November 24, 2009

Manhattan Declaration: Where are the moderates?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Religious Right's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Energized by the backdrop of President Obama's first year in office, an ecumenical but familiar group of influential conservative Christians (including prominent Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Evangelical leaders) have reasserted the primacy of abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty as the three foremost political issues that matter above all others.

If you haven't yet read The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, here's the
full text and list of 145+ original signatories, which includes names like Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Al Mohler. This excerpt provides the basic gist:

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.
I suspect where one stands on the Manhattan Declaration likely hinges on how one would answer the question: Should abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom be placed at the very top of a "hierarchy of issues" (to use drafting committee member Chuck Colson's term) when it comes to public policy concerns facing Christians?

So far, the Manhattan Declaration has received mixed reviews. Bloggers over at First Things can barely contain their
enthusiasm for it, while others like Dan Gilgoff have said it "reads like a throwback to the culture wars of the 2004 election." Regent College theology professor John Stackhouse calls it "strangely useless" while Jonathan Merritt, founder of the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, says the statement is unlikely to "sway a new generation of Christian leaders who take a broader view of cultural issues facing us today."The document's backers point to the diverse range of theological perspectives represented by its signatories, not everyone in the evangelical world who typically contributes to these types of ecumenical public policy collaboratives has endorsed the Manhattan Declaration. A handful of names like Ron Sider, Cornelius Plantinga, David Neff and Richard Mouw notwithstanding, there doesn't seem to be much support from evangelical "moderates" who were instrumental in drafting last year's Evangelical Manifesto and 2004's For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, both of which called for a broadened platform including issues like creation care, poverty alleviation, racial reconciliation, human rights and peacemaking. Those who have endorsed both the Manhattan Declaration and the Evangelical Manifesto (Timothy George and Leith Anderson for example) appear to be the exception.

So where are all the moderates?

Noticeably absent from The Manhattan Declaration's signatories are respected scholars like David Gushee, Jim Skillen, Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Stephen Monsma, J.P. Moreland, Os Guinness, Dallas Willard and Darrell Bock, not to mention other influential evangelical voices like Rick Warren, Joel Hunter, Bill Hybels, Gary Haugen and Rich Stearns. This doesn't mean Manhattan isn't an amazing feat of coalition-building across Evangelical-Catholic lines (Neuhaus would be proud), but such a narrow range of policy emphases might explain why many, including yours truly, are reluctant to sign on.

It looks like the culture wars are back, folks. Man your battle stations.

November 18, 2009

Is it still cool to love U2?

If I told you that U2 is one of my favorite bands, what would this tell you about me?

A) A lot (since U2 fans tend to exhibit certain distinctive attributes)


B) Basically nothing (since everyone and their mom likes U2 these days)

When your stadium-sized concerts from Moscow to Vancouver are selling out in minutes, attracting fans from nearly every stripe of the politico-religious spectrum (born-again evangelicals and agnostics alike), it's safe to say that people love you. U2's concert last month at Pasadena's Rose Bowl not only drew an estimated 97,000 fans, it was also the most-watched live webcast in YouTube's history with 10 million streams coming in from 188 countries. In fact, you can still watch the entire thing for free if you missed it.

Particularly interesting have been the ways in which evangelical Christians have taken to the Irish foursome. In addition to mainstream radio, TV commercials and supermarket playlists, I've been hearing U2 increasingly played in Christian bookstores and yes, even mixed into the CCM rotation on Christian radio. Theological seminaries have offered courses on U2. It's not uncommon to find advertisements and reviews of books written about U2's journey of faith and activism in Christian periodicals like Christianity Today, Relevant, Sojourners and Books & Culture, whose current issue includes an article examining "the state of U2 studies," as in, like, the study of U2. Last month, the first ever academic conference on U2 was held in Durham, North Carolina, exploring the band's music, work and influence.

Not that I'm complaining. Whether their millions of fans (including yours truly) are drawn by crowd-pleasing anthems dripping with blatantly Christian imagery or the band's passionate activism in fighting extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS, there's no denying the connection so many have experienced. Seriously, can anyone familiar with U2's body of work, both on and off stage, resist their magnetic charm and refreshing authenticity? Or have we all just been brainwashed by 30+ years worth of The Edge's signature digital delay guitar effects ringing in our ears?

Indeed, if any rock group has discovered a way to blend widespread commercial success with artful innovation and critical acclaim, it's U2. But as their fame and influence continue to expand, I wonder if we're approaching the point of U2 saturation. Just how much "bigger" can this iconic rock band become? Will there ever be such a thing as "Bono fatigue?" Will U2 eventually come to represent the epitome of a mainstream product packaged for the masses or will they forever be seen as non-conforming innovators who transcended the patterns of commercialism? In other words, will it always be cool to love U2?

For my sake, I hope so.

November 6, 2009

High Church vs. Low Church

Andy Rowell's post over at Out of Ur describes how 'high church' and 'low church' streams of the Christians faith have much to learn from each other. Perhaps a few working definitions are in order:

High Church: Rowell describes these as "liturgical" churches who "emphasize historical and global continuity in their worship services," including Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. According to Rowell, "Liturgical clergy see their role as being a faithful steward of historic Christianity. This consists especially of serving the Lord’s Supper and preaching."

Low Church: Rowell describes these as the "free" churches who are characterized by "the relative autonomy of individual congregations," including Baptist, Pentecostal and non-denominational churches. According to Rowell, "Free church pastors tend to see their role as equipping their congregations for evangelism and social justice."

(In case you're wondering, Methodists and Presbyterians fall somewhere in between.)

Personally, my own Christian journey has been shaped by an ecumenical denominational background predominately in the "low church" evangelical world, but I'm also very much drawn to the idea of weekly Sacraments, liturgy, sacred spaces and contemplative practices found in the high-church tradition. Every time I visit a liturgical church, I'm stuck by how thoughtful and intentional everything is.

Sometimes I wonder how my faith would be different if I had been raised on creeds and catechisms instead of DC Talk and Breakaway magazine. While I would love to see more liturgy, written prayers and reverence for the Great Tradition incorporated into our local church's worship gatherings, much of it is still a second language to me.

It's as if I've become a long-distance admirer of the sport of cricket from watching it on TV, but at the end of the day my natural sport is baseball. I may be intrigued by the oval-shaped field, wickets and bowlers (instead of a diamond, home plate and pitchers), but I'm in no way qualified to teach the fundamentals of a game for which I barely understand the rules.

Perhaps my low church, pragmatic evangelical DNA is to blame for my desire to see some sort of convergence that blends the best of both worlds.