Book Review: Finding Christ and Having Coffee in the Midst of Diversity Culture

When I was in college I remember complaining to Fr Chris, my confessor at the time, about having to read Freud. For the life of me, I can’t remember what my actual complaints were—or even if I actually had any substantive objections to Freud besides the fact that he wasn’t Christian and he was hard to read (and of the two I suspect the latter was more my concern than the former. I was a bright but lazy undergraduate.)

Anyway, looking back on the situation I imagined Father and I talked about the matter a little bit. Eventually though Fr Chris would (as he usually did) quiet, bow his head for a moment and then look up and say “If Freud says anything true and all you can’t find Christ in the truth that he presents, the problem isn’t Freud it’s you! You shouldn’t be reading Freud!”

Over the last almost 30 years since that conversation I’ve thought about Father’s comment. If I can’t find Christ in a thinker, a situation or a person, the problem isn’t outside but inside; it is me who is blind to Christ as He is present in that moment.

The late Fr Alexander Schmemman had a similar observation about missionaries. Somewhere he says that a missionary isn’t someone who goes and brings Christ where He isn’t. A missionary is someone who goes somewhere and finds Christ there waiting to greet him. Christ waits to greet me, He waits to greet each of us, if only I am willing to see Him.

Learning how to see Christ in the midst of my daily life, in the face of my neighbor, in the books that I read, in the events that make up the ebb and flow of my day, is more a challenge than I think many of us realize. For not a few Christians, especially if they take the spiritual life seriously, life is often a more or less frantic and desperate search for the presence of Christ in their lives.

None of this is to say that these desperate seekers are passive Christians. They aren’t. In fact, the more I have trouble encountering Christ in my everyday life the more I am likely to fill my day with activity, purposefully, driven activity, that I hope will (some how) reveal Christ to me, Or failing that, I hope that the work will fill up the emptiness of my life.

I know so many Orthodox Christians who approach the spiritual life as merely one more thing on their to do lists. For these people the spiritual life is just another series of tasks—take out the garbage, pay the bills, make the beds, do the shopping; daily prayers, spiritual reading, fasting, Vespers, Orthos, Divine Liturgy, and confession—things that have to be done because their in the job description of a pious and Orthodox Christian.

But amidst all the activity there is emptiness, a discontent and discomfort with self and others that takes the makes the compulsive in their approach to the life of prayer and which bears the bitter fruit of impatience and even anger with others. Above there is in them an anger at God Who just isn’t there.

While all of this is tragic enough for the person (and again, there are many, many, many Christians in this situation, no few of them clergy), it becomes more tragic still when the person tries to fill the emptiness through evangelism. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15, NKJV).

The human ground of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is as common as it is real. While it is a temptation for all of us, it is a special temptation to those who are involved in ministry—whether we are clergy or laity, Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical.

One Evangelical Christian pastor, Matthew Raley, has taken a hard look at this temptation as it is embodied in the discomfort many Evangelical Christians have with what he calls the “diversity culture.” He describes the evangelical and pastoral challenges (and opportunities) facing American Evangelical Christians (and I think most orthodox, and Orthodox, Christians) in his book The Diversity Culture: Creating Conversations of Faith with Buddhist Baristas, Agnostic Students, Aging Hipsters, Political Activists & Everyone in Between.

For better and worse, diversity culture, that shared commitment to “openness toward all beliefs and spiritual traditions” that sees as “bigotry” the “worst evil” has become the “dominant American ethos.” For those who embrace the ethic of diversity—and Raley argues correctly that most Americans have—“Every shelter for narrow thinking must be eroded by fresh winds” of modern (or actually, post-modern) relativising thought (p. 13).

The author uses a number of devices structure his analysis and the practical suggests that make up the book.

The first is a fictional encounter between two, middle aged, representatives of Evangelical Christianity and diversity culture. Representing the latter is a graphic designer, the former is represented by a man in a cheap blue suit. They meet in Café Siddhartha a San Francisco coffee shop.

Each chapter begins with a selection “from the ‘Most E-mailed’ list of articles on the New York Times Web site in 2006-2008.” The author does this in an attempt (largely successfully I think) to allow “the diversity culture to speak for itself, even to choose the topics of discussion.” In order to gain some critical, biblically informed, distance of diversity culture and the negative response it evokes in Evangelical Christians, he concludes each chapter with an analogical reading of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John (4:13-30).

While I admire the attempt, I think that the author is less successful here. His attempt to see a parallel between “the Samaritan-Jewish hostility and the [Café] Siddhartha-evangelical hostility” depends on his using historical research to re-create the internal dialog of Jews and Samaritans of the time (p. 18). While this can be, in small doses, a powerful preaching tool, it became distracting for me especially in comparison with the author’s greater understanding of contemporary culture.

More serious theologically, is his attempt to apply his analogical method to the Person of Jesus Christ. I found this more than a little distracting especially since it seemed to me that in his attempt to reconstruction of Christ’s psychology he lost sight of Christ’s divinity. Again, while I understand, and even appreciate, the pedagogical intent, there are times when the text flirts with Christological heresy.

Putting that to the side, however, I do think that Raley has much to say of great value not only to his own Evangelical Christian community but all of us who would engage the patrons at Café Siddhartha.

For those who are familiar with post-Modern thought (to say nothing of historical Christian thought and theology) much of the book will be distracting. At the same time I think it is unreasonable to criticize an author for not writing the book I would have written. Raley is offering his reader a primer on the theory and practice of evangelism in a post-Modern context and on that score he succeeds admirably.

What I found most valuable (and personally moving) were his concluding mediation on would I call the vocation of being an evangelist to the patrons of Café Siddhartha (pp. 163-164). I won’t quote it all, but let me offer a few lines:

“. . . America is full of believers who don’t fit anywhere, but who were made to leave an impression.”

“If you follow Christ, you have a wealth of insight that is uniquely yours.”

“God has . . . selected experiences for you, many of them agonizing—experiences that make you feel cut off from others. . . . These experiences, in spite of the isolation they create, are more of the wealth with which God has endowed you.”

Yes, yes, I know, especially taken out of context, these quotes read like a series of slogans on inspirational posters. And yes, there is a great distance between the affirmations above and actually putting these insights into practice. But we most start somewhere mustn’t we?

Thinking back to my conversation in Fr Chris office, I realize that what was true for Raley as an undergraduate was equally true for me at that time in my life. “As I discovered, the thing that kept me from winning souls was my self-indulgence. I was too confident that I knew the people I was dealing with, too quick to judge their attitudes and experiences.” As a result, and again like the undergraduate Raley, “My Gospel was self-indulgent too. It consisted of the points I wanted to make rather than the truths people needed to hear” (p. 165).

And if I think about it a little more, I realize that for all I’ve changed and matured, I am still a little bit like my 20 year old self. And it is as a gentle correction to that residual, but still real, spiritual self-indulgence that I think Matthew Raley has the most to offer me and any reader who takes serious an approach to evangelism grounded in personal sanctity and who wants to find the welcoming Face of Christ in his or her everyday life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Chrys

    Wow. This got me to thinking. The selfish agenda with which we greet others – the way we use them to promote our own goals and meet our own needs – wonderfully expresses how sin works its way in each of us in our day to day interactions. Picking up our cross in this context means doing the really hard work of hearing what the other person needs and offering, to the best of our ability, what THEY need to hear.

    Interestingly, the (very) few times I think I have done it, it wasn’t “fun.” (Of course, neither are ANY of the beatitudes). That’s because neither person gets what they thought they wanted. For my part, I had foregone the payoff that I normally would “get” – in this case, saying what I wanted to say to satisfy MY needs – usually to try to impress others. Ironically, the other person didn’t get what they “wanted” either. For if what we are offering really is a “truth” that they “need,” then it is also almost invariably not something they already know, or acknowledge, or accept – or expected to receive. Nothing surprises like an unknown but needed truth.

    If delivered with real love, one MAY see a moment of stunned silence as they try to grasp the truth they “need” but did not know and did not know they needed. (One may also see a more hostile response to receiving something other than what is expected.)
    Of course, it is delivered in any other manner . . . well, then I am simply indulging a different desire of my own.

    This is indeed a cross, an act of self-emptying love, that we can carry every day . . . yet rarely do. Thank you for sharing this.

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    • Fr Gregory Jensen

      Chrys,

      Thanks for your observations.

      I sometime wonder if some of us prefer fasting and long services because, well, they don’t require that we actually listen to people. The thing about listening that makes it so hard is that it requires that I expose myself to the other person. Real listening–and the speaking from real love–is impossible without real intimacy and vulnerability.

      Thanks again.

      In Christ,

      +FrG
      .-= Fr Gregory Jensen´s last blog ..Threadless Tshirt Giveaway at jaypeeonline.net =-.

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  • Chrys

    Wow. This got me to thinking. The selfish agenda with which we greet others – the way we use them to promote our own goals and meet our own needs – wonderfully expresses how sin works its way in each of us in our day to day interactions. Picking up our cross in this context means doing the really hard work of hearing what the other person needs and offering, to the best of our ability, what THEY need to hear.

    Interestingly, the (very) few times I think I have done it, it wasn’t “fun.” (Of course, neither are ANY of the beatitudes). That’s because neither person gets what they thought they wanted. For my part, I had foregone the payoff that I normally would “get” – in this case, saying what I wanted to say to satisfy MY needs – usually to try to impress others. Ironically, the other person didn’t get what they “wanted” either. For if what we are offering really is a “truth” that they “need,” then it is also almost invariably not something they already know, or acknowledge, or accept – or expected to receive. Nothing surprises like an unknown but needed truth.

    If delivered with real love, one MAY see a moment of stunned silence as they try to grasp the truth they “need” but did not know and did not know they needed. (One may also see a more hostile response to receiving something other than what is expected.)
    Of course, it is delivered in any other manner . . . well, then I am simply indulging a different desire of my own.

    This is indeed a cross, an act of self-emptying love, that we can carry every day . . . yet rarely do. Thank you for sharing this.

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    • Fr Gregory Jensen

      Chrys,

      Thanks for your observations.

      I sometime wonder if some of us prefer fasting and long services because, well, they don’t require that we actually listen to people. The thing about listening that makes it so hard is that it requires that I expose myself to the other person. Real listening–and the speaking from real love–is impossible without real intimacy and vulnerability.

      Thanks again.

      In Christ,

      +FrG
      .-= Fr Gregory Jensen´s last blog ..Threadless Tshirt Giveaway at jaypeeonline.net =-.

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