Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Jim Wallis at Xavier

Thirty years of running Sojourners and he finally has a book tour that's taking the mickey out of the right. Strange.

He led with a story of his first conversion "since evangelicals often have multiple conversion stories" (shared with his mostly Catholic audience). He told of being six years old and in his parents' church when an evangelist came to save souls. He was seated in the front row with the other little unsaved six year old kids who'd already performed enough evil deeds to send them to hell for eternity.

The evangelist pointed a bony finger at Jim's chest, looked directly into his eyes and said, "Son, tonight if the rapture were to occur, your mommy and daddy would be taken to heaven and you'd be left behind. Do you want that?" The Catholics laughed uncomfortably, but I sat with jaw dropped open. Isn't this what children of alcoholics do? They make jokes that are meant to minimize the sucky childhoods they've endured when all around can't laugh... it's too ugly! I hung my head in shame for evangelicals.

Gee, Jim, nice tradition we come out of...

His delivery shouldn't have surprised me, but it did! He went into full tilt evangelical rhetoric to deliver a mostly vague message about the need to become involved with social justice (easy sell to this crowd). I'm all for social justice, but I'm not all for smug self-righteousness disguised as reading the will of God.

If he had substituted missions language into his talk, it would have been the same one that drove me to the mission field in 1983. That's right - there was no substantial difference in the delivery or the shaming/motivating tactics he used to reach this audience. The only real difference is that he had the wrong audience. The Catholics weren't challenged by his talk - they were relieved of the burden of understanding their evangelical brethren. By the end of the night, they could feel smug and justified in their contempt for the religious right and their historical interest in social justice.

So how did he do it?

Well, he used these kinds of phrases:

I want to commission this generation to seek a vocation, not a career.

The faith based communities are the ones who have invariably led movements. It takes the religious to lead a movement of real change. Secular people won't do it.

God has a purpose and plan for your life and it's your job to figure out what that is.

This is the generation that can change things. We are waiting for you.

Get in on what Jesus is doing, on what God is doing and what he cares about.

Blah, blah, blah.

Uh, this is the message of evangelicals everywhere you go. The religious people are the best people, they are the ones who know what God is up to, they are on the cutting edge walking forward with vocations, not just ugly self-serving careers, the 20 somethings will save the world because hey, this is a different generation than the ones sitting next to you who botched it and missed the message back in the day...

Bitter much? Yes!

I could have stood it more if he hadn't name-dropped every ten minutes showing off how many Big Stars he had chatted with and the wonderful life-changing impact about to sweep the world as a result of his insight and vocation!

Now here's the deal... I'm won over to the social justice agenda. I liked when Jim said "political, not partisan." I liked it when he talked about how the right has focused on saving the unborn and forgets about the born... and how to help them. He had some great word pairs that I jotted down and then lost. :) It was the overall tone and style of the thing that upset me.

Get me away from the tactics of leaders who believe they know what I ought to do (or what I didn't do) and who shout it to me. I'm utterly allergic. If I could find one person who is self-deprecating, who knows what needs to be done, but appeals to our own weaknesses, our repeated distractibility and yet finds a glimmer of hope in us anyway, who admits to the scale of the issues and gives me a practical, realistic step I can take today (rather than committing to saving the whole fucking world), I'd join up...

Oh wait! I do know someone like that: He's right here.


SusansPlace said...

I know someone like that! Like Bono, I mean. It's you Julie!! I'm completely serious. Hopefully, you will have more and more venues to share the message.

Thanks for sharing about Jim's talk. I know it must have been a shock and dissappointment that he chose the angle he did, to get out a needed message.


Rick said...


I really, really like you and I think you may just be my very favorite blogger.

I am anxious to see where your journey leads you.

Thanks for sharing.

Chuck said...

Thanks for sharing the talk summary. We were out of town, and sounds like I wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway. I've been a bit disappointed in the constant use of "biblical" as a prefix to most messages and agendas that Jim and Sojourners present. So while I agree for the most part with their chosen causes, I havn't been able to buy into the rationale. I guess I don't need something to be prefixed with "biblical" to either know it's the right thing to to or know it is "blessed". And I think having to root everything in a single story keeps us from focusing on the future in a holistic fasion.

OldMom said...

Hmm, interesting. I guess I feel better leaving his book on the shelf at the library (God's Politics.) I do value him preaching that message to his normal audience, however. After all, it took Nixon to make peace with China.

Sometime I'd like to see you really come to grips with the evangelical movement as a whole. (In your writing about religion, I mean. No need to go tackle them all IRL ;-) You seem to know individuals withing that movement that you value, but you also seem pretty unhappy with any manifestation of evangelical culture (or what I see as evangelical culture, let me hasten to add.) If it were religious symbols you were reacting to I'd say you have "Cross cringe" but, then, evangelicals aren't much for visual symbology are they?
Can the culture be seperated from the theology/message? That's something I don't know. I'm not even sure I know what the message is, and closer examination hasn't, to date, really helped me find out. I understand better from your writings than from anything else.

Btw, what flavor of Christian does Bono consider himself?


Jim said...

Thanks for your analysis.

I saw Jim at Princeton when I happened to be out that way last spring. I like that he is a counterbalance to the 'right wing' of the evangelicals. And I would mostly agree with what he offers.

But I do have to say at times I wonder how truly different is his message; while it has the appearance of a different vision, it is a still a markedly christian social agenda employing the same old political tactics.

I guess maybe I'm too much of an anabaptist to think we should be putting any of our hope in the political systems of the world.

Dave said...

What a take on Wallis. Kind of popped his baloon there, didn't ya? That's OK with me. Gets me thinking about when I went to hear him at Calvin College last fall, I think it was. I recognized the same evangelical bag o' tricks but didn't find it excessive and it may even be that he toned it down a bit more then than he did last night. Or maybe since he was speaking at Calvin College, the evangelspeak didn't sound as jarring. Believe me, he is probably a lot more loose and free-wheelin' in his preaching style than a lot of the folks who speak from that same platform.

Like some of the other commenters here, I'm more pleased to know that he and Sojourners are doing their thing than I am eager to be a regular reader of their material. It feels a bit formulaic and obligatory to me, the way he/they make a point to include so many of the important catch-phrases and indicators of piety that assure their audience that they are trustworthy. It's a tough burden that evangelical leaders have to bear, assuring their audience that they are sufficiently on board and not wandering down forbidden paths. Especially if they are trying to be leaders who challenge the customary order of things, as Wallis clearly is trying to.

I had some of the same reactions, but milder, that you describe when I saw the clip of Tony Campolo on The Daily Show awhile back. Pleased to see a guy whose books opened my thinking up many years ago on one of my favorite programs, but also feeling like he's a bit hemmed in because he has to abide by the constricting rules of his old constituency even as he's trying to connect with a larger audience.

And let's be sure to give these guys a break. Like all of us, they have to wrestle with their own sense of treading over the line and breaking old taboos. It's not easy balancing all that out and coming up with a cohesive, coherent message. As a way of compensating for that challenge, it's easy to take the traditional route of employing slogans, cliches and tried-and-true rhetoric to give a speech that rousing, "prophetic" quality that we and our audiences are looking for.

Do you think that Wallis kind of bombed with this audience then?

I think there's a place for the Sojourners style of Christianity to help create a new norm that hopefully will provide a better alternative to the worn-out status quo of these "Bush years." I would like to think that our nation is ready to pay serious attention to other voices of leadership than have held center-stage since 2000 or so. But I don't know that Wallis should really be seen as representing the "vanguard" of whatever social consensus is yet to emerge. We'll have to see if the Evangelical Left is able to do any better a job of leading the cat-herd that is contemporary liberalism in the USA. The hardcore anti-Bushies won't get the job done IMO, and I hope that someone less polarizing than Hillary Clinton is able to step out from the sidelines.

I like Bono and wish him all the best, but I wonder how effectively he can maintain both the pop star and world-class humanitarian roles at the same time? He's setting himself up for a pretty excellent older age, but I don't know that he's quite ready to give up the celebrity status? I s'pose he could try to keep them both going side by side as long as possible. But he might have to take an approach that has more teeth to it in order to provoke change. There's a risk that many politicians are just happy to bask in his limelight and pay lip-service to the real agenda he wants them to pursue.

Anyway, just a few thoughts of mine.

OldMom said...

Ok, I probably shouldn't comment on a comment, but

"the cat-herd that is contemporary liberalism in the USA"

in Dave's comment made me spit out my ice tea laughing. . .great image, great insight!

Rebecca (OldMom)

julieunplugged said...

Rebecca, feel free to comment on comments. That's how it works on blogs. It gives us a chance to have a conversation. :)

To all: I have to admit that I probably overstated my point about Jim's talk. He's a good guy I'm sure. What struck me, though, is that I am a native speaker of the evangelical tongue. I "heard" him differently than the rest of the audience, I'm sure. They seemed to really enjoy him.... perhaps the way a non-native speaker enjoys the French accent. So cute.

For me, though, the accent was irritating - I found myself wanting him to challenge the Catholics, not simply suck up to them.

Two of my classmates last night shared that they thought he was smug so I know I wasn't off on that sense. Also, they explained that they felt he didn't really give anyone anything to do... just underscored the value of his particular view of the bible and mission of the church.

And this is what irked me. This crowd already is committed to social justice and the Democratic party. Nothing new for them.

Rebecca, I am going to write a little treatise on evangelicals just for you on this blog. I think I'd really enjoy that. I'll try to do it next week. :) Bono resists/deifes specific Christian definition. He did get quoted all over the evangelical world when he said he was trusting Christ for his salvation... probably said it while hung over, however. :) (I'm bad)

Dave, your thoughts, as always, are far more generous and balanced than mine. I appreciate them. Agree totally that Sojourners and Wallis are "doin' their thang" and ought to keep it up! You totally deconstructed how it works for them and I'm sure they've had their share of hate mail from fellow evangelicals over the years.

Bono? Well, I'm smitten so I think he's perfect. :) But yes, you of the oh so rational mind wrt to male sex symbols probably have a clearer take on him than my hormonally charged response.

Thanks for all the fun comments!


julieunplugged said...

Susan: Hugs.

Rick: Blushing. Kind of you.

Chuck: I'm right with you. You expressed just how I felt.

Jim: This is my suspicion. I am concerned about motivating evangelical youth using the same old tactics... will they tire out of this mission just as some of my peers can be seen to have tired of the "go to the ends of the earth" mission?

I don't like the gradiosity of the vision, while I agree with its distinctives. And like you, I think secular people have done plenty to bring about change and good, not just relilgious folks (whose catalog of offenses is long)!

OldMom said...

Rebecca, feel free to comment on comments. That's how it works on blogs. It gives us a chance to have a conversation. :)

Ok, cool. I'm very unoriented on blogs although the appeal is rapidly overcoming me.

He did get quoted all over the evangelical world when he said he was trusting Christ for his salvation... probably said it while hung over, however. :) (I'm bad)

roflol. . . .

I look forward to your evangelical entry.


jim said...

I think secular people have done plenty to bring about change and good, not just relilgious folks (whose catalog of offenses is long)!

That's an insightful bit of words there. I remember a few years ago being in a "Character formation study" group at my seminary.

We got into quite a discusion about ethical behavior and the process of forming good character. A number of our group came down on the side of "if you're not a follower of Christ you'll never learn to act in an ethical manner (i.e. you'll never do any good)."

These same folks never even thought to consider all the 'Christian' folk that act in ways that are far from ethical. Or the good that non-religious folks can. It's easy to stand smugly in condemnation of others when God is on your side.

julieunplugged said...

Hey Jim, I just found your blog. I hadn't clicked on your name until now. May I add you to my blogroll? "Churchgeek" - love it. :)

Emily said...

Julie, I am so glad you wrote this. I couldn't get over the irony of sitting with a crowd of people who are committed to social justice, but go home to a nice place, Christian or spiritual, but willing to laugh about the silly foibles of misguided evangelicals, and a speaker wearing an expensive suit telling me to be "ruined for life." I, like you, got tired of the posturing to be liked by his audience instead of challenging them. His vague points of view about what to do interspersed with his jabs at the right (which were applauded and howled over) and his occassional barbs for the left (which went unrecognized)left me feeling like I'd listened to political debates again instead of real ideas.

jim said...

Sure Julie. Hope you enjoy. I've certainly enjoyed reading yours, and have added you to my blogroll.