April 23, 2008 § Leave a Comment
When the wind had blown against the smoke
and cleared the valley,
the sun shone its light unveiled
until the storms came
and rain relieved the blackened hills
with the moist promise of green.
I believe I’m blinded by the things I’ve taught myself to see.
The days, the dreams, the thoughts curtain my eyes
while you search them for one sparkling attention.
Then I wake to find the years of us you hold,
not shown in age, but hidden for me alone;
our youth’s blossom not once taken,
not had and lost,
April 17, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Begin with a basic shift. Evangelical leaders need to rediscover the foundation of their authority.
I’ve noticed that a person with authority has a right to be heeded, to receive deference. For example, let’s say we have a bull session about how evangelism really ought to be done, and we each proclaim our opinions, together with all the reasons why we’re right. But when Billy Graham ambles over to the sofa and puts up his boots on the coffee table, we sincerely defer. We don’t repent of our opinions when he starts to talk. We don’t surrender unconditionally to whatever he says. But we do adjust our points of view to incorporate his.
I’m saying that a person with authority has a right to this deference. If someone in our bull session blows off Billy Graham, we disapprove because we feel that respect is something Graham is owed. The right to be heeded is powerful. If deference is not his right, then what he’s got isn’t authority.
I figure there are lots of possible foundations for authority. There’s authority founded on skill: Billy Graham has a right to our deference on matters of evangelism because he’s unusually competent. There’s also authority founded on charisma: Graham has a unique relational wisdom that has won over vast audiences for decades.
Some foundations for authority crumble, and cannot be rebuilt for an age. In the days when Graham first preached, he had authority simply because he was a pastor. Almost everybody deferred to a pastor for the sake of respectability. It didn’t matter whether the pastor’s congregation was fifty or five hundred: they adjusted their points of view to incorporate his. But this social authority deteriorated, and by the 1970s any pastor who depended on it was feeling vulnerable.
Other foundations for authority are perverse, like popularity. A celebrity will get deference for a while just because masses of people hang on his words. But adoring crowds can turn into mobs. Graham has had the authority of popularity, and has also felt the sting of disapprobation, as when he visited the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Since he did not build his ministry on his popularity, his stature eventually outgrew the setbacks.
Evangelical leaders, for the most part, have been running scared because of the loss of their social authority. They have watched American culture scoff at the stock character of the pastor, mocking his impotence in the face of cultural changes. And they have been retreating from any hint of that old authority in their leadership, trying instead to teach, evangelize, and organize on the basis of popularity or skill or charisma.
Populism, with its easy emotionalism, has become the most common way evangelical leaders gain a right to be heeded. They hoist an apparently strong banner that rallies the troops — and it works for a while. But this cynicism has nauseated so many believers that the search is on for community without authority — an egalitarian delusion now tempting emergents.
I believe evangelicalism will not regain vitality until its leaders rediscover their authority’s foundation. There has to be a reason for believers to listen to them, to defer to them. And subcultures outside of evangelicalism must see that reason, or they will not pay the gospel any heed.
In this connection, it’s worth noting that Billy Graham (no populist by my definition) had many kinds of authority, but only depended on one kind: the coherence of his character with the Bible. That is, the force of biblical authority exerted itself through Graham’s personal submission. More than anything else, this biblical integrity is what gained him the right to be heeded.
Next week, the technical specifications for gaining that authority.
April 16, 2008 § Leave a Comment
That night lightning flickered over the foothills.
Thunder clouds suggested rain and then denied it.
What terrain was laid down between us? And how?
No two could ever maintain such a distance
as in the rumple a sheet makes between naked bodies
or the sound of promises rolled across the canyons
or the flashes of erotic revealing only
two people staring at opposite walls.
On the last clear day
spirals of smoke stabbed the range
and their plumes drifted south
like signals of blindness.
April 10, 2008 § 4 Comments
This post may become a rant. We’ll just see.
A big part of my beef with populism is that it corrupts evangelical leaders, and I choose the verb corrupt for its precision. Populism rots a leader’s soul.
1. Populism substitutes the lowest common denominator for unity.
I’ve said that evangelical populists whip up people’s negative emotions, like resentment and suspicion, using carefully chosen enemies. The problems with “our society” are the fault of “the Hollywood elites” or some other class. I’ve also said that the populist can only evoke people’s positive emotions through sentimentality, using symbols that have nostalgic, tear-jerking potential.
This simplistic emotionalism enables large groups of people to feel united by cheering or booing. It’s easy to feel bonded while we cheer the armed forces or boo the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A leader just has to speak to his audience’s gut, and common cause has been achieved.
But evangelicals in America both need and desire a deep identification with Jesus Christ. They need the unity of the Holy Spirit, which is only attained through doctrinal purity and relational grace, through truth and love — the very highest things anyone can imagine. What sort of leadership tries to achieve any other kind of oneness?
2. Populism substitutes clichés for truth.
The much-touted evangelical passion for the Bible is now largely spent, not because average evangelicals don’t care what the Bible says but because their leaders won’t teach it to them. The vast majority of sermons preached in American churches quote biblical snatches, as if Scripture were a sacred Bartlett’s. Structurally, however, these quotations are not the focus of teaching, but are called upon to support the preacher’s points. They are little better than slogans.
This preaching strategy is unavoidable for a populist, who conceives of his audience as virtuously stupid. He can’t presume to teach The People, who already know everything they need through their vast common sense, and who are sick and tired of the university elites telling them what to think. The only thing he can do is remind them. After all, they don’t need to know the conjugation of Greek verbs, and their attention span is . . .
The average evangelical in America both needs and desires God’s word. In fourteen years of preaching, I have yet to encounter a single stupid person. I have heard a lot of stupid preachers, who use their audience’s education level as an excuse never to master the arts of communication. What sort of leadership ducks the responsibility to teach?
3. Populism substitutes manipulation for leadership.
Manipulation is control. Manipulation is arousing people’s emotions without paying deference to their intelligence. Manipulation is blame-shifting, making other classes responsible for cultural evils. Manipulation is flattering people’s self-regard. Manipulation is the attempt to modify people’s behavior without edifying their souls.
American evangelicals need spiritual leadership — and I am convinced that they’ll respond to the genuine article. What sort of leadership uses the tools of control?
The reason populism corrupts evangelical leaders is this: Populism is a lie. It tells The People that they are virtuous simply because they are The People. It tells them they are one when they are merely conformist. It tells them they have knowledge when they’ve only inherited a collection of Bible verses misapplied. And the worst populist lie of all is that The People are a herd instead of a body.
Can any leader believe such things without his soul rotting in cynicism?
April 10, 2008 § Leave a Comment
The roads of Illinois are like the lines on Kathy’s apron,
straight but for gentle swells of land,
burnt like seared iron edges into the thicker fabric
of green forests and bending corn fields
all heavy in the heat.
Kathy works what she has worked,
rolling and cutting her world to existence.
The stove’s continual heat keeps sweat on her cheek
that bonds the straying strands of fading dust brown hair to skin.
Sometimes she thinks the porch relief
and steps out to between the sheet of land and blanket of sky.
She toys with the hem of her apron,
but swears the roads she sees are so long
they can bear you forever.
Most nights I drink at Charlie’s.
He sits at the bar, and don’t think I haven’t seen him.
His reflection behind the bottles stares out at him.
At first he tried to look away, but it followed him like a gossip.
Now he listens with elbows on the grimy wood
and earth blackened hand holding up his tired forehead.
One night I was drunk enough to care
and heard it ask him about the fields,
the crop, the hell of not making it
again and again.
I swayed standing and wanted to tell him
his wife comes out on the porch and watches for a chance to leave.
I could see myself on that stool living the life of worn out jeans and dirty flannel.
God help me.
In Illinois the wind rides up the bellies of thunder clouds,
pushes through trees and shakes them into frenzied life.
It’s all fury and strain until the thunder comes and shatters into rain.
The struggles fades and the summer smothers everything.
I can only chose what I’m given.
Anything can fill me up, blow right through me and leave me vacant again.
The porch is empty.
I don’t see him at Charlie’s anymore,
and some nights I pray they’re gone as far west as the coast.
God help my beggar soul if Kathy ever looked into the field
and saw me watching, hands buried in the dirt, waiting.
April 3, 2008 § 5 Comments
Populism, the ethos among evangelicals, works most powerfully with negative emotions like resentment and suspicion. The populist appeal is for The People to rally because The Elites are out to get them. It’s an appeal to wounded pride.
But, to evoke positive emotions, populism leaves evangelicals with only one tool. Feelings such as gratitude, joy, and love aren’t compatible with wounded pride, but can only grow in the soil of humility. Which is why the populist tool for evoking positive emotions is sentimentality.
Novelist John Gardner defined sentimentality as “the attempt to get some effect without providing due cause.” Arousing sentiment is essential, he said of fiction. But when an emotion is “achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration” — sentimentality – it “rings false.” (The Art of Fiction, New York: Vintage Books, 1991, p 115.)
I’ll put the point bluntly. Evangelicals can’t seem to arouse good feelings among themselves without artistic cheating.
We have, for instance, this:
Your daughter has gone beddy-bye, and she’s snuggled head-to-head with Raggedy Ann. Hovering over her, almost patting her silken hair, is Jesus, looking like a kindly woodsman who happens to blow-dry his hair. And what is Jesus saying to your daughter? “I know the plans I have for you, etc., etc.”
You, the viewer, are Daddy or Mommy peeking in to check on your precious baby girl, only to realize that Jesus is already there.
This picture is all “message,” like any other piece of commercialized art. The emotion it seeks to arouse is good — relief and joy at God’s providential care for your children. But the picture does not provide “due cause” to achieve this emotion. It cheats. It goes for “Oh, how cute!” bypassing the more volatile “Oh, how defenseless!” Because the girl is safely upper-middle-class, nothing truly horrible hangs over her. And Jesus is reassuringly within the Anglo-Saxon gene pool.
There’s no desperation in that picture.
As opposed to this:
The Miraculous Draught of Fishesby Jacopo Bassano (1545) arouses many emotions, but they need sorting. (The National Gallery displays the work here.) One fisherman kneels in a posture that mixes helplessness, gratitude, and loyalty. Another, his features contorted in amazement, has just hopped onto Jesus’ boat. He has abandoned the three remaining fishermen, who have to struggle with the catch and their boat by themselves.
My feelings about Bassano’s Jesus are complicated. He does not appear to my eye first because his robe is a cool blue, and he is not at the center of the action. Even when I notice him, I don’t feel that he is open to me. His back is turned, and I only see his face in a severe profile. Emotionally, he is remote from the frenzy of activity among the fishermen, with his posture erect, his face serene, and his hand raised in blessing.
This painting doesn’t tell me what to feel. But it provokes many sentiments, and the more I reflect on them, the more force they have. I find myself responding to a King.
This is not a populist painting: Jesus is not “one of The People.” But he is in the ordinary. The painting’s complexities give it power.
The populist cannot trade in complexity. He controls his audience’s emotions with a false simplicity — us against them. He can arouse the uglier sentiments easily with slogans. But how can he arouse redeeming sentiments like gratitude when he has driven out the humility that gratitude requires?
It’s no wonder evangelical church life is so emotionally unsatisfying. With harangues against the godless, we sing our own virtues, and then with sentimentality we invite each other to rest in coffins of self-regard.
April 2, 2008 § 1 Comment
It never comes like they say it does,
never sweet, never tender,
never cold, never dramatic;
like a Freudian, like a dragon,
like a light, like a ghost
or any other symbol
on the list of bad explanations;
never like anything you want,
never like a dream of soft flesh and never endings,
never like the conscious slips we make
after we’ve determined how we live;
never hard, never easy,
never clear, never muddy;
never any one thing we can say,
but always many things we can’t.
Clear day, mid-winter.
Cold wind blew up the ridge.
Hands in pockets,
I stared down at burnt ground.
It never comes like they say it does.