Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers

War movies are a unique genre. In recent years they've become more graphic, more realistic. They have their heroes, but the heroes are more human, more flawed. John Wayne war movies were always rah! rah! types of things.

War movies during war time tell us different sides of war experiences. We're in a war and it, like Viet Nam, has become increasingly unpopular. Of course, like Viet Nam, and unlike WWII and earlier wars, Iraq is being fought in our living rooms. Though the numbers of dead are significantly less than either WWII or Viet Nam, or even Korea, the war continues to drag on with no end in sight. President Bush has made it clear that any resolution, if there is a resolution, will be left to his successor(s).

And so it's in this context that we view Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers. I'll try not to ruin it for those who've not seen it -- better yet, first see it and then read what I've got to say. I just watched it this evening, and found it moving, challenging, and disturbing. The cinematography and story telling is really quite good -- I expect it to be up for if not a winner of multiple Oscars.

The movie tells the story of the Marines (and a Navy corpsman) who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. Well it tells the story of the group in the picture -- who were actually the guys who raised a replacement flag. Of the six in this group, only three survived, Iwo Jima, and they were brought back to the States as heroes to help sell war bonds. The movie goes back and forth between the battle and their experiences in the States -- their recognition that they weren't the original flag raisers, and the fact that some of the Marines were misidentified. The story is true and is the film retelling of James Bradley's story of his father's experiences (though told from the remembrances of others since his father never much talked about what happened).

The movie suggests that heroes are of our making, because we need them. The three "war heroes" in this movie, just happened to be in the "right place, at the right time." They were no more and no less heroes than anyone else. They all lived with the nightmares of battle, something that is not at any point glorified in the movie. Battle was brutal, terrifying, devastating, and more.

This is truly a movie that makes you think about war and what it does to people. I've never been in war, in fact I've never been in the military. My Father was in the Navy during WWII, but never saw battle. I came of age at just the right time, a year after we evacuated Viet Nam. The war was over for us and so was the draft.

Heroes, they're just like us, they're human beings with faults, just like us, but we need them and so we create images that even they can't live up to or live with (on many occasions). Perhaps it's better to be a dead hero than a living one.

Sherman said that War is Hell. That was not just an observation, it was a program for battle. But the reality is, no matter how, you portray it, war is hell, and this movie is a truly important portrayal of that reality. I've never been able to come to the point of embracing pacifism, though I believe that Jesus's program was pacifist in nature. But a movie like this is an important reminder of what is lost when we go to war. It's not something that we should enter into blindly or haphazardly. That's because in the end it's the young who die, not the old. The old men (at least in WWII) were back in Washington politicking, when the young ones were on the field of battle dying. It just makes you think.
So, do see the movie, if you've not already seen it. Hopefully, I didn't give away too much, but I felt like the movie required of me at least a few comments.

Monday, October 30, 2006

George Will on Cheney and Iraq

George Will and I come from different places on the political spectrum. He's a conservative and I'm left of center (though not far left). But in recent months I've found his perspective enlightening. Being a conservative he can't be tarred with representing the views of the Democratic Party. But as a true conservative and not a religiously/social conservative (maybe he's an old style conservative), he brings an important perspective to the table.

In a piece I came across from Newsweek/MSNBC entitled "Togetherness in Baghdad," in which he speaks of Dick Cheney's (among others in the administration) lag in recognizing and acknowledging the realities in Iraq. The President recently dropped "stay the course" from his vocabulary, in large part because the course we're on is proving disastrous. That the Iraqi elections didn't prove to be the salve they were hoping for was clear months ago.

As we consider our political future in elections that are in the not too distant future, these words from Will are worth considering:

In a recent interview with Vice President Cheney, Time magazine asked, "If you had to take back any one thing you'd said about Iraq, what would it be?" Selecting from what one hopes is a very long list, Cheney replied: "I thought that the elections that we went through in '05 would have had a bigger impact on the level of violence than they have ... I thought we were over the hump in terms of violence. I think that was premature."
He thinks so? Clearly, and weirdly, he implies that the elections had some positive impact on the level of violence. Worse, in the full transcript of the interview posted online he said the big impact he expected from the elections "hasn't happened yet." "Yet"? Doggedness can be admirable, but this is clinical.
Anyway, what Cheney actually said 17 months ago was that the insurgency was in its "last throes." That was much stronger than saying we were "over the hump" regarding violence. Beware of people who misquote themselves while purporting to display candor.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Cynical Politics

I was reading in the LA Times this morning about Karl Rove's new strategy -- spread emergency dollars to districts where GOP house members are in difficult races. Nothing goes farther than a bit of pork to draw the voters in, or so the political agents like Rove believe. It's of course not just a GOP sin, any party in power would probably do the same. It's just that Karl is so blatant about it!

Politico's can take a cynical take on the political scene, because by and large the belief is -- do what's necessary to win. Yes, win at all costs. We throw the mud and hope to bury the opponent. Especially at a time when more and more people are registering as Independents of some sort, the party bosses would just as soon that these unpredictable voters not participate. Well, I've taken a look at all of this in my column today in the Lompoc Record -- just in case you'd like to look.

My advice, though, is don't let the cynics win. Think for yourself, do the homework, and vote your conscience -- and hopefully with an eye to the betterment of the world and just the self!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Dangerous Myths

As I continue to ponder the words of Sam Harris, I find his closing words disconcerting, but worth pondering.

"Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well -- by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your
attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement -- and perhaps, of a little hope." (Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 91)

I think this needs to be heard. We like to think of ourselves, we "Christians" and see ourselves as somehow different from other religious folk. Our religion is better, more humane, divinely authorized I suppose. But to the non-religious person there is no difference. We are seen as simply irrational, believing in nonsensical myths and attached to imaginary deities. Sam Harris has hope that things will change. That change will come, I think he believes, when religions have disappeared. But reality doesn't seem to support the opposing hope. Admittedly religion has its dark side, my religion included. It does no good to distinguish between religion and faith, as if what I believe and practice isn't religious. It does no good to distinguish between religion and spirituality. One might ask where does this spirituality come from, how do we understand it? At some point religion enters the picture. Oh, well, that's enough of that.

I found this comment by British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on another blog concerning Richard Dawkins' book God Delusion. I've not yet read it, but I think Sacks' point here goes for both works, the one I've read and the one I've not.

Richard Dawkins is one of the great atheists of our time, and his latest book, The God Delusion, is his angriest. Imagine, he says, a world with no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian Partition, no Bosnian massacres, no religious persecution of the Jews, no Northern Ireland troubles, and so on. No religion, therefore no evil in the name of God.
This is good, honest, challenging atheism. I only wish I had as much faith as the learned professor. It would be nice to believe that if you cured people of believing in God, you would thereby have cured them of hate, violence, anger, injustice, cruelty and the urge to control, exploit, dominate and oppress.
Nothing in history suggests such a thing. On the contrary, if people do not commit evil in the name of God they have never been short of other reasons to do so: race, the war of classes, the political system, the march of progress, the Darwinian struggle to survive.
In the perennial battle between our lowest and highest instincts, which is the human condition whether we are atheist or believer, people usually robe their most brutal acts in the mantle of high ideals. In this respect the history of religion, like the history of substitutes for religion, is all too human.
There is, though, another thought-experiment worth performing. Imagine a world with no Book of Psalms, no Isaiah, no Ten Commandments, none of Michelangelo’s religious art or Bach’s devotional music, no Dante, no Milton, no medieval cathedrals, no prayer. Imagine one with no narrative like the Exodus to give hope to the oppressed and enslaved. And that really is the point.
It took an even greater atheist, Nietzsche, to see the truth with fearless clarity. He called Judaism and Christianity “the slave revolt in morals”. It was, he believed, the ethic of the underdog, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless. It generated an entirely new set of virtues: “Pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness.”

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reverent but Critical Bible Reading

I recently posted a "review" of sorts for Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation. In that diatribe against religion and Christianity in particular Harris takes particular aim at the Bible. Now, Harris will admit to only one understanding of the Bible, and that's the understanding of the most rigid of Fundamentalists. It does of course offer the starkest of contrasts between his enlightened views of the world and the benighted Christian perspective.

As I said before, I'm not comfortable with his characterization of my views, so I'll repeat them so to speak.

The rigid fundamentalist position is to take the Bible with a wooden literalism -- of course even the most rigid find it necessary to recognize that this isn't possible. But what is often done is read the Bible flatly, as if there isn't any difference between a passage in Numbers and the Sermon on the Mount. Too often the Bible is read without its context, in proof-texting fashion. You can just about prove anything you want that way.

There is an alternative to this perspective and throwing the thing out completely. One can read it reverently but critically. You can, as I do, refer to the Bible as the Word of God without believing that every word in it is a word from God. There are those who believe that the Bible was literally dictated by God, but those who take this view are much fewer than many think. A critical reading of Scripture asks questions of context, cultural/social backgrounds, history, transmission of the text. The Bible is full of patriarchal statements, and yet it also offers a egalitarian perspective. Women are told to be silent in the church (1 Cor. 14) and yet in the same letter from Paul they're told how they should comport themselves when they pray and prophesy in public. Phoebe is a key aid to Paul and a trusted church leader (Romans 16). Slavery isn't denounced per se, but Paul also says that in Christ there's neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). If we're all one in Christ then maybe that means that I shouldn't own my brother or sister in Christ. It takes a critical mind to work through these issues. But such an effort will yield great benefits to our world!

There are a number of places to go with this. I'd recommend a few good books as resources. I think Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (HarperSan Francisco, 2001) is an interesting read here. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Harper Collins) and the New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon) are very useful. The latter is a multi-volume commentary. So read the Bible and by all means, read it reverently but also critically!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Letter to a Christian Nation

Ninety percent of us in America, maybe more, believe in God -- or at least we believe in some kind of divine being/entity. The number of avowed atheists is thought to be about six percent of the 300,000,000 Americans. That's not a large number. But the truth is the number of those who embrace some institutionalized form of religion is probably fairly substantial.

So I come to Sam Harris's best seller, Letter to a Christian Nation, (Knopf, 2006). I just finished reading this little book by the author of another best seller The End of Faith -- a book I haven't read. This is a hard hitting no holds barred, no prisoners taken, broadside against religion, and Christianity and Islam in particular. In the mind of Sam Harris the best thing that could happen to the world is to see religion eradicated. He holds out no hope for moderate or liberal versions of religious faith -- they simply provide a cover to the extremists who are a danger to the world.

This book of course builds a straw man and effectively demolishes it. To Harris, there is only one true Christian, and both he and they agree on what that means. Christianity is by definition, irrational, obscurantist, anti-intellectual, and given to violence (I agree some forms are given to such things). Whatever good can come of religious life is more than outweighed by the bad things it produces. True Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God and take it completely literally (even though a goodly number, myself included, seek to read the bible critically and recognize that not everything needs to be taken literally). True Christians believe that Jesus is coming back soon (Left Behind/Late Great Planet Earth) and that anyone who doesn't believe as they do, is going to hell (though many Christians take a much more nuanced perspective -- even embracing forms of universalism). That I don't recognize myself in his description shouldn't surprise me, so he says, because well I'm really not a Christian.

There are some really absurdities here, but in spite of the often insipid and strange stereotypes (such as a discussion of biblical prophecy that wonders why the bible if it's truly the word of God doesn't provide detailed instructions/information on really important scientific data), the book may prove useful. It is a reminder that religion, and Christianity in particular, has its down side. He reminds us, usefully, that persons of other faiths, such as my Muslim friends, look at me in the same way I as a Christian have looked at them. We are equally committed to our position and believe the other is destined for hell because of what they believe. Simply to declare that the Bible is true and therefore if its words are not believed one is going to hell doesn't really prove anything.

He raises important questions about religion and science. It's saddening to me as well that so many Americans have abandoned the scientific consensus about evolution, preferring to believe varieties of creationism or design theory. This rejection of science extends to other issues, such as the APA's findings on homosexuality.

Harris, who apparently holds a degree in philosophy from Stanford, believes that religion might have had an evolutionary benefit -- a glue to bind developing society together -- that glue is no longer needed in a rational and civilized world.

Do I accept his conclusions? No I don't accept his stereotyped version of Christianity as being true to the mark, but that's not the point. There are plenty of Christians, and religious persons of any number of traditions, that fit the stereotype. But, the point is simply this -- though 90% of Americans believe in God, a ton of people are intrigued enough to pick up Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and imbibe what they have to say. This tells me that there are a whole lot of people who say they believe in God, but aren't quite sure. I expect that Sam will get a few converts, maybe a whole lot of them.

I'm not convinced by his diatribe, but I am challenged by it. I'm not convinced that I'm doing something irrational -- if I am then a whole lot of very intelligent and thoughtful individuals are as irrational as I am. Several centuries back, Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote his Speeches to the Cultured Despisers -- Harris I think is one of those cultured despisers. Schleiermacher turned to religious feelings -- feelings of absolute dependence on God as the foundation of his defense. Whether that defense will work this time, I'm not sure. But, I also know that Harris isn't the first to raise these questions and won't be the last. But instead of assailing him for raising the questions, perhaps we would be well served by considering them for ourselves.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Good News for the Mainline

All the news we get on Mainline Protestantism is that its a dinosaur waiting for extinction. Every year we read the statistics -- another decrease in membership and more churches closing. But maybe there is more to the story. Maybe there's good news to be had.

I know it looks as if I've been doing nothing but plug Diana Butler Bass, but hey she's been putting out some exciting things that offer hope to those of us in the supposedly sidelined Mainline. Here is an interview with Diana in Newsweek entitled "Thawing the 'Frozen Chosen'." Take a look and see if you don't see some good news on the horizon.

Well, to top it off, I'm heading off to the Regional Assembly of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I expect to be renewed!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dangers of Bad Religion

I was at Borders recently and the new books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins caught my eye. I've not read either book but I've read excerpts here and there and know something of their perspective. This morning I read Diana Butler Bass's perspective on the books and their premise that all religion, not just extremist religion is bad.

Though 90% of Americans (or there abouts) say they believe in God the very popularity of these books, as Diana points out, should be a warning to moderate and liberal Christians. Progressives offer themselves, and always have, as a middle way between fundamentalism and extremist religion on the right and non-religion at the other end [on this read Garry Dorrien's wonderful series -- which is about to become a trilogy -- The Making of American Liberal Theology (Westminster/John Knox)]. But if Harris and Dawkins are to be believed even this middle road is dangerous.

As a believer, indeed, as a pastor I must take this seriously. In the community in which my church is set, the statistics say that 46% are non-involved -- religion isn't even on their radar screen. They may believe, but they're disengaged.

There is danger in bad religion, but I still believe that there is great possibility for goodness in religion. That so many people are interested in this and the Da Vinci Code suggests that not everyone agrees. It might be just a faze, but it's obvious we've not done our job of being God's people in the world.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Becoming Pilgrim Churches

No, I'm not talking about doing a pilgrim service on Thanksgiving Sunday. I've been there and done that. My sense is that it doesn't work too well, especially if you're a visitor and you want to sit with your spouse (separating men and women doesn't work that well in modern America).

Yesterday I mentioned the book From Nomads to Pilgrims (Alban, 2006) and I can now report that I finished it last night. I plan, as I said yesterday, to write a book review for Sharing the Practice, so I'm not intending to review it here, except to say, that it's very much worth reading!

What I'd like to do is reflect for a moment on this transition from spiritual nomads to spiritual pilgrims that figures prominently in the book. I want to think about this comment in Diana's conclusion to the book:

"At first, we called such churches 'practicing congregations,' butincreasingly, we have come to think of them as 'pilgrimage congregations,'
communities of Christian practice moving forward toward the ultimate goal of
knowing God" (p. 167).

The point of the book, as I see it, is that we live in an age of spiritual nomads -- another word used in the book is spiritual tourists -- where people are seeking spiritual sustenance but never find it. The only place to find it is in the company of others -- in community. My son said he didn't believe in institutional religion. I think that's because he's a PK and there are expectations of him, but he's not alone. But if we reject forms of institutional religion we're left on our own and therefore, we're likely to be nomads. The image of the pilgrim is fitting, however, because it contains within it of being on a journey, but it's a journey in the company of others. The congregations whose stories are told in the book exemplify ways in which mainline Protestant churches have been able to connect with those on a journey but needing to find a company to walk with. What is clear in the book is that congregations who are open to the future but honor their traditions have much to offer those who wish to transition from being nomads to being pilgrims.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Saying Yes, Saying No

I am in the process of reading the book From Nomads to Pilgrims, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking. This is the second volume of a trilogy of books by Bass dealing with the Practicing Congregations Project. I will be writing a review of the book for Sharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy (of which I'm the newly appointed editor). I'm almost done with the book, which is a collection of stories from congregations that exemplify the practices. You'll have to read this book and Diana's first book in this trilogy published by Alban Institute -- The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church(2004) to find out more about what the practices are.

What caught my eye was the essay by Methodist Pastor Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.: "Saying Yes and Saying No: The Prayer of Jabez, The Passion of the Christ, and a Tale of Two Congregations." The point of the essay is how we deal as church with popular culture, and more specifically popular religious culture. As churches, especially mainline churches, we regularly come up against popular religious books/preachers whose message stands in contrast to our own. Carter contrasts Bruce Wilkinson's message of self-fulfillment (as seemingly found in this obscure biblical prayer) and John Wesley prayer that focuses on self-sacrifice and submission to the will of God. The second cultural phenomenon was The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's macabre telling of the Good Friday story. Having seen the movie he chose to recommend his congregation not see it, but instead read the gospels.

The point that he struck home, though was that if we are to stand up to theologically deficient religious media (saying no) we must put in its place an alternative -- such as Wesley's prayer or the gospels. He warns us that we should not ignore such expressions of popular religious culture -- because word gets around and people in our congregations will be reading them. If we as pastors and teachers don't provide strong foundations, people will get their guidance elsewhere.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I Want to Be a Red Letter Christian Too

Sojourners has launched the Red Letter Christian network. Red Letter, of course, referring to the words of Jesus, which in many bibles can be found highlighted in red. Now, I've always argued that there is a problem with the red letter idea -- because the original Greek texts didn't have quotation marks no one can be sure when a quotation by Jesus begins or ends. But instead of quibbling let me say I want to join Jim Wallis, Diana Butler Bass, Brian McClaren, and the other featured communicators who are calling on Christians to heed the voice of Jesus.

Too often we simply compartmentalize Jesus as savior. He died on the cross for my sins. I'm forgiven -- born again -- and now I can do as I please. Jesus' words, whether we find them too difficult or maybe incomprehensible, seem to have no effect on our lives. I know that the critics will say that Sojourners is limiting itself and not paying attention to the whole counsel of God. Such rhetoric is really silly, because even though George Bush says that Jesus is his favorite philosopher, he doesn't seem to be listening to Jesus -- and neither is the Religious Right!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Church, Politics and the IRS

Politics and religion can prove interesting bedfellows. While not everyone is interested in politics, I expect a goodly number of clergy are interested in such things. But we walk a fine line when we enter into the political debates of the day. When, do we cross over the line. I earlier posted articles from the LA Times that talk about these issues. I've given my take on things today in a column published in the Lompoc Record. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Whose Family Values?

In the linked post, E.J. Dionne comments on the Mark Foley scandal that has riled Washington and beyond. It has the potential to bring down the Republican majority in the House and maybe the Senate. It is a scandal that shows that power can and often does corrupt, especially when there are no checks and balances. When the Republicans came to power in Congress in 1994, they came in with a "reform" agenda. Now, that agenda might conflict with the agendas of others -- as it was and is extremely conservative in nature -- but it was a call to clean up the place. Now 12 years later, the place continues to stink -- maybe even more than it did before.

Though the Conservative Republican mantra has been family values and liberal Democrats have run away from the phrase, it would appear that Republicans such as Denny Hastert are more concerned about power than anything approaching family values. Family Values has been a code word for being anti-gay. Mark Foley's sexual orientation and his need to hide it, though apparently many knew of it, remind us of the dangers of going underground. Still, family values isn't an anti-gay thing, or at least it shouldn't be. Instead, it should be about strengthening the foundational units of our society. Yes, husband and wife (plus children in a significant number of cases)is the the normative pattern. But for various reasons other patterns exist. True family values looks to strengthen these units for the good of the whole community. Anyway, E.J. Dionne offers an excellent commentary on this issue.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Intertwining of church and electioneering

I read with great interest the front page article in this morning's LA Times entitled "Pastors Guiding Voters to GOP." The article details the efforts made by conservative evangelical pastors like Rick Scarborough of Texas to push the line on acceptable politicking in church. It tells how Focus on the Family is guiding churches to focus the attention of congregations on two issues. It directs pastors to help a congregant who shares that the two most important concerns are health care and national security to "suggest that Jesus would make abortion and gay marriage priorities." Now, I don't know about you, but I don't remember reading about either issue in the Gospels, but maybe that's just me. Anyway, there has been a significant effort to blur the lines.

An accompanying article tells about the Kansas Attorney General, Phil Kline, who is making significant use of religious connections in his bid for re-election. Again there are significant questions being raised about how much is too much. At the same time, liberal All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena is under investigation but the IRS because of comments made days before the 2004 election from the pulpit that the IRS feels were inappropriate (I take a look at this issue in next Sunday's Lompoc Record column --Faith in the Public Square.

Is the church being politicized yes. Is politics an inappropriate topic of discussion for religious folk, no. Like many pastors I have a social activist streak and I'm politically motivated. The question remains, though, how do we we keep a balance so that politics isn't running away with our faith. In this, I find much light in the message of Barak Obama, who in his recent address to the Call for Renewal conference, calls for people of faith to act from faith, but in a way that seeks a reasoned solution to America's problems.