Chapter 1: Five Haunting Questions
NOTE: This chapter of the Study Guide for Lost in the Middle? includes all components for a complete group study. Subsequent chapters of the Study Guide include only the components that are most useful for online readers (black sections) and omits other components (blue sections). Alban Institute will publish the full study guide with all sections for every chapter of Lost in the Middle? later in 2009.
Homework (to be completed prior to discussing the chapter)
Chapter 1 of Lost in the Middle? (hereafter simply Lost) begins, “Religious messages from the left and right reach into the lives of moderate Christians, whether invited or not, offering answers to potent existential questions.” We are inundated with religiously loaded ideas and images, many of them contradictory. Like baggage, we carry religious and ethical messages that make claims on our time, money, minds, and hearts. Usually we scarcely notice these messages. They flood in from television and radio advertisements, magazines and newspapers, e-mail forwards, news programs, talk shows, bumper stickers, and even tattoos or graffiti. We grow so accustomed to them that they may not always register with us on a conscious level. Like advertising, however, they have an effect. As you prepare to discuss chapter 1, make a conscious effort to notice some of these omnipresent religious messages. Specifically, keep an eye out and an ear open for the ways in which Christians on the far left and the far right work to capture your attention. What subtle or perhaps not so subtle messages are being offered? How are these messages communicated? Write them down as you encounter them throughout the week so that you can remember them and share them with your group. The stories in this chapter are based on actual events. They represent a larger collection of similar stories of frustration and confusion that many of us could tell. It may be helpful to share some of these stories with a group or friend. We are not alone in our uncertainty and longing to feel more at home in our churches! This chapter is organized around five questions that haunt moderate Christians. One of the chief difficulties that we face when we try to admit and confront our uncertainties is that we are bombarded by shrill answers from both the conservative and the liberal extremes. Partisans proclaim simple solutions to the issues that vex us, but the answers they give seem to bypass the process of contemplation and prayer. In the rush to give the “right” answer they sometimes seem not to take the questions seriously. As moderates many of us are drawn to the questioning process as an opportunity to engage God and the Christian faith through careful study, conversation, and prayer. We are not eager to jump to hasty conclusions or to offer bombastic sermonic answers to profound spiritual questions. But we are surrounded by these “bumper sticker slogans” and must contend with them. Identifying and addressing these simple answers head on and recognizing them for what they are is a helpful step in the process of moving beyond them and heading toward more nuanced answers. Take a few moments together or alone to identify some of the simple answers that moderate Christians might encounter as we ask ourselves the questions discussed in chapter 1. Some sample extreme answers have been provided. Fill in the gaps.
Question 1: Are we right? Extreme Conservative Answer: Of course we are right! The Bible is the absolutely authoritative voice of the all knowing God. Stick literally to the text and there is no need for hesitation. Extreme Liberal Answer: Of course we are right! Everyone is right so long as they are sincere in their convictions.
Question 2: If I love Jesus, am I a freak? Extreme Conservative Answer: Yes, if you love Jesus you must be a freak. Jesus was despised and rejected by the evil world and his genuine followers will also be despised and rejected. Extreme Liberal Answer:
Question 3: Am I making this up? Extreme Conservative Answer:
Extreme Liberal Answer:
Question 4: How do I reconcile conflicting pictures of reality? Extreme Conservative Answer:
Extreme Liberal Answer: It’s time to grow up and put away the children’s stories found in the Bible. Science, along with literary and historical study of the Bible, is more reliable.
Question 5: How do I stand for truth? Extreme Conservative Answer:
Extreme Liberal Answer: It can be fun and maybe even liberating to identify the ideologically extreme answers to deep faith questions. However, we should be careful not to turn from identification to derision. If we look closely we can often see how simple slogans may actually evade rather than respond to a pressing question. Why evade important questions? Perhaps evasion happens because questions about certainty and authority can be existentially disturbing and many Christians at the extremes are eager to wrap them up quickly and then tuck them safely away.
As moderate Christians we are challenged to respond in two ways. First, we are called to empathize with extremists on either side of these debates, even as we disagree with their solutions and slogans. Conservatives may respond to liberal rhetoric with rhetoric of their own and vice versa. As moderates we should be less concerned with winning a battle of slogans than with honoring the religious questions that genuinely trouble us, our children, and our Christian sisters and brothers. Empathy does not require agreement. Empathy means that we work to read between the lines of the simple slogans of partisans on either end of the ideological spectrum. When we see a “Darwin Fish” on a car’s bumper or a “Truth Not Tolerance” t-shirt, can we look beyond the slogan and see the buried question? Second, we are challenged to honor the questions themselves. We can begin to honor the questions by noticing the space between the easy answers on the far left and far right. In between there is a lot of room for the development of alternative moderate answers. We can allow adequate time for thoughtful reflection and make room for the questioning process in our lives and churches. What can we do to increase empathy for those on the sloganeering extremes and to honor the driving questions beneath the slogans? Choose one or two categories of questions below that best fit your group. Then discuss the questions.
As individuals with busy schedules: What can we do in our own lives to honor these deeper faith questions and the questioning process? How can we avoid the temptation to settle for easy solutions? How can we make our churches more amenable to the process of open religious inquiry and those who struggle with continuing faith questions? How can we avoid the rush toward hasty answers and convenient slogans? How can we encourage one another to ask questions without promoting relativism, and to seek answers without advocating absolutism?
As people immersed in a seminary culture: What tools and resources can we create to help others honor the process of asking and answering faith questions in an open manner? How can we make seminary education less programmatic, and more dynamic? How can we remake our seminaries so that they encourage the development of thoughtful moderate answers to the deeper questions for faith? How can we prevent our seminaries from becoming indoctrination centers for the ultra-conservatives and the extreme liberals?
As church leaders, parents and mentors: How can we support our teenagers and young adults as they struggle with religious questions and face the temptations of simple answers from the extremes? How can we encourage responsible religious moderation in our youth when far Right and far Left are fighting for their attention? In what ways are youth uniquely equipped and especially challenged when wrestling with faith questions?
As lay leaders and church members: Too often congregations expect their ministers to be ready with answers to all of their questions. Does our church have a culture that expects immediate or one-sided answers from our leadership? How can we help our ministers to pursue the truth without rushing them toward quick solutions and tidy resolutions of complex questions or problems? What can we do to encourage our ministers to be honest with us when they wrestle with their own haunting questions? Our homework assignment for the week asked everyone to be on the lookout for religious messages from both the left and the right. Take some time to share with one another the kinds of things that you noticed throughout the week. What kinds of religious themes were most prevalent? Which media (print, radio, television, internet, etc.) presented the most religiously themed content? Did any particular media tend to present a particular kind of religious message? Where did you encounter religious messages or themes unexpectedly? Were liberal or conservative messages more prevalent? Did you encounter any religious messages or images that emphasized moderation? We can learn many things from this kind of exercise in active listening and looking. First, most of us, if we spend much time outside of the home or online during the week, encounter at least a few religious images and messages. God is invoked on our monuments and money. The car in front of us may display a Darwin fish or a Christian fish eating a Darwin fish. The woman behind us at the post office may sport a necklace with a cross, and the local grocery store may have a kosher section. Religious claims and messages surround us, if we open our eyes and ears to them. Second, we learn that a majority of the mass produced religious messages on the radio, in magazines, on websites, or on billboards reflect the concerns of the far right or far left and perpetuate the myth that one must choose either to be a liberal or to serve Christ and take the Bible seriously. They assume that one must choose either to support equal rights, tolerance of diversity, and a scientific worldview or to proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ. Moderates, that large group in the middle that wants a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ but that also eschews reactionary literalism and intolerance, do not often find their concerns and positions articulated in the public sphere. In Lost we are calling this group of moderates “liberal evangelicals,” and calling attention to the fact that our middle position is not frequently heard. Moderates don’t have many bumper stickers. There are not many self-proclaimed moderate talk show hosts. It is difficult to convey nuance on a billboard when those who would read it zip past at 65 mph. Finally, when we think to pay attention to the religious messages that bombard us everyday, we notice something almost miraculous about ourselves: we have an amazing capacity to filter out the noise! Think about the kinds of religiously themed information that you noticed, when you intentionally looked and listened for it. It was there even before you thought to notice it, but you filtered it out. It did not register as important. The far right and far left continually vie for the attention and loyalty of the moderate middle, but we have the power tune them out and tune in to our own theological questions.
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22 (NASV) Tribute to Caesar: Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
Scripture Reflection: Our scripture reading for today is the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22. In this chapter Jesus is teaching his followers using parables. He uses a both a wedding party and a marriage as teaching metaphors, but offers no political slogans or sound bites. Hearing this, his political enemies seek to lay a trap for him. In a poetic turn of phrase the King James Version says that they looked for “how they might entangle him in his talk.” All of us have suffered from the occasional malapropos or slip of the tongue, but in this chapter Jesus is facing a deliberate attempt to corner him. His detractors want to force him to commit himself on a question to which there is no politically expedient answer. If Jesus says, “Yes, pay your taxes,” then he is a traitor to his people and a pawn of the Romans. If he says, “No, do not pay your taxes,” then he is a political agitator and subject to arrest by Rome. For those who follow contemporary politics in either Washington D.C. or denominational headquarters and church leadership meetings, this situation is all too familiar. Liberals and Conservatives at the extreme ends of the political and theological spectrums have staked their claims to positions and language, so that moderates feel cornered. “Is every word of the Bible literally true or not?” “Is Christ the only way to God or not?” “Is social justice the central priority of the true church or not?” How can we answer without committing ourselves to positions and truth claims that we do not support? How can we not answer without feeling that we have failed and allowed the fanatical positions to carry the day? Jesus clearly saw the trap his opponents had laid for him, but instead of taking the bait or refusing to answer, he defused the trap and untangled the snare. He showed the question itself to be a lie. He showed that his opponents were liars by virtue of the fact that perpetuated a false dichotomy, an inauthentic moment of decision. Their “with us or against us” rhetoric and their “yes or no” thinking divided the world into two camps, pro-Rome or anti-Rome. Jesus rejected the concept of a divided creation and insisted that the world is undividedly God’s. Matthew tells us that Jesus’s opponents, when their trap had been undone, left and were amazed. They were not convinced or converted. We should not, therefore, expect to bring the entrenched interests in our governments and churches crashing down. Radical liberals and extreme conservatives of all stripes are far too invested in the current rhetorical battles to be much interested in transcending them and finding middle ground. As moderates, however, we can follow Jesus’s example and seek to carve out a place between the tired positions offered by both sides that presume the dominance of divisive “with us or against us” thinking. We can point out and defuse the linguistic traps set by both sides, and work to make our churches safer places for honest conversation.