(Ryan Mayo, Programming Director at the Oread Center, is responsible for the opinions in this essay)
GK Chesterton once described the novel Robinson Crusoe as a wild romance of prudence and limits. In the book, Crusoe has been shipwrecked and left adrift before finally reaching an isolated island. Curiously, Chesterton concludes that the most significant passage in Defoe’s entire story is a list.
This list is an inventory of all of the items Crusoe managed to retrieve from the sinking ship, and Chesterton declares it to be “the greatest of poems.” His gladdest thoughts were of an axe, book, compass, coat, and rope – with the realization that they could have been destroyed in the wreck but weren’t. Unfortunately, his most troubling thoughts were of the wonderful items that had been ruined or lost. Several times Crusoe weeps at losing pictures, matches, blankets, and other objects of utility or sentimentality.
So Crusoe endures until rescue, simultaneously giddy with his found inventory and sober-minded about his lost items. For Christians, Crusoe’s state is ours also. We are tasked with making sense of the loss, forging ahead with what survives, and considering the rescue. For Crusoe, the rescue was a future hope rooted only in his wishes. For us, the rescue has already been initiated, and yet much of its effects are still anticipated and not felt.
***Note: As a member of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, the Oread Center believes an important part of our work includes offering a Christian response to pressing matters that affect us all. The purpose of this particular response is not to address all of the complexities of racism present in American society or institutions of higher education, especially those complexities associated with the structural or systemic realities of racism. While we believe that structural and systemic racism is present in American society, and that racism must be addressed on those levels, the purpose of this statement is to offer what we believe is a Biblically faithful way to think about race and racism on the level of interpersonal relationships and immediate agency. We offer this statement to the particular Christian community in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas in the hope that it provides some immediate handles for how we can respond to the situation at hand in our own community. We ask for patience from our readers as we work in the coming days to articulate a thicker response to the structural and systemic dimensions of race in American society and appropriate Christian responses.***
***As many have observed from our title, we are leaning on Cornelius Plantinga’s work on sin for our framework.***
Many of us in Lawrence are aware that our region was politically established on the moral impetus of preventing the spread of slavery in American society. That John Brown, the 19th-century freedom-fighter, remains an iconic figure in our local memory is no historical accident. The University of Kansas is proud of the fact that the school practiced racially open admissions from the first day its doors were opened. Frequently forgotten, or never learned at all, is the more complicated history of both Lawrence and the University of Kansas- a history that in many ways is a microcosm of America’s larger racial history. While Lawrence was the seat of the Free State movement, and the University of Kansas always welcomed students of African descent to enroll, segregation within the city and the university was historically prevalent. Both Lawrence and the University of Kansas did not completely desegregate until the late 1950s and only as a result of years of dedicated work from local Civil Rights activists, which included many university students.
We often read newspaper accounts of firefighters rescuing nearly-dead victims or policemen employing brave tactics to deter violence. When reporters ask how these heroes were able to perform under such dangerous conditions, the response is frequently that “our training kicked in.” Repetition, discipline, and purposeful routines in the past are able to produce clear thinking and swift action in the moment.
The firefighter, for instance, endures extensive training to become a firefighter and to remain one. The rhythms of his life are centered on his need to be ready. He studies the city for the best routes to potential blazes. The drills at his station keep his mind sharp and his muscles poised. He is a firefighter, and all his activities are aimed toward this identity.
We would be right in saying that our firefighter is a liturgical animal. His liturgies reinforce his readiness to put out fires. Often he faces distractions and social pressure from friends and strangers to relax his routines and to pause his habits. Why must he always carry his radio to concerts? Why must he often sleep at the fire house, next to the pole? Why must he work weekends? Why must he watch his diet? We can call these counter-liturgies, for they seek to deform and devalue his identity. But our firefighter is vigilant; he must not only hold fast to his commitment to the formative rhythms that constitute a firefighter, he must also resist the deformative pressures that call him away from his role.
Note – This piece is meant to be read alongside Allan Carlson’s article on the decline of the natural family. We are using Carlson’s writing to make some quick conclusions about the unstable nature of social activism throughout American history.
Public opinion is a squirrely guide. With respect to the sentiments of Isaac Newton, “standing on the shoulders of giants” may help us to innovate and achieve, but it also helps us see the fickle and transitory nature of public consensus on ethical and moral issues. Great reversals within a few generations are not uncommon, and the memories of activism in the opposite direction are often either forgotten or glossed over with a brush of condescending words like “old-fashioned” or “stagnant.” Through the language of liberation, safety, and health, America has changed its mind on slavery, same-sex orientation, same-sex marriage, women in the workforce, women voting, and immigration, to name a few.
The question at hand is this: can public opinion be trusted for the long haul? For one case study, let’s look together at a piece by Allan Carlson, a historian and Catholic apologist who teaches at Cornell University. In it, he tracks the changes in the American concept of the family unit and its relation to economic and social shifts.
Finished? Let’s move forward together.
by Ryan Mayo
Abstract: Millennials have been vocal about the reasons for their disappointment and detachment from the local church. Yet their critiques of worship style, gospel presentation, and other public practices are not often accompanied by wise suggestions for reform. The local church should embrace this emerging generation with winsome warnings and offer a long and historic perspective about the deep liturgies of church involvement.
For the last 15 years there has been a mildly successful formula for publishers seeking to capture young evangelical readers. It looks like this: prompt reflective Christians in their late 20s or early 30s to chronicle the ways in which the institutional church failed them and their peers.1 There are some variables between the writings, such as the degree of disappointment or the depth of research, but the general plotline remains the same. The authors, about a decade removed from their involvement with the offending institutions, will predictably generalize their church’s particular offenses to include the near-abandonment of an entire generation. The final chapters, however, nearly always offer a ray of hope for the institutional church, as the authors outline a few steps to reconcile Christ’s church to the generation it has soured.
If churches want to retain Millennial participation, these authors have suggested that they adapt to their changing demands, which mostly fall into three categories: worship styles, gospel presentation, and public involvement in social justice activism.
by Ryan Mayo
Abstract: The millennial generation tends to see social realities primarily through the lens of group identity and inter-group relations, which often shapes the dialogue in unhelpful and distorted ways. Facebook’s expansion of gender options in 2014 highlights the moral fuzziness at play in some Millennial perspectives regarding the current issues of inequality, identity, and marginalization.
In 50 years, it may be difficult to sort out the legacy of the Millennial generation1 on the American cultural landscape2. Millennials will certainly be commended for their collective bravery in social movements, as nearly every “marginalized” group is rapidly becoming “unmarginalized”. Our great-grandchildren will read that homosexuality, for example, has gone from a psychiatric disorder to an acceptable – even championed – lifestyle in just two generations3. Either by inheriting the social inertia of their parents or by developing their own activist muscles, Millennials are currently shaking the world.
Perhaps, though, in our haste to normalize each and every minority status with respect to race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, weight, ability, and intelligence, the courageous Millennials are displaying laziness in asking fundamental questions. Is progress always progress if we’re unsure of the goal? Is it a moral good that a human being can publicly identify in a category that didn’t exist 20 years ago? Who are the gatekeepers for legitimizing an orientation or an experience?
I have divided a longer post into two shorter parts for clarity. In part one, I hoped to show that the language of brokenness is imprecise and that Millennials are increasing the uncritical use of this term. In part two, I hope to show the dangers inherent in substituting brokenness language for the concept of sin and sinfulness. Finally, I’ll offer some guesses on why these shifts have occurred.
As we’ve seen, the concept of brokenness itself is imprecise. But it becomes even more problematic when we uncritically substitute it for the historic language of sin, for at least three reasons. First, it ignores the breadth of the historic understanding of sin. Sin and sinfulness are broad and thick concepts in Scripture, as evidenced by all the different experiential and philosophical descriptions for it. Consider some of the other Biblical metaphors for sin:
- A hard heart or a stiff neck
- Missing the mark
- A beast crouching at the door (Genesis 4)
Those who adhere to the Westminster Confession recognize sin as any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes sin as “disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony”.1 Notice that each statement addresses sin both as human moral agency and human circumstances. We are simultaneously culprit and victim. The real concern in this conversation is that brokenness is reductionist. It primarily identifies the human problem in the area of circumstance and then communicates it using the language of victimhood. If I see myself mainly as broken, I am tempted to allow that characteristic to explain more of my life than it should.