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Saturday, December 24, 2011

In praise of implausiblity

When I saw this cartoon in the latest New Yorker, I thought of Luke Timothy Johnson's hilarious polemic on some of the methods of the Jesus Seminar.  In case you can't or don't want to link to the cartoon, it portrays a man tossing crutches aside and jumping for joy next to a gesturing and haloed Jesus.  A skeptic looks on and says, good luck trying to get that peer reviewed.

The event of miraculous healing is, of course, highly unscientific and extremely implausible.  To skeptics, this is a sign of folly, or at the very least untruth.  But to believers its implausibility is precisely the point, as Johnson makes plain.  It's implausibility helps make the narrative compelling and transforming.  Obviously, a faith built on the entirely plausible is no faith at all, and scripture filled with the completely believable will fail to transform souls and inspire imaginations to hope.  The life of faith is an imaginative one, it calls us to imagine what is not that might be, what does not seem plausible that might become possible.  Imagination is the fertile soil of hope.

So as you tell the Christmas story with your families this year, let its glorious implausibility fertilize your imaginations to hope anew.

Marilynne Robinson's Essay in this week's Times Book Review

Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite authors, which is no surprise since she wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a pastor's family in a small town.  She also grew up in the Pacific Northwest, yet manages to live a rich and satisfying adult life in the middle of the country.  For you Hawkeyes, she lives in Iowa City.

Anyway, she has written a marvelous essay for the front page of this week's New York Times Book Review on what literature owes the Bible.  In some ways she makes a similar point as Nietzsche, only she is sympathetic rather than hostile to Christian faith.

If you are an avid reader of serious writing and have not read Marilynne Robinson, I envy you the joy of literary exploration.  This week's essay is a great place to start.
Friday, December 16, 2011

Pride and Humility

As someone who did not grow up Mennonite, I find certain traditional Mennonite personality traits don't make sense to me.  Pride is associated with being different, or sticking out in some way, and humility is associated with having, or pretending to have, a woeful opinion of oneself.

Being different, sticking out, or even standing out, does not mean a person is better or worse than anyone else, only different.  In fact the apostle Paul is clear that we are different, we all have different gifts.  Equality is not manifested in sameness, but in difference, in that each different gift is important and vital, and everyone is gifted.  Pride comes not in being different or sticking out, nor does it come in overestimating one's gifts since God has given them, they must be valuable indeed.  Pride comes in believing one's gifts are better than others, and in failing to respect the treasure found in others' gifts.  As a pastor, I am upset when I hear people downplay or denigrate their gifts.  It is not themselves they diminish, but the giver of the gifts, and the community which receives them.

This sort of humility, this having a woeful opinion of oneself is not humility, but disrespect for God, for self, and for community.  True humility recognizes the goodness of the gift with gratitude to the giver, not taking credit for it, but acknowledging that Christ's strength is made known in weakness.  True humility recognizes that we are not all equally woeful, but equally blessed with God's gifts.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

John Buchanan's editorial in the latest issue of the Christian Century, and this article by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, have me thinking about the place of Christmas in the Christian life.  Here are some highlights from Buchanan and Wallis, the origins of Christmas are pagan, which is reflected in many aspects of our celebration.  The defenders of the observance of Christmas in American public life are defending secular practices, not Christian ones.  The Puritans opposed Christmas as an essentially pagan holiday, and even banned celebrations for a portion of the 17th century.  The Roman church attempted to co-opt pagan celebrations around the solstice by observing a Christ Mass on December 25.  Christians have been fighting a losing battle against Saturnalia (what we might call secular Christmas) ever since.

So the question is, should we give up?  Should we just say Saturnalia won and find other ways and seasons to mark the incarnation and the birth of Christ? Perhaps we could continue to dabble in secular Christmas, but recognize it for what it is, rather than try to merge ancient pagan festivities with the observance of Christ's birth?

Aside from the likelihood that such an effort would totally fail, I see another reason why we need modern Christmas, with all its glitz and excess, and that reason is joy.  This is especially true for Mennonites.  Did you know joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit?  Who knew?

Some years ago, a family member visited us at Christmas, and asked why Mennonites always dress in grey scale.  I said I hadn't noticed.  Perhaps this is illustrative of the fact that Mennonites struggle with joy.  Severe, austere, stoic, drab, yes, but not joy, as if happiness were a sin.  But the pursuit of and expression of joy ought to be a Christian practice.  We ought to look for opportunities to be joyful, and to express Christian cheerfulness.

And this is where Christmas comes in.  To be sure, Easter's joy ought to surpass that of Christmas.  But Christmas is a place to start practicing.  It is a season when we are encouraged to be happy and generous, even in secular contexts.  As you celebrate this year, remember that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Godless, Atheistic Capitalism

Let me say that I do not believe capitalism in and of itself is godless or atheistic.  Capitalism is a human economic system and as such it is like all other human economic systems, neither inherently good or evil, but broken and complex like the human beings who devised the system, with the capacity of spreading both good and ill.  For a Christian, this statement should not be controversial in any way, but a self evident fact.

Unfortunately, many Christians today are influenced by a godless and atheistic strand of capitalism, that has set the free market up as an unaccountable absolute, and dispenser of ultimate truth.  In this kind of religious capitalism, the unfettered free market will deliver prosperity fairly and justly, the market will rightly determine the worthy and the unworthy, private property is sacred, and in pseudo-Darwinian fashion, human beings given full economic freedom, will make the ideal world.  This view or some version of it is often passed off as a conservative Christian (or the Christian) perspective.

Where to begin?  Let's start with idolatry.  In the same way that godless, atheistic communism idolized its own ideology, godless, atheistic capitalism has set the free market up as an idol to be trusted and venerated above all else, and accountable to no one, God included.  It is infallible.

How about justice?  The free market creates its own standard of justice and fairness, refusing, in rebellion against God, to recognize any other standard but its own.  That standard is simple, almost beautifully so.  The market gives people what they deserve without fail.  If they act wisely and responsibly, work hard and well, the market will reward them.  If they do not, the market will punish them.  The same rules apply to everyone.  The people who are low-skilled should get skills.  It's nobody else's fault but their own if they don't.

This is not biblical justice.  In biblical justice, people should be paid a living wage.  God determines a fair wage, not the free market.  We are all accountable to God for treating people justly in the marketplace according to God's standards, not the market's.  In God's justice, the community takes responsibility to ensure even its weakest members are cared for.  In the purest and most pseudo-Darwinian form of free market justice, the weak are left to fend for themselves.  And, as Scrooge said, "If they wish to die they better get on with it and decrease the surplus population."  For biblical justice this is an outrage.

Closely linked to justice is worth and value.  According the the free market, people have worth and value as the market demands.  The market decides that baseball slugger Albert Pujols is worth $260 million dollars per year over ten years, and someone who cares for children at the local daycare is worth $8 an hour.  Who are we to question such a decision?  In contrast to the market, Christian faith teaches that each human being is of infinite worth in God's eyes.  The child care worker glorifies (magnifies the Lord, in Mary's words) God as much, and probably more than Albert Pujols.  Yet in the most significant measure the market (and our society) has to discern worth, the childcare worker is virtually inconsequential.  As a Christian, I am offended by the term unskilled labor, because as a Christian I believe all laborers have skills.  I don't believe in unskilled labor.  The unfettered free market does.

How about private property?  In Kansas, water is a big deal.  Farmers who have water under their fields will get a much greater yield.  But water is a precious and scarce resource found mainly in diminishing aquifers deep under the prairie surface. The farmer who says, "the water is mine, I can use it as I please, and nobody is going to tell me I can't," blasphemes according to biblical thinking.  The water, the earth, our houses, cars, 401k accounts, indeed all we own belongs to God.  It is given to us as stewards to use for God's purposes for creation: a just and prosperous community and world.  The words of the scriptures ought to echo in our minds.  The earth is the Lord's...  The land is mine and you are but tenants on it.  The Christian response to property is not "this is my sacred right and nobody can touch it."  Nor is it, "This is mine, how can I make more."  But rather, it is, "I am grateful God put these resources in my care, how can I use them to glorify God."

Finally, the deified view of the free market has an astonishingly naive view of human nature.  No matter what you might think of Saint Augustine, I think Christians could agree that human beings, left without any accountability in the marketplace and elsewhere would not make the ideal world, but rather make a mess of things.  History, including recent history, gives us plenty evidence to remind us that we need ways to be accountable to God and each other for how we engage the market.

I have said before and I will say again that I am not an economist, and have no expertise to evaluate the functions of our complex economy.  But I am a minister of the gospel, and the scriptures have plenty to say about money, wealth, treasure, land, water, labor, and justice, all of which are relevant to how we live our lives.
Monday, December 5, 2011

Money and Christian Faith

One of our holiday traditions is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  We have a delightful recording of Patrick Stewart reading it that we listen to repeatedly as we drive in the car, we also have a DVD of a movie version, and, if we are lucky like we are this year, we get to see a staged performance. People who are more discerning critics of literature than I point out that this is not Dickens' best work.  But even though the plot may be contrived and the writing forced at times, I love it because it is so marvelously biblical.  It is almost pure biblical exposition of some of Jesus teachings on money.  Matthew 6 comes to mind in particular.  A Christmas Carol also echoes the Hebrew prophets in a 19th century English sort of way.

Dickens has me thinking about Christian practices regarding wealth.  So does this thought provoking piece by Jim Pankratz in the latest issue of Marketplace (the publication of Mennonite Economic Development Associates), and this review by Walter Brueggemann of this book.

The Bible, it seems to me, is not particularly interested in frugality, simple living, stewardship, or fiscal responsibility.  The Bible is quite interested in generosity.  The Bible is especially interested in joyful generosity.  Too often, even our best work with money in the church is fear based, focused on managing what we have well, lest we lose it or waste it.  The Bible calls us to love and joy based work with money.  And this is precisely the transformation that took place in Ebeneezer Scrooge's life. He did not change from someone who hated Christmas to someone who liked it, or felt obligated to observe it.  His entire way of being changed from living out of fear to living out of love.

As Christians, we believe Jesus transforms us from fear to love.  Essential to this is an ever deeper awareness of God's generosity.  We see this spirit of generosity in Mary's costly anointing of Jesus.  We see it in Zacchaeus's joyful abandon as his soul awakens to God's abundance.  We see it in the practice of the early church as they give up their own possessions trusting in God's provision and the generosity of their fellow believers.

What does it take to cultivate a spirit of generosity (other than a visitation by three spirits)?  What do we do with real limits ecologically?  How do we deal with money differently in a much more complex economy than the biblical writers knew?  These questions linger.  But I feel clarity that God is calling me anew to a life of generosity.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bourgeois or Biblical?

The Mamanwa tribe of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, my former home, haunt me from time to time. The Mamanwa are a traditional hunter-gatherer people struggling to make a living off of land that is deforested or denuded by logging and mining.  The land that once yielded a bountiful living no longer does so, and the Mamanwa are reduced to the modern, urban equivalent of hunting and gathering: begging and scavenging.

In the years I lived and worked on Mindanao with Mennonite Central Committee, my Filipino colleagues sought to help the Mamanwa adapt to an agricultural lifestyle, trying to shepherd them from hunting and gathering to planting and harvesting.  In one Mamanwa community, these efforts went quite well, and they reaped a bountiful harvest.  But things did not go as expected.  Soon after this plentiful harvest, the community was hungry again.  After the harvest, all their hunter-gatherer friends and family would come for food.  They were hungry.  It was inconceivable that the prosperous Mamanwa community would not share their food.  Soon it was gone.

Most readers of this blog (and certainly the writer) were raised with values of frugality and saving.  Most of us are, or aspire to be, part of a system of preparing for retirement and insurance, or in some way "storing in barns."  This is couched in the language of responsibility, stewardship of resources, and has become part of our practice of faith.  But is it biblical?  Is it more likely that our values around money are just conventional bourgeois values born out of affluence and participation in an economic system that requires capital (savings) to function effectively?

The behavior exemplified by the Mamanwa is fiscally irresponsible.  But I can't help but wondering if is a whole lot more biblical than my own fiscal responsibility.  "The earth is the Lord's in the fullness thereof."  "The land is mine, you are but tenants on it."  "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth."  "Consider the lilies..."  The Mamanwa have much to teach me about my practicing my faith.
Monday, November 28, 2011

Use of Alcohol Revisited

I want to share my rationale for opening this can of worms.

I have been part of Mennonite congregations where moderate drinking was in the open, and church events in homes often included beer and wine.  I have also been a part of Mennonite congregations where the operative congregational practice was don't ask, don't tell.  In these congregations, the easiest thing seemed to be to publicly assume the teetotalist view as a Mennonite norm, but privately many, if not most, would drink, with a wink and a nod to one another.  This made everybody happy.  The teetotalists could take comfort in believing everyone else thought and practiced like they did, and everyone else could do what they wanted with discretion so as not to give offense.

So why upset this happy state of affairs?  The answer lies in the assumption underlining this blog.  The teaching of the church matters.  And while everyone should not be required to agree with it, we are all well served to have clear teaching we can pass on to our children that reflects the thinking and practices of the church.  Our children are paying close attention to what we say and do.  This is true of many things, not just alcohol.

The purpose of this blog is not to speak ex cathedra, pontificating on this and that topic, but to help us all reflect on what might be an authentic Christian life in our times.  To do this, the range of thought and practice possible within a Christian life becomes an important topic, and an occasion for teaching.
Sunday, November 27, 2011


I came across a book title the other day:  Against Thrift:  Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment and your Soul.  Really?

I have a habit of reading books whose premise I applaud, and support my own opinions.  Anybody else have this problem?  Anyway, I decided to see if my critique of consumer culture could stand up to the author's argument.  As a pastor, of course, my concern is the good for your soul part.  I know this blog has readers far more capable of assessing the economics than I am.

James Livingston, the author, has a surprisingly simple argument based on work as an economic historian.  Since 1919 capital intensive efforts to create economic growth have failed.  Included in his litany of failure are inducements to save rather than spend, taxing income from wages rather than capital gains and corporations, and other economic policies that raise the availability of capital.  He argues that our current economic troubles are the result of a glut of capital moving around from speculative bubble to speculative bubble, but doing no job creating investment.  This repeats what happened in the 20s and 30s.  He repeats Ben Bernanke's reference to "a global glut of savings."  He also argues that what is necessary is putting money in the hands of those who will spend it, whether they work or not, stating that we need to go back to a need based economic contract and away from an effort based one.Livingston believes that this consumer based approach to   capitalism offers our best chance at eventually having a balanced no growth economy, meaning it is better for the environment.

I could go on with his economic arguments, but you get enough of the picture to see where this might make a good Mennonite think a little bit.  Here are some thoughts, but no conclusions.

Let's begin with frugality and simple living.  I have to say his critique of frugality is kind of shocking at first.  But then it occurs to me that, aside from some references in wisdom literature, saving and frugality are often frowned upon in scripture.  What does Jesus say about storing in barns?  Jesus' critique of worries about clothing and food Jesus Matthew 6 are not admonitions to saving, frugality and simple living, but to not save and be generous, seeking first the kingdom.  Matthew 6 fits right into Livingston's argument.  Even selective extravagence has its place.  Mary Magdalene's outrageously costly nard?  (Babette's Feast)  A truly biblical response to money is not frugality.  The unreformed Scrooge was frugal and lived quite simply.  The biblical response to money is generosity.  I don't plan on giving my Mennonite Retirement Trust to Maple City Health Clinic just yet, but I do feel a little guilty about it.

How about work?  Certainly work is a high value in scripture, and laziness and sloth are roundly condemned. But it is also true that justice is understood in terms of need.  People do not have value in the biblical worldview because of their effort, but because God made them.  The parable of the workers come lately comes to mind.  Often this parable is spiritualized, but it also fits a biblical worldview.  The workers who come at the end of the day need just as much as those who came at the beginning, and the owner of the field has every right to generosity.  The other high biblical view here has to do with paying workers a just wage, which in the biblical view is a wage sufficient to meet need.  Taxing workers more heavily in order to free up more capital may or may not be good economics, but it is an abomination by biblical standards.  Livingston has a point on that one.

My struggle with consumer culture has to do with its effect on relationships.  When people, and especially God, are turned into commodities to be used for economic value rather than those with whom we covenant, and with whom we share responsibilities, we have trouble for our souls.  I haven't finished the book yet.  I will let you know if Livingston says anything about it.

References to Nietzche

In two earlier posts I refer to Nietzche, as in the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, arguably Christianity's most serious intellectual opponent.  Nietzche understood Christianity better than most Christians seem to understand it, and he despised it as an enemy of humankind.  Here is the sort of thing that set him off.

In Christian thought, we are quite right to say that every person's contribution to and participation in the life of a worship service is just as profound as anyone else's, whether than person has disabilities of some kind, is frail, sings off key, has dementia, is the greatest preacher, the finest worship leader, or has the richest voice in the choir.  Indeed, as Christians we would be quite right to say that the most profound proclamation of Christian truth we are likely to hear here at CMC this advent came when the Shalom Ringers rang out with O come, O come Immanuel this morning.

Nietzche would call this worse than hogwash, a threat to humanity.  We worship a victim, an enigmatic rabble-rouser, a loser in today's common speech, an anti-hero who accomplished little in his life, and died in shame and dishonor, unable to save himself or his people.  The virtues he passed on, such as compassion, humility, patience, respect for the weak and suffering, drain society of the necessary vital virtues feeding strength and power which sustain humankind, and which Nietzche ascribed admiringly to pagan antiquity.

David Bentley Hart sums up Nietzche's critique, "It [Christianity] is irreconcilably subversive of all the values of antique virtue and public philosophy, whether guarded by Apollo or Dionysus; it makes every claim to power and to rights not only provisional, not only false, but quite simply absurd.  Christians claim that the beauty that appears in Christ, contrary to all judicious taste, abides with and in the poor, the godforsaken, and the lowly, not simply as a sweetening of their lot with bootless sentimentality, or because Christianity cherishes life only when it is weak, perishing, uncomely, but because Christ--who is the truth of being--in dwelling  among and embracing these 'slave,' shows them to be luminously beautiful."

In other words, rather than teaching us to celebrate the heroic, the strong, the powerful, the brilliant, the beautiful, the best in humankind, Christianity teaches us to honor the weak, the poor, the powerless, the less than beautiful.  It is in this light Nietzche understood Christian faith as a threat to humanity, undermining what is best and promising about humanity, elevating the self-defeating.  Nietzche was right about Christianity in the sense that he understands our virtues and values, and their source, better than most Christians do.

Nietzche understood the revolution that is Christian (and Jewish) thought and practice.  Do we?
Friday, November 25, 2011

Can our love of sports save us from neoplatonic mysticism?

After reading this article in the New York Times, I wondered if sports, and football in particular, have become such a destructive force in our society, that Christians ought to avoid any affiliation with them at all.  When I consider that many sports are extremely violent, and nothing more than sanitized (maybe) war games sucking billions upon billions of dollars in resources public and private from our national economy that might be put to more productive uses, like education, it gives me pause.  When I consider the strong association between some sports and domestic violence, I worry that sports are not just violent endeavors, but actually promote violence in society at large.  When I consider the time I waste on sports rather than in productive activities like raking leaves and splitting wood, or working on a sermon, I feel a twinge of guilt.  When I consider the arguments of this book, and this column, the guilt gets a little heavier.  Is our national obsession with sports really that idolatrous?  Is it poisoning our political culture, sucking political energy away from where it might be productive, and putting it into silly games?  What about all the time and money sports take away from the church and its mission?

For those of you feeling guilty or defensive by this first paragraph, take heart, this post is about to take a turn. For those of you feeling smug or self righteous, don't get too comfortable on your high horse.

The first paragraph takes me back to a Walter Mitty moment two years ago.  My second cousin, Brad Mills, had been named field manager for the Houston Astros.  As second cousins, Brad and I share great grandparents and one of the more tragic stories in family history, so I feel a kinship with him.  Not wanting to hide myself from my kin, we arranged to travel to Houston during the opening week of the baseball season to cheer him on and hopefully meet him.  In one of my Walter Mitty moments of day dreaming, I imagined being invited into the clubhouse to pray before the game (me being a pastor and all).  When I would come to, after this recurring day dream, it would hit me.  What on earth could I possibly say in a prayer in such a profane setting as a Major League Baseball game?  The cost of building the stadium was outrageous.  The players salaries were obscene.  The competitive spirit required to get to such a lofty level as the major leagues was downright pagan (in the Nietzchean sense).  Performance enhancing drugs?  Players treated as chattel?

What does a Mennonite pastor pray in such a profane setting?  God help these poor sinners to repent?

I never ended up praying in the Astros clubhouse (at least not yet), but my Walter Mitty fantasy at least had a happy ending.

It hit me, sports can be a wholesome celebration of God's creation, the human body.  Neoplatonic mysticism (and perhaps some cousins in the gnostic family) has effectively wormed its way into the popular consciousness of Christians in our time.  Perhaps this is most evident at funerals when we try hard to ignore the corporeal reality of the deceased and turn his or her primary essence into some kind of disembodied spirit which migrates at the time of death to God's side (or wherever it is destined to go), leaving the body, just a shell in this narrative, to rot in the earth or be burned.  This isn't remotely close to Christian proclamation.  The church proclaims the embodied resurrection of the dead, just as Jesus rose embodied from the grave.  This is profoundly important for a variety of reasons.  Many of them have to do with how we live our lives here.  The senses matter.  Our physical existence here and now is very much a part of the life of faith, it is sacramental.  Another has to do with our bodies as God's creation.  These are to be celebrated and enjoyed in all their physicality, with gratitude and wonder.  This includes all of us.  All of our bodies are beautiful, and capable of doing remarkable things.  The earth itself is God's creation, and requires our stewardship as God's gift to us, not our abuse as something profane doomed to be destroyed.  As Christians we are permitted to hate the corruption of God's creation into something evil, we are not permitted to hate creation, and this includes our own bodies.

The church's doctrine of analogia entis (the analogy of being) has come into ill repute in the wake of magisterial Protestantism's (e.g. Luther and Calvin) emphasis on the total depravity of humankind.  But it is a doctrine worth reviving, and perhaps our national obsession with sports can help us do it.  Analogia entis cannot be summarized easily, but at its core it asserts that God's creation (including we God's creatures) still reflects God's glory, albeit only in part (through a glass darkly).  Our bodies (all of our bodies!) are not just shells, weigh stations for maturing spirits, but themselves are bearers of the glory of the creator, even if only the dimmest reflection.

So when we participate in, watch at, pray for, the games at which we play, remember that the glory of a high jump, a great catch, an impossible goal, is the glory of the one who created our bodies.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Love for the Hebrew Bible

This will be a considerably longer post than more recent posts.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

The leprous Naaman learns of a prophet in Israel who might be able to heal him from his disease.  He secures a letter from his own king in Damascus, and embarks on an envoy to Israel's king so he might meet this prophet.  What ensues is a telling misunderstanding, which has a hint of Shakespearean comedy.

The king of Israel meets the prominent visitor from a sometimes enemy nation and, reading the letter from his counterpart in Damascus, promptly rips his garments in anxiety.  It is a trick, the king thinks, but what the trick is he can't imagine.  The misunderstanding is this.  The Arameans from Damascus assume that any prophet so powerful as to heal leprosy would naturally be a court prophet, in the employ of the king.  Elisha, as we reading the story know, does not serve at the pleasure of the king, but serves God.  Furthermore, as Naaman would understand it, the king is somehow a representative, a regent, for the divine world on earth.  Two thousand years before the magna carta, a social-political reality where a free agent like Elijah is able to act independently of the structures of royal power is inconceivable.

I delight in this lesser celebrated part of the Naaman story.  In subtle ways, the text identifies how the practices of the Hebrew people depart from those of the nations around them.  The Hebrew Bible reflects an astonishingly unique understanding of life, God (or the gods), politics, culture, and human society, from what had been known in the ancient world prior to the emergence of Israel.  From our perspective now we take much of this radical understanding for granted, almost ignorant that the source of our worldview is the Hebrew Bible.  Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton observes this fact in his satisfying polemic Reason, Faith and Revelation:  Reflections on the God Debate (I love it when a Marxist, agnostic, English literary critic defends the relevance of scripture).

The existence of the Hebrew people is a remarkable fact.  Buffeted for centuries by the great empires of the ancient near east, this virtually inconsequential people (in the scope of ancient geopolitics), emerged from exile with a vibrant religious, cultural, and social life in tact, fundamentally unique from the "great" imperial cultures of the time.  The most remarkable fact is the Hebrew Bible remains a living book of faith, nurturing the faith of billions, while the ancient empires in whose shadow the Hebrew people emerged are a memory.

How did this happen?  Many theories have emerged to explain the existence of the Hebrew people.  One such theory is religious evolution.  The innovations of the Hebrew people were as inevitable as technological or political innovations, such as developments in weaponry or the emergence of complex political institutions like monarchy.  Norman K. Gottwald outlines a theory demonstrating how groups of Canaanites on the economic and social margins of the city-state societies merged with a group of people coming out of a similar marginal place in Egypt, to form nascent Israel, hence the unique political and religious perspective of a marginal people (Nietzche's "slave religion").

My mind goes in a different direction from these theories.  I ask myself, how is it the Hebrew people took the great epic stories of Babylon which so shaped life in the ancient near east and turned them into raw material for very different kinds of stories (cf. Genesis 1-3, and Genesis 6-9)?  I ask myself how is it that a vital and independent prophetic vocation emerged and survived among the Hebrew people?  I ask myself why the Hebrew people came to a groundbreaking view of law and justice, in which identity of person and people are radically different from anything before it?

As a person of faith I believe the Hebrew people had a profound and transforming encounter with God.  This is the story told in scripture, and which inspires scripture.  In this sense the scriptures do not necessarily record historical dates and facts, but reveals God to us, and in its pages unfolds the story of the Hebrew people's encounter with God.  And in its pages, I meet God and pray that my life to is changed by the encounter.

As a Christian, I love the New Testament as well, which will be another blog post sometime soon.

Blogging Anselm

As promised, I am reading St. Anselm of Canterbury's Cur Deus Homo, for the purpose of blogging my way through it.  The first thing that strikes me is Anselm's pastoral tone.  This is pastoral theology, responding to pastoral questions, structured as a pastoral dialogue.  As a pastor, I find myself identifying with Anselm and with his pastoral task.

It isn't the easiest thing to read a work like this on an iPhone, but manageable.  Cur Deus Homo is not a particularly long work, and kindle tells me I am 15 percent through it already, after an hour or two.  So far, I find Anselm to be quite consistent with a Christian view of salvation.  His views of sin, death, hell, Satan, victory, and punishment, reflect classical Christian thought (see previous blogs).  This line is especially resonate for me:  "For, as death came upon the human race by the disobedience of man, it was fitting that by man's obedience life should be restored."  Note the emphasis on obedience rather than sacrifice.

Anselm makes clear that God did not require the death of the Son, and is not responsible for his death.  He is clear that hell is a choice people made when they "forfeited the blessings" of life with God.  He notes that the suffering humans experience by forfeiting those blessings are both just and unjust.  In no way, it seems to me, does punishment reflect God's will in Anselm's thought.  I even find in my reading so far an understanding that the Christian's life, and the life of the Christian community, is changed by Christ's act of salvation.

Stay tuned, I have a ways to go.

Thoughts on Christian "Tradition"

Without a doubt, the blog post entitled "The Use of Alcohol and Christian Faith" has received the greatest number of page views here by a large margin.  Whether this reflects the topic, or a growing blog readership, I do not know.  I have received a dozen or more personal responses from readers on the alcohol topic, most with stories to tell, all well written and thoughtful.  Thank you to those who wrote me.

As I reflect on these responses, it dawns on me how narrowly Christian tradition (or thought and practice) is defined for most of us.  Christian tradition is defined for us by what we learned in Sunday School, or perhaps by popular ideas of Christianity encountered in media.  In the case of alcohol, those who grew up in teetolalist congregations view teetotalism as the traditional Christian practice, which they might embrace, or rebel against, but in either case it holds as traditional.  But the truth regarding traditional Christian practice is quite different, and far more complicated.  The reality is teetotalism has never been the dominant practice among those claiming to be Christians, and only gained some traction in some places quite recently in Christian history.  (This is not to say a Christian case for teetotalism cannot be made in conversation with other Christians, only that it is dishonest to claim it is the traditional Christian practice.)

One method for dealing with diversity within Christian tradition has always been to define what it means to be a Christian in terms that exclude "people who are not like us."  As in, Catholics and Orthodox drink, but they are not real Christians.  If we claim that only Christians influenced by late 19th or early 20th century revivalism are real Christians, then we might have a case that teetotalism is the traditional Christian practice.

This is the tragedy.  When we define Christian thought and practice in such narrow ways as to limit it to our particular group (what I learned in Sunday School) we close ourselves off to the richness and depth and breadth of our tradition.  To be sure, we have our own individual traditions within the broader stream of Christian thought and practice.  But when we define Christian tradition in narrow terms, we discourage thoughtful exploration of the full depth of Christian faith found even within the boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Instead of this holy exploration of a Christian heritage, some of us choose to look beyond the church for thought and values that are coherent and compelling for us as we orient ourselves in life.  It is unfortunate when we do this completely oblivious to the richness of our heritage.
Sunday, November 20, 2011


Who knew blogs require housekeeping?

Some of you would like to comment and have been unable to for various reasons.  Others of you would like to subscribe to the blog, but aren't sure how to do that.  We hope to have a brief tutorial session one of these Sundays after worship.  If you want in on it, keep an eye out.

Also, I have access to statistics regarding blog page views.  Even though only a few have published comments, hundreds are reading on a regular basis. Some of you have sent me e-mails commenting on blog posts directly, often including personal stories.  I welcome this kind of interaction, read the e-mails, and try to respond individually to each one.

Birth Control Article in the New Yorker


I will try not to do this too often, but given the posts about human sexuality, I thought some of you might have some interest in this article on the history of birth control in the U.S. in the 21st century.  This is just a reminder that the politics of sexuality and faith were once quite different than they are now.

I am sorry to post a link to something that is subscribers only.  I am fairly sure both the Good Library here on campus and the Goshen Public Library would have hard copies for you to read.
Friday, November 18, 2011


I just finished reading The Record, so I feel a need to clarify that my recent post on alcohol was in no way an attempt to insert myself into the conversation on alcohol policy or interpretation of that policy going on at Goshen College.

While I am at it, I would like to clarify that I did not use the C.S. Lewis quote to represent my own opinions.  I find the quote thought provoking in that it is quite different from the usual sort of polemic I hear on the topic.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Alcohol Use and Christian Faith

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism… [In the past,] temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion.
Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who use them, he has taken the wrong turning. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

After The Mennonite faced the music and dealt with this issue earlier in the year, you would think I would be smart enough to avoid it.  At last, I have to admit I'm not that smart.  The truth is I have nuanced opinions about the issue sufficient to get me in trouble with a wide variety of Christians.  In the end, though, I find ethical conversations help me know and love God more, and give me a deeper understanding of the Christian life as a person in relationship with God.

Growing up, my parents were teetotalers, but they were not teetotalists (a term I believe coined by C.S. Lewis, and appearing in the quote above), that is, they chose not to drink, perhaps they would say as a matter of conscience, but they did not ascribe to the belief that drinking is always wrong for Christians.  I am grateful for their ability to nuance.  I would have learned at some point, anyway, that teetotalism has been a rather marginal perspective in the history of Christian thought and practice related to alcohol.  My parents modeled an honest ethic, and were faithful to it at some personal cost.

A formative experience for me on this issue, took place when my father was pastor of a Free Methodist congregation near San Francisco, California.  I was about the age my own children are now.  Traditional Free Methodists, consistent with the Wesleyan Holiness movement, were teetotalists.  Our church was rapidly becoming a community church, reaching out to its working class neighbors.  This being California, and this being the 1970s, the neighbors were not teetotalists.  The traditional Free Methodists took it upon themselves to enforce their view by inspecting the homes of newcomers, checking the cupboards for contraband.  Needless to say, this story  ends badly.

The scriptures have surprising clarity on the matter of alcohol.  Wine is a gift from God for human enjoyment, to be consumed in moderation.  Like some others of God's gifts (sexuality, for example), it comes with a warning label:  Extremely Dangerous when not used according to directions.  A Christian ethic needs to take seriously both of these things, in short, temperance.  But this is never easy.

Here are four Christian ethics outside of teetotalism which I have come to respect.  I know Christians who have made each of these choices in thoughtful and faithful ways.

1.  Abstinence as a matter of conscience.  "Because alcohol is dangerous, has done harm to many people through alcoholism, drunken violence, and vehicular harm, I choose abstinence as a matter of conscience, to avoid causing harm, or encouraging others to do so.  I recognize the place of wine in the Bible as a gift from God, but cannot in good faith drink myself."  In some cases particular groups of Christians might commit themselves to this ethic.

2.  Abstinence as a matter of spiritual dedication.  "I wish to dedicate myself to God's service, and as part of that dedication, I refrain from consuming alcohol, eating certain foods, and engaging in certain behavior."  The biblical precedent for this is the Nazirite vow, which includes the likes of Samson and John the Baptist, whose abstinence is related to his spiritual call.  Other precedents include celibacy in monastic orders, or calls individuals feel to vocations of celibacy and singleness as part of the Christian life (such as the Apostle Paul).  Again, particular groups of Christians might wish to share in this vocation together.

3.  Non-drinker.  "I don't drink as a rule for similar reasons to number one above, but if wine or beer are served at festive or social occasions, I will partake for purposes of celebration and fellowship."  This position respects both the biblical notion as wine as God's gift, as well as the danger it poses and the harm it does.

4.  Sacramental drinking.  "Wine is a gift from God which I receive with gratitude and joy, consuming in moderation and mindful of its dangers.  Like all God's gifts, it is precious, and I drink it with a sacramental spirit, rejoicing in the giver."  This view recognizes drinking as a pious act, an integrated part of the Christian life, understanding that wine plays an important role in the life of Jesus, the central ritual of the church, and in Christian eschatology.  Such drinking anticipates the wine we will share on that glorious day.

David Bentley Hart notes the differences between Christian partaking, and Dionysian debauchery.  For Christians the purpose of wine is not drunkenness, which is never a Christian pursuit.  Wine is not a means to drunkenness, but is to be savored and enjoyed.  As such taste matters (as in John 2).  Respect for the product being consumed is critical, respect for both its danger and its goodness.  

I am pretty sure that all of these practices, and more, are found at CMC.  I hope no one is scandalized by this fact, but that we can be gracious and understanding of one another, each supporting the other in her/his Christian walk.  I also hope we can teach our children Christian responses to the question of drinking alcoholic beverages.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Saved from what?

I started reading Cur Deus Homo, this week, St. Anselm of Canterbury's famous work on salvation.  I bought a kindle copy for less than $2, and am reading it on my iPhone's kindle app.  Reading an 11th century British monk on an iPhone strikes me as kind of bizarre, but it works for me.  I hope to blog my way through it.

Cur Deus Homo (which has the clunky sounding, Why the God-man? in English) marked a pivotal moment in the history of Christian thought in the West, and remains controversial to this day.  As a philosopher and theologian, Anselm found traditional (at his time) expressions of how Christians are saved, for what, and from what, lacking in clarity and rigor.  His own thought is meant to correct this problem.  How much blame or credit Anselm can receive for what later emerged as answers among many Christians to these pivotal questions of salvation is a matter for debate.  That his work is pivotal is not debated.

I confess that for most of my adult life, I have ascribed blame to Anselm for what I consider some awful theology getting taught in Christian churches, including Mennonite churches, theology that I have called blasphemous, heretical, and even pagan over the years.  In this theology, Christians are saved from guilt and an enraged God eager to punish us for our guilt.  We are saved for eternal life.  The common thread this theology has with more traditional understandings of salvation is that Jesus saves us.

Many of us (most of us?) were taught some version of this forensic view of salvation.  Human beings are sinners, deserving of God's punishment and wrath which is eternal death (in this view, hell serves God's purposes of punishment).  As sinful human beings, we are incapable of making things right with God, since God requires a sinless sacrifice.  So Jesus, who is without sin sacrifices himself (or God sacrifices him), as an atonement for our sin, satisfying God's demand for a human to punish, thereby appeasing God's wrath, and saving those of us who believe in Jesus from it.

I find this horrific, and not remotely Christian.  And when I hear some version of this view espoused as normative Christian thought I wince in pain.  Not only is it not normative it, at the very least, flirts with heresy, smacks of pagan practices of human sacrifice, fails to adequately celebrate the resurrection, paints a picture of God that can only be described as grotesque, implies that Satan is God's ally against humanity, and does not begin to take seriously the real enemies in classical Christian thought, injustice, violence, sin, suffering, and, especially death.

Classical Christian teaching emphasized Jesus' triumph of Satan, sin, and death.  Eastern orthodox traditions retain this emphasis, and are disturbed by the emphasis on a punitive God they see in the West.  Roman Catholicism remains more nuanced than the view of salvation I describe above.  But certain streams of Protestantism have embraced this view fully, and been quite effective at popularizing it.

J.R.R. Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia, both deeply thoughtful Christians, express a much more classic view of Christian theology in these works of fantasy.  In the former, the gates of Mordor collapse, and Sauron's apparatus of torture is destroyed.  The enemy is vanquished.  Gandalf and Aragorn do not form a tacit agreement with Sauron to keep the dungeons of Mount Doom going as a place of torment for Gondor's lawbreakers to be sent.  Victory over death is complete.  In Lewis's work, Aslan is a ransom to the White Witch (ala classic Christian theology) for the return of Edmund. Only the White Witch learns of deeper magic when Aslan rises from the dead after she kills him.  It is the latter classical Christian narrative structure which Anselm found problematic.

There you have my introduction to "blogging my way through" Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.
Thursday, November 10, 2011

An epistemology of thanksgiving

"For Christian thought, then, delight is the premise of any sound epistemology: it is delight that constitutes creation, and so only delight can comprehend it, see it aright, understand its grammar.  Only in loving creation's beauty--only in seeing that creation is beauty--does one truly apprehend what creation is."--David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite:  The Aesthetics of Christian Truth

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays on the American calendar.  One reason is that our commercial culture has failed to commercialize it, and our commercial culture fails at very little it sets itself out to do.  Since our commercial culture is a principality and power in New Testament language, I think I am sane to personify it as an entity with purpose.  I suspect one reason for this failure is Thanksgiving's referent beyond the sovereign self of consumerism.  One is thankful to someone or someones outside oneself.  Perhaps another is that gratitude implies contentment.  "The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need."  We are thankful for what we have, not for what we might have or would like to have.  Thanksgiving also implies grace.  We are grateful for gifts we receive which have no economic relationship to our own efforts, abilities or accomplishments.

Thanksgiving as a holiday is not explicitly Christian, but it resonates strongly with Christian thought and practice.  Non-Christians certainly practice giving thanks.  The quote above from David Bentley Hart suggests uniquely Christian ways of thinking about Thanksgiving, with an epistemology of delight.  Epistemology is the category of philosophy that studies how we know what we know.  How do we know, for example, that God is love?  How do we know the earth revolves around the sun?  Epistemology studies these questions.

What Hart boldly suggests is that, in Christian thought, the epistemological language, our language of knowing what we know about God is delight.  It is in delight that God creates all things, and it is in delight that we appreciate them, with delight forming a kind of language of engagement and apprehension in our relationship with God.  It is with delight God creates snowflakes (the first of the season falling as I write), and it is with delight that, in Christian practice, we appreciate their beauty and delight in them.  It is with delight God gives food to share and enjoy, fellowship to encourage, fire to warm, and, ultimately, God's own son to triumph over death.  The Christian practice of Thanksgiving delights in these gifts, and celebrates them daily, but perhaps especially in this season.

It is no accident that the central observance of Christian faith is called Eucharist, or Thanksgiving.  One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 104, a psalm of joy and delight.  I commend it to us this season and throughout the year.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The nature of evil

I heard a gospel song on WGCS last night that celebrated victory over hell through Jesus.  I found it a refreshing corrective to popular notions of hell among many Christians today.  So many of us seem to have been taught that hell is a tool God uses to punish evildoers, sinners, and those who refuse to submit or believe.  But the scriptures, and a long tradition of Christian thought, suggest to me that hell is not a friend of God's, but an enemy.  Jesus promises us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.  The Apostle's Creed proclaims that Jesus descended into hell, an invasion of enemy territory celebrated in the Eastern church on Holy Saturday as the Harrowing of Hell.  God did not create hell, but it is the domain of those who have rejected God's good will.  Yet even in that domain the light can still shine.

In Christian thought, evil exists only in a parasitic way.  God did not create evil.  Nothing or no one is evil in essence, only in corruption of goodness.  We might even go so far as to say that no one can rightly be thought of as evil or grotesque, only as corrupted.  Evil is a privation of good, whose source cannot be God, who created all things good.

I can imagine few correctives to the thinking of many Christians more important that this one.  As Christians, we certainly take evil seriously.  We are not to be naive.  But let us be clear that the source of evil is God's creation turning from God's goodness, not mechanisms God created for punishing the unworthy.
Saturday, November 5, 2011

Birth Control, Abortion and Environmental Concerns

Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote this piece for Wednesday's edition.  Kristof makes a case to which I have long been sympathetic.  I post it here since it ties into my posts on human sexuality.    What role does family planning play in the Christian life?  Should birth control be freely available, even to those who we don't think should be sexually active?  What role has family planning played in your own Christian walk?  What role might family planning play in reducing poverty?

On the latter question, an old friend, Walden Bello, now a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, posted this rationale on facebook for supporting a bill making family planning resources more available.
Thursday, November 3, 2011

God and Suffering

I sometimes wonder why theodicy has become such a significant theological concern in our time.  We live lives of unprecedented quality, at least materially.  We are not subject to the ravages of disease and natural disaster and tragic accident in the ways our forebears would have been even 100 years ago.  Certainly, these awful things still happen, and tear us apart when they do.  But they seem to challenge our faith in a way they did not our ancestors who were so much more vulnerable to them.

I do not wish to diminish the question of why we suffer when God is good and all powerful.  It is an important place to begin theological inquiry.  I do think we have something to learn about ourselves by asking us why this matters so much to us in a time and place of relative health, safety, and prosperity.

I have several thoughts about why this might be true.  The most disturbing to me has to do with the consumerist and materialist culture in which we find ourselves.  If God is primarily a provider of goods and services for us to consume and enjoy, then it is clear God gets poor evaluations from Consumer Reports.  In Christian thinking, our relationship with God is not defined in consumerist terms, but in covenant terms.  Rather than "a God dishes out, we lap up relationship," we are to think of our relationship with God in mutual terms.  It is a relationship of shared responsibility.  Blaming God for suffering in the world makes about as much sense as me blaming Beth for all the problems in our house (in reality it is me or my dog that are to blame).

In a covenant relationship, life is shared.  We are co-creators with God, not consumers of God's lovely line of divine products.

Human Sexuality, Part 3

I guess I wasn't quite done with Part 2, so I will do a quick Part 3.

"Blue families" are also more likely to make church part of their lives.  The "wait until you are married to have children" still holds strong for a significant segment of our population, at least in practice.  And that ethic is working quite well for those who practice it.  Before contraception was widely acceptable, wait until you are married meant don't have sex until you are married.  Now it means, if you have sex, be careful.

Can we agree on wait to have children until you are married as a sexual ethic?  It seems we have a consensus around this as a practice, but are we willing to teach it, and encourage others outside the church to live by it?  The irony in Red Families v. Blue Families is that blue families were happy to live by this ethic, and enjoy its privileges, but reluctant to claim it as normative in any way, or suggest that others should live by it.  But isn't this a form of, "I'm not responsible for them, they will have to make their own choices and live by them," one of the hallmarks of contemporary conservative arguments?

I want to say goodbye to this topic with a caveat.  Families are complex, and take many different shapes and sizes for many different reasons.  Single men and women choose to adopt.  A variety of events can make parents single parents.  These posts in no way are meant to ignore or dismiss the challenges of single parenting, nor its importance.  At the end of the day, parenting is hard, and its best not to take it on without lots of help.

Human Sexuality, Part 2

As I suggested in my earlier post on the topic of human sexuality, any meaningful conversation about Christian sexual practices must turn at some point to the topic of contraception.  One of my most fascinating and paradigm shifting reads over the last several years was Red Families v. Blue Families by family law scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone.  No matter their views on abortion, no matter their opinions about homosexuality, no matter what they think about pre-marital sexual activity, many in my world are on the blue family side of this divide.  If Cahn and Carbone are right, the line in the sand in terms of sexual ethics in American society today is defined by college education and contraception.

To generalize a well nuanced and researched book, the authors outline two general paths to marriage and family life today.  One is familiar to many of us.  Young people graduate from high school and attend college (perhaps after a year or two of service or travel).  They may or may not be sexually active, but their primary goal in life is not having a family, but getting an education and perhaps establishing a career.  If they are sexually active, they will use contraception.  Rarely, women who choose this path will have an abortion.  Men and women both choose mates with care, and wait for marriage until they have already accomplished some initial goals in life (such as education, perhaps graduate school, travel, getting started in a career).  Once couples in this group do get married, the men and women are more mature, better established financially, and less likely to get divorced than the population at large.  Finally, if couples in this group choose to have children, they wait longer, and limit the number of children they do have, giving their children many advantages not enjoyed by children of  "red family" parents.  The "blue family" path to marriage and family has enormous economic advantages which show up dramatically in statistics.

The "red family" path to marriage and family is marked by the decision (or inability) not to go to college or use contraception.  Those who do not go to college have less motivation to delay family life, are less likely to use contraception, more likely to give birth out of wedlock, more likely to marry sooner, more likely to get divorced, more likely to have more than the average number of children, and more likely to parent with multiple partners.  Needless to say, this is not a path to economic prosperity.  Whereas in the blue model, planning, including family planning, is a high value, the red model embraces different values.

As a parent of school aged children, the red/blue contrast has been on display during these years of going to school events.  The older parents wait to get married, wait to have children, have fewer children, live in better houses, drive better cars, read books to their children, expect their children to go to college, have better family and social support when times to get difficult, and have children in a far better position to be successful in life.

This contrast coalesces in some ways around two different sexual ethics, and is profoundly shaping our culture.  How might we as a church engage this reality?  What bearing to explicitly Christian ethics have on this situation?
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ethic of Whatever

Christian Smith (Notre Dame) and Kenda Cressy-Dean (Princeton) have studied youth and young adults, and come to some startling conclusions regarding how these groups think about ethics.  Ethical beliefs among this group are increasingly individualistic and relative.  That is stealing (or sexual promiscuity, illegal drug use, violence, etc) is not okay for me, but who am I to say that it is wrong for anybody else.  When this group, again generally, does express a normative (that is for everybody) ethic, the rationale given is that immorality is self evident, as in "everybody knows it's wrong."  The particular ethic has been uprooted from its original religious or philosophical system of ethics.  The chilling thing, for those of us in the church, is that youth raised in most churches are no different.

The work of Smith and Cressy-Dean is important, and I recommend them.  The troubling piece of this for me as a pastor is that they both conclude the church and parents are dropping the ball.  I fear we have abandoned our teaching office to the individualistic relativism of the day.  New Perspectives speaker Linda Mercadante made the case well here at College Mennonite last month, using some of Smith's research.  Her comment that, ethically, our society is "living off the fumes of organized religion" has stuck with me.  In other words, people still by and large, make ethical decisions consistent with religious teaching.  We are not yet relativists, in other words, even if we think we are.  We still believe in right and wrong, and our beliefs, whether we know it or not, are rooted in the religious perspectives that shaped us.  But if Smith and Cressy-Dean are right, the further we get from the religious systems that gave birth to our values, the further we will get from our values.  That greed is wrong, for example, is not self evident.  The same might be said for many other things.  Unless particular values are rooted in a system of values, they will no longer have a home.

What does this call forth from those of us responsible for nurturing subsequent generations (that's all of us!)?  One is clear teaching about right and wrong.  But perhaps more important, is the whys of right and wrong.  Are we able to articulate a system of beliefs that is coherent, and will hold our children in good stead as they face the extraordinary forces in our culture opposed to a Mennonite Christian way of life?

This is where our biblicism has not always been helpful to us (again, Christian Smith).  Certainly the Bible is important, but I wonder if we have lost the ability to put it together in a way that makes sense to us, let alone to our children.  Here is where we have much work to do.  But it is work well worth doing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Serving God and Money

Recently I read where a politician said he hopes all Americans want to get wealthy, as if it were some civic or moral virtue.  This sort of statement is not particularly new in this country, and fits neatly with a Weberian (as in Max Weber who wrote about the Protestant work ethic, Calvinism, and the drive to be wealthy among church goers) of American Protestant views regarding work and wealth.  But still, I was startled by the statement.  It seemed remarkably ignorant of the teachings of Jesus and the prophets regarding money.

I find nothing wrong with wealth.  Globally, we are the one percent, after all.  But it is the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of other pursuits that is problematic in the Christian life. Indeed as a life priority wealth is down the list for healthy Christians.  When acquisitiveness and possessiveness move past God, community, honesty, integrity, family, justice, and peace, our souls become corrupted.

The scripture remind us, "the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof."  "The land is mine, and you are but tenants on it," says the Lord.  We must all remember that wealth is a resource, weather it comes from land or intellectual property, that has been put in our care to use for God's purposes.  It is not our permanent possession.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is Idolatry?

The post on leadership raised some questions about idolatry.  What is it?  In a time when the thought of making graven images as objects of worship seems absurd, what are our idols?  What might correlate to idolatry in our times?

As my blog post suggests, I have come to think of idolatry as forms of self worship, or selves worship.  Here is my thinking.  Idols are human projections.  The biblical language "idols they fashioned with their own hands," is no accident.  These projections can be human fears or aspirations, and the gods behave in some fashion or other like human beings.  The gods also play a role in maintaining a social-political order which can itself be an idol, and a manifestation of self or selves.

The Hebrew people take the astonishing step of rejecting idolatry, making the claim that YHWH-God is not at all like human beings, does not live in houses made by people, is a jealous god (demanding exclusivity in human-divine relationship), and cannot be turned into an idol.  The Hebrew understanding of YHWH-God is that God is not a projection of human aspirations, but that God's people become a projection of God's aspirations.  Of course, the Hebrew people are not always quick to embrace this vision, and it takes the persistent ministry of the prophets to keep the vision alive, but in the end it is this vision that shapes normative Hebrew faith, and ultimately Christian faith.

So I am always on the look out for self worship, in myself, and in the world around us. One form of idolatry we find in the church is found in the institutions we have fashioned for ourselves.  Certainly nationalism can be a form of idolatrous self worship, an absolute that will be second to none.  It is into this tradition of self worship that I put consumerism, the practice of which is filled with projection of aspiration as well as fear, turning stuff into an absolute, and source of salvation.

What idols do you struggle with in your own life?  What idols do you see in the world around us?
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Servant Leadership in Crisis

When Mennonites talk about leadership, the conversation quickly turns to servant leadership, always described as a good thing.  I too believe in servant leadership, but fear that our understanding of it has slipped into idolatry, one of those clever ways we humans come up with to worship ourselves.

I suspect the emphasis on servant leadership in recent decades has its roots in a much needed corrective to abuses of authority and the ability of leaders to act with impunity.  This is a good thing.  The emphasis on servant leadership has also highlighted the fact that all Christians are ministers in their own way, and each is a necessary part of the body of Christ.

I am concerned, though, that the concept of servant leadership has become co-opted by an individualistic, consumer-oriented and materialistic culture that understands service or servant in light of the individual consumer.  For Pastors, we sometimes think servant leadership means satisfying the wants and needs of individual religious consumers in our congregation.  Servants serve at the pleasure of their masters.  Their job is to make those whom they serve happy.  We don't like poor customer service.

Jesus on the other hand was a servant leader who did not do what people wanted, often made them unhappy, surely was a disappointment to many, but yet gave of himself sacrificially in love.  Jesus acted out of a call to serve God and live out the Kingdom of God.  This sometimes converged with the desires of the people around him, but often involved challenging them to evaluate their sense of self and want and need, reorienting them to God.  That sure is a different model of servant leadership than we have in the late capitalism of the early 21st century.

The question is, how can we empower servant leaders to lead us toward God's vision, challenge us when we need to be challenged, yet still lead in a culture of accountability and a spirit of humility?  Critical to this, I think, is asking ourselves not what we want, but what God wants.  Anything less, I dare say, is idolatry.
Friday, October 21, 2011

Human Sexuality, Part 1

After Lukas was born, Beth and I decided not to have more children, so I looked into having my surgery.  Our health insurance was through Beth's public school, but our network was Loyola Health, as in Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church.  I should note that we received exceptional care from Loyola during those years.  But, as a Catholic institution, they would not perform the procedure I desired.  After making a number of embarrassing, even humiliating, phone calls, I learned that our insurance would cover the procedure, but I would have to go to an abortion clinic way out in Downer's Grove (Chicago suburb).  It was indeed a Downer.

My experience reminded me that the use of contraception marks a radical departure from Christian theological and moral teaching and practice in the West, which still finds a home in Roman Catholicism (at least the teaching does, the practice not so much, at least in this country).  The purpose of sexual activity, in the traditional view, is procreation.  Any pleasure derived from the experience is collateral or incidental.  In this view, pleasure is never the end purpose of sexuality, nor is intimacy or union.  Indeed some Christians have argued at times that sexual activity between heterosexual couples beyond child bearing age is immoral.
As recently as the 1940s, Virginia Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario issues strong statements against "artificial" means of avoiding conception. (http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/contents/B541ME.html)

Mennonites and most other non-Catholics have done an about face on the issue of contraception, and abandoned the be fruitful and multiply ethic that understood procreation and sexuality to be inseparable.  Even the vast majority of sexually active Catholics in the U.S. use contraception, contra to Catholic teaching. We spend a great deal of energy as Mennonites debating abortion and homosexuality, but we have failed to deal completely with the acceptance of contraception among us.  No congregation of which I know is disciplining heterosexual, married couples of child bearing age that choose not to have children.  It is not a controversial issue.

Some Christians believe this dramatic change in sexual ethics among non-Catholic Christians is a mistake, and want to reverse it.  I am not among them.  We live in a time and place when be fruitful and multiply isn't the most responsible ethic.  Like most Mennonites, I believe the use of birth control is a responsible Christian ethical practice.  But this dramatic shift left us with a problem.  Our answers to young people's questions about why it is not appropriate for them to have sex before marriage have gotten a little shaky.

Under the procreation sexual ethic, answers to these questions were clear and coherent.  God created sexuality for the purpose of having children.  We believe children are best off if they are raised in families with married parents.  Sex outside marriage does not serve these purposes, and so is against God's law.  Contraception separated sex from procreation.  If the church believes that sex is acceptable for reasons other than procreation (pleasure, intimacy, union), then on what basis do we tell our young adult children to wait until marriage (especially as they wisely marry later and later in life)?  What do we tell homosexual couples who want the same intimacy as heterosexual Christians?  I want my children to wait for sexual intimacy until they are married.  But I also want to give them the best answers the church has to these questions, and in this regard, we are failing.

We do have answers to these questions, and some times they are pretty good.  But they aren't so clear or coherent as the days when sex was all about procreation.  The Bible is often used, but if you are trying to put together a biblical sexual ethic purely by looking at the array of passages dealing with sex, you may more likely end up with "Big Love," the TV show about a polygamist family in Utah, than "Ozzie and Harriet."  We need an ethic that is biblical, yes, but that is also theologically coherent, and respectful of the long history of Christian thought.

I am disturbed by the sexual practices among young adults which surveys describe.  Hook up sex, friends with benefits, as well as monogamous relationships outside of marriage are ways young people find to deal with sexual passion before their delayed marriages.  I think this is wrong, and I think life is much more than sexual fulfillment and pleasure.  I also think the church can do a better job articulating a sexual ethic that is strong, coherent, and clear, and that also points with hope to God.  Maybe if we spent more energy on the why of sexual activity rather than the who, we might make some progress.
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fundamentalist Heresies Part 1, The Rapture

The word heresy has not usually generated positive associations for me.  I think of heretics burned at the stake, people banished or punished or shunned, solely on the basis of what they happen to believe, or powerful interests using religion as a tool for control.  Mostly I have thought of heresy as a term used by the religious right to undermine the legitimacy of those with whom they disagree.

But the more I learn about what is popularly called the religious right, and the more I read in the history of Christian thought, I realize that it has deviated in important ways from the historic core of Christian faith.  From time to time in this blog I will explore various aspects of Fundamentalism and right wing Protestantism that might be called heretical.  The first one is inspired by Harold Camping, the radio pastor who believes the rapture will probably take place this weekend.

The rapture is not to be confused with the second coming of Christ.  From the beginning, Christians have believed that Christ will come again as he promised, and this is our blessed hope.  The idea of a "rapture" was developed in the 19th century by a Plymouth Brethren man from England named John Darby.  This development, and later promotion, of a "rapture" is documented in Barbara Rossing's excellent brief book, The Rapture Exposed.  Rossing is a professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Darby included the rapture concept in his theological system based on dispensations, clearly defined epochs within history.  In this system God relates differently to people in each period.  Dispensationalism also developed a unique understanding of the end times, beginning with the rapture in which the church is secretly taken out of the world, followed by a period of "tribulation" for seven years, and concluding with the second coming of Christ and his 1,000 year reign (millennium).  Although the rapture and dispensationalism had no clear biblical reference, and was unknown in classical Christianity, the idea took hold, especially in the United States, and is a staple of belief for many Christians, often with little thought given to its credibility.  The Left Behind series of books is structured around a dispensationalist world view.

Rossing, and Mennonites Ted Grimsrud, Loren Johns, and Nelson Kraybill, have written on the book of Revelation, and considered thoughtfully the true significance of this book for Christians through the centuries, including today.  They have also exposed the ways that dispensationalist eschatology is dangerous in that it leads Christians astray from the Way of Christ.

Evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, now at Notre Dame, in an important, and by now classic, book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, exposes a number of heresies present among evangelicals.  Dispensationalism is one of several gnostic tendencies.  Gnosticism is an ancient Christian heresy which has taken many forms, one element of which is the claim that the physical, material, corporeal, natural world is evil, and only the non-material, sometimes called spiritual is good or redeemable.  Ancient variations of this heresy argued that Jesus was not really human, but only appeared to be (docetism); and that the supreme God could not create physical matter, but was created by a Demiurge; that Christ came with gnosis (knowledge) from the supreme God to help humans escape the material world.

Rapture theology, and dispensationalism, have gnostic tendencies in that the natural, physical world are viewed with disdain, and the Christian hope is to escape.  Classic Christianity has emphasized Christ's return as our hope, not the prospect of Christian escape. This matters, of course, because it profoundly shapes how we think about our lives as people of faith.  If we view Christ as the means for our escape from the physical world in which we live, we will have a rather different faith than if we believe in creation's goodness, and groan for its redemption through Jesus Christ as we long for his return.

I may chafe at the use of a word like heresy.  But I have come to recognize that orthodox faith was developed thoughtfully and slowly through centuries, and tradition often serves as a corrective to what might even commonly be called a conservative belief.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whither Just War Theory?

I recently finished reading The Myth of Religious Violence, by William T. Cavanaugh, which looks at the way secular nation states have used a particular historiography of the wars of European wars in the 16th and 17th centuries as a kind of founding or self-justifying myth.  In short the myth is, only the secular nation state can save the world from the tendency to violence inherent in religion.
            Cavanaugh argues that the concept of religion is a social construct, largely used by the nation state to serve itself.  Significantly, he questions the moral claims the secular nation state makes for itself to exercise violence with impunity.  Those claims are rooted in this belief:  Only the secular state can determine whether it is right or not to go to war, or to punish criminals violently, because only it can be trusted to act rationally.
            Cavanaugh’s deconstruction of one of secularism self-serving myths sends my mind in several directions.  One of them is personal, and takes me back to my first encounter with classical Just War Theory, when I was a student in Ralph Beebe’s War and Peace class at George Fox College (now University).  The failure of Just War Theorists to make meaningful and vigorous critiques of the state’s claims to exercise violence with impunity, led me to take seriously the claims by the peace church traditions that the use of violence is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.  The only people, it seemed to me at the time, who publicly questioned the exclusive right of the state to discern the morality of the use of violence were to be found in the peace churches and among their sympathizers.   So I cast my lot with Quakers and Mennonites, and here I am.
            Just War Theorists have, at times, been effective at reining in state violence.  Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this was in the late fourth century when Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, denied Emperor Theodosius entrance into the Cathedral in the aftermath of a horrific attack on thousands of civilians at an arena in Thessalonica, until the emperor had done adequate penance.  This is such a noteworthy event it has been the subject of several paintings, including one prominently displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Allesandro Megnasco (c. 1700).  Imagine a U.S. president denied entry to the National Cathedral because of a wartime atrocity.
            Here is where I am going with this.  Imagine a vigorous and highly functioning Just War Theory among the Christians of our nation.  As Mennonites, we often find ourselves on the defensive because our theological heritage calls us to question the claims of the secular nation state.  The flap over the national anthem at Goshen College is a recent example.  This often leads to a conversation about pacifism or non-resistance, the impractical nature of our position, and the fact that it is a minority position within church history.  I suspect most Mennonites have been in these sorts of conversations.  But I am interested in a different conversation.  Why have do many Christians abandon their own traditions’ teaching on violence, and instead offer the secular nation state their wholesale allegiance when it comes to exercising violence?  What if Christians actually took seriously the classical teachings of their own denominations and movements when it comes to the use of force?  What if we Mennonites would spend less energy defending our distinct position, and more energy calling our brothers and sisters in other Christian bodies to embrace their own?

Thoughts on hate

Mennonites do not look kindly on hate.  Even our broader society describes hate in pejorative ways: hate speech, hate monger, hate crime.  Even if we are not always the best at practicing love over hate, we our faith has made us deeply aware that we are not to nurture hate within ourselves.  Jesus is clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love our enemies rather than hate them.

But the events of last weekend here in Goshen have me reflecting, not just on the biblical exhortations to love and forgiveness, but also of the biblical exhortations to hate.  "Hate what is evil and cling to what is good," Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans (NRSV, 12:9), echoing Amos 5:15.  Proverbs 8:13 counsels, "The fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil."  (NRSV)

The context of these passages suggests to me that hatred here means turning our backs on evil and choosing love and justice instead.  This is the sense of the traditional baptismal vow renouncing evil.  I can accept this as one layer of meaning in these texts, even as I also see another layer exhorting us to hatred in a different kind of way.  The Psalmist boasts of hating God's enemies with perfect hatred.  The prophets hate injustice.  Jesus hates hypocrisy.  

The danger with hatred is that the object of our hate is personified.  That is we come to hate hypocrites rather than hypocrisy, failing to recognize hypocrites as victims of hypocrisy.  This week I wonder if it is possible to hate murder but not murderers, the same way I hate tornadoes that wipe out whole towns and destroy lives, or unjust economies that weigh down the poor with grinding poverty.

This is a fine distinction, I know.  Is it possible to hate murder while loving and forgiving murderers?  Perhaps it is only possible when we are willing to look into our own souls, and realize most of us have not wholly forsaken evil ourselves.