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Friday, October 27, 2006

Blue Collar Resistance And The Politics Of Jesus

Note: This review was updated 10/28/2006.

In Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus, Tex Sample shares some good information on ministry to America's working class white people.

That population segment comprises about 98% of the county I serve and hence my interest in the book. Why aren't we winning these people? Why are their families being destroyed?

I'm still collecting my thoughts, and I found many points worth pondering within the book. My enthusiasm for the work is waning because I don't share Dr. Sample's positions on many critical points. In fact, I see in Dr. Sample the very things that cause the working class to be alienated from the mainline church now thanks to his own analysis of the working class. You see, the working class wants answers, not more "some say this, some say that."

In the final analysis, Dr. Sample just offers more ambiguity. For example, Dr. Sample's assertion on p. 117 that "I cannot imagine that the God we know in Jesus Christ is not active in other faith traditions, and we cannot know ahead of time what God is doing in other traditions" undercuts the rest of his effort to unfold a distinctively Christian view at all.

Take, for instance, his critique of Constantinianism and espousal of pacifism. To use a blue collar expression, Dr. Sample "shoots himself int he foot" and undercuts his entire argument for a distinctively Christian ethic. Here's what I mean: How can Dr. Sample be sure that his faith which he uses to amply critique American culture is at the same time inadequate to critique other religions? Dr. Sample has himself called into question the validity of the doctrines he espouses simply by his assertion that he cannot rule out the possibility of God speaking and working in other religions.

He celebrates the Mormon frontier wife who throws the contents of chamber pot on the marital bed of her husband as he is about to celebrate a "honey moon" with his "second wife" (p.35). But why? Couldn't God have been speaking through that "faith tradition"?

Sample critiques the modern American system for it's "inverted totalitarianism" and the warfare state while admitting in this statement the possibility that dhimmitude and jihad might be God speaking.

This last summer, my children and I read "Daughters of Hope" about Christian women of the Majority World. In many families in India, the daughters eat only if there's food left when the men are done. And even when the girls go hungry, there's fresh and delicious food purchased for the household idols. Is God speaking through that?

This type of behavior only changes when Jesus Christ is presented as Lord and Savior and not until. Sadly, Dr. Sample's statement on page 117 is woefully naive and doesn't recognize how other "faith traditions" adapt to present the morality of Christianity (however watered down) they find here and pretend that's the reality elsewhere. That's the only possible reality from God that Dr. Sample or anyone else might recognize in such "faith traditions" - when they mimic Christian ethics and outlooks.

I suppose if we're being consistent with Sample's assertion here that all faith traditions need to be "heard" we should ask "how old does a wacky belief need to be to become an esteemed 'faith tradition'?" For that reason, why isn't Constantinianism a revered "faith tradition" by now in Sample's mind... it's been around 1700 years, much longer than Sikhism and Mormonism? The American Civil Religion he critiques has been around a couple of hundred years. Surely that's a "faith tradition" worth hearing by now?

Don't get me wrong, Dr. Sample offers some good critiques of the state and the mainline church, among other things. The point is that by this one assertion about his inability to critique other "faith traditions" why should anyone believe the revelation Jesus Christ is anything more than another pious sentiment? And now we're back at the ambiguity and faithless faith that working class people find utterly meaningless.

I had hoped to find insight into the working class here and, indeed, did find some because I do not believe in the ambiguity of the Gospel and sense the urgency of reaching these folks.

I've worked with literally hundreds of laid off factory workers in the last few years here and I see the things he's talking about validated in their experiences.

In the two cases of factory shut downs I observed in the last 3 years, the workers felt that they could have kept on producing the same product at a good value if they had only been given input.

But neither the companies shutting down nor the multiple government agencies sent to "help" seemed to listen. But in both instances, a good many of the workers returned to the same industry producing the same product and these plants might have transitioned in a way less disruptive to the workers and to production.

I recalled these people frequently as I read the book.

I'm still processing how I might apply this material here, though I think there's plenty of things to consider to help me fulfill my calling here. Like many academics, the book is good for some clues but short of specifics as far as practitioners are concerned.

Dr. Sample's endorsement of apprenticeship based discipleship was welcome. His discussion of the role of the eucharist was interesting if vague. His description at the opening of the book about how one pastor successfully "bridged the gap" to serve a working class congregation was about as practical as the book goes.

Dr. Sample's exegetical models are about a generation old ... He's still talking as if the raging New Testament theology debate of the day is between Albert Schweitzer and Oscar Cullman instead of the debates between N.T. Wright and the Jesus Seminar. Before writing your next treatise, Dr. Sample may wish to acquaint himself with some modern biblical scholarship to see if it yields any further insights.

I am most appreciative of Dr. Sample's honesty when it comes to critiquing the mainline.

Why has the mainline lost the common working people given all its rhetoric about serving the poor, justice for the poor, "reconcilation", and "peacemaking"? Frankly it's because of their frequently elitist "Let them eat cake" mentality. You see it - I've seen it - in the seminary graduates who consider taking a blue collar church a venture in ecclesiastical slumming, a transitional period in the Wilderness before a big city church comes along filled with professionals, artists, and managers... a church with "their kind" of people. They're waiting to ascend to a position "worthy" of them when the Son of God took the opposite path (Philippians 2:5 -11).

Mainline denominations like to talk about having an "educated ministry" and indeed that is a worthy goal. But if the educational process confirms students in the prejudices against the working class and educates formerly working class students in new prejudices... the educational process must be questioned.

Dr. Sample also did a good job of defining the "conservatism" of working whites. It is also the conservatism of working black families in my experience, despite Washington's experimentation on the black family structure. Just ask Bill Cosby or Thomas Sowell. It's not a laissez faire economic conservatism but a conservatism centered on maintaining the family unit.

And perhaps that's why the mainline continues to lose working class families. Here's a case in point...while mainline clergy are creating "Marriage Dissolution Ceremonies" and "celebrating" the putting asunder of marriages despite Jesus'words in Matthew 19:6, working class people are grieving the loss of that marriage not denying the loss or "celebrating" it. Working class people still have an ideal in their minds about how life should be in God's world. While they're not stupid and realize that tragedy does enter into ths world of sin, they haven't lost the ideal that guides them.

Sample also discusses orality, storytelling, proverb and communication through the ear channel that is helpful. He begins the book by briefly recounting how a sensitive minister began conducting the Eucharist weekly and adapting his sermons to his listeners. Funny, we're having to do exactly what they do in the mission we support in Bihar, India. In other words, we don't even do for working class people in the US what we do for folks places they've never heard the gospel but we wonder why they don't flock to our churches and go down the street to the Baptists!

Talk about blue collar resistance! In the shadow of the Mainline Cathedral "places" the Blue Collar workers resist with their nondenominational "spaces". Read the book and you'll know what he and I mean.

Thanks Dr. Sample for this provocative, though brief, work. It's thought provoking, if vague at many points.

One word about the language. To communicate "blue collar" attitudes, Dr. Sample had to convince the editor's to leave several instances of the "F word" in the text along with some other vulgarities. I wasn't aware Abigndon Press had any self imposed limits upon what they'd print. I was glad to know they had some boundaries.

To the reader: If you know someone who can help us start that Christian Non Profit Credit Union (or a Christian non profit credit union willing to help us fight usury and help working class people of all races and places!), have them email me at the address on the side of the page!