A look back at 2019 and the stories that most indicate how we are seeing God and the world in inter-relationship.
10. Kanye West
Apparently Jesus is now a big deal among the pop stars. There were already major hints of this in 2019, with some kind of popular revival of church taking place all over L.A. The movie stars and musicians are getting Jesus, and Kanye West is leading the charge with the Sunday Service Experience.
With the release of Jesus Is King, West went to the top of all the charts, Billboard and Christian. He appeared on Joel Osteen’s stage. He made all the buzz (as he always does) in all the social media. He presented us with a really odd mix of themes on the album, but the title continues a new-ish theme in Christian theology of the last couple of centuries. Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the Western liturgical calendar, having been instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
It remains to be seen whether such a theology of Jesus is going to win out in Christian theology. Is king/president etc. an adequate description of Jesus as LORD. Calling Jesus Lord was one way for Christians to emphasize resistance to empire. In some ways this more contemporary assertion of Jesus as “King” seems to accommodate empire rather than resist it. West’s lyrics make the whole thing complex. His life at the top of his media empire makes it much less so.
All of that being said, it is a great album. West’s greatest albums (like The Life of Pablo, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, are often considered the best albums of the entire last decade) are indeed great, and this one may not quite match them, but they’re great gospel albums.
They also sneak prosperity gospel right into classic gospel themes. Not surprising. Like everything Kanye West does, there are twists inside twists.
9. Rachel Held Evans
This was perhaps the greatest loss to Christian life in North America in 2019. Rachel had a voice and presence that resonated with millions of faithful readers. She was the wandering evangelical, giving voice in her best-selling books and widely read blog to another way, an alternative to the stridency of much of contemporary conservative evangelicalism.
Her death this past year was tragic for many reasons, not the least of which was the loss at such a young age (37) to her young family and friends. All of us will miss her wit, her authenticity, her willingness to journey with Christ in the ways she was called. Raised an evangelical, she later converted to Episcopalianism. Evans “was part of a vanguard of progressive-Christian women who fought to change the way Christianity is taught and perceived in the United States.” (The Atlantic)
8. Mandalorian and the rise of the Skywalkers
There are so many spiritual themes in the new Mandalorian series. The Mandalorian himself is quite like John the Baptist. He lives according to a strict religious code (more militaristic than John, but nevertheless setting him apart from the cultures around him). He points the way to a “child” he knows little about but believes is worth protecting and carrying, even at the risk of his own life.
Side note: The Mandalorian soundtrack is spectacular. It’s widely available on streaming. Chapter 7 is especially solid.
Then there is the Rise of Skywalker. J.J. Abrams gets in the mix and messes with some of the theology of episode VIII. The force, which seemed to be for many more or or more widely distributed in some of the previous lore, is now again concentrated in the new Skywalker who emerges.
Or is it? Because it’s also that some of the former clones, those least likely to sense the force and most susceptible to it, make their way free from the evils of empire precisely through sensing the force.
Midichlorians never make a comeback (unfortunately) so we don’t get a science of the force back in these latter films, but what we do get are a variety of spiritual motifs (eternal recurrence, lich vs. life) that can carry multiple viewings and much reflection. I don’t want to spoil anything, so leave it at that. Abrams leaves us on a note that opens space for a variety of theological articulations.
Best published review of the new movie here.
7. Christianity Today and Trump’s Co-Optation of Evangelicals
Yes, one of the most widely read conservative evangelical magazines in the country made an argument for the impeachment of Donald Trump, and yes, they made it on Christian and moral grounds, and yes per usual Trump did his counter-attack, characterizing the magazine as progressive and other things.
Two remarkable moments here: first, that there remains a movement within conservative evangelical willing to stand against President Trump’s usurpation of the evangelical movement.
Second, that the biggest voices in evangelicalism circled wagons not around the magazine, but around Trump. Which proves the point made in the New York Times:
Rick Tyler, a strategist who has served as a liaison between Republican politicians and the evangelical community, said that Mr. Trump’s rise had left the evangelical faith with a leadership vacuum.
“I don’t know who represents the evangelical community anymore,” he said. “In the old days, Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell had a stick to swing. They had real power.”
Now, he said, “Trump has their power.”
The larger issue is even more dramatic. Although it is often claimed that our nation is increasingly polarized and partisan, the reality is that of asymmetrical polarization.
“It’s a clear case of asymmetrical polarization. Yes, nones have moved to the left. But that move was from 5.4% to 8.3%. The shift for white evangelicals was from 5.3% to 15.2%. In essence, evangelicals have increased the distance between themselves and the benchmark by 300%, while nones have increased that distance by about 50%.”
In other words, when people are saying we are super polarized and we need to come together, what they’re really saying is that the moderates and those who have shifted somewhat to the left should chase the evangelicals in their hardcore veer rightward.
One of the world’s largest and most iconic cathedrals burnt this spring, and the world rallied around it. Billionaires donated money to reconstruction. Local faithful walked by candlelight. Scholars around the world are already organizing symposia to discuss “The Burning of Notre Dame: Sacred Architecture and the Theology of Beauty.” Architecture embedded in human community always speaks in its own way, communicating something of God’s grandeur.
The cathedral now stands as a living wounded symbol of hope. As Agnès Poirer writes, ““We will rebuild it,” President Emmanuel Macron said. That is what the forests near Fontainebleau and Versailles are for. Civilization is made of this, some very old and some younger strong wood, and medieval stones. I will now live in front of a wounded Notre-Dame, an even more humbling sight. Every day, I will salute her beauty and her resilience.”
5. Gender and sex (Methodists and SBC)
The Methodists struggled over same-gender marriage and relationships this summer, and couldn’t come to a resolution. Some blamed or point to the global nature of Methodism, but it’s also true conservative Methodists here in the United States strategized effectively to hold the line (for now). Various movements are afoot, some colleges are departing Methodist, and it remains to be seen how this will go for the denomination.
In the meantime, the SBC continues a struggle on the role of women in church leadership, preaching and pastoring in particular. Beth Moore has stirred things up. Additionally, the SBC has begun to confront its own issues around sexual abuse not unlike the issues still being confronted in Roman Catholicism. Like other denominations, the SBC isn’t going to be able to truly say they’ve repented of this until they jettison complementarianism and stop resisting reform.
4. Hong Kong
Religious freedom around the world continues to be a topic of concern. The world is more religious than it ever has been, yet there remain many repressive elements in societies across the globe. Discussions of religious freedom are rife with controversy. In our context, it’s the conservative voices who champion so-called religious freedom, while progressives have remained more quiet on the issue.
This may have to do with differing social understandings of what such freedom is for, and who it protects. We can see this in the divide between conservatives and progressives on the issue of Israel and Palestine. As a Lutheran Christian, I remain especially troubled by the ways my Lutheran siblings are oppressed in Palestine, and wonder why others in other more conservative denominations can’t see the problems there.
So too in Hong Kong, it is the more conservative press that has highlighted the oppression of Christians there. Protestors have been standing up and marching out against proposed laws that would allow extraditions to mainland China. In this instance, a leading Catholic in Hong Kong government heeded the voice of the protestors, and even apologized later for mishandling the bill. And it was Christian voices for justice (plus singing of hymns) that made for change.
3. Johann Baptist Metz, Sallie McFague, Cain Hope Felder, Lamin Sanneh
We lost at least four very significant Christian voices this past year, and many took time to offer retrospectives on their careers and contributions. All four were (and continue to be) influential in my formation as a theologian and pastor.
I link here to remembrances and obituaries of these great theologians.
2. Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers
I’m going to make a confession here. I loved watching Mister Rogers as a child. But as an adult, I don’t resonate with all the continuing adoration he receives. I know this marks me as an outsider, but oh well. I’m not saying I dislike Mister Rogers. Far from it. I’m just not feeling it.
Perhaps I’m not feeling it because of the point above about polarization. It feels sometimes like all the love of Mister Rogers is about a sentimental desire for love in the middle.
All of that being said, I cannot overlook in this list the popularity of Mister Rogers, and the way a movie by Tom Hanks centers his specific kind of loving Christianity.
The film even has some reviewers asking the question, “Was Mister Rogers the messiah?”
One. Sikh Truck Drivers
A 2019 list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the growing influence of other religious traditions in our share life. This article in the LA Times on Sikh truck drivers is one such example.
In our own little corner of the United States, increasingly we are practicing life together with multiple religious groups, including serving meals together and resettling refugees and conducting summer faith camps with Muslims and Jews and Buddhists. I know many other communities can tell a similar story.
But nothing illustrates the way this is changing American life than the stories where those of non-Christian traditions are now entering into trades and other lines of work that are truly “American.”
0. Anti-semitism on the Rise, Still Building that Wall and Separating Families, and Representatives Omar and Tlaib
Unfortunately in our list of stories for 2019, we need to mention the continuing rise of nationalist and xenophobic movements across the globe. Anti-semitic attacks saw a sharp increase in 2019. The United States continues a wide variety of anti-immigrant and racist tactics, from the call for a wall, to the separation of families at the border (a form of genocide), to the overt and constant racism of the president of the United States.
It’s a disturbing trend. And we see it in the treatment of two of our newest congresswomen, Representatives Rashida Omar and Ilhan Omar, both of whom have been targeted by racist death threats likely exacerbated (or even instigated) by the racist and hateful tweets of our president.
At its root, all these kinds of radicalized systemic violence have theological underpinnings if not actual causes. It should come as no surprise that the president has his most consistent support from white evangelicals, who are lockstep aligned with him ostensibly because of abortion, but really because of racialized religion. This will continue to be an issue for us here at home and for the foreseeable future abroad because it is one of the driving engines for the specific kind of economy and nationalism we are currently centering.