I also work as a religion consultant for Active Voice, a non-profit media group that uses documentary films to leverage social justice issues. Active Voice is interested in creating or partnering with creative efforts to break through the barrier of polarized arguments around controversial subjects. They constantly pursue efforts that build compassionate bridges between people with different opinions around these subjects. I can think of no better model for this type of work within faith communities than Adam Hamilton‘s newest book, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics.
Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Leawood, Kansas, argues that most Americans do not view the world in black-and-white terms but rather in shades of gray and that the Christian church must respond in kind. He argues that in doing so it must draw from the best of both the conservative and liberal (though he is tired, like me, of using these terms) expressions of Christianity to create a radical center that transcends moderates or moderation. In doing so, he also articulates a “worthy vision” for America in which he offers radically centered responses to Biblical interpretation, heaven and hell, homosexuality, abortion, war, and a host of other issues. I certainly do not agree with every word or thought that Hamilton presents, and am quite sure that this pleases him. I do agree with his central premises, however, and recognize that this book is invaluable reading for people looking for a new way of being political and religious in this ever-shrinking world.
Hamilton concludes the introduction to and the last chapter of Seeing Gray with these words:
Christianity is in need of a new reformation. The Fundamentalism of the last century is waning, and the Liberalism of the last fifty years has jettisoned too much of the historic Christian gospel to take its place. Christianity’s next reformation will strike a middle path between Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong. It will draw upon what is best in both Fundamentalism and Liberalism by holding together the evangelical and social gospels, by combining a love of Scripture with a willingness to see both its humanity as well as its divinity, and by coupling a passionate desire to follow Jesus Christ with a reclamation of his heart toward those whom religious people have often rejected. This reformation will be lead by people who are able to see the gray in a world of black and white” (235).
I quote Hamilton at length here because this basically sums up his entire book, and throughout his text, he remains faithful to this task. While he offers no easy answers to the controversial questions that plague contemporary faith communities, he does draw out the “best of both worlds” in their responses to them. Hamilton’s responses to abortion, homosexuality, and war reflect deep thought, prayer, sincerity, and love for people who hold to either side of the issue.
I am particularly interested in Hamilton’s reference to “prophetic hyperbole” in his interpretation of some of Jesus’ more “controversial” statements. Far from disregarding the implication of Scripture for our lives, such an approach helps us to take Jesus’ teachings more seriously while keeping focus on the heart of those teachings rather than being distracted by peripheral concerns.
As Hamilton wrestles with the issue of homosexuality in the Christian church, he ceases to make it just an issue as he elicits anecdotes from his congregants about their experiences (direct or indirect) with homosexuality. He then employs these stories in the preparation and delivery of an important sermon on this topic. I believe that this anecdotal appeal plays a significant role in both Hamilton’s theological reflection and political formation. Moreover, this emphasis on anecdotes must lie at the heart of this shift from polemical opposition to a radical center as well. Those who are shifting to this radical center no longer view homosexuality, for example, as an issue but as composed of real people, thus adding complexity to their formerly-held, hard-and-fast opinions. In my work with documentary films that explore and reveal a person’s or group of people’s experiences, I am quickly realizing that these are most effective in not necessarily changing anyone’s mind on a particular subject but making them understand in greater detail how this subject applies to or effects another person.
I am particularly thankful for Hamilton’s brief, but necessary, challenge to both conservative Christian circles and Hollywood to restructure their depictions of or beliefs about human sexuality. Both have embodied fundamental misunderstandings about sex and sexual identity that need to be reclaimed and reformed by this new, radical center. In the coming days, I will be writing about and interviewing a young woman who has taken a prophetic stance on this issue. Hamilton claims that we should be just as prophetic in decreasing unwanted pregnancies as we are in fighting abortion. He writes:
What if, as a nation, we sought to reclaim the sense of the sacredness of sex among young people? What if both liberals and conservatives came together to try to influence society’s views of sex with serious advertising campaigns while seeking to enlist Hollywood in an effort to reshape an entire generation regarding the meaning and sanctity of sexual intercourse–to see it as something beautiful, holy, and which is meant to bind two people together in the most profound of ways. […] One does not need to be conservative to believe that sexual intimacy is something profound, that the sharing of one’s body with another human being is supposed to be meaningful (156-157).
In the end, I have one loud piece of advice: Turn off the cable or network news and pick up Seeing Gray! One of Hamilton’s greatest gifts to us is his assertion that we, as a country, are not as polarized as the media, and even politicians running for election, may want us to believe. As such, Hamilton’s work becomes not only a clarion call for a new kind of Christianity, but a sign of hope for a country in need of a new way forward.