Kristof at Church

When I saw the video that Nicholas Kristof posted on Facebook yesterday I was shocked that the link carried me to a set housing Kristof and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels on Willow Creek's main stage. (bizarre that I highlighted their 'sanctuary' in just my last post.)

It also comes on the cusp of this article, an anthropologist arguing that if liberal politicians would simply tweak some of their language they would in little time with minimal effort win over a large chunk of evangelical voters. My husband, brother, and I have been in an e-conversation about whether or not one can differentiate fundamentalists from evangelicals in this context. However, I bring it up to say that the Kristof video is a fascinating experiment in liberals and conservatives mixing company, and doing so well.

I see Nicholas Kristof as a modern day prophet. His work, in the company of his wife Sheryl WuDunn, on gendercide, sex trafficking, and female empowerment in the developing world inspires even the most cynical. He speaks for the marginalized by sharing the story of the individual with the masses to effectuate a response among the privileged, and he does so by derailing the (ab)use(s) of poverty porn; he upholds the struggling women and girls with dignity and awe... And a difference he makes.

Bill Hybels sits beside him in the video clip with a beautiful tan that I assume he picked up while sailing on his yacht. Despite my ambivalence about megachurch efforts to seek social justice causes (who knew that some of them are trying to now), Hybels warrants more respect from me than any other evangelical pastor because he makes so much effort to grow alongside his congregation. He does not claim a monopoly on (conservative) theology; he does not participate in trendy/swanky/hipster-y culture topics that circulate regularly in evangelical subculture (consider Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and that dork in TX who are all obsessed with sex these days). I see Hybels as more concerned with following God and winning lost souls to Christ in ways that are relevant and transformative for suburban chicago-ites. He's less concerned with being cool. He tries really hard to be a good, authentic evangelical. It just so happens that it has also made him a lot of money, and pretty cool in his circles, in the meantime.

Hybels reads Half the Sky, and it's clear by the time he gets to the second question in this video interview with Kristof that his world is turned upside-down. Hybels cannot finish articulating many of his initial questions. (I've never heard Hybels say, "uh..." when public speaking.) He doesn't know where to go with all the dramatic facts about gendercide and prostitution and plights of women in a global context. The viewer sees him repositioning his body several times during the interview as if to speak on behalf of the thousands of followers in the congregation, "we are all uncomfortable with this. We don't talk about things like this in here. This isn't the individualized, hyper-pious, feel-good mantra we are used too...but keep talking, because we need to know and respond to this. Educate us, Kristof." And in his generous, unassuming, incredibly kind way, Kristof fields the questions, engages the congregation, and puts Bill at ease. I find it astounding and worth emulating. Not that I wanted Kirstof to bury Hybels or Willow Creek for just now waking up to these "liberal" issues, we just don't ever see these groups in dialogue because it is so uncomfortable. I was nervous at several points in the interview, and Kristof kept putting me at ease too with his graciousness and authenticity. Neither leader was trying to be someone other than who they were, and it worked.

Hybels' honesty, Kristof's generosity and intellect, tempered by a setting that is willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of their gospel is moving. The first time I watched the video I was annoyed with Hybel's naiveté. (Because I already have this all figured out, right?) The second time I was overcome with emotion at his earnestness to grapple with such realities. Issues that even many liberals cannot acknowledge. The third time I watched it I cried with Hybels at the end when he asked Kristof why he does this work and  Kristof responded about the Polish nun in Congo.

It starts small for Kristof. It's the grain of yeast and the mustard seed. It's telling the story of one woman in one country. It's reaching out to one church in one suburb. It's writing one op-ed for the Times in an effort to conjure up a response. And it's all so damn honest and humble. Kristof speaks, and writes for that matter, with no pretense. I want to be best friends with him and his family. I want to drink wine with them at the dinner table during transformative conversations that run late in the night. I want to travel to Cambodia with them. I want to learn from them and work with them. I want to know the women that he knows. And since I must do so indirectly through his work and vicariously through other higher profile people (like Bill Hybels even), I'll take what I can get. I can't believe I'm saying this, "Thanks Willow."

I won't even get in to how Kristof is a contemporary, married, privileged, educated, white, male redeeming so much for me by way of each category I just plugged him in to. So thank you, Kristof, for living from your heart and sharing it in ways that minister with peace.

Disclaimer: as tech savvy as mega-churches are, it's unfortunate that I cannot embed the video. I am not sure how long it will be accessible on Willow's website. And no, I did not watch the other videos in their current series on Hope. --Don't want to ruin a good thing, know what I'm sayin'?


Culture—Popped and Bought and Sought

There are so many points on which I'm a die-hard Anabaptist: Discipleship, Community, Pacifism, and radical-Reformation stuff to name a few of the biggies.

One way I do not do so well keeping in step with especially my Mennonite brothers and sisters is the whole counter-cultural thing. Theologically I totally get it and even uphold it to an extent. The notion that we are citizens of another kingdom, an eternal kingdom with no end, ruled by principles and ideas not-of-this-world. The whole 'aliens passing through' thing.

On the other hand, I reject this...at least I think I do.

Practically speaking, pop-culture fascinates me. Trends, celebrity, fandom, music, film, fashion—I find all of it intriguing and worth celebrating from an artistic vantage, definitely worth noting from a philosophical one.

So I find myself subconsciously looking for theologians who will help me articulate the balance of recognizing that capitalistic consumerism is no more my savior than is a complete Amish rejection. Enter Kathryn Lofton and her work Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. This interview is dated now, but the end of it points to something I value: Lofton's desires to explore how the American Dream is possibly corrupt. Duh, I mean, Yes! And yet we continue subscribing to the money mongering game of capitalism hoping (amidst our disdain for the rich) that the next time we play we will be the lucky ones who get rich quick.

Anyway, Lofton begins that for Oprah there is a symphonic way that consumption and religion are not in opposition to one another but in collaboration. She notes that in the past, American religious scholars have sought to untangle these ideas revealing their own ideas of what's sacred vs. profane. She gives us three principles for religion and culture:

1) religion in pop-culture. The crucifix in a pop music video.
2) pop culture in religion. The use of blogs by believers.
3) pop culture as religion. Fandom.

This is why Madonna was so offensive in the '80's (religion in pop culture) and mega-church malls were so annoying in the '90's (pop culture in religion), Lofton expains. The former is profane, the latter, crass commercialization of the sacred.

Like a Virgin
Willow Creek: my favorite megachurch

This is the part I underlined: If only we didn't imagine culture and religion as neatly divided, we may be less surprised by their ceaseless commingling. There have, as it turns out, always been pigeon sellers, in every temple.

Icon B
Icon A

I don't think the pigeon sellers in the temple bit is a copout. I constantly hear conservatives misquoting John's Jesus, "the poor will always be among you," in an effort to ignore the poor's plight—certainly not Lofton's point. This pigeon reference is not about ignoring the capitalistic ventures to continue engaging in consumeristic behaviors under the guise of generous gift-giving (ala Oprah), but instead, a finger pointing to the reality that the lines between American religion (especially Protestantism) and (pop)cultural memes are blurry at best. (If Niebuhr could have admitted this a half-century ago would contemporary Christians embrace culture differently today?)

And yet, neither does this merger, or blurring, or commingled reality of culture and religion (or whatever you want to label it) excuse those of us who seek value and meaning outside of American consumer culture, those of us who seek fandom in areas outside of pop culture but who also do not forbid pop culture (point #3, culture as religion). As a thirty-something, white, American, female, who rejects the promises of the American dream and who upholds the promise of the Beatitudes, how do I situate myself (and my parenting for that matter) in a way that neither over-values the accumulation of shit (i.e. material goods that pass away) nor under-values the call to be other-worldly, placing one's hope and esteem in a transcendent reality that stretches beyond the cosmos (figuratively speaking of course)? How do I do this?

Is it enough to reject Oprah's and TD Jakes' prosperity gospel?
Is it enough that I still use the first generation iPad (even though I also have an iPod, iPhone, Macbook Pro, and an old cracked-LCD Macbook)?
Is it enough when planning worship or imagining a new liturgical ritual that might appeal to the millennial generation that it embraces social justice concerns like not using an American mega-bank for our checking and savings accounts?

Don't answer. In my questioning I want to embrace the ambiguity. And realize further that the non-ubiquitous characteristics that I named at the start (the other core tenants of anabaptist belief) certainly supplement my efforts, or the efforts of the faith community, to live in culture, embrace culture, and push against culture when it needs redirecting. Right? Oprah's product is a practice, and her practice is her product. This is simplistic, bad theology. I will not be self-transformed by Oprah's or America's or Dr. Phil's or Nate Berkus' or Suzie Orman's product, but by the renewing of my mind (when I'm wearing my new dress from Anthropologie--kidding).

There will be more from me on this...I'm only through the first three chapters of Lofton and Oprah.