Fitting Hays with a black hat?

I hope I am wrong about this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy at Duke Divinity School. The facts at the heart of the controversy are contested right now, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the events, so rather than attempt to summarize the matter here are a couple of news stories about it: 1, 2.

Some of my colleagues in the Methoblog and Twitterverse have reacted as if this is no big deal and will blow over. Richard Hays is a respected scholar. All he did was quote the doctrine of the United Methodist Church as dean of a United Methodist seminary. This is Duke, after all.

I hope so.

What I have seen among those who call themselves moderates and conservatives in the UMC in recent years, however, is a shocking lack of understanding how political and protest movements operate. One of the first goals of a successful protest is to have a clearly defined enemy. This is often a person, someone on whom the protest can focus attention and use as a symbol. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role. Whether he seems like a villain to many Duke alumni or the many pastors who read and admire his books is beside the point. He is being nominated to wear the black hat in a drama that will play out mostly before people who have no idea who Richard Hays is and have never read a word he has written.

Perhaps he will succeed in declining the invitation.

Another rule that I fear is not understood at the moment is that in politics the norms of academic debate and discussion have no authority. Dean Hays appears to be attempting to respond to the crisis as if it were merely an internal seminary concern. If he succeeds in keeping the controversy on that ground, then he will likely resolve the crisis with little long-term damage to himself or Duke. But already the engines of political action are in gear. People are spreading versions of events designed to provoke outrage. People are throwing around words like “abuse of power” and other people are repeating them. People are reading the letter Hays wrote and accusing him of attacking the woman who asked the question that led to the controversy: A white man with power using his power and privilege to attack and silence a dissenting female voice. The narrative builds this way.

One of the news stories linked above says Hays has invited key student leaders to sit down and talk about the issue. If the students — or others — demand a public spectacle in the place of personal conversation, you can rest assured that the demands of the protest are driving the agenda.

I hope I’m wrong.

I recall a story at another United Methodist seminary where a successful pastor was lambasted for sharing his honest efforts to honor his convictions about biblical morality and pastoral care. Interestingly, that story also involved the quotation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The school responded by apologizing.

Hays has not apologized. Indeed, he has been criticized (in a post Tweeted by the Reconciling Ministries Network) for seeking to clarify rather than apologize. I hope he and Duke are able to work on the issues internally, but I worry that such hopes are naive.

A powerful, risky sermon

Here is a wonderful sermon about the church and sexuality preached last week in the interesting nexus of the Supreme Court ruling and the Fourth of July holiday.

It is too long to summarize, but I found it a powerful and risk-taking sermon that speaks to many issues in our churches today. You can read the text at the link above if you don’t want to watch the video.

(h/t: Beth Ann Cook for the link)

A liberal, Yoderian, biblical, Wesleyan chorus

A pair of stories I linked to a few days ago has been rumbling around in my head. The British writer of the stories was diagnosing the problems of liberal Christianity and providing his prescription for a cure for what ails it.

The articles keep bouncing around in my head because of all the other voices they set to chattering as I was reading them.

The writer argues for a form of Christianity that affirms the liberal nation-state: particularly the separation of church and state and the notion that government exists to preserve and extend human liberty. But he argues that the form of Christianity that affirmed this political philosophy took a wrong turn when it tried to divest itself of “cultic” practices.

The second pillar of the new liberal Christianity is a bit more surprising. For in the past, liberal Christianity has downplayed the ritual side of religion, often seeing it as a road leading to Rome. I prefer the term “cultic” to “ritual”. Of course, I’m not advocating creepy cults that brainwash people. The word “cult” just means worship; I like it because it has a strong and rather exotic aura (whereas “worship” suggests the blandness of Songs of Praise, and “ritual” is redolent of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition). The word has, in fact, a primitive aura, which is appropriate, for Christianity must step away from claiming to be the religion of rational civilisation and accept its affinity with primitive religious practice (this was Wittgenstein’s great contribution to theology).

His great hope is for liberal Christianity to recapture its cultural relevance and influence. He does not really discuss how this form of liberal Christianity would escape the Arianism or Deism that characterizes so much contemporary liberal Christianity. Somehow, it seems, cultic practices would take care of that.

I do not know if other proponents of liberal Christianity would affirm this writer’s thesis, but I did find it an interesting argument. It is one that set off other voices in my head.

As I read his piece, I could hear Stanley Hauerwas jeering in the background. A self-described high-church Mennonite, Hauerwas likes to tell Christians that if they celebrate Mother’s Day or have an American flag in the church they are practicing a form of Baalism. They thing this writer affirms as foundational, Hauerwas names a disease.

As I read, I was also thinking of those problematic passages in the New Testament where Paul and Peter urge the fledgling church to give honor to the emperor. Often these parts of the New Testament are dismissed as overtures by a persecuted church to keep the storm-troopers at bay. But I do wonder if giving honor to the emperor and affirming the liberal nation state might be more or less the same kind of move. Is the church called the way Jeremiah called Israel to settle down and work for the good of Babylon during its days of exile?

And here the third voice emerges. American Methodists have always been put in an awkward position by John Wesley’s Toryism. He wrote in strong language against the American Revolution and was a firm defender of the king and the close bond between the Church of England and the state. (Jason Vickers has written a poorly titled but interesting book on Wesley as an establishment Anglican.)

If liberal Christianity is at all what the writer in the British newspaper argues it is, it is no wonder that John Wesley fits so awkwardly into contemporary United Methodism. We are a denomination created to be a stalwart of liberal Christianity — just when all forms of Christianity were losing their cultural ascendancy. Wesley can’t be shoved into the liberal Christian box without making a bloody mess of him. This does not stop some people from doing it, of course. That they then parade around the bloody corpse of Wesley as a banner for liberal Christianity is either tragedy or farce.

These are the voices I carry around most of the time.

I came to the church through liberal Christianity. I was introduced to post-liberalism by Will Williion and Stanley Hauerwas. I discovered the Bible only well into this process, and I met John Wesley when I discerned a call to ministry. This chorus of voices still spend a lot of time in my head. There are others, but these are the loudest.

And here endeth the tour for today. Please stop by the gift shop on your way out to pick up a T-shirt or postcard.

Why the church supported Hitler

The German Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Barmen Declaration, and other aspects of the church’s encounter with Nazi Germany get held up as symbols and signs a lot these days. I know I’ve done it.

Here is an interesting article that takes a deeper look at why the German Protestants supported Hitler. It certainly has implications for our day. It also might puncture a few easy simplifications we sometimes make.

A modest peace proposal

I have on my office door a sign from the Mennonite Central Committee that shows two anguished people embracing one another. Below the picture is a slogan that says, “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill one another.” I have people knock on my door all the time and say, “That makes me so mad.” I say, “Really? Why?” They say, “Well, Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.” And I say, “They call it a modest proposal. You’ve got to begin somewhere.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Living Gently in a Violent World