Stalking evangelicals in the urban jungle

evangelicalsIn looking around for a story to cover for GR, I saw a lot of exciting and dynamic stories out there involving the intersection of politics and religion or science and religion — really meaty, provocative stuff.

But then I saw this New York magazine story, “Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul,” ostensibly about Pastor Keller and how “an Evangelical Christian megachurch is growing in the heart of Manhattan.” (We learn much later that Keller’s church is part of the Presbyterian Church in America.) Since I’m new here, I quickly saw this story as an opportunity to earn my GR stripes.

Yes, I’m talking about yet another evangelicals-in-the-wild story. And so it begins with a whimper masquerading as a bang:

It’s a Sunday evening at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and the pews are full. Redeemer is a conservative Evangelical Christian congregation, but the parishioners don’t fit the easy Bible Belt stereotypes. They are a cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites — doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties. The peppy Christian-pop anthems, performed by Broadway-caliber singers and working jazz professionals, seem to go by in double time, the faster the better to get to the main event, the weekly sermon, delivered by pastor Tim Keller.

We’re not off to a good start are we? I suppose we have to consider New York’s target reader, but really. If you have to explain that 21st century evangelicals are respectable professionals as opposed to “Bible Belt stereotypes” (read: hayseeds dribbling cerebral-spinal fluid out their slack-jawed pie-holes) the only stereotype we’re trafficking in is that of the liberal New York media — and not in way that’s becoming to the author. If you think I’m being harsh, accompanying the article is a composite photo of different parishioners outside Keller’s Sunday service that seems to scream, “Hey, they look just like regular New Yorkers!”

The thrust of the article is that Pastor Keller has been preaching a message that one does not find meaning or happiness in economic or career success — and this message is resonating with a good many hard-charging New Yorkers. Obviously, this is a pretty universal Christian message and it’s not surprsising to hear it resonates in New York as well as Albuquerque — though the recent economic downturn does give it some added urgency. And yet, here’s how Keller’s theological approach is discussed:

His belief system is not the fundamentalist strain running through many of the Bible Belt megachurches — the “saved” us versus the “heathen” them. Nor is it the new-school “be a winner, praise the Lord,” Christian self-esteem-building ideology of Joel Osteen. Keller advocates something of a third option. He wants to call people’s attention to the emptiness of a way of living that overvalues worldly achievement and to help them see the spiritual benefits of accepting Jesus Christ, and all he stands for, as their savior. But Keller wants to do that in a way that’s not intellectually insulting or morally hectoring. What he refers to as “idols,” he says, are the things we’re so wrapped up in, it’s as if we worship them as gods, in place of the one true God. Traditional vices like sex and drink can be idols, he says, but more insidious can be traditional virtues like hard work and family — “good” things that we can mistake for “ultimate” ones.

First off, “fundamentalist” has a specific meaning in a religious context. If he means “fundamentalist” in the more loose general sense, then the writer’s generalizing a good deal here about what strains of thought might be running through “Bible Belt megachurches,” and it doesn’t inspire confidence that he has any clear idea of what he’s talking about. So what we’re left with is the author trumping up Keller’s pretty mainstream Christian views — which, if you can believe it, aren’t “intellectually insulting or morally hectoring.” And so a guy explicating a pretty basic commandment is presented as a unique and novel alternative to the author’s construct of what he thinks a southern megachurch might possibly be like and Joel Osteen. Alrighty then.

Then there’s the article’s overt incredulity that someone who has fairly literal take in biblical morality (e.g. supportive of traditional gender roles, disapproving of homosexuality and abortion etc.) is able to find purchase in a city full of dogmatic liberals.

The key here is that Keller doesn’t believe conventional politics applies to Christianity. Early on, the writer quotes Keller sermonizing:

Keller jumps to the recession and what he sees as shameful finger-pointing by both liberals and conservatives. “The Bible doesn’t let you do that,” Keller intones from the pulpit. “The Bible is nowhere near as simplistic, dare I say it, as either the New York Times‘ or The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. You can write that down. Put it on your blog, I don’t care.”

That’s a fairly refreshing (and true!) thing to hear, and I’m glad the author of the piece saw fit to include it. However, even with the subject of the article obviously at pains to escape the simplistic left-right political continuum reporters constantly use when writing about evangelicals, the author still returns to the political frame ad nauseum.

And if the big picture seems off-base, many of the the details still have that anthropological feel — he’s an evangelical and he reads the New Yorker! Get out! That said, it is a lengthy article and the author does quote Keller extensively and the article has a lot of good detail. While the author’s religious ignorance is pretty blatant at times, you can still glean a lot reading between the lines. There’s abundant evidence the author is a skilled journalist and the article reads very smoothly. I’m just afraid that the author was out of his depth and, as such, unknowingly reinforced many evangelical stereotypes as way of showing how Pastor Keller is allegedly different from other evangelicals.

Bible Belt stereotypes

Don’t hate the player, hate the fans

coachKI suppose if there’s a dark underside to being a sports fan it’s that it allows us to indulge our capacity for irrational hatred. It’s a really disconcerting thing when you stop to think about it.

I’m a pretty easygoing guy and I dislike very few people. But I loathe Magic Johnson. Growing up rabid Blazers fan in Oregon, the anguish of this was so soul-crushing I’m not sure a part of me has ever recovered. As a basketball fan, I should be able to step back and appreciate what Johnson did to beat the Blazers in game six of the Western Conference Finals is one of the smartest plays in the history of the game. But all I care about is that Johnson ended a very promising season for my beloved team, who I owe my allegiance to by nothing more than geographic accident.

And yet, such feelings of hate are for the most part seen as normal. A while back, Esquire editor and died-in-the-wool UNC fan Will Blythe wrote a book on the UNC-Duke rivalry. Among the many reasons it was a good book was that the title was perfect — To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever. On the cover of the book, legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is photoshopped into looking like a rat-faced demon. The sentiment may not be pretty, but it’s definitely something we can all sports fans can relate to. We like seeing our rivals lose as much as when our teams win, and we let even the most impressionistic opinions become urgent and compelling reasons to hate a player or team.

Which brings us to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

For reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, a good many college football fans despise Tebow with the fire of a thousand suns. Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples devotes an entire column to Tebow hatred. Naturally, a significant component of that Tebow hatred is in reaction to the Heisman trophy winner’s very public Christianity and the supposed sincerity thereof. This leads to some deeply theological brow-furrowing for a sports columnist:

All the anti-Tebow sentiment is reminiscent of a 2004 profile of U2 singer Bono that Chuck Klosterman wrote for Spin. Klosterman couldn’t wrap his brain around whether Bono’s saintly aura was just a facade created for and by the media or the inner glow of a genuinely excellent human being. That led to Klosterman asking an interesting question, the gist of which was this: Whether it’s genuine or a performance, does it matter as long as the saintly act was committed?

I died a little bit inside realizing that this particular insight is being attributed to Chuck Klosterman, but that’s neither here nor there. Staples’ heart is mostly in the right place, regarding how he approaches Tebow’s crtics:

Sure, he raises money for his dad’s orphanage in the Philippines, but he does it only to make himself look better. Even if that were true, how many orphanages have you raised money for this year?

Whether you consider him genuine or fake, Tebow, at the end of the day, is a Heisman Trophy-, SEC- and BCS-title winning quarterback who goes to class, goes to church and circumcises people less fortunate than him. More people should be so intolerable.

No, that bit about circumcision is not a typo. Bizarrely, Staples doesn’t explain it, but it turns out that Tebow has been known to assist with surgical procedures doing mission work in the Phillippines. And Staples ventures far afield for a sportswriter, even quoting scripture to put the Tebow hatred in perspective:

Some Florida fans suggested this week that fans wear eye black Saturday to pay tribute to Tebow. Thousands complied, including Florida’s First Lady, Shelley Meyer. The wife of Gators’ coach Urban Meyer set her eye blacks squarely on the Tebow haters when she chose 1st Timothy 4:12 as her verse:

Let no man despise your youth, but be thou an example of the believers in word, in conversation, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

It’s worth noting Staples isn’t even a Tebow fan per se. He spends the latter half of his column making the stat-based case for why Tebow’s onfield performance wasn’t enough to deserve the Heisman. But it certainly says something profound that that you can’t discuss Tebow the quarterback without discussing Tebow the Christian.

Staples’ column is particularly interesting in light of “Generosity of spirit separates Tebow” from ESPN senior writer Pat Forde, who was there covering the emotional scene at Tebow’s last Florida home game. Unlike Staples’ column, Forde has written fairly straightforward report. Yet, it’s basically an attempt to cannonize Tebow. Forde describes his “traditional postgame lap to commune with the fans turned into an eight-minute lovefest of startling intensity.” Interesting choice of verb there.

And while Staples presented a nuanced perspective on why Tebow’s faith makes him an object of hatred, Forde just comes right out and says some people don’t like Tebow specifically because of his public professions of faith:

Tebow long ago entered another dimension of stardom, as his impact went viral. He is the most polarizing college athlete ever, by a wide margin, engendering the deepest of feelings across the culture.

The cynical and envious rip him — and rip the media for saying nice things about him, claiming that he is overhyped. (They’ll say that very thing about this column, I’m quite sure.) Some roll their eyes at his unapologetically public Christianity — worn on his sleeve and under his eyes — despite the authenticity that underlies it in word and deed.

It has become an unfortunate aspect of our Hater Nation mentality that many of us cannot stand too much of a good thing.

Florida Atlantic Florida FootballThat last paragraph contains multitudes. Forde seems resigned to the fact that we’re a “hater nation.” But this isn’t just a story about whether Tebow can be said to be a good person, we’re good people for judging him. That’s a profound question, and I wish it wasn’t only touched on in passing.

And this may be a nitpick, but it needs to be said. As a professional journalist, I don’t know when sportswriters collectively decided that the rules don’t apply to them. How on earth does one write “He is the most polarizing college athlete ever, by a wide margin, engendering the deepest of feelings across the culture” with a straight face? It’s not as if Tebow has topped the Associated Press’ “Most Polarizing College Athlete” poll for four years straight. There’s just no way to quantify that, so don’t present it as a fact.

Anyway, I’m generally pleased to see sportswriters discussing the negative public reaction to Tebow’s faith in a generally intelligent and forthright fashion, I’m kind of blown away that neither of these articles saw fit to mention that perhaps the most public example of Tebow hostility to date came from… sportswriters. Here’s the relevant bit from last year’s Heisman voting:

Bradford got 300 first-place votes, McCoy 266 and Tebow 309. Not since 1956 had a player drawn the most first-place votes and finished third.

Some a 154 sportswriters left Tebow off their ballots altogether last year — at the time, many people noted that this smacked of some sort of coordinated campaign against him.

It seems like this should have been mentioned while sportswriters are busy trying to get in the final word on Tebow’s college career and it’s purported divisiveness. I suppose that the unwillingness to ask tough questions about the “Hater Nation” of sports fans raises some uncomfortable questions for sports journalists who have grown increasingly shrill and opinionated over the last few decades.

The other M. Hemingway…

image006Yes, I’m the guy married to the Divine Mrs. Z. (Yes, that’s a picture from our wedding day.) I’ll be helping out around these parts for a few weeks while Brad is doing his best to ace a series of brutal law school exams. We’re pulling for you Brad!

All I can say is, thankfully I’ll only be doing this for a short while. For nothing else than the sake my own ego, it’s probably best I not be measured against the same yardstick as my wife. She’s even more of a force of nature in real life than on the page. But I’ve helped my wife behind the scenes and provided input occasionally in her capacity at GR pretty much since she started, so I hope I can hit the ground running.

Anyway, a little bit about me. I’m originally from Bend, Oregon. You’ve probably figured out that I am a Missouri-Synod Lutheran like my wife and am interested in all things relating to Lutheranism and small-o orthodox Christianity. However, I’m an adult convert. I was raised Mormon and much of my family are still practicing LDS. So while I no longer wear my CTR ring, in the last few years I’ve found myself increasingly invested in understanding my former church (and even frequently defending it against a great deal of misinformation).

I just started a new job working at the editorial page of The Washington Examiner. Prior to that, I was at National Review, so take that for what it’s worth. However, throughout my career, I’ve worked in a number of newsrooms and at a wire service in far less ideological contexts. In a professional context, I value quality journalism above litmus tests. And as a regular reader for years, I’m well aware of the impact this site has had in raising the level of journalism on the Godbeat, so I’m happy to be here.