Friday, August 31, 2012

The Salvation Army: A Frustrating, Wonderful Church

This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

Joy, joy joy! There is joy in the Salvation Army!
Joy, joy, joy, 
In the Army of the Lord.  
—"Joy in the Salvation Army," William Pearson & William Bradbury 

Note: inspiration for this week's blog post came from two sources: my friend Julia, who asked me about my church, and the BBC show "Rev.," which is about a vicar in the Church of England and his struggles with, among other things, the idiosyncrasies of the modern Christian church—it's an awesome show!

I grew up attending church at the Salvation Army. It was a great place—and a great way—to grow up.

That the Salvation Army is a church surprises a lot of people: most folks in the States associate it with thrift stores, or social work, or perhaps disaster relief. So a pretty stable part of my childhood, and indeed my whole life, has been explaining that in addition to those ministries, the Salvation Army is indeed a denomination of the Christian faith. In the early years this was frustrating, but now it's as natural as breathing.

I was not big on tough questions, analysis, or challenging authority as a child, so I viewed the Salvation Army as a wholly benevolent and wonderful organization until I became an adult. These days, I still have a lot of good to say about it, but I also have a number of profound frustrations; some of them based on my personal preferences and beliefs, and a few that I see as objective problems with the church, regardless of my beliefs.  I thought it would be healthy for me to articulate both frustration and joy here. (Disclaimers: if you are a member of the Salvation Army, please take these criticisms constructively, because I love the Salvation Army and would never mock or insult it; if you are not a member of the Salvation Army, and are not familiar with it, please remember that these are simply my opinions, and not necessarily the whole truth on any of the issues at hand.)

I'll start with the criticisms and then get to the good stuff.
  • Bureaucracy: This one is common to most churches today, especially in the West, where various scandals and lawsuits have made red tape inevitable. (If you've got 30 minutes to spare, I highly recommend season 2 episode 1 of Rev. for an amusing angle on the subject.) But the Salvation Army is the place where I have the most direct exposure to church bureaucracy and where I am frustrated by it the most. In particular, many administrators seem to enjoy exercising their power by creating and enforcing rules for rules' sake. A case-by-case approach or one taking mitigating factors into account is rare. Example: I was teaching a class (on my own and the student's free time—not a scheduled course) to some students at the Salvation Army's seminary, and after a few months got hauled in to an administrator's office and reprimanded. My crime? I hadn't told any higher-ups that I was on campus teaching a class ( my friends...on our free time). I was accused of "sneaking around" and violating various rules that I didn't know were rules. My students were also reprimanded.
  • Christian Fundamentalism: The Salvation Army as a whole is not a fundamentalist sect. But there is a strong trend toward and identification with fundamentalism among many of its laypeople and leaders. Fundamentalism is, in my understanding, a modern phenomenon. It is a way of reading scripture and practicing Christianity that is not, as it might claim, adhering to age-old tradition and practice, but rather by nature a reaction against modernism and therefore quite recent. Its focus on Biblical literalism, rejection of scientific advancement and reason, and frequently apocalyptic mindset strike me as both deeply troubling and thoroughly backward. Example: when I was waiting with family in the hospital while my mom was having surgery, the Salvation Army ministers waiting with us tried to strike up a conversation about how Obama was probably the Antichrist. (I was livid, but I walked it off.)
  • Social Conservatism: I identify as a left-leaning moderate (or a straightforward liberal; it depends on the day) politically. So I find conservative viewpoints to be frustrating, especially when they are backed by religion, which they often are in the Salvation Army, from pulpits or in Bible study or youth groups. That is not to say that conservative viewpoints are all wrong or incompatible with a right reading of scripture, just that I find them frustrating. That said, I do thoroughly disagree with the Salvation Army's conservative take on homosexuality, which you can read here. Go ahead and read it if you like; it's actually a very gentle, kind statement, to my eyes, not particularly harsh or judgmental. But it is based on a fairly narrow reading of scripture, and it makes little attempt to account for the fact that, if we are God's creations, then some of us are created homosexual. I will not go into all the reasons I disagree with the Salvation Army's position; my thoughts and those of many others on the subjects of homosexuality and traditional marriage are decently summarized (if somewhat playfully) here and here
  • Worship Style: I've discussed things like this before, so I won't dwell on it much. The Salvation Army has some very unique worship elements, but overall it's often very similar to many other "low church" settings: guitars, drums, words projected on a screen, PowerPoint sermons, and so forth. It is a style driven by the desire to attract people with the familiar, rather than a desire to connect worshipers with the body of believers past and present. (An episode of "Rev.," [season 1, episode 2] explores this issue; some great commentary on the episode can be found here.)
With all those things I find frustrating, you may ask, why do I bother associating with "the Army" (as we often call it) at all? 

Here, briefly, are some reasons: 
  • Love: The Salvation Army is full of wonderful people who love each other, God, and their neighbors. There's a reason I've grown into a fairly well-adjusted, kind, faithful person: I had a lot of really good examples to look to when I was growing up in the Army.
  • Social Justice: More than any church I've ever visited, been a part of, or read about, the Salvation Army views its primary mission as serving others, especially the poor, broken, and suffering. This, to my mind, is a fundamental element, if not the primary function, of the Church of Christ in the world (though it shames me to write it, as one who often neglects this duty). I'm proud of the Army for holding up this example to other churches and to the world.
  • Global Family: Salvationists (as we call ourselves), no matter where we are on the globe, feel connected to one another as part of the same church, in a way that I've rarely heard described in other churches. I've done a fair amount of travel, and whenever I visit a Salvation Army, be it in another state or another continent, I am instantly welcomed, and often I am already known. This is the universal experience of Salvationists. Perhaps it is because the church is so small—100,000 members in the U.S., 1,000,000 worldwide—but I think we welcome and befriend each other so readily because we know what the Army is about (loving one's neighbor, caring for others) and we trust that other Salvationists know it too.
I assure you there are other reasons to love the Salvation Army; these are the big three for me. I hope I have been able to communicate my care for this church adequately; I am frustrated by it because I love it. I do have high hopes for it in the future. 

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Friday, August 17, 2012

On Going to Weddings & Judging People

Children, wake up,
hold your mistake up,
before they turn the summer into dust.

"Wake Up," Arcade Fire

I went to a wedding this weekend, and it was rad. As weddings should be.

As a guy, I am not culturally obliged to think this about weddings, for which I am thankful. I know lots of young women who are all about talking about weddings and their accoutrements. But I also know a fair number who have no interest in the subject, or who actively avoid it because it makes them uncomfortable or annoys them. Heck, I even know one who has never been to a wedding. And for some of the gals in these latter categories, the assumption that you will, just by default as a female, want to gush about dresses and centerpieces and colors and catering must be pretty doggone frustrating.

The main thing that grabs my attention at weddings is music. I love how wedding music heightens and highlights the already heady emotions on display. And I like getting an insight into the character of the wedding couple by observing their music choices. How one communicates, say, the drama of the bridal processional, says a lot about what sort of people are getting married that day: you can go hyper-traditional with the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, stick with a classic (or cliche, depending on your view) with something like Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, or find something totally original, like, say Bjork (note: I have seen this--it was sweet). Me, I always wanted the last movement from the Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky, a favorite from childhood, though it's probably a bit over the top for any wedding that's not super formal and intense.

Given this predilection, I was pumped to see a selection of non-traditional musical elements on the program at this wedding, as it would be (1) fun and (2) a chance to see what kind of folks these were--they were known to me, but by no means did I know everything about them.

There are a number of key feelings that wedding music can seek to highlight. You can work the solemnity angle: this is a ritual, after all, with a long history and a profound, life-changing significance; for this, people tend to choose lovely, clear, stately classical music, often easily recognizable by most attendees. There are also the bittersweet emotions on display: the parents lose their children to adulthood, the couple cease being individuals and become part of something bigger, and so forth; for this, pop ballads are best. But at this wedding, the primary emotion in the music was joy at the beauty and excellence of the occasion; in particular, I was pleased and surprised by this spirited Celtic tune for the entrance of the bridal party, and by the use of this Jack Johnson song for the recessional. I didn't agree with every music choice, but overall, they were great.

That last sentiment, "I didn't agree with everything, but..." is the big trouble with weddings for me. In addition to everything else they are (a celebration of two people's union, a chance to meet new people and see old friends, an opportunity to enjoy free food and dancing) weddings are definitely a time when I have to try to keep myself from judging people's taste. I get really riled, for some reason, if I hear a scripture read at a wedding that seems to always get read at weddings (I'm looking at you, the Love Chapter); similarly, a piece of music that appears constantly at weddings, or anything else that I've seen too many times. "Don't these people know this is a cliche? Have they not themselves seen this at a dozen weddings in their lives, some enshrined forever in cinema? This is boring and foolish." These and similar thoughts cross my mind at most weddings at least once, and I know they shouldn'tbut they do. (I also, of course, have trouble with sappy pop, or anything I see as cheap or low-brow.) I think this attitude is primarily about my deep-seated need to feel superior to other people, which is something I am fairly certain I've always had, but only recently really started to recognize and deal with.

But such thoughts are self-centered and unkind, and so I denounce them. Weddings are awesome no matter how you set them up, and so I say, go for it: play the greatest hits if that's your style, and don't let anyone tell you different! Whatever you play, I'll see you on the dance floor afterwards.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Coach V and the Native American Project

And I've been holding onto the gold,
When letting go would free my hands.

 —"The Rifle," Alela Diane

I went to two high schools as a kid. The first was a suburban public school: huge, full of bustle and energy, smart kids and middling kids and weird kids. It was fun, and I liked it, most of the time. The second was a Chicago Catholic high school.

Now, in retrospect, there probably wasn't an insane amount of difference between these institutions, but to adolescent me, the second school was a turd. I had no friends there, it was dingy and weird and unpleasant, and I felt alone in having any kind of intelligence (I wasn't, I discovered later: the smart kids just didn't act the way I expected them to, and I didn't recognize them for a while). Oh, and many of the teachers were hacks.

One such teacher was Coach V, who taught my English III class. Let me break that class down for you a little bit:
  • First, this was a non-honors class, so I was surrounded by and expected to perform at the same level as (what I would have then thought of as) my "intellectual inferiors." (My experience in school inculcated a thoroughgoing elitism in me that I failed to recognize until I hit college. [Translation: I thought I was better than everyone else.]) This was misery. But, to be fair, I probably deserved it.
  • Added to this was the fact that Coach V did not challenge his students very much. We read—in a high school English class in America in the 21st century!—a total of one novel in the course of the school year. A day's lesson would regularly consist of just reading out loud together from a textbook, with little discussion, analysis, or thought required of kids. We'd fill out worksheets. Sometimes, we would watch a movie.
  • Lastly, Coach V was a neglectful teacher: he was laughably bad at returning our work. At the time, I was unexposed to adults who would straight up lie or make promises to children that they had no intention of keeping. So when Coach V would tell us it'd just be a day or two more before our homework was graded, or our grades were calculated, I totally bought it and forgot to notice when work never came back or grades came out months after they should have. Grades were apparently based on Coach V's general feeling about how we were doing, since he clearly hadn't graded most individual assignments. 
At the time of the incident in question, then, Coach V was either sort of a loser, not really cut out to teach English, or he was a lying, manipulative, lazy jerk. I'm about to make the case for the second option. 

Early in the year, Coach V mentioned that we would be doing what he called a "Native American Project." He just let us know that we'd be doing one, and that he liked to keep students' projects to show to next year's classes, even going so far as to show us one from a previous year. He said he was famous in the school for having a really effective way of convincing students to let him keep their projects. And then he went back to his lesson. 

So later in the year, when the Native American unit came around (represented by reading about two short stories about/by Native Americans) everyone was primed for the Native American Project, and we were all "No way am I doing work on this project and letting this guy keep it."

Coach V's Native American Project was assigned as follows: 
  1. We were to go to an "angled street" (not one of the rectangular grid streets that characterize Chicago's layout, but one of the few streets set at diagonals to those streets, like Milwaukee or Elston) becauseand I can neither confirm nor deny this—they were the city's "old Native American trails" paved over and made into streets. 
  2. Once on such a street, we were to purchase something "related to Native American culture"—and here, Coach V held up, I kid you not, a Land O'Lakes butter container, which he claimed a student had brought in for his project the year before. We were not supposed to create something, just, you know, buy it. 
  3. We would bring this item to class, along with the receipt which would demonstrate that we had bought it during the time in which the Native American Project had been assigned, rather than simply brought from home. And then we would explain to the class how our item related to Native American culture. 
So the Native American Project was obviously horse hockey, plain and simple. But it was going to be a little challenging, since the places you could buy things were limited geographically and the things you could buy were limited by the general stupidity of them having to be related to Native American culture, which, c'mon. I'm pretty sure the Land O'Lakes butter thing is related to Native American culture exclusively via cultural stereotypes.

But, Coach V, said—and this was, it turned out, the truly devious part—if we were worried about the difficulty of getting something related to Native American culture under the constraints of having to go to an angled street to do it, there was an easy workaround: just go to this store up on Milwaukee Avenue; he discovered it recently, and it's a store that just specialized in Native American cultural wares!

So, naturally, we all went there. It was the only way to accomplish this ridiculous project without dignifying it with actual effort. I bought a cheaply framed, soft-focus painting of some eagles and Native Americans in feather headdresses or something. It cost $15.

The day of the project presentations came around. I stood up and gave my talk, as did everyone else. (Mind you, I took the project quite seriously: I wrote a nice little essay and expected a good grade for my efforts. My cynicism toward all this came later, though I suspect it was already present for many classmates.) We all gave Coach V our purchased objects, all from the same store, and—and this is crucialthe receipts for said objects along with them. And we never saw them again.

Coach V's famously effective method for persuading his students to let him keep their projects? He never spoke about them. He never offered to return them. If we asked for them back, he politely changed the subject.

Sometime after the end of the school year, a true understanding of the nature of the Native American Project finally clicked into place for me. It changed from a story about an absentminded teacher who forgot to grade papers assigning a silly project and forgetting to return it to us, to a story about a teacher who scammed his students out of hundreds of dollars. My classmates never forgot or forgave: whenever we'd see Coach V in the hall or he would visit one of our classrooms to talk to a teacher, someone would utter an unconvincing cough laced with "Native American Project," or, even better, just straightforwardly shout from the back of a classroom, "Hey Coach, where's that Native American Project, huh?" And Coach V would smile, wave his hands, say hello, even occasionally address our concerns directly and promise the projects would be returned sometime. But they never were.

Coach V was a lying, manipulative, lazy jerk. Fortunately, the school administration forbid him from ever assigning the Native American Project again after my year. And then, a year or two later, they fired him.

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