Author's details

Name: UMJeremy
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: “Why Go To Seminary?” is hard to answer, but it must be. — October 20, 2014
  2. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Seek The Minority Report in the Bible #GeekGospel — October 15, 2014
  3. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Engaging the Powers in Online Religious Discussion — October 14, 2014
  4. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: The Smartphone Might Revive Participatory Worship — October 1, 2014
  5. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: What will a Minority White God look like? — September 29, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Holding the #UMC Hostage 01 – The Setting — 5 comments
  2. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Is the #UMC the Rebellion…or the Empire? – Unity in Diversity…or Unity over Diversity? The choice is yours. — 2 comments
  3. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: About that UMReporter Article…[response] – A Methodist Church United for our Daughters — 2 comments
  4. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Defeating the Dark Side of Church Metrics #UMC – Measuring transformation or accumulation? — 2 comments
  5. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Restricting Marriage is a Justice Issue — 2 comments

Author's posts listings

Oct 20 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: “Why Go To Seminary?” is hard to answer, but it must be.

Original post at

Two reports came out in the past week that I think are related and point to a critical moment in theological education and church/state relations for the United Methodist Church.


Why Go To Seminary? Can’t I just preach?

First, it was reported by the General Board of Higher Education in Ministry of the United Methodist Church that the average debt of a seminary graduate was pretty bad:

New findings from the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry’s Seminary Indebtedness Task Force reveal that the average educational debt for United Methodist seminary graduates has reached $49,303.

“Based on median annual conference compensation for new clergy, we now know that many of our clergy are well beyond the nationally recognized critical level (10% of income) for manageable debt,” said Allyson Collinsworth, executive director of GBHEM’s Office of Loans and Scholarships.

Related: three years ago we examined a proposal in the Oklahoma Annual Conference that would replace a bunch of seminary-educated Elders with 3x as many local church pastors (who do not need a seminary degree but they do need regular training). Since its publication, many other sectors of United Methodism have also embraced more part-time/bivocational clergy and offered fewer opportunities to seminary-trained Elders.

When you couple the past post with this recent report, if I were a young person discerning a call to ordained ministry, here’s what I would say to myself: “Why Go To Seminary?”

  • Full Elders are expensive to local congregations, they have the cost of Seminary behind them…and there’s more Elders than Churches that can sustain them.
  • Add to that the assault on seminary education by the arch-conservatives, and there’s little support to (a) get a seminary education and (b) become a full Elder until later in life when “they can make it, tiger” in the larger churches and can handle the debt load.
  • Instead, why not just be a local pastor? Local pastors don’t need seminary and get health insurance, everything sacramental authority-wise that Elders get…and are in demand.  They don’t have pension or job security (but the latter will likely go away in 2016 anyway).

So there’s a lot going against young people going into ordained ministry with a seminary degree.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe a new focus on citizen-preachers who occupy their pulpits part-time during the week would make us more relevant and more authentic by mobilizing the laity. That’s what politics used to be: citizen-farmers who would serve in elected positions and then go back to the farm. The professionalization of politics and of clergy has had an interesting effect on the church and society as a whole, so perhaps this movement back  would be more effective and has shown in our history to be great for numerical growth–not to mention cheaper for people who want to be ministers.

 A Second Chance…

But there’s a second report that I think is related. A report came out that the people want more religion in politics. “nearly half of all Americans said churches and other religious institutions should openly express their views on social and political issues, an increase of 6% since 2010.”

While I know many people polled probably just want churches to be able to endorse politicians and not lose their tax-exempt status, my reaction was still “GREAT!” After a few decades of reactionary religious voices on TV who burned up most of religious capital and relevancy, people are starting to recognize the existence of constructive religious voices. We have a second chance!

But if people want more church in politics and engaged in the world around us, then we need educated clergy who can talk about the nuances in theological difference and political application. Professionalism, for all its problems, does come with a certain authority to speak about topics in our field.

While there’s clearly non-ecclesiastically-trained persons who have gifts and skills in this area, I don’t think there’s enough dedicated folks to be the resident theologians in every mission field and for every local newspaper. We don’t need gaffes and reactionary voices now: we need steady, representative voices that speak with clarity to the nuances and for the orphan and the widow.

I recognize that not every preacher or pastor is called to engage political topics. But we all do. We all get those questions, and preach language and images that shape how people make sense of political issues. You can preach about politics without getting political, but it does get better with training to learn how to do that–training that is now prohibitively expensive.

…that might be squandered.

To fail to grab ahold of this opportunity is to squander it, I believe. But to do so is also to repeat a time in our history when uneducated clergy exacerbated problems between Methodists and Baptists.

John Beeson writes in his book, John Wesley and the American Frontier, that anti-intellectualism celebrated by passionate clergy like Peter Cartwright led to tremendous numerical growth but also a breakdown of progress of relations with other denominations.

An uneducated frontier Methodist clergy pretty much lost sight of Wesley’s middle ground between predestination and free grace. Wesley’s understanding of free grace may not have completely reconciled Calvinism and Arminianism, but it knocked off some of the rough edges of the controversy and allowed them to share common goals and work together. This middle ground was lost on the frontier. This author believes that this loss was largely because of an uneducated clergy in both camps and their simplistic approaches…an uneducated clergy was probably the biggest factor in the Americanization of Wesley’s doctrine of grace (page 78)

If churches who have squandered our opportunities to be engaged in politics want a second chance, then an educated, nuanced approach is crucial this time. In our time of church conflict and decline, now more than ever being able to understand and reconcile differences and speak clearly to political issues is an important aspect of ministry. Being able to piece together novel theological approaches requires not just passion but education. As I’ve written before, theological education is more than doctrine, and seminary graduates are often better equipped to deal with difference and with speaking to church/state nuances–indeed, the entire ministry of reconciliation to which all are called.

Your turn

Your turn:

  • In the age where local pastors are more desirable and marketable, why should people go to seminary?
  • In an age where people want constructive religious voices, do we need seminary degrees to best accomplish that role?

Thanks for your comments!

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Oct 15 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Seek The Minority Report in the Bible #GeekGospel

Original post at

Two sci-fi movies have a common element that is a helpful tool to use in biblical study and interpretation.


Two sci-fi films with a common message

In Minority Report (2002 movie; soon to be a TV series), Tom Cruise’s character works with the law enforcement agency that has a unique sci-fi ability: they tap into a group of three psychics who are able to predict crimes before they happen. The police then arrest the people before they commit their crime. However, the movie turns a bit when we find out that the group of psychics often throws a minority report: a prediction that is slightly different from the other ones. So the question is whether the majority prediction is correct all of the time, or is the minority report sometimes the one to pay attention to. Given the title, it is logical to assume the minority report is something to look for!

Likewise in World War Z (2013 film), we follow along many different characters as they reflect on how their country or community responded to a worldwide zombie epidemic. One of the characters works with the intelligence sector of Israel and he details what they call the 10th man rule: if 9 members of a team see the same thing, it is the obligation of the 10th to assume the opposite (which in this case was the possibility that zombies exist) While we might call this the Devil’s Advocate position, it really is more of submitting a minority report to the majority body, seeking to advocate for a position that is not just antagonistic but is actually feasible.

I think these two science-fiction films draw out a common penchant of Hacking Christianity: to see the minority report. To find the underbelly of the discussion. To bring forth perspectives not shared by the majority. To be the 10th man who advocates for the mad position. Because there’s value there that could be the source of transformation for an individual or community.

The Minority Report in the Garden

We do these things because all it takes is looking at one bible story to see how important it is to seek the minority report and allow it to interact with the majority reading.

The account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 is one such story. If you remember the flannelgraph version of your childhood and then compare it with the actual text, there are significant differences. But there are even deeper differences that require a willingness to engage a minority report.

The majority reading would see the apple and the Garden of Eden as Eve’s big failure. She was tempted, she coerced Adam, she is to blame. But if we let go of the majority report and go deeper, when God said not to eat from the tree, who was God speaking to? Was God speaking to Adam AND Eve? No. God was talking to Adam alone in Genesis 2. God had not yet made Eve in this story, and though she knows the command in the next chapter, I doubt the memory of this conversation came along with the rib. Also in verse 3:6. “Eve took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Eve was not alone. Adam was right there with her, and there were no smartphones back then so if he was standing there, he was likely paying attention. She did not force him to eat. She handed it to him and he ate. A temptress and a coercive woman, Eve was not.

That one was easy, right? That’s in the text, but it takes a willingness to read the text in a new way. What about harder passages that require an even more minority reading?

Going Deeper into the Minority Report

The majority reading would see Eve as subordinate to Adam, and therefore all women as subordinate to men, as not only was Eve made out of Adam’s spare parts, but God says to her that “your husband shall rule over you.” But if we seek a minority reading, consider the poetics of the moment: God chose to make Eve out of Adam’s rib. Where is the rib located on the body? The side. God did not choose something from Adam’s head. God did not choose something from Adam’s foot. God is saying that Eve is not above you, Eve is not below you. Eve is equal with you. You two will be partners, side by side in everything you do. It’s a beautiful image.

Furthermore, according to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, the word translated as “rule over” in Hebrew has another translation: “to be a model for.” Instead of reading “Adam shall rule over you” it could also read as “Adam will model himself after you” which is a perfect parallel to the rest of the sentence so it reads “Your desire shall be for your husband and your husband will model himself after you.” Funny how our mostly male translators certainly prefer the majority reading than the minority one, huh? A submissive second to Adam, Eve is not. A submissive second to men, women are not.

Seeking the minority report in the Bible can be as easy as actually reading the text with fresh eyes, or it can be harder by involving narrative analysis or translating tools. But in such a rich, living text, seeking out the minority report is not only helpful for better understanding the Scripture, it is demanded of thinking people to see beyond what we think we know about the text to the infinity beyond.

(note: the above bible analysis is adapted from a sermon that interwove elements from my friend Brittany Sky’s post here)

For Better Reporting…

Unlike WWZ and the Tom Cruise movie, the minority report is not always correct or even helpful. But seeking it can lead to divergent thinking and incite seeing different ways of approaching a troublesome passage. As we seek to make peace with a Bible that has disturbing majority readings, we would do well to seek the diversity of interpretations to help inform what a passage means to us.


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Oct 14 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Engaging the Powers in Online Religious Discussion

Original post at

“Someone asked me recently what I see in American religion and culture. My answer? I’m seeing more vibrancy, questioning, energy, and risk than ever at the grassroots and more anxiety, panic, and authoritarianism than ever in upper level structures and institutions. I think the two are related.”

~ Diana Butler Bass (quoted on FB)


Think [Everything is] Different

30 years ago in 1984, Apple came out with their best commercial of all time: a woman running with a sledgehammer to break the projection screen of a dystopian Orwellian future, concluding with the Apple tagline “Think Different.” Since that time and with the rise of the Internet, many different genres have thought differently and been significantly disrupted. Music and movies and books that used to have centralized publishing centers are now more decentralized thanks to music sites like Pure Volume, fan-funded films like Veronica Mars, fan-edited videos like Star Wars Uncut, and self-published books.

With so many genres shifting (often dramatically), it stands to reason that the genre of Christian conversation would shift. And in recent weeks in my niche of the Internet, it could not be more clear: Christian discourse is changing–and it is changing dramatically.

Up until 20 years ago, religious conversation primarily happened in the academic halls where rhetoric could be evaluated, fallacies pointed out, and people played by the rules of debate. Conversation also happened in church halls where cultural niceties and face-to-face community gave a framework for the hottest of topics (mostly). While there were obviously side conversations by minority parties, rarely did the majority and minority groups find common arenas for discourse.

But then the Internet happened and the conversation moved from the halls to the home. No longer was religious conversation held under the authorities’ watchful eye, but could be fully experienced by anyone. Doctrines were critiqued online, answers to religious questions were found online, and safe places to question authority were anonymously engaged in–and this is key–by both majority and minority voices in the same arenas. I know because I’ve engaged in spirited online religious debate anonymously and by name since 1999.

We are in the middle of the most radical shift since Gutenberg’s press moved reading the Bible from the pews to the homes in the people’s language. But this is not without risk: moving the religious conversation outside of the gates (academic and ecclesial) threatens those who have not only dominated the discourse but also defined it through rules, customs, and etiquette.


Rules for Debate as Power Strategies

Our recent blog post alleging majority blindness to a minority need brought forth many reactions (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) and responses to the reactions (1 2). At the risk of a false generalization, the reactions all have to do with violations of what they believe is the proper method for proper discourse. Because we were depicted as having broken varied rules of engagement, our argument was invalidated–and thus almost universally ignored.

Such calls remind me of dismissing a person because they broke a rule in formatting MLA/APA style (ie. “Sally’s paper on white privilege is invalid because she mis-structured a footnote”). As exhibited above (and in some of the comments), the majority culture expects you to conform to their terms as prerequisites to engaging your argument. As the Frost/Nixon movie depicted, determining the rules of discourse is a power strategy for people to craft discourse to their advantage.

Now that the academics, the church authorities, and the people are in the same arenas online, the relative value of these rules has shifted. One of my Facebook friends noted that if someone makes a point in an Internet debate and the person replies “that’s a fallacy” and drops the mic…well, they don’t often find the other side is convinced. To use a sports metaphor, you can throw yellow flags on the football field all you want, but it doesn’t stop the play. Likewise, you can allege process errors all you want, but ultimately you have to address the substance of the argument, not shame it into silence.

I think that we recognize that we do need etiquette in our online discussions, especially in the arenas of plagiarism, citing sources, public quoting of private statements, personal attacks, and many others–including fallacies and errors in logic. But to view them as checklists of requirements before those accustomed to policing religious discussion will respond is a power-play that I don’t believe is helpful in the Internet Age. And even more unhelpful would be if persons of privilege pledge to converse only with other signers of “conversation covenants” so they can create digital Hauerwasian colonies away from the rabble. Don’t laugh: it could happen, either overtly or by silent agreement.

Creative Commons Share

Creative Commons Share

Conversation Beyond the Power Discourse

There is a better way. I believe to best engage in religious discussions online is not to impose a set of rules authored by the power structure but rather to embody a radical way of discourse that simultaneously negates both the power structures and the lawless rabble.

  • The tendency to enforce debate norms and rules is a manifestation of what Peter Rollins calls “power discourses” or a form of Christian apologetics that convinces by word or wonder that their understanding of Christianity is compelling (examined here). By structuring the debate and discrediting arguments that don’t follow the structure, the power is maintained by those who curate the structure but who claim to just be playing “by the rules.”
  • The contrary form of power discourses is powerless discourses, or ones that do not seek to force the other to conform but instead carry the desired ethics in our own selves. In the face of the checklists of the Pharisees, Jesus spoke in parables and language that was looked down upon by the authorities but was ultimately more authentic to the people’s experience. Like a kenotic Christ, our power is in powerlessness, not in imposition of assumed authority.

Our power is in exhibiting in our persons and our personas online in a way of being that people are attracted to. In today’s decentralized world, the best way to converse online is to be the person who you want to converse withthat’s it. Engage how you want to engage, consistently on other blogs as your own, and develop your own voice. Be a light on a hill. You may even gather a community who converses in the same way–but through choice rather than coercion.

Far from being combative or throwing in the towel, I believe this is a missional position: it allows us to be better missionaries to a digital culture embedded alongside our own. And instead of giving people the Bible and teaching them to read it in our language, we learn the people’s language and speak the Bible with respect to their norms and in their town halls and internet rancor pits. Those of us who can get over ourselves and wade in and carry the candle of Christ above the fray (and occasionally in the thick of it) can be examples of the living Christ–and if it is important, one can win more hearts and minds than power narratives reliant on unrecognized authority could ever do. I’ll write more on this in the future.


This was a long post so here’s the “too long; didn’t read” version:

  1. Disregarding/ignoring the substance of a person’s argument because they did not meet your terms of engagement is not often a shared value in the Internet arena.
  2. As conversation moves from the pews and the academy to the digital streets, those who consider themselves missionaries to digital culture must carry their own values and norms with them rather than impose rules and regulations for debate that those outside of the power structure do not recognize.


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Oct 01 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: The Smartphone Might Revive Participatory Worship

Original post at

In the past 500 years, the dance of technological advancement and church music has moved worship from a spectacle to participatory to a spectacle again. What will be the technology that brings it back?


The Upswing of Congregational Singing

The image of church music has changed a lot over the years, mostly thanks to shifts in technology.

Before the Reformation, people listened as cantors and professionals sang in Latin (a language they did not know) and the priest interpreted the words. Music was a spectacle as the people just listened. After the Reformation put the worship experience in the common language and the new technology of the Gutenberg printing press began churning out hymns in the people’s language, then participation in worship skyrocketed.

Another shift came from the early Methodists. In the time of John and Charles Wesley, singing was a dignified thing done inside church walls in Pre-Revolutionary War England. From their field preaching and the way how they were criticized for being “rowdy” you know that meant they sung outside. These participatory hymns were highly important because they taught theology and Christian tenets to common folk who were mostly illiterate.

There’s some areas that I likely missed–I’m not an informed music commentator. But it seems to me that in the span of a few hundred years, music in worship went from an observed spectacle to a full and essential participation in worship, thanks to a happy marriage between technology and hymnody.


The Pendulum swings back…

Today, there’s some concern that worship is reverting back to spectacle and away from congregational/choral singing. Church For Men articulates the most recent bit of the history and points their finger squarely at uncritical use of Powerpoint:

About 20 years ago a new technological advance – the computer controlled projection screen – entered America’s sanctuaries. Suddenly churches could project song lyrics for all to see. Hymnals became obsolete. No longer were Christians limited to 1,000 songs handed down by our elders. At first, churches simply projected the songs everyone knew – hymns and a few simple praise songs that had come out of the Jesus Movement. People sang robustly.

But that began to change about ten years ago. Worship leaders realized they could project anything on that screen. So they brought in new songs each week. They drew from the radio, the Internet, and Worship conferences. Some began composing their own songs, performing them during worship, and selling them on CD after church.

In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows…Songs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?

And so the church has returned to the 14th century. Worshippers stand mute as professional-caliber musicians play complex instruments, sung in an obscure language. Martin Luther is turning over in his grave.

The move from common-knowledge hymns to ever-shifting Top 40 Christian Contemporary songs (with less systematic theological teaching–with some exceptions) changed us back from participation to spectacle. The number of big band & worship leaders continue to rise as hymnals and church choirs are falling fast. This is not a commentary on the value of a particular style of worship (ie. worship wars circa 2002) but on the effects of shifts in worship music.

I’d like to caution, though, that I do wonder if the technology or the music leadership choices is more to blame? Having the screens project the words causes people to face and sing forward (thus louder), rather than looking down to the hymnal and trying to read music. So is it the technology or the temptation to not use familiar hymns that is to blame for a downturn in congregational singing? I would argue the latter.

Regardless, for those of us that value participatory hymnody, what is the solution?


Music as Immersion or Accompaniment?

As my own local church sees more young adults participating in worship, I actually think another technology is helping young adults find more draw to participatory hymnody: the Smartphone. Why? You carry your music with you, a soundtrack you are immersed in when you move. I occasionally listen to my Awesome 1990s Alternative mix as I walk and mass-transit from home to church. With the music seemingly coming behind me from my earbuds, I feel more immersed than I did in the actual 1990s with the big stereos. I sing along and pay more attention to the lyrics now–gosh, some of that music was terrible.

The way I consume media on my smartphone now is not accompaniment but immersion. Likewise, the shift in worship must come–as Dan Wilt articulates here–away from seeing technology as accompaniment, as that which draws the focus outward. Technology rather becomes that which immerses us and draws us inward and upward. For some it is the thousands of pipes in an old well-cared-for pipe organ. For some it is wisely chosen images projected on a screen causing visual reflection for the sermon or the hymn. For some it is the architecture of a building with high walls, exposed-wood ceilings, or stained glass. For the best, it is a combination of all three (visual, audio, kinesthetic) in tasteful, intentional ways.

Dan Wilt concludes:

Today, however, many of the Worship Immersion Culture ilk are excited to re-integrate a variety of more participatory worship experiences, from singing together, to experiencing beauty together, to weekly communion, to responsive prayers, to the passing of the peace, and much more.

They don’t need the music to accomplish all things participatory in the conventional sense of the word. They can be surrounded by the music in one moment, and breaking the bread together with a few shared words in the next. In fact, the aesthetics of the building, the type of art adorning the building, the fellowship spaces (cafe areas, etc.), and the missional spaces (food distribution areas, etc.) matter to them as much as the music. Buildings, for the Worship Immersion Culture, matter beyond their function.

My claim is that the smartphone–its immersive ability when it comes to absorbing media, not its distracting features–actually helps mimic and draw out the immersive experience that describes the worship above. If our iPod generation is used to experiencing music in that way, it is actually better for traditional hymnody and worship experience, which does the same type of music experience in a deep architectural space. Many evangelical worship services are beginning to do the same thing: though we sometimes pick on Asbury UMC in Tulsa here at HX, their new worship setup is phenomenal.

Consume or Be Consumed?

The way how we consume media has shifted significantly since the Napster days about 15 years ago: what can we learn from it for our worship experiences? While we can moan about how many bad choices and unwise uses of technology in churches have caused a decline in the use of choirs and hymnals, we can also embrace how media consumption habits (influenced by smartphones) can actually bring back an appreciation of the best aspects of hymnody and worship experience, encourage congregational singing (when it is paired with wise choices of music and implementation of technology), and embrace the best mix of presentational and participatory music in the worship experience.

I’m excited for the next few decades as we seek to undo the damage done by uncritical use of technology and worship design. I believe it is possible by careful use of technology (and appropriation of media consumption habits) to move the pendulum back to congregational singing, immersive worship, and hymnody that teaches the head as much as it incites the heart.

This is just a run-through of some thoughts on technology and worship I’ve been kicking around and I thought I would finally throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.


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Sep 29 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: What will a Minority White God look like?

Original post at

When Majorities become Minorities

In last week’s blockbuster piece on the United Methodist Church “Why Straight White Men Want to Close General Conference(which came in at #6 in the Top 10 most-shared posts on HX), we examined a majority culture’s blind spots to minority needs. A funny thing happened: there was significant online critique from straight white men who felt strongly that pointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational! Morgan Guyton experienced a similar phenomenon with another majority culture (Men’s Rights advocates) on his Rape Culture blog post.

As I wondered why responses to specific challenges of a majority culture’s perspective have become more confrontational, I found there’s actually some demographic and political psychological data behind it, using the example of white (Anglo) American demographics.

First, 2012 was the first year that white (Anglo) was not the dominant demographic of babies in America.

[N]on-Hispanic white Americans are expected to become a minority group over the next three decades. For years, Americans of Asian, black and Hispanic descent have stood poised to topple the demographic hegemony historically held by whites. Based on current rates of growth, whites in the under-5 group are expected to tip to a minority this year or next…in five years, minorities will make up more than half of children under 18. Not long after, the total U.S. white population will begin an inexorable decline in absolute numbers, due to aging baby boomers.

Second, politically it has been shown that any dominant group, when confronted with perceived loss of majority status, reacts with fear:

[W]hen the majority — here the still-existing racial majority of “white” Americans — perceives, even if not statistically factual, that they have become the minority, their psychological response is fear and loathing. Fear at the prospect of having to actually consider one’s race as not inhabiting the dominant position; loathing for having to realize that they live in a multiracial world, and that they have effectively become “othered.”

With data like that, I’m worried for my demographic–you see, I’m a straight white male too. As my demographic starts to slowly experience becoming less of a hegemonic force in American politics, culture, and church, cultural conflict will likely become louder and more hostile. And more than that: as the majority-white image of God will become less pervasive, how do those of us in the majority culture deal with diverse images of God on television, preached from the pulpits, and reflected on by our kids at school?

When Minorities Inform Majorities

Let me step back and say this: I’m not saying that the feedback to last week’s post was due to the shifting white experience in America. What I am saying is this: as the majority-white view is overcome by a plurality of minority and ethnic views, the white concept of God shifts as well. And we would all do well to figure out how to respond well to the conversation.

The primary sentiment to engage is that “our social location doesn’t matter”: the claim that classically orthodox beliefs about God are universal, crossing cultural boundaries, and uniting people across time and space. There’s 2000 years of testimony to this sentiment, from the ethnic diversity of the Patristics to the presence of Christians in most every culture across the globe.

However, it is equally valid to claim that God is perceived differently in different cultures. Instead of cultural engagement being merely a tool for evangelism, theology should be a two-way street where critiques and perspectives from minority perspectives inform and change theology from the dominant cultures, and are granted a seat at the table in church structures.

Our image of God does reflect our social location in ways we are not often aware. For example:

  • Liberation theology thinks about God from the perspective of Latin American lower class workers. Liberation theology introduced “God’s preferential option for the poor” into our lexicon and you can see it echoed even from the Vatican these days.
  • Feminist theology thinks about God from the perspective of some women’s experience. Feminist critique of the Bible have shown patriarchal bias in the text in ways that better everyone who reads the Bible. Further, Womanist theology thinks about God from the perspective of non-Anglo women and has expanded/critiqued feminism for not giving significant perspective to non-Anglo women, primarily African and Asian.
  • Black theology thinks about God from the perspective of African-Americans. Black theologians like James Cone have claimed a uniqueness to minority perceptions of God that are authentically inaccessible to majority cultures.
  • Other ethnicities and social locations have similar perspectives, such as Asian-Americans and LGBTQ critiques.

It’s often said here at HX that the best institutions absorb the gains of the movements. I believe that the most healthy and vibrant theologies also absorb the minority experience of God back into the majority, whatever that majority is.

We have habits and values and activities that we absorb from our social location, and it often isn’t until we experience difference that we can begin to embrace the good aspects and shed the bad aspects. I believe the same is true of our image of God. If we truly want to get closer to an image of God less restricted by our finite human experiences, such examinations are done best in communities of difference rather than hegemonies of uniformity.

In other words, exciting days ahead for theology!


Worse Before it Gets Better

As Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight “The night is always darkest before the dawn…but the dawn is coming.” The sad reality is that the majority-culture God will not go quietly into the night. Things will get much more hostile before they get better. Having one’s image of God supplanted is a difficult and often violent experience…just ask anybody who started seminary believing that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible! How much more will it be with an entire culture that has been dominant for centuries seeing their image of God being less “universal?”

Just as how LGBT progress on marriage led to reactionary steps backwards with faith exemptions and denial of services, the progress of a non-majority image of God will result in fear, insistence on uniformity, and segmentation of culture (which we examine a lot – see “echo chambers“). What will be an important skill for majority culture Christians to learn will be hospitality to minority cultures. I believe it is the majority culture’s responsibility to provide hospitality for the plurality of minority cultures, be it denominational polity or inclusive language or other forms of cultural difference for the sake of mutual betterment.

The future days will be filled with more holistic, informed, and grassroots images of God which will be better for the entire swath of humanity. We just have to discern together how get there in one piece.


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Sep 26 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Why Straight White Men want to close General Conference #UMC

Original post at

Current calls to “close” the highest doctrine-making body of the United Methodist Church are being made by persons of privilege who are ignoring what it means to put the abused in the same room with the abuser…alone.

General Conference Behind a Big Wall

Back in 2012, General Conference–the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church–was protested by progressives calling for the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Bishop Michael Coyner from Indiana called to close the General Conference and have police remove all non-delegates. While that decision was later reversed and no part of GC2012 was closed, the idea was retained in the consciousness of those seeking procedural advantage in the debate.

This past week in 2014, Dr. David Watson, Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary in Ohio, wrote that the 2016 General Conference in Portland should be closed to non-delegates from the get-go:

I suggest that we close the GC meeting space to all but delegates, bishops, and other essential personnel. Anyone who wishes to watch the proceedings can do so via live streaming. We should ban all caucus groups from having a presence inside our gathering space: no protests, no signs, no distribution of materials, no flash mobs, no stopping our work together. We should focus on the business at hand with as little distraction as possible…To have all of this business function in an atmosphere of constant distraction is unfair to the people who care deeply about [other] ministries.

The Via Media Methodists (sigh: this is the second post where The Watson and the VMM are together–what’s up with that?) also support this plan. However, they obviously haven’t attended GC: they say “the floor should be closed like Annual Conference” when that’s exactly how GC is set up now. They have an area closed to delegates only and with observation bleachers. Watson is proposing closing the entire room to anyone but delegates and pre-authorized people. Regardless, here’s why:

Closing the floor would prevent some of ideological grandstanding by unelected and uninvited parties.  No protests.  No propaganda.  No seizing the table.  No caucuses, at least inside the bar.  Just doing the work the church has called this body to do

Finally, Joel Watts also supports this idea because to him, holy = separate.

So from the perspective of these guys, the body needs to be closed for a matter of integrity: GC cannot do what they are charged to do with outside people in the bleachers or within visual range of the speeches.

What We Don’t Get

Looking at the list of people calling for such things, here’s the thing: there’s a lot of things that particular demographics just don’t get.

  • Men don’t need a friend to watch our bar drink when we go to the bathroom.
  • White Men don’t need an advocate when we make a complaint about the police, or a translator when applying for asylum, or hope for a video camera on a cop that shoots them.
  • Straight White Men don’t have to bring a partner to Thanksgiving dinner to feel safe with our families.
  • Married Straight White Men don’t need to be walked home, and after being dropped off, we don’t need to be watched from the car to make sure we make it in the door.

I know because I am a married straight white man and rarely not in the majority culture. And I often have to see beyond my privilege, and I’m thankful to gracious friends who call me on it.

So hear this and understand: General Conference is a big scary room for our LGBT members and delegates. Imagine being in a room with people who want to change you, who want to ignore you, who want to exclude you, and in some cases, if you were in their country, who would turn you in to face the death penalty.*

Now imagine you are alone.

You don’t have to imagine what is needed to remedy this situation. Look at this picture taken when LGBT and straight allies made a declaration from the floor of General Conference 2012:

There’s a reason why advocates are invited to be with people at decision-making moments: it’s scary going at it alone. The protestors and the silent witnesses who stand when a statement is made at the microphone–the ones who blow whistles when renounced churchmen like Albert Outler called LGBT people sinful and promiscuous–they aren’t there for you. They are there to support the delegates who love their church but are in the lion’s den, and the gay MethoNerd teens who might happen to be watching from home on the livestream, yearning for change.

That’s why an open and transparent General Conference is so important. Its current form (with a distinct bar where only delegates can be, but non-delegates are in the room) is both inclusive of the voices of the diversity of Methodism and functional to allow for clarity of voting. You want a via media both/and? You got it already.

Navigating a Tense Situation

Dr. Dorothee Benz, a GC2016 delegate from New York and outgoing chairperson of MINDNY, writes:

“As if the slogan ‘therefore, go’ weren’t enough of a marketing disaster for a denomination known for its exclusion of LGBTQ people, now comes the proposal to literally close the doors at General Conference and conduct its queer-bashing business away from any public scrutiny. This is a terrible idea, shockingly undemocratic and exclusive. What made the conferencing in 2012 unholy was not protest, but rather the abuse heaped on LGBTQ delegates by other delegates and the silent complicity of those presiding.

Public scrutiny is an essential antidote to abuses of power of all kinds, including the kind of  spiritual violence we have been subjected to at General Conference. The proposal to close the doors at General Conference is nothing less than an attempt to make  vulnerable minorities defenseless.”

– Dr. Dorothee Benz

So, yes, straight white men, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it’s disruptive. Yes, those ministries that are So Important To You™ are not being given equal time.

Because the Church is doing violence and requiring the abused must be alone in the room with the abuser, without support or advocates, is a requirement that would be ludicrous in civil society.

If you want equal time, if you really want to stop the distractions at General Conference, then stop the abuse, fully include LGBT persons in the life of the church, and we can get back to peacefully discerning the best forms of the church in the rest of Christendom.

But if what you really want is to make decisions without seeing the consequences on people’s faces, and to use procedural motions to cow LGBT delegates into silent submission on the floor, then be honest about it.

Guys, I understand. It’s hard to see how a seemingly innocent change would actually make the room more harmful for persons without our privilege. But while General Conference cannot easily do what they are charged to do with an open forum, they cannot be the Church that “does no harm” with a closed one. Let’s start there.



Yes, really

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