Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

London Olympics Opening Ceremony: Vision of a Post-Imperial U.K.

Director Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the 30th modern Olympic Games (London, 2012) did more than the usual celebration of the heritage of the host country.  He presented a vision for a 21st C. British identity–a post-imperial Britain transformed into a multi-cultural union that celebrates workers and looks to heal the damage of a past dominated by Empire and the Industrial Revolution.  Much of this was missed in the NBC coverage for the United States audience–with the dumbest commentators ever.

First, the U.S. audience didn’t even see the opening sequence which gave somber tribute to the victims of terrorism–not just to the British people who lost their lives on 7/7 (7 July 2005–bombings in the London Underground and on a double-decker bus), but to all victims of terrorism everywhere. It was not a cry for revenge, but a cry for an end to violence–a cry in the name of the victims for an end to bloodshed.  One of the visuals in this was a poppy field–a reference to the poppies of Flanders Field in World War I. In the UK, the national Days of Remembrance begin with the wearing of poppy flowers in lapels.

Second, the ceremony proper was titled “Isles of Wonder,”–the plural refers to the nations that make up the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The actor Kenneth Branagh portrayed the engineer Brunel who helped launch the Industrial Revolution. He went to the foot of Glastonberry Tor, a symbol of pre-industrial Agrarian Britain and he spoke these lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The first line is inscribed on the Olympic Bell forged at Whitechapel Bell Foundry–a symbol of the Industrial Revolution.

Children’s choirs sing songs chosen to represent each “nation” of the UK:  For Northern Ireland, the tune was “Londonderry Aire,” with the words “Danny Boy”–a tune which unites all the factions of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant.  For Wales, the tune is Cwm Rhondda sung with the English words “Bread of Heaven,” a beautiful Christian hymn that was also a favorite of Gandhi and used in social struggles around the world.  For Scotland, the tune was “Flower of Scotland.” For England, the tune was “Jerusalem,” which is a hymn that protested the destruction of Agrarian Britain and a promise to heal the human and ecological costs of the Industrial Revolution “until we build Jerusalem in England’s fair and pleasant land.”

Then as Branagh/Brunel and his cronies gloat, the ceremony shows the destruction of the British countryside and the rise of factories–with oppressed workers. It also shows the social movements that arose to counter the Dickensian society (sadly, without any direct references to Charles Dickens): including the Suffragist Movement for “Votes for Women.”

The transformation continues –celebrating the electronic revolution created by the World Wide Web, invented by Britisher Tim Berners-Lee. It celebrated much of British musical culture and children’s literature. It especially celebrated the National Health Services–a shot at Tory plans to privatize the beloved system of healthcare.  It showed the influx of immigration that transformed London into the most multi-cultural city in the world.  The Olympic Cauldron created by the flames of others throughout the world.

It also had the typical British self-deprecating humor: James Bond escorting a sky-diving (not really) Queen Elizabeth II into the stadium; “Mr. Bean” daydreaming himself back into the 1924 “Chariots of Fire” British track and field team; a famously missed weather-report; the radio show “The Archers” which the British love as a soap opera about UK country life.

The United Kingdom doesn’t need to mourn its lost empire, Boyle is saying. As an empire in the 19th and much of the 20th C., the UK was hated around the world and hurt many of its people at home. But it has become a multi-cultural force for good. Post-imperial Britain is NOT living on past glory (no matter what U.S. Americans may thing), but is, today, even with its anachronistic monarchy and remaining class system, a beacon of hope for all peoples.  Post-imperial Britain is the best Britain, yet.


July 28, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is “Evangelical” Still a Useful Term?

David Swartz claims that one reason the “Evangelical Left” has failed as a popular movement (unlike the Evangelical Right which dominates an entire U.S. political party) is discomfort with the term “evangelical” itself.  Is this surprising? When I was a teen in the 1970s, it was fairly easy to call myself “evangelical” and to identify with the Evangelical Left as it was then: Jim Wallis, Joyce Hollyday & the Sojourners Community; Tony Campolo; Ron Sider & Evangelicals for Social Action; Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, founded in 1942 by Clarence & Florence Jordan & Martin & Mable England as an interracial Christian community–in the midst of segregation and racism; Jubilee Partners and The Other Side magazine (1965-2005); Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; Nancey Hardesty; Letha Dawson Scanzoni–Biblical feminism and the Evangelical Woman’s Conference (now the Evangelical and Ecumenical Woman’s Conference); the radical Black evangelism of Tom Skinner, John Perkins (and Voice of Calvary Ministries), and William E. Pannell–these and other people and organizations were the Left wing of American Evangelicalism, but clearly recognized as evangelical by their more moderate and even conservative sisters and brothers. (Scanzoni and Mollenkott, Rev. Troy Perry, & a few brave souls at The Other Side even dared–and it was VERY daring at the time–to call into questian the consensus blanket condemnation of “homosexuality.” At the time, I did not dare follow their conclusions, but I did think the conversation should be open and free from fear of knee-jerk cries of “HERESY!”)

After all, when Time magazine referred to 1976 as “Year of the Evangelical,” it focused on a Georgia governor and Sunday School teacher making an unlikely run for U.S. President–Jimmy Carter. With Carter and Billy Graham (then a much less hardline conservative figure) defining the Evangelical Center, those of us on the Evangelical Left had little difficulty with the term “Evangelical.” Even when Jerry Falwell founded The Moral Majority in 1978, he helped reinforce those of us in the Evangelical Left in identifying with the term “Evangelical” because Falwell & his ilk considered “Evangelical” to be a “mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy term,” and proudly proclaimed themselves “Fundamentalists,” intead. (The Moral Majority even published The Fundamentalist Journal which didn’t just lambast liberal Christian publications such as The Christian Century, and Christianity & Crisis–the latter now sadly defunct–or Evangelical Left publications like Sojourners, The Other Side, Radix, or Katallagete (of which, only Sojourners is still in circulation), but indicted such staid organs of the Evangelical establishment as His, Eternity, and even Christianity Today as heretical.) Thus, Falwell and other Religious Right figures helped the secular mainstream media distinguish between “Evangelicals” and “Fundamentalists.”

What changed?  The fierce doctrinal debate over whether Scriptural authority should be understood by the term “inerrancy,” a debate which began first among Missouri Synod Lutherans (leading to a schism) and then moved into para-church Evangelicalism before dominating the Southern Baptist Convention (c. 1979–c.1990–and resulting in schism and fragmentation) was one factor.  As some factions defined “inerrancy” every more strictly or insisted that one who rejected this term was no longer “evangelical,” many of us in the Evangelical Left became weary of that fight. (I wanted to spend less time debating the nature of biblical authority and more time learning to interpret Scripture carefully and to demonstrate loyalty to biblical authority by the way it shaped lives and communities of faithful disciples. )

But the success of the Religious Right as a political movement was another major factor:  As the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and others gained more and more worldly political power, they gave up the term “Fundamentalist,” and embraced “Evangelical.” But the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons (and, later, the Mohlers, Rick Warrens, etc.) didn’t just say, “Yes, we are also part of the Evangelical heritage–this terms includes us.” No, they laid claim to SOLE OWNERSHIP of the label and denied that those of us in the Evangelical Left were “true Evangelicals.”  They even began to deny that Jimmy Carter was evangelical! And the media followed suit with this. So, by the early 1990s, most people in America thought that “Evangelical” automatically meant all of the following: Conservative Republican who supports: teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools; the use of federal tax money to support private Christian schools; bannings or restrictions of pornography–and this could be defined to even include great works of art like the Venus de Milo sculpture (During the 1st term of the presidency of George W. Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft (R-MO), a member of the Religious Right, draped a cloth over the statue of Justice to hide the statue’s naked breast!); banning the teaching of biological evolution; uncritical support for a huge military budget and nationalist wars.  It also meant one opposed: The Equal Rights Amendment; all or nearly all abortions (the one part of the Religious Right’s agenda which did have some legitimacy even though I disagreed with all their conclusions–the Left’s refusal to see any moral dimensions at all to abortion was sheer blindness); opposed women’s leadership roles in churches as well as society; wanted restrictions on the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual & transgendered persons and promoted fear and hatred of them in the churches. Opposed government aid to the poor.  Opposed environmental stewardship–even when re-christened “Creation Care.” Demanded uncritical support for Latin American dictators who were “pro-American” and gave uncritical support for the apartheid government of South Africa for the same reason (and was surprised that this was called “racist.”) By the ’90s, the agenda included uncritical support for the government of Israel and opposition to ALL efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (Jimmy Carter’s Middle East peacemaking, once heralded with pride by American evangelicals were now considered both heretical and treasonous.) By the Bush years, to be “Evangelical” in America meant to endorse a unilateral authority to declare war and invade anyone designated as even a possible future enemy and to approve torture.

I LIKE the term “evangelical.” It literally means “gospel centered” & I, like most Christians, want to be “gospel centered.” Historically, the term “Evangelical” referred to the Reformers of the 16th C. and, in much of Europe and Latin America today, “Evangelical” is simply a synonym for “Protestant.” Well, I am definitely a Protestant. Another use distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Reformed,” so that “Evangelical” means “Lutheran” rather than “Calvinist.” Well, I am neither of those, so I don’t have any investment in this definition of “Evangelical.”  In the 18th C., the “Evangelical Revival” in the United Kingdom and North America was led by George Whitfield and the brothers Wesley. Well, I was raised United Methodist and retain enough Wesleyan influence to identify with that meaning of “Evangelical.” And since the days of Charles Finney, “Evangelical” has also meant “revivalist,” and I was “born again” at a revival, so, despite my criticisms of the shortcomings of the revivalist tradition, I am “evangelical” in that sense, too.  I am NOT “evangelical” in the sense the word aquired after the Furndamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and definitely not in the sense of the Religious Right. And my theology, while having many influences from the Evangelical tradition as described above, has other influences too: from the Anabaptist tradition and the Anabaptist strand of the Baptist faith, from the more Christocentric strands of Protestant liberalism, from some forms of Neorthodoxy and the post-WWII “Biblical Theology” movement, from Liberation theologies and theologies of Hope, etc.  If one has to avoid all such influences to be genuinely “Evangelical, then I am NOT Evangelical.  If one must be conservative politically, then I, a Green-leaning democratic socialist and registered Democrat, fail the test.

It gets tiring to have to respond to the question, “Are you an Evangelical?” with “It depends on your definition” and then sketch the history above.  Is it any wonder that many of the Evangelical Left  began to be ambivalent about identifying with the term “Evangelical?”

July 15, 2012 Posted by | testimony, theology, tradition | 3 Comments