Saturday, September 18, 2010
#191 cont.-North American Youth Congress 2009 Version-B
Foreword: I was initially hesitant to write this up because I worried that it would be too redundant, but Joel asked that this post be more analytical than his, so I set out to do that. This post sets out to apply, somewhat awkwardly, a very limited discursive analysis to nayc 2009 and, as often happens when applying theory to something the first time, it bears a host of flaws. That early realization led to me dragging my feet in posting this (it was supposed to be up last monday). As I prayed about how to write it, I felt something telling me not to write it and I almost backed out on Joel. Finally, on Friday morning while praying in the shower (quick aside, anyone else get some great prayer while bathing/brushing your teeth?) I felt released to write it so long as I approached it from a completely different angle. So, that's what I did. That little vignette isn't an attempt to free me from criticism, in fact, I'd be very happy if you did. I only ask that, as with my last post, you take a little extra time to think this one over before you form an opinion.
For all of the attacks leveled at christianity by Friedrich Nietzsche, the majority of which are completely ridiculous, none rang truer than his belief in the centrality of “ressentiment” to the psychology of many christians (found in the second chapter of On the Genealogy of Morality.) Without going into too much detail—I’ll leave you to look it up if you want something more comprehensive—“ressentiment” differs from the English word “resentment” in that, while the latter is primarily an emotion experienced by one individual towards another, the former is actually a process or strategy of disassociation performed by in individual or group.
Rather than face the burdens and strife of existence head on, accepting personally the responsibility for their actions, Nietzsche argued that judeo-christians surround themselves in a protective shield of dissimulation. Negative feelings that originate within the self are too difficult to address directly because they demand that we reassess our views, beliefs, and actions completely in order to alleviate the discomfort. Naturally, our flesh is unwilling to do so; like adam and eve we would rather hide behind an illusion than face our own shortcomings. What Nietzsche saw in christians was a propensity to shunt their negative feelings, whatever they might be and however they might have come about, onto anyone and anything that seemed inherently alien to them. It seemed obvious to Nietzsche that much of the “joy of the Lord” came not from an assurance in God, but in the skillful ability of christians to redirect all culpability for injustices of the world, specifically their own situations, onto those who did not share in their own worldview.
Simply put, christians regularly cast themselves as blameless victims in order to escape discomfort and will go to great lengths to do so—even if it takes creating straw-men oppressors.
The definition of ressentiment used here doesn’t hold 100% true to Nietzsche’s and we certainly don’t have to accept the totality of his philosophy (Lord knows I don’t), nor should we, but there is always a sliver of truth in every observation and I think the dangerous presence of ressentiment in present day pentecost calls for a hard look at ourselves.
NAYC 2009 AND A NOTE ON RADICALISM
As we’ve said countless times, there’s no dispute here among us as to whether God can do miracles any time He so desires—there were doubtless countless lives touched and changed by God in Nashville; we of course rejoice in the works of God at all times. That said, I can think of no better example of ressentiment practiced en masse than nayc 2009.
Joel did a fairly decent run up of what went down, so I’ll cut straight to the point. In the process of exhorting the youth to become radical, the preachers at nayc 2009 very subtly, but clearly, set the youth up against a straw man enemy. It was necessary for the argument to work that the youth in the audience identify themselves as the pure and obedient radicals they were supposed to be and equally important for there to be a negative opposite in the church to contrast themselves to. At one point in the first night’s service the preacher even elaborated on the seedy element in every church who undermined worship and prayer with their negative attitudes and general shenaniganary. Jumping and screaming red-faced, the preacher told the youth that this evil element was the key to all of the UPC’s—and by proxy the world’s--problems.
A Ha, how brilliant! How original! Get a bunch of teenagers and young adults together in a room and tell them that they are basically flawless and that, secretly, there are people who hate them and are out to get them! Brilliant, we all know that teenagers are completely level-headed and that, left on their own, never think that they’re uniquely special, free from blame, or that the world is against them at all! And sure, you’d be incredibly hard pressed to actually find these people in the church who keep you from dancing or worshipping merely by virtue of their presence in the sanctuary, but to quote The Boondocks Gin Rummy, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
I hope you picked up on the sarcasm in the paragraph above. Teenagers of any faith or creed already practice resseniment very easily, it’s a part of the emotional and rational immaturity that comes along with growing up, but the message of nayc 2009 actually affirmed that self-centeredness and disassociation from personal responsibility. In essence, all youth had to do in order to fly straight, to answer the call of God to change the world, was dance to those hillsong and clc tunes till they’re blue in the face, get “radical” for God at every revival meeting, and presto-change-o==world saved! And somewhere Nietzsche smiles knowingly.
Radical? I wonder.
The very first night session in Nashville set the tone with its message, pleading with the youth that they become radical for God in all phases of their lives. Well and good, except that there was nothing beyond that simple exhortation. We were supposed to become radical in our praise and worship, but weren’t we already? As mentioned above, we were supposed to feel victimized by those faceless detractors among us and worship as a means of fighting back and, indeed, that’s what most everyone assembled in the audience did. They danced and jumped and sang till they were out of breath, and then they milled out of the arena to find somewhere to eat so they could re-energize for the party the next night. Radical? That’s church as usual. Even worse, if you had to wait till congress to praise God whole-heartedly, then you’ve got a whole other set of problems.
Forgive me if I can’t see anything radical about that. This is just my opinion, but let me tell you what’s radical: Danny Rivers’ session at nayc 2007 shocked me. It stirred up feelings inside of me that I didn’t know what to do with—regret, self-loathing, anger, sadness, but not only that, also, hope, excitement, purpose, and urgency. You see, that service was radical, it was hard to swallow, it didn’t end in a party and we didn’t know how to handle it. Judging by the relatively low amount of cooperation in the community service programs that were set up in the afternoon for youth to volunteer in, a lot of us didn’t get it. I’m so blessed, my youth pastor’s wife asked me if I wanted to join she and five other youth (six of us out of a 30+ youth group) and thankfully I listened to the spirit instead of wasting my afternoon.
Along with so many others, I came back from nayc 2007 with something I’d never had before. I’d been to every youth congress since I was thirteen, either as a youth or chaperone, but the few of us who participated came back changed in an altogether different manner than ever before. Among other things, we volunteered to teach Sunday school lessons, collected food, school supplies, and clothing and helped distribute them, volunteered at homeless shelters, and set up a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve. Like Paul, I say these things not to brag, but to tell you that even those actions were not really radical in and of themselves.
In the end, no matter what we did, it was never enough. We never left the homeless shelter patting each other on the backs, thanking God for the great time we’d just had or how awesomely He’d used us, and looking forward to where we’d eat afterward because we simply couldn’t. We weren’t allowed to. Looking into the eyes of those in the shelter, seeing the impossible odds they faced and how small our own intermittent actions were in comparison to their everyday struggles made us reassess how we read the Gospel. What was truly radical was that for the first time we stupid and spoilt children, gluttons feeding on God’s mercy and blessings, saw, only ever so dimly, the Gospel in its actuality.
In this sense, you might understand why we were heartbroken by nayc 2009. It wasn’t only the circular preaching that bothered us, but, even more tellingly, were the ridiculous alterations done to the community service program. Gone was the city-wide community service of nayc 2007, to be replaced by a backpack giveaway. Youth participation was minimized to donating school supplies and bibles for the backpacks, nothing more. Taken in a vacuum, we could perhaps understand the backpack giveaway differently, but when we analyze it systematically as part of the overall nayc 2009 message, it becomes clear that it was a rejection of the previous community service project—and its relation to the overall message of nayc 2007. We weren’t “radical” enough in the previous iteration, we didn’t throw the bible in people’s faces; all we did was show them that we were a part of the world and cared very much about changing it for the better. The earlier effort was too risky, we were helping people, but not talking about Acts 2:38 constantly; it wasn’t clear that people would know that we were christians by what we were doing, so we had to make that obvious by inserting bibles and tracts—what an indictment against us! How could we have let that happen?
Note: I understand that it's very difficult to put together something like a community service program and that there were almost assuredly a mountain of obstacles facing the organizers in putting something together for Nashville. (Stressful preparation for a much much smaller christmas eve soup kitchen taught us that) However, one look at the pathetic, disrespectful spectacles put on by the organizers for the purposes of raising money for nayc events (for example, the terrorist kidnapping skit) reduces sympathy for the organizers by the boatload.
Christian historians will tell you that it was precisely because the early christians helped and cared for their brethren (inside and outside of the church) when no one else did, that they were radically different from the world. It was Christians who stayed behind and cared for the sick and dying during the Antonine Plague in 165 C.E. When friends and relatives abandoned them for their own survival, christians fed and prayed for them. The famous physician Galen, who himself retreated to the countryside in fear of death, remarked in wonder at the christians’ ability to not only survive themselves, but to also nurse the sick back to health. It should come as no surprise that the dramatic rise of christianity in the roman empire took place after the plague passed and news of the miracles spread. You see, they didn’t need to tell each other that they were radical, or make sure the world knew they were by announcing it—it was obvious by the way they lived.
Jesus’ radicality lay primarily in His rejection of the contemporary worldview. He demanded that His followers reject the contemporary language and discourses of the day; His use of parable indicated that the even the way that jews and gentiles around him spoke and thought was useless in fully comprehending His message. This, then, is the locus of our disappointment with nayc 2009. Beneath a veneer of radicalism, but in essence nothing more than word games and onanistic performance, nayc 2009 towed the line and maintained status quo (to borrow that ubiquitous pentecostal aphorism). What this world needs are a people called to God, challenging the man-made systems of control, domination, and oppression. Everything in this world, erected by man and his feeble, narcissistic understanding, is set up to destroy us. Simply going to church and burying our heads in the sand, dancing while the world goes to hell—how could we be so selfish and how could we forget our call? This forced ignorance of the call of God is, I think, the inner turmoil which forces modern pentecostals to endlessly search for straw men and villains on whom they can project that ressentiment. We’re pharisees, not radicals.
I used the word emergent for lack of something more specific, maybe liberals or progressives is better, but, I’ll use it for the sake of brevity. I’ll lay aside the litany of qualms I have with the emergent movement (whatever or whoever it is) to make just this one point: you too share in the same pathologies as mainstream pentecostals. In case you weren’t already aware, though I have no idea how you wouldn’t be, Lloyd the Loyalist is a fake account; it’s Joel writing as an over-the-top conservative reactionary, using hyperbole to show the paradoxical nature of most reactionary arguments and their conclusions reductio ad absurdum. Although I wasn’t in favor of the posts in themselves, it’s Joel’s blog and he has a right to his own creative expression, just as we all do.
Disappointing beyond anything, however, were the reactions in the comments section.
Comments flowed in denouncing Lloyd for his ridiculous assertions and arguing that the conservative cohort back off before it completely destroyed the pentecostal movement entirely. The sincerity was appreciable, but the willingness to attack Lloyd and everything he supposedly stood for is indicative of the same ressentiment on display at nayc 2009. In fact, those comments and that attitude, which I’ve witnessed on more than one occasion, only prove Nietzsche’s argument that christians of all stripes are only too willing to find an enemy to blame.
Just as conservatives paint broad brush strokes against the liberal spooks in their congregation, the more progressive (again, using the term loosely) group rail passionately against a reactionary element in their church more imagined than real. Bearing the same stains of the postmodernism they appropriate so naively and so poorly, this younger group attacks everything around them that doesn't look like them. Like most postmodern writing, there is an aspect of blind revenge underlying in everything they say. It's been said in the comments before that this blog is an attempt to use intellectualism and condescension to dominate others in the church. While I would disagree with that in the context of the blog, it is by and large true of the majority of what is said among the emergent crowd. By that, we've fallen right into the same trap as the conservatives. (I won't comment on the other side of the emergent coin, the empty candle-lit services and outward mimicry of rob bell and mark driscoll)
I must admit that I too share in this; I myself have at times joined in the witch hunt for the church’s problem. Foolishness and vanity. The problem is us, we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and own up to our responsibilities. We’ve got to stop fighting amongst ourselves and, in the process, ignoring the call of God to change this world.
The real issue that we all share? No matter how we dress, how much preach down drugs, sex, and alcohol, and how “radical” our worship services are—we just look too much like the world around us, we’re indistinguishable. Like sheep we play along in the same games, trudge the same paths, and never actually challenge the systems set up to level and subvert meaning in our lives. If we’re honest with ourselves, nayc 2009 wasn’t too much different than this; the main differences being that one has a message that might actually preach (hint: listen to the words at the start of the clip and then watch the place blow up in agreement, a whole audience of sermon affirmation guys/gals).
It's useful to note that by the end of his life Nietzsche basically fell apart. Tormented by the chasm between his own convictions and the reality of his life, Nietzsche became a shell of his former self. Look at this picture of Nietzsche (Picture). His sad state was a result of his inability to live the revolutionary and radical life he wrote about endlessly. I hope that we as a body of believers don't fall to the same sickness, caught between what we say we are and what we actually are.
Finally, nayc 2009 was right in its basic assertion: we’ve got to become radical in order to change this world, but we’ve got so far to go, we have to work together.