This new book, edited by Geoff Ryan (Cardus Research Fellow) and Robert Joustra (Cardus Researcher), brings together some of the most creative and ground level thinkers and doers on public religion and urban policy. It includes essays by:
Click here to order your copy today.
In this issue of Policy in Public we happily provide a snapshot of what you’ll find within the book, with excerpts from Mark Petersen’s and Geoff Ryan’s essays.
“CREATING THE CONDITIONS FOR TRANSFORMATION”
I sat at the table chewing furiously on an overcooked steak. Across from me was a former evangelical pastor, in tears, who told of his crisis of faith and recent decision to abandon his role at his church. His belief system had been shaken to the core when the horrifying truth dawned on him: he no longer held to certain tenets of the tradition he had been preaching for ten years.
A literal interpretation of Scripture, a six-day creation, and commitment to male leadership in the church — all these issues became sharp sticking points for my friend. While he continued to follow Christ wholeheartedly, he couldn’t make the rational leap to affirm some doctrines of his particular community. But worse than the angst of his own personal dilemma was the intolerance for divergent opinion that existed in his congregation.
His church had not been a safe place for people to ask questions, admit doubt, probe truth, and express diversity of thought and practice. Anyone who didn’t toe the party line was suspect, driving out those that couldn’t subscribe to the moralistic majority. It was the kind of religious group that seems to get overexposed in national media and on YouTube, driving the impression that the church is filled with the intolerant.
In this case, push came to shove, and it was the pastor who had to leave. So he resigned, seeking to serve God and his community outside the confines of the religious establishment. It’s a story I’m hearing with greater frequency, as a growing number of theological refugees exit inward-looking congregations to meet in homes and coffee shops, and serve those outside the church doors.
These people have not abandoned their commitment to Christ; they’ve left behind their allegiance to a religious system that can’t cope with diversity of thought and practice. Churches and denominations more interested in fighting theological battles talk to themselves — loud, strident voices lead the debates that echo through the empty church building and in anonymous online forums.
When they do focus outward, it is to seek the vulnerable, proselytizing others to a proscribed way of thinking. This rigid sequence is clear: you must believe our way before you can belong. These last vestiges of a modern spirituality, based on a dated worldview, rear up intolerantly when pressed into the corner by a globalized culture.
Quibbling over words, and stocking our warehouse buildings with comfortable stacking chairs and PowerPoint projectors, these Christians seem to have all the answers. But we’ve forgotten how to humbly say “I don’t know,” as well as “I’m sorry.” And we’ve resisted learning how to live as people who follow Christ in the midst of the diversity of a complex culture. My friend’s story would be utterly depressing if it were not for the many more people I meet on a daily basis who demonstrate the flipside of an ingrown spirituality. Many are choosing an activist faith that takes one into the riskier alleyways and soup kitchens of service. While it is “safer” to not venture outside the church walls, the more challenging option seems to prevail, often without the official sanction of a denomination or church. These bold adventurers, motivated by a passionate faith and often some lingering doubts, are oriented towards serving people outside their four walls.
They have chosen to sacrifice the comforts of predictability, to follow Christ into the streets, institutions and businesses of the city. Enmeshing themselves into the broader social fabric, they are net contributors, offering service and life to all with no strings attached. Incorporating themselves into the broader community, eyes blinking as entering bright room, they lean into inclusive approaches marked by actions before words. They’ll offer a sandwich before an explanation. My work brings me face-to-face with spectacular examples of hidden Christians who have organized themselves to live sacrificial lives of loving service in their communities. Here are a few lesser known stars in the night sky: Gateway Centre for New Canadians in Mississauga, Ontario flings open the doors of their community centre to welcome hundreds of immigrants a month, including 250 Muslims who use the Christian centre for weekly Friday prayers. Rocha’s community models sustainable environmental conservation through its leadership role in protecting the Little Campbell Watershed in South Surrey, B.C. and parts of the Pembina Valley in southern Manitoba. My People International has a team that travels to remote indigenous communities in Canada’s vast northland, offering workshops and counseling for First Nations communities facing high suicide rates and sexual abuse.
Word Made Flesh patterns itself after Mother Teresa, living in the bowels of gritty urban poverty and loving neighbours who are prostitutes, street kids, and war amputees in places like Kolkata, India and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Prison Fellowship Canada’s many volunteers visit those who never receive visitors, and offer prisoners skills and networks to adapt to post-prison life.
What is this dangerous journey we are called to as those who follow Christ outside the walls of our religious systems? It’s one that does not reinforce and bulk up one’s own religious establishment, imposing burdensome regulations and expectations on people. In fact, those were the types that Christ seemed to have the greatest issues with in His life. Instead, those who believe Jesus is Lord imitate his trajectory downward and outward — He gave up His rights and came to serve; His life is an offering for all. In like manner, followers of Christ identify with and serve others with great tolerance and respect, even when differences abound.
Approaches such as these create the environment for trust to be nurtured, and for transformation to be gifted to a community.
“PROBLEM SOLVING AND TROUBLE MAKING”
In 2003, Toronto experienced the horrific abduction and murder of a 10 year old girl in the west end of the city by the name of Holly Jones. It turned out that a neighbour, who apparently would sit alone pondering porn all day, had decided to act on his obsessions.
He kidnapped Holly and killed her, cut her body up and threw the pieces into the waters of Lake Ontario. In a culture of shock, where the ability to shock is actually rare, this macabre crime shocked the city and the country.
One evening some weeks after the full story of what happened to Holly had emerged, I was talking about the tragedy with some friends. One remarked: “How could someone actually do something like that?” The other two nodded in agreement, suitably disturbed.
We talked further and then all three headed off to watch the film Red Dragon, a sequel to the 1991 release, The Silence of the Lambs. After they left it occurred to me that this film outing might in itself point toward an answer to that question.
How could people do something like that?
Well, the seeds of someone doing something like that, at least in part, were inherent in watching a film like that. Let me explain. I think that films like Silence of The Lambs, Red Dragon and mostly anything by Quentin Tarantino fall into the realm of pornography. Pornography isn’t just about sex, but can extend into other areas as well, each genre having their own film and TV presence and dedicated magazines: food porn (the plethora of cooking programs); car porn (the Fast and Furious film franchise); house porn (Home & Garden magazine, Extreme Home Makeover); poverty porn (“Live Aid”); torture porn (the Saw films, slasher flicks).
The core dynamics of any type of pornography are a blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, and then pushing the boundaries of the possible. It permits the person who indulges to consider the possibility of something that he or she, or anyone else, would not ordinarily ever consider or think about. Porn introduces into one’s thought life the possibility, the “what if,” of a darker side of human nature. It’s the proverbial camel poking its nose into the tent.
And there will always be those people in society who take that “what if” a fatal step further and make it into reality. I think that it is because ordinary, normal people patronize films such as Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs that depraved ideas such as violent murder, psychopathic thought processes and human cannibalism start to be considered in the public consciousness as possibilities.
From consideration the next step is acceptance in some form, possibly as a fantasy reality, often as a weird and parallel, sub-culture norm. Once the unthinkable has begun to be thought about enough and become accepted in some form, the next step is to make it a reality and concretize it—to enact it. Michael Briere, the quiet neighbour who killed Holly Jones, told the court at his trial that he was “consumed by desire after viewing child pornography.”
After living overseas for most of the 1990s, I returned to Canada in 2000 having not watched TV for almost a decade. Turning our new TV set one evening, I caught an episode of The Sopranos, a show enjoying huge popularity at the time. I was surprised at how much swearing there was and the extremity of it. It is not swearing in itself that disturbs me, but rather the fact that it was happening on a mainstream TV show airing in prime-time and before my kids’ bedtime.
This indicated to me that a shift in societal acceptability had occurred while I was out of the country. At the risk of sounding like the middle-aged man that I am, such a thing would never have been permitted even a decade previously. But as culture evolves — or devolves — the unthinkable is thought about; then the possibility that things can be said (and done) is introduced into the cultural psyche; the possibility is entertained; and the stage is set for an acceptance of the new, expanded reality. So what does this all have to do with the church and the city in conversation, and with the question of whether religious communities are problems solvers or problem makers?
Cities are the cradles of culture in society. Urban centres contain the critical mass of people and ideas and, therefore, the capacity to move culture. It is in cities that much of culture, high and low, is birthed, shaped and disseminated.
Some dictionary definitions of culture are: “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another”; “a particular form or stage of civilization”; “the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.”
All of this is to say that who we are as a nation, society and people, is driven by the cultural context. We shape it even as we are shaped by it. All of our public institutions and our private constructs are products — to greater or lesser degrees — of the culture that is incubated in our cities. I believe that religious communities — churches, mosques, temples — bring numerous benefits to cities. One thing that they all have in common is their essentially conservative nature. Now, “conservative” is one of the many words that has changed profoundly in meaning, becoming quite devalued. It has shifted from a positive notion to an essentially negative connotation, to the point that one of our major Canadian political parties, the Conservatives, adopted oxymoronic branding in order to mitigate against the culturally negative optics of their name, and became “The Progressive Conservatives.”
At the root of the word “conservative” is the idea of “to conserve,” or “to preserve”, which is fundamentally a protective and salvific concept. People make preserves or jam, capturing the essential goodness of the fruit, keeping it from rot until a time when it can be enjoyed by all. People conserve vegetables, so that when times are tougher and fresh vegetables are scarce, there will be enough sustenance for everyone. Even the dictionary notes that in spite of today’s understanding of the word (“cautiously moderate, purposefully low; traditional”) it still contains the older truth of the conservative function of “preserving,” “limiting change,” “avoiding novelty,” and “having the power to conserve.”
So my radical thought here (as in the original meaning of “radical,” meaning a return to the root, the fundament) is that religious communities in our cities, due to their essentially conservative nature and as the main repositories of societal ethics, morals and values, act as preservatives to keep culture from spoiling and rotting. Religious communities are really the only ones left in society who might say to culture: “Hold on, maybe we shouldn’t be thinking about this?”; “Maybe opening up these possibilities will result in consequences that harm the common good”; “Maybe this is simply wrong.”
I believe that religious communities constitute the soul of the city and the conscience of culture. In Christian terms, we would say that faith communities act as “salt” (a preservative) and “light” (illumination). Without them society would have no brakes, and it would simply be a matter of time before we crash.