One Summer or One Reality?

I recently finished listening to One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating look at one busy summer which included a catastrophic flood of the Mississippi river, Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo crossing of the Atlantic (and the failed attempts of a few others), Babe Ruth’s record-setting season, a widely publicized murder trial, the invention of television, a highly anticipated boxing match, and a variety of other events of historic interest. Bryson’s writing is always brisk and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It did, however, prompt some thought both about how little things change and also about how blind we can be to our own era’s problems.

We have a tendency, I believe, to idealize the past. Conservative Christians can be particularly prone to this giving the impression that the whole world was Christian and holy prior to the 1960s. What Bryson shows, however, is that the 20s were no era of Christian family values. Tabloids purveying salacious material were booming. The trial of a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband captured the nation’s attention in a way quite similar to the celebrity escapades of today. And the politicians of the day were regularly engaged in corruption and relational improprieties. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And things have changed. Though Bryson avoids editorializing much throughout the book, he shows a noticeable and justifiable disdain when writing about some of the eugenics rhetoric of the era. For a brief, sad period, many across the cultural spectrum were calling for the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, principally criminals and the insane, in an effort to improve the population and purge it of “undesireables.”*

While Bryson’s discomfort with this way of thinking is justified and would probably be shared by most of his readers, it is more than a little ironic that we live in a society in which doctors routinely advise parents to abort babies with Downs Syndrome or other birth defects. The arguments are different but the result is the same.

There is no Golden Era of the Church or humanity. Each age shows both the glory of humanity’s imaging of God and the shame of human depravity. Looking carefully at the past can help us see ourselves and our tendencies more clearly.

*Amy Laura Hall chronicles the unfortunate collaboration of the church in this movement in her book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction

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Spiritual IRA

This time of year it is common to hear people making resolutions about their personal habits. Among Christians this often includes the practices of prayer and Bible reading. These are often referred to as “Spiritual Disciplines” and traditionally include other practices such as memorization, meditation, silence & solitude, fasting, stewardship, worship, journaling, and serving. The list varies from author to author.

The term ‘discipline’ captures a part of the reality of these practices; most of them require dedication and perseverance to become part of our lives. But the term carries mostly negative connotations for most of us and may contribute to our lack of enthusiasm at developing them.

Developing these practices is further complicated by the fact that though we may call them disciplines, we often treat them as if they were transactions. That is, we want them to function the way most of our purchases do. We give the “payment” of prayer, reading, a donation, etc. and we expect to receive a “good” in return. The goods expected may be material “blessings” as we sometimes call them, but they may be more nebulous things like personal peace, or immediate insight, or a sense of God’s presence, or personal recognition. We seem to default to expecting a nearly one-to-one correspondence between our acts of personal piety and identifiable outcomes. Further, we want those identifiable outcomes to be nearly immediately recognizable. This usually doesn’t work.

It would perhaps be better to think of these practices as spiritual “investments.” With most of our investments we contribute a certain amount of money and hope to receive something beyond that amount at some later date. The length of time and the scale of increase are largely out of our control. But we know that, by and large, consistent contribution to these investments compounds the accruing benefits.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but it holds true that the dividends of spiritual disciplines are paid out most often in the long term. Much like our retirement funds, Scripture calls us not to occasional, frantic, outbursts of spiritual passion, but to small, regular, honest acts of devotion submitted in faith to the market forces of the Father’s mercy.