Jeff Haanen

Category

Culture

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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborCultureEconomyFaith and Work MovementVocationWork

“God of the Second Shift: The Missing Majority in the Faith and Work Conversation” (Christianity Today Cover Story)

By Jeff Haanen

The following is the cover story for the October 2018 print issue of Christianity Today. To access the full article for free, click the “friends and family” link below. Also, if you’re not a subscriber, please consider subscribing to Christianity Today to support their work. Here’s an excerpt of the story.

Our group was white, college-educated, and passionate about helping people find meaning in their careers. We looked at Josué “Mambo” De León, pastor of a bilingual working-class congregation called Westside Church Internacional, eager to hear his thoughts on a recent “faith and work” conference. 

“For us, work isn’t about thriving,” Mambo said. “It’s about surviving.” 

Between bites of salad, it slowly became clear who the man in a red baseball cap, World Cup T-shirt, and jeans really was: an emissary from another world. 

“You start with the premise that you have a job and that you feel a lack of purpose,” he said. “But that doesn’t resonate with us. How are you supposed to find purpose and flourish when you don’t even have opportunities?” 

On my way home from the office of the nonprofit I run, Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I stewed over Mambo’s comments. They reminded me of a similar conversation I’d had with Nicole Baker Fulgham, president of an educational reform group called The Expectations Project. Baker Fulgham, an African American working with low-income kids, asked me bluntly: “So when do we start talking about faith, work, and life for fast-food employees?” 

In the past decade, the faith and work movement has exploded. Hundreds of new conferences, books, and organizations have sprung up from San Diego to Boston. But there’s a growing anxiety among Christian leaders that our national vocation conversation has a class problem. 

A hundred years ago, partnerships between clergy and labor unions flourished. Yet as the forces of industrialization transformed the trades in the late 19th century, and vocational education and liberal arts schools parted ways, a new mantra for the college-educated took root: “Do what you love.” The late Steve Jobs, in a 2005 Stanford commencement speech, stated, “You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Work done out of necessity was devalued, and eventually conversations about Christianity and work applied the word vocation mostly to college kids contemplating work they would most enjoy.

Today, when American evangelical leaders talk about work, the working class—which is two-thirds of the American workforce—is largely absent. What are we missing? 

Daily Meaning or Daily Humiliations?

Years ago, I started Denver Institute after reading Studs Terkel’s 1971 classic Working, an oral history of working-class Americans. Work, Terkel says, “is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” 

Of course! I thought. This fit well with my graduate school angst (and growing boredom with my assignments). I liked the quote so much that I put it in my email signature. 

But somewhere along the way, I forgot that Terkel also believed work was centrally about “violence—to the spirit as well as the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.” 

This didn’t sound like the workplaces I was used to. But the tension between Terkel’s two statements has started to resonate with me. In the past five years, we in Denver have hosted thousands of doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other young professionals at our events. But there’s been a conspicuous absence of home care workers, retail sales clerks, landscapers, janitors, or cooks. 

Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith—who once pulled 10-hour graveyard shifts on an air filter assembly line—observes, “The bias of the [faith and work] conversation toward professional, ‘creative,’ largely white-collar work means that many people who undertake manual or menial labor simply don’t see themselves as having a voice in this conversation.” 

It may be time to do some soul-searching. Have we, by which I mean myself and presumably many of this magazine’s readers, seen the culture-shaping power of work but been blind to the “daily humiliations” of those whose work we depend on each day? Have we been interpreting Scripture through our own professional class bias and failed to ask how working-class Americans think and feel about their work? 

The Great Divide

“Because hard work was such a high value for our family, it was also demoralizing,” says pastor Jim Mullins of Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona. “One of the most difficult aspects of growing up was not the lack of money but the shame that would come with not having opportunities. That shame would boil into anger. I think a lot of the drug use and alcohol [use] that we experienced was a sort of numbing of the shame.”

Mullins’s story echoes the stories of millions of working-class Americans who have seen life deteriorate over the past 50 years in nearly every economic and social category. (I use the term “working-class” to mean those without a four-year college degree.)

The growing body of research is astounding…

(Read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.)


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Culture

Justice

“So, last year I was initiated into a secret society of sorts, one that is baffling and somewhat overwhelming: it’s called the swim meet. All of my four kids swim, and this year, we had three kids competing for the Ben Franklin Fish. Let me describe these Saturdays to you. There are more kids running around than there are ants. Goggles, swim caps, heating, music, concessions, and wall-to-wall lawn chairs and tents to endure the 8 hour Saturdays outside. I never thought I’d be that parent, but this year, we actually went the night before to set up our 10’ x 10’ tent and lawn chairs to claim our real estate at the swim meet. I am that parent

One day, our kids were competing at Cherry Knolls and Kelly set up our tent in a high traffic area. This made me nervous. I’m an introvert. And so heat, noise, and tons of people make me want to run away and find a large shade tree and a book. And so, several weeks ago, between kid races, that’s what I did. I sat under a tree, and read a book called Our Kids by Robert Putnam. In this book, Putnam tells to story of two kids: Chelsea and David…”

I recently gave a sermon on the topic of justice at my home church. The sermon text was Proverbs 29:7. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” I chose the text because Putnam referenced it in his haunting and masterful book. After reading Our Kids I thought: am I one of the righteous who care about justice for the poor, or am I one of the wicked who have no such concern?

Here’s the sermon:

 

Would love to hear your thoughts if you have the chance to listen to it.

 

CultureTheologyWork

A Vision for Denver: Speech from “The Sounds of Work”

 

Good evening. Thank you for coming tonight to experience the Denver Institute community and “The Sounds of Work.”  Thank you to our board and advisory board for bringing your friends tonight. Thank you to our 5280 Fellows, past and present, for your dedication to this experience. And thank you to Fellowship Denver for hosting us tonight. Many churches contributed to the formation of Denver Institute, but none were more instrumental than Fellowship Denver.

I was asked to give a vision not only for Denver Institute tonight, but for our city.  Tall order! But I think I can do it succinctly. Actually, it’s printed in your program. Read with me this quote from author Os Guinness:

“Grand Christian movements will rise and fall. Grand campaigns will be mounted and grand coalitions assembled. But all together such coordinated efforts will never match the influence of untold numbers of followers of Christ living out their callings faithfully across the vastness and complexity of modern society.”

History is filled with grand campaigns, great coalitions, and mighty leaders. But this isn’t my vision for Denver. Nor is it my vision for Denver Institute. My vision is simply, “the influence of untold numbers of followers of Christ living out their callings faithfully across the vastness of modern society.”

It’s a vision of the daily, humble service of God’s people that brings life and hope to our city and culture.  

American culture today is filled with tension. Though we are wealthy, millions struggle with despair and meaninglessness. Though God’s church is present, it’s shrinking. Though we have the best universities in the world, our children our afraid to go to school. In the US we’ve had 22 school shootings – just since the beginning of the year.

What are we, the Christian people of America, going to do? (Pause.)

The American church is searching for a way to be public, yet not political; culturally engaged, yet not divisive; hopeful, yet not triumphalistic. Our vision at Denver Institute is this: faith expressed through work in the public sphere, clothed in the humility of Christ.  This is the vision.

Let me share with you what I’ve seen this last year in the Denver Institute community.

  • I’ve spoken with a fellow nonprofit executive who took is son to our event on faith and science, who thanked me afterwards that such a conversation could happen in the evangelical community. He valued a community that could talk about scientific excellence and a life of faith in the same conversation.
  • We received a message after our Business for the Common Good from a woman who said, “Something changed with my husband after he attended the event. He has new vision and energy for his work. Thank you.”
  • Just last week, I spoke with Brian Gray, our Director of the 5280 Fellowship, after a conversation our Fellows had on faith and health care, who told me: “I just saw a doctor process decisions about vaccination through the lens of Christian theology. It was stunning.” Such a nerdy comment – and I, too, thought it was stunning!
  • I’ve watched new communities of entrepreneur’s spring up in our city; the formation of a new community of Denver’s professional women longing for a place to process questions of work, calling, family and career; just this afternoon I saw a gathering of worship leaders ask how worship music might sanctify the imaginations of their parishioners.

The vision is “the influence of untold numbers of followers of Christ living out their callings faithfully across the vastness of society.”

I see these hints of redemption in our city and state and it fills my imagination. And I say to myself, can you imagine?

  • Imagine a city where despair and meaninglessness are drowned out by a pervasive belief that God is at work redeeming all things.
  • Imagine a city where people across neighborhoods, sectors, ethnicities, and social classes trade isolation for collaboration, and loneliness for deep friendship.
  • Imagine the church intentionally sending scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, and nurses into their fields as agents of love, reconciliation, and restoration.
  • Imagine that our fragmented, busy, and overwhelmed lives are infused with a deep sense of peace, rest, and hope.
  • Could you imagine if Christians were taking leadership in the key issues of our city – and we were known more for our acts of love and message of good news than what we’re against?

Can you imagine?

But then I look at myself, into my own heart, and I think. Impossible. That day will never come. I’m leading this thing, and I see darkness inside of me.

Several weeks ago, I was driving in my car with my wife on our way on a date. As we rolled in our beat-up Honda Odyssey, my wife brought up memories of the founding of Denver Institute back in 2012. She says to me, “Jeff, do you know you were able to found Denver Institute? Because you’re so unimpressive.”

Thanks?!? I think?!?

But her point was clear: there are no famous people here. No heroes. Just people like you and me, walking with a severe limp in life. With doubts, short tempers, fears, and unmet desires.

Yet as I think about the actual people involved in the DIFW community, I’m reminded of the biblical story. God chooses not Jesse’s oldest son to be king, but his youngest! God chooses stuttering Moses to be his spokesperson before the world’s most powerful man, Pharaoh. When God decided to clothe himself in flesh, he did not become a Greek philosopher or Roman senator, but a simple, carpenter!

We – me and you – are God’s plan to restore his world. Just as a father delights in gardening with his daughters on a sunny, Saturday morning, so God invites us into his work, to cultivate and create a new world.

And that’s one way the Christian people are distinct in this city. The secular story says that this is your world conquer. You can do anything you want! Have your dreams. It’s about individual achievement.  The story is Big Me, little world.

But the Christian story is the opposite: it’s little me, and Big Story. Like Frodo Baggins, we are unimpressive, but chosen for a great task. This is the vision. This is what it means to be called.

I would like to ask you to consider to do two things tonight.

1. This is a fundraiser, and so I’d like you to respectfully ask you to consider giving monthly to the ministry of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. We need financial resources to operate, grow, and impact our city. Actually, tonight we have a matching opportunity: Our goal is 15 new monthly donors, of any amount. Once we hit that, a private donor will match at $5,000. I would like to ask you to consider giving. Ninety percent of our budget comes from generous donors who believe in our mission of forming men and women to serve God, neighbor and society through their daily work. I’d be honored if you’d consider becoming a monthly donor. We’ll have a reminder at the end of tonight’s program as well.

2. But second, tonight, I’d like to ask you to participate. Instead of only telling you about your work, tonight is a bit different. We want you to experience Tonight is experiential – you will have the chance to read Scripture, respond to liturgy, hear stories of people in the DIFW community. You will also have the chance to experience our message through song. We’re honored tonight to have Sandra McCracken performing songs from a new vocation-themed worship album. They’re meant to be sung not just tonight, but as you build homes, clean toys, treat patients, sit in meetings. They are our gift to you – a song for your heart as you live out your day-to-day life, as Os Guinness said, “a follower of Christ living out your calling across the vastness of modern society.”

Our vision for Denver is a Body of Christ, built up and strong in our city, yet also willing to wash the feet of our neighbors. As Martin Luther said,

“A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community.” We are motivated by “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But it’s not our primary motivation. Our primary motivation is an entire life lived in response to God’s immense love for us. Our vision is every day, every moment, every meeting, every client, every interaction with a co-worker – all in response to the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, soul and strength.”

In any given year, you will see Denver Institute doing events across the city: on the manufacturing floor of an electrical contractor; at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts; at the Colorado School of Mines; shared co-working spaces. Why? Why do we do this?  

Because we believe the horizontal beams of the cross stretch to the very corners of creation. The Lamb who was slain is making all things new.

Our true, deep, and lasting motivation is simply joy.

Come, now, join us not only for a time of worship – but a life of worship.

 

This speech was given on May 19, 2018 at “The Sounds of Work”, Denver Institute’s annual celebration and fundraiser. 

 

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CultureEconomyWork

Why “Deaths of Despair” Point to a Crisis for American Capitalism

 

There may be no issue that bothers my conscience more in American public life than this one. Watch the video below. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Two Princeton economists are sounding off on what they consider to be warning signs of a crisis of American capitalism.Prof. Anne Case and Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton see increases in suicides and other “deaths of despair”—particularly among middle-aged, white Americans—as a sign that “something is not right,” with society.If we can only generate good lives for an elite that’s about a third of the population, then we have a real problem.’”

 

“In the video above, they argue that it’s not simply a function of economics. It’s a ‘failure of spiritual and social life that drives people to suicide,’ Mr. Deaton says.”

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BusinessCultureFaith and Work MovementWork

The Internet’s Best Place to Start Learning about Faith & Work

 

Ok, maybe that blog post title is hyperbolic. But it’s not far off from the truth.

For the past four years, Denver Institute has amassed tons of articles, videos, blog posts, curricula and other resources on work, calling, culture and various industries. When our team looked at these, it was kinda overwhelming. Even for us!

So we decided to make our resources easier to navigate, find, and use through our new “Learn” page.

Here’s what we did. (1) We organized the page below into topics/industries. From there, pick something that piques your interest, like calling or health care or business.

(2) Inside of each page, we teed up 2-3 featured blog posts as a great place to start thinking about that industry/topic, along with a couple of recommended videos.

(3) For those with really curious minds, we have our own short courses linked on the bottom of these pages on our (forthcoming) content platform, Scatter.

Of course, I’m biased, but for those who care about what faith means for our work and our world, I think this is one of the internet’s best resources.

(Do you have a killer article, book, or resource we should feature? Send it our way: [email protected])

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CultureTheologyWorld

Nine Quotes from Author Gisela Kreglinger on “The Spirituality of Wine”

 

On Sunday evening we had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Gisela Kreglinger (PhD in historical theology, University of St. Andrews) at Denver Institute for Faith & Work. She spoke on her delightful, powerful book The Spirituality of Wine (Eerdmans, 2016). Here are nine quotes from the event (posted on my Twitter feed ) that gave me new appreciation for God’s world and his good gifts – including the gift of wine (especially Pinot Noir!). (And here’s another article Joanna Meyer wrote on the book before the event).

Enjoy!

1. “The reason why wine is compared to the kingdom of God is because it’s vast and beautiful.”

2. “Exploring the spirituality of wine is a way to develop a theology for all of life – and a theology of joy.”

3. “Thirst for perfection is the death of joy,” (Alexander Schmemann).

4. “Reconnecting with ‘place’ – including where our food and drink come from – is a gift of God.”

5. “Attention, taken to it’s highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” (Simone Weil).

6. “Holy intoxication can help us relax, be vulnerable, and take off our masks. Not alcohol abuse but communal feasting.”

7. “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

8. “Stop and smell, simply because it’s beautiful. [Referring to wine.] It’s God’s creation.”

9. “Wine is God’s way of kissing humanity.”

 

 

BusinessCultureEconomyVocationWork

Theology for Business (Keynote Address)

This is the keynote address I gave for the recent event “For Whose Glory: Exploring Faithful Practice in Life, Leadership and Business.” Below I’ve included a brief outline of my talk. The video also includes all slides from my presentation. Like it? Visit my speaking page by clicking the menu above. 

I. Introduction: What is the purpose of business?

  1. The answer from business culture
  2. The answer from church culture
  3. The answer from conferences like this

Thesis: Christian theology is just as important for your business life as finance, operations or sales, customers or employees.

II. First, the doctrine of CREATION and FALL calls us to THINK THEOLOGICALLY about the purpose of business.

  1. The purpose of business is to provide for the needs of world by serving customers and creating meaningful work, while giving glory to God.
  2. It provides
    1. The goods and services we depend on every day
    2. Meaningful work
    3. The wealth we need to afford those goods and services
  3. Business is an extension of God’s own work of creation
  4. The Fall impacted both our work and our business, which we see most clearly in the Prophets
    1. Idolatry causes injustice
    2. The hinge between provision and oppression is the God we worship in business life.
  5. “For whose glory?” is a critical questions which will determine how we answer the question of the purpose of business.

III. Second, the doctrine of the TRINITY calls us to EMBRACE RELATIONSHIPS.

  1. The American workforce is stressed, disengaged, and unhappy (Gallup/BCG Research)
  2. God is relationship – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and healthy businesses are bound together through healthy relationships based on a foundation of trust.

IV. Third, the doctrine of the RESURRECTION calls us to CREATE GOOD WORK.

  1. We tend to not talk about business at church because we don’t think it’s a part of the gospel, or “good news”
  2. The resurrection calls us to think more comprehensively about redemption, creation, and, thus, our work.
  3. Our daily work matters because God is redeeming not just individual souls but all of creation.

V. Fourth, the doctrine of VOCATION calls us to SEEK DEEP SPIRITUAL HEALTH.

  1. The exhilaration and speed of business life rarely affords us the opportunity to slow down and ask “Who are we becoming?”
  2. The word vocation comes form the latin root vox, or voice: it’s about responding to the voice of God in the day to day lives, including our business decisions.

VI. Finally, the CROSS calls us to SERVE OTHERS SACRIFICIALLY.

  1. Central to the gospel is that Christ gave his life for ours.
  2. It’s one thing to talk about customer service in our business, or even creating a company of “love.” But it’s another to talk about sacrificial love.
  3. Boaz was a model “Christian business leader,” as he calls us to hire and care for the “Ruth’s” of our day.

VII. Conclusion: Christian faith calls us to think theologically about the purpose of business, to embrace relationships, to create work in a spirit of hope, to admit our flaws as we seek deep spiritual health, and to serve others sacrificially in our city.  

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CulturePoliticsWork

The American Bible

 

How do we restore civility to American public life? This will be the topic of conversation on October 13 at a lunch in Denver “Civility: Becoming People of Peace in an Age of Deep Division.” This book review, originally published on The Gospel Coalition, evaluates religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s attempt to bring civil discourse back to a raucous political culture in Washington DC by looking back at her most sacred, formative texts: what he calls, “The American Bible.” 

America is not just a country; it’s a religion. The faithful sing her praises at baseball games, pay homage to her heroes in Washington, D.C., and recite her pledge of loyalty in schools. They remember the tale of her exodus from England, and fancy themselves as a chosen people. They chide themselves for the original sin of slavery, and praise redeemers like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. who shed their blood in atonement for the sins of a nation. They spread the gospel of freedom, equality, and democracy, and when doubts arise, they return to America’s most hallowed center to define themselves: their holy scriptures.

Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, has done us the favor of compiling these “holy scriptures” of American public life in his latest book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. This book is not a translation of the Bible, nor is it even about American religion per se. It is an anthology of classic American texts—legal documents, songs, books, speeches, and letters—that form what Prothero calls “The American Bible.” From the Constitution and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Atlas Shrugged and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Prothero aims to assemble America’s “canonical works” in order to bring civil conversation back into a Washington characterized by caustic partisan bickering. But as one of America’s leading religion scholars, Prothero has given us much deeper insights than mere political wisdom. In unveiling America’s sacred texts, Prothero sheds light on an uncomfortable truth: America has indeed become a religion.

The American Conversation

A thick volume, as if designed to resemble a family King James Bible, The American Bible gathers the near mythic voices of American history. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense incites a revolutionGeorge Washington’s Farewell Address warns of divisive party politics, and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address defines America as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Dissenting voices like Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” Chief Joseph’s declaration “I will fight no more forever,” and Malcom X’s The Autobiography of Malcom X all find a place in America’s holy writ. From Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” The American Bible is a one-volume cornucopia of America’s most hallowed and fiercely debated texts.

Following the pattern of an “American canon,” the book’s table of contents employs themes from the real Bible to organize its ideas“Genesis” includes texts on America’s founding period, “Chronicles” includes excerpts from classic American novels (Uncle Tom’s Cabin triumphs as most influential), and “Gospels” includes classic speeches from Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Prothero gives each entry in The American Bible a three-part structure: an introduction written by himself, the primary source text, and an extended commentary of disagreeing voices through the decades, forming a kind of “American Talmud” that embraces spirited disputation in much the same way Jewish rabbis debate the Torah.

For Prothero, the heart of America is not a common creed, but a common conversation. He writes, “The United States is not held together by a common creed. . . . What brings us together is practice—the practice of listening to and arguing about voices from our shared past.” The key to fixing our “obviously dysfunctional” Congress and our common life that has “devolved into a shouting match” lies not so much in finding agreement as in learning how to argue with civility for America, not just for your own party. A return to the sources of American life—figures Jefferson, Lincoln, and King—provides the foundation of American identity, even without coming to an agreement on their meaning. For Prothero, to criticize your country is not to opt out of the American experiment, but to opt in. And in this debate he hopes to unify a creedless people around the Great Conversation of what it means to be an American.

The Good, the Bad, and the Haunting

It’s not difficult to find things to praise about The American Bible. It is a treasure trove for understanding American culture. Far too many Christians try to understand culture by analyzing the latest social media trend or MTV top ten list, forgetting all the while the truly distinct features of American life. If an alien landed in modern America and wanted to know its essential features, Facebook may not help much, but The American Bible would. Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry shape the American ethos more than Lady Gaga or Mark Zuckerberg ever will.

Moreover, Prothero’s book offers a clear, even-handed treatment of enduring political debates. His assembled “rabbinic” commentary draws from both the right and the left, giving credence to his aim of bringing civility back to fiery contemporary debates. Written in crisp and concise prose, Prothero also has a knack for selecting only the best sources and making complex issues understandable for the average reader.

However, Prothero’s main thesis that America isn’t defined by creed but by common debate doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. He declares:

It is not un-American to criticize any book in the American Bible. Look Lincoln in the eye and tell him you don’t give a hoot about equality. . . . More power to you. . . . No idea is dogma. But as you criticize Lincoln or King or Bush or Obama, know what you are doing. You are not opting out of America; you are opting in. . . . [Americans] come together to argue. This is our shared practice (489).

For Prothero, the only bond of unity for Americans is the argument itself. But if there is no American creed—even something as broad as “freedom, justice, and equality,” however they’re defined—then why are we arguing at all? Is there no hope for ever arriving at truth? It’s problematic to write a book with the aim of restoring civility to American politics and yet claim that arguing is our most central feature. To declare that there are no American dogmas or doctrines is to disagree with most authors of The American Bible who, judging by their colorful use of language, certainly believed they had arrived at the truth. Taken to its logical extreme, Prothero’s thesis leaves us not with thundering King, brilliant Jefferson, or determined Washington, but the wet noodles of postmodern uncertainty.

But his thesis isn’t what caused me to shudder; it was his metaphors. For example, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington form the “American trinity.” Slavery is the great “original sin,” the Gettysburg Address our American “Sermon on the Mount,” and Noah Webster’s Blue-Back Speller a sort of “federal catechism” for colonial America. Whether portraying Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” as a national psalm or blatantly tagging classic American texts as national scripture, the reader is forced to honestly ask, “To what degree does America function like a religion?”

Although nationalism is nothing new, the idea of “American civil religion” is relatively recent, introduced during the 1960s by sociologist Robert Bellah. American civil religion is generally thought to be a distinctive faith, complete with myths of origin (the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party), a pantheon of saints and martyrs (the Founding Fathers, the fallen Lincoln), a liturgical calendar (the Fourth of July, Memorial Day), and an all-embracing worldview. Prothero’s American Bible falls squarely in this camp. Though he certainly wouldn’t claim this as his own worldview—he’s far to “objective” for that—he makes the case that the real Bible “stands alongside other texts that Americans have long been held as sacred.” Borrowing Christian language for American ideas is not just metaphor for Prothero; it’s an allusion to the nation-state’s ultimate supremacy in all matters of faith and practice.

It’s debatable how widespread American civil religion really is. The line between admiration of national heroes and hero-worship can be blurry. But at bare minimum, ministers must honestly ask, “When does the flag displace the cross on the altar of American Christianity?”

A Better Country

The American story is a good one. For centuries immigrants have flocked to America for liberty, justice, and opportunity. And it’s worth reading the foundational ideas behind the American experiment, even if it means buying a lengthy (and rather heavy) anthology.

But the mystique of America is no match for the eternal kingdom of God, a heavenly country God’s people have desired for centuries (Heb. 11:16). When America tries to make itself the gospel, the great story to which all other worldviews and religions must bow, pastors have the distinct privilege of reminding us that the United States will eventually pass away, but Christ will reign forever and ever (Isa. 9:6).

Photo credit: Capitol

Tickets are available for the luncheon on civility on October 13 by visiting the event website

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CultureWorkWorld

American Pluralism: “She Thinks My Land Rover is Sexy”

When driving down Broadway on my way home from work, I’m often entertained by the mosaic of life lining the street. Antique shops, graffiti on the walls, pot shops and gas stations decorate the corridor of cars heading home.

Last week, while at a stop light, I couldn’t help but notice the interesting mix of bumper stickers on the black Land Rover in front of me.

IMG_3810

In two corners were stickers heralding Moab, Utah and skiing Colorado’s mountains. On the right side was a Colorado State University sticker, and right below an SUV boast: “You can go fast, I can go anywhere.” Quintessential Rocky Mountain weekend warrior.

Then the kaleidoscope gets interesting. On the far left, a white outline of a female body in high heels, bending over, with the message: “She thinks my Land Rover is sexy.” Below is a series of three stickers: a hand gun that reads “Rocky Mountain Gun Owner,” another Land Rover sticker, and an ad for Key West. Below the license plate, a sticker proudly heralding the owner’s favorite brand of smokes: Camel Trophy.

And finally, on the lower right corner, just above the bumper, is a Jesus fish.

Huh.

My brain startled awake on the sweltering ride home. How could the owner of such a sexy Land Rover reconcile all these beliefs? The objectification of women, the sauntering pride of owning a big SUV, advertising for a tobacco company, outdoor adventuring, proudly owning hand guns, and biblical Christianity? The moral, the immoral, the amoral, the recreational, and the transcendent all mixed together like stone soup.

Was there a common thread? Or did this guy’s mom just stick a Jesus fish on the back to balance out a fairly typical Coloradan youth’s affections?

What’s going on here?

The American Pantheon

As the light turned green and I eased on the gas, my mind stretched back to a story told by 20th century British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin:

“When I was a young missionary I used to spend one evening each week in the monastery of the Ramakrishna Mission in the town where I lived, sitting on the floor with the monks and studying with them the Upanishads and the Gospels.”

Newbigin, a missionary to India for 40 years, remembers,

“In the great hall of the monastery, as in all the premises of the Ramakrishna Mission, there is a gallery of portraits of the great religious teachers of humankind. Among them, of course, is a portrait of Jesus.

“Each year on Christmas Day worship was offered before this picture. Jesus was honored, worshipped, as one of the many manifestations of deity in the course of human history. To me, as a foreign missionary, it was obvious that this was not a step toward the conversion of India. It was the co-option of Jesus into the Hindu worldview.

“Jesus had become just one figure in the endless cycle of karma and samsara, the wheel of being we are all caught up in. He had been domesticated into the Hindu worldview.”

In other words, Newbigin observed that Jesus had simply become one of the Hindu gods, worshipped one day a year but ultimately bowing to another religion, another set of ultimate beliefs.

In America today, as Christianity wanes, we do not live in an “secular atheist” culture, where no god is worshipped, but instead in a religiously pluralistic culture, where every god is worshiped. David Foster Wallace, in his famous 2005 speech at Kenyon University, says, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

The reigning American religion today is a pantheon of gods that go by “my personal choice” or “my personal beliefs.” And in this smorgasbord of products, desires and beliefs, Jesus is great. So are sexy women, hiking, smoking on the back porch or whatever floats your boat.

The insight here is not that pluralism is bad. Let’s get clear. Cultural pluralism, where people of many views and beliefs live together in a peaceful co-existence, is indeed good and, I believe, beautiful.

But the dogma of religious pluralism, which is the belief that “the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perception of the same truth,” has the effect of domesticating Jesus and his claim to be the resurrected Lord of all.

Our real, functional religion is a vast stew of divinities and desires that we pick from every day in the free market of consumer choice. Here, the holy of holies is “me.” We live, as David Brooks says, in the Age of the Big Me.

I’d argue that today, the greatest challenge for Christianity in the West is not just establishing the claim of Jesus’s Lordship over all of life, or even the universal significance of his death and resurrection, but instead in recognizing that we Christians have domesticated Christ in our own lives, work and culture. 

In the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Kings, consistently the author criticizes the wicked kings not for abandoning worship of Yahweh, but for worshipping him alongside of Asherah, Molech, and the Baals.

Syncretism, not disbelief, was the greatest temptation for ancient Israel. So it is for the Church today.

After all, it’s awfully tempting to (naively) believe “She thinks my Land Rover is sexy.”

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ArtCultureWork

The Christian Retreat from the World: Chatting with Hans Rookmaaker on the Back Porch

Hans Rookmaaker - 1.001We all struggle to explain what we do. I’m no different. Actually, I have rehearsed a set of responses for when people ask the inevitable question: “What do you do for work?”

“I lead an educational nonprofit in Denver.”

If I can get them to bite with this amorphous answer, they’ll often ask, “Oh, really? What kind?”

“I direct an organization called Denver Institute for Faith & Work. We offer educational programming on how Christianity can shape and influence a wide variety of work we do, from business to law to art to education.”

At this point, they pause, tip their head sideways, and say, “Oh, how interesting.”

And…I lost them.

It’s not that they’re uninterested. But there’s really no category in most people’s minds for this kind of work. It’s just strange. Perhaps esoteric. Sheet metal manufacturing and folding clothes at The Gap — these kinds of work make sense. We need metal. We need clothes. But why on earth do we need Denver Institute for Faith & Work?

Fair question.

While sipping coffee this past week, I picked up Hans Rookmaaker’s slim 1970’s book Art Needs No Justification. After reading the second chapter, I thought to myself, “Maybe this is the shortest, easiest way to explain why we do what we do at DIFW.”

So, imagine the three of us, me, you, and Hans, are in my backyard, sipping a glass of wine after dinner as we watch the sun set. He starts right in the middle of a train of thought to explain the Christian retreat from the world in the past 300 years:

Hans: If, as we have said, in the 18th century our world began to change, as its inner direction was set on a humanistic track, where man is the master, and pleasure (through money) and power are the ultimate values, where were the Christians?

Jeff: Good question, Hans. You’re referring to that period in European history called The Enlightenment, when a small group of intellectuals declared a new age of reason and progress, in contrast to the tradition and faith of the Church. Man became the center of the universe and individual autonomy replaced God as the center point for all questions of society and meaning. But Hans, there were certainly many Christians at that time, weren’t there?

You: Of course there were! Wasn’t this the age of America’s Great Awakenings and John Wesley’s preaching and revivals throughout Great Britain? There were lots of Christians in Western society at that time, right?

Hans: They were not few in number, and some people even call that same period one of great revival. The mainstream of Christianity turned to a kind of pietism in which the idea of the covenant, as preached in the books of Moses and through the whole of Scripture, was by-passed. The Old Testament was often neglected, and the meaning of the Christian life was narrowed to that of the devotional life alone.

You: Narrowed? From what?

Hans: Too easily, large areas of human reality, such as philosophy, science, the arts, economics and politics were handed over to the ‘world’, as Christians concentrated mainly on pious activities. If the world’s system was a secularized one, missing true spirituality, the Christian’s attitude also became a reduced one, missing its foundation in reality and uninterested in the created world. It became sometimes a ghost-like spirituality without a body.

Jeff: Interesting way to put it: “a ghost-like spirituality without a body.” You know, you should come and give the introduction at DIFW events. I often struggle to explain that Christianity was once a cultural system, leading to everything from the birth of science to the concept of universal human rights. Today, so many of us Christians, especially Protestants, seem content to go to church, have “quiet time,” and let our public world be ruled by another set of values completely…

You: Not so fast. Christians even today are incredibly active in the world. We have mammoth para-church organizations like Compassion International or World Vision. We have churches who not only preach the gospel, but have cared for so many of the world’s most vulnerable. This is a huge witness – even in a secular age.  We’re still active today…

Hans: Christians have indeed been active. But they have often optimistically believed that it was enough to preach the gospel, and to help in a charitable way.

In concentrating on saving souls they have often forgotten that God is the God of life, and that the Bible teaches people how to live, how to deal with our world, God’s creation. The result is that even if many became Christians, nevertheless our present world is a totally secularized one, in which Christianity has almost no influence. Our society’s drive is determined by the world and its values, or lack of values.

Jeff: I see what you’re saying. It’s wonderful to preach a gospel of personal salvation and help charitably. But the set of values that shapes everything from art to science to politics to economics today, is now driven almost completely by another “religion,” namely, secularism. Or more accurately by millions of religions that go by the name individual choice and consumer preference.

You: If Jesus is Lord – really, Lord of all the universe and the earth – then what would it look like to infuse our work and our culture with the divine life of Christ the Savior and Redeemer of all things?

Jeff: Another good question. We should start an organization in Denver to address just that very question…

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