Friday, April 09, 2010

The Theology of "The Family"

Jeff Sharlet's book The Family has been out for a couple of years and the main aspects of it have been covered elsewhere: He was recruited into the lower levels of a secretive religious organization that some people called "The Family". At upper levels, the Family includes congressmen and senators. Its public face is the Fellowship Foundation, the organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast that has been held every year since 1953. 

Subsequent to the publication of The Family, the group has gotten some negative attention because of the C Street House, a boarding house in Washington where people like Senator John Ensign and Senator Tom Coburn live or have lived at a below-market rent.

The heart of the book is a magazine article. It has been fleshed out into a book with some very interesting history of American evangelicalism (going back to Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney) and other related Sharlet articles like the one he did in Harpers about Ted Haggard before his fall. (It's behind Harper's subscription wall.)

Elite vs. Popular Religion. I'd like to focus more on the theology of the Family, which I will interpret a little differently than Sharlet did. One of Sharlet's most interesting ideas is that there are two main forms of American evangelicalism: a popular version and an elite version. 

You may already know more than you want to about the popular version, which is pushed on TV and by strangers who will buttonhole you on the street: No matter who you are or how bad your life has gotten, Jesus loves you and wants to save you. If you let him, he will come into your life in a powerful born-again experience that will change everything for you. (I've written about the born-again experience elsewhere.)

Popular evangelicalism can be recruited into politics by way of social issues like abortion (on the right) or civil rights (on the left), but its essence is personal, not political. Jesus may have incarnated because "God so loved the World", but what you need to understand is that Jesus loves you.

Elite evangelicalism as presented by the Family (and its current leader Doug Coe) is focused not on mega-churches and TV ministries, but on "key men". (And yes, it really does seem to be men. Hillary Clinton has flirted with the Family, but its vision is patriarchal.) Its fundamental text is Romans 13:1:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
You can see why a powerful man would like that verse: Whatever double-dealing you did to get power was all part of God's plan. You are where you are because God wants you there, and anyone who rebels against you is rebelling against God. (Of course, if the rebellion succeeds, then that was part of God's plan too. And your rebellion against your superiors is part of God's plan if it succeeds.)  Romans 13 (like much of the Old Testament) is political rather than personal, and its ultimate vision is theocratic: The people submit to their rulers, who in turn submit to God. 

Now, you might expect that the "submit to God" part would be less popular among the elite. But what if it is God's will that His elite servants, His key men, gain even more power? Then submitting to God and satisfying your own ambition would be the same thing.

Jesus Plus Nothing. That's where Coe's theology comes in. He sums it up with the enigmatic slogan: "Jesus plus nothing." Sharlet wrestles with Jesus-plus-nothing throughout the book, but I'm not sure he ever really gets it.

He gets what Jesus-plus-nothing rejects. Mainstream Christianity -- and even most fundamentalism -- preaches Jesus plus something. Jesus plus an ethical life, or Jesus plus love, or Jesus plus the Bible, or Jesus plus the sacraments, or Jesus plus the leadership of some particular church. Coe's point is that in a Jesus-plus-something church, the Something eventually crowds Jesus out. Eventually you spend all your time talking about ethics or love or the Bible or the sacraments or the teachings of the church leaders, and Jesus is gone.

In particular, Coe seems to want to stamp out Jesus-plus-ethics. In one teaching session Sharlet relates, Coe asks the young men why King David is one of the heroes of the Bible. Is it because of his sterling character? Clearly not. David sins repeatedly, including really serious stuff like getting Bathsheba's husband killed so that he can marry her. Many explanations of David's worthiness are put forward and rejected, until Coe gives his answer: It's not about David at all, it's about God. David has his role because God chose him.

The implications are clear if you re-purpose Calvin's circular reasoning about election: If God has chosen you to be one of His key men, then nothing you do matters. And if the evidence that you are a key man is that you succeed, then whatever you have to do to succeed is justified.

What is "Jesus"? An outsider, or even an insider who finds Coe's teaching a puzzle, has to wonder: What is this "Jesus" he's talking about? Clearly it's not just the character in the gospels. (That would be Jesus plus the gospels.) And it's not Jesus' teachings, like the Sermon on the Mount or the parables. (That would be Jesus plus ethics again, or Jesus plus love.)

A skeptic who has no experience of Christianity would be tempted to jump to: Jesus is Coe. Coe speaks for Jesus, and so is the secret head of this theocratic empire he's trying to build. But the answer has to be more subtle than that, because senators and CEOs and third-world dictators are not that gullible. They've spent their lives gathering power, and they're not going to turn it over to the first shyster who claims to speak for an invisible spirit.

The clue, I think, is back in popular evangelicalism and the born-again experience: Jesus is what you feel in your heart, the external force that you felt when you started hanging around with the Family, when you started praying and Bible-reading with the other powerful men in the Family's small groups.

And that raises a question that I'll bet is taboo in the Family: What if what you're feeling in your heart is not Jesus? What if it's something else entirely?

Secular Epiphanies. A common mistake on both sides of the religious/non-religious divide is to imagine that the wall between them is much more solid than it really is, and that religious experiences and non-religious experiences are not comparable in any way. From the religious perspective, this manifests in the attitude that non-religious people can never "get it". On the non-religious side it appears as the belief that religious people (particularly the ones who believe that God speaks to them) must be crazy.

Both sides, I believe, could benefit from examining what I call secular epiphanies. (I described this idea in detail in this sermon.) Any group of people who work and think and study together eventually develops a way of thinking that doesn't belong to any individual. This phenomenon has a lot of names, all tinged with the metaphysics of some particular theory: hive mind, groupthink, collective intelligence, transpersonal consciousness, egregore, and many more. 

When you study a subject, even something as secular as mathematics or law, you have certain eureka moments where you get it: You're not just understanding your teacher or some author, you're understanding Mathematics or the Law. Suddenly the voice of the Tradition booms in your head with thoughts that are clearer, crisper, and more self-evident than any idea you ever had on your own. The thoughts are happening within your mind, but they also seem to come from the outside. 

When you have that experience in a religious context, when the group is a church and the subject is theology, then it's very easy to believe that you are hearing the voice of God. That's how God can say such contradictory things to people in different faiths: Each is hearing the transpersonal voice of its own group mind, not the Creator of the Universe.

Jesus Plus Something Unnamed and Manipulable. If Doug Coe simply announced "Obey me, I speak for Jesus," people as smart as Tom Coburn would see right through him, even if what Coe/Jesus was saying was exactly what he wanted to hear.

But the Family's structure of small prayer groups and Bible-reading groups of powerful men, groups led (but not dominated) by Coe and those who share his thinking, is well designed to induce epiphanies. The Family's leadership is in a good position not to dictate those epiphanies, but to manage them. And if the epiphanies can be managed to tell the powerful something they wanted to hear anyway, something that justifies them giving in to the deepest temptations in their souls ... that's a very enticing trap.