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A good read called “Losing Faith in Church”

December 12, 2018 | Rob Barrett

Losing Faith in Church

A young man in the circle decided to be vulnerable: “I have never seen an example of a Christian life in church that I want to follow.” What happened next shocked me. One by one, the others in the circle nodded their agreement. I shook my head in astonishment and they shook their heads in wonder that I found this unanimous sentiment surprising.

We had gathered a group of young people to talk about their experiences of church.

The conversation had started off with the expected themes: the sermons, the music, the youth group, and the conflicts. But the mood changed when the “I have never seen…” voice spoke up. I reflexively brought up mental images of the many faithful exemplars who had invested in me. I couldn’t imagine my own life apart from all that they had taught me by their (very different) examples. So what was I to make of this poor young man who hadn’t been steeped among such saints? Was he just blind to what surrounded him?

One of the “me, either” voices elaborated on the theme: “It’s not just church. My parents are Christians, too, but their messy divorce said something very different to me.” Stories and experiences began to flow, with one common element: The Christian lives around them hadn’t reflected the words preached, the Scripture read, and the professions spoken. These young people perceived that something was terribly wrong with the faith spoken or the faith lived…or both.

(Im)plausibility Structures

Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. Something was missing around the circle that evening. There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing.

Upon hearing such complaints, it would be easy to accuse them of hypocrisy or laziness. Shouldn’t they attend to their own spiritual lives rather than judging those around them? We might do well, however, to listen carefully and ask ourselves how their doubt could be a gift that challenges us to live a more plausible faith.

In a recent book, Walter Moberly incisively explores the importance of the lived existence of the church as a plausibility structure for faith.[1] Drawing on Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge, Moberly argues that the church “is indispensable for giving content to, and making accessible, the enduring and universal significance of the biblical witness.”[2] For us to become Christians in the first place, there must be a community that persuasively embodies the faith. We come to faith not merely by evaluating the Christian worldview as philosophically viable, but through significant people in our lives who live it out in rich, compelling, and beautiful ways.

Beyond our entrance into the faith, these models are also required for remaining in the faith. As Berger puts it, “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.”[3] For the young people in that circle, the church’s performance of the faith was a crumbling plausibility structure.

One doesn’t need to look far for possible sources of disappointment in the church. We are assailed almost daily by headlines of sexual abuse by Christian leaders from all strands of the church. As horrible as the abuse itself is, the more damning parts of the story are the follow-on efforts at keeping everything quiet, image control, and protecting leaders and institutions. As the holy-sounding words of confession, repentance, and forgiveness are trotted out, young people are watching carefully, and they have sensitive baloney detectors (to put it mildly). When the secular media lead the way in caring for the downtrodden and naming the problems, and when the state decides it must enact mandatory reporting laws to force church leaders to do the right thing, is it any wonder that these other secular structures of life have more plausibility?

While not everyone has a connection to sexual abuse (though far too many do), most young people today have LGBT friends. They know that many Christian sexual minorities are struggling to faithfully bring their inner experiences into harmony with their religious commitments. Are the adults in their churches offering a pathway to Christian flourishing for these friends? Dogmatic proclamations must sometimes be made, but also important is the manner of life that leads up to, through, and beyond such proclamations. If the church fails to provide a plausible vision for these friends, no wonder doubt about its plausibility for one’s own life, which is similarly complex in its own way, might not be far behind.

Examples could be multiplied. Research by the Barna Group has revealed six themes young people cite in their explanations for their disconnection from the church. They characterize the church as overprotective, shallow, invalidly exclusive, anti-science, simplistic and judgmental about sex, and intolerant of doubt.[4] One way of drawing this together is that they find Christians unwilling to engage the complexities of the world as it really is.[5] What do they see Christians doing when the uncertainties and pressures of life mount? Do we, at that point, leave our faith at the door and tap different resources to make sense of the world and guide our action? If we do, we inadvertently testify to the implausibility of our faith.

A Way Forward

In such times, what might it look like to testify to the adequacy of Christ? Has God truly given us everything we need (2 Peter 1:3), even when facing the truly complex challenges of life?

If it is indeed true that the lived experience of the Christian community is important for making the claims of the Christian faith plausible, then our first responsibility to those doubting their faith is clear: We must be the church. We must live as the Christian community we claim to be. If we are to be persuasive about the truth of the Christian faith, we must live true, persuasive lives.  But what could this possibly mean?

Our first reaction to such a mandate might well be to humbly confess that we have both failed to do so and, then, that we cannot help but fail. A truly faithful life “worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1) might well seem to be beyond our grasp and even our comprehension. Who can live out the mandates of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? When has anyone lived up to the “simple” command to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34)? Which Christian community has fulfilled Paul’s summons to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” as he emptied himself and became a servant unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11)? If the plausibility of the faith depends on our performance, we may well wonder if the faith must remain forever implausible.

However, the challenge we face is not to become what we cannot be. Rather, it is to speak honestly as we continue our pursuit. We can speak truthfully because we are confident in Christ, not ourselves. That the church is filled with flawed disciples should surprise no one. That such a church might dare to tell the truth about it, just might.  Moberly acknowledges that the people of God make the faith plausible despite how “disappointing and frustrating their performance often is.”[6]

Where does that leave us? If we accept our first obligation of “being the church,” our second obligation is then to invite others, perhaps especially the doubting, to observe and participate in this life of the church. As Moberly observes, this shared life of the church will always be under negotiation,[7] which is a nice way of saying it will be filled with conflict. If our faith is to truly intersect with reality, the complexities and conflicts must be received as part of that truth. It must be that Christ will, somehow, graciously glorify himself exactly there. We don’t have the option of inviting doubters into an unspoiled church, only a conflicted, challenged one. This is exactly the place where plausible testimony to Christ originates.

The New Testament church was filled with conflict and failure. Even a quick scan of Acts and the epistles reveals this plainly. The scriptural testimony assures us that Christ isn’t defeated by conflict within his body. Rather, his presence in the midst of it opens up new possibilities for witness even amidst the brokenness. Indeed, perhaps the beauty of the gospel shines most brightly in the midst of our conflicts handled openly and honestly, with full trust that God will work alongside us to restore what we have broken. Recapitulating the examples above, perhaps Christian faithfulness is not negated but becomes apparent particularly in the midst of our pained attempts at responding honestly to the plague of sexual abuse within the church, our faltering handling of our sexuality, and the crucible-intensity that can arise within marriage. In our hard-pressed situations, the life of Jesus is revealed, if only we will testify truthfully (2 Corinthians 4).

I was formed as an adult Christian in a church where it was well-known that marriage was a difficult road. This was talked about in sermons and by couples who were taking it one day at a time. Marital challenges were one of many places where Christian commitments became decisive on the journey of life. This was important to me, not only to prepare for marriage, but as a plausibility structure for the way of Jesus, which sustains the inevitable collisions between covenant love and human sinfulness.

What shouldn’t be an option for us is lying and covering up the difficulties and conflicts. The real church—the one that gives plausibility to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is messy, complicated, contested, and plausible. My mother likes to tell the story of my 5-year old commentary on her scurrying around to tidy the house for guests. I am said to have asked, “Why don’t we let them see how we really live?” Yes, why not let the doubters see how Christians really live?

Even if this sounds like a good direction, in my experience it is always difficult at any given moment to take a step toward vulnerable transparency. Each messy situation has its own excuse. “We should wait until we know better what we are doing.” “Being honest about these particular things would only tear people’s faith down.” “There is too much at stake in this case to say what is truly going on.” But it is exactly in these toughest of situations that the opportunity is richest. Are we willing to testify to the difference the way of cross and resurrection makes when we are facing our own crucifying challenges?

For some reason, we too often think that faith is bolstered by hiding the difficulties Christians face. Quite the opposite. Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away.  The world is filled with people offering quick fixes and easy answers. Christian communities have the possibility of offering a richer vision of human flourishing, one that rings truer. When we confess our lack of easy answers and vulnerably invite others into our difficult places of struggle, the difference the gospel makes becomes apparent. The little miracles we so often overlook—humbly asking for forgiveness, praying without seeing results, receiving communion, caring for an ailing spouse, and on and on—become apparent as the miracles they are when they flow from Christ’s presence in our midst, especially when we’re simply doing what Jesus commands and not trying to impress anyone.

When we invite doubters to “come and see,” to come up close and inspect the body of Christ, wounds and all, we offer a testimony that is more than intellectual argument and manicured image. We offer an example of Christian faithfulness fit for the real world. Such a faith marks out a pathway worth following as it points forward to Christ as the only one truly worth following.

[1] R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith (Baker Academic, 2018). This concept was suggested earlier by Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP Academic, 1995), 182-93.

[2] Moberly, 101.

[3] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967), 158.

[4] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Baker Books, 2011), 91-93.

[5] Kinnaman, 98.

[6] Moberly, 101.

[7] Moberly, 153.

 

Rob Barrett is the Director of Forums and Scholarship at The Colossian Forum.

 

 
 

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Reflections and analysis of Pastor Church fires.

I’ve started a kind of home page for my thoughts and reflections about the increasing number of struggles between pastors and congregations and the increase in bad endings.

Capture of Art 17 stats by decade to end of 2014

It will likely be a page that is in constant flux, as I have new thoughts or time to flesh out old ones.

Here’s a link: https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/peteillogical-reflections/observed-common-elements-of-hard-pastor-church-separations/

 

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What is tugging at my desire to learn more these days

Pardon me for just jotting stuff that seems random, but I’m starting to recognize a kind of loop of interests I keep cycling through, and I’m wondering if writing them out will help me define an uber-interest within the loop.

They all have to do with congregational health, which should be no surprise, since I work as and consider it my calling to be a Specialized Transitional Minister.

When I first did some reading on the distinction between Adaptive Change and Technical Change, I saw something vividly valid w.r.t. church vitality. I saw that we tend as individuals (The Flesh) and institutions to naturally move toward the stasis and predictability and comfort of Technical maintenance. It was clear that after a time of that, as the world around the church changes, a time comes where that approach begins to limit gospel sharing effectiveness. The only way to cycle out of that seems, historically, to require significant upheaval, and in worst cases Death of churches so room can be made for something newly speaking gospel to the culture. One question related to this is: Can Adaptive movement be made part of the ‘makeup’ or DNA of the church? That way the upheaval comes in smaller waves. There is another question that I will get back to.

I next began to learn to pay attention to organizational anxiety. I began to see how a pocket of anxiety can spread, and how it can paralyze an organization or institution, keeping it from making sensible or well discerned decisions. It can keep a church from being healthy, it can spread negativity, create fear of any proposal that moves toward the Adaptive. And it seems that often the people in it do not see what is happening. The right dose of anxiety however, at the right time, can also motivate toward the Adaptive. Attention to that systemic dynamic became part of my reflecting on church health.

Most of my life I’ve had opportunity to observe my own Immigrant subculture. This was enhanced by a move to Europe as an 8 year old child, and then a return to Canada a few years later. A theme that kept surfacing, sometimes in very difficult ways, was the wounding done by our love for what we considered to be reason and good doctrinal answers. This cerebral emphasis on the expression of our faith by way of knowledge of doctrine carried with it a pervasive suspicion of emotion and testimonial experience. Over time, in my adult years, as I learned about this through reading and hearing people’s stories, and worked to sort out parts of my own upbringing, I came to see that aside from what I just stated, WWII had severely traumatized many in my parents generation. This deepened how far emotions were pressed down. Some – based on my own amateur assessment – would probably have qualified as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. But such diagnoses did not exist in that day, and people were pressed to ‘soldier on, in faith.’ Those who immigrated to new lands often seem to have had their own family drama reasons for choosing to do so. For eg. they may have been the least favoured child or the black sheep. The immigration itself was massively traumatic on its own for many. The demands of a hardscrabble existence on first arriving here were extremely taxing. And few – if any – had places (or times) where they could ‘process’ those feelings. Working at an addiction treatment center I learned a new piece, namely that a serious childhood or early adolescent trauma that no one helped a person work through would stunt emotional development in individuals. I came to recognize that many who were working to come out of active addiction had such traumas, and were emotionally still eight or twelve years old. Putting this together with the Immigrant experience, I began to formulate an “Unresolved Trauma” theory regarding the Immigrant generation and my own, second generation. It appears to have been helpful to leaders in ‘troubled’ congregations to learn that the 70 year old who is upset about a change might just be reacting to it out of unhealed past trauma, and with behaviour we would expect from an eight year old.

Another strand in this loop of thought is a more recent concern to research whether the perception that ‘hard separations’ (Mainly Article 17 of our Church Order) between pastors and congregations are dramatically increasing in the last decades. Preliminary digging in the data confirms this. I  have a deep interest in both exploring if there are common causes or mitigating factors in these, aiming to find early preventative alarm systems that can be put in place but also in finding healing from the often deeply painful impact on all involved. This in itself would be a lifelong endeavor.

Now, those being givens, when my mind automatically fingers it way through them like prayer beads, I now and then get a sense of a ‘string’ that is holding all those beads together. Yet I can never quite name it. I just keep coming up with questions and theories, not much by way of answers. So, for example, is the unresolved emotional factor what creates much of the anxiety in congregations? Is the radical change of immigration and fear of yet more change a primary force in not allowing our congregations to make necessary Adaptive changes? Are those two – emotional immaturity in senior members and their fear of change – a major contributor to the hard separations? And so on.

Theologically I also believe there is a link between Adaptive Change and what the Bible refers to as a “New Heart.” I also refer to it as Deep Change. I feel a need to do further Theological exploration of that, in which some of the secular writing on the subject can be shown to effectively interlace with God putting a New Heart within us and the Spirit directing us into risk.

So, there, I did it. I jotted out what loops in my mind.

 

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What aspects of CRC culture might be keeping us from thriving?

I define culture as the actions by which we live out and express our values. As I’ve written elsewhere, we often have a hypocrisy of values, i.e. those we profess publicly are not those we actually live out. When I say values are the basis of culture I am talking about these unstated values. They actually have more influence and power. I have no idea if that is an acceptable definition of culture or near what the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture means by culture.

On various media platforms an ‘outside of official channels’ discussion is ongoing about this and related subjects like leadership and how our organizational structure possibly limits us. and even making leadership afraid to speak up. I have linked to two blog posts in the statements above that will give you some idea of the discussion.

All of this has me thinking about many things, and thoughts are coming faster than I can capture. But I find myself returning to a question that I think my experience qualifies me to begin to address. That question is: What aspects of our “culture”  in the CRC might be contributing to a failure to thrive?

I refer to — and depend on — experience as a son of a CRC pastor, as a person who lived in the Netherlands for 3 years just before my teens, as a person growing up (or trying to) in the CRC in Canada in the 70’s and early 80’s, as a King’s in Edmonton and CTS educated pastor who served two churches as a called pastor, and now as a Specialized Transitional Minister on his second contract. A myriad of other experiences, many very difficult, some very educational (working at an addiction treatment center) add to the mix.

I am skipping all kinds of caveats and disclaimers (why do I feel they are needed in the first place? could that be an element of culture?) to simply and concisely as I can share some observations from the pulpit and pew level. I don’t have a lot of interest or experience ‘higher’ up the organizational and institutional ladder.

As an immigrant-based denomination, I see us as having the following never-overtly-stated cultural values but with plenty of actions demonstrating they exist (see first link above). I’ve tried to put them in order of effect, starting with the biggies:
Preservationist – we have grown up with the implicit and explicit value and practice of maintaining something from the past.
Oppositionalist – we are used to being always on guard (defensive) against what we fought about before or against new threats (aggressive). (To me, the external architecture of the Seminary side of Chapel at Calvin College symbolizes this well. It looks like a Fort, with slots for archers or gunners and everything).
1-calvin-chapel-570x350
Relationally challenged: Poor interpersonal and relational boundaries – we don’t know how to disagree and live well together. (These will be made more clear further in the list as contributing factors are named)
Comfort seeking, not in Heidelberg Q & A 1 style, but originally in the familiar practices from ‘back home’ and then in other things. Ironically, we sometimes find comfort in reciting Q & A 1 just because “we know it was important” at one time. So too with Forms and other rituals.
Suspicious of emotion, relying on the brain as an unfallen part of man.
Fake rationalists Under a veneer cloak of reason or rationality, emotion actually runs the debate in many council rooms. So does broken or strained relationships. Another word for it is anxiety or fear.
Low Emotional IQ, in fact deeply emotionally or psychologically wounded. Especially in Canada, many of the immigrant generation were suffering unhealed deep trauma when they came to North America. In a hardscrabble initial existence, and in a religious culture that suspected emotion, emotional and personal and spiritual growth were luxuries no one had time or use for. So, in many cases, the generation now dying off were quite immature and broken. Studies show that my generation, without strong intervention and active engagement in addressing that, can be a bigger mess than the one before.
No longer principled in making choices – as practices derived from principled choice were defended and protected, their meaning was lost, we became living museums re-enacting empty rituals
That is just a start. I realize there are positive ones as well, but I’m looking for the ones that lead to a lack of flourishing.
I welcome feedback or further input.

 

 

Response to editorial about pastoral mobility

This is my reply to this editorial:

http://www.thebanner.org/departments/2014/04/time-to-move-on

I’m responding as a preachers kid and preacher who is now a Specialized Transitional Minister — where moves every 2 years or less are the norm. There is a frustration to that part of it, because Transitioning is about culture change, and 2 years just barely gets you out of park.

About moving frequently: This will affect each person according to their constitution and the way parents handle it. In my youth, moves were just announced to us kids. With my own family, the entire family was made aware and as much as possible was part of the process. Since one of our moves was to the real Holland, I have gained a ‘culture reading’ ability that is a crucial tool in my work now.

About leaving before the church wants you to: The writer may be clinging to a notion that was once appropriate for his father, but is no longer so. In a day when our churches were more mono-cultural and cookie-cutter pastors could fit almost anywhere and repeat their evening Catechism sermons somewhat creatively enough to maintain interest for 3 to 5 years, and a day when democracy and pop-poll-arity were not strong in the church, it may have been valid. But today churches believe too much in democracy (one strand of the problem) and that a pastor has to ‘keep them happy’ (a second strand in the bigger problem) and where each congregation and pastor position within them can be very different from church to church (strand three) and where – from both sides, pastors and congregations – we have tremendous difficulty being clear about expectations and abilities in an open and transparent way (four) the case is no longer valid. Plus, the statement “leave before they want you to” hints at a lack of biblical perspective on serving God in a congregation, where it is God who might want you to stay while the congregation wants you to leave (fifth big strand ‘prophetic calling’ and sixth strand ‘discernment’). I take pleasure in reading the first part of Numbers 14 with people and asking what would have happened if a congregational meeting had been called followed by a vote?

Clergy Mobility: I do see the housing equity and spousal career factors which have changed mobility ability. But the writer needs to make the case for why itineracy should be the norm, rather than simply state, like a traditionalist would, that this was handed down from the forefathers as accepted truth.

We most definitely need to revamp our calling system:

In my work I have seen that churches have lost touch with the principle of the two-fold calling, where a personal sense of call must be confirmed by the church. Congregations do not know that they are affirming a person’s called-ness when they extend a call. They tend to see it more as a ‘hire’ or electing someone (there is a lot of ‘gaming’ of the equation that happens around the ‘vote’ to approve extending a call) who they can then un-elect and un-hire. Re-teaching is needed on calling.

Pastor Church Relations has a new book out that can help a lot with the search process, but still, if a pastor is deluded about their abilities or inabilities, or a congregation is misrepresented by it’s search committee as wanting outreach when the congregation really wants to hunker down and be safe with ‘their own kind’ we end up with stuckness. In one of his books, Eugene Peterson, in one of his books, even refers to the search process as “Ecclesiastical Pornography” where too much airbrushing goes on and shock sets in when the real blemishes become apparent. The church could learn much from the recovery movement about the value of being open about struggles, rather than continuing to hide the fact that we all create dirty laundry and carry that baggage. We need much more transparency in the call conversation.

I don’t know much about the past, but pastoring has, in my experience, become much to political and resident chaplain-esque. Buying a house and having a spouse with a good job, or having massive student debt will hinder most preachers from risking-in-faith in a pastorate. The unstated value in congregations seems to be that the pew must remain comfortable and the pastor may be unique or intriguing, but may not speak God’s word in a way that rattles comfortable core values. We need a return to strengthening the prophetic side of pastoring. (I know that may mean all kind of things to people, but have to risk that misunderstanding).

More and more it is a fact that churches and pastors seem to get ‘stuck’ with one another. Too often one or the other or both languish in pain for too long and then there is a rupture. We certainly need new and creative processes to get churches and pastors unstuck from each other, and for preventing stuckness in the first place.

My thoughts here are in no way comprehensive. All of this is evidence to me that a major change in the way we are church, based on scripture, Reformed principles, and cultural context is needed. This will not be fixed by more mere tinkering. The kind of change needed is Adaptive (as another article in the Banner describes), it needs to run deep into our hearts and worldviews, and we need to find the courage to drop everything Egyptian and Pharaohic that has become comfortable for us, and forge ahead into whatever shape God’s promises have for us in the land of the future.

 

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Coach or Prophet? What do churches in discernment need?

This week I attended a training session for those learning to serve as coaches to churches discerning God’s leading for future direction. The time was good and worthwhile. Coaches do not become the pastor. They work from the sidelines.  We have some great tools and material being developed that will help churches be reflective by prayerfully looking into the mirror of data-derived charts and self-told narrative as they dream about what they might become. For this post I plan to stay with the metaphor of a person/congregation looking in the mirror to see what they can see, and to dream what they can be.

Those few days of presentation and interaction have seriously stirred in me the question I have made the title for this post. For me, to work out a question, I either need to talk it through – which my dog is not interested in – or write.So here goes my first thought-dump on the topic.

The biblical narrative that well images and parallels the congregational discernment process is the “time in the wilderness.” The Exodus account is a great descriptor that is used in the training. Leaving bondage that came out of past flight to safety, deliberately crossing a dangerous threshold safely to enter a no man’s land of uncertainty and testing, learning new rules of engaging God and other, then deliberately crossing another threshold to enter the future that has been collectively discerned, all as Israel did, is a wonderful narrative map for the journey. As a Specialized Transitional Minister I’ve even likened my role to that of Moses (and John the Baptizer). I will say to a congregation “I’m here to walk you through the journey, to be your navigator in helping you figure out where you discern God is promising you a better life, but I can’t enter that life with you.” I’m even preaching through Exodus as a guide to “Transitions.” But here’s my difficulty. As I relive Exodus, I don’t see the biblical Moses “coaching” a whole lot. Moses is not known as a coach. He’s known as a prophet, even as John is supposedly the last of such prophets.

So, bluntly put, the coaching approach may be too kind. It feels like yet another current cultural ethos we’ve enthusiastically embraced, leaving out the more chaffing role of one who speaks harder truth out of love, who speaks or applies denial-shriveling discernments God has revealed.

When congregational politics ends up ignoring the coached process’s results and having the gang return to Egypt — to the good food and predictability of life there while confined — instead of facing the uncertainty of new territory, is that maybe because a prophet did not speak?

When I look in the mirror, there is tons of delusion and denial and headgaming going on in how I interpret what I see. Same with a congregation. I have learned that I need people around me yet somehow ‘outside of me’ who will — in the direct way of a prophet, for I don’t hear coaching hints well — help me see through the fog I create for myself. Is that not also true for congregations?

This snippet from Dr. David Schnarch crossed my screen earlier today, and I’ve bolded part of it:

“Conventional wisdom in couples therapy says troubled couples have to get more securely attached before they can differentiate. But repeatedly I see troubled couples differentiate first—which leads to stabler marriages. I believe couples have to stop manipulating their stories and tampering with facts to keep their relationship together. Far from being impossible or improbable, this is the way relationships really work. Realizing this yields a different kind of experience in therapy—not one of safety and hovering support, but one in which higher anxiety and pressure and faster pace of change emerge, as people realize their full capacity to meet the adult challenges of life.”

I read him speaking about the very same thing I am trying to sort out. What he describes as needed and more effective is similar to how I see a prophet playing a role.

In the end, for now, I’m not done with this. I have resolved my own dilemma somewhat by deciding to pay more attention to how Prophetic truth might be spoken in love, not “at” people as blunt commands or propositions, but as couched coaching: inquisitive questions and indirect revealing narrative (Eugene Peterson’s “Telling it Slant), like Nathan the prophet did with David.

 

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Body Ritual among the Nacirema

I still vividly remember the thrill of reading this anthropological study (originally written in 1956) for the first time back as a “mature” student at King’s. I’d re-searched for it before, wanting to read it again, and today found it!

Here you go:

Most cultures exhibit a particular configuration or style. A single value or pattern of perceiving the world often leaves its stamp on several institutions in the society. Examples are “machismo” in Spanish-influenced cultures, “face” in Japanese culture, and “pollution by females” in some highland New Guinea cultures. Here Horace Miner demonstrates that “attitudes about the body” have a pervasive influence on many institutions in Nacirema society.


The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock[1] . In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

Professor Linton[2] first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength—the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution[3]. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious[4] about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures[5].

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations[6] is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge[7] but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation and prodding of the medicine men.

Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magic wands in the supplicant’s mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.

There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witchdoctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals. The counter-magic of the witchdoctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth.

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski[8] when he wrote:

Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.[9]

[edit] Footnotes are added by Dowell as modified by Chase

  1. Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. NY: The Macmillan Co., page 71. George Peter Murdock (1897-1996 [?]) is a famous ethnographer.
  2. Linton, Ralph. 1936. The Study of Man. NY: D. Appleton-Century Co. page 326. Ralph Linton (1893-1953) is best known for studies of enculturation (maintaining that all culture is learned rather than inherited; the process by which a society’s culture is transmitted from one generation to the next), claiming culture is humanity’s “social heredity.”
  3. A washing or cleansing of the body or a part of the body. From the Latin abluere, to wash away
  4. Marked by precise observance of the finer points of etiquette and formal conduct.
  5. It is worthy of note that since Prof. Miner’s original research was conducted, the Nacirema have almost universally abandoned the natural bristles of their private mouth-rite in favor of oil-based polymerized synthetics. Additionally, the powders associated with this ritual have generally been semi-liquefied. Other updates to the Nacirema culture shall be eschewed in this document for the sake of parsimony.
  6. Tending to religious or other important functions
  7. A miracle-worker.
  8. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science, and Religion. Glencoe: The Free Press, page 70. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is a famous cultural anthropologist best known for his argument that people everywhere share common biological and psychological needs and that the function of all cultural institutions is to fulfill such needs; the nature of the institution is determined by its function.
  9. Did you get it?

From: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Body_Ritual_among_the_Nacirema

In many ways it is now my job to come into supposedly “familiar” cultures and make the same kinds of observations. What is “normal” to the churches I serve can be reflected back to them in a similar way.

 
 

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