Friday, February 17, 2017

No Cerebellums Allowed

"Melli, you're too cerebral."

I remember these words vividly, as they came sprinting out of the mouth of the youth pastor I was working for in my first paid ministry job after graduating from Bible college with a freshly pressed youth ministry degree. I remember my internal reaction, which was much different than the calm, cool external reaction I was conveying. In my mind, I was screaming "Hold the your opinion, my biggest weakness is that I use my brain too much?!"

For months, the lead pastor of the youth department had been talking about hiring another full time youth pastor to add to the staff. I had been hired after graduation under the guise that I would pay my dues doing administrative tasks, earning a meager $7.00 per hour while also being the caretaker of the house on church property. In addition, I would also take on the responsibilities of a pastor, and when the time came, I would just move right into the role.

I got along very well with the youth pastor. We had similar backgrounds and were both unique in that we had never let the fact that we were female stand in the way of accomplishing our goals. She was a trailblazer in youth ministry, being one of the better known female youth pastors in the nation. The only glaring difference was our personalities, she being the definitive extrovert fun pastor that could turn Wednesday night service into an updated version of Double Dare, and I was the introvert pseudo-pastor that focused on creating deep, meaningful messages that would help make church and their faith mean more than just a weekly social event. I always saw our differences as a great way to balance our team.

The shock that I felt after being told that I use my brain too much, and the implication that my sermons were too brainy, made me question why I even bothered getting an education (a very expensive one) and why I bothered taking advanced theology and Biblical study classes. Apparently, I would have been more valuable to our team had I just sat around and watched shows like Wipeout, re-runs of Double Dare, and Survivor. The focus of the youth ministry program at this church was getting kids in the door and entertaining them, then sneaking in a Christian-lite message. And it’s not that this is a wrong approach to youth ministry, but in this case, it was the only approach. When I questioned this, I was told that the reason that the ministry focused so intently on creating a fun-park atmosphere is because it would appeal to the majority of teenagers in the area. And this was absolutely true. There was nothing wrong with creating an atmosphere to get kids in the door. What I took issue with was that in absence of meaningful messages and thought-provoking teachings, we were nothing more than a Boys & Girls Club, or after school program. What about the teenagers that had been coming for years, who often expressed their boredom with the same entertainment over and over? What about the kids that were committed to coming to church, but wanted deeper teaching and wanted to know why prayer was important?

What bothered me the most about this ministry was that it was stuck on step one – getting people in the doors. This youth ministry was so good at that, but its greatest weakness was what to do after that. And that surprised me, because a number of us on staff had degrees in Biblical study. We were all capable of delivering meaningful messages…but why weren’t we doing that? Why weren’t we challenging the youth to think about their faith?

I recently read “The Great Derangement,” by Matt Taibbi, a book that calls out our political and religious institutions for their back room, cultish dealings. As I read about Taibbi’s experiences in Pastor John Hagee’s megachurch in Texas, I continually found myself checking off a list of shared experiences. One of the main aspects of Taibbi’s book is exposing the crowd manipulation tactics used on people who are new to church. In short, the American Evangelical church encourages it’s congregation to not think for themselves, even going so far as to, as one chapter of Taibbi’s book shows, exorcising the demon spirit of “Intellect.” Pastors get up every Sunday and in some ways, manipulate the Bible to push a certain brand of political belief. In Taibbi’s experience, he often writes of the church’s firm stance on embracing Israeli statehood and all of the complicated aspects that come with it, but exposes how the church never really offers a sound explanation as to why the congregation should support it. The only explanation is rooted in a certain interpretation of the book of Revelation, in conjunction with a faulty theological theory called Dispensationalism.  In one chapter, Taibbi writes of how Pastor Hagee’s son preached against climate change and environmental awareness, by telling the congregation that it was nothing more than a devious liberal plan to force people to have abortions, and that it was all a conspiracy to curb the population. He writes in detail of how this brand of church, which stands as the prime example of the Conservative Evangelical movement, operates as a sort of Christian boot camp, where newcomers are stripped of their identity and initiated into a group of Christian soldiers, who all think alike, talk alike, and await instruction from their mega-rich celebrity pastors.

As I was continually told from that day forward that I was too brainy for the position of youth pastor, I never stopped wondering why it was so taboo to do more than entertain people who came to church. I eventually came to realize that the modern Evangelical megachurch isn’t interested in growing people’s faith or helping them develop beliefs that can’t be summed up by those cheesy Christian decals. You know the ones…the fancy script fonts that decorate the walls of every church mom’s home. Today’s Evangelical movement has become one with Conservatism, and only seeks to ingrain their followers with political principles that require no deep thought, empathy, or even remotely resemble the Christ they claim to follow. By actively hindering the congregation’s ability to think critically, the church has purposefully stunted the growth of their people. Anyone with a dissenting opinion about reproductive rights, prayer in schools, or even the budget for the Department of Defense is not welcome in the club, and becomes the pariah for not being lockstep in line with the Conservative point of view.

For “Christian Thinkers” like me, the problem is not that you won’t find differing political opinions in the church; the problem is that many Christians don’t know why they hold their opinions when asked.  They offer up some form of “That’s what Christians are supposed to believe” or “That’s what our pastor told us the Bible says”.  The political beliefs of many Christians are rarely backed up by fact or their own thoughtful examination of the issue.  Pastors have created a flock that lacks all motivation for critical thinking about political viewpoints and Biblical principles.  They have created a perfect following, that seemingly would leap off a cliff if they were told it’s what the Bible said was the “right” way to be a Christian, or the one way to ensure their salvation.

It is indeed, a derangement, as Matt Taibbi, writes. And what continues to astound me, especially in this political climate, is how blind and vapid the sheep are…to the point that they now believe that Donald Trump is the man of God that will lead our country back to Christianity. I refuse to accept this as the new normal.

*Seriously, do yourself a favor and read The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. I’ve never read a book that resonated in such a humorous and dark way with my experiences in the Evangelical church. Thanks, Matt…you did an astounding job of exposing the monster that has been living under the surface of the church for quite some time.*

Friday, February 3, 2017

This is the Real You, Church.

Since the election of Donald Trump as our 45th President, I've noticed an interesting shift among some of my friends and acquaintances from my "Church Days."

After Donald Trump spent his first week in office, signing Executive Orders/Memos/Actions, failing in what should have been some of the easier tests of his ability to be a diplomatic leader, embedding his Neo-Nazi strategist into the NSC, set up one of the most racist pieces of policy in our modern history, and basically just pissing everyone off (even those who voted for him), I was a bit shocked to hear some of my Evangelical friends say things that basically said "This is not who we are."

I have to admit that I was impressed that they so quickly realized that Trump, who secured the Evangelical vote in one of the most impressive cons in the history of our elections, was not the representative of their faith or values in the way that many of them enthusiastically insisted throughout the election. My friends from Bible college were very quick to dismiss Trump after he named Somalia in his immigration ban, as our college is located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in one of the largest Somalian neighborhoods in the city. We all interacted with our Somali neighbors every day, participated in community projects with them, were customers in their stores, cafes, and restaurants, mentored their children, helped them learn to speak English, played soccer with their kids in Elliot Park. They were and continue to be our neighbors, our friends, and are an important part in the community. We know them, and they know us.

My friends seemed to be shocked that Trump was capable of placing Somalia on the list of countries that were a part of his immigration ban. After all, we know some of these people personally. They don't match the Trump/Bannon ideology of what makes a terrorist. And because of this personal connection, my friends suddenly found themselves capable of speaking up to say "This isn't right. This isn't who we are."
For a moment, I felt proud of them. For a moment. Then, I felt the all-too-common, gut-wrenching feeling I've had about the intersection of Evangelicalism and politics that seems to haunt so much of my experience in the church. The feeling that makes me respond "No, this is exactly who you are."

I was reminded of the time when I was working at the church I grew up in, during the 2008 election, when the youth pastor walked into the office and exclaimed "Anyone on this staff who votes for Obama should be fired!" Or the numerous times I heard another pastor refer to one of our young Hispanic volunteers as a "Wet Back."
Or the time I opened up my email from the office manager of the church to find a racist political cartoon, depicting Barack Obama as a slave.
Or when I walked in to the breakroom in the church office to find a picture of Sarah Palin taped to the refrigerator with a note that said "This is what a woman of God looks like."
Or at the first staff meeting after the 2008 election, when a staff member was genuinely concerned that Barack Obama was the Antichrist, and how she hoped for his failure, only to be outdone by the maintenance workers who volunteered to go to the inauguration with their hunting rifles and take him out.
And then, you know, there was that time when I was asked to resign from the church because the same youth pastor mentioned above had suspicion that I was gay, and their defense for asking me to leave was that I posed a threat to the children (because all gay people are pedophiles in their eyes).

This is who you are, Church.

So, in walks Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President. A man who previously identified as pro-choice, has been seen as a philanderer, a failure as a businessman for his multiple bankruptcy filings, a Hollywood elitist, a reality television show host, and personal friend of the Clintons. But in history's greatest con, he managed to still be exactly that guy, and yet convince Evangelicals and other people of faith that he is a new man, a devout Christian with strong morals. He was now pro-life, wanted to punish women who had abortions, and suddenly stood for everything the Conservative Right has stood for. He even managed to get quite a few well-known pastors and faith leaders to vouch for him. Of course, these were the typical types you would expect to endorse a guy like Trump...the kind of pastors that believe in Prosperity Gospel, have multi-million dollar homes and book deals, are more media mogul than shepherd of a flock.
And they fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. And no matter how many times Trump showed his true making fun of a disabled reporter, getting caught bragging about how and where he likes to grab women, the amount of women who came forward to talk about how he assaulted them, showed his lack of humility by saying he knew more than the generals, encouraged violence at his rallies, the list literally goes on and on...and yet, Evangelicals insisted this was the "Man of God" they needed in the White House. The litmus test was no longer "Does this man exemplify the Fruits of the Spirit," but became "Can this guy give us what we want, no matter the cost?"

This is who you are, Church. You either fell for the biggest con of all time, or sold your soul for a few silver pieces of legislative promises that violate the Constitution.

And none of that mattered, until it impacted you on a personal level. Until you knew someone being detained at an airport, or being sent back to the horrors of war and genocide.

It's a new form of selfishness, Church. And it's who you have been, since trading the command to follow Christ for the promise of notoriety and prosperity, for the promise of a creating a culture of false righteousness instead of a culture of love.

This is who you are, Church. You are no longer a reflection of Christ, but a reflection of Donald Trump.