out of ur: gran torino

Here is this month’s Out of Ur column.

Clint Eastwood taught me something the other day. The veteran actor and director’s latest film sheds light on the tendency by many of us to seek the cultural values of homogeneity, stability, and comfort rather than finding God in the midst of our confusing, painful, and volatile circumstances. In Gran Torino the 79-year-old actor and director plays a newly widowed retiree. A veteran of the Korean War, Walt Kowalski has spent his life in the same Michigan town, raising a family and gran-torinoworking for the Ford plant. Surveying the neighborhood from his front porch, it’s clear that much in Kowalski’s life has changed. His neighbors are recent Hmong immigrants, people whose language and customs incur Kowalski’s derision. Crime has become commonplace and rival gangs cruise the streets staring menacingly at Walt who, while drinking beers from his front porch, is all too happy to glare right back. The neighborhood is not what it used to be and the old man’s sons repeatedly try to convince their father to leave it behind and join them in the suburbs.

Gran Torino is set in Highland Park, just outside of Detroit, but the dynamics of evolving neighborhoods can be found around the country. As new immigrants move in, previous residents find comfort outside the city limits. Those of the majority culture are made nervous by the arrival of ethnic minorities and eventually move to neighborhoods and suburbs that reflect their culture and skin color. Walt Kowalski is the anomaly; his obstinate decision to remain in the old neighborhood utterly confuses his comfortably suburban family. The world has changed too quickly for Kowalski leaving him bitter, racist, and cynical.

Eastwood’s character is no role model, but his story represents the demographic and cultural shifts that characterize America’s cities. One of the most significant such changes in my city of Chicago took place in the early 20th century. The period of time when African Americans moved to northern cities, hoping to leave Jim Crow behind, became known as the Great Migration. This development precipitated another vast people movement: white folks who left their urban neighborhoods and newly arrived neighbors for the suburbs. Like Walt Kowalski, many urban churches found themselves in unfamiliar territory as everything around them drastically changed.

It has been many years since the Great Migration and subsequent white flight, but the ghosts of this era can be seen ingran_torino_2 shuttered cathedrals and abandoned chapels throughout the city. At one time these buildings were lively gathering places for the neighborhood faithful but their decline became inevitable when these churches no longer related to their neighbors. Some congregations decided that survival meant moving the entire operation to the suburbs where their people now resided. Capitalizing on the powerful desire for homogeneity, many of these churches thrived in suburbia with no shortage of land, modern facilities, and plenty of parking for their mobile congregations.

And what of those congregations who stayed, those who expected mission and ministry to continue despite unpredictable and difficult conditions? Last fall I attended a friend’s ordination service at a Baptist church on Chicago’s South Side. As the only white person at the service, I wondered about the church’s history. Afterwards, during the requisite basement potluck, an older woman proudly told me, “We were the first black family to attend this church.” She went on to describe how the demographic changes in the church mirrored what happened in the neighborhood: from all white, to integrated, to its current predominately-black status.

Over dinner this woman talked at length about her church, but nothing seemed as significant as the white pastor who first welcomed her family into the congregation. As the neighborhood changed many of the established members challenged the pastor to move the church to the suburbs. After all, many had already moved and now had to drive into the city for Sunday services. “But he wouldn’t do it,” this woman fondly recalled. She went on to describe how, upon his retirement, the pastor turned over the pulpit to a black minister from the neighborhood.

Admittedly, this church isn’t much to look at. Its building and programs pale when compared to its suburban kin. The pastor’s decision could not have been easy as he watched other churches move to greener pastures, their members and budgets increasing as a result. And yet, because of his refusal to move, today a faithful and vibrant community of Christians exists in that neighborhood.

Gran Torino

A powerful and redemptive life change awaits Walt Kowalski at the end of Grand Torino. His bitterness and racism are subverted by the kindness and affection of the neighbors he once distrusted. While his suburban family enjoys their life of relative comfort and stability, Kowalski’s existence is transformed in part because those very things have been taken from him. His redemption is found in the distress and pain that comes from staying put. Surely this is the untold story of many faithful congregations around the country who, despite unpredictable and difficult changes, have ignored the siren calls of stability and measurable growth.

A congregation’s decision to remain loyal to its neighborhood despite social upheaval is not limited to urban churches of a bygone era. Sociologists continue to point out the increasingly large movements of people from city to suburb and vice versa. As the cost of living skyrockets in many cities, suburban churches are faced with neighborhoods made up of new ethnic and class diversity. Additionally, the landscape of suburbia has changed—land is no longer plentiful or cheap—and the greener pastures are now to be found even further from the city.

The temptation to leave the old neighborhood is powerful when we mistake Kingdom values with the cultural standards of homogeneity, comfort, and stability. But surely the Body of Christ is to be known for its more satisfying fruit. Our decision to stay—to seek the will of God despite the confusion and anxiety that comes with significant change—is witness to our radically alternative life in Christ. As we reject consumer comfort and choose to love our neighbors—new and old, well known and unfamiliar—we demonstrate the scope of the Gospel for all people. And like Walt Kowalski, our decision to stubbornly and faithfully remain could result in the redeeming work of God, in our neighborhoods and our lives.

the american patriot’s bible

AmericanPatriotsBibleI’ve been following an intriguing series of reviews of the recently released American Patriot’s Bible over at Out of Ur.  Greg Boyd’s reviews (part one and part two) and the response today by the book’s editor, Richard G. Lee, have been particularly interesting in light of the comments from my question about preaching and Memorial Day.  Here is a clear example of the different ways American Christians understand the relationship between church and state.

Given my hesitations about mentioning Memorial Day from the pulpit, you might imagine how I think about The American Patriot’s Bible. The description form the publisher, Thomas Nelson, only reinforces my bias.

THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.  [For more of the book’s marketing, watch the publisher’s video.]

It is the type of synchretism of American patriotism and Christianity found in this book that makes celebrating Memorial Day complicated.  There are plenty of Christians who will purchase this Bible and gladly accept its version of the American narrative.  These same folks- my Christian family- will likely interpret the church’s celebration of the state’s holidays in ways that, while aligning with the American Patriot’s Bible, seem to distort aspects of our faith.

It remains a mystery to me how the Christian family contains those who will welcome this book as a great aide to our Faith while others of us see the same book as hindrance to our witness.

the good stuff is in the comments

I promise this will be the last time the Urban Exile post about race and racism is referenced here.  However, yesterday I read two insightful comments on this post that ought to be highlighted.  Karen, who is the resident expert on the Orthodox Church around here, writes,

In Orthodox spirituality, it is understood that no one fully believes Christ who has not yet learned to love even his enemies from the heart as he loves himself (or as Christ loves us). That is not to say that the average Orthodox are necessarily any more fully believing than the average evangelical in this regard, only that in Orthodoxy, those of us who are still in process of being saved (in terms of our sanctification) are reticent to pronounce ourselves “saved” as an a priori fact based merely on jumping through some sacramental hoops and/or assenting to specific dogmas.

And over at Out of Ur Kim Whetstone summarizes what I was attempting to say better than I did in the first place.

Talk is tiresome at times. It is exhausting and painful at times. However, when sinful Christians who are reconciled to God and learning to receive His grace and truth in all areas of their lives, including their brokenness, “talk” authentically and deeply, there is a chance for talk to become action. When this talking is done as an act of worship to God and out of love for one another, there is a chance for transformational action that is fueled by the Holy Spirit. Men and women or social agendas do not invent this authentic transforming action, but rather it is the act of God’s creation (us) entering into God’s work of redemption and reconciliation in the world around us-us seeking Shalom. It is here that we see justice as truly as we can on this side of heaven. These conversations do matter.

As always, thanks for the comments.

responding to comments about racism

The sentiments (as I perceive them) behind the first three comments on my Our of Ur post are the very reason we have to continue to talk in our churches about racism and class divisions.  While the commenters find such conversations to be unhelpful, tiresome, and counter-productive, I believe the opposite to be true.  What is the point if we are not willing to go hard at every area where the Gospel is not manifest in the lives of our churches?

I responded to these comments this morning on the Out of Ur blog.

urban exile: the silence of the lambs

The latest Urban Exile column has been posted at Out of Ur.  In this column I ask questions about the reticence of many churches to talk about race and racism.  I’m grateful for the helpful suggestions made by the Leadership Journal editors about the content I submit; I’ve learned a lot about writing from those guys.  Here are the first two paragraphs.  You can read the rest and comment at Out of Ur.

urban_exileStephen Colbert doesn’t know his own race. The host of The Colbert Report, a satirical television news program on Comedy Central, claims to be colorblind, unable to discern his skin color. “People tell me I’m white,” he said during one episode, “because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums.” The colorblind approach to race and racism makes for amusing television but is the height of naïveté in real life. Yet for many churches this seems to be the preferred method of talking—or not talking—about all things related to race.

The beauty and peril of our diverse culture is impossible to miss. A quick snapshot reveals a president who shares a heritage with both Kenya and Kansas, a New York Post cartoon of a dead chimpanzee that stirs up memories of racist stereotypes, and teenage pop star Miley Cyrus photographed pulling back her eyes in an attempt to “look Asian.” Stephen Colbert isn’t the only TV personality who finds comedy in this racially charged atmosphere. Michael Scott, the hilariously insensitive manager of The Office, manages to repeatedly offend each of his diverse staff—no one is safe from his absurd stereotypes. A more nuanced primetime treatment of race can be seen on Lost where the island’s castaways epitomize the global, ethnic, and class diversity and divisions of our day. In a society increasingly conscious of race and ethnicity, the silence of our churches grows more notable by the day…

Read the rest at Out of Ur.