized religion.

Of course, only the most uneducated would think of rock music as some monolithic think that was barely held together by the pursuit of sex, drugs, and fame. There were rules. There were codes. And my lord, there were categories.

Any time you asked a band what style they were, inevitably they’d sigh and equivocate, finally listing off a handful of bands they most certainly were not like. No one wanted to be categorized, and yet we were more than ready to label all others and fit them in to their neat little musical denominations.

Meet the Nones: Jewish Americans Increasingly Disaffiliating

Courtesy Pew Research Center
Courtesy Pew Research Center

The top religion story of 2012 was the “rise of the ‘Nones’” — the one in five adults in the U.S. eschewing any religious label. That trend is now evidenced across the American religious spectrum, including in Jewish communities. About 22 percent of Jews now describe themselves as having no religion, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews.

“Fully a fifth today of Jews in the United States are people who say they have no religion. They’re atheists, agnostics, or, the largest single subgroup, nothing in particular,” said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the study.

The trend of disaffiliation mimics that of other backgrounds, particularly by age. For example, 93 percent of Greatest Generation Jews (those born between 1914 and 1947) identified as being Jewish by religion, while only 68 percent of Millennial Jews (those born after 1980) say the same.

A New Wave

FOR ANYONE who’s sick of explaining that not all evangelicals are flag-waving, Quran-burning, gay-hating, science-skeptic, anti-abortion ralliers, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians provides a boost of encouragement. Written by frequent USA Todaycontributor Tom Krattenmaker, this who’s who of “new-paradigm evangelicals” explains how a growing movement of Jesus-followers are “pulling American evangelicalism out of its late 20th-century rut and turning it into the jaw-dropping, life-changing, world-altering force they believe it ought to be.”

Unlike their predecessors, these new evangelicals are characterized by a willingness to collaborate with members of other religions and no religion for the common good, warm acceptance of LGBTQ folks, a rejection of the dualistic pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, and a desire to participate in mainstream culture rather than wage war against it. All this “while lessening their devotion to Jesus by not a single jot or tittle.”

Admittedly, the book’s cover photo doesn’t quite do justice to Krattenmaker’s observations. Featuring young worshipers in a dark sanctuary with hands uplifted and eyes closed, each apparently lost in a private moment of four-chord progression praise, the cover looks more like a Hillsong worship concert circa 1998 than cutting-edge 2013 evangelicals. (If you’re unfamiliar with the four-chord progression, Google “how to write a worship song in five minutes or less.” You’re welcome.)

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Risking Depth and Passion

"EVEN IF I OWNED Picasso's 'Guernica,' I could not hang it on a wall in my house, and although I own a recording of the Solti Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' I play it only rarely. One cannot live every day on the boundary of human existence in the world, and yet it is to this boundary that one is constantly brought by the parables of Jesus." So wrote a great New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, in his book Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. I often think about his frankness as I prepare for the transition between Epiphany and Lent. We must soften and make bearable the intensity of the scriptural story to face it every week in church. We can't dive to the depths every single week, and we are right to keep our child-friendliness going.

But we need to risk depth and passion, or run the danger of making the gospel seem boring and predictable. Our churchly betrayal of God lies in our willingness to make the Word seem banal. So perhaps the thing we need to give up for Lent is our avoidance of depth. The scriptures this month will speak to us of faith as the experience of being stressed almost to a breaking point. They will plumb the depths of divine frustration and disappointment. We must clear a space for these wounding and thrilling themes and suspend our strategies for making worship palatable and safe.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ February 3]
Making a Prophet
Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

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Sometimes Love is a Battlefield (Even with Jesus)

Jacob Wrestled the Angel. Photo by Tim & Selena Middleton via Wylio.
Jacob Wrestled the Angel. Photo by Tim & Selena Middleton via Wylio.

I've learned that women want things.

And this is good.

And mothers? They want good things — the best things — for their children.

Nestled almost dead-middle of what's considered to be the most Jewish of the gospels, we're presented with an unnamed, non-Jewish mother who is out of her element in almost every way. Her daughter is going through hell-on-earth: she's suffering from a demon. She needs a little bit of heaven to invade and save this situation.

So she heads to a Man, Who:

  • has been favorable towards women,
  • has been favorable towards non-jewish people,
  • has some experience with getting demons in line,
  • has proven to be the Expert of heaven-on-earth.

She pleads (loudly). Jesus blows her off (quietly). others get involved:

"Jesus, we really need You to do… a little bit more here."

So, Jesus, already seemingly out of character, acts in a manner continuing to be unlike Him:

"I'm not here for you."

Fun, Fantasy, and Other Deep Truths

NICK HARKAWAY’S second novel, Angelmaker, is out now through Knopf. His first, The Gone-Away World, found favor with fans of boisterously literate science fiction. Angelmaker is, in many ways, tipped from the same mold as its predecessor. It is unapologetically fun (with a particularly English sense of humor familiar to fans of Stephen Fry and Douglas Adams), stuffed full of blisteringly creative ideas and digressive subplots, and shot through with darker undernotes. In it Harkaway asks some large questions about (among other things) the nature of identity, who owns the truth, the dark side of the will to power, and the true cost of the preservation of stability. The novel also makes a strong case for the power of compassion, courage, and the glory of imagination used well.

Angelmaker follows two alternating threads. In one an irreverent and intelligent orphaned girl, Edie Banister, is recruited into wartime secret service with the Ruskinites, an order of men and women devoted to beautiful craftsmanship who have been roped into weapons development. She rescues and falls in love with a genius who is using microscopic clockwork to build a supercomputer that will reveal the truth and end war. This “Apprehension Engine” (the titular Angelmaker), is baroque and bizarre; the force field of truth is to be disseminated by mechanical bees swarming from clockwork hives around the world. Naturally, an unreconstructed dictator wants to use it as a weapon of mass destruction.

The second thread is the present-day tale of Joe Spork, as he attempts to lead a humble, honest life until he is manipulated into adventure by the elderly Banister and pursued by the now-corrupt and terrifying Ruskinites.

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A Family's Identity Crisis

AT SOME POINT during adolescence, many young people transition away from the values, beliefs, and practices of the home in which they were raised to form an identity of their own. Some of these shifts—changing a college major or casting a vote—may be minor; others can cause such deep rifts that they tear families apart.

Over time and with dedication, some of these rifts can be mended, but the process toward reconciliation is often painful. Without the support of their families, young people in the midst of major transitions can be forced to live life on the margins—cast out, like pariahs.

Dee Rees’ debut full-length film Pariah captures the complexities of self-discovery as it manifests itself in Alike (pronounced Uh-Lee-Kay), a bright 17-year-old African-American woman struggling to claim her sexual identity. Rees infuses much of her personal narrative into Alike’s journey.

At first glance, Alike’s home life is a portrait of an average American family—two working parents, two children, and a commitment to church and education. But as the film develops, we see that Alike’s family isn’t as stable as it may appear.

As a young person still under her parents’ roof, Alike lives a double life. During school and on weekends, she pursues romantic relationships with women and is developing a queer image of her own; at home, she must abide by the strict rules of her church-going mother who suspects, but refuses to acknowledge, Alike’s sexual orientation. In one of the opening scenes, we see Alike changing on the bus after a night out with friends. In an attempt to maintain a “feminine” façade for her family, she removes a do-rag and oversized t-shirt to reveal braided hair and a white, fitted blouse with the word “Angel” written in rhinestones across the chest. All this is to please Alike’s mother, who buys her daughters clothes to “complement their figures,” offers frequent beauty advice, and insists that they be “presentable” in public.

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Re-Branding Religion: A Fool's Errand?

(Church sign image by Mark Lehigh/Shutterstock)
(Church sign image by Mark Lehigh/Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — Did leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention hurt their missionary cause by opting not to change the denomination's name to something a bit more, well, marketable?

Maybe, but as the advertising executives of Madison Avenue here could attest, as tempting as it is to try to solve a missionary slump with a marketing campaign, religious groups — like commercial businesses — should think twice before undergoing a brand overhaul.

After months of deliberations, an SBC task force on Feb. 20 recommended against trying to re-brand the denomination, an idea that has been bandied about for more than a century.

Proponents of a change made a good case: for a denomination that was born in 1845 out of a defense of slavery, the name has since saddled Southern Baptists with a problematic name and historical baggage.

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