Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Faith Works 11-15-08
Jeff Gill

Startling Echoes, Head-turning Parallels

These last few weeks have been dramatic and evocative on so many levels.

I’m enough of a history geek to recall in the middle of so many other associations that Grant Park in Chicago is named for the general who began a career in Illinois, and who played a key role in ending the Civil War. I’m also old enough to remember Grant Park as a place forty years ago where “armies of the night” surged against police barricades with angry shouts and raised fists, as a Democratic candidate for president was being nominated to fail.

And my own heritage out of Illinois and Indiana, and my wife’s from Kentucky, keeps the thread living and vital pulling through the fabric of today about a tall young man who ran for an Illinois Senate seat 150 years ago, losing to Stephen A. Douglas after a dramatic series of debates over freedom, slavery, and the place of liberty in this nation.

Abraham Lincoln, born February 12th exactly 200 years before the January 20th we have ahead of us, entered office without an official faith stance or church membership. We’ll have a number of opportunities these next few months to review and rehearse Lincoln’s journey of belief, but I’ll just note that perhaps no president has written so thoughtfully and so well about discerning God’s will in human affairs than the man from Springfield.

But I was mc-ing a clergy gathering just a few weeks, and got some very uneasy laughter from partisans of both candidates heading for Nov. 4 when I pointed out that pastors had an interesting choice ahead of them in the two major parties: one a fellow who had sent a letter quitting his church because he didn’t agree with the minister, and the other a guy who wouldn’t formally join the church where he attended with his wife because he had a busy travel schedule.

I’m pretty sure both McCain and Obama supporters laughed, and both laughed uneasily, because that knife really does cut both ways. Men are bad about “joining” and more likely to “quit” over conflict than women are.

Men’s ministries have never held the role or influence, ironically given other aspects of American culture, that women’s groups or ladies’ aid societies have maintained. They’ve always been smaller and shorter-lived compared to their female institutional counterparts. In mainline/oldline Protestant denominations, another era of die-off is hitting men’s programming, and among evangelicals the Promise Keepers’ movement had great impact for a season, but has generally faded into obscurity (though Bill McCartney and Raleigh Washington have just returned to leadership with PK, so we’ll see what happens there at www.promisekeepers.org).

Why are men so resistant to “joining” and so quick to cut ties? Some suggest that women are more invested in relationship as a basic quality and value, hence their structures are more important to them on a personal level.

Others note that much of modern church life is in a more feminine mode, starting with singing (yes, I know Billy Ray Cyrus sings, but in general . . .), the d├ęcor, and often even the preaching, focused on feelings and emotions and personality.

John Eldredge has become a kind of one-man movement among evangelical Christians with his books and weekend programs starting with “Wild at Heart” and “Waking the Dead.” He argues that a more masculine faith is needed to most effectively reach men, which makes a certain rough sense of the face of it.

A number of Reformed and Calvinist pastors have expressed alarm at John’s use of popular movies and books to present a worldview that is “not quite Biblical” in nature; liberal mainline writers are concerned at what they see as his glorification of combat and warfare in those same images.

Eldredge argues that he is using those popular images to tap into an essential hunger for men to be part of “spiritual warfare” to defend and protect their families, and can quote Scripture just fine for his own defense. He’s happy to admit that his oeuvre isn’t for everyone, but is an outreach to an audience that has tended to sit outside in the car reading the Sunday paper waiting for the wife and kids to come out of church.

You can judge for yourself at www.ransomedheart.com, but the two candidates present an interesting test case for any faith community – if you met Barack Obama or John McCain through work or community business, and wanted to invite them to your church, how would that offering look to them?

(CORRECTION: the original version of the first para said Grant was "born in Illinois," which of course is incorrect, said the guy living in Ohio. His business career which turned into his return to the Army with the Civil War began in Galena, Illinois, but he was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, just upstream from Cincinnati.)

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; suggest a way to reach those left out by modern church life at knapsack77@gmail.com.