No doubt like most Americans, I’m bothered when the national anthem is either sung or played poorly. Case in point of course is Christian Aguilera’s infamous butchering of the lyrics at the most recent Super Bowl. It seems to me that someone used to performing before large crowds, not to mention getting paid as much as she undoubtedly was, should know the song so well that she would sing it flawlessly. When asked about her mistake, she said: “I got so lost in the moment of the song that I lost my place. I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/06/super-bowl-2011-national-anthem-singer-christina-aguilera_n_819311.html?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily+Brief&utm_campaign=daily_brief ). Well, sometimes it’s important that both the spirit and the letter be followed. It’s a matter of respect for an important national symbol. (For more on Aguilera and the anthem, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-eskow/christina-aguilera-and-th_b_819979.html).

I don’t follow Bill O’Reilly, but I ran across a long excerpt from his interview with President Obama on Super Bowl Sunday. After thanking the president for helping ensure the safety of some Fox reporters in Egypt, O’Reilly got nasty, in my opinion. He would seldom let Mr. Obama finish a sentence and then had snide and dismissive comments about most everything our leader said. To his credit, Mr. Obama remained cool and collected and gracious, inviting O’Reilly to the White House Super Bowl party.

Watching the interview, I thought how even if O’Reilly does not respect Mr. Obama personally, the least he could have done was respect the office, the institution of the presidency and let the president finish a sentence without interruption. What has happened in our land when even the Chief Executive is treated with such disdain? We have indeed lost all sense of civility and decorum, a fact I have decried in the Church for some years now.

To watch the interview for yourself, go here:

 

As if O’Reilly’s disrespect weren’t enough, at least one website believes that “Jesus hates Obama” and tried to run an ad on the Super Bowl, which was rejected by the network. As a Christian minister, I am livid that anyone would co-opt my Lord for any political cause, right or left. (Which means that these days I’m livid most of the time, I guess.) But this ad, which featured a Jesus and an Obama bobblehead in a silent battle, with Obama finally being thrown into water and drowned, presumably by the Jesus doll, crosses the line. The network was right to ban it. It cheapens both faith and political discourse. I can say with certainty that the One who said “Love your enemies, pray for those who despitefully use you” would not sign on to have “Jesus Hates Obama” printed on his chest, as in the video. Again, no respect, either for our Lord or for the president.

God help us.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

“The problem with the culture war is not that it is wrong to fight for one’s beliefs. Rather, the culture war is a problem because in an all-out war, opponents become enemies to be defeated at all costs. In a war there is little incentive to search for middle ground or to make alliances on other issues” (“Prayer and Conversation,” The Christian Century, January 22, 2009: 7).

 

“‘[I]t is important for Americans to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues’” (Barack Obama, quoted in “Obama, Warren defy culture war, The Christian Century, January 22, 2009: 12).

 

“‘We don’t have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand, and you can disagree without being disagreeable’” (Rick Warren, ibid.: 13).

 

The culture wars continue to rage, with the cauldron of conflict continually stirred by pundits, preachers, politicians, and power-mongers who feed on hatred and fear like some ravenous sci-fi beast that thrives on negative emotions. For all the attention they get, the hot-button issues the culture wars are being fought over must be important to a great many people all over the nation in every generation.

 

But such a conclusion would be inaccurate or at least increasingly so. The church consultant and writer Tom Ehrich reports how a congregation working on a “Church Wellness Project” (www.churchwellness.com) recently asked members what questions they would ask of God. The two largest categories (each with 21%) were curiosity about the nature of God and the purpose of life. The next two largest were suffering at 16% and the nature of faith at 14%. “All other questions — including the topics that denominations and congregations fight most heatedly over, such as doctrine and leadership issues — accounted for tiny fractions” (emphasis mine).

 

Ehrich notes: “This congregation’s results are in line with every other Listening Church exercise I have led or seen. Left to their own desires, it seems people don’t pursue church conflicts or the topics that tend to underlie church conflicts, but rather have some fundamental questions about God and life” (Church Wellness Report, April 1, 2009).

 

Also significant is Neela Banerjee’s description of young evangelicals like those who attend Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Church. They are “tired of politics being at the center of faith and … want to ‘broaden the traditional evangelical anti-abortion agenda to include care for the poor, the environment, immigrants and people with HIV’” (quoted in Debra Bendis, “Bell’s Appeal,” The Christian Century, March 24, 2009: 23). Banerjee says that young adults are “tired of the culture wars”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/us/01evangelical.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1).

 

This Good Friday, I long for all churches and communities to stop their fighting over questions people aren’t actually asking and start addressing the problems, the fears, the needs that occupy their every waking moment. I still lament the culture wars and know that more than ever, we need the forgiveness Jesus asked God for from the cross, the deliverance of people who have no idea what they’re doing.

 

I share again with you my song lyrics that unfortunately continue to be relevant. They’re written as if a parent is speaking to his or her child, urging the young one not to get caught up in the wrangling and the hurt, but to seek the truth which continues to elude us. The good news is that today’s young adults, like those interviewed and profiled by Ms. Banerjee, are indeed refusing to enlist as culture warriors and instead, with right hearts, are serving as Jesus did.

 

“Good Friday (Lament for the Culture Wars”)

© 1994 Tom Cheatham

 

Slow, heavy rock (verses); acoustic (bridge)

 

There’s people out on the street; they’re startin’ to push and shove.

They use their words like swords and not a one is love.

The battle lines are drawn; the war’s about to start.

O my child, my child, you better watch your heart!

 

You tell me that you’re right, and that means I am wrong.

And so the hatred grows, and we can’t get along.

Your way, my way, no way out, unless we come to blows.

If you ask me what is true, I’ll just say “Who knows?”

 

            We won’t come to a meeting of the minds

            Until our hearts are right.

            And we won’t see the peace that there could be

            Until we live in the light!

 

Once there was a day when all of time stood still

And people watched a man as he died upon a hill.

“O Father, please forgive, they don’t know what they do.”

I wonder if his words were meant for me and you.

 

            We won’t come to a meeting….

 

Once there was a day when all of time stood still.

 

 Blog post © 2009 Tom Cheatham

 

 

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2).

 

“…[W]e…believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia, 1788; Book of Order: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church [USA], Part II).

 

When I was younger, there wasn’t a liturgical or ecclesiastical issue ditch I wasn’t willing to die in. The fate of the Church and maybe the world hung on what provisions were voted in or out of the denominational constitution, what doctrines we affirmed, and/or how the church year was observed. Everything mattered and in the same measure. So I applied litmus tests (“I don’t think he’s Truly Reformed”), listened closely to examinations of ministers for the proper theological buzz words (whether of the left or the right), and argued with organists and church members over whether we could sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on the first Sunday of Advent.

 

But as I got older and learned more, grew in experience and maybe faith, the list of issues that were absolute matters of conscience became shorter. Don’t get me wrong: there are still things that are vitally important to me. But the world has not ended because somebody sang a Christmas carol in early December or didn’t wear the right vestment for Holy Communion or even disagreed with me over the interpretation of some doctrine. Maybe I’m weary from the fight, but I hope the reasons for my mellowing are that I’ve gotten wiser, more tolerant, and above all, less full of myself as the Arbiter of All Things True and Good.

 

I forget exactly when I first encountered the term “adiaphora” (ah-dee-af-oh-rah), meaning “things indifferent,” but I’m glad I did. It’s an important concept. The word originally was used by the Stoics to refer to matters that were morally neutral, doing neither good nor harm. But since the Reformation, it’s been applied to rites and practices, particularly in worship, that vary with circumstance and context. So, what kind of wood the pulpit is made of or whether the choir wears robes or when the announcements are read really doesn’t matter. (Of course, I’m speaking generally. In actual practice, there are people in the churches who would more readily deny the Incarnation than give up their insistence that the chancel furniture or the paint in the chapel look a certain way.)

 

But “adiaphora” is not just a word to use in church. Watching the inauguration of Barack Obama last Tuesday, it occurred to me that the majority of Americans have expanded their list of things indifferent while at the same time populating their roster of essentials with some things that really do matter. For the former, the new American adiaphora: race, political dynasties, conservative religion, social issue litmus tests, and old divisions. For the latter, things that truly matter: hard work, personal responsibility and accountability, cooperation to solve problems, imagination, courage, curiosity, confidence, and hope.

 

There’s a common saying regarding adiaphora: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Let both our churches and our nation affirm those words with energy and enthusiasm and resolve to give our attention to what really matters for the future and the good of all.

 

© 2009 Tom Cheatham