The Institute of Religion and Democracy just published a letter from a retired professor Walter Benjamin to a sitting bishop whose identity wasn’t named. Though portions of this letter got me churned up, I thought it would be a helpful test of my New Year’s resolutions to see if I could engage it in a loving and truthful way. Dr. Benjamin’s letter reflects the fact that he grew up in a very different time than I did. I disagree with many things about his perspective, but I’m going to try to do so in a way that is respectful and charitable.
I. “We’re losing the culture” (with teenage pregnancy as an example)
It is a tragedy of monumental proportions that the influence of the church that used to serve as the spiritual and moral foundation of American society is now weak and waning. Social pathologies, literally unknown during my youth, are now legion. Let me cite but one: “Illegitimacy” is now a verboten word but 41% of American babies are now born out-of-wedlock and that percentage is going up. Increasingly, the family no longer serves as the central organizing feature of American society! Sixty years ago, Daniel Moynihan, Assistant Labor Secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, indicated that the black family was “chaotic” because of illegitimacy (now at 72%). Alas, white families are following black pathology and our governmental policies encourage the practice. Many black female teenagers are making what for them is a rational decision; that is, Uncle Sam is a far better provider than any black men they know.
Obviously this is a very hurtful racial generalization for Dr. Benjamin to make that I am not condoning by choosing to engage it. The first thing I would say is that the thinking behind the original welfare system that was dismantled in the 90’s was that children needed to grow up in a home with stay-at-home moms. Since middle-upper class families could afford for mothers to stay home and focus on raising their kids, welfare was supposed to make it so that poor mothers could do the same, whether the problem was that they didn’t have husbands or their husbands couldn’t bring home enough in a single income to support their families without the wife working. Believe it or not, this was the conservative “family values” solution for poverty in the early 20th century. As we now know, it turned out that poor kids need more than just a stay-at-home mom to break the cycle of poverty.
I’m not sure that Uncle Sam is much of a provider today. I’ve personally seen the hoops that poor people have to jump through to get a section 8 housing voucher, food stamps or disability pay through Social Security. I agree that teenage pregnancy is a devastating crisis in our culture, even if it’s decreased somewhat in the last decade. I used to teach high school, and many of my former students of all races have given themselves a tremendously uphill battle to fight in life by becoming parents at a very early age. But teenagers are not making “rational decisions” to exploit taxpayer dollars when they have premarital sex any more than they are making rational decisions when they drink and drive or start a brawl in the lunchroom. The ubiquitous use of sex in advertising and the glorification of sex, drugs, and violence in the entertainment industry are the cultural cancers at play (not the same-sex marriage movement). And it is valid to ask where is the church? But not in the sense of proclaiming “values” on a macroscopic level to trickle down through society. Why aren’t the Christians who rail against the supposed “culture of dependency” rolling their sleeves up and volunteering their time to be mentors and encouragers to youth who have the odds stacked against them?
II. “We have too many seminaries and some of them are marginal at best.”
Frankly, I was appalled at the mediocre candidates we interviewed for Methodist ministry! Sixty plus years ago those heading into the ministry compared favorably with those entering medicine and law. This is no longer the case. I would recommend that seminarians attend Duke, Emory, or Perkins. Why? They are respected graduate theological schools linked to prestigious universities and therefore have the resources that the others do not have. Their faculty is better paid and their scholarship is far superior to those at our free-standing seminaries.
Having attended Duke, I breathed a sigh of relief that I went to one of the acceptable seminaries. But I will say that while Duke gave me an excellent foundation for academic work, I don’t think I have any advantage over anyone else when it comes to the real trench work of pastoral ministry. I have been in a provisional elder covenant group in which two of us went to Duke and three of us to Wesley seminary in DC; I don’t see any difference in the theological aptitude of my Wesley graduate colleagues in this group or anywhere else in the Virginia conference which is populated largely by Wesley graduates. Furthermore, it’s often the case that “better paid” faculty with “superior scholarship” who are also supervising a full slate of doctoral students do not have time to be mentors to future pastors.
III. Confirmation is too easy
I was in 9th grade when I was confirmed in the Pipestone Methodist Church. Confirmation class was from September to Palm Sunday. We stood in front of the congregation and answered questions on the Bible (we were told the questions and answers earlier by the pastor). At the time I was pleased that my Methodist church membership came “on the cheap!” My best friend, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, had to endure a three-year ordeal of confirmation. Later I realized Methodists did not take church membership as seriously as the more doctrinally focused churches do. For decades, we have been paying the price for “easy come, easy go” attendance musical chairs!
Regarding this question, I tend to agree. But I see the problem coming form a different place than Dr. Benjamin. I grew up Southern Baptist. I have never taken confirmation classes. When I decided I wanted to be baptized at age 7, I met with the pastor once and quoted enough scripture at him for him to agree that I was ready. At least in the South, Methodist congregations tend to be Baptist-lite, so I wonder if that’s where some of the pressure to go light on confirmation at least nowadays is coming from. Now I wouldn’t say that my spiritual formation necessarily suffered because I didn’t have confirmation growing up; it’s just that it didn’t happen before I joined the church.I do think that Methodists need to take a hard look at our confirmation process. The problem is not that it’s not tough enough. That Credo curriculum is painfully comprehensive. I’m just not sure that 14 year olds need to learn about liturgical colors (maybe that’s the Baptist in me). Our problem is that families come out of the woodwork to get their kids confirmed and then disappear after the year is over. Confirmation Sunday is the “date last attended” in the church database of a majority of our confirmands over the last decade. They are not connected enough to our community for it to be relevant to their lives beyond being a means for collecting resume bullet points. More than knowing about liturgical colors or even the technical terms for the three types of grace, kids joining the church need to be discipled by spiritually mature adults. That’s why we’ve revamped our confirmation program to focus on mentorship rather than classwork.
IV. Open minds, open hearts, open doors (not a fan!)
Put me down as a “geezer crank” but I have a special dislike for “OPEN MINDS, OPEN HEARTS, OPEN DOORS” as our motto for church growth. Isn’t the only reason for having an open mind to close it on some good idea when it comes along? Conservative evangelical churches are growing today because they are proclaiming that, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Grace is costly!”
My uncle got me Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship when I was in high school and it was a very spiritually formative book for me. I do agree and have often said that Methodists need to be about something rather than just generally “open-minded.” But I would also that “costly grace” isn’t always costly. Hearing a sermon that talks tough about sin in the safe anonymity of a very large congregation can give you a deceptively cathartic “fix” without much cost to it. We’ve had several members leave our church for one of the many local megachurches where they “really preach the gospel.” One of them who had been a very active (and burned out) volunteer in ministry with us shared with me that it was nice now to be in a church where the staff “took care of everything.” I suspect the consumerization of church is at least as big a factor as the theology in drawing people away from smaller congregations where they have to carry a lot more of the weight to larger ones where the staff “takes care of everything.”
V. The “feminization” of the church
The issue that is verboten (it is never raised) among Mainline Protestant observers is “What effect is the increasing numbers of women pastors in ministry and as bishops, having upon men considering the ministry and upon membership growth?”… I was at Garrett from 1950-53. There were 750 of us, all World War II veterans. We were thoroughly masculine (not a negative attribute then!), one half of us had experienced combat. We knew evil was deep and deadly and knew the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the answer to our personal and worldly wounds… Male bonding, whether in the Marines, Navy Seals, the Masons, and in the ministry, is important for selecting a career. Radical feminists are increasingly pushing our culture to eradicate gender differences (the feminists having won combat status for women, now want their acceptance into the Navy Seals!)… While I agree that women should be encouraged to enter the ministry, you know better than I do, that they often present problems in appointment because ours is an itinerant system. Those who are married are reluctant to serve rural charges if their husbands have city employment.
I’m not sure that Dr. Benjamin really does agree “that women should be encouraged to enter the ministry.” He insinuates here that being “thoroughly masculine” is necessary to understanding that “evil is deep and deadly and knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer.” There are many conservative evangelical pastors who agree with Dr. Benjamin on this. Of course I disagree, having married a clergywoman who’s a better pastor than I am.
VI. Promoting “soft virtues” instead of “strong virtues”
Christianity is a symbol system and a pervasive feminism has changed the symbols so that there is a concentration of the “soft virtues (passivity, meekness, forgiveness, abasement, turn the other cheek, etc.) to the detriment of the “strong virtues” (courage, bravery, fortitude, etc.) so that a normative and positive masculinity is rarely experienced in church liturgy. Catholicism has a good balance here by incorporating the Virgin Mary’s chaste feminism with a male priesthood.
The interesting thing about this critique is that it’s exactly what the 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said about Christianity in general, that it was a religion for the weak. I’m not sure the Catholics would agree with calling the Virgin Mary a “feminist” (I think he meant “femininity”). The Catholic priests who I’ve had contact with are anything but macho reservoirs of oozing testosterone. If meekness, forgiveness, abasement, and so forth are “feminine,” then most of the male leaders in Catholicism are effeminate. Furthermore, the Christian feminists I’ve known are criticized not because they’re calling Christians to “soft virtues” like meekness, passivity, and turning the other cheek, but because they exhibit courage, bravery, and fortitude in ways that make men feel uncomfortable.
VII. Affirmative action for female clergy
Am I right to observe a significant disconnect between the election of male and female bishops? Male bishops are elected after having successfully served large churches with multiple ministries while our female bishops have been elected after having served as district superintendents. Is it possible that some female district superintendents receive their appointment due to affirmative action criteria? I know of no Protestant mega-church in America that has a female senior pastor. What does this data tell us?
I can’t really speak to the “fairness” of the election of male and female bishops, though I d hope that the people involved in that are at least striving to do what they do in a prayerful, Spirit-led way. What does it to tell us that no Protestant megachurch in America has a female senior pastor (which isn’t actually true but never mind)? The same thing that our country’s lack of ever having a female president tells us. That we still live in a day when women are not respected as leaders in society. Dr. Benjamin writes that “all sociological studies indicate that when an institution ‘gets the man/husband,’ the women and children follow.” That may be the case within the subset of the American population that attends church regularly, but if a majority of men will not go to churches pastored by females, is that an indication that the Holy Spirit has spoken?