Monday, March 13, 2017

The Best American Jesus Madness, Yet!

It's that time of year again when Christians from all over American come together over the internet to skewer celebrate another wonderfully head-scratching year in American Christianity.  This year's bracket, in my opinion, is the best bracket I've seen in what is my fourth year of participating in the fun. It offers challenging, controversial match-ups and, unlike years past, did not have to retreat into the obscure corners of Christian sub-culture to fill the bracket. This year has brought many of these issues and figures front and center in the larger Christian conversation.

As I have in previous years, I will breakdown my predictions round-by-round, in hopes of influencing your voting (which is how the competition works). It should go without saying that this is supposed to be a fun contest, with picks made arbitrarily and in good humor. But, sometimes, things don't go without saying, so I said it. Anyway, here's my bracket and my explanations:

Round 1
  • Donald Trump v. Anything That's Even Remotely Christian - In case you had any doubt about where this year's bracket was going to draw most of its content, look no further than the event of the year, the presidential election. This first match-up puts the question that hauntingly plagued (or inexplicably didn't plague) many questions this past year, which is, "Is there anything about Donald Trump that is even remotely Christian?" We all know how that voting ended. Thankfully, where American Jesus Madness is concerned, the popular vote rules.  Winner:  Anything Remotely Christian
  • Boycotting Beauty and the Beast v. Boycotting The Shack - In a battle of boycotts of two recently released blockbusters, it really comes down to the burden of discomfort. The B&B boycott centers around the characterization of Gaston's sidekick LaFou as having some "feelings" for Gaston. The Shack boycott centers around the characterization of God the Father as a black woman. We have seen conservative American Christianity's scorn for Hollywood's liberal agenda when it comes to portrayals of sexuality. But, for Hollywood to tackle a doctrine like the Trinity - that strikes a deeper nerve.  Winner:  Boycotting The Shack
  • Christian Principles v. "But the Supreme Court..." - It's a refrain that came up in many a conversation about reasons for voting one way or the other in November. As one person pointed out the Christian principles - things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - that seemed to be missing from Trump's campaign, the other would point back to the SCOTUS chair that the next President would get to appoint. The concern:  that a liberal president would appoint a judge that would increase abortion, crack down on gun rights, and restrict religious liberty. At the end of the day, I know it's not saying much, but Trump's SCOTUS appointment is not the worst thing he's done.  Winner:  "But SCOTUS..."
  • Babylon Bee v. FOX News - This is an interesting match-up between an 'Onion-esque' Christian satire site and a 'news-esque' media machine. The Babylon Bee intentionally tries to be funny, but occasionally presents as harmful/antagonistic. FOX News tends to be intentionally antagonistic/harmful, but occasionally turns out to be funny. I'll take unintentional laughs over a wolf in sheep's clothing any day.  Winner:  FOX News
  • Christians Supporting the Muslim Ban v. Jesus the Refugee - The other day, I was reading Matthew 3 while enjoying a big bowl of Skittles... Winner:  Jesus the Refugee
  • Jen Hatmaker v. Loving Ideology over Loving People - Jen Hatmaker had been a favorite lay-theologian author in conservative evangelical circles until she very publicly announced that she had changed her stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage after building various friendships with LGBTQ Christians. Her books were pulled from shelves and her audience immediately changed. Sadly, this reaction isn't unique to Hatmaker. Other Christian authors/figures have experienced the same sort of backlash when daring to question the assumed ideology of their main audience (see also: Rob Bell's Love Wins ordeal; see also, also: the match-up two below this one). Winner:  Ideology over People
  • The 81% of White Evangelicals who Voted for Trump v. The 19% of White Evangelicals who Take their Faith Seriously - The award for the "Harshest Contestant Names" goes to this match-up. Interpretive names aside, the numbers don't lie. This was the statistical breakdown of that particular demographic in November's election. I'd argue that the whole 100% were exercising a serious faith - even if it were simply faith in Trump's promises. Interestingly, since November, faith in Trump has seemed to be dropping among this demographic, which leaves room for the percentage to grow on the other side of this match-up. Winner:  The 19%
  • Lecrae v. Chance the Rapper - This is easily the toughest first-round match-up of this year's bracket. Chance the Rapper is the breakout artist of the year - a unique style, infused with deeply pensive and spiritually probing lyrics, and dude just gave $1,000,000 to Chicago public schools. How can that be topped? Well, Lecrae has experienced a similar ordeal as Jen Hatmaker. He was the darling of Christian hip-hop in the eyes of evangelical Christians because he was open about his past struggles, bold about proclaiming his faith, and recognized by wider rap culture as a legitimate artist. Then, in the midst of the racial tensions in America, Lecrae made the bold decision to remind everyone that he's a black man. The decision to speak about his experiences of racism and to speak out against the systems of oppression in our country lost him a lot of fans and meant contradicting some of the same teachers and figures who had influenced his own spiritual transformation. Winner:  Lecrae
  • American Christianity v. The Gospel - Just the fact that these two are matched up should signal that they are not synonymous. That acknowledgement would be news to some American Christians. Thus, the winner:  American Christianity
  • Jerry Falwell Jr's Liberty University Gun Range v. Loving your Enemies and Putting away your Sword - Falwell's explanation for wanting to fund a million-dollar gun range at the largest Christian university in America was something akin to, "If a Muslim terrorist shows up on campus intending to harm us, I want students to have the means and ability to defend themselves." Man, I hope Jesus doesn't show up on campus looking all Middle Eastern or something... Winner:  Liberty's Gun Range
  • Franklin Graham v. The Least of These - In the second straight match-up of famous son of an evangelist versus teaching of the Son of God, Graham is being haunted by a tweet in which he wrote: "God does tell us to help the stranger and those in need; but God doesn't tell us to expose our cities, homes, and lives to hostile people" - to which Jesus says, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me." God won't ignore those in need. Winner:  The Least of These
  • Missionaries v. Volutourists - "Voluntourists" is a term that rose to popularity this year to refer to the propensity of American Christians to engage in a sort of drive-thru short-term missions practice that is more about self-fulfillment and photo-ops with poverty. But, do they ever take good pictures. Winner:  Voluntourists
  • Proof-texting v. Alternative Facts - So, cherry-picking scripture to make a case for your particular agenda, or bending statistics and spinning stories to save face? Well, it's like the Bible says, "God helps those who help themselves." Winner:  Alternative Facts
  • Lying About Planned Parenthood v. Lying About Transgender People - File this in the "Match-ups That are Too Serious to be Funny" drawer. The conversations and law-making decisions going on around both of these affect the well-being of so many people. That lying is involved at all in trying to sway the legislative process is awful, and I wish both of these could lose. Winner:  Lying about Transgender People
  • Women's March on Washington v. Women Being Silent in Church - In January, we learned that no matter how those in power (of governments or churches) attempt to silence the voices and concerns of women, those women are determined to be heard. Winner:  Women's March
  • Russell Moore v. Trump-Supporting Southern Baptists - This is a still developing, real-life match-up as Russell Moore, the leading figure of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been an outspoken critic of the policies and persona of Donald Trump. Moore is a pivotal figure because rather than opposing Trump from a liberal or progressive perspective, he is rooting his critique in traditional evangelical theology and Christology. Yet, many of Moore's colleagues and other powers in the SBC were part of that 81% who helped elect the President. Therefore, Moore is under threat of losing his position and influence. The real winner has not yet been decided, but for the sake of this bracket, the winner:  SBC Trumpkins
Round 2
  • Anything That's Even Remotely Christian v. Boycotting the Shack - Do I have a problem with the characterization of God the Father? No. Does The Shack still contain some other theology that I consider problematic? Yes. Would I boycott? No. Because I believe it's a responsible Christian practice to engage questions and theologies that challenge and provoke your own. Winner:  Anything Remotely Christian
  • "But the Supreme Court..." v. FOX News - The student versus the master. The wily master has too many tricks up its sleeves. Winner:  FOX News
  • Jesus the Refugee v. Loving Ideology over Loving People - After prevailing over the Support of the Muslim Ban in round one, Jesus comes up against an almost identical force in round two. This time, the sheer generality of the foe, along with the variety of competing ideologies that would stand in way of Jesus' personhood, prove too much for the man of Nazareth. Winner:  Ideology over People
  • The 19% of White Evangelicals Who Take their Faith Seriously v. Lecrae - No shortage of tough match-ups for Lecrae. (Come to think of it, maybe I just really respect Lecrae). Anyway, among the 19% are probably some of the white fans that haven't abandoned Lecrae for his outspokenness regarding race relations. And, while the 19% take their faith seriously, they take this match-up seriouslier. Winner:  The 19%
  • American Christianity v. Falwell Jr's Liberty U. Gun Range - No doubt, one of the more perplexing facets of American Christianity is its comfort and fascination with guns. Liberty's gun range epitomizes that fascination. However, the gun aspect is only a small chunk of the American Christian picture, and can't stand up to the enormity of the whole. Winner:  American Christianity
  • The Least of These v. Voluntourists - There's nothing the voluntourist loves more than one of the least of these...and having a selfie-stick ready. Unknowingly serving Jesus by serving the least of these (as Jesus intimates in Matthew 25) is different than serving the least of these as a means to an self-aggrandizing (i.e. "Look at me Jesus - and everybody else!") end. Because then, the least of these end up really not mattering all that much. Winner:  Voluntourists
  • Alternative Facts v. Lying about Transgender People - Alternative facts really have been a enemy of transgender people. The stories that continue to be propagated and circulated about transgender predators in bathrooms - regardless of their truthfulness - have been a major force in swaying political and public opinion on transgender rights. Winner:  Alternative Facts
  • Women's March on Washington v. Trump-Supporting Southern Baptists - It was not-so-subtly mused during the election that the Southern Baptist Trump support could be linked to their views on women in leadership and their reluctance to vote for a female presidential candidate. However, the women's march took down that view of women's silence in church in the first round, so why not take down some proponents of it in round two? Winner:  Women's March
  • Anything That's Even Remotely Christian v. FOX News - There's a lot of what shows up on FOX News that I disagree with, that I find offensive or harmful rhetoric. However, every once in awhile, a nugget of truth or grace slips out, and I think, "Oh, there's Jesus." Winner:  Anything Remotely Christian
  • Loving Ideology over Loving People v. The 19% of White Evangelicals Who Take their Faith Seriously - There are those who take their faith seriously. Then, there are those who take it so seriously that the letter of faith - doctrine, dogma, and clear lines of belief and unbelief - set us back on the path of choosing ideology over relationships with people who differ from us. Winner:  Ideology over People
  • American Christianity v. Voluntourists - I'll admit that voluntourists have made it further in this bracket than I thought they would at first glance. However, the Cinderella-story stops here. Voluntourism, like Liberty's gun range, is a small product of the larger puzzle that is American Christianity. You might say, it is only a snapshot - a single snapchat of the massive picture. Winner:  American Christianity
  • Alternative Facts v. Women's March on Washington - Just this: 
    Winner:  Women's March

  • Anything That's Even Remotely Christian v. Loving Ideology over Loving People - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." "Love one another as I have loved you." Love is the most basic of Christian instincts. At least, whether we're loving ideology (which most would say is indicative of a focus on loving God religiously) or loving people, we've got the love thing going. Winner:  Anything Remotely Christian
  • American Christianity v. Women's March on Washington - I wasn't at the march on Washington. However, I attended its satellite in Boston. And, while the causes and kinds of people represented at the march spanned the spectrum, there was an undeniable presence of Christian clergy marching. American Christianity may be going through a tough, divisive, soul-searching time, but its diversity can also be a blessing in offering a witness and presence. Winner:  American Christianity
  • Anything That's Even Remotely Christian v. American Christianity - On a collision course since the opening round, these two juggernauts finally meet in the finals in a cosmic, microcosmic metaphor for the past year. As I said above, American Christianity is going through a rough time. In the past year alone, it has been hampered and divided by hot-button political issues and culture wars. Christian figures have been at the center of scandal and highly unChristian behavior. Much of what is misguided or wrong with American Christianity has been exposed for the idolatry it is. However, as a consequence of the negative is that we've learned to look more closely for the positive. We've learned to pay attention to the glimmers of hope, to the signs of God's redemptive work, to look for anything that's even remotely Christian. And, we've seen some. The 19% is a glimmer. The Women's March is a glimmer. The continued willingness of high-profile Christians like Lecrae and Russell Moore to stand up for truth, and the continued willingness of ordinary Christians to do the same. The revelation that in the midst of our soul-searching, in the midst of the American Church trying to rediscover the Gospel, Jesus will continue to reign. That is Good News! Winner:  Anything That's Even Remotely Christian

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