By Karen Kidd
A recent cover of Time magazine pictures a lone honeybee alongside the words: “A World Without Bees: The Price We’ll Pay If We Don’t Figure Out What’s Killing the Honeybee.” The cover’s background is black, a not-so-subtle portent of the message delivered inside by senior editor and science writer Bryan Walsh. Many of us have been following the baffling problem of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) for years, picking up information in bits and pieces, but it’s good to see it presented in such a comprehensive manner and brought to the attention of such a wide readership.
But what, you ask, does CCD have to do with today’s church? The quirky thought process that has led me to connect these apparently disparate issues is (quite literally) grounded in my personal history; so let me begin with some necessary background information.
Bees and me
I live in Kern County, California, at the southern end of the Central Valley, where much of the nation’s produce is grown. My family has long been in the mobile communications business, with a large agribusiness clientele; and every spring my uncle used to post a giant plat map of the county—we called it the Bee Board—where his employees would place pins marking the location of every hive where bees were pollinating crops. The pins were moved every time the hives were relocated, and crop dusters would call in to make sure there were no bees in the area they were about to spray. Everyone knew what would happen if hives were endangered; so before cellphones, all the local beekeepers, growers, and crop dusters communicated with each other by using the Bee Board as an information conduit to ensure the bees’ survival.
Today, Kern County produces almost every almond you are likely to consume, and almonds are the state’s most profitable foreign export. But, as Walsh’s Time article indicates, this spring our almond growers could barely locate enough bees to complete the job—even though hives were being trucked in from across the nation. The same problem is developing for other crops, too, in every agricultural region of America. The bee colonies on which they depend are collapsing. Without bees, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a third of our food supply will disappear, including a majority of our most popular vegetables, fruits, and nuts. But despite extensive scientific research, no one has yet determined the primary cause of CCD. Many theories have been advanced, only to have doubts cast upon them. And without knowing the reason, we can’t find a cure.
Churches and another kind of “colony collapse disorder”
Kern County is also a very religious place: I like to joke that, although the Bible Belt extends all across the southern states of America, its buckle is fastened here. We have more than our share of conservative Christians, and as I read the comments of local religious leaders, I recognize their growing concern about the future of our faith. Sadly, the more conservative their theology, the more they want to “double down” on it. They’re preaching the same message as before—just with greater vehemence and at a louder volume, while using the Bible to buttress far right political stands. Were I sitting in their congregations, I would have to cover my ears; for theirs is a message I can no longer abide. Since covering their ears is not enough for most people in this situation, they simply leave. Of course, like CCD, this problem is not merely local. In the U.S., and in many other parts of the developed world, institutional churches have been suffering from a religious malaise that is clearly analogous to “colony collapse disorder.” People are leaving and not coming back. Congregations are shrinking and dying in record numbers. Although the problem has been developing for years, a recognition of its seriousness is only now beginning to reach a wide audience.
The Pew Research Center’s 2012 and 2013 surveys of Americans’ attitudes toward religion have found that one-third of all U.S. adults do not now consider themselves “religious,” and that two-thirds believe that religion is losing its influence in American life. A 2013 Gallup survey confirmed their findings, and both nonpartisan groups have pointed out that, just as church participation has been declining, the number of atheists, agnostics, and “nones” (those who do not identify with any religious group) has been increasing. The researchers behind the most recent Pew study report that members of this “nonreligious” group cite the politicization of the church as a major reason for their dissatisfaction. It’s as if they’re saying “If that’s what religion is about, I want nothing to do with it.”
Many of those who’ve defected from the church, or who refuse to be associated with it, feel that the ethical values of Christian tradition have been distorted for political and economic purposes. They see that the church has too often been co-opted by white, right-wing conservatives who never mention the fact that they represent only about one-third of American Christians and an even smaller percentage of our total population. Clearly, that fact would undermine their efforts to secure political control in a democracy—and under a Constitution— that requires majority rule. According to Timothy Noah, “Such totem pro parte synecdoche de-legitimizes mainline Protestantism, historically black Protestantism, and Catholicism.” But these three major groups (together with center-left Evangelicals and smaller communities of faith) account for the other two-thirds of the church. He says that conservative Christians’ claim to speak for all believers is, therefore, both “inaccurate” and “uncivil.” It is offensive to the millions of Christians who support liberal candidates and progressive reforms. And, as the aforementioned surveys indicate, it is also off-putting to the growing number of non-religious Americans who cite this as the primary reason that they want nothing to do with “the church.” The most reputable observers of America’s religious scene have concluded that, to a large extent, the church’s “colony collapse disorder” can be traced to the aggressive political activism of the religious right.
Seeking a solution
But that is hardly the end of the story, because identifying the primary cause of the disorder is only the first step toward finding its cure. As believers, we like to search the scriptures for enlightenment. So, with the CCD metaphor in mind, I began by looking for biblical references to bees. I found very few such verses—just those that described swarms attacking perceived enemies. We all know what happens to bees that attack. When they sting, they die; so their instinctive effort to defend the hive actually diminishes it. If too many sting and fail to return, or disappear for other reasons, the colony is pushed toward collapse.
Although biblical references to bees are limited, there are many, many references to honey—the end result of the bees’ cooperative efforts. It feeds the next generation, assuring the survival and perpetuation of the hive. And it offers sweetness and nourishment to all the other creatures who seek it, be they bears or human beings. Although metaphors always break down at some level, the political lessons that the church can learn here should be obvious. Conservative believers who feel threatened by the wider culture and take aggressive action against it end up losing in the end. Their strategy ultimately backfires because they lose so many of their own and drive so many others away.
Fortunately, other Christians are beginning to find a way forward. Figuratively speaking, they’re working to produce the kind of honey that keeps the hive buzzing and makes it attractive to outsiders with a taste for sweets. When bees don’t feel threatened and stay calm, they allow outsiders to dip in and have a fair share of their honeycomb. They may fly out and cover the strangers’ bodies, but they do not sting them. In this, the bees model a message that too many in the church seem to have forgotten: the one about welcoming strangers, not hurting them; the one about offering them whatever help and sustenance we can give.
Adjusting to a changing world
Like these busy, non-aggressive bees, many contemporary believers have been adopting a more thoughtful, non-reactive attitude toward the culture that surrounds them. Instead of attacking it in anger, they’re seeking ways to articulate the kind of faith that respects differences, transcends political ideologies and speaks directly to the needs of our deeply polarized society. Scholars of religion and leaders of the church—those who’ve taken the research findings seriously—have been choosing to emphasize the Christian truths that speak most effectively to the concerns of postmodern Americans. The “pat answers” of the 20th century do not satisfy people who are asking new and more complex questions, for our world is now bigger and more interdependent than it used to be. Our understanding of the world is expanding more rapidly than ever before. And different people, with different issues and perspectives, are now contributing to the scientific and technological databases that we must share in order to flourish. To stay alive in the information age, the church cannot allow itself to feel threatened by change; it must be able to readjust its course and move forward in new ways.
These conclusions have been reached by many of the church’s most thoughtful current spokespersons, and are now reaching a wider audience in book form. Brian McLaren, pastor and speaker, has called for “a generous orthodoxy” and “a new Christianity” in books by the same names. Diana Butler Bass, an influential church historian, has described a Christianity for the Rest of Us, and has argued that, because “religion” has earned such a bad name, we must move Christianity Beyond Religion. Further along the same lines, Bishop John Shelby Spong has written Jesus for the Non-Religious. Creation theologian Matthew Fox has been teaching that everything in nature is interrelated—a truth that was forgotten in the industrial age but must now be recovered. Other leading theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, are exchanging ideas and speaking prophetically to a new generation. Among them are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Walter Brueggemann, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Emilie Townes and Rita Nakashima Brock. And the list goes on and on. Phyllis Tickle has called this The Great Emergence, and says that its leaders are explaining how and why the church must change. Many see this “Emergent Church” movement as a new awakening that is very much like the reformations, readjustments, and “Great Awakenings” that have revivified the church throughout history.
Clearly, just as the pins on my uncle’s Bee Board had to be moved to serve a larger purpose, so the church needs to change its mindset to meet the demands of a changing world and serve the larger purposes of God. Many of the authors mentioned above have been attacked as heretics on the slippery slope to ruin; but these leaders recognize that political power-brokers have already taken the church far down the slope toward “colony collapse.” Emergent thinkers are not adopting the attack mode of the minority; instead, they are simply emerging from their hives and going about their business. They are pollinating the fields and groves outside so that they may bring forth abundant harvests and yield much fruit.
© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today