The Cult of Community: White Men and American Evangelicalism

15 08 2019

Ivanwald.jpgCommunity is at the heart of the Gospel!  The Book of Genesis teaches that “it is not good for us to be alone”; and the New Testament is all about God’s ‘kin’dom being fully realized when we understand our connectedness to God, to one another, and to all creation.  The incarnation story – which sets Christianity apart from so many of the world’s other great religions – is about God ‘moving into the neighborhood’ and living among us.  And that is Gospel!  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus confirm the reality that God is here and that we are never alone. If the Christian faith is about anything it is about relationships!  They matter; and community is essential to our lives.

I became most powerfully aware of this reality in college!  I pledged the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity my first semester, was elected ‘Master’ my sophomore year, and found my closest relationships to be among the men who quickly became my new brothers!  All-night road-trips, induction ceremonies, intramural football games, and the “Good and Welfare” portion of our weekly Sunday might meetings (where we all shared some of the most intimate details of our lives) all profoundly influenced my college years.  I will never forget the guys who so powerfully shaped and enriched my life; and while my daughter jokingly tells me that fraternities are just about men buying their friends, my experience was far more genuine and authentic!

I’ve experienced this kind of community at other times in my life: on my freshman football team in high school, with a bunch of guys I took golf lessons with when I was in my 30s, in a couple of different book groups that I’ve been part of over the years, AND in groups that were not just limited to men!  Each of these experiences left an indelible mark upon my soul, and I have not forgotten the men, AND WOMEN who shaped the person that I am today!

Unfortunately, we still live in a world where latent homophobia haunts the male psyche, and inhibits many men from becoming the relational beings we were created to be.  Too many of us have been raised to believe that any longing for male relationships is a threat to our heterosexuality, and as a result many men continue to live isolated lives, with few male friends, and even fewer opportunities for non-sexual intimacy.  We wallow in emotional immaturity; and persist in relational ineptitude!

In some situations, sports teams, fraternities, and other forms of male groupings provide opportunities for us to flex our relational muscles; but sadly, too often, the testosterone in such situations appears to perpetuate thinking, and lead to behavior, that can only be labeled as sexist, misogynistic, and patronizing.  In other situations, men are drawn to religious groups designed to satisfy men’s longings for friendship and acceptance, but too often these groups also fail to move men toward relational and spiritual  wholeness.  They DO offer male friendships, but in ways that are relationally shallow and spiritually superficial.  And no where is this more evident than in the world of American Evangelicalism.

While the cult of community can be provocatively destructive to men of any faith, the new Netflix series “The Family” reveals that when coupled with the powerfully privileged class of white men that dominate the American Evangelical Church, community can become extremely harmful and hurtful. On the surface, the evangelical church may appear to ‘do relationships’ well!  But any in depth study of their community will reveal that the friendships being fostered and the community being developed, particularly among men, is falling short of God’s ‘kin’dom goals.  Their literalistic approach to Scripture – which far too often leads to the most selfish and legalistic aspects of extreme, right-wing, political conservatism – quickly becomes seductively arrogant, rigid, and patriarchal.  And in my experience, in the end, despite the stated goals of such groups, men actually become less and less like Jesus, and more and more like traditional ‘bros,’ living hipster lives, in college frat houses across America!

I attended several of the Bible Studies at the Ivanwald House, in Arlington, VA, when I was a college student at The American University in Washington, DC.  I attended one of their ‘retreats’ in Norfolk, VA in 1982, and even had a one-on-one meeting with Doug Coe when I was struggling with my call to ministry in the early 90s.  And in spite of what may have been their best intentions, something just wasn’t right in . . . ‘the family!’  I knew it in my bones.

In the 30 years that followed I remained involved with the plethora of men’s groups that are part of the evangelical world.  I wrote my dissertation on Male Spirituality more than 20 years ago, at the height of my involvement with the Promise Keepers movement in America.  I spent 15 years in a national, all-male, evangelical pastors covenant group; and I have been part of  various “men’s groups” for most of my 33 years in ordained ministry.  Needless to say I remain extremely grateful for the many ways these experiences and groups have helped to me to learn what it means to be a man, and how to best participate in the creation and cultivation of the ‘kin’dom of God that is at the heart of the Gospel.  

But guys – we need to be careful!  For while we DO need relationships with other men – deep, meaningful, and yes intimate relationships – those relationships can not be permitted to lead us into the cult of community.  If such relationships are not making us more like Jesus, something is wrong.  If the groups of which we are a part are only helping us grab more power, in order to convert more people to our way of living and being in the world, so that we might garner more control over our own lives as well as the lives of the people around us, then these groups are failing us!  If they are making us louder and brasher, and filling us with more pride in ourselves and a deeper prejudice towards those not ‘lucky’ enough to be like us, then our groups are leading us astray.  And just because they allow us to experience things that we may have never felt before, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily healthy, or leading us to more Godly lives.

The community Jesus came to create, that which we know to be the living body of Christ in the world today, was designed to help us love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  But too many of the men’s groups in so much of American Evangelicalism are all about “making disciples of all nations.”  And this is generally understood to be convincing everyone to think the way we think, and to believe the way we believe.  They are about promoting a purity culture for women; while at the same time dismissing male promiscuity and sexual aggression as little more than a forgivable aspect of our ‘fallen nature’ that simply needs to be confessed.  And they claim to want reconciliation between the races; and yet remain so fragile, and so frightened at the possible implications, that such groups never really get around to considering how to participate in the dismantling of systemic racism in the Church or the world!  So instead of seeking these ‘kin’dom goals, they instead settle for memorizing verses of Scripture, as the way to write God’s word upon their hearts, and that then allows them avoid truly experiencing the transforming and conforming power of God’s Spirit.

Ironically, I started this blog in a Starbucks several days ago, with a men’s small group meeting right beside me!  At the same time I was both envious of, and repelled by, what they were doing.  When done well, men’s groups have the capacity to teach us about the best of what it means to be masculine because we are men; as well as the best of what it means to feminine because we are also human!  They have the capacity to mold and shape our hearts to become more and more like Jesus; and to move us closer to the Holy so that we might become forces for good in our world.

But when done poorly; when led by spiritually immature and emotionally shallow leaders, who are simply looking to teach men to feel, cry, and talk about things that men don’t normally talk about, then such groups become nothing less than cult-like.  When they simply teach men how to become comfortable hugging other men, or help us to cultivate friendships that simply reinforce traditional male machismo, then such groups have lost their Christ-centeredness, and wind up hurting and harming both men, as well as the world men inhabit!  And that is NOT the Gospel.

The Church and the world do not need any more men like the the men in ‘the family!’  We need strong men, with passion and commitment.  We need men who are emotionally secure and relationally skilled.  We need men who take a genuine interest in raising other men, and who are eager to become ambassadors for the Gospel in our world.  We need kind and compassionate men, who model both the humility AND the convictions of Jesus.  But we do NOT need any more arrogant men: men who think they have all the answers, to all of life’s questions.  We do NOT need any more men who don’t know when to stop talking; and whose only goal in life is to amass as much power and prestige as possible, so they can escort us back to the days when they had complete control over . . . everything!

No, we do NOT need any more men like the men in ‘the family!’  Rather, we need men who can resist the cult of community; and who instead, simply want to learn to live like Jesus.  It’s that simple; and that hard!



Tulip Calvinism and Total Depravity (And this is not about the American President!)

7 08 2019

TulipBecause the tulip is my wife’s favorite flower, she loves to come home with bouquets of  them to brighten up our townhouse: yellow bunches in the spring, purple double-petal blooms in the summer, and even red ones mixed with boughs of green pine in December.  And they always do their job – boldly transporting the beauty of God’s creation from the outdoors, to the indoors.

But they also do something else.  They bring a bit of redemption to one of the church’s most misunderstood theological doctrines: Tulip Calvinism!  For the past 500 years this belief system, conceived in a world burdened by the harshness of life and born in the heart of a Church obsessed with purity, has marred the national flower of the Netherlands.  So it’s time for the Church to finally grow some bulbs that will give rise to a new way of thinking about Tulip, and let a few of the old beliefs whither and die.  And this is particularly true of the “T” in Tulip, which stands for “Total Depravity.”

I heard mention of Total Depravity far too many times at a recent Presbyterian conference.  And while I understand the tendency to want to emphasize the depth of human sin when talking about things like racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, I fear it does more harm than good, and radically distorts the truth of God’s creation.

Building upon the Roman Catholic understanding of creation’s fall, Calvin purported that the brokenness of humanity means that every aspect of human nature is touched, tainted, and enslaved by sin.  As a result, people are not only never able to freely choose to follow God, or to live the way of Jesus, but we are too broken, too evil, too . . . depraved . . . to experience the oneness that exists between Creator and creation!

Now it has been said that the one theological doctrines that requires the least proof of it’s existence is the doctrine of sin.  It’s consequences abound: from the destructive nature of hatred and war, to the traumatic injuries of poverty and injustice.  Most of us are more than willing to acknowledge sin’s presence and power in the world because it is all around us.  It brings harm and hurt to our lives all the time.  However the doctrines of original sin and total depravity often blind people to another more important doctrine: the Doctrine of Original Blessing.

Matthew Fox — expelled from the Dominican order of Roman Catholicism because of his ‘protests’ against ancient Christian teachings which he believes to be flawed, and who is now ministering in the Episcopal Church — has been attempting to deconstruct AND reconstruct Christian teaching about sin for decades.  And his concept of “Original Blessing” is the doctrine that deserves more of our attention and focus.  For before any mention of sin, brokenness, a fall, or eternal separation, Scripture references human beings as the ‘very good’ creation of God.  And nothing has, will, or can, ever change that reality!  Not even sin.

This was the message of Jesus, and it is what makes the grace he came to reveal so amazing.  In spite of the Church’s centuries-old teaching about original sin, God is a God of love and mercy.  And the Spirit of God dwells in each one of us.  There is a “Divine Spark” in all humanity, and Jesus reveals that when fanned, that spark has the capacity to burn brightly within us.  It is a spark that can fuel the making of choices and decisions that eradicate racism, that reject misogyny, and that refuse to embrace xenophobia.

The human race is not a broken, eternally lost species, that has the capacity to do good on occasion: when widows and orphans, when the blind and the lost, when prisoners and refugees just happen to get lucky.  The human race is the very good creation of a loving and grace-filled God, that has the capacity to evil when we deny or reject the movement of the Spirit.  We are not bad people with the capacity to do good.  We are good people with the capacity to do bad.  And the sooner we realize this, the better we will be able to live into our identity as members of the great human family.

Why is this important?  Because humanity has spent far too much time living up to the belief that we are nothing more than “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  And if this is what we truly believe about others and ourselves, then is it any wonder that we live so fearfully, and angrily, and violently?  We have lived into this identity and well for more than 2000 years! We have given into fear and greed because we have believed that we are nothing more than fearful and greedy people.

But what if we shifted out thinking a little bit?  What if we began to understand ourselves and others as the very good creation of a gracious and loving God?  Could that change us?  Might that begin to change the world?  Is it possible that a shift away from original sin and toward original blessing might alter the way we live our lives, and give way to a little more kindness and compassion?

Well how about we give it a try?  The centuries we’re spent talking about original sin and total depravity have not helped us.  So maybe Calvin got it wrong!  Maybe the Church still has a little more reforming ahead of us.  Maybe, the Spirit isn’t done with you just yet!  I know she’s not done with me.  For the more I understand myself as the very good, and dearly loved creation of a merciful God, the more faithful I become!  Am I perfect?  Of course not!  But I live more like Jesus when I nurture the seeds of original blessing before original sin.

How about you?  Give it a try.  See what happens. Perhaps the Spirit of God might truly be able to do with us, and in us, more than we hope, dream, or even dare to imagine.