Jeff Haanen

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Culture

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CulturePoliticsWork

From Rage to Responsibility: Why Our Work Matters More Than Our Vote

 

“Against stupidity we are defenseless.” German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have written this about the 2016 GOP election race.

I’m like most Americans. Religious, white, middle class, and ticked off.

But far from supporting either Trump or Bernie Sanders, after months of feeling outrage and then disbelief, my anger at the American political machine has subsided, and now I find myself looking for hope far outside of Washington—and much closer to home.

Here’s what I mean: the past six months of political campaigning have given me emotional heartburn. The unpleasant reflux came in three phases.

The first emotion was shock. When Trump calls Mexicans who cross the border rapists, enthusiastically endorses torture, hints that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was assassinated, and advocates the killing of terrorist’s families, my blood boils. How could Americans be voting for this man to lead the party of Abraham Lincoln? And how could 37 % of evangelicals support him? What on earth is going on here?

Second, moral outrage gave way to disbelief. Twitter battles about Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz grab headlines, Ted Cruz threatens to “make the sand glow” by flattening the Syrian city of Raqqa (innocent families and all), and Ben Carson’s friend supposedly gets a divine vision telling him to endorse Trump.  And he does it.

We have entered the Twilight Zone.

Bonhoeffer saw the same inexplicable stupidity overtake so many of his countrymen during Christmas of 1942: “In conversation with him [the stupid person], one virtually feels that one is dealing not all with him as person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.”

Make America great again. Feel the Bern.

Finally, disbelief gave birth to apathy. The world is going to pot (quite literally here in Colorado), and what can do about it? News pours into my iPhone, and I’m no longer surprised at anything. Nor do I feel responsible.

And this creeping cynicism is what turned my heartburn into shame. Czech playwright, philosopher and former president Václav Havel (pictured above) once said:

“Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world — be it the logging of rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance or the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop — somewhere at the end of a long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”

After reading this, I thought, Maybe the problem isn’t our dysfunctional political system. Maybe it’s us.

Working for Good 

Several months ago, Pastor Greg Thompson of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke to a small group of leaders in Denver. Speaking at the Taxi Development in the RiNo (River North) district, which overlooks the Mile High city, he said, “Politics does not in fact create culture change, but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part.”

For Thompson, a civil rights scholar and social theorist, culture isn’t created by government officials. Instead, it flows from “the public,” or a network of institutions in fields like economics, energy, art, medicine, religion and education that form a “social ecology.”

Culture, in other words, is formed by our work.

When I heard this, I felt a release of tension from my neck. So many Americans believe the next president will either save us or doom us. But neither is the case. Politics is downstream from culture. In reality, we create culture everyday.

As much as I respect Franklin Graham, this is why his nationwide tour to “Pray. Vote. Engage.” feels like an empty drum of water. Rod Dreher, columnist at The American Conservative is right: “Voting Republican, and expecting judges to save us, is over. It’s all about culture now.”

And culture change starts when we pull into the office.

For example, Karla Nugent, the Chief Business Development Officer at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, created an apprentice program that hires would-be electricians from Denver Rescue Mission, the Stout Street Foundation, and other programs for men coming from addiction, incarceration or homelessness.

It’s one thing to gripe about jobs and the economy, as so many Americans do. It’s yet another to take responsibility for the issue and create career-track jobs for the American underclass struggling to keep pace, as did Nugent.

For thousands of Christians, work is the best avenue to obey Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself” and take responsibility for the direction of society.  

Robin John, for example, CEO of Omaha-based Eventide Funds, a mutual fund, expresses his faith by only investing in businesses that create genuine value for communities, especially customers and employees. He believes an ethics-based approach is more socially responsible and also more profitable.

Similarly, Josh Mabe, owner of Twenty1Five, a reclaimed wood furniture business, believes he can reflect Jesus own vision of cosmic renewal (Rev. 21:5) through crafting artistic tables and chairs. Mabe says, “The ugly wood I use is a metaphor for our lives. Most of this stuff,” pointing to a knotted board, “is beat up, discarded lumber. But if you see beyond some of those scars, you can make something really beautiful out of it.”

Work isn’t only a paycheck for Mabe. It can also be an act of beauty.

I’m often tempted to fall prey to cynicism when I see the cycle of anger and disillusionment with presidential candidates turn into a blazing cannonball of destructive rhetoric. But people like Nugent, John, and Mabe give me hope.

And hope starts with seeing Monday morning with new eyes.

A Hopeful Exile 

Whatever might happen at the Republican convention in July, three things look likely:

1. The exile from the Republican party, especially among millenials, will continue. Today half of all millennials are politically unaffiliated. Blame Trump, Cruz, or Fox News, millions of us now largely share the sentiment of evangelical writer Trevin Wax, “I don’t feel at home in the Republican Party anymore.”

2. New methods of Christian public engagement will continue to surface. From Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” to sociologist James Davison Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence,” in post-Christian America, more believers will continue to experiment with new ways to live out their faith in public.

3. We’ll still have to go to work. And when 148 million working adults in America arrive at offices, clinics, schools, stores, and construction sites, they’ll have to make decisions about what is good, true and beautiful. And in so doing, they’ll shape American culture, for better or worse.

I’m not saying that voting doesn’t matter. It matters deeply. But the best way to affect cultural change is through our daily work, not voting.

In an election year like this, it’s tempting to imitate Pontius Pilate, wash our hands of a messy world, and ask, “What stupidity must I endure next?”

But that’s the wrong question.

“The ultimately responsible question,” says Bonhoeffer, “is not how I extricate myself from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living.”

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CulturePoliticsWork

The MLK Option

 

Tim Keller once said we’re now living in the autumn of Christianity’s influence in the West: the leaves are falling to the ground and winter is approaching.

For many of us, the cold wind that reminds of us the coming winter storm is the loss of religious freedom so many evangelicals see in American life today.

A Christian student group at Vanderbilt University loses official school recognition; Chick-Fil-A gets grilled by the Denver City Council for trying to move into theDenver International Airport; in California an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is forced to elect non-Christian leaders.

Many evangelicals feel like a cat backed into a corner. A combination of fear and outbursts of rage (usually on our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages) often define our response.

Times have changed. Christians committed to the public implications of their faith are now a minority in American life. 

Today many Christians are frantically searching to find a way to live in American society without cultural power.

New options are being proposed.

For example, Rod Dreher, the conservative editorial writer, has suggested the “Benedict Option. Keep the flame of faith alive in private communities as the larger culture deteriorates. Though I’m not sure Benedict — who believed his monastic communities were essentially a missionary endeavor — would opt for this route, I’m not sure how this option works with the essential Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord of all.”

In response, Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, has suggested the “Wilberforce Option,” which advocates for defending human rights in the seats of power. Yet the “Wilberforce Option” assumes Christians actually have power to change laws, which seems to be less true with each passing year — and has been untrue of Christians of ethnic minorities for centuries.

Where in church history should we look for faithful, public responses to persecution, discrimination, and marginalization? I suggest we look to the preeminent expression of public faith in American history: the American Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps moving forward, we should embrace a distinctly American legacy: The MLK Option.

The MLK Option

Instead of a non-stop protest against unfairness or unequal treatment, we’d be wise to embrace Martin Luther King Jr’s model of social change and cultural witness. MLK can help the white church see what has been true for hundreds of years for the black church: the meaning of a faithful public life without cultural power.

Now more than ever the entire American church needs to come and learn at the feet of MLK’s counter-cultural, yet deeply Christian, vision of nonviolent love, even for our enemies.

In an age of caustic political debates and divided communities, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words echo as true today as they did a half century ago: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is love.”

What would the way of love look like for evangelicals in America today? Here are four places we could start:

1. Acknowledge that Christians are a minority in American culture (and this isn’t going to change any time soon).

What does it mean to be a minority people in a majority culture? The black church could be a wise counselor to white churches that are now experiencing this for the first time.

Suffering and lament choruses, like the blues, might need to become just as common as praise and worship songs. Being prepared to respond to discrimination with dignity may be just as important to church discipleship as quarterly marriage seminar. I admit, as a white evangelical myself, I have a lot to learn here.

But it’s important to first recognize that we’re not going to “take America back for God” and become a majority culture any time soon. That ship has sailed. As MLK said in 1956, “We must prepare to live in a new world.”

2. Embrace the central principle of Martin Luther King’s leadership: love your enemies. 

After centuries of oppression, public shame, and suffering, it’s incredible that MLK could conjure such character to counsel African Americans “to meet the forces of hate with the power of love…We’ve got to learn not to hit back. We must learn to love the white man.”

This makes me wonder: could Christians be known centrally for their acts of grace in American culture?

To do this would require us to bring gourmet meals to pro-choice co-workers; to pray deeply and honestly for our political leaders of that other political party (whether that be Democrat or Republican); it would mean finding those we despise in our neighborhoods and treating them as if they were Christ himself.

In the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

“Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” is not an impossible ethic.  It is a logical plan of action for a persecuted minority.

3. Expect to suffer. 

In September 1958, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta accompanied Ralph Abernathy to the courthouse.  Abernathy had been assaulted by police and spent several days in the hospital.

As King began to explain their reason for coming, two officers raced up to King, grabbed him and yelled, “Boy, you done it. Let’s go.” King later recalled, “The police tried to break my arm. They grabbed my collar and tried to choke me…When they got me to the cell, they kicked me in.”

King endured injustice at the hands of those in power in order to awaken the conscience of America. He suffered for his cause. We should be prepared to do the same.

Very few white evangelicals in America have ever experienced this kind of persecution for their faith. But should the day come, and it might, suffering for doing what’s right is perhaps the most powerful act of public witness possible.

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult,” the apostle Peter commands us, “On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called.”

4. Remain resolutely hopeful. 

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage…This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

We need not despair over American culture, nor believe that we will return to a golden age of American Christianity.

We have lost cultural power, but to live in the fullness of Christ requires neither influence nor power. It merely means we are willing to take up our cross and walk in the way of the Suffering Servant.

In the end, the goal for Christians in American culture today is not triumph but love.

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CulturePolitics

Spelunking, Cave Formations, and Culture Change

 

“It’s riskier than ever,” Jill said, “to tell people you work with you’re a Christian.”

Jill worked at a public policy communications firm in Denver. Having worked with people of all and no faith for over 7 years, her sentiment about being a Christian in pluralist America was one I hear often. Fear. Isolation. Better to be quiet about my faith, and not risk the professional repercussions.

Clearly, for Christians in America, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

For many evangelicals who sense a deep loss of cultural power over the past decade, a debate has developed about how cultures change. The need to reimagine a Christian cultural presence has become a hot topic – and so have ideas about how cultures emerge and develop.  

The debate essentially boils down to two approaches: (1) Top-down elites who are in power shape culture by imposing their perspectives on society. These elites sit in positions of institutional power, sit on one another’s boards, and have disproportionate influence on culture.

The other side argues for a bottom-up approach: (1) Cultures change through grass roots movements. When large numbers of people organize, they’re able to shape the beliefs of society through building a large, powerful platform dispersed over wide ranging networks.

Little known political philosopher J.P. Nettl can shed light on this debate about culture change. He thinks we can learn a lot about effective social movements through observing cave formations.

If you’ve even been spelunking, you’ve seen two type of rock formations: stalactite rock formations come down from the top of the cave. Stalagmite formations, however, come up from the bottom. When stalactite and stalagmite formations meet in the middle they form a single column. J.P. Nettl believes social movements are strongest when both top-down and bottom-up approaches are united. 

When I spoke to Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, about this phenomenon, he mentioned two examples. First, the International Justice Mission. “Gary Haugen, IJM’s president, speaks at the Davos World Economic Forum,” Lindsay said. “That is literally where the world’s power elite gather.” From, local police to high powered attorneys, Haugen works with high level leaders across the world to bring about justice for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. So, here’s a top down approach.

Yet IJM also has an army of college students who advocate for their work across the US.  From Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, they’ve built a grass roots movement that has spread throughout evangelical (and non-evangelical) world. IJM has become a strong social movement because both top-down and bottom-up approaches meet in the middle to form a single column.

Lindsay shared another example: AIDS in Africa. Huge progress has been made over the past two decades on AIDS. AIDS is no longer a death sentence for millions in part because of the wide spread grass roots efforts from NGOs, churches, businesses, and local leaders. But there’s also a story of a key person of influence who changed the course of history: Condoleezza Rice.

When Rice was serving as National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, she was in the room when a crucial decision about PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) was made.

A conversation had been going on for about a year that tested the President’s compassionate conservative agenda: would the federal government contribute $15 billion to extend the lives of AIDS patients across Sub-saharan Africa?

The final meeting takes place in the Oval Office with about 15 core advisors. They turn to Rice and essentially ask, “Is this a good use of money?” She tells the story of her mother who battled cancer and survived through 15 critical years of her adolescence and young adulthood. During that time, Rice graduated from high school, graduated from the University of Denver, changed from being a concert pianist to an expert on the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, and became a faculty member at Stanford.

With resolute conviction, Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in those 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.”

That decision swayed the history of Africa in a major way.

And here’s the point Lindsay was making to me. He said, with equal conviction to that of Rice, “In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.” 

When we were designing the 5280 Fellowship, this truth was being seared deeply into my mind. Leadership matters – for the well-being of us all. And yet, when we look at the evangelical landscape, we have broad and wide grassroots efforts aimed at serving the common good, from billion dollar nonprofits like World Vision to the 16,000 student strong annual missions conference Urbana. But what evangelicals lack are enough intentional efforts to form men and women for positions of significant leadership in American culture.

James Davison Hunter has made this point resoundingly in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Evangelicals are almost completely absent – explicitly as people of faith – from leadership roles in culture-shaping institutions like elite private schools, fine art or mainstream media.

In other words, our evangelical cave formations are almost all bottom-up stalagmites.

One of my great hopes for the 5280 Fellowship is that more men and women early in their career will be prepared not just for influence in American society, but for influence in a particularly Christian way.

As Lindsay shared with me, “The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self- sacrifice like the Christian gospel.”

Should we really be encouraging young Christians to pursue positions of institutional power, I finally asked Lindsay?

His response quieted me with a deep peace and hopefulness: “The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is not giving up power. It is using power sacrificially. Why, then, would we not want more people with these values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?”

This vision of the 5280 Fellowship is not of an evangelical “transformation” of America, but neither it is being bound to fear for being a Christian in American society today.

This vision is simply this: love God by serving the well-being of all our neighbors — whether Christians or otherwise — through our work.

This is the first of a series of articles about the formation of the 5280 Fellowship, a new nine month program for emerging leaders in the Denver metro area. 

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Announcement: Launch of the 5280 Fellowship

Today is a big day.

Today my colleagues and I at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, in partnership with Gordon College, announce the launch of the 5280 Fellowship, a 9 month experience for emerging leaders beginning in the fall of 2016.

After years of planning, design and forging partnerships, each element of the program has fallen into place. And now what we are now offering is, I believe, one of the best faith-based fellowship programs in the US, and perhaps Denver’s premiere leadership experience for young professionals.

I know those are big claims. But I believe the 5280 Fellowship has the potential to deeply impact Denver for generations to come. And I’m not alone.

Some of Denver’s finest pastors – like Robert Gelinas (Colorado Community Church), Brad Strait (Cherry Creek Presbyterian), Rob Brendle (Denver United), Brian Brown (Park Church) and Hunter Beaumont (Fellowship Denver) – believe the Fellowship can be a life-changing experience for young professionals who want to deeply engage themes of calling, work, and culture.

Young professionals like Steven Strott (Cool Planet Energy Systems) and Amy Wofford (The Commons at Champa) see the value of connecting to a community of faithful leaders in Denver and articulate how important work is to the flourishing of a city.

And Dr. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College who has deeply studied the world’s most effective leadership program, the White House Fellowship, believes this program, which has been modeled largely on his research, will give young professionals:

  • “deep relationships that span the city,”
  • a vision for how “the gospel provides a kind of connective tissue, helping us to see how does science and technology relate to the arts and entertainment,”
  • and a “catalyst in your career for the prospering not only of the wider culture, but also your life.”

Needless to say, if you’re asking big questions about the role of Christians in culture; if you’re interested in the relevance of the gospel to all of life; if you’re wondering about your own calling; and if you’re up for a challenge that could catalyze your career — then I encourage you to learn more at an upcoming info session.

Some of you may also be interested why we built the program as we did. On this blog, over the next several weeks, I’d like to peel back the veil on the principles underlying the Fellowship and why we built the program as we did. Blog posts will cover topics like:

  • Why Some Doctors Read the History of Opera: Leadership and Liberal Arts Thinking
  • EQ: Why Being a Good Conversationalist Might Be More Important Than an MBA
  • Why Nothing Before Age 20 Matters (And Why Your 20s-40s are the Most Critical to Career Success)
  • Calling: Learning to Listen to the Caller
  • Spelunking, Cave Formations and Culture Change
  • Our Common Longing: Meaningful Work
  • The Church in the World: Reformation, not Revolution
  • The Future of Higher Education: Friendships and the Information Deluge
  • The Golden Web: Mentors, Networks, and the Hidden Leadership Curriculum
  • Mission: Larger Than A Two Week Trip Overseas
  • Scattered: Being the Church Monday-Saturday
  • Significant Work: Developing a Taste for Tackling Big Problems

The launch of any new educational experience is really just the beginning of a conversation. This is a conversation on what it means to be fully human in this time and this place. I’d like to take the chance to invite you into this community.

I’d love to hear any and all feedback as the conversation grows. I hope you’ll consider joining me on this adventure into our own souls, the life of our city, and the heart of God.

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CulturePolitics

Driving Back the Cloud of Fear: A Christmas Meditation

 

If there is anything we Americans hold in common this Christmas, it is fear.

I felt it creeping up my neck four weeks ago when my dad called me on the way to work. “Did you hear about San Bernardino?” I confessed I was behind on the news. “The Islamic State is here.”

That same day my wife stopped in to buy jeans at the Gap. A Muslim man was buying a jacket for his wife who was draped in an all-black hijab, showing only her eyes. My wife felt guilty for saying it, but she said what so many of us feel: “Jeff, I was a afraid.”

As Christmas approaches, the thorns of fear quietly infest American soil.

Yet my wife and I hold something in common with many Muslims today. They too are afraid. Since San Bernardino, many American Muslims have feared a backlash. And should they not be afraid? Donald Trump vows to expel Muslims from America, and has even hinted at creating internment camps. Ted Cruz has threatened to carpet bomb Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria, with little regard for innocent life.

Such indiscriminate fury shows that Pulitzer prize winner author Marilynne Robinson is right: “Contemporary America is full of fear.”

Yet American fear is not just directed toward Islamic jihadists.

I remember the day last year when Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich was forced to resign when news was published about his support of California’s Proposition 8, which sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The social media firestorm culminated in a message from OKCupid: “Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies.”

I hold a traditional view of marriage. When I read those words, I remember thinking, “Could I, too, be sacked for my views of marriage?” I shut my office door. For the first time in my adult life, I felt fear living in America as a person of faith.

Yet again, I share this fear with many in the LGBT community. Many gays fear revealing their sexuality to co-workers will make them a target for exclusion. It’s even harder to be a transgender teen. Though I may disagree with the practice of gay marriage, I share something in common with many in the gay community: a fear of persecution.

Fear has even seeped into race relations. Ta-Nehisi’s heart-breaking letter to his son laments America’s heritage of violence toward African-Americans. Hopelessness among many blacks flows from Ferguson to Fergus Falls.

Conversely, many police officers in racially diverse neighborhoods fear increasing public criticism, wondering if they, too, are now becoming targets.

The ghost of Jacob Marley is roaming through American cities this Christmas, binding us with the chains of suspicion

But we can do something, right? We can be compassionate and show love. We can be different, right?

Over a month ago, I sent an impassioned plea to my congressman, begging him—for the love of God—to allow more refugees to enter the United States. The next day I received an official email reply: “I voted yes on H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act.” Translation: keep out your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We want safety. We are…afraid.

In the past month, I’ve felt a sense of desperation, perhaps best expressed by the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.”

As the fog of fear clouds American life, I’m reminded of a 12th century carol of longing: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Who of us haven’t felt this captivity? Who of us haven’t longed for someone to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and put death’s dark shadows to flight?”

Many Americans will wander into Christmas eve services this year and hear the familiar story of a pregnant Jewish teenager, a nervous father, a baby laying in a feeding trough. And at the center of the story is an angelic announcement: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10).”

Do not be afraid? Great joy? How could shepherds – working class and socially marginalized – embrace such a pronouncement? How could Jews, living under Roman oppression, dance again?

The Christmas story suggests there’s only one to antidote to fear: an unexpected gift.

The only way to cut through the uncertainty and anxiety of fear is to meet your enemy not with plans to defend ourselves, but with a particular sign of generous love.

Can we drive back the cloud of American fear? Yes. But not through higher walls, larger defense budgets, or by “taking back America” from them – whoever they are. The path forward is to move from hostility to hospitality. The path forward is to welcome the stranger into our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces.

Fear in American life is real. But grace drives out fear. Fear is crushed through generosity; it is dissolved through fellowship. Thorns may infest the ground from New York to Los Angeles, but “he comes to make his blessings flow, as far as the curse is found.”

To be a Christian in a time of dread means to direct all our hope toward a baby laying in a manger, of whom John the apostle would lone day write, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Connect with him on Twitter @JeffHaanen

A version of this essay first appeared on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website

 

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CultureTheologyWork

What Greg Thompson Can Teach Us About Living as Christians in Cities

Occasionally you meet somebody that shines with such virtue that you are, perhaps for the first time, made aware of your own poverty of spirit.

When I met Greg Thompson during our Thriving Cities symposium in late October, I almost immediately felt the weight of his glory. Before speaking to the crowd, he almost desperately asked me to let him know if there was anybody I knew at the event who had a particular hurt or pain that he could pray for. Unlike my concerns (Will the event be a success? Will people “like” the evening?), it seemed to me that his vision for the renewal of cities was almost completely driven by an other-worldly love.

It’s rare that I go back over a talk that a DIFW speaker has given several times to take notes, underline, and to pray. But when Greg spoke about our “shared wound and shared calling” to reimagine what a virtuous civic life might look like, it was not just my mind, but through sitting under his teaching, quietly my heart was drawn to the beauty of his vision.

Here are six movements Greg Thompson encouraged us to make as Christian people living in cities today. 

1. We need to move from a posture of victimhood to servanthood.

“It’s true, of course, that [Christians] are in fact an increasingly marginal people, a trend that looks to continue for a really long while — like a hundred years probably. And it is true that simply by virtue of having moral norms that we cling to, we can be seen as a moral threat to the aspirations of our nation. But it’s also true that Christ is risen, and that while we may be marginalized, we can never be victimized, for heaven’s sake. And to the contrary, we don’t live in this world either as masters or as victims but as servants.”

Fear is rampant in American culture, says Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson. And I’ve felt this fear too. Just saying you’re a Christian can be a recipe for career sabotage or becoming socially ostracized.

But fear is not a Christian habit of mind  love is. Even as Christians are losing public influence and public voice, Greg reminded me that night at the event that we may be pushed to the margins, but we need never adopt a mentality of victimhood. We are here neither as “culture-shapers” (masters) nor culture-defenders (victims)  we are simply servants.  Those who have a deep, abiding hope in the risen Christ, and a enduring reason to love those with whom we live.

2. We need to move from hostility to hospitality.

“One of the most painfully evident aspects of the Church’s life  at least in public  is our fear and our contempt of those who differ from us. It is true that we do have and we must have deep differences with our neighbors. That’s what it means to have convictions in a pluralist age. And it is true that some of our neighbors are going to be hostile to us because we’re Christians… But it’s also true that God loved you and me while we were enemies. Our neighbors, every single one of them, is made in his image and they have an irreducible dignity. And we have to be the people  the poets  who can recognize the beauty where it is and welcome them in.”

As Greg said this, I was convicted. Do I assume that I’ll be persecuted for my faith in a secular city, and is that why I’m always defending myself before a conversation has ever begun? Why is it that as a shrinking minority I feel the need to assert my “rights” to live a Christian? How might I simply open my workplace, my office, my dining room table and share my life with those that disagree with me? This is what Christ has first done for me  yet what I also find so uncomfortable in the reality of my Tuesday mornings  and Saturday evenings.

Yet inviting in the stranger is perhaps one of the most powerful things people of Christian faith can do in this pluralistic age. 

3. We need to move from competition to collaboration.

One of the most disappointing afflictions in contemporary Christianity is the way that we seem more eager to build a brand for ourselves than to build a common good for us all…

“It is actually as we join together that we grow up into what [Paul] calls the full stature of mature, Christian personhood. And because of this, we’re called to labor diligently to situate our gifts not simply in relationship to our own personal sense of calling, but to our brothers and sisters — to not simply get up in the morning and ask ‘What do I want to do?’ but ask ‘What needs to be done?’ ‘Who’s doing it?’ and ‘How can I join them?’”

I’m guilty of this. We all are. Brands must be built  it’s the only way we can market our products in a noisy world. I get this. But can the boundaries between brands and competitors melt a bit? Can we find ways to work together with rival schools, rival tech companies, rival businesses  even “rival” churches  for the good of all? (Could we even find ways to bless our competitors?)

Finding a way to live in distinctive conviction yet humble collaboration is a huge challenge for the church today. And for me personally as I try to walk the narrow path of both conviction and compassion.

4. We need to move from an emphasis on the individual to the institutional.

Social healing in a disintegrated age cannot  it literally cannot  be a product of focusing on individuals, or even of focusing on individuals in aggregate and hoping by some math it will add up to a transformed society. It doesn’t work that way.

“We have to have an institutional horizon to our love. And the reason for this is because the social order that we inhabit and all the individual lives that we have are inescapably institutional in nature. We are formed by institutions at every point, and so if we’re going to be a people who reimagine a civic ecology, we’re going to have to take institutions very serious and learn that it’s not unspiritual to do that.”

Government employees, professional service providers, waitresses, nurses, engineers and even pastors are formed not only by individuals, but by the shared values, ethos and pathos that grow up in groups of people. Renewed cities require renewed institutions.  Perhaps if we begin the counter-cultural work of thinking institutionally, our witness and service to the city start to take hold.

5. We need to move from the merely political to the public.

Politics does not in fact create [culture change], but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part. And so politics emerges out of this larger network of interpenetrating institutions that I’m calling the ‘public,’ or economics and politics and art and medicine and religion. All of these things together are forming an ecology. And because of this, we have to renounce our obsession with merely political change, because that is not how social healing works.”

Politics is downstream from culture. Because this is true, efforts to change the culture through electing the right officials will nearly always fail. Instead, culture springs up from an ecosystem of work  oil & gas, health care, finance, education, religion, restaurants and hotels.

Politics is important. It always has been for people of Christian faith. But being people of Christian faith in cities does not start in Washington D.C. It starts at work.

6. We need to move from a focus on cultural triumph to a focus on the common good.

“One of the saddest features of our current cultural setting, which is definitely on grim display during the political season, is our tendency to think of the goal of all of our labors is actually the goal of conquest. To think that we’re trying to win. This aspiration is to defeat our neighbors in a high-stakes culture war…

“But listen: It is true that we serve a king  King Jesus  who right now is enthroned on heaven. Right now. Ruling all things. And as an expression of his reign sends light and wind on the righteous and on the wicked alike. He’s giving gifts to people who are opposed to him.

“And what that means is, if that’s true of him, if we seek to inhabit his kingdom, where we seek the good not simply of ourselves, but of our neighbors… We are not trying to win; we are trying to love. Because of this, as we think about what it means to engage the city and to reimagine a civic ecology, we have to remember that our goal is not cultural conquest; it is to seek the common good.”

We are not trying to win; we are trying to love.” This is what I meant earlier by the beauty of Greg’s vision. He’s on to something  a way of civic responsibility, yet also one of deep peace and deep joy.

In the end, the way of love is the path toward a renewed city.

This post first appeared on denverinstitute.org. 

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CultureWork

An Open Letter to Howard Schultz: Why I Love the Red Starbucks Christmas Cups

 

Dear Howard,

Right now I’m at a Starbucks in Littleton, Colorado, sipping a double shot Americano, using your WiFi, and listening to Christmas music. I also noticed what fine, festive cups you’ve chosen to adorn your stores across the land.

As I admired their white, green and red simplicity, I also thought of all the flak you’ve received from Christians who apparently don’t like your red cups. I’m sorry about this. They don’t speak for all of us.

Let me give you the top ten reasons why I appreciate the red Starbucks Christmas cups:

10. They hold delicious beverages that I purchase several times a week.

9. They allow nearly 191,000 employees to serve their customers worldwide – and provide for their own livelihood as well.

8. They have a sticker with my name and drink order on it because of the highly efficient system you and your team have created to get my drink order right nearly every time I’ve ever been to a Starbucks.

7. They’re made from 10% post consumer recycled fiber, which makes me thankful you care about God’s good world.

6. They have a warning on them about not burning my tongue. How thoughtful.

5. They match the shimmering red and green bags of coffee beans for sale, not to mention the tinsel, holiday gift cards, and holly-adorned windows that decorate your store.

4. Their plastic tops have a slight hole next to my nose, which allows me to not spill my Americano all over my Macbook. Again, awfully thoughtful.

3. They also match the array of other Christmas products you offer, like ornaments, Advent calendars, Christmas cards, Christmas CDs and Christmas cookies. Feliz Navidad to you, Howard.

2. They’re also providing work for coffee farmers, plastic manufacturers, paper manufactures, drivers, and countless other people who depend on Starbucks to feed their families.

1. They remind me of the blood of Jesus.

Again, sorry so many Christians have given you a hard time. They’re my brothers and sisters – even the noisy ones who can be tough to get along with. But hey, we’re family. So I’ll stick with them even when they say ridiculous things.

All that to say Merry Christmas! May the “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) fill you – and all your employees – with delight and hope this holiday season.

Your customer,
Jeff Haanen

Littleton, Colorado

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CultureWork

A Gift to the World

 

Several weeks ago, I sat down to share about the DIFW vision with a prospective donor. As I began to explain our mission, I could tell there was a mental obstacle.

“So, you can’t evangelize in schools or business or the government,” he said. “So what it is exactly you’re trying to accomplish?”

Before I could reply, the conversation moved to Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, and the contentious religious liberty issues surrounding the overt faith of their founders. Though I’m personally encouraged by the Cathy and Green families, I could tell that our organization was being sucked into a culture war, one that tends to see the Church as almost a drain on a liberal, pluralist society – one that impinges on the  rights of the individual.

But instead of getting drawn into the culture wars, I instead decided to say what has been true for millennia: the church is a gift to the world. There’s a reason why we chose the title “A Gift to the City” for our recently release 2015 Impact Report. It’s worth remembering that for centuries, Christian men and women have seen their work as an opportunity to bring life to society. The Church has long been a blessing to all – both Christians and people of other faiths (or none at all).

How has the church been a gift to the world? A few examples come to mind:

1. The Church gave us the first universities.  The University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (1150) and the University of Oxford (1167) all were born out of Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, dedicated to not only training clergy, but also learning about law, astronomy, medicine, music, math, and the “trivium” – grammar, logic and rhetoric. Say what you will about the drawbacks of medieval Europe: all modern institutions of higher education have a historical debt to Christians believing that investigating God’s world could benefit society at large.

2. The Church gave us the foundations for capitalism. No, it didn’t start with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Nor was it due to the Protestant work ethic. Rodney Stark has convincingly made the case in The Victory of Reason that the free market enterprise system was flowering in 12th century Italy. The supposed “dark ages” bloomed with inventions like the water wheel, horseshoes, fish farming, the three-field system of agriculture, eyeglasses and clocks. Why? There’s a good reason that capitalism didn’t arise in China, Islam, or the global south. Stark explains, “All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason.” Innovation, the power of reason, and the moral underpinning of capitalism (of which trust is the most important) all flowed not from either Roman law nor Greek idealism – but from Christianity.

3. The Church gave us the framework for human rights and democracy.  Christianity offered to the world a doctrine which would forever reshape our political life: all people are made in the image of GodEveryone. Though a form of democracy did start in ancient Greece, we see in Plato’s Republic that his version of democracy is one we wouldn’t want to see anywhere today: a republic where only property owners could vote, where women and slaves were property, and where philosopher kings ruled. There was voting, for sure. But certainly not a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The roots of democracy we enjoy today come principally from the Magna Carta, composed in the Christian West. (Which is one reason why today’s Chinese Communist Party leadership doesn’t want it touring around their neighborhood.) First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Magna Carta (1215) originally limited the rights of kings, but was later used in the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution as precedent for protecting the rights of all people. Though nearly all societies have, at times, had their leaders approved by the people, the theological doctrine that all people are made in the image of God was the original source of one’s human rights – far before secular versions arose in the Enlightenment (See Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution). Though the Church has also been guilty of violating human rights (i.e., The Inquisition), it has also been the source of the protections and rights we enjoy today in a liberal democracy. (If you need more convincing here, read Marcelo Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. It’s stunning.)

4. The Church gave us the birth of science. Isaac Newton did more theology than science, and Francis Bacon not only gave us the empirical method, but also worried that his methodology would be used by demons to distort its good intention. Sounds weird, but they lived in both the worlds of Christian theology and scientific inquiry. Talk of investigating the “book of nature” was a Christian idea – that we could see who God was both through Scripture and in his creation (Ps. 19, Rom. 1).

Often we only hear half of the story – that the Church opposed Copernicus’ heliocentric universe and persecuted Galileo, the “father of physics” and observational astronomy. But truth be told: Galileo’s run in with Pope Gregory XIII was more political than scientific (the Inquisition thought his biblical interpretation looked Protestant). His insights were initially adopted by Pope Gregory and used to revise the church calendar in 1582. Galileo himself believed that God had given us reason, senses and intellect and expected us to use them as tools to interpret Scripture. Galileo writes, “For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge.” Generations of scientists, from Blaise Pascal to George Washington Carver (including a large number of prominent scientists today, like Francis Collins), are motivated by their faith to do science.  Again, Stark makes the case that it’s the doctrine that God, the Logos, is a God of reason that led to science erupting not in China, Islam, India, or the Americas – but in the Christian West. Controversial thesis, I know. But hard to ignore the civilization in which the scientific revolution took place.

5. The Church gave us the art of Michelangelo and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is perhaps history’s greatest work of art. And Johann Sebastian Bach would often sign his symphonies Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), one of the five “solas” of the reformation.  Handel would often do the same. Artists for generations have drawn fuel from their faith – from Leonardo Davinci’s The Last Supper to contemporary artists like Makoto Fujimara. Bono isn’t half bad either.

6. The Church gave us the Civil Rights Movement. It also bears mentioning the Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist preacher. The fundamental drive for Dr. King’s leadership in a nonviolent movement to correct “America’s original sin” (slavery, and hence racial discrimination) was a Christian notion of love – even love for one’s enemy. This was first and foremost a movement of churches – and only secondarily was it political. The Civil Rights Movement would have been impossible without the Church.

We could go on and speak of the monks in Ireland washing the feet of travelers and setting the precedent for modern hotels, or Basil of Caesarea creating arguably one of the first hospitals (at a time when many Romans abandoned the sick or dying in plague ridden cities – see Stark’s The Rise of Christianity), or heroines like Florence Nightingale who essentially founded the profession of nursing out of a sense of duty from God’s call.

Though any Christian would be quick to confess that we’ve sinned deeply in the past (the Thirty Years Wars comes to mind) and today as well (the tragic segregation that remains in our churches), we can’t forget: the church has long been a gift to the world. 

So, with that, the question of the Church’s role in the world need not focus on fear-based arguing about losing a position of relative influence in the now post-Christian West. Instead, as those inspired most fundamentally by the grace of God (grace=gift), we can instead ask, What has God put in my hands that I might give to another? Instead of just going to church to get “filled up” by worship music and a sermon, might the Triune God actually use the Church to be the conduit of his abundant life to the entire human family (John 10:10b)?

Featured Photo: Christ Feeding the 5000

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Culture

Greatness and Grace

Today Christianity Today published my interview with New York Times Columnist David Brooks on his incredible new book The Road to Character. Here it is in its entirety:

 

The New York Times columnist asks what it takes to build character in a ‘Big Me’ culture.

Interview by Jeff Haanen /

 

Several years ago, David Brooks hit a wall. Although his résumé sparkled—a columnist for The New York Times, a political commentator for PBS and NPR, and the author of best-selling books like Bobos in Paradise—his inner life felt impoverished.

Brooks’s quest to fill that hollowness culminated in his latest book, The Road to Character (Random House). He pairs sketches of historical figures like Augustine and Dwight Eisenhower with analysis of our culture’s retreat from biblical notions of sin and righteousness. Jeff Haanen, executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, spoke with Brooks, a cultural Jew, about recovering the classical quest for virtuous living—and great men and women who can light the way.

Throughout The Road to Character you distinguish between “Adam One” and “Adam Two,” or the “resumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” Can you explain the difference between the two and how they influenced your project?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made this distinction between Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One is the career side of ourselves, and Adam Two is the internal side, the spiritual side of ourselves. The crucial thing is that they operate by different forms of logic. Adam One operates by a straightforward, economic logic: Input leads to output, and effort leads to reward. Adam Two operates by an inverse logic, basically the logic of the Beatitudes: The high will be made low; you have to give to receive; you must lose yourself to find yourself.

I didn’t have a midlife crisis or anything, but I came to realize that I pay too much attention to the Adam One side of my life, and that I’m not articulate enough about my inner life. I came to a realize that career success doesn’t actually lead to happiness. It doesn’t lead to the deepest fulfillment. I started looking for something more.

You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?

Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.

When you lose awareness of sin and start thinking that, deep down, human beings are pretty wonderful, you lose the struggle of character building. Building character is not like being better than someone else at a career. It’s conquering your own weakness. But you won’t make that effort if you lose a sense of what your weakness is and where it comes from.

How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.

There are surveys called “The Narcissism Test” that ask whether respondents agree with statements like, “I like to be the center of attention because I’m so extraordinary,” or “Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has gone up 30 percent in 20 years.

Our economy encourages us to promote ourselves with social media, to brand ourselves and get “likes.” In theory, we know humility is important, but we live in a culture of self-promotion.

Much of the book is about historical figures who stand in contrast to the culture of self-promotion, such as Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and a major player behind the New Deal. What about her upbringing and education shaped her character?

Perkins went to Mount Holyoke College back when the main purpose of higher education was not intellectual skills (though that was certainly a priority) but character-building. Since she was weakest in chemistry, the school made her major in chemistry. If you can do what you’re weakest at, you can handle any challenge. Holyoke also sent its students around the world on missionary trips. They picked up this heroic sense that they could do something brave.

Perkins was unsure of how to dedicate her life until, in 1911, she watched workers die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That gave her what some have called “the call within the call.” She had her career, but now it had become a vocation. Forever after, she would do anything she could to advance the cause of workers’ rights.

You write about two military figures, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. What are some differences between their view of morality and our “culture of authenticity” today?

They didn’t trust themselves. Eisenhower knew that he had this terrible temper. So he was always checking himself. He knew that if he was going to lead, he needed to show cheerfulness, certainty, and confidence. But he didn’t feel that inside. He felt anxiety and anger.

And so he knew he couldn’t be his “true self” in public. Nowadays, we say that you should always be sincere, but Eisenhower was self-distrusting. He said, “If I’m sincere, I will not be effective. I have to work hard on building myself into something better.” So he built himself into a very cheerful, happy person, at least externally. But that construction took a lot of effort. Sometimes, when he was angry at certain people, he would write their names down on a piece of paper, rip it up and throw it in the garbage just to purge his anger.

Marshall was a very scattered and disorganized young man. He was always afraid of being humiliated. But he dedicated himself to the military so powerfully. He said to himself, “There are certain organizations that have been here before I was born, and they’ll be here after I’m dead, and I’m going to serve those organizations. And I’m going to try to live up to the standards of excellence that they embody.”

Sometimes that did make him austere. He was not the easiest guy to get to know. But he served his country with amazing steadiness. Occasionally you’ll run into people who were heroes in history, but not to those closest around. Marshall was a hero to those closest around him. They regarded him as a man of almost unbelievable integrity and honesty.

You also write about Augustine of Hippo and Dorothy Day. What can these portraits of Christian faith teach us?

Augustine is quite simply the most capacious mind and intelligent man I’ve ever encountered.

He was a successful young rhetorician, but the more he achieved, the more uncomfortable he felt. So he investigated his own mind to see what was going on. He understood psychology, 1,600 years ago, as well as we do today. When Augustine plumbed the depths of his mind, he found infinity there. In other words, he found God. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the road into the self leads right out of the self.

As a bishop, Augustine fought many battles over church doctrine. But he had achieved a certain tranquility. If you focus only on your outer life, you never can. Worldly ambitions always have a way of demanding more.

Dorothy Day is another amazing character. Some people come to faith in moments of suffering and pain, but she came to faith in a moment of joy, at the birth of her child. She said, “I’ve never felt as great a love as I felt in the days after the birth of my daughter.” And with that came a need to worship and to adore God.

Day became a Catholic, a social worker, and a newspaper writer, and she spent her life building communities. There’s a phrase from Nietzsche that Eugene Peterson turned into a book title, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Our culture praises choice and individualism, not obedience. But obedience is where Day found joy.

With Augustine and Dorothy Day, their faith had a huge impact. Do you see a connection between religious faith and the development of character?

There are two issues here. First, I found there were many people who were secular but who we would say had great character. We can just see that.

But even if they didn’t have faith themselves, they had what I call the “biblical metaphysic.” They had the categories of Christianity and Judaism in their heads. Categories like sin, redemption, the soul, virtue, and grace. They knew the words. Eisenhower wasn’t particularly religious, but his mother gave him those words. Abraham Lincoln’s faith, to take another example, is always mysterious to me. But he certainly felt the pull of Providence.

I don’t think you need to have faith to be a good person. I observe people who are great people without faith. But I do think you need to have the biblical metaphysic. You need to have the words and categories.

Your book describes two paths to character. One is the path of moral effort, of emulating great heroes like the ones you profile. The other is the path of grace, the experience of receiving the gift of goodness. Which path works best?

It’s both. You may be able to build character and greatness through disciplined effort, but I don’t think you can experience the highest joy without grace. Nor can you experience tranquility. That only comes from gratitude, the feeling that you’re getting much more than you deserve.

My book includes a beautiful passage from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. He writes about certain moments when you are feeling down, and then suddenly you feel this tremendous sense of acceptance. You’re not asked to do anything—only to accept the fact that you’re accepted.

The word character can sound tough and austere. But most of the characters in my book had moments of profound joy, of feeling overwhelmed by gratitude.

You end the book with “The Humility Code”: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” “Humans are flawed yet deeply endowed.” “Humility is the greatest virtue. Pride is the greatest vice.” “We are all ultimately saved by grace.” Is it any accident that these sound like the teachings of Jesus and the apostles?

I spend a lot of time going to Israel. Christian art there has a certain “face.” When you walk the Stations of the Cross, you enter different chapels from different traditions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic. But the art features the same facial expression: one of gentle, loving kindness. In Greek or Roman art, the expressions are much “harder” and less grace-filled. But the Christian art has a kind of joy-filled humility.

The Gospels brought about a revolution in morals. To put it broadly, there was a shift from a desire for power to a desire for sacrificial love. Even just speaking as a historian of ideas, culture, and behavior, that was a radical revolution that created a radical counterculture.

Today when we hear the word counterculture, we think of hippies in the 1960s. But the hippies ultimately represent the same individualistic striving we see from Apple computer and Ben & Jerry’s.

The true counterculture is found in faith, whether Jewish or Christian. It’s about living by a totally different moral logic. The logic of the Bible and the language of humility—that’s the real counterculture.

When I read your book, I couldn’t help thinking about how evangelicals (myself included) often capitulate to Big Me culture—positive psychology, the self-branding of social media, “life plans.” What can evangelicals learn from both secular and religious people who have taken the road to character?

Recently I met with the Gathering [a group of Christian philanthropists] in Orlando, Florida, and spoke, as an outsider, on the ramps and the walls the evangelical community builds for outsiders. Ramps are things that welcome people into a community, and walls are things that drive people away. I argued that what drives people away the most is a mixture of an intellectual inferiority complex with a moral superiority complex.

Intellectual standards in the evangelical community are not as high as they could be. It’s getting better. Everyone wants to be kind to each other. But sometimes you have to be a little cruel to disagree, and to disagree sharply and honestly to raise the intellectual standard of the enterprise.

On the other hand, as someone who has come to know a lot of evangelicals in the past years, many through writing this book, there are so many people who embody serenity and joy. They radiate caring love.

Words and theology are important. But I’m a big believer that “the message is the person.” When you run across somebody who is joyfully giving, humbly giving, that’s a more attractive evangelical move than any book or tract could be.

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ArtCulture

The Calling of Jayber Crow

“It seems to me,” David Buschart told us over one dollar beers at Old Mill, “that the idea of calling depends on the doctrine of God’s providence.”

The four of us had invited David, a theologian from the seminary, to help us make sense of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. Of course, the book was just an excuse for four guys in our twenties to get together, look smart, and talk about our lives, wives, and jobs. And by choosing Old Mill’s cheapest possible beer, we confessed to the world we were both woefully ignorant of the what a beer should be—and we were utterly broke.

That night I was intent on trying to figure out my winding, seemingly aimless, career path. I got my master’s degree, now had a job in a completely unrelated field, and could barely support my wife and newborn daughter. In my head, the script was never supposed to work out like this. And so when the local wiseman tells me the key to understanding my work was to trust in the sustaining, providential hand of God, I wasn’t sure whether this was just I’m-here-to-make-you-feel-better counseling or if I should pay closer attention.

After speaking with dozens, maybe hundreds, of men and women about their lives and career paths, I’ve now come to think that my winding road may be more the norm rather than the exception.

I think Jayber Crow, the narrator of Wendell Berry’s great novel, understands us. As a young man, he thought he was going to become a pastor, but as he grew older (and wiser) he understood he was called to be a barber in Port William, Kentucky, the smallest dot on the map. Looking back on his days, here’s how he put it:

That is to say that I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have—and beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber…in spite of my intentions to the contrary.

Now I have had, most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led. I will leave you to judge the truth of that for yourself; as Dr. Ardmire and I agreed, there is no proof.

In the moment, when Jayber was a young man, going to school, then traveling, it seemed like he was “wandering in the dark woods of error.” But as an old man, he now has the feeling “which never leaves me anymore” that he was being led, that the wandering path may have actually been the straightest path laid out for him.

Who of us haven’t doubted whether we are on the right path? And who of us has had a perfectly linear path from college to success to the Heavenly City? Later in the book, here’s again how Jayber explains his journey:

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.

(Did John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress only tell us half the truth? That we are indeed pilgrims, but life hardly ever feels like progress?)

Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The name of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.

I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet, for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will. 

I think of my own journey, wandering and unmarked. A waiter at Popolano’s, a family restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana, learning to balance trays and decorate desserts; a missionary in Latin America, which mostly meant trying to get people to teach me Spanish while crammed into a diesel spewing bus; teaching kids to play lacrosse in seminary (I have no idea how to play lacrosse); leading worship with eight Mexican teenagers at a church in northern Denver, while massacring the Spanish language; the failure of having almost worked at a high-paying, highly respected church in Minnesota – until they said it just wasn’t a good fit; sitting in an an admissions office at a tiny school in Littleton trying to learn what a sales funnel is, and wondering why I had spent three years getting studying biblical Greek, philosophical ethics, and “big idea” preaching.

Yet looking back, I too can’t shake the feeling off that I’ve been led. 

My pride while in graduate school was gargantuan – just ask any of my professors. (It now is merely enormous.) My skill set and experience was painfully narrow. I expected the world to be like PowerPoints and writing term papers – and I expected to be handsomely rewarded for getting good grades. My ability to listen to others was dormant, until I was led to a job selling private education, where 90% of the school tours I gave were simply listening to the honest hopes and fears of parents for their kids.

Pilgrim indeed.

How easy it is to forget that pilgrimage includes suffering. Yet in the suffering, the wandering, it may be that we are being led – shaped, formed, refined – for a purpose that we cannot fully see right now.

Perhaps those of us who desire a “call from God”should first open our hearts to God’s providence, God’s provision, and to simply trust that He is there and leading me right here and right now, in this less-than-ideal situation.

And perhaps like Jayber Crow, looking back on the journey, I might come to see that He’s been there all along. And on the journey, Often I have received better than I have deserved.

Photo Credit: Wendell Berry

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