Monday, January 30, 2017

Criticism of American Christianity

A Jan. 25 article (here) titled “American ‘Christianity’ Has Failed” caught my eye. It was by Stephen Mattson, a young Christian writer whose name I had not remembered seeing before, but now he is one of my Facebook friends.
I was interested in reading Mattson’s article partly because of something I came across last week. One of my (very few) New Year resolutions is to go through and dispose of accumulated “stuff,” much of it in boxes piled in the back of our garage.
MY 1972 CHAPEL TALK
In going through a box last week I came across a brief summary of a Chapel talk I had given at Seinan Gakuin University (in Fukuoka City, Japan) in October 1972. The title of that talk was “Criticism of American Christianity.”
That English summary was probably distributed to those in attendance. (Most Japanese students can understand written English far better than they can understand spoken English.)
As I often did during my first several years in Japan, I may have used (read) a Japanese manuscript for the talk I wrote in English. If so, it would have been translated by Miss Kumiko Otsuka, who is celebrating her 83rd birthday today.
MY 1971-72 FURLOUGH
June and I (and our two children at the time) came back to the U.S. in the summer of 1971 after nearly five full years in Japan as Southern Baptist missionaries. During that year of “furlough,” as it was called then, I had the opportunity of preaching in seven or eight states, beginning with a sermon at the First Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, on our way back to Missouri.
During that year we lived in southwest Missouri, but I spoke in churches in many parts of Missouri as well as in nearby states to the east. Almost all of those churches were Southern Baptist churches, and the majority of them were small town (or rural) churches rather than large city churches.
In the summer of 1972 we went back to Japan and I began teaching Christian Studies again at Seinan Gakuin University where I had joined the faculty as a full-time teacher four years before.
MY CRITICISM THEN AND NOW
Here is the beginning of that Chapel talk:
Last year in America I found myself very critical of Christianity as practiced by most churches and Christians that I saw. I was critical of what appeared to be much more concern for self than others. I was critical because there seemed to be too little concern for four of the great problems of our day: war, poverty, racism, and pollution. I was critical because I felt that American Christianity is too often too much a supporter of the status quo. 
(To read the transcription of the full summary, click here.)
“In reflecting upon these criticisms, I have come to the following conclusions:
“(1) I can understand why many Japanese university students have doubts about Christianity. There is not much attractiveness in Christianity as it is demonstrated by many of its adherents.
“(2) In spite of the obvious hypocrisy of some Christians and the limited concern of most, I am still convinced that most of the best, the most genuine, the most conscientious people in America are Christian people.”
Now, nearly 45 years later, I know more about the diversity of American Christians and know that some Christians are very concerned about what are still four of the great problems of our day. But overall, I still have negative feelings toward much of American Christianity, especially of white “evangelicals.”
Sadly, I am inclined to agree with my new FB friend Stephen’s contention that to a large degree American Christianity has failed.


14 comments:

  1. I grew up in times of change within the American Church and didn't realize it. However, it was not just whites of evangelicals, I see the change across the board, with very few exceptions. What concerns me most is that the original story seems to be getting lost. I was just asking my pastor today why we seem to be worshiping the cross rather than the sacrificial Lamb of God. The concern is the same across the board, there seem to be pet focuses on something other than Christ himself - evangelical, mainline, Catholic, white, black... Thankfully, there is also a remnant who stick to the old story.

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  2. The first response I received this morning (just before 7:00) was from Thinking Friend Bill Locke in Colorado. He wrote,

    "Good morning Dr Seat--Amen to today's article. White evangelicals I would say are more worshippers of alternate reality than anything else and are a menace to the USA as we know it. Keep up the good work."

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  3. Another Thinking Friend, whom I will allow to be anonymous, wrote the following (in a much longer email) this morning:

    "Sunday during joys and concerns I wanted so badly to share that I wanted us to be in prayer for refugees and for those who were being turned away from our borders but I knew that would not go over well as, from voter statistics, the great majority of those in [the county] and so in our church voted for Donald Trump. I hate to believe that people who are following Christ could have voted for him."

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  4. A local Thinking Friend writes, "I too am still processing how white evangelicals aligned with Trumpism."

    What is amazing is not only did 81% of white evangelicals vote for DJT, this morning I saw that a recent poll indicates that 57% of white evangelical Protestants think that God played "a major role" and another 14% thought God had "a minor role" in determining the outcome of the 2016 election.

    How can these white evangelical Christians be expected to oppose anything the President does if they think he is in office because God was a major cause of him being elected?

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  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson makes these important comments:

    "I think you are right to point the finger especially at 'evangelical' Christianity, Leroy. It’s central tenet about inerrant Bible leads to proof-texting whatever political concerns they hold, a pernicious form of civil religion.

    "I did my own critique long ago when I tried to get Baptists to recognize that core Baptist principles stand against evangelical-fundamentalist principles. Alas, too few listened to my call."

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  6. Thanks for your comments, Dr. Hinson.

    I assume you are referring to "Are Southern Baptists 'Evangelicals'?" (1983), the book you co-authored with Dr. Garrett, who was also one of my professors at Southern, and James Tull. I remember when the book came out and read some of it not long after that. But I have just noted the call number to check it out (again) when I am on campus at William Jewell College this week.

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    1. I just now received this response from Dr. Hinson: "Yes. Actually I published each of my chapters as separate articles. The book came later."

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  7. I just came across an article titled "These Prominent Evangelicals Are Pretty Sure Trump’s Refugee Ban Is Perfectly Moral" and followed by this comment: "Apparently, America is only a Christian nation when it’s convenient."

    It is this kind of "American Christianity" that makes it such a target for criticism.

    (Here is the link to that article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-evangelical-refugee_us_5888d058e4b0441a8f722f12?section=us_religion)

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  8. "Divide and conquer" is the motto of kings, plutocrats, and oligarchs. For some very good reasons church, state, and economics were in large part separated in the Western world centuries ago. We could see the advantages of ending sectarian warfare and promoting civility. However, we have not addressed why religion was so involved in government and commerce in the first place, so we have not had a solid foundation moving forward. Why were Christians, Jews and Muslims united in opposing usury? Why have we had such a hard time in focusing on the chasm created when modern capitalism opened Pandora's box and unleashed the hope that usury could somehow be tamed? Why have we fallen into the fallacy of assuming that usury no longer needs to be tamed at all? How did we forget what all the ancient peoples knew? Instead we honor the collecting of talents in the famous parable of the talents, instead of noticing that the talents were part of the world that was not the kingdom of God. For the parable in Matthew 25:14-30 is followed immediately with the separation of the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. The unworthy servant in the parable had failed to put his talent out with bankers to earn interest. So he was cast out. The separation ends with the the casting out of the goats who did not feed the hungry, clothe the naked or visit the prisoners.

    Unfettered capitalism is just the reverse side of the same coin as unfettered imperialism. Decades of massive advertising and lobbying have tried to persuade us otherwise, but the truth is still there, staring us in the face. We all are lost sheep, each gone astray in our own ways. Urbanites cling to our neoliberalism and relatively healthy economies, even as rural and small town America has spent decades spiraling down into what Trump rightly calls "American Carnage." The failure of liberalism to escape from neoliberalism has brought down wrath upon its head. Rural America has thrown one big tantrum, fueled by decades political and economic betrayal, until the social contract has finally all by ruptured. Blaming the victims by calling them "deplorables" and waiting for Republican betrayal to stomp them even further into the ground is not Christian, or even good politics. The road to abortion rights and gay liberation runs right through the land of American Carnage. We must fix the economy before we can fix anything else. We know how to do it. Roosevelt showed us the way with the New Deal. Eisenhower (a Republican!) built the interstate highway system with a tax system that featured a top tax rate of 90 percent, an unimaginable level today. LBJ lead an America with the highest growth rate in history, with a top rate of 70 percent. Since then tax and spending cuts have lead to a downward economic spiral that all the neoliberal spinmeisters have been unable to hide. There is a stark choice, tax-and-spend or austerity-and-depression. Well, we have of late frequently tried borrow-and-spend, a short term fix that usually does not end well if followed too far.

    See Part 2.

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  9. Part 2

    There is also a moral dimension to this. Back in the 80s many fraudsters went to jail during the savings and loan crisis. Bernie Madoff seemed awfully lonely in jail this time. I guess he made the mistake of stealing from other rich people. A lot of terrible bank behavior has been identified in the last few years, and all the culprits are still gainfully employed. People in flyover country know this, too. Obama was the end of Democratic neoliberalism, because by the time he was teaming up with Mitch McConnell trying to pass the TPP, it was obvious to progressive Democrats that the age of "new" Democrats had to end. If Sanders had run against Trump the kitchen sinks would have flying fast and far, but a much more instructive and meaningful election would have happened. Even if he had also lost to Trump, at least some meaningful battle lines would have been drawn. As it is, we are left with the legacy of "I am not Trump" and Trump. Guess which one won! I strongly suspect that a major reason so many otherwise upstanding Americans voted for Trump (read the polls, many people voted for him even as they were appalled by him) is that going back to Bible with him was the only place they could hear "The love of money is the root of all evil." (1 Timothy 6:10) They wanted the rest of us to hear that, too.

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  10. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona shared the following comments on the blogsite on which I had posted the complete Chapel talk summary:

    "Thanks for your always stimulating and insightful blog. I tend to agree with you with some reservations. I am presently reading through the book of Revelation and observing the sins in the seven churches. Imperfect Christians are not new.

    "Our major collective sin is believing that going to church is the same as doing church. We are obsessed with fighting evil to the neglect of meeting human need as Jesus told us to do. The other thing that troubles me is our constant feuding and fighting in the church. It must break the heart of the Prince of Peace to see how we treat one another in the body of Christ.

    "I am chairman of the Personnel Committee in my church and I want to resign every day. There are some pockets of genuine Christianity but they are few and far between. That’s my take."

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  11. Thinking Friend Glen Davis, my good Canadian friend who lived in Fukuoka City, Japan, for a number of years during the time I lived there, shares these comments:

    Thanks for this, Leroy. Your reference to chapel at Seinan brought back good memories. I even remember preaching there once or twice.

    "As for the 'failure' of Christianity, it is not just in America. I believe a key element in the 'failure' is the worldwide 'evangelical' over-emphasis on personal salvation and 'getting into heaven' as the main goal of Christianity. This comes from an unwarranted focus on a minority of biblical texts that talk about gaining eternal life and entering the kingdom of God, and an avoidance of a great majority of texts that talk about establishing the kingdom of justice, peace and love here on earth.

    "The prophets of the OT focus on this theme over and over, and Jesus both taught it and lived it. Until we get back to the establishment of the reign of God as the goal of Christianity, Christianity will continue to fail because it has put most of its eggs in the wrong basket."

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Glen. I fully agree with your comments about the over-emphasis on Heaven and the under-emphasis on working for God's Kingdom here and now. For that reason, I have been happy to see in recent years the writings along that line by Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, and others.

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    2. Glen then responded to my reply:

      "Thanks for the reminder, Leroy. Joyce [Glen's wife] and I have particularly appreciated the writings of NT Wright recently. Justice seekers and workers always seem to be a 'remnant,' or at least a minority. But God has done and will continue to do miracles with a minority!"

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