Burned and Burned Out

Burned and Burned Out

Should burned-out Christians leave Christianity?

By that I don’t mean to ask if believers are justifiable in judging the church as an institution worth leaving. The shortcomings of American Christianity — the hypocrisy, scandal, and oppression that have become almost synonymous with Christian faith — are well documented. Many frustrated believers, like acclaimed author Anne Rice, who made her highly publicized exit from organized religion earlier this year, would prefer to distance themselves from the foibles of organized religion.

A recent Barna study on the changing faith of Americans identified some of the top reasons people give for leaving Christianity. The main points of tension are disagreement with Christianity on hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion, wounds from negative experiences, and a feeling that the church is too controlling. Rice, who reaffirmed her Catholic faith in 1998, left the church for similar reasons, which she shared on a note on her Facebook wall.

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

For many, Rice’s retreat from Christianity only confirmed what some have suspected all along: the American church is not well. William Lobdell, in the Los Angeles Times, pointed to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating most Protestant denominations are experiencing a decline in members. Christianity Today editor Drew Dyck’s new book, Generation Ex-Christian, explores the reasons why younger adults are abandoning the evangelical church. Dyck observes, for instance, that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22. And Catholicism isn’t faring much better, with 25 percent leaving the church as they grow into adulthood.

Though the numbers may seem bleak, defection from organized religion is not new. Ironically, many believers have given up Christianity in hopes of finding Christ.

Jon Tyson, teaching pastor of Trinity Grace Church in Manhattan, notes that historically Christians have faced a similar obstacle. “In the first century,” he explains, “the movement of Jesus burst into the scene as a prophetic fulfillment of Jesus the Messiah of the people of Israel.”

However, it wasn’t long before people began to use religious power as a means of exclusion and manipulation, and for their own personal advancement. Sound familiar? In time, the expanse between the actions of believers and the core tenets of the faith widened. It was in the midst of this type of hypocrisy that believers struggled to find the line between what was culture and what was Christ.

“What’s happening today for many people is a similar argument is going on,” says Tyson. “People are asking, how much of the Christian culture do I have to bring with me in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus?” Furthermore, if the church has indeed become an outpost of broken religious culture disconnected from its head, Christ, wouldn’t burned believers be better off leaving the body, like Anne Rice, to pursue a private faith wholly focused on God?

The answer, Tyson says, is no. “We still need the church. We should be a part of reforming it from within rather than abandoning it.”

The decision to leave the community of faith is a serious one — it’s an action Jesus himself never took. Despite their bumbling faith, misunderstanding of doctrine, and selfish ambition, He remained with His followers … even unto death. And He’s still with us. Therefore, we must stay because Christ stayed. And we must stay because leaving the church is a not a solution for its hypocrisy.

Built on the foundational truth that people are spiritually fractured absent the presence and restorative work of Christ, it’s surprising we so quickly grow discouraged to find brokenness among the pews. To leave the church on the basis of its failings is in some respect an act of lunacy. In fleeing we become like ill patients storming out of the hospital doors and spilling onto the streets, all the while complaining we’ve been duped because we’ve encountered fellow patients showing signs of the flu. Despite the image of moral uprightness often projected by or attributed to the church, we must never forget that, at its core, the church is a ramshackle organization of the broken, wounded, and needy. The church cannot be judged entirely by the health of its patients but always by the competence of its Chief Physician.

And while believers and non-believers will continue to find fault with organized religion, that is no justification for abandoning the church. Christian faith must be lived out in the context of community, faulty though it may be. The body relies on believers of differing opinions and moral sensitivities to provide balance and reformation, so that the whole can grow to look more like Christ.

Bigger Than Madea

Bigger Than Madea

If we could forget for a moment that Tyler Perry’s latest film is a less-than-stellar re-envisioning of Ntozake Shange’s highly lauded, Obie-award winning 1970s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, we might catch a glimpse of the brilliance that initially made Perry so successful. Though he’s made over 20 films, a filmmaker he is not — but oh, I bet the man could pen an engaging play.

Back in his element with Shange’s material meant for consumption by a live theater audience, his For Colored Girls has the makings of a potentially fantastic modernized tale of the quiet, simmering desperation of black women everywhere. After all, this is his sweet spot. Perry’s made his bread and butter telling the stories of broken, abandoned, and often invisible black women who suffer silently until someone like him screams on their behalf before an audience.

The only problem is, Perry made For Colored Girls into a film. And unlike the original off-Broadway show that captured audiences by, as Shange described in her book, “enveloping almost 6,000 people a week in the words of a young black girl’s growing up, her triumphs & errors, our struggle to become all that is forbidden by our environment, all that is forfeited by our gender, all that we have forgotten,” this film is neither rapturous nor nostalgic. And that’s not all Perry’s fault.

By nature, most of the tropes that functioned well onstage — the anonymity of the girls identified only by color, the rhythmic recitation of poems, and the fluid movement of interwoven stories and dance — are lost when caged inside the restrictive confines of a motion picture screenplay. By removing identity from each woman’s narrative and extending the stories from Houston to Chicago, Shange universalized the experiences of black women, creating an effect of unity and strength that sent shockwaves through a post-civil rights and women’s lib America where black women were just tearing back their personhood. Though Perry tried to remain ambiguous, titling his version For Colored Girls, he ultimately squeezes his characters into a few blocks in Harlem, losing the crux of the impact of Shange’s work.

Perry also forfeits some of what’s garnered him tremendous success by operating from the base of Shange’s pre-existing text. While fans of his work won’t be surprised that his popular character Madea doesn’t make an appearance in this drama, they may be uncomfortable with some of the “spirit within” theology espoused by the characters. The rally cry at the close of the film shows the women finding consolation by drawing power from the feminine spirit within. As Shange wrote, “I found God in myself/and I loved her/I loved her fiercely.”

For Colored Girls does offer impressive performances by its cast, even with it’s tricky and often-awkward dialogue that constantly slips into poetic monologues where Shange’s words are woven into Perry’s script. Loretta Devine (Juanita/Green) glitters with her energetic performance and on point delivery of the monologue “somebody almost walked off wid alla mah stuff.” Kimberly Elise (Crystal/Brown) masters her role as the downbeat of the film depicting the extremes of domestic violence opposite Michael Ealy (Beau Willie). Other notable mentions are Anika Noni Rose, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, and a spotlight performance from Macy Gray as a back alley abortionist.

This hybrid, For Colored Girls mixing spoken-word poetry and traditional filmmaking, is unsuccessful critically and likely won’t warrant the Oscar-buzz Oprah claims is encircling the film. As we noted with Why Did I Get Married Too?, Perry should deal in comedy, where his disjointed narratives and poor visual artistry will be less noticeable. However, For Colored Girls is still an enjoyable, though heavy, exploration of the struggle of black women. It’s worth seeing as an alternative choice at the box office.

Wyclef for President

Or maybe not. His recent decision to run for his native Haiti’s highest office was shut down by Haitian authorities. But it makes us wonder: Is a celebrity like Wyclef Jean equipped to lead a nation? Wyclef Jean is still trying to run for president of Haiti and it’s probably a bad idea. Despite confirmation that the Port-au-Prince born, Brooklyn-raised musician is ineligible, Jean remains optimistic he can appeal the decision and re-enter the election. Last week, Haiti’s Electoral Council officially removed Jean, as well as 14 others, from the list of candidates. Ravaged by a deadly earthquake and still deeply embroiled in the internal dissension born of years of political unrest, Haiti remains the poorest and least developed country in the Western hemisphere. For people of faith called to care for “the least of these,” the outcome of the November 28 election is important. Haiti needs a strong leader who can guide the country out of the muck and mire and into the process of rebuilding a nation. It remains to be seen whether or not that leader is Wyclef Jean. Since the artist first announced his candidacy, many have dismissed Jean for his lack of political experience, alleged mishandling of nearly $400,000 in funds donated to his Yele Haiti foundation, and his virtual absence in Haiti since January’s deadly earthquake. Most notably actor Sean Penn and former Fugee Pras Michel have openly shared their skepticism concerning his ability to run the fledgling country. And though there is sufficient reason to think Wyclef Jean may not be the next great president of Haiti, Christians should be careful of the kind of metrics they use to assess their political leaders. According to Lisa Sharon Harper, executive director of the New York Faith & Justice organization and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican … or Democrat, a sense of calling and character should be the primary benchmarks of one’s fitness to lead. A presidency isn’t just a professional milestone or an arc in someone’s career, she cautions. “[Haiti needs] someone for whom words really mean something. An honest candidate isn’t trying to just tickle someone’s ears.” In addition to integrity, says Harper, a candidate must have a deep commitment to meekness. It’s a trait she defines as “controlled power,” and a quality, she quips, the previous U.S. administration lacked. “The president must be someone who prefers humility over the exercise of power. Scripture says the meek will inherit the earth.” Judging by the solutions some candidates are positing to rebuild Haiti, it won’t be long before the president-elect will need to know how and when to exercise power. As a means of recovery, many have identified multinational corporations as the saving grace to help rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure. There is danger in this type of support and a very real threat of further incapacitating the country, Harper warns. “A corporation can be a blessing and a cursing on a nation. If the land itself is owned by a corporation, that means the people on that land are also owned by it, and the laws of the corporation become the laws of the land. They have to be wary of that kind of contract, where the country is owned very literally by a corporation.” Understanding the nuances of this type of international diplomacy and the new role Haiti will play in our global economy will be key, and that important fact would likely be lost on an inexperienced candidate. Jean, the son of a Nazarene pastor and nephew of a Haitian diplomat, will need to prove that the worldliness he’s gained from his artistic career has equipped him for this type of work. But whether or not Wyclef is capable to lead will be a moot point if we cannot determine whether or not he is eligible. Last Sunday he tweeted, “Tomorrow our Lawyers are appealing the decision of the CEP. We have met all the requirements set by the laws. And the law must be Respected.” It’s unknown exactly why Jean’s bid was rejected, though it’s likely due to his failure to meet residency requirements. In Haiti, a candidate must live in the country for five consecutive years prior to the election. According to a spokesman for the electoral board, the decision was unanimous. Photo of Wyclef Jean by Ali Dan-Bouzoua from Wikipedia.