Sunday, October 29, 2006

After the Foley Follies, The Catholic Temperature Rises

Yet another case of a teen molested by a priest. Only this time it was a Republican in high public office who was molested as boy. The priest of course has been banned from ministerial duties but this hardly addresses the larger question. Is there something indemic to the Catholic approach to priesthood that is fundamentally flawed? My answer to this question is yes.

The requirement (not merely the option) of a celibate priesthood is unBiblical. At a minimum it should be optional at best. It's time for the Catholic Church to have a more Biblical approach to persons in ministry. Even the OT priests were not celibate! This is simply a relic of pre-medieval and medieval asceticism. And behind that earlier asceticism is unfortunately an inadequate theology of the goodness of human sexuality. And yet today's paper informs us that Catholic bishops are about to meet and provide new guidelines for ministering to gay persons. This may well be helpful, but the Catholic priestly hierarchy really needs to put their own sexual house in order before telling priests how to minister to gays appropriately. They need to look deep into their own souls and ask--- What is wrong with us? Here is the link to today's story--

What would a healthy approach to these sorts of issues of human sexuality look like that neither endorses sexual sin and calls it good on the one end of the spectrum nor endorses unBiblical forms of asceticism on the other? My answer to this is several fold, and it starts with 1 Cor. 7, and its frequent mis-interpretation.

Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul has been dealing with problems in the Corinthian Church. 1 Cor 7 is no different, and clearly enough what is happening in 1 Cor.7.1 is that Paul is quoting some views that Corinthians have about human sexuality, and he is critiquing and qualifying them in various ways. Notice how the verse starts--
"Now concerning the things about which you wrote 'It is good for a man not to touch a woman.'"

The 'you' here is not Paul, but rather the person's who wrote to him. Someone or someones in Corinth held an extremely ascetical view about male-female relationships. It is possible that the term 'touch' here is a euphemism for 'have sexual contact with' just as we use the euphemism 'sleep with' to mean roughly the same thing.

Notice Paul's response--- at a minimum, because of sexual sin "each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband". The word 'each' will later be qualified by Paul's discussion of the fact that there are some people (a minority) that have the gift of being able to remain continent and single. But the drift of the argument is clear enough that Paul thinks this is a minority of persons. This is one reason why he starts with the bold assertion "that each one of you should have...." Now notice the context. The context is sin-saturated Corinth. Paul was a good pastor, and he knew the temptations in Corinth were as grave as they are in our own sex-saturated environment. Were Paul here today I have little doubt he would be telling Catholic priests to get married right, left and center UNLESS they were one of those rare persons whom God had blessed with the gift of celibacy in singleness. We would have a lot less messes in the church today, especially the Catholic Church which is the only large denomination that requires celibacy of its ministers, if the celibacy requirement was dropped altogether.

Secondly, notice 1 Cor. 7.4-- Here Paul says something radical. He not only says that the wife's body belongs to the husband (which was the conventional wisdom of the day) startling every man he wrote to in that patriarchal culture with the sexual double standard he says that the husband's body belings exclusively to his wife. No messing around with call girls (called 'companions' back then) prostitutes, or other men's wives. Paul is balancing the ledger, and the eqality he is building into the marriage relationship stands out from the norm in the larger culture. Paul was not just another endorser of the old patriarchal status quo.

Thirdly, notice 1 Cor. 7.5-6-- "Don't deprive each other of sexual relationships except during a time of prayer, but after that come back together again". Paul, far from being in the least bit ascetical is encouraging a robust and repeated sexual sharing as normal for a Christian couple. And his standard for ministers was no different than his standard for everyone else he was writing to in Corinth. This was advice for all Christians there. Notice in 1 Cor. 9.5 he says that he has the right to have a wife and travel with her just as Peter and the Lord's brothers do. So much for the notion that the first 'Pope' was celibate. But back to 1 Cor. 7.

Sometimes 1 Cor. 7.6 has been totally twisted out of its context. The context makes reasonably clear that the exception or Pauline concession is not to HAVE sex, but rather to abstain from sex for the period of prayer. He is not conceding sex, he is conceding abstinence for a brief period of prayer time. That's all.

But what of 1 Cor. 7.7? Here we get to the nub of the matter. Paul does indeed wish that more people had the gift of celibacy so they could devote themselves wholly and solely to Christ and his ministry. But he recognizes that that is not everyone's 'charisma'. The Greek word 'charisma' from which the English word comes does not mean what it means in English. It means a 'grace gift' a gift from God.

What Paul says is that Christians should not ever make decisions about sexual relationships or abstaining from them on the basis of what they think or feel is 'natural'. Grace trumps nature when it comes to these issues. And so for Paul it requires a special gift of God's grace to remain faithful in marriage and it also requires a special gift of God's grace to remain celibate in singleness. Nothing is said here about natural inclinations and the like. Christians should make decisions about such matters on the basis of what God has given them the grace to do and be. And Paul recognizes that only a few like himself have been given the grace gift of remaining celibate in singleness throughout the rest of his life.

If the Catholic church could only listen to and live by this one Scripture when it come to requirments for the priesthood, things would not have gotten so out of hand in a sex saturated culture. There are many wonderful talent persons in the Catholic church whom God is calling to ministry, but has not gifted to be celibate. And since the church allows already for married priests, if their call to ministry comes after their marriage vows, its time to fix the rest of this flawed system.

I am under no illusions that this will solve all of the sexual problems in the Catholic Church, and I am also well aware that we Protestants have just as many problems as well, but for different reasons. We have not listened to the 1 Cor. 7.4-6 portion of this teaching well enough. Infidelity is rampant because marriages are not being nurtured as they should be.

There is an old saying of Chaucer from the Nun's Priest's Tale--- "if Gold rusts what then will iron do?" How in the world could either Catholic or Protestant clergy expect their parishoners to behave, or to have a good and healthy theology of human sexuality if we do not model it as well as teach it? We truly need to get our own house in order. We need to pluck the plank out of our own eyes. Jesus told us a long time ago that there were only two legitimate sexual options-- celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage (Mt. 19.1-12). Whether we are happy about this or not it means the sexual sharing is limited in the Bible to monogamous heterosexual marriage relationships. That's all. And if we cannot handle that, then we must pray for the grace gift of continence which God gives to some and not to others, and God does not decide this issue on the basis of whether he has also called the person into ministry.

Its time for the whole church to stop sending mixed messages like "Sex is dirty and unholy, save it for the one you really love and marry". The message needs to be "sex is a beautiful and precious gift of God. There is nothing remotely unholy about it. Indeed it is such a precious gift that it should indeed be saved for the context of unconditional love and an unlimited life time commitment." Unfortunately, however this great truth about human intimacy is one even much of the church and even too much of the clergy can't handle as things now stand. So what shall we do about this malaise? Inquiring minds want to know.

If you want to read more about the Pauline sexual ethic, pick up my Conflict and Coommunity in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) and read the relevant bits.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Meet the MacBears

The answer to the question 'What do aging NT profs do with their spare time?' turns out to be-- write fiction. Richard Bauckham is a long time good friend of mine from the U.K. and he has writtten a children's book which is delightful. As Christmas is coming and people are always asking for good recommendations of what to give their children or grandchildren that will actually nurture them into some decent Christian values, decent human values, I am happy to give my unconditional endorsment to Richard's new book. You'll even learn the origins of a popular game played in St. Andrews. Hopefully before long, I too will find a publisher for a work of fiction-- my first novel entitled 'The Lazarus Effect'. In the meantime, please by all means go out and get a copy of this wonderful short story for children. Here are the particulars about it below in the advertisement. Please note that you will need to order it through Go to the drop down menu on the front page at the Amazon site and click on the U.K. page.


From Bibles to Bears!

Richard Bauckham, Professor of New Testament Studies and Wardlaw Professor,
in St Mary's College, is well known as a prolific author of theological
and religious books, but he has now branched out into something completely
different - children's literature.

His first story book for children, a ‘comic fantasy’ called The MacBears of Bearloch (Aultbea Publishing), has recently been published.

The story is a humorous fantasy about a family of bears and their friends
who live by a secret loch in the forgotten lands of the north, a country
rather like Scotland. There is grumpy Grampa MacBear, reliable Mother
MacBear, and her four 'bearns' (as bear cubs are known in Bearloch):
sensible Duff, imaginative Beth, mischievous Tosh, and Baby Brother. The adventures include islands that move, a mysterious horse, a haiku contest, the oldest
creature from the depths of the ocean, and much more.

Richard said: "I wrote the kind of children's book I enjoy reading. It's a bit different
from the kinds that are mostly being written now. It's a fantasy that is
not a struggle between good and evil, and not about witches and magicians
or kings and queens. It is also, I hope, funnier.

"The children's books I'm most conscious of being influenced by are the
wonderful Moomin books of Finnish author Tove Jansson. I hope it has
something of the spirit of the Moomins. Bearloch is related to Scotland
much as Moominvalley is related to Finland.

"It was tremendous fun to write, and a refreshing change from most other
things I do!"

The MacBears of Bearloch is available at £4.99 from Ottakers or the Ladyhead Bookshop in St Andrews. It can also be ordered from Amazon.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Illusion of 'The Prestige'

Ever since I was small I have been fascinated by magic. No, not black magic and that sort of legerdermain. I mean magic tricks--- the Harry Houdini kind of stuff. There are in fact three parts to any good magic trick-- the pledge in which you show the audience sometime, the turn, in which you take it away, make it vanish or the like, and 'the prestige' where you bring it back, unharmed, seemingly miraculously. It is of course an illusion, but human psychology is such that it is infinitely fascinating, at least to a lot of us.

The movie which opened tonight in theaters across the land is called 'The Prestige' after the third part of every good magic trick. This particular movie has an all star cast including Michael Caine, Scarlet Johannson, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and a surprise appearance by none other than David Bowie. The movie runs about 2 and half hours and is rated PG 13. There is no gratuitous sex or violence or for that matter bad language. And it is endlessly fascinating..... Finally a movie that is not wearing out a tired old formula one more time. This movie has much to commend.

The heart of the movie is about two magicians in Victorian England just before the turn of the twentieth century who are bitter rivals. Each tries to steal each others secret and best tricks, and both lead lives full of secrets, illusions, tricks, sleights of hand, one could even say double lives. But if I say more on that subject I will give away the game.

But in order to be a good magician you must be a master of deception of various sorts. Things are not ever quite what they seem, and the movie explores what happens when life imitates art and the deception bleeds over into the daily lives of the characters played so ably by Jackman and Bales. Michael Caine is his usual Cockney self played to the hilt as the sponsor of one of the magicians. Each strives to achieve a more and more stupendous trick at great cost--- one loses his wife, and the other loses, well 'hocus pocus' (which comes from 'Hoc est meum corpum'--- This is my body), I'd best not say.

There are various plot twists and turns, and one needs to concentrate carefully lest one miss a vital clue. There are secret clues, secret diaries, secret meetings, secret trists. There is something for everyone in this movie--- cute children, fascinating scenes and scenery, intriguing dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and even a stint in the Rockie Mountains in Colorado Springs, which according to the story is one of the first cities to have electric lights.

What happens however to the soul of a person who lives a life shrouded in secrets and secrecy, where deception becomes second nature, and duplicity is part of the game? Do they become pathological liars? Does it lead to mystery or to double lives? Is it really worth the price of admission just to live an intriguing life? This movie explores all of this in a coy sort of way, but there are moments when you realize that while even death can be counterfeited and occasionally cheated, the only life worth living is a true and honest one.

You may ask--- why? When one tells or lives a lie, then inevitably one has to tell more lies to cover the first ones. And when one gets a reputation for deception, lying and manipulation then of course no one trusts you. And when no one trusts you then you have no good loving intimate relationships, for love is based and grounded in trust. Who can totally love someone they don't totally trust and won't be totally honest with. Perhaps only God can totally love a person he knows better than to totally trust. Is it really worth living a lie in order to gain fleeting fame or a moment's prestige? Is it really worth winning the battle with one's rival, when in the end victory will be hollow, and the competition which drove you led you to behave in immoral ways? This too is a theme in this complex movie. While not quite a brain teaser, this movie is certainly thought provoking. It is hard to know who to like or identify with in this hall of mirrors.

In the end the movie raises the question about human curiosity, and how indeed it can kill the cat. What is it about human nature that loves to be fooled, and then surprised, and then astonished, and then reassured in the end that all is well-- it is this latter which the Prestige part of the trick plays upon. There is a human need for reassurance that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. We do like our happy endings and proper resolution of dilemmas. Why is that?

Perhaps in the end it is because we live in a storied world, an ongoing drama, and we long to know how it will turn out. We can accept a lot of twists and turns along the way, as long as "alls well that ends well". One could say we have teliological souls, souls that long for joyful resolutions of all life's crises and mysteries. souls that look forward to a blessed conclusion to things. We may be thankful that they still make rich movies like The Prestige that don't require violence and promiscuous sex to keep the rapt attention of a good audience. This is one you can take the family to-- though it may be a little intense and long for the wee ones.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Christians Flee from Iraq to Moslem Countries

The story is the same throughout the Middle East. Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Israel they are caught between Moslems and Jews. In other countries they are caught between various Moslem groups, such as the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. And the toll of being the middle man is great, and steadily mounting. Consider for example that in the 1960s the city of Nazareth was over 75% Christian and the same can be said for Bethlehem. Today, my friend Issah, born and baptized in Bethlehem has a difficult time getting there from his home in east Jerusalem because of Israeli policies, even though they know he is a harmless Christian who works for CBS. He suffers the same harassment and discrimination as other Palestinian Christians. But bad as it is in Israel it is much worse in Iraq. Here is the link to a story posted today in the NY Times about the dilemma of Christians in Iraq:

A little history is in order. Two of the oldest forms of Christianity still exist today in Iraq-- Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians. They are still the largest Christian groups in the country, which at one time during the reign of Saddam Hussein were well over 1.5 million in number, but today the total number of Christians in Iraq is likely less than 600 thousand. One of the remarkable signs of the antiquity and continuous heritage of both the Chaldeans and the Assyrians is that they still pray in Aramaic-- the spoken language of Jesus. There are of course other sorts of Catholics, Syrian Orthodox Christians, and a precious few Protestants in Iraq as well (there is but one Anglican Church, St. George's in Baghdad). But the numbers are dwindling between the car bombs going off next to churches and the families fleeing the country.

It may seem obvious why the Christians are fleeing the country-- the country is in a war and there is chaos. But there is more to it than that. Christians are quite specific targets of Moslem militias, both Sunni and Shiite because they are viewed as being on the side of the 'Western Crusader invaders'. Yes, that's right, the Americans are viewed as representatives of Christianity, whether they are or not. This has led to tremendous violence against churches, priests, and innocent Christian citizens as well as this article so ably points out. But there is more.

The violence has increased enormously since the speech of the Pope which had an unfortunate 14th century quotation about Islam in it. Fury against the remarks of the Pope is being taken out on Christians, any Christians at all. There are of course other reasons Christians are resented or disliked. They tend to run the liquor stores in Iraq, and since strict Moslems are supposed to be tee totalers, this is seen as but one more way that Christians are trying to lead the Moslems down the garden path. Lest you be surprised at Christians running liquor stores in Iraq, I could tell you about how the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has the tax concession on lingerie and cigarettes, and so you will find billboards for Victoria Secret or Marlborough in some of the church yards there. This is way worse than bingo for money.

Where are the Christians fleeing to when they leave Iraq? They are going to Jordan, Syria, Turkey. Are we doing anything to help them? Not really-- only the neighboring Moslem countries are really taking them in. Let me see if I can get this straight--- the moderate Moslems are taking in the Christians because the allegedly more Christian nations don't want to. Hmm.....What was that Jesus once said "in as much as you have not done it unto the least of these, you have not done it unto me?"

The thing is, most Iraqis even if Christian, are fearful they would not be treated well in the West, due to their ethnicity. They have a right to be fearful as we have already made clear through the story of Omar Alrikabi on this blog. Americans definitely see color and ethnicity. And anything that looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion at this juncture. And so Christianity as a voice of moderation continues to dwindle in war-torn Iraq. At some point we have to ask-- is our American presence in Iraq doing more harm than good, especially to the moderates who still live in that country?

I do not pretend to know all the answers to the complex situation there, but this I know. The statue on Ellis Island says "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free" As a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants, we truly ought to be sympathetic to other persons who need a place to live because they are being persecuted due to their religion, and all the more so since they are Christians. Remember the Pilgrims and the Puritans? I say open the door and let them in and churches should welcome them with open arms and help find them places to live and jobs. The Church is, after all, a "worldwide fellowship throughout the whole wide earth." There is no Iraqi or American in Christ, for all are one-- to paraphrase a famous apostle (Gal. 3.28).

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Not so Separate Church and State—Should Christian Organizations Get Breaks from the Government?

The New York Times this week has run a series of interesting articles by Diana B. Hendriques about the ever decreasing size of the wall between church and state in a variety of matters. This particular blog will try to digest the evidence she presents. Here first are links to several of the articles

Take first the issue of Christian Day Care Schools. In many state they do not have to be run to the same standards nor have the same inspections as state run Day Care centers. For example a state run center in Alabama must: 1) have regular training for its staff; 2) submit to regular on-site inspections; 3) have a lock and key for the medicine cabinet; 4) have two sinks only one of which can be for food preparation; 4) have a license; 5) comply with the civil rights laws in regard to hiring; 6) file a report with the IRS of donations and grants to the center. None of these restrictions apply to the Church of God Day Care Center in Auburn Alabama or for that matter other such Christian Day Care Centers. One of the things that came as a surprise to me in reading the articles is that while some such exemptions are of long standing, many of these sorts of exemptions have been created in the last fifteen years. In fact, there has been a growing trend of such exemptions in the last decade or two--- more than 200 laws have been created since 1989 of this sort in a wide variety of states. One professor from Emory has bemoaned the changes in the laws and says that separation of church and state is no longer the law of our land—instead we have what he calls ‘religious affirmation action programs’. And what is especially telling is that it is low church Protestants who formerly screamed loudest about separation of church and state who are now taking full advantage of such new laws, while still preaching that the government is a menace to and is endangering the separation of church and state rules. What’s up with that?
The timing of these new breaks in the law is especially propitious since the church is going more and more into non-traditional styles of ‘ministry’--- ranging from ice cream parlors to beauty salons to athletic facilities to funeral homes to day care centers to bookstores! Churches get property tax breaks, and lee way in using their land to a degree that other organizations can only envy. Here’s one telling sentence from the first of these articles which appeared in Sunday’s paper--- “In recent years, a church-run fitness center with a tanning bed and video arcade in Minnesota, a biblical theme park in Florida, a ministry’s 1,800-acre training retreat and conference center in Michigan, religious broadcasters’ transmission towers in Washington State, and housing for teachers at church-run schools in Alaska have all been granted tax breaks by local officials — or, when they balked, by the courts or state legislators.” Of course all these facilities have city water, city trash service, city fire and police protection and so on—they just don’t have to pay the taxes which pay for them.
In some cases, it is right to ask are all of these exemptions given to activities that are 1) not for profit; 2) could be called charitable activities that benefit the whole community and the like? It is easier to answer this question when it comes to soup kitchens open to all, drug rehab centers open to all, clothing and shelter services open to all. For example, my church runs a ‘Room at the Inn’ service for the homeless several nights a month. These sorts of services do indeed benefit the whole community and are a public service. But some of these perks seem to go well beyond the intent of First Amendment which of course says that Congress shall make no law in regard to the free establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In what way is freedom of religion at issue in the establishment of a Christian beauty parlor? Inquiring minds want to know. When you discover tax exempt Christian old folk’s homes that are raking in huge sums of money, do not take the poor or indigent, and bleed dry every last resource of various old people, you have to say--- THIS IS NOT A CHARITABLE ORGANIZATION.
And then there is the issue not just of tax and land use breaks, but the actual garnering of federal grants. You will be interested to know that this growing trend began with Bill Clinton in 1996. There are now federal grants and contracts that churches can regularly apply for. Just another example of everyone’s tax dollars at work. Is it really true, by and large that radical courts have been gutting our religious freedoms, or would it be fairer to say that the courts have not done this, indeed quite the opposite in the last fifteen years, but it has become more particular about the public display of religious things on public property? It seems to me that the latter is nearer the actual truth.
Lets consider another aspect of the separation issue—employees of religious institutions. Many of them have few if any legal rights when it comes to their employment. They can be dismissed without due process or proper cause. Take for instance the story of Mary Rosati. She was a novice in training in an order of nuns in Toledo. One day she went to the doctor with her Mother Superior and discovered she had breast cancer and that it was serious. The Mother Superior then announced” We will have to let her go. I don’t think we can take care of her.” (not a religious ground for dismissal. Indeed one might say that dismissal for that reason goes against the religious teaching of Jesus). Some months later Ms. Rosati was told that she was being let go because the Mother Superior and her council had concluded she was not called to be a part of the order (a religious opinion). Mary Rosati lost her health insurance in them midst of battling cancer, and still has none. Now if it had been a secular employer, Mary Rosati could have taken the matter to court and won on the basis of the American with Disabilities Act. But when Ms. Rosati went to court, the case was dismissed as an ‘ecclesiastical’ matter which was beyond the court’s jurisdiction and indeed outside the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bottom line—here we have a Christian organization trying to selfishly protect itself, at the expense of one of its own noviates. In short, the law, or lack of a law, allows Christians to behave badly towards their employees. And there are many similar tales I could tell. Take the case of Lynette Petruska, who was a chaplain at Gannon University, a Catholic school in Erie Pa. In fact she was its first female chaplain. During her brief three year tenure in this job, she apparently did her work too well. She refused to co-operate in the cover up the sexual misconduct of a senior official at the school, she refused to support the slackening of restrictions in regard to on campus rules about sexual harassment, and she was demoted and then in essence force out. Here was a woman who went through 16 years of Catholic education, was very supportive of her institution she was serving at, thought that Christian ethics should especially apply there, and probably lost her job for it. Two years have come and gone, and no court so far will touch the case because of ‘separation of church and state’, even though Rev. Gannon says that her superior acknowledged he was demoting her because she was a woman. Or I could tell you the story of the 73 year old United Methodist minister who was forced to retire from his church in Stony Brook even though he wanted to keep serving as did his church, but he bumped into the mandatory retirement rule of our denomination. He has sued, to no avail thus far. Does age discrimination have a place in the Christian workplace?
Perhaps we don’t want the state to police the church for us, but in that case, should we not be policing ourselves? Should we not set up some sort of ecclesiastical court system for all genuine Christian denominations that such people could appeal to? Couldn’t we have an accountability system for Christian colleges and institutions? Something with some clout like the Evangelical Financial Accountability organization?
But there are other issues as well. In June of this year, Governor Jeb Bush signed a piece of legislation into law which exempted “the Holy Land Experience” from paying $300,000 a year in back taxes for the last five years. Seems this ‘Christian business’ has been raking in the dough. Now I have been to this Christian theme park. It’s o.k., but it has its hokey dimensions, and it certainly isn’t a charity. It’s a for profit organization that benefits from land use laws, property laws, and tax exemption as if it were a church. Only its not—it’s a business, a theme park, only a few miles from Disneyworld and other theme parks. It cost $35 for adults and $23 fir children to get in. Charity is not the word that comes to mind. Nor is it providing any public service of a social nature at least (it is providing some dubious Biblical interpretation). I don’t have a problem with them being a business—but shouldn’t they be paying for city water, lights, streets, fire and police services, like any other business? Inquiring minds want to know.
If we look at the issue of laws invoking or ruling on the separation of church and state issue two things seem clear. They were far stricter in the mid 70s than they are today, Secondly, we cannot claim that this change is due solely to the growing political influence of the Republican religious right. In fact it has come about because Christians who are both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the Senate, and the White House have been in favor of doing more that weakens the separation of church and state provisions. Now none of this crosses the line such that we could claim that the government is establishing or prohibition a particular religion. After all, Moslems, Jews, Hindus and others are also benefiting from these laws. But as it stands the government, both federal, state, and local is now in effect fighting secularism on its own by passing such laws. Which brings me to a point and some final questions. I haven’t even touched the fact that clergy can opt out of Social Security and get housing allowance breaks with the IRS. There is incredible scope to the amount of privileges granted in the name of religion by various levels of our government.

QUESTION ONE--- IS IT TRUE OR FALSE THAT OUR GOVERNMENT IS ANTI-CHRISTIAN? I don’t really see how we can claim it is true in any global or comprehensive sense if one looks at the trail of legislation.

QUESTION TWO—DO WE CARE IF THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE HAS BEEN ERODED IN SOME RESPECTS, AND STRENGTHEN BY EXEMPTIONS IN OTHERS? It certainly seems that even many traditional Christian separatists care less and less about this.

QUESTION THREE—DO WE WANT THE GOVERNMENT HELPING US THRIVE IN BUSINESS, AND EXTEND THE SOCIAL GOSPEL IN VARIOUS WAYS? I don’t particularly see the latter as at all a bad thing, since it has some wide public benefit and does not amount to the establishment of religion in the doctrinal sense. As for the former, I have some questions.

QUESTION FOUR--- IF ALL THIS IS TRUE, IS THE CLAIM OF INCREASING LIBERALISM AND SECULARISM IN OUR CULTURE SIMPLY FALSE? Yes I think this is largely true on the latter issue (secularism). We are a profoundly religious people, its just not as much Christian religion as it used to be. As for the former question, I think the answer is yes and no depending on the issue. If you look at the way the nation votes as a barometer, the answer is that since 2000 signs point definitely towards no.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lessons from the Amish-- the Power of Pacifism

Marian Fisher was only thirteen. She had a lot to live for, and probably many years yet to live. Yesterday she was buried in a cold steady rain in a little farm graveyard near Georgetown Pennsylvania. When Marian went to her little Amish school last Monday morning she had no idea what she would face, certainly not that her faith in her Christian principles would be tested to the max earlier this past week. After all, she was thirteen, and like most Amish girls her age was wrapped up in farm life, and perhaps beginning to think about the period of time when she would be allowed to 'experiment'. During the teen years the Amish allow their children to go out and experience the world for a few years, date, go to movies, and the like, so they can make up their mind whether they want to continue to faithfully live the Amish life or be like the 'Englishmen' as they are sometimes called--- the outsiders. I should know. I lived in the middle of the Amish for eleven years and watched their witness. It puts most other Christians in the region to shame.

Picture a small one room Amish school house. Picture Emma Mae Zook, only twenty, and yet already for three years the school teacher of these children. She ran from the school house to alert the police, while her fifteen or so boy students were escaping or being allowed to go. Ten girls remained, between 6 and thirteen, and Marian Fisher last Monday stood up first to a crazed and tormented man named Carl Roberts a 32 year old milk man who shot the girls and then turned the gun on himself.

Marian sister, Barbie who was wounded, reported what happened next. The girls asked 'Why are you doing this?' Carl Roberts replied 'I am angry with God'. Angry that God had not stopped him from molesting some children in his past. But as it turns out, he was delusional. He had not molested those children. Was he driven mad by pornographic images of young girls? Did he imagine himself at the scene having sex with such girls but never managed to do it? One thing for sure. He was sane enough to realize that a school full of Amish young children was a vulnerable place, and he was a predator. His plan apparently was to have sex with some of those school girls and then kill. But Marian Fisher intervened.

She said to Carl Roberts in somewhat broken English "Shoot me, and leave the other one's loose." She knew the Amish way. She knew Jesus' way. She was prepared to die for the others. And some of them are still clinging to life and it appears some will survive. Roberts of course escaped human accountability by killing himself as police stormed the building hearing shots, but there is a God in heaven who is not deaf to the cries of the saints and martyrs.

But that is not all of the story coming out of Nickel Mines Pennsylvania. Carl Roberts had a wife and three kids who live right there on the edge of the community. Marie Roberts, the wife has been embraced by many of the Amish. They have invited her to please stay, in fact to come and mourn together, because the Bible says we should mourn with those who mourn. She has been told that everyone is forgiven by the Amish, even Carl Roberts who did this hideous thing.

This friends is real Christianity. Christians do not retaliate. They do not seek revenge, for the Bible says that vengeance should be left in the hands of the Lord. In fact they do quite the opposite. They offer forgiveness even to their tormentors. They seek peace at the least and reconciliation at the most with those who revile them, harm them, kill them. And there is another side to this as well. Richard Gelles is an expert on violence and children. He says that psychologically the practice of forgiveness will help the Amish themselves heal far faster than others would. Forgiveness also heals the forgiver.

Somewhere out there, there is someone who is muttering about meekness being weakness. There is someone out there suggesting that violence is the way to answer and silence senseless violence. There is someone simply ignoring the words of Jesus that those who live by the sword die by the sword.

But it isn't Marian Fisher. She passed the test of her Christ-like faith. She was braver than a hundred men with guns in their hands. She gave the last full measure of her devotion to God by giving up her life for others, and some of them appear likely to survive this tragedy. In fact, if we really knew the heart of Jesus, we would know that he himself died a little once again last Monday when those girls were killed. It was Jesus who said "inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me". It was Jesus who confronted Saul on Damascus Road, Jesus who was dwelling securely in heaven, and asked Saul "Why are you persecuting me?" There is a deep, spiritual connection between Jesus and his people, like a head attached to a body, such that what happens to us, in some mysterious way, happens to him, though he be in heaven. I do not understand it, but I know this is true for he said so.

So I stand with the Amish and I stand with Jesus. Not all the armies who ever marched have had the power or effect on history of that one single and solitary life, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, on all of humankind going on now for over 2,000 years.

Long ago Jesus said to me and to us all "take up your cross, and follow me". The Amish understand that that is an invitation to lay down your weapons and be prepared to die rather than fight for what you believe. They understand that love and forgiveness are stronger forces than death and destruction. They understand that forgiveness breaks the hideous cycle of violence. That's what a real Christian life can and will do. And yes friends, it takes a lot of courage to stick by these principles in the age and culture and world we live in. Make no mistake. Revenge and retaliation come natural to fallen human beings. Forgiveness however comes from God. It is surpernatural and it transforms both the forgiver and the forgiven.

Some years ago, Mother Teresa was crossing the Allenby Bridge into the Holy Land from Jordan. She was stopped of course by Israeli border guards, who troubled to search this diminuitive little nun. They asked her "have you any weapons?" --a ridiculous thing to ask a nun.

"Oh yes" she said boldly. "I have my prayerbooks." And she held them up. The Amish have said this week that they have felt uplifted by the prayers of millions who have been told about this story. Prayer--- now there's a dangerous weapon that can change the landscape of the world.

This story about Marian Fisher will stay with me for a long time. I hope that if it comes to that, I someday will have the courage she did to confront the violence and absorb it by giving a life. I hope I will continue to 'stick to my guns' which are my prayers and continue to forgive those who would do me and mine harm in any form.

This I know for sure. This world is run by a God who answers prayer, not by a God who calls us to other sorts of arms. This world is run by a God who died for me on the cross and shouted out with his dying breath about those who were tormenting and killing him "Father forgive them, they know not what they do." If we could only see with Jesus' eyes, we would know that suffering love and forgiveness is what saves and heals the world. The Amish know that. And they have borne witness to us all this week. May the memory of Marian Fisher be seared into our hearts for a long time to come. It is a portrait of our Lord.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The 4% Doctrine-- Where Are our Evangelical Youth Going?

Ron Luce is worried. And if Ron Luce is worried, we should be too. Ron runs an organization called Teen Mania which puts on camps, concerts and various and sundry other sorts of events for youth. He claims that in the last fifteen years 2 million youth have attended his events, the usual formula for which includes some prominent popular Evangelical band, speakers, and counselors. There is a figure that was put out there a decade or so ago which said that even Evangelical Churches are retaining only about 4-5% of our youth. A more recent poll by George Barna suggests that only 5% of our country's youth are Bible believing Christians, but perhaps he was defining Christian or Bible-believing too narrowly. I personally don't think this is true, but even if it is in the ball park it means that youth ministry as currently constituted is largely failing. You should read the story for yourself. Here's the link from this morning's N.Y. Times.

The question to be raised is--- why such a huge attrition rate by anoyone's calculations? Should we blame it on the music? Should we blame it on the approach? Should we blame it on the culture? What the heck is happening out there?

Well perhaps I can point to a few clues. But let me tell you a story first. I count Chris Tomlin as a friend. He was a praise worship neophyte when I first met him over a decade ago in the Woodlands Texas where he was leading music at the Woodlands U. Methodist Church, a Church I know well. I've done various events there over the years, and the pastor is a long time friend. I invited Chris to come to Asbury and help me with a revival I was leading. He came, and it gave him some exposure outside of Texas, exposure to a bunch of future youth ministers, and other clergy types. He came again a couple of years later, and he was a star on the rise. Now of course he headlines Christian concerts all over the place. He headlined Ichthus this past year of course had a positive impact on the 20,000 folks there. But what happened to Chris's meteoric career?

Well, you could be cynical and say the American starmaker machinery called the music industry saw a good thing and got on the Chris Tomlin bandwagon. But that wouldn't entirely be true. Chris is a wonderful, devout, humble Christian man with a deep and abiding faith in the Lord.

You could hypothesize that maybe God just blessed him and he turned around and blessed others by continuing to produce high quality praise music. Well of course there is some truth to that assessment but it isn't the whole story.

Some will ask--- What is the formula for that sort of 'success'? We are always looking for the technique, the formula the gimmick. And yes, there are some tricks to good marketing. I ought to know. I've not only been in the music business when I was much younger working for the Record Bar chain and promoting a Christian concert or two, but I've been in the publishing business for a long time now. And here is one thing I know-- form without substance does not last. Flash without the cash does not last. Image is not everything. It may get your foot in the door, but it will not allow you to live in the house, and this is especially true with the shape-shifting ever moving Christian youth culture.

Two of the reasons Chris's music has been so embraced and well received is it has SUBSTANCE, it is strongly based in God' Word. My friend and colleague J.D. Walt our chaplain here at Asbury has helped Chris with this in regard to the lyrics. And it has paid dividends.

Here's a simple truth--- God's Word does not wear out or fail. It doesn't have built in obsolescence like pop culture. So here's my formula of the day-- the less Biblical substance to a Christian pop event, song, etc. the less likely it will have any staying power. So much of praise music is pablum-- endlessly repeating the same choruses over and over. Repetition is not a bad thing. In fact it helps one to learn the lyrics. But if what you are repeating isn't something strong and substantive that a person can build a Christian life around, then its a willow of the wisp. It will come and go.

And here's another other factor. You need to draw your water from a deep well. By this I mean that a Christian musician, minister etc. needs to have a deep and abiding relationship with the Lord and deep and profound grounding in God's Word and in God's community. If you try to proclaim something that has not first catalyzed your own soul and spiritual life, it will ring hollow, rather than true. And one thing you don't have to worry about with Chris Tomlin-- he is not a superficial or surface Christian. He has authenticity and integrity. I could wish for still a bit more substance to some of the lyrics--- but hey we are getting there. Check out his new CD "See the Morning" and listen to 'Uncreated One'.

But Chris has a third secret. And its hiding in plain sight. He is not just singing, posturing, or performing. He is leading people into worship, into the living presence of God. Worship is a well he drinks from regularly and in the many Passion events he has led it is clear where he is coming from, and where he is bidding us to go. There is a different between a performance, and an act of worship, and Chris is fully comfortable with, indeed excited and joyfully taking us into worship.

My word today to Youth Ministers is this--- one key to retaining the youth is this--- have they been captivated, caught up in love, wonder and praise of the Lord, or have they merely been entertained? There is a difference. Does the event not merely make them dance but make them kneel and confess their sins and pray? Does the event not merely move their emotions but challenge their thinking? Does it bring them to repentance, or are you offering some kind of forgiveness without repentance, crown without a cross, encounter without commitment? And are you integrating them into a caring Christian community where they will be planted deeply, richly in God's Word? The key to retention is surrounding a new Christian with a caring, supportive and yes challenging Christian environment that involves more than just worship. It also needs to involve some profound Christian education, as our youth will never get that from our culture these days. Youth ministry is often failing because in general the Church's Christian education is failing. Less than a third, on average, of people who go to worship stay for Sunday school or Bible study or its equivalent. We should have noticed this warning sign a long time ago.

So much of youth ministry is 'boiling things down', or as the jargon goes, putting the cookies on the bottom shelf. But you can't boil something down that you haven't first boiled up. By this I mean the youth leaders must be more profoundly grounded in God's Word than they are in pop culture, though they need to keep their finger on the pulse of the culture as well. However, as our culture, even youth culture, moves further and further away from Christianity, it will be hard to find points of contact with that culture that can be jumping off points for a Christian witness. So perhaps we could try something different.

Chris' approach is not to boil the message down, but rather to boil the people up. This I think is the right way to go. Get them excited about the Lord, get them excited about the Word. And instead of turning the message into pablum why not tease the minds of our youth into active thought? Why not honor their keen minds, their curiosity, and even their questions by challenging them with the meat of God's Word? Help them so that their reach will extend further than their current grasp. Give them something solid to hold on to.

Today more than ever with one out of two marriages, even in Evangelical Churches, ending in divorce and more and more family dysfunctionality, we need the church to BE a family, the family of faith, who will take in all comes, every straggler. Maybe our motto could be "give me your tired, your poor, your restless masses yearning to breath free..." Wait a minute isn't that on that statue on Ellis Island? Yes it is, but real freedom only comes from a close encounter of the first kind with the Word of God Incarnate, and the Word of God written, and the Word of God incarnated in his community. And that's the Gospel truth for today.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Thoroughly Post-Modern Biblical Interpretation

Post-Modernism is an odd movement of our time. As it affects theological reflection it has both its good and bad aspects. The good news is it takes less atomistic approaches to the Bible. For example, it is concerned with canonical theology as a whole, Biblical theology as whole. These are not bad things in themselves. But there is an under current to much of the post-modern stuff that I read from A.K.A. Adam and others that is disturbing at several levels.

Here is a link so you can read some things about post-modern criticism and philosophy as it applies to the Bible---

Let's take the issue of epistemology first. Post-modernism in so far as it has helped caused a shift in epistemology is deeply indebted to people like Stanley Fish formerly of Duke but now at the law school at Florida International, believe it or not. Fish is a thorough-going reader response kind of guy. He is the type of person who is likely to smile when you say "meaning is just in the eye of the beholder". He does not really believe texts have meanings. He believes that active readers give texts their meaning.

I was always taught to call this eisegesis-- the inappropriate reading into the text of something that is not there. He is not at all interested in arguments about "the intention of the author". He thinks those intentions, whatever they were can't be known and don't matter. Meaning happens-- its not encoded in texts, and the issue of authorial intent is a moot point. The funny thing about this is that when some people have misread his own work on John Milton, and totally misrepresented what he said--- he objects "but that is not what I said or meant." But he doesn't have a leg to stand on. He gave up claims about objective meanings in texts and authorial intent. As for me, I would much rather listen to Kevin Van Hoozer on these subjects (see his "Is There a Meaning in This Text?") or more remotely E.D. Hirsch's classic study "Validity in Interpretation".

Why is this important when it comes to the study of the Bible? There is a simple answer--- THIS IS GOD'S WORD. I do not get to decide for myself what God's Word says or means. It would be arrogant for me to think so. It is for me to discover the meaning of the text encoded in the sentences and paragraphs, for it had an objective meaning long before I ever looked at the text or studied the text. God through the vehicle of various inspired human beings put that meaning there. Post-modernism has problems with objective truth claims, especially texts that make claims on us before we can even begin to make claims about them. It likes to use the pejorative term 'foundationalism' when people start talking about objective truth claims. Frankly, this seems to me to be yet one more human ploy to hold the truth claims of the Bible on us all at bay. Put simply most post-modern theory involves an epistemology that violates the whole Biblical theory and reality of 'revelation'-- a truth conveyed by God through human vehicles to us in perspicuous words that involve truths that not merely relative but absolute and makes an absolute claim on us all.

The second problem with thoroughly post-modern Biblical interpretation is it tends to be docetic. What do I mean by this? It wants to suggest or imply that historical issues are not really all that important to theology with rare exceptions. It doesn't really much matter whether there was a historical Moses or not, we have these books that appeal to the name of Moses called the Pentateuch and since they are part of our canon they have authority for us, whatever degree of historical substance there may or may not be to the historical claims in the text.

Some would suggest that we treat the Bible as pure story, pure narrative, indeed there is a whole school of approach which wants to treat the Gospels as ancient works of 'true fiction', with the term 'true' defined in almost purely theological terms. What is wrong with theologizing, or doing canonical theology in this way? What is wrong with treating the NT in a 'history of ideas' kind of way-- as if the resurrection was just an interesting idea played with in different ways by different NT authors? The answer is simple. Christian faith is a faith founded on a certain irreducible number of historical events. Like Judaism it is an historical religion, such that without the history, there would be, or at least should be, no religion.

That's the difference between historical religions and pure philosophies of life. A good example of a religious philosophy of life, not grounded in historical events, would be Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science, which in its original essence was a mind over matter philosophy of life. Her theory, even though she herself was often a physically very sick person, is that physical illness is an illusion of the mind, and if one knows how to practice mind over matter, then one can be well. You don't need medicine. Sometime you should read Mark Twain's famous and detailed critique of this religion-- it is simply called "Christian Science" and it is published by Prometheus Books. It is quite the expose. Why do I bring up this example? Because it shows where docetic use of the Bible and docetic approaches to theology can lead. Denude the Bible of its historical substance, boil it down to just stories or just a pile of philosophical principles or just a collection of theological and ethical ideas and what have you got?? You've got something that bears no resemblance to the presuppositions and actual theologizing that is being done in the NT or OT.

Listen for a minute to Paul. He puts it this way to his Corinthians who had docetic tendencies--- " If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile: you are still in your sins. The those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitable people on earth." (1 Cor. 15.17-19). He goes on to add 'If the dead are not raised, then 'let us eat and drink for tomorrow we will die'" (vs. 32). Did you catch what he just did? He just suggested that both Christian theology and Christian ethics are founded in and grounded in an historical event-- the resurrection of Jesus. If that did not happen then far from Christianity being a spiritually beneficial thing, or a comfort it is to be seen as a delusion, and its practitioners pitiable. If Christ isn't raised then the basis for good conduct between now and death is undercut. We should instead embrace hedonism. Oliver O' Donovan's wonderful work on 1 Cor.15 has shown just how much Paul's theology and his ethics are grounded in the Christ event.

"My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness..." Indeed, and this means we dare not do theology as if we were just tossing about a bunch of interesting ideas and seeing what permutations and combinations we can come up with. The meaning of these texts matter theologically and ethically because the history which they enshrine actually happened. Revelation came in the form of events and words and deeds in real time in real space involving real persons. This ought to be obvious to Christians for whom salvation is not a Gnostic self-help program by which if we just gain the right insider knowledge and are enlightened we can save ourselves. No, salvation is something that took place outside of our own cerberal cortex through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If those things did not happen, there is no salvation-- period. Not for anyone.

Those who suggest "its true because it is in the canon" and then say "lets do canonical theology" have got the matter completely backwards. It's in the canon because its true-- some of it is historically true, some of it is ethicaly true, some of it is true in other senses, including theological ones. But it isn't true just because its in the canon. Its true because a truthful God inspired various writers to write these books especially to tell the truth about Jesus Christ and other important historical figures in the Jewish and Christian story of salvation history. Thus, color me post- post-modern. I hope you are as well.