Saturday, April 05, 2008

Wright's Jeremiad

A few weeks ago, when Obama's parish pastor was all the buzz, we wanted to say a few words on the subject, but were distracted by weightier concerns, such as the annual celebration of our Lord's Passion and Resurrection.  (Click the link for a thoughtful discussion of Jeremiah Wright and Chicago's Trinity UCC, by Kelefa Sanneh of the New Yorker.)  Here's our two cents:  the whole flap was at the same time enlightening and a little silly.

Enlightening because it opened a window for many of us, the Egg included, onto a unique ministry and its theological vision.  Trinity is the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ, the prodigiously left-leaning denomination that is the direct linear descendant both of colonial Puritanism (think Jonathan Edwards) and of the catholic revival within Calvinism once led by John Williamson Nevin from his base at Mercersburg.  Perhaps more significantly, it was also the denomination in which Paul Tillich found an American home.  The press has for the most part been satisfied to quote ad nauseam a few words from one of Wright's sermons, and to paint him as a radical whose message flirts with the revolutionary ideologies of the 1960s -- which seem dangerous to conservatives of a certain age, and quaint to most other people.  But the press has largely overlooked the more interesting story, of an Afrocentric congregation led by a radical preacher which is the tallest steeple in a largely white, largely middle-class, denomination still wrestling with its own complex and contradictory beliefs.

Enlightening further because it has reminded many of us that James Cone, the principal theorist of "black liberation theology," is not yet an historical relic.  He still teaches at Union Theological Seminary, and many preachers continue to be shaped by his vision of the Gospel.  This is not a bad thing, by the way.  Although it may be argued that Cone has taken significant liberties with the English language, redefining words like "black" (which he uses to mean "in solidarity with the oppressed"), when you cut through it all his theology offers a sharp challenge to the comfortable version of Christianity which has been conformed to its culture, like the seat of a Town Car conformed to the rear end of a plutocrat.  That is why, along with his well-publicized criticism of the United States, Wright has also been sharply critical of the "prosperity gospel" preached by frauds like Creflo Dollar.  In seminary, we studied Cone, at least in passing, and our professors took pains to point out his intellectual debt to Karl Barth.  At the time, we thought they were pushing it -- at Princeton, they can make a cloud in the sky look like Barth.  But by gum, they were onto something.

Enlightening  yet further because it has cast a beam onto the generational divide between Obama and his pastor -- and onto the generational continuity.  Obama has suggested, as delicately as he can, that he is among the number to whom the firebrand posturing of Wright's era looks less prophetic than quaint.  But he has also made it clear that even if the style has become a little embarrassing, he honors the substance -- both theologically and politically.  It's a bit like having an old uncle who won't stop talking about how he "kilt a lotta gooks back in the war," and you wish he wouldn't talk that way but you don't stop being proud that he won a medal at Okinawa.

And of course the whole kerfluffle was also a tad silly, because the TV news seemed to have an awfully difficult time distinguishing Obama from his (retired) parish pastor.  Look, we at the Egg say some pretty wild things from the pulpit -- for example, we talk, almost obsessively, about a guy rising from the dead.  Then we claim he's still here with us, somehow, in a cup of wine and piece of flat wafer we euphemistically call "bread."  And we know that on a typical Sunday, there are some people who think we are a little daft for believing all that.  They have a different vision of what the Gospel means, and they have come to church not because they agree with every word that drops from our golden tongue, but for reasons of their own.  So they sit politely through our sermons, sometimes enjoying the rhetorical flourish and sometimes squirming at what seems like the embrace of irrationality.  And when it's over, they take away something else -- the pleasure of being with friends, or the connection to their heritage, or even the renewed hope that they may someday come to believe what they do not yet.  

But here's the point:  We love them, even when they disagree with us. And vice-versa.   Adults, including adult religious believers, can have that kind of relationship.  As, apparently, do Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright.

1 comment:

Gillian said...

ROTFLMAO about managing to make the cloud look like Barth. Ah, PTS....