Friday, April 29, 2011

It's Hard to Love a Luddite
I have been wrestling with some uncomfortable questions about our faith and the quality of community life it produces. It disturbs me that the most reliably and vocally Christian parts of our country consistently rank at the bottom when it comes to education. Furthermore, the quality of life in these areas, as measured by any number of factors, does not seem affected by the presence of Christianity, or at least by the type of Christianity we have have embraced.

Although Christianity has made a huge difference in the lives of people around the world, this does not seem to be true for the poor people in Appalachia and the American South. I want to know why.

That question has led to others.

Is there (or should there be) a correlation between the percentage of devout Christians within a given area and the level of education, poverty, and crime – the quality of life, in other words – experienced by the general population in that same area?

Are the Evangelical regions of our nation safer?



Better educated?

Does Evangelical influence make any difference at all in the quality of social life of a given community?

When I observe through history how Christian spirituality, service and education has lifted individuals and cultures, I marvel at the fruit of our faith. I can say the same about what occurs in many parts of the globe today. However, when I think about the Christian influence on American culture now, I am dismayed.

Something is wrong.

It is time to realize that much of American Evangelicalism lives and operates within a cultural and scientific perspective that has not been current for at least three generations. We don’t discuss continental drift. We are uneasy about the implications of the Genome project. The theory of relativity and quantum mechanics seem to have no bearing upon our views of time and space. We do not intend to adjust our local churches to the realities of globalization. We have not noticed the downward spiral of poor believers in our inter-cities or rural counties.

We are, perhaps deliberately, stuck in a time warp and spending too much energy trying to pretend that the world has not changed.

This has happened before.

In 1811 a group of textile workers in Nottingham, England began destroying weaving machines with a large sledge hammer they called “the hammer of God.” These textile terrorists would soon be known as 'the Luddites.' They were on a crusade to destroy emerging technology because it was reshaping English culture.

It’s easy to make fun of the poor Luddites, because we are not impoverished nineteenth century textile workers. We are not wondering about how to feed our children after machines take over our jobs.  But it doesn’t take much imagination to understand their plight. If machines were taking food out of our childrens' mouths, then we might conclude that machines are evil.

To some English people those machines were a sign of progress. They realized that the factories were growing the nation’s industrial base because they were already profiting from the shift. Today, as we look back, most of us share the perspective of those progressives. However, it didn’t look like progress to those living beside streams of urine and feces in filthy shacks as they choked on the factory fumes. The textile workers remembered the agricultural life of their grandparents and the natural rhythms of work they had experienced in the pre-industrial age. It seemed as though someone was deliberately destroying their paradise and replacing it with these “dark satanic mills.”

The Luddites intended to fight this evil with the hammer of God.

Are American Evangelicals Luddites?

Oh, when it comes to technology, contemporary Christians are certainly not Luddites. We like our gadgets. As soon as we can imagine an application for them, we even use them in worship. However, if we are talking about our attitudes toward the sciences that create the technology, or toward the humanities that contemplate the values by which we live, many of us are very much like Luddites. We want the world to stop changing and we don’t want to consider what it will look like to live and work in a globalized society where our faith is one among many. We are not certain we have what it takes to survive in that sort of world.

Those who can, ignore the changing world. Those who can't are floundering without a map.

Upwardly mobile Evangelicals send their children to great universities. There, some of these children encounter contemporary issues for the first time. Hopefully, they also join a good campus ministry. If they are not terribly concerned with developing a coherent world view, they may earn the degree necessary for getting a good job without becoming overly concerned about the implications of globalization or the scientific conclusions of the last one hundred years.

The view from below is more dismal. Poor evangelicals do not have access to private religious education. The children of poor Evangelicals attend public schools and immediately encounter secular perspectives very different from what they have learned at home. Their alarmed parents often react by encouraging them to study for vocations that will not require them to face either disturbing scientific knowledge or the philosophical nuances of literary life.  This often leads poor evangelicals to choose either menial occupations, or perhaps more lucrative kinds of work that nonetheless do not involve facing the dangerous new ideas of contemporary life.

Whether wealthy or poor, many Evangelicals are constantly retreating from the realities of a globalized, postmodern and technologically sophisticated age.This has created an unsustainable situation. Either Christians must learn to make the sorts of contributions their ancestors once made to the culture or stop claiming to be anything more than a society built on nostalgia.

The place we can begin is in our own backyard: the hellholes of our inter cities and rural counties, which though filled with gospel music and Jesus billboards, produce a constant crop of misery. The hammer of God, which we often use to bash legitimate questions posed by contemporary life, could become a blessing were we to use it to batter away at the demonic structures of poverty, ignorance and despair.  We can recover the old weapon of exorcism and drive out the spirits of defeat, fear, anger and denial from ourselves.

Many say we need a national revival, but we have experienced a number of emotional updrafts we have called revival every decade or so for the last century. We need something else, something like the transformational power of a reformation, that will reorder our thoughts, our theological paradigm and our spiritual practices.

The Luddite path is a dead end.


Lisa Hewitt said...

It's like you always told us, Pastor Scott--as Christians, we are not required to park our brains at the door when we enter a church! But I do think as Christians we are always going to live uneasily side by side with the world. Will we always have the answer to any question? No. The question is, can we retain our faith and be comfortable with that, even in the face of unanswered questions? It took some time, but I have finally realized that yes, I can. My God IS, and all the questions in the world won't change that. My God IS, and just because I can't tell an unbeliever what He had for breakfast doesn't make Him any less real. As I work on my master's degree (and look forward hopefully to a PhD), I find that my increased book knowledge does not compromise my faith (despite valiant attempts by some atheistic professors)--to the contrary, my faith is the foundation on which everything else is built. That is the key to coping with every challenge to it. Once we begin to realize that every change that happens in our lives happens because God has allowed it (although He has not necessarily caused it--a fine distinction), we can seek His face in it and ask Him to use it for His glory. As always, it is about going back to Him on each and every challenge. It is always about my relationship with Jesus.

mlh said...

I don't know .... it sounds very doomsday-ish to me. I trust God knows what He is doing. I think percentage-wise evangelicals are no poorer than the non-religious. And, the rich probably are less religious than the poor because they have no need (or so they think they can take care of themselves). Bigger houses and Lexuses aren't very transformational. And, Solomon in all his wisdom summed up Ecclesiastes with, "Of many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man." The Bible said that the poor will always be with us. The heterogeneity of life is a blessing to us all.