An Idolatry of Politics

We are seriously doing this?

People working in ministry, music, and nonprofit advocacy are facing pressure for their political beliefs.

Source: These Conservative Christians Are Opposed to Trump—and Suffering the Consequences – The Atlantic

On the one hand, employees have a responsibility to exercise some sort of reasonable care and compartmentalize political activities from an employer’s business activity.  But once reasonable care has been exercised regarding that boundary we should be free to speak our minds.  And not be abused by other Christians.

If we are trolling fellow believers because of their political opinions our allegiance is no longer to the risen Christ.

It is to the idol of politics.

 

 

 

Size Matters

During our years in a former church my wife and I heard repeated admonitions from the leadership to greet visitors.  Then a couple years ago we found ourselves looking for a new church community.  Now we were the newcomers visiting various churches.  In some of the communities I noticed an obvious personal connection between congregants that was not readily visible as a visitor in others.

The common thread was that the communities with this apparent “connectedness” had a single service and were smaller congregations [1].  I can’t claim to be able to tease these observations apart.  The impact of multiple services could simply be a matter of a meeting location that doesn’t work particularly well, such as with crowd bottlenecks in congested building entrances.  But group size, on the other hand, seems to have some inherent dynamics beyond the physical constraints of a meeting place.

I’ve spent most of my working career inside of large organizations and something fundamentally different is going on among people in small social groups vs large ones.  In large groups the organizational structure, whatever that happens to be, seems to consistently take on a life of its own and define the function of the group, rather than any shared sense of mission or purpose.

There is a good chance this is a byproduct our cognitive makeup.  In the early 1990s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar observed a correlation between the average size of primate social groups and neocortex size [2].  Dunbar extrapolated from that to calculate the number of stable social relationships that humans could comfortably have as somewhere between 150 and 200.  He also made the following observation about human use of language, that it,

“…has two unusual properties that make it possible to form groups that are substantially larger than the 150-200 predicted by neocortex size: it allows us (1) to categorise individuals into types and (2) to instruct other individuals as to how they should behave towards specific types of individuals within society.”[3]

In short, it allows us to organize, which suggests a fundamental insight about why organizational structures dominate how people interact when group size grows.  Below the limit interaction is about social connection.   Above the limit interaction is driven by categorization and instruction.

Since Dunbar first published there appears to be have been a fair bit of debate as to where this boundary actually is, as well as contrary voices pointing out that personal networks in the modern world can be far larger [4].  I am not qualified to wander into the weeds here.  All I am suggesting is that the boundary is real and has practical effects on the way social groups and organizing institutions work.  And a good bit of political and economic theory seems to be blissfully unaware of it [5].

Why this matters to churches is that in the midst of theology and spiritual experience we seem to forget the limitations that characterize our physical existence.  These just might include aspects of how our brains are wired.  We are called into allegiance to the Body of Christ as part and parcel of our allegiance to the risen Lord.  But it is possible that we can unnecessarily complicate the outworking of that when the structures we create don’t account for our material boundaries.

This problem seems to me to reach back into the ancient world.  Group size was necessarily small when Christianity was a disfavored and sometimes persecuted minority.  Faith can certainly come through preaching but in a hostile environment it would spread primarily via personal contact along social networks, such as families, work, and in the marketplace.  Communities would be small and in periods of calm they could aggregate at the level of individual churches.  But with numerical growth comes categorization and direction.  And in learning how to do this the church absorbed the centralized authority practices of the surrounding culture.

And then Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity removed the limits to group size.  At large scales centralized authority became a dominant feature of how the Church presented itself.  It became an earthly kingdom that looked a whole lot like emperor, monarch, and baron.  It is debatable how much this mirrored the kingdom Jesus describe to Pilate as “not of this world.”

We have the conceit in the modern world to believe we have put all this aside.  But we also tend to uncritically absorb the authority and organizational structures from our own culture.  And as our churches grow those structures come to dominate how they present to the world.  Some of them have come to look a whole lot like corporations.

PublicDomainPictures.Net
Ripon Cathedral

I am not trying to suggest that churches can’t ever be large, or that everything is inherently sweetness and light in small congregations.  There are probably ways that communities can grow in size and still remain communities.  But without conscious thinking about limits as a church grows, community is likely to be snuffed out by organization.

Size matters.

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[1] By smaller I mean relative to what we were accustomed.  We participated in the same community for nearly three decades.  At the beginning attendance was a bit north of 300.  At one point attendance peaked at roughly 1000.  Relative to some mega-churches even this might be considered small.

[2] R.I.M. Dunbar, Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates
Journal of Human Evolution 22(6):469-493. June 1992
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222461154_Neocortex_Size_as_a_Constraint_on_Group_Size_in_Primates

[3] R.I.M. Dunbar. Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences Volume 16, Issue 4 December 1993, pp. 681-694
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/245683083_Coevolution_of_neocortical_size_group_size_and_language_in_humans

[4] For an example see Barry Wellman, Is Dunbar’s number up?
British Journal of Psychology (2012), 103, 174–176
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224050819_Is_Dunbar%27s_Number_Up

[5] This is probably why some of our grand ideas do not scale well.  Consider, for instance, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That probably only can work when the “eachs” all know each other.  Or have reliable knowledge of reputation, and can readily identify freeloaders, liars and the power-hungry.  The moment organization is applied to scale up the idea it becomes all about the apparatus required to collect from those with ability and distribute to those with need. A weak apparatus will collapse under the weight of the freeloaders.  A strong apparatus will be dominated by the likes of Stalin and Mao.

A Caution for Visionaries

This will never do.

Or such was likely the first thought of an old desert tribesman on seeing the line of petitioners winding through the encampment.  The line ended at the tent of his son-in-law.

The younger man had done well for himself.  When they parted he was an exile.  He returned now as the leader of a people.  And the older man had heard stories about how this came to be.  But the younger man had little sense of his surroundings and the limits they imposed.  He grew up as the adopted grandson of a king, and accustomed to having slaves hanging about out of sight, anticipating and delivering needs and desires.  The upbringing also steeped him in stories that somehow elevated a mortal human king above the forces of earth and sky.  He consequently seemed to have a rather blurry sense of personal limits.

Bedouin Tent, Syrian Desert
photo by Kok Leng Yeo, Wikimedia Commons

The older man was Jethro, priest of Midian.  He was grounded in a way that his son-in-law was not.  On the one hand his position as a holy man brought prestige.  On the other there was the poverty of his situation.  When they first met Jethro lacked adult sons and his flocks were not large enough to support hirelings to tend them.  They were also too small to attract the interest of suitable matches for his daughters.  Jethro cultivated his prestige and was very careful how he used it.  His status protected his daughters from physical harm when they tended his flocks.  But it did not prevent intimidation when they brought the stock to water.  Water in the desert was life, which meant it was often wielded as a cudgel by the strong.  So Jethro lived in a balancing act between his position as priest and the limits of his actual power as the leader of his family.

But then a headstrong young fugitive waded into the midst of his daughters’ tormentors and beat them black and blue.  Jethro was quick to recognize the potential. The fugitive became a relative and grandsons were added to Jethro’s little family.

There was some understandable consternation a few years later when the son-in-law proclaimed an encounter with the I AM.  The encounter was followed shortly by a return to Egypt.  Jethro knew whispers of the I AM from his service to the gods.  But the vision of Moses dictated a confrontation with Pharaoh and survival seemed unlikely.  Fortunately Moses left his family behind in the relative safety provided by the Midianite tribes.  The children were the future.

And against all hope Moses returned.  Jethro found himself learning something new of the I AM.  But he also could see that the favor of the I AM did not apparently not bestow the good sense that comes with successfully navigating treacherous limits.  So, Jethro stepped into the problem to bring a bit of that good sense.  Again he was carefully trading on his status, this time as the family patriarch.

Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning to evening?

Jethro could see that this was not going to end well.

The thing that you do is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone.

Moses did not yet grasp the significance of divisions between what he must do, what the I AM must do, and what others must do.  Jethro brought his experience to bear on the divisions.

You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God.  You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do.  Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.  Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you.

Fortunately, Moses listened.  Not every visionary leader does.

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Quotations are from Exodus 18 in the public domain World English Bible.

Thoughts on Packard and Hope’s “Church Refugees”

I recently finished Church Refugees, authored by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.  It is a book about the exit from American churches of the talented and committed.  The book challenges preconceptions about the dynamics of this exodus.  Packard and Hope discovered something during their research that was rather different from what they expected to find, that “…the story of the dechurched was a story of modern religious organizations and institutions stifling people’s ability to engage with each other and their communities.”[1]  The dechurched encountered during the study aren’t done with God.  But as the book relates, they are “done with church.”

The discussions I have found about this book since publication appear to focus on what the “dones” expressed about why the left[2].  Commenters in online venues also had things to say about the theology of those doing the leaving – this was an aspect of the conflicted and frustrated space I was in when I heard about the book.

On reflection since it does seem clear that there are theological issues in play.  I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our faith by separating loyalty to the risen Christ from loyalty to the community of his people.  Attempting to do so simply ignores what Paul has to say about the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.  But having said that, “dones” leaving churches might actually communicate very little about the theology of those doing the leaving.  It might instead say rather a lot about the actual expression of a professed theology in the place that is being left.

Beneath the surface of dissatisfaction with “church” are ways in which the insides of Christian organizations look unfortunately a lot like the insides of any other.  Which is why I think Packard’s comments are such a big deal.  What especially caught my attention was a comment on organization in Chapter 4.

“Existing research suggests that in any bureaucracy, power tends to become centralized, innovation is gradually diminished, and routines become cemented as the organization grows or simply continues to exist over time. The nature of the modern bureaucracy is to erase individual desire. In order to resist those forces, organizational leaders must be intentional and strategic.  It’s not enough to simply wish for things to be participative and innovative. How many pastors have lamented the slow pace of change in their own congregations? Even founding pastors often find that after only a few short months or years of doing church, they’ve largely lost the ability to move the congregation in a new direction. This is true of all modern organizations, not just churches. It’s the nature of bureaucracies, not a function of poor leadership, bad vision, a sign of the withdrawal of God’s grace, or unfaithful followers. It’s simply a part of living in the modern world.”[3]

Most of the comment online about this book seems to drive right past issues of  organization.

The last time I thought about the matter it coalesced into a rather fuzzy idea of how adoption of a specific organizational form might yield toxic byproducts.  Which I think is still the case but I’ve since begun to wonder if something far more fundamental might be in play.  I have had the opportunity to watch group dynamics from the insides of large organizations over the years.  My sense is that there is something hard-wired about us  that affects how large numbers of people behave when they are together[4].

We can’t do without organization except at very small scales —  any numerical growth beyond what will fit in the front room of an apartment necessitates it.  And more growth necessitates more organization.  It seems to me that, absent some critical thinking while our groups grow, the features of whatever organizational structure we adopt are going to come to define the way the groups work.  Which is likely to trump any theology we claim about the body of Christ.

If this is the case it will be true of any organizational form.

At some point nearly everybody rails about “the system.”  The problem is that, get enough of us together in one place and there will always be a system.  So rather than critiquing the “dones” who left, we ought to be thinking about how those of us who stay reflect the body of Christ when we meet.  And if we don’t reflect the body of Christ, we ought to be thinking about what it is about our particular group that gets in the way.

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[1] Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. Group Publishing, Inc. 2015. Kindle edition, locations 86-87.  See also: https://dechurched.net/church-refugees/

[2] For some examples see the the following:

[3] Packard and Hope. Kindle edition, locations 1592-1593.

[4] I plan to explore a possible mechanism for this in a future post.

Mark Buchanan on Reconciliation

Reconciliation is what Christianity is supposed to be about.  Just over a year ago I posted about shredding the toxic lists we keep of the wrongs others have done.

Here’s another view of it.  I just listened to a podcast by Claire Perini and Mark Buchanan at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  They unpack what reconciliation looks like at a personal level between individuals and within national movements.  Mark describes reconciliation as “…a father running down the road with his arms wide open…” and shares some personal stories of the “open embrace.”

The audio is about 45 minutes long and definitely worth the time.  What really caught my attention was Mark’s statement near the end:

…if you unpack them in the wider context what Jesus is saying is that things love and forgiveness are places you live.  ‘Dwell in my love.’  And if we refuse to live in that place, then not only can we not give love, or give forgiveness, we can’t receive it because it’s actually, it’s an abiding in Christ…not only are you not then going to be refusing to be an agent, you are actually refusing to be a recipient. Source: Regent College Podcast.

The lists we keep prevent our receiving love and forgiveness for ourselves.

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The podcast can be found here, as well, along with others from Regent: http://www.regent-college.edu/lifelong-learning/podcast

 

What Political Behavior on Facebook Might Actually Reveal

Politics has taken on a whole new corrosive aspect:

Turning friends into foes on social media is a new kind of political statement.   Source: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters are unfriending each other on Facebook – MarketWatch

Stuff seems to leak out in our behavior online that says things about us we did not intend.  And Christians need to take a good hard look at their motivations if cutting ties is wrapped up in severing a real relationship.  This latest manifestation of the political climate is not something we should be participating in.

There are valid reasons for severing social media connections, such as avoiding the spillover from someone else’s toxic behavior.  But if politics are at the bottom of this, your primary loyalties may be at issue.  Christian faith at its core is allegiance to risen Jesus.  It seems to me that this extends to how we treat his people — including those whose politics we find detestable.

Jesus gave the world the right to judge the authenticity of our claim to faith by our behavior toward one another.

Which might include how we behave in our political activities on social media.

How Twitter Is Changing Modern Warfare – The Atlantic

Here’s an eye-opening article from The Atlantic on the weaponization of social media:

Most of us did not associate Twitter with terrorism until the Islamic State stormed into Mosul. We have given similarly scant thought to what might happen if the wondrous tools of the 21st century are ever paired with the scale and intensity of the conflicts that defined the 20th.  Source: How Twitter Is Changing Modern Warfare – The Atlantic

The article lays out how bad actors exploit social media for propaganda purposes at large scales, serving up deliberate falsehoods to manipulate divisive national conflicts.

The trolls we encounter may not all be maladjusted losers living in their parents’ basements.

 

 

Not in Front of the Children

We are often more concerned with the appearance of our personal behavior than the actual substance.  So we hold grudges and carry on our personal warfare with each other out of sight.  Or so we think.  Not so fast, suggests this article from The Atlantic.  It discusses the effect of parental conflict on children:

“They aren’t fooled when one spouse gives another the silent treatment—the emotion is palpable.”  Source: How Passive Aggression Hurts Kids – The Atlantic

The article described how smoldering, unresolved conflicts between parents do damage to their children, and quoted psychology Professor E Mark Cummings as saying that  “‘…people underestimate the sensitivity of kids to their environments…'”

It might even be a step back from underestimation to a lack of awareness, which may be a broader feature of our conflicts with each other.  We seem to have little or no idea of the damage we do to those around us.

Silicon Valley Dystopia

“The new road to serfdom — actually, it’s more like a hyperloop — runs right through Silicon Valley.” via Silicon Valley has our backs

This post by Nicholas Carr at Rough Type references a recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman.  I share Carr’s skepticism and the profile is worth reading.  If I understand correctly, Altman’s vision appears to distill down to the following:

  • Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
  • This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
  • Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.

All of which sounds wonderful.  But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia.  This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:

“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”

Galaxy S6
Galaxy S6

Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone?  Neuroscience?  Biochemistry?  Mathematics?  Structural Engineering?  Linguistics?  Philosophy?  Religion?

One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise.  Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context.  Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.

But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.

Some Unusual Central Heating

Now THIS was interesting (to an ancient history buff).  We take modern climate control technologies very much for granted:

“I built a hut with a tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud and stone walls. This has been my most ambitious primitive project yet and was motivated by the scarcity of permanent roofing materials…” Source: Building a hut with a kiln-fired tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud pile walls.

I recently added this site to my list after seeing the video of the construction  process.  Do go there and have a look.

The author’s use of fired clay is impressive enough but the heated floor is what really caught my attention.  It works the same way as the Roman hypocaust and Korean ondol.  I was some way though viewing that portion of the build before it dawned on me what I was looking at.

The Roman designs heated large surface areas and large masses of masonry, leading to the need for a lot of labor to feed the furnace.  Although this was probably not a big deal from the Roman point of view because of the prodigious use of slaves.  But the author’s use of large stones in the floor covering a heating channel should provide a source of radiant warmth for the entire living space long after the fire went out.  And would require less labor for the resultant heat.

 

 

on another site before reading the author’s post.