I’m generally not one to complain about tone when assessing a book or article; I don’t love the foray into hopeless subjectivity that such a move (to me, anyhow) usually represents. But there are times when tone matters and you have to throw the penalty flag.
Two recent articles by the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner have me poised to do precisely that. The first, written on March 16th for First Things, argues that the so-called time of the virus and the quarantines imposed by state and federal governments in response to the pandemic ought to be regarded as a gift akin to the Old Testament Jubilee.
In Jubilee, Israel’s life is brought to a screeching halt. A sort of national ‘reset’ button is hit as the people of God return to their God and to their family roots, entering into an imposed time of fallowness, remembering who they are and to whom they belong, and also, to that extent, assessing where and how their life is (or isn’t) in alignment with God–all in the hope that the creative power of God will break forth afresh in their national life. Radner suggests that Covid-19 may be a Jubilee moment for us.
In the second article, written on March 20th for Living Church, Radner observes three broad trends at work in the North American church in response to Covid-19, characterizing them as, first, the “fierce maternalization” of the church and its clergy; second, the “infantilization” of the laity; and third, the “siliconization” of the church’s worship through online and digital platforms.
Radner protests all three, arguing that they are inimical to the church’s purpose of bringing its members to maturity. “Should we stream live worship?” he asks. “Maybe,” he answers. “Or maybe not.” Rather than answering his own question, Radner would like to let it linger as a sort of provocation.
And maybe – let us be honest – the question should linger. After all, whatever we do unreflectively we will generally do poorly, and these are questions worth asking and conversations worth having. Covid-19 has thrown us all into territory that few ever expected to be in, and it is, in my judgment, right that we should move forward together posing hard questions based on our best and highest theological intuitions. Let the mind of Christ be at work among his people – now, as ever!
So I don’t object to the questions. Let’s ask them, and others like them, courageously and relentlessly.
What I object to is something foul, even – I may go so far as to say – morbid, that I smell in the tone of both articles. Let’s take them in turn.
“Cities are locked down, borders closed, schools shuttered; production and distribution lines have unraveled; work and retirement income is threatened,” Radner observes in the first article. “Suddenly we must ‘go home,’ stay with our families, turn to ourselves. And we are, surprisingly, afraid! Yet ‘going home’ is, in fact, an enormous gift. For two weeks, a month, two months—we shall see—we have been granted a ‘fallow time,’ in which we can return to our roots as human beings.”
Radner, it seems, would like us to think of this time as the Spirit’s invitation to a Wendell Berry-esque return to our roots. But I wonder: is “Jubilee” really how we should think about Covid-19? That it is a gift and an opportunity to return to simplicity?
Perhaps there is something Jubilee-esque in it; and to that extent, observing parallels between the OT Jubilee and this moment may prove illuminating. Perhaps. But let’s not rush. There are hard realities to face here. Glossing this moment with the trope of Jubilee rings hollow, perhaps even cold or cheap. For while some of us may indeed have the resource and privilege to “return to our roots”, many others are being forcibly separated from their spouses in senior care facilities; some are watching businesses built with blood, sweat, and tears crumble, leaving their families wondering where next month’s provision will come from; medical directors are panicking as their hospitals are growing dangerously overcrowded and under-resourced; and, let us remember, people are dying. As of the writing of this article, 112,000.
But don’t worry. Covid-19 is a gift, and an opportunity to remember what it means to be human.
“Like apples of gold in settings of silver” said the writer of Proverbs, “is a word fitly spoken” (Pr. 25:11). Let me be clear. There is validity to what Radner is arguing for. It is, I think, part and parcel of the good news brought to us in Christ the Lord. The gospel is nonsense unless it is the story of how God operates through the conditions of our fallen world–war, plague, pestilence, famine, and crosses–to bring life. And yet… something in the timing and tone of the suggestion that this is a Jubilee moment empties the good out of the news here. At least it does so for me. I am reminded of the well-meaning individual years ago who attempted to comfort my then-fiance (now my wife) after her father had just passed away from a sudden heart attack with the fantastically encouraging words, “That’s life, honey. But God is good.”
With friends like these…
Yes, of course, life is like that. And yes, of course, God is good. But the way that we communicate, when we communicate, the spirit in which we communicate – it all matters. If we’re not careful, our well-intentioned biblical observations will hurt rather than heal.
“Maternalizing” or Shepherding?
Likewise, Radner’s observations and challenges surrounding the maternalizing, infantilizing, and siliconizing of the church, and whether and how we should be meeting during this season are worthy observations and challenges. The uncharted territory we find ourselves in combined with the anxieties we all face make for a situation in which all manner of error and excess may and likely will run riot. Let us ask good questions and be vigilant against error and excess wherever we find it.
But my goodness, literally overnight pastors found themselves physically severed from their flocks, desperate for good tactical means to keep their congregations connected to one another and to their leaders, using every resource – zoom, email, phone calls, you name it – at their disposal to accomplish that end. Good on them for that, I say. And lest we think that such connection is some kind of first world luxury, a take-it-or-leave-it ‘extra’ that we could just as easily do without, let us remember what churches do besides offering spaces for corporate worship. Churches, at their best, nurture the kinds of vital connections that protect and preserve human life–feeding the hungry, sheltering the indigent and dispossessed, and mobilizing resources to the most vulnerable among us–to say nothing of the ordinary work of offering strength and comfort and encouragement to each member in the daily challenge of simply living. Work such as this is part of the critical and lifegiving fabric of society. It is indeed our daily bread. Without it, so much would be lost.
I know that Rev. Radner knows this, having shepherded flocks of his own. So why the glib and – I think – misleading generalization of what is happening now as “maternalizing”, “infantilizing”, and siliconizing”? The generalization, in any event, begs the question. We should be asking whether certain ways of being the church right now tend towards this, and to what extent they are harmful, rather than simply asserting (by the terms we use) that they do.
And furthermore, it is worth asking whether it is even remotely wise to so generalize, since human life is at stake here. Indeed, such talk may finally prove deadly, if it leads to any withholding of encouragement, wisdom, compassion, or resource that might otherwise have been offered to those at the edge of life.
This is our call–a call the apostle Peter himself–whom Radner invokes–recognized and commended to the leaders of his churches. “Be sympathetic…love one another…be compassionate and humble” (1 Pe. 3:8). Indeed, he counsels: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pe. 5:2-3).
Peter’s words call to mind Yahweh’s admonition to the ‘shepherds’ of Israel in Ezekiel. “Prophesy to the shepherds,” says the Lord. “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves…you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays and searched for the lost…So they were scattered…they became food for all the wild animals…no one searched or looked for them” (Ez. 34:2-6). Yahweh promises in response that he himself will seek after the sheep, raising up a shepherd like David to gather and tend the flock (34:11-24).
And Jesus is the good, David-shepherd, who has himself appointed under-shepherds–pastors and leaders–after his own heart to carry forward Yahweh-God’s shepherding work. To strengthen the weak and heal the sick and bind up the injured. To seek the strays and search for the lost and defend them against every wild thing. Peter reminds us: This is our job. This is what Christ our God has called us to.
Which is why Radner’s words ring hollow and feel cold to me. I know, I know – pastors, like anxious moms and dads, can “over-parent”, and so thwart the development of those under their care. That is a real danger. But surely we are not there, are we? We are – from where I stand – finding new forms of connection and new forms of pastoral and communal equilibrium inside a space we’ve never been before. There isn’t a playbook for this. We’re learning as we go. Give us a minute.
And in any case, no one is standing above this moment. There really is no ivory tower to speak from – though we may, if we’d like, pretend otherwise. For the first time that I can remember – perhaps the first time ever? – the global church, or something close to it, is in the same experiential space, groping in the dark for answers, holding on tight to God, and to one another, hoping against hope that the Wounded One who calls himself the Resurrection and the Life will yet rise upon our wounded world with healing in his wings.
That being the case, I think it would be wise for us to heed Rev. Radner’s own advice and “stop telling everybody what to do.” Indeed. Humbly acknowledging our position together–as the one body of Christ, bound together by the Spirit who groans and moves in and among us, we may well find that through it all, we grew up into the measure and stature of Christ.
So may it be.