Satanic Harmonies and Zoom Church: Readers Respond

Image of microphone: Daniel Rubio/Unsplash

I promised from the outset of this column that it would feature feedback from readers, and almost from the outset, readers have been taking me up on that offer. Here’s an assortment of what people have been saying, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Satanic Harmonies

D.L. from Normal, Illinois wrote in response to my column on the New York Times coverage of the “high priestess of satanic harmonies” Anna von Hausswolff:

I remember back in my seminary days (1970s – pre-Reagan era). I was so sure that we had found the key to the relationship between religion and the public square: specifically that public policy ideas and commitment could be rooted in religious ideas and thought, BUT one’s obligation in advocating in the public square for policies that impact everyone, the force of one’s presentation would have to be ‘translated’ into factual, verifiable political language.

So for example, I have a strongly anti-war, anti-military leaning that anyone who knows me could quickly pin to my Mennonite upbringing. But if I were to enter into the public square…I would be expected to make an argument based on the very mixed and often counterproductive end results of violent military ‘solutions’ to social problems, as opposed to nonviolent resistance approaches to such problems. It is not that the violent military interventions are ‘sinful’ while nonviolent resistance is morally superior (though I may well believe that personally, along with my church’s teaching). It is rather that habitual reliance on violent military approaches has myriad and documentable unintended negative side effects that are much less likely to occur if we mobilized instead to employ tactics of widespread nonviolent resistance.

As I move now into old age, I have to smile at myself when I remember back at how convinced I was that we Americans had found this key to the problem of a religiously pluralistic society and that support for this key was so widespread (and gaining ground each day) that it had more or less reached the threshold of inevitability. Wow, was I ever wrong about that!

D.L. cites the influence of Gene Sharp on these thoughts. I confess I’m not familiar with Sharp’s work, but instead rely on Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls’ ideas about participation in a democratic polity, which, indeed, mostly came out in the 1970s. 

The modern American religious right, developing in the same period, was too obstinate to translate its arguments. Instead, they kept them sectarian, which is in large part why they’ve been able to claim the mantle of Real American Religion since Reagan’s ascension. Shorter Schultz: yeah, pretty much.

A.R. from Jerusalem responded to the same piece:

Immediately after reading your piece, I opened up the Israeli news website Maariv, and was confronted with the following article title: “Likud supporters attacked a Likud MK [Member of Knesset] who thanked Yair Lapid for his well wishes – and here is how she responded.”

The article proceeds to quote a single tweet by a known religious extremist, who attacked a Likud MK that thanked Lapid for wishing her a speedy recovery after an accident. 

One extremist said an insubstantial stupid thing – and it’s currently the third most read article in Maariv

According to A.R., the Maariv comment section filled up with liberals attacking the “‘fanatical’ and ‘hateful’ ‘tribal’ Likud” and conservatives doing their best to throw blame on the left. All of this in sharp contrast to response to the tweet itself, which was much more directed at the offending extremist than to Likudniks as a whole. A.R. thinks this is the result of Maariv making a tempest out of a teapot. 

American media is certainly no stranger to this routine—outrage gets clicks, and in this age of negative partisanship, people are sometimes fantastically bad at separating individuals from a class of people. I also appreciate A.R.’s comment for pointing out how closely linked Israeli politics are with American, and vice versa. If you see a feature in one system, it won’t be long before it turns up in the other, with religion and politics as much as anything else.

Zoom Out

My column on Tish Harrison Warren‘s op-ed arguing that churches should drop online worship drew a lot of response, most of it positive. J.W. from Michigan, a member of the disability community, told me on Facebook:

“Bodies…are not obstacles to be transcended through digitization” is one of the most deeply misguided things I’ve read in a very long time. Beyond being ignorant of how the internet has both broadened horizons and shrunk the size of the Earth for everyone from school children to nursing home residents, it’s also openly defiant against a fundamental theological tenet preached by so many religious traditions—the idea that God is all around us and meets us where we are. God doesn’t need me to be in my assigned seat on Sunday morning to hear my prayer. I realize many churchgoers look to their church to find community, but if she doesn’t understand how digital connections can enable the creation of all sorts of connections I think she needs to sit in front of a laptop more.

Shorter (and longer) Schultz again: Yeah, pretty much. Bob Smietana of RNS wrote on the same piece, summarizing his article thus on Twitter:

This doesn’t help Warren’s case. She says in the article that she thinks online church is part of a larger trend of people gathering virtually rather than in person. That’s a legitimate concern, but it’s nowhere spelled out in her original piece. Nor does it address the concern raised about ableism in response to the piece: it still makes people with disabilities the object of ministry, rather than its subject. 

It also raises questions about culture and authority that Warren doesn’t seem to care to address. Do members of the church have the right to expect that the church will “meet them where they are,” as J.W. says? Do they have the authority to change the means by which the body of Christ comes together, or is that power reserved to bishops and an interpretation of tradition?

I mention all of this because not all of the reaction to my piece was positive. N.T. says:

In the name of progress and of having found at last the solution to the terrible dilemma faced by the disabled, you make an argument that gives cover to many fully-abled persons who would rather watch church in their pajamas while avoiding having to listen to their pew mate rattle on about their addicted daughter.

To which I can only respond: Please be advised that anything you email is considered on the record without prior arrangement. We’ll give the same initials as other readers for the sake of privacy, though.

That said, I find N.T.’s criticism questionable. For one thing, I’m a Niebuhrian. I find the idea of progress difficult at best. For another, having many friends in the disability community and close relatives who have been immunocompromised and at great risk from the pandemic, yes, I’m pretty sensitive to “the terrible dilemma faced by the disabled.” I don’t think that’s anything to apologize for.

More important, N.T.’s argument implies that “fully-abled persons” have a duty to attend church in a particular form. It also implies that I have an obligation to avoid making arguments that “give cover” to people looking to shirk that duty.

I certainly don’t believe that’s the case for a writer at a secular publication like RD, but it’s arguable even if you consider my role as clergy. One of the happiest communions I ever celebrated involved a simple, spontaneous remembrance and breaking of bread at a dinner party. Not many Christians would doubt that Jesus was present in that moment. Nor would they doubt it when Francis of Assissi preached in the wilderness, or John Wesley and his followers held services in the coalfields. So why exactly would it be different in a Zoom service?

That’s not a rhetorical question. A preference for in-person worship is understandable and not even necessarily wrong. A case can be made for it. My point is simply that Warren hasn’t made that case, either in terms of sociology or theology. Meanwhile, the argument she has made overlooks the needs of those living with disabilities (she notes them in her own reader mailbag this week, but doesn’t address them or the ableism of her argument). And as J.W. points out, Warren’s argument implicitly doubts the power of the living God to be present to the people of God, wherever they may be. 

Wherever you may be, feel free to reach out with thoughts and responses: [email protected]. It’s appreciated, even if we disagree. I don’t make decisions about what RD covers, but I’m always happy to hear your ideas on the media and my columns.