Thursday, November 30, 2006

Religion and the Democatic Party

When it comes to religion and politics, we usually think of the Republicans. Until very recently they had cornered the market on God-talk. The pundits, talking heads, the mega-church pastors, they all talked up religion. David Barton, the Christian America guru, becomes an advisor to the Republican Party, while Newt, Tom, even George Allen pledge their loyalties to church and state.

Democrats, on the other hand, being godless (according to that godly woman Ann Coulter), ran as far and as quickly from religion as possible. Values voters and those who attend church regularly, they're Republicans. But these are interesting values that are endorsed by such partisans -- lower taxes, strong military, fences along the southern border, abortion (anti-) and homosexuality (anti-). Then along comes Barak Obama, who with grace and charisma, seems able to combine faith and politics with authenticity! And here we are, both parties wanting to talk religion and politics (I must add that our own congressional representative, Congresswoman Lois Capps, is a person of faith and able to bring these two together with much grace).

Anyway, this morning I participated in a round table discussion between leaders of the California Democratic Party and a number of religious leaders (most assumedly Democrat). We talked about ways of developing a conversation, one that would give clergy access to elected leaders and a point of contact for party leaders with religious communities.

What is interesting from this is a strong sense that we religious folk don't want to be come the reverse of the Religious Right -- just another voting block to be manipulated and used to win elections. We want to keep the wall of separation strong, but we want to be able to bring our values into the public square. There was talk about ethics and compassion. Quite an interesting discussion, that is meant to continue.

The future is positive, if both religious and political communities will deal with each other respectfully.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Out of Exile

The hymn writer Will Thompson wrote these familiar words:

Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me;
patient and loving, he's waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home, ye who are weary, come home;
earnestly tenderly, Jesus is calling --
calling, "O Sinner, come home!"
I've been in church all my life, and so it would be difficult to describe my own faith journey in terms of exile. But, that may not be completely true. My journey has had its fits and starts and it has taken me in more than one direction. But where is home?
As a pastor I've discovered that more than a few people are living in exile. They're original starting point no longer provides a safe haven for faith. They're adrift, looking for fellow travelers. I've been taken by the phrases used by Diana Butler Bass -- nomad/spiritual tourist and pilgrim. There is a longing in our hearts for a place called home, but how do we get there?
I'm just getting started reading Diana's latest book: Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (Harper-Collins, 2006). In it she speaks of the myriads of people turning to Mainline churches in search of home. She writes: "Their spiritual and personal quests had taken them away from their childhood faiths -- if they had any -- through periods of longing, questioning, and a sustained search to 'find home'" (p. 57). In the pages following this statement she speaks of those who find themselves exiles from their original faith homes -- knowing that they can never really return home. Thus, they must find a home elsewhere.
When the Babylonian exiles returned "home" they didn't return to the home they'd left, they came to a new place, and they began to create something new. Are we not called to do the same as we come out of exile?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More on Homosexuality in Church and Culture

I'm posting the link to a piece I've written that was just published in the on-line journal SoMA. It has similarities to the earlier piece in the Lompoc Record, but takes it in a different direction. I would welcome your thoughts and comments as we further the conversation.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The War on Christmas

With Black Friday behind us and something called cyber-Monday today, the Christmas season is officially underway. Soon we'll like hear the complaints of those who believe they're being persecuted because Walmart greeters say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." If only we Americans knew what real persecution is! I'd just as soon not find out.

But word is out that in one Colorado community, a homeowners group is fining Lisa Jensen for her use of a wreath shaped like a peace symbol. Apparently some of her neighbors don't like the political bent of the wreath -- pro-peace and anti-war -- while others deem the peace sign to be Satanic. Yes, here we have it, the latest issue to wrack our nation, Christmas wreaths can be protested for their anti-war or Satanic sentiments!

Diana Butler Bass in her post on the "God's Politics" blog offers a needed corrective to this hogwash. Take a look!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

What is it about homosexuality?

With homosexuality remaining such a hot topic in religious circles -- and with all the hullabaloo around Ted Haggard -- I decided to give my take in my Sunday column for the Lompoc Record. The column, which carries the name "Faith in the Public Square" appears each Sunday on the Record's op-ed page.

My own thinking has evolved considerably over the years, and as you'll see from the essay, part of that evolution in thinking is personal -- my brother is gay. This is truly a difficult issue to deal with, but I don't think we can continue on much longer with the "don't ask, don't tell" methodology. But, it will be a long and difficult conversation! So, let's get going on it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

An Instinct to Pray

Reading the LA Times often offers fodder for my posts, and today was no different. Connie Kang offered a piece entitled "Prayer: A Human Imperative that Crosses Religious Lines." The article is based on interviews with several religious leaders from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim traditions. I'm not sure its the best article ever on this subject, and it sticks with western traditions, but what intrigued me was the quote from Rabbi Elliot Dorf who said that while our prayers might not always come out of a fully developed theology, "the instinct to pray is universal and natural to all."

The instinct to pray, isn't that an interesting idea? It seems in line with Augustine's idea, which is quoted here, that our souls do not find rest until they rest in God. What is prayer? Is it simply an evolutionary adaptation, or does it speak of something divinely implanted in us? I choose the latter for myself!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Putting the C Back into the YMCA

The YMCA or Young Men's Christian Association has morphed over the years into more of a fitness/recreational club than a vehicle of Christian outreach. Born in the mid 1800s as an ecumenical outreach it was the original sponsor of Dwight L. Moody's revivalistic ministry. I'm sure Moody would be surprised at what the Y has become.

And yet word comes that a change is underway, at least in some parts of the country. In a Column One commentary in today's LA Times, Jenny Jarvie tells us about an effort underway to put that C back in the YMCA. Now whether that will mean that an effort will be made to put the M back in as well remains to be seen.

Apparently this is quite controversial. Some members of the Y are wondering where all this Christian music, Bible Study, and walls covered in Scripture verses is coming from. They'd signed up for a gym membership and look what's happening. Now the LA area director insists that such changes aren't in the works in LA, but this is California and not Tennessee or North Carolina.

The telling thing about this controversy is the degree to which things change over time. Take for instance Texas Christian University. Now TCU is a church-related university, but it's not a distinctly Christian university, even though it's origins were that of a Christian liberal arts college. Now some would like to see the Christian part of TCU removed, but it's what it is. These institutions that have broadened out beyond their original Christian mission are evidence of the good things that the church has provided the communities at hand. Colleges, universities, hospitals, and even gyms have their origins in a Christian mission of outreach. Their focus may have changed, but not the concern for the whole person that gave birth to these institutions.

I don't know what to make of this remaking of the Y. I doubt it'll go over nationwide and local Y's will have to decide what their purpose is. Still, I will watch with an interested eye.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

New Kinds of Christians

The buzz word these days in religious circles is the "Emergent Church," a religious movement often linked to Brian McLaren. McLaren is probably the best known proponent, but not the only major spokesperson. There seems to be another movement, with a similar name, that is linked to people like Marcus Borg. This other movement is sometimes referred to as the "Emerging Christian Way." In many ways these two movements are very different, and yet they have similarities.

Since I just finished reading McLaren's A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2001), I want to make some comments about it and the movement that it speaks for. But before I do that I want to insert this quote from a promo for the book: The Emerging Christian Way: Thoughts, Stories, and Wisdom for a faith of Transformation (Copperhouse Books, 2006). I've not yet read this book, but I think it's worth mentioning in connection with the Emergent tradition.

This emerging movement or paradigm - which is really about reclaiming the ancient wisdom of Christian tradition - represents for millions of people a "new" way of being Christian. As scholars have begun to articulate, it is a Christianity that focuses not on literalism, or convention, or charity, or even "beliefs," but rather on transformation of both the individual and society. The result is a Christianity that lives and breathes in our contemporary world.

Now back to McLaren. I realize that A New Kind of Christian, isn't a recent publication, but I just read it. I was going to read a more recent book, but was told to read this first, and that's what I've done. In this book, McLaren sets out a vision of what Emergent Christianity could be/is to be. He uses fiction to carry the story--kind of a narrative theology. Now having read the book, I can say that McClaren won't be mistaken for John Irving or even Michael Crichton, but I understand why he chose to use this format.

What I think both of these movements have in common is a sense that the church is in a period of transition. In his book, McClaren speaks at some length -- through the person of Neo Oliver, a high school science teacher and former pastor with a degree in the philosophy of science -- about post-modernism. The recipient of this information is a pastor who is on the verge of leaving the ministry because his faith doesn't seem to make sense anymore.

With Postmodernism being the the crux of the issue, McLaren (Neo) suggests that liberal and conservative forms of Christianity are stuck in an evidentialist modernist form of Christianity, but the future lies with a post modern Christianity, a Christianity that is centered in Jesus Christ, but allowing considerable freedom. This is a form of evangelicalism (and Emergent Christianity is distinctly Evangelical) that is open to evolution, isn't concerned so much about literalism or inerrancy, is concerned about sharing the gospel but is open to how God might speak through and use other religious traditions. Salvation is about more than simply getting into heaven -- in the book the mentor figure, Neo makes reference to the story of the redemption of the servant of Tash in C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle.

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg puts the emphasis on transformation as the core value of Christian faith. We are transformed because of our encounter with God through Jesus. Borg is a panentheist, McLaren is likely not, but I believe that McLaren would be of one mind with Borg on this point -- transformation. As I pointed out in my reviews of James W. Thompson's book Pastoral Ministry according to Paul -- transformation is Paul's core value as well. Maybe there is convergence here!

I'm planning to continue reading on into McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy so that I can get a better sense of what this Emergent Movement is all about. I can tell that postmodernism is a key point, but so is Lesslie Newbingin's missional theology. It is, therefore, postmodern but with an outward focus on transforming the world. There's more to come, so stay tuned. I invite you to chime in and add your thoughts, especially if you come from either of these two traditions.

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is a day for giving thanks, and so I'll take this opportunity to do so:

I give thanks for:

  • My family -- Cheryl, my wife, Brett, our son

  • My church -- First Christian Church of Lompoc --you have been a blessing to me and to my family

  • My home away from home -- Thanks to the Dentons for letting me reside with them when in Lompoc each week

  • Living in a nation of freedom

  • Good health

  • Beautiful place to live

  • Good friends
As I give thanks I offer up a prayer of George Herbert (1593-1633):

Thou that hast given so much to me,

Give one thing more, a grateful heart

See how thy beggar works on thee

By art.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;

And in no quiet canst thou be,

Till I a thankful heart obtain

Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me:

As if thy blessings had spare days:

But such a heart, whose pulse may be

Thy Praise.

The Complete Book of Christian Prayer

Continuum, 1995

Pg. 213

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Aren't Women Liberated Yet?

Many years ago, during my seminary career at Fuller, I took a class called Women and Men in Ministry. Roberta Hestenes was the teacher. Before seminary my views of women in ministry were really unformed -- I grew up Episcopalian but had moved on to Foursquare in high school. Foursquare as you might now was founded by a woman. I really hadn't thought about it much, but during seminary I began to encounter gifted and called women, some who came from restrictive traditions. I had a close friend who was attending LIFE Bible College. And while Foursquare ordained women, there seemed to be limits on what she could do. It's unlikely Aimee would be allowed to be President now! But Roberta's class helped me clarify ideas and beliefs and I became an advocate for women in ministry. I also studied with Scott Bartchy and affirmed his principle of mutual submission.

Just a few days ago I stumbled into an interesting conversation at the evangelically inclined blog of Scot McKnight, Jesus Creed, that reprinted the story of Stan Gundry, and editor at Zondervan. Gundry talks about how his wife's journey influenced his -- his wife being Pat Gundry, author of Women be Free, one of the books I myself read some 20+ years ago.

In the ongoing debate in the comments section, much was made of complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. Biblical texts were flung this way and that. In many ways the debate going on there was one I engaged in at least internally so many years ago. One of the participants who eagerly affirmed the gifts and callings of women, was a blogger named Julie Clawson. I followed the discussion over to her blog and found her own comments, which seemed a bit pessimistic.

There is good news to be had, though. Biblically, you have to start with Galatians 3:28. We're all one in Christ and the distinctions, whatever they are, no longer define us. We are who we are, but they don't define us. Roles are culturally defined, not divinely ordained, and even if Paul didn't outline all the implications of this statement of liberation, in our day, it should be obvious. Remember Thomas Jefferson didn't seem to completely understand all the implications of the Declaration of Independence.

Without being overly proud, I must celebrate the fact that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had the foresight to call a woman to be its General Minister and President. We are truly blessed to have as our leader, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins. So, there is good news out there!

Richard Dawkins' Latest Venture

This morning in reading through some blog posts elsewhere, I came across a piece from Ekklesia on Richard Dawkins' latest venture -- to flood schools with anti-religious literature. The post quotes from several secular scientists who make clear that Dawkins' views, and those of Sam Harris, are rather simplistic and ultimately damage the cause of science.

Being more theologian than scientist (that is an understatement if ever there be one), I too find the arguments overly simplistic. Dawkins conveniently ignores theologians/philosophers such as Tillich, Hartshorne, and the philosopher/mathematician Whitehead, or contemporary theologians such as Welker and Moltmann, just for instances! He does take shots at John Polkinghorne, but my sense is that this is from a distance. Polkinghorne is a highly regard physicist and trained theologian -- bringing together something that Dawkins can't.

There is a middle ground between the militant secularism of Dawkins and the obscurantism of the Young Earth Creationists. But it seems like these two camps are yelling the loudest!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bibles in Public Schools -- Can We? Should We?

At about the time I started elementary school in the early 1960s the Supreme Court put an end to devotional Bible reading in public schools. Now, I went to school in California and Oregon and I don't think such things had been present for decades if at all. The question that has arisen lately concerns whether the Bible can or should be taught in public schools, and if it can, what should be the methodology of its teaching. The arguments for teaching the Bible vary from its place as a means of supporting America's moral fabric -- but that doesn't cut it in my mind. A better reason for teaching the Bible is because of the important role it plays in Western history and literary traditions. Then the rub comes -- how do we teach it? For many Christians and probably some Jews, the Bible is a literal history book and should be taught as such. That becomes problematic for those of us who believe in a more critical approach.

Several states have taken steps to support the teaching of the Bible. Some have written laws in such a way that it supports a conservative Christian agenda. This, in my mind is bad news, but it reflects the fact that a vocal conservative Christian block is pushing for this. Thus, we need to be aware of all the facts.

There are at this moment two primary curriculums, one representing a very conservative Christian agenda --It is sponsored by a group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Among its sponsors is James Kennedy, a leading Christian Right figure. The other is called The Bible and It's Influence. This is a curriculum that has been put together by a broad range of scholars and offers university based instruction for teachers (most social studies and English teachers are unprepared to teach the Bible). The sponsor is the Bible Literacy project ( It has been endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals and the People for the American Way. Of course proponents of the first curriculum have done everything they can to undermine the latter. If we follow it's lead, more harm than good will be done. So, hopefully, the Bible Literacy Project will get its day!

I believe that with so many biblical allusions in Western literature it would be useful for the Bible to be taught in a critical fashion, but not as a religious text for the purpose of religious instruction. That's what churches are for!

Anyway, there is an excellent article in the most recent issue of the Seventh Day Adventist Journal -- Liberty -- entitled "The New Bible Wars: Winning Without Thumping." It's written by Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum, First Amendment Center, in Arlington, VA.

Abortion -- is there a third way?

Abortion is one of those issues that is ultimately a lose-lose proposition morally and politically. The culture wars divide between pro-life and pro-choice leaves most Americans somewhere in a murky middle. The problem with the debate as it now stands is that too often forgets the people involved. Abortion is a response to a difficult situation. No one sets out in life to have an abortion, abortions happen because life has taken a difficult turn.

I've known teen age girls who have carried a child to term and offered it up for adoption. But doing this interrupts life and makes the future difficult. I've known teen age girls who have gotten pregnant and married as a teen. It's difficult, but with a lot parental/community support it can succeed -- but more often than not doesn't. I know of a case of a young woman who got pregnant while a student at a Christian college. I learned years later that before she ever started showing her parents arranged for her to have an abortion. Sometimes it's a matter of a mother's life or the life of a fetus. Nothing about this issue is clear cut, but there are ways we can reduce the numbers, if only we're willing to make prenatal and postnatal care and support available, along with providing the necessary education about the birds and the bees so young people can have enough information to keep themselves safe and not pregnant.

E.J. Dionne has written an intriguing column today in the Washington Post. He speaks of initiatives on the part of Democratic legislators that seek to bring together pro-life and pro-choice advocates to find a way of actually reducing the overall number of abortions by reducing the need for them. Instead of working to make them illegal, they seek to find a solution to the root causes. These initiatives focus on the broad range of abortions, most of which happen early in pregnancy. What Dionne does is show us that the key to an effective response is to recognize that the majority of abortions happen to poor women. Thus health/financial support can help reduce abortions. He also points out that the big bugaboo of partial birth abortions represents just .o8% of all abortions, with the vast majority occurring in the first trimester. Thus focusing on this portion of abortions will do little to reduce the number of abortions.

I think I'm part of that vast gray area of Americans that wishes for a reduction in the number of abortions, but wish to keep it legal and at the discretion of doctors and patients. At the same time, let's do all we can to educate ourselves on the best methods of prevention. Of course, this brings up the sore subject of President's appointment of an anti-contraceptives person to the Health/Human Services position that overseas family planning.

As usual the truth is likely to be found in the middle -- so let's see if we can't find the third way.

Monday, November 20, 2006

From Resentment to Power -- Christian Right politics

I came across a piece by Martin Marty entitled "Watch your Religion-Politics Language," reflecting on the recent elections. In this commentary he speaks first of all of the need to distinguish between the "New Christian Right" and Evangelicalism. Often used synonymously, they overlap at points but Evangelical has a much broader connotation. Marty being a a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church has been heard to point this out.

In this column Marty makes the point that in its beginnings, the Christian Right was motivated by a "politics of resentment" and in time moved to a "politics of will-to-power," but with the resentment still present. You do still hear this in much of what you hear from pundits and pulpits. Being that Christmas (Winter Holiday) is at hand, we're likely to hear that resentment clearly. Here is his comment:

My take: The Christian Right took shape in the 1980s with the motives of the "politics of resentment," its members having long felt, and been, disdained. In the years of the Reagan charm, they found it easy to gain power, so they moved to the "politics of will-to-power," still voicing resentment. Many sounded as if they should and maybe could "win it all" and "run the show."

They have now begun to learn what mainline Protestants and mainline evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and humanists know: No one is simply going to "run the show" in the American pluralist mix, as we watch shifting powers face off against other shifting powers, which is what happened again in the mid-term elections.

I hope that Marty is right, that they will learn that it's impossible to run the show! Whether they/we like it, this is a diverse and pluralistic nation. Success requires that we work together. Hopefully the recent elections did say no to the Rovian "divide and conquer" politics of the past five years! So, once again, hurray for purple power

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Vengeance is Mine?

I know that I'm a bit late in posting on the film "V for Vendetta," but I just watched it last night on DVD. Since I'm not a big graphic novel kind of guy, I'm not as familiar with this movie or the book on which it's based, but I did find it intriguing, if also overly violent.

The movie definitely raises the question of vengeance. This is an issue that simply won't go away and in some ways dominates our news, and has done so for the past five years. But it always seems that this tit-for-tat nature of vengeance creates cycles of violence that never end. There is a strong theme running through the movie about the power of vengeance. It's a theme that also runs through the Batman Movies.

There is another theme that runs through the movie, in fact, in the end it's the driving force of the film. That theme is fear, and the ability of authoritarian governments to rule through fear. The Bush administration has effectively dominated the political scene since 9-11 by exploiting our fears of terrorism. But the current administration isn't alone in this effort. The immigration issue is also dominated by those who exploit our fears, including fears of terrorism, but also xenophobia.

In this movie, an authoritarian ruler comes to power, by exploiting a bio-terrorism attack (the country is England), to create a one-party fascist-like state. Reminiscent of Orwell's 1984, every aspect of life is monitored and controlled and anyone deemed deviant is liable to disappear. Homosexuals and Muslims seem to primary targets. All of this is enabled by a government able to exploit fear -- as a sidebar, the United States in this futuristic drama is experiencing long term civil war. V, the hero, takes as his model, Guy Fawkes, the Catholic rebel who was caught just prior to trying to blow up Parliament when the King was to be in the House of Lords on Nov. 5, 1605. Fawkes is seen here as a voice of the people -- whether that's the truth is of course not pertinent here. In the end V will die, but the people are empowered and the authoritarian rulers are overthrown (and Parliament is blown up with great fanfare).

So, what is the point? I guess my point in bringing this up is to underline the danger of living in fear. If we live in fear we put ourselves in a position of giving authority over our lives to others, others with designs on control and manipulation. But perfect love, cast out all fear -- not a personal vendetta!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Religion, Politics, and the IRS -- And George Regas

With the 2006 elections in our rear view mirror and potential presidential candidates eyeing the nod to run in 2008, the question everyone wants to ask is -- how much is too much religion? Well, maybe not everyone is interested in this question, but many of us are interested.

This morning's LA Times reprints an extended portion of a sermon preached on the eve of the 2004 election by the Rev. George Regas, former rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. The sermon got All Saints into trouble with the IRS, when Regas, serving as guest preacher, compared the two presidential candidates to Jesus. Though Regas doesn't explicitly endorse either candidate, and though he recognizes that each is a devout Christian, in challenging the President's rationale for the war, he does raise questions about President Bush's fitness to be president -- but never explicitly.

The excerpt presents a strong anti-war statement. Consider this statement:

Sen. Kerry and President Bush are engaged in a titanic battle for the White House. Central to their race for the presidency is the quest for peace. How deeply the world longs for peace. Presidnet Bush has led us into war with Iraq as a response to terrorism.

Yet I believe Jesus would say to Bush and Kerry: "War is itself the most extreme form of terrorism. President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the War in Iraq." . . .

This is a strong, pacifist, anti-war sermon. Is it too much meddling in politics, or is it a prophetic statement? At the end of the sermon Regas says:

When yo go to the polls on Nov. 2, vote all your values. Jesus places on your heart this question: Who is to be trusted as the world's chief peace-maker?

Is this too much meddling? Is it really a call to vote for John Kerry? Or is it a warning to John Kerry to consider the teachings of his own faith tradition? I don't know, but I would expect that Regas offered this as a challenge to both.

So again, how much is too much? Over the course of the last few years we've watched Religious conservatives use their organized strength to advocate for political positions I'm not necessarily comfortable with. My sense is that there were much more egregious statements made during that election process from the right than is expressed here. But where do we draw the line. That's what I'd like to know!

Friday, November 17, 2006

My Bookstore allows bloggers the opportunity to set up little online bookstores. If you look to the sidebar under links, you'll find my little bookstore. I've placed a few books in there so far, and hope to add more. It's a way of suggesting books and offering one possible portal to purchase some good books. Oh, and I threw in my own study of high church Anglican ecclesiology just for fun. Happy reading.

American Idolatry

A week ago I posted on David Barton's misrepresentation of America's religious history. The Christian Century article that caught my eye can now be viewed online. It's very much worth looking at and reflecting on.

This myth about America's evangelical heritage has been regularly debunked, not just by secularists, but by Evangelical scholars as well. Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch have written careful treatises, and among the best historians of America's religious history are Edwin Gaustad and Martin Marty. To them, we should go, not to Dave Barton.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Atheist with an Attitude

My review of Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation" was posted on the Disciples World web site. I've commented on the book on several occasions, but this is a more formal piece. Disciples World is an independent journal, but its the primary voice of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). So check out the website and my review.

The Transforming Nature of the Cross

Atonement theology remains a sticking point in much theological debate. That may be because the cross stands at the center of Christian life. I guess it's true that we're the only religion with a mode of execution as its pre-eminent symbol. But what does this cross have to do with who we are as people of God?

Again I turn to the thoughts of James Thompson, for even when I'm not in agreement, I find him compelling. He writes:

The goal of Christ's death on the cross is not only to save sinners but to transform them and make them the living embodiment of the righteousness of God. Thus the cross is not only an event of the past but the event that continues to transform God's people. In his own suffering, Paul is the embodiment of the transforming effects of the cross. This transformation is not limited to Paul alone, however. The context indicates that "we" refers both to Paul and his converts, who together "become the righteousness of God." Only then will they engage in the reciprocal boasting at the end that is the goal of his ministry. (Pastoral Ministry according to Paul, p. 144)

The cross is a call to self-denial and self-sacrifice, the call to put the other before the self. It's not just that Jesus died for me, but that I have died with him, making it possible that I might be transformed. If the final goal is community formation, then the cross offers us a way forward. If I'm always concerned about my own self, then I will never put myself in a position to be part of the community. The things I must let go of include the prejudices and stereotypes of others that color my relationships. Thompson makes this telling point in his discussion of Paul's work with a multi-dimensional Corinthian church.

Although Paul addresses individual issues, his primary task is to ensure that a community composed of individuals from a variety of backgrounds (cf. 1 Cor. 12;12-13) overcomes the barriers of ethnicity and social class to become a demonstration of the unifying power of the cross. (p. 148)
And yet the church is still the most segregated institution in America -- and that's not just ethic segregation.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

More on Paul's Pastoral Theology

James Thompson's Pastoral Ministry according to Paul is full of insight on the contemporary practice of ministry. He defines pastoral ministry in terms of community formation, with a goal of the presentation before God at the end of days of a blameless church. It is a vision of Paul's theology that moves beyond justification to transformation.

For we who are pastors, Paul offers an alternative vision:

Paul's clear articulation of his pastoral ambition provides focus to the contemporary minister who struggles with a variety of expectations. His focus on community transformation is a welcome alternative to our own focus on meeting the individual needs of members of the congregation. Moreover, his call for a communal and countercultural ethic provides a missing dimension in the contemporary understanding of ministry. For Paul, all of the functions and skills of the minister fit within a pastoral theology of transformation. (p. 29).

Such a vision of ministry isn't geared to making things easier, but it gives clearer focus. We who have served congregations know the difficulty of trying to keep up with the fleeting desires of congregants, desires that pull us too and fro. When we "don't measure up" it's time to go. Thompson's Pauline vision puts the focus on calling the community forward so it becomes more Christlike.

As I read Thompson in light of the critiques of Christianity given by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others, I thought I found within its pages an answer to the ethical challenges to the Christian message. Christianity hasn't been found wanting because it was tried and failed, but because it has never been tried.

A Defense of the Working Person

By way of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, I came across this op-ed posted in the Wall Street Journal by the newly elected Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Much debate has gone on about what the election returns mean. Who are these "moderate" Democrats? How will they fit? They're not hard left, that's true, but they seem to understand that there are certain economic issues that hit the average American hard. Stagnant income, rising health and energy costs, loss of pensions, etc. are driving the American angst. Abortion and gay marriage, Terry Schiavo and steroid use by baseball players (Go Barry!) are not on the top of the list of important issues in the minds of most. It's probably why Americans are so sceptical about what's happening in our midst.

Anyway, Webb speaks strongly to these issues, especially the growing chasm between the very rich and the rest of us.

Time to End the Cycle of Violence

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been a cycle of violence spun out of control. Every time one side or the other attacks, the other responds, leading to further attacks, which leads to further responses. Neither side seems willing to stop the cycle.

While I want to say that I completely recognize Israel's right to exist and it's right to defend itself, the Israeli's have to understand that "staying the course" hasn't and isn't bearing fruit. The only means of finding peace is to find a solution that satisfies at least some of the demands on both sides, though not all. The idea that we won't talk to our enemies -- a view that the US puts up in its dealings with Syria and Iran -- simply doesn't work. Mahmoud Abbas is willing to negotiate and his party has recognized Israel's right to exist, even if reluctantly, but he's hamstrung by intransigence on the part of Israel and Hamas. But something has got to be done for the sake of everyone.

So, it's time to sit down and talk as Abbas has suggested. There's really nothing to lose, and possibly much to gain. As a Christian it would seem that this isn't my battle, and yet it is. Jews and Muslims are my spiritual kin. I am who I am because of Judaism -- for Jesus was a Jew and all the founders of my faith were Jews. By extension that makes me at least in part a descendant of Judaism. Islam claims descent from both faiths. We're in this together and so we must work toward peace together. And, while most Palestinians are Muslim, at least in some fashion, there is an ancient Palestinian Christian community, with whom I stand as well. Let's work for peace!!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Just Imagine -- No God, No Religion

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins ask us to imagine a world without religion, a world without God, a world where reason reigns supreme. They point to Europe, where secularism has taken root. Though I kind of doubt that most Europeans are secularists because of a choice of reason over religion, but rather because they no longer find religion compelling, the question is whether religion is the root of all evil in the world.

John Lennon sang of a world without heaven, without religion, without nations and borders, a world where we simply live for today. In such a world there would be peace. There is something compelling about this vision, but does it work?

Imagine there's no Heaven

It's easy if you try

No hell below us Above us only sky

Imagine all the people Living for today

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

The nations/countries that have sought to be completely secular/atheistic by design have less than stellar reputations. Most that have been officially atheist/secular have tried to stamp out religion, often without much success. Consider Revolutionary France and its Cult of Reason -- Notre Dame Cathedral became the Temple of Reason and violence reigned.

I was struck by what Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the leading analysts of religious violence said this morning in a conversation at our interfaith breakfast at the University Religious Center in Santa Barbara. He noted that "religiously inspired violence" is a relatively new phenomenon. What he has noticed is that religion hasn't become politicized, but politics has become religionized. Apocalyptic images have merged with political movements, giving religious credibility to political movements. He pointed out that in its origins the Palestinian resistance was secular not religious, with Hamas emerging as a force in the late 1980s.

So maybe we need to look at other triggers for the violence rather than within the religions themselves. Maybe it's secularism that's the culprit. But shifting the blame might be too easy. Mark Juergensmeyer thought that rooting the modern world's problems with violence in religion, with secularism as the cure is simply silly. I believe in reason, but reason has not proven to be enough for most people, including me. My imagination wants more than what reason provides me. Love you see, must be more than simply a biological urge that encourages procreation.

Monday, November 13, 2006

God Isn't Dead Yet

I've been doing some posting on this issue of God's existence, largely in response to my reading of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. I've yet to read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion -- though I've skimmed it a couple of times at borders. I tried to order it on line at a couple of spots and it was out of stock. Last week I did read Dawkins' interchange with Francis Collins, the famed geneticist and evangelical Christian that is found in Time Magazine. I must say, I was disappointed with the way Collins presented his views, as Dawkins pretty much got the better of him.

Anyway, yesterday, reading the LA Times Book Review Section, I came across two interesting reviews. The first written by Robert Lee Hotz of the LA Times highlights the books by Dawkins, Harris, and one by evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson. This latter book is entitled The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W.W. Norton, 160 pgs). Unlike Dawkins and Harris, Wilson, himself a Humanist (atheist) doesn't seek to attack Christianity. Instead, he seeks to build bridges so as to save an endangered environment. The reviewer makes this comment: "Rarely has the divide between secular science and revealed religion been bridged so gracefully." It would seem that there is a possibility of a conversation after all.

The second review, written by Margaret Wertheim, concerns Owne Gingerich's God's Universe (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 140 pgs.). Gingerich, unlike the scientists profiled in the previous review, is a confessing Christian. He is also a preeminent astronomer and historian of science. Like Marcus Borg and others, he takes the Bible seriously without necessarily taking it literally, and he criticizes Fundamentalists/Conservatives for benefiting from the fruits of science without acknowledging the science that makes this possible. Wertheim, who affirms her own atheism, concludes with a most interesting paragraph:

In this time of sectarian wars, when theists and atheists are engaged in increasingly hostile incivilities, Gingerich lays out an elegant case for why he finds the universe a source of encouragement for his life both as a scientist and as a Christian. We do not have to agree with his conclusions to be buoyed and enchanted by the journey on which he takes us.

I'm not a scientist, and have no expertise in this field, but I don't believe that they are mutually exclusive endeavors. Neither are they two endeavors that have no need or ability to talk with each other. Partnership, as E. O. Wilson and Own Gingerich seem to be advocating, hold out more hope for the future than the "crusade" to eliminate religion from the landscape.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What's the Heart of Paul's Theology?

If you ask any Protestant about the centerpiece of Paul's theology, surely they will say: it is justification by grace through faith. By God's grace we've been offered forgiveness. It was a theological breakthrough that challenged the reigning Catholic orthodoxy of the 16th century that seemed to suggest that one gained salvation/forgiveness by way of merit -- if not your own merit, then perhaps by tapping into the merit of the saints.

With justification as the key to theology, the focus has long been placed upon the individual. But, even though
justification is the touchstone of Protestantism, is it the centerpiece of Pauline theology? A book, I just finished reading, says no it's not. In a most interesting study of Paul's pastoral theology written by Church of Christ (not UCC) biblical Scholar James W. Thompson, the suggestion is made that transformation of the community is the foundation of Pauline theology.

Thompson argues that Paul's is a pastoral theology, but traditional interpretations have left the focus on forgiveness of the individual. Thompson, argues that there is much more to this pastoral theology than simply an offer of acceptance and forgiveness. I plan on devoting several posts to the propositions in the book, because they're worth exploring in an open forum.

In opening the book, Thompson makes several observations:

1. The idea that justification is the center of Paul's theology "rests on an assumption highly debatable in biblical scholarship."

2. The traditional paradigm "ignores the corporate nature of Christian existence, offering an individualized understanding of justification by faith."

3. "It ignores Paul's consistent call for transformation." Paul's instructions focus on a call for ethical transformation. (pp. 18-19)

By focusing on justification, we in pastoral ministry end up leaving people where we find them. Our traditional pastoral theologies also focus on individuals, when for Paul the focus is on the community as a whole. This is most intriguing.

I leave you with this point: "the center of Paul's thought is a theology of transformation, which provides the basis for Paul's pastoral theology" (p. 19).

By the way, the book is entitled: Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision, (Baker Books, 2006).

Why Give Reverence to the Bible?

Ken left a comment on my earlier response to Sam Harris' best selling book, Letter to a Christian Nation.

Your very criticism about the book seem, at least to me, quite well addressed by Harris. You are probably among the minority of Christians who read the Bible with a "critical" eye. You are in effect a liberal Christian. But Sam makes the point that the fundamentalists are right -- you either believe the Bible is the word of God, or you don't. And if you don't, then why do you treat it with respect and reverence?

He asks me, if I don't follow the fundamentalists and believe the Bible to be "literally" true in all its parts, why bother give it respect and reverence. This is a question posed not just by Sam Harris or Ken, but by conservative Christians themselves.

First of all, I affirm Scripture to be Word of God, but with Karl Barth, I assume a three-fold nature of the Word of God, that includes the Bible but isn't limited to the Bible. Barth teaches, at least as I understand him, that the Word of God preeminent is Jesus, who embodies God's revelation. Scripture serves as Word of God in the sense that it gives witness to this revelation. The third element of the Word of God is the Proclaimed Word, which rooted in Scripture also gives witness to God's self-revelation in Jesus. Though I read the Bible critically, and therefore don't take Genesis to be a scientific or historic statement, I find in Genesis a divine word worthy of respect and honor. That word is simply this: That which exists, exists at the behest of God the Creator, who has deemed all that exists to be good. With this in mind, I feel called to treat my fellow human beings with due respect, for like me, they too are created in God's image. And we could go on, but I think this is a good start.

There are challenges that can be made to my understanding -- but I find in Scripture a word that leads to transformation and gives hope. I don't believe this is irrational, though it's not simply rational either. It is an issue of faith, faith that what we experience is bigger than we are. And, that all that exists is good and worthy of respect.

I hope to revisit this issue from time to time, especially after I read Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Writing as a lifestyle

I've done a lot of writing in my life -- published lots of book reviews, articles, a couple of books (okay, one book was a revision of my dissertation -- a big seller). Now I'm the editor of a small clergy journal called Sharing the Practice. I've got a couple of blogs. My wife wonders, why I spend my time writing. I guess I can't help myself.

So the question is, am I writer or a dabbler? I ran across a most interesting piece by Scot McKnight of "Jesus Creed" about "Writing -- on the Side." McKnight suggests that one can't write on the side, it simply won't happen. If you want to write, you've got to write, regularly, like all the time. I guess I've got the fortune of not having a "full-time" job -- my pastorate is theoretically 3/4 time, but I guess most of what I do is related to it -- even my writing. So, I've come to grips with it being full-time -- except I do a lot of writing. Now, I maybe rambling at this point, but I think Scot's got it right. If you're going to write, you got to just do it!

Thanks Scot!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

More on the Color Purple

Gary Dorrien's very fine history of liberal Protestantism in America makes the case that liberals, starting in the late 18th century, liberals sought to position themselves between secularists on one side and rigid traditionalists on the other -- today we might use the word fundamentalists of left and right. They were the third way, the middle road. Maybe that's what's in store for us -- The Purple Church movement! Purple states and purple churches.

Jim Wallis writing last night, before all the results were in, wrote of the end of the religious right's dominance on moral issues. Moderate Democrats who were able to articulate their faith and took sometimes conservative positions on issues like abortion -- Bob Casey -- did quite well.

Here are the lessons. When Democrats can run authentically as persons of faith, they can beat back the idolatrous claims of the Religious Right that God is only on their side. And when Democrats take a more morally sensible and centrist position on issues like abortion, they do better than liberal Democrats have done. These results are bad news for the “religious fundamentalists" who have far too much influence in the Republican Party, AND for the “secular fundamentalists” who have far too much influence in the Democratic Party. But it is good news for the majority of Americans who are alienated by the political extremes of right and left and are hungry for a new “moral center” for our public life. More good news may lie ahead tonight.

There is the fabled danger of walking in the middle of the road, but centrism has the virtue of considering both sides of an issue. It's able to seek a compromise when necessary, and I think has the potential benefit of seeking what is best for the country and the world. To me, that is a worthy goal, one I can put myself into, as a believer in Jesus. None of this is to say that you can't be a good Christian and a good Republican, what it means is that Jesus isn't linked to any one party!

Good Bye Donald!

The first administration victim of yesterday's Republican demise is Donald Rumsfeld. This is long in coming and with Iraq being the focal point of the change of government, it's no surprise that he's on his way out. Maybe it came quicker than expected -- but with a replacement already named it seems that George was ready to do this.

So, I'm hopeful. I don't think we will and I don't think we should "cut and run," as others have pointed out -- "when you break it you must fix it." We broke it and we have to do something to fix it. Hopefully the new secretary designate, Robert Gates, will be better able to think outside the box and stop blaming the troops for mistakes made in the Pentagon.

So, the news is good! And perhaps we'll move beyond our zealous nationalism and begin taking a look at what Robert Jewett calls prophetic realism.

The Color Purple

No, I'm not talking about Oprah's breakout role! I'm talking about the United States of America. No longer are we red state/blue state -- we're a color purple. Arnold the Republican won big in Democratic-dominated California, while it seems that in Missouri, Montana, and Virginia, incumbent Republican senators fell to Democrats. So, what's the mood in the nation?

We want an end to the childish partisanship that's been going on for the past 12 years. We want responsive government. We want a government that will deal honestly with issues like Iraq. We want an end to the culture wars. Democrats won a number of formerly Republican districts -- the question is how well can they hold them. Many of the candidates, including John Tester and Jim Webb are not liberal Democrats. If the Democrats are to gain on last night they will have to govern at the center. In many ways this opens the door for Barak Obama. He's unsullied by an Iraq vote (wasn't in the Senate at the time), he can speak to issues from a balanced faith perspective, and he's able to work across the aisle.

As a person of faith, I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful that we'll see an end to the bickering and the divisiveness. I'm hopeful that politicians will stop cynically using issues such as homosexuality as a wedge issue. Maybe we can start having conversations about what's important to our children and children's children's futures. Global warming, health care, energy independence, good educational systems, good jobs, affordable housing. So, let's start having the conversation and begin coloring the nation purple!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Barak Obama and the Conservative Soul

I'm not sure if Barak Obama is ready to be President -- but then as he himself said on radio the other night -- is any one really prepared. He's young, bright, charismatic, and knows how to talk about faith in a way that is both appealing and genuine. He's gentle and moderate in tone.

Andrew Sullivan, the gay Catholic Conservative, and author of the Conservative Soul -- a book I've yet to read -- speaks highly of Obama and the possibility that he is the one who might lead the moderate and faithful out of the wilderness into the Democratic Party. As the GOP more and more becomes dominated by a narrow -- Christianism is the word Sullivan likes to use -- where do the moderate and faithful go? Democrats until recently have been uncomfortable with faith talk, and yet Obama gives us an alternative.

Sullivan makes note of an interview with Obama that speaks of the importance of faith and also defines faith in less than absolutist terms. It's a statement worthy hearing and taking note of:

"I think this is the historical moment we're in — we have come to define religion in absolutist, fundamentalist terms. So to be a believer is to be a fundamentalist in some fashion. And I guess what I was trying to describe is a faith that admits doubt, and uncertainty, and mystery. Because, ultimately, I think that's how most people understand their faith. In fact, it's not faith if you're absolutely certain. There's a leap that we all take, and, when you admit that doubt publicly, it's a form of testimony."

Yes, it's important to distinguish between absolutist religion and faith -- that sense of mystery is key! I'm looking forward to hearing more from this young man -- oh well, he's only 4 years younger than me! But he is a voice for a future that hopefully will transcend the divisions of the present time.

Election Day Has Arrived

Election Day is here and the votes are being cast. By the end of the evening, hopefully, we'll have some idea about what will happen over the next two years. Though George W. Bush isn't on the ballot, this election is and should be a referendum on him and his handling of Iraq. Though elections are based on local issues, unless there is a change in congress there will continue to be no accountability. To think that the President is heading into the final stretch of his presidency and he's used the veto pen only once, and that was to veto a popular bi-partisan stem cell research funding bill, is mind boggling.

At this point it's not about Democrat and Republican, it's about accountability and about forcing the current administration to pay attention to at least half if not more of the country. With gerrymandered districts, this makes things difficult, but the House is likely to fall. The Senate is more iffy, but it should be at least closer to 50-50.

With things as they stand the Democrats can do little, except hold the rest of the government accountable and then moderate things. Interestingly enough, many of the candidates running for the first time are moderates, some are former Republicans who no longer feel at home. I think in the next few years there will be a new sorting out of things. Things should be interesting!

So, if you've not voted, go vote! And keep in mind the big picture.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Pastor Ted's Rehabilitation

I've run across an interesting account of the press conference that occurred yesterday published by the Rocky Mountain News concerning the response to Ted Haggard's future. Larry Stockstill, who apparently chairs the oversight committee, for Haggard, has given a number of pointers on Haggard's situation.

  • First, there is strong sentiment that Haggard hasn't told the whole truth and nothing but the truth yet. Therefore, there will be psychological tests, counseling, maybe even polygraphs. They'll check his computer and his finances. All of which is probably a good idea, in light of what's been revealed so far.
  • According to Stockstill, Haggard says that despite long standing homosexual urges, he's not gay. Now this needs to be kept in mind as I come to the next point.
  • Haggard's "rehabilitation and recovery" will be overseen by Jack Hayford of Church on the Way, Assemblies of God mega-church pastor Tommy Barnett, and Focus on the Family's James Dobson. This last named participant is worrisome to me. Dobson has strong credentials in psychology, but his ideology has skewed his interpretation of the scientific evidence. To Dobson homosexuality is a deviancy that must be cured, rather than a biological fact similar to left-handedness (once considered dangerous and deviant).

With Dobson at the helm of his recovery I wouldn't expect to see him come out in support of a conversation that would lead normalcy for gays. I would applaud him if he chose to remain married to his wife, knowing that part of him is attracted to men. Monogamy, in my mind, is a good thing to affirm. In that sense, we can choose, but we must be honest with ourselves. Then too, it appears that our sexuality can be understood along a spectrum that runs from completely 100% heterosexual to 100% homosexual. Most of us live somewhere along that spectrum. It appears that at the very least Ted Haggard lives somewhere along that borderline. For appearances sake at least, he's chosen to embrace heterosexual relationships, but the other part of him drove him to explore other aspects of his sexuality. Only time will tell where this will lead.

The way forward looks to be long and arduous, and for those of us who wish to see gays and lesbians included in the community as equal contributors, the Dobson involvement raises red flags. But I will continue to pray for a good and decent and civil conversation!

Captain America, Crusades against Evil, and the 2006 Elections

Tomorrow we go to the polls. I expect we're in for many a surprise, but the future direction of the country could be determined in large part by what we do tomorrow. For the past 3 years, the current administration has been able to do pretty much what it wants around the world. Congress has proven to be pretty spineless in providing guidance and direction to the administration. The result has been a dangerous war pursued with extreme incompetence. The President has shown no willingness to make changes and continues to blame others for their failures. The problems lie at the tactical level, not strategic level. Let's hope that this changes tomorrow. For a strongly worded perspective on this check out Tom Friedman's views. Friedman has been a supporter of the war, but believes that the nation's ability to win has been compromised by incompetence and stubbornness.

As I contemplate tomorrow's elections, I'm drawn to a book I've been reading. It's not exactly new -- it was published in 2003 -- but it surely speaks to the contemporary issues. Like many Baby Boomers, I grew up watching super hero cartoons, including Captain America. That patriotic protector of the American way. Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, written by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence (Eerdmans, 2003), speaks is an important analysis of the problems facing America. The contrast here is between zealous nationalism -- a sort of messianic nationalism that sees America as a redemptive agent. It's linked with Manifest Destiny and divine providence. It's an ideology that reads the Biblical text, especially the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings) in a prescriptive way. We're God's elect and we are called to battle against the forces of evil. Captain America, a comic book hero born during WW II, exemplifies this ideology that gives credence to redemptive violence. As Jewett and Lawrence point out the word zeal is the "biblical and cultural counterpart of the Islamic term jihad" (p.8). It is an ideology that justifies the means and it leads to stereotyping of enemies, obsessions with victory, and the veneration of national symbols, including the flag.

In contrast to zealous nationalism, Jewett and Shelton pose prophetic realism.

It avoids taking the stances of complete innocence and selflessness. It
seeks to redeem the world by coexistence by impartial justice that claims no
favored status for individual nations. It also derives from the bible,
though in passages that are quite different from those popular with
zealots. It can be traced through the American experience in movements,
and writings that sometimes criticize aspects of the dominant consensus.
but, more frequently, one encounters prophetic realism uneasily joined to its
opposite. (p. 8).

It is prophetic realism that the authors recommend, and its a view of the world that would help us as we try to deal with a world seemingly gone awry. These two ideologies have been intertwined, suggest the authors, but now the time has come when they no longer are compatible. Zealous nationalism must give way to prophetic realism if there is to be peace.

The biblical vision that under girds prophetic realism is found in Isaiah 11:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

and a calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall feed,

and their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.

(Isaiah 11:6-8).

The vision may seem utopian, but it really is realistic. It offers a way out of the morass of unending war. Once we accept the reality that we may not have all the answers, then perhaps we'll start listening to others. Prophetic Realism, unlike Zealous Nationalism, calls on the nation to work together, to recognize international agreements and live within the laws of nations. It's opposite suggests that we can go it alone. That we alone are righteous. Such a vision promises only disaster. Hopefully tomorrow prophetic realism will begin to put a check on zealous nationalism -- before it's too late.

Pastor Ted and His Confession

From David Kuo's Beliefnet column comes a clip from Ted Haggard's final sermon, just days before all "hell" broke loose in Colorado Springs.

"Heavenly Father give us grace and mercy, help us this next week and a half as we go into national elections and Lord we pray for our country. Father we pray lies would be exposed and deception exposed. Father we pray that wisdom would come upon our electorate…”

Yes, the deception was exposed -- one he confessed yesterday in a letter read to his congregation. He had climbed to the pinnacles of power, but something deep within, something he repressed apparently his entire adult life, came back to haunt him. The question is, what wisdom will come to prevail upon the electorate. Will it be cynicism? Scepticism? More zealousness? My hope is that we will begin to come to grips with homosexuality in our society. It would be wonderful if Pastor Ted, at the end of his reflections, would come out and say.

You know, I've discovered that deep within me is a homosexual impulse. It's part
of who I am. Whether I wanted it this way or not, that's the way it is and I'm
going to face it. Because of my commitment to my family, I will remain married,
but face the realities -- no more denials.

My fear is that he will do as his conservative cohorts would want and he would say:

Satan has been after me and I succumbed. I tried to fight it off, but I
couldn't. I have sinned, but now I'll be more vigilant. In due course, I will
work even more strongly to make sure we will help homosexuals leave behind their
deviancy. Yes, I will commit myself to the cause of ridding America of the
scourge of homosexuality.

That's my fear, but my prayers will be in tune with my hope. The deceptions have been exposed. Forgiveness must be in order. But that forgiveness must be accompanied by a turn to understanding and humility.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Patriot Pastors and American Idolatry

This week Christianity Today and Christian Century arrived in my mailbox carrying interesting and seemingly connected articles.

Christianity Today carried an article on Patriot Pastors -- a movement that includes Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson of Ohio and Rick Scarborough. These are pastors who believe in a Christian America and are ready and eager -- in the words of Rod Parsley, "lock and load" -- to take on the evil secular liberals who are intent on suppressing/oppressing good values oriented Christians. Theirs is a fairly narrow focus -- abortion and homosexuality, the twin evils of modern American life. For these partisan pastors, the wall of separation is a myth that needs to be exposed and eliminated so that Christians can do their thing! If not, then Christianity will likely be criminalized and suppressed. In Ohio, their hopes have been pinned to the gubernatorial candidacy of Kenneth Blackwell, the conservative Christian African-American state Secretary of State. At this point he's going down to defeat to the Democrat, Tim Strickland, who happens to be an ordained minister with a degree from evangelical Asbury Seminary (so much for the liberal secularists in this race). It's an interesting article, though not really critical (as I read it, it seemed that the author was at least sympathetic to the Patriot Pastors).

Then there is the Christian Century article. Over the years I've subscribed to both journals and in recent years I've found myself more and more in the CC camp and increasingly discouraged by the CT editorial direction. Either they've moved or I've moved -- and likely it's some of both. Anyway, back to the point of this post. The cover story is an excellent piece by North Park University history professor Kurt Peterson entitled: "American Idol: David Barton's dream of a Christian Nation." I have to confess to have had the unfortunate experience of watching Barton's video -- America's Godly Heritage in a chapel service during my short tenure as a theology professor at Manhattan Christian College (Kansas). Barton is a political activist and pseudo-historian who through selective reading and taking texts out of context constructs a version of American history that's simply wrongheaded. Barton isn't a historian at all, but he has led myriads of people into thinking that the Founders are essentially modern American evangelicals. Like the Patriot Pastors, whose ideas he mirrors, this is a narrow vision of a Christian America that allows for no wall at all between church and state. He too tries to dispel the notion that the Constitution provides any line at all. In fact, he seeks to promote a mixture of church and state that simply is unworkable without leading to coercion. But he's popular. He's appeared with Sean Hannity and is promoted by Newt Gingrich. He's vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and appears regularly with James Kennedy and James Dobson.

Peterson makes four concluding points worth attending to.
  • "Barton reduces Christianity to individual morality" -- and God is interested in abortion, divorce, public display of the 10 Commandments, and homosexuality rather than poverty, the environment, etc.
  • "Political power is an unmitigated good when used by the right people" -- Ted Haggard's fall should be a lesson in the fact that power can and does corrupt even religious folk (righteous ones).
  • "Barton makes an idol of the state."
  • Barton's vision of a Christian America has no room for the church." And therefore Barton has no place to go but to the state as a "venue where Christians can act out their public commitments.

I find quite interesting Peterson's final sentence: "Barton, along with many American evangelicals, have turned to politics as the truest expression of Christian commitment." Lest we "liberals/progressives" become too cocky -- isn't this what we did as well. We abandoned the church for politics. Today our churches are suffering and we're on the outside looking in. Perhaps the church is the foundation point for our activism, so that we don't lose sight of the larger picture. Just a thought.

Do I find all of this a bit scary? Of course. This is a narrow vision of American life that leaves no room for disagreement. Whether or not such a program would ever turn into a Taliban style theocracy is simply unknowable. But in a sense it could. My sense is that such an eventuality won't happen, but we simply don't know! Then, of course, when you hear such rhetoric, you can understand the sentiment behind Sam Harris' diatribe. Please Sam, don't think my commitment to faith serves as a cover to such ideas.

Pastor Ted, American Politics, and Homosexuality

On the eve of the 2006 Mid-term election scandal has broken out once again. Just days after a botched joke by a very unfunny John Kerry had seemed to give the Democrats a black eye, word comes that one of the more politically powerful and connected members of the Evangelical community may have been involved in a homosexual relationship and possibly purchased (used?) Meth. Yesterday as I checked the various media outlets, most pundits weren't sure what to do with him. Ted lacks the name recognition of the usual suspects -- Pat, Jerry, and Jim (Dobson), and so no one seems to know what will happen next. The reality is that Haggard is in many ways a more moderate Religious Right Leader, but he's been part of a coterie of people that the Republican establishment have turned to in their efforts to maintain control of the White House and Congress.

As with Mark Foley, Haggard's fall from grace is another reminder of the dangers of keeping homosexuality underground. I've become convinced that homosexuality isn't a personal lifestyle choice. The key to coming to that understanding is having a gay in my own family. That reality has pushed me to come to a new understanding of homosexuality. But that's for another discussion. The issue is our continuing inability to recognize the facts before us. We don't know all the facts, but I expect that more will be forthcoming, and we will learn that Haggard has homosexual feelings that he's been suppressing. After all, how could one be gay and a Christian leader? Even in Mainline Protestantism (the bastions of liberalism in the minds of many) we've not come to grips with this issue. And so, Haggard, like Foley lived a double life hoping he'd not be discovered.

I do feel for this man and his family. What I hope will happen is that we'll start to have a positive discussion about sexuality, religion, and public life. The Republican Party has hitched itself to a rather cruel campaign to suppress the rights of gays -- all in the name of family values. As many have pointed out, we heterosexuals have done all the damage needed to the institution of marriage, without any help from gays wanting to find a way to live committed lives together. My fear is that the forces of repression will get even stronger and angrier.

Time will come when we'll have the necessary discussion, but the sooner the better for too many people. Pastor Haggard will have to deal with what's happened in the context of his own family life. I don't know what will happen -- I'm sure his wife and family are stunned and feeling betrayed. To them we offer our prayers and support. But this is not an isolated event. How often have families been torn asunder when it has been discovered that one spouse or other has tried to suppress their homosexuality and have tried to live a heterosexual life -- and failed to do so.

Yes, it's time to have a positive conversation that will bring healing to families, communities, churches, and the nation itself.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Stem Cell Battles

Rush Limbaugh called out Michael J. Fox for his campaigning for the Democratic senate candidate of Missouri. He apparently has half-heartedly apologized for suggesting that either Fox deliberately didn't take his medication or was acting. The issue is stem-cell research. President Bush vetoed a bill that had passed a Republican held House and Senate that would have funded stem cell research -- calling it a moral imperative to do so. Fox, who suffers from the horrible Parkinson's Disease is working to make sure that a veto proof congress is elected.

At this point we don't know what stem cells will do, but the science suggests that before long we'll be able to create cells that will be able to treat, maybe even cure debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's, and perhaps much more than that. The vast majority of Americans support the research, and yet there is significant opposition, much of it coming from within the religious community. This opposition is one piece of evidence cited by Sam Harris in his effort to prove that religion is bad for humanity.

At issue is the personhood of embryos. For those who believe that life begins at conception, an embryo can be considered life. But what about embryos created in vitro, embryos that would otherwise be destroyed because they would never be implanted. Is this life or potential life? And if potential only and likely never to achieve that potential, could not such cells be made use of to benefit humanity.

This issue is not just any issue. It has economic, medical, lifestyle ramifications. Economically, the United States stands to lose out on the benefits of any research breakthroughs. Medically, we could be depriving people of a cure for serious diseases. And as far as lifestyle -- would you rather be in a wheel chair if you could be walking on your own?

People argue over whether this is a moral issue, and it does us no good to deny the moral dimension. The issue then is where the moral compass points. Is it more moral to pursue this research or not. If the embryo is not life, but potential life. Then perhaps the burden points to benefiting the living who might be helped by any break through. It's a difficult issue, but in my mind, I believe that God would have us use reason and pursue the research. After all, that's why God gave us minds in the first place -- so we'd use them.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hurray for Purple Churches

Last night I took on the role of moderator of a candidates forum. My congregation partnered with the local Presbyterian church to host a forum for the local city council candidates. We wanted to do something different, something more civil and meaningful. Oh, there were some shots taken at the council as a whole, but by and large they handled themselves well. I never had to get up and tell a candidate to stop talking -- which was an amazing thing in and of itself.

I remain committed to the belief that churches/religious communities can be a positive force in public life. If, that is, we remain humble and not greedy for power. Once we start playing power politics we become less effective. If we seek political power we're liable to become pawns in the cynical power games of political operatives -- witness David Kuo's recent book on the Bush Faith-based initiative -- Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Free Press).

So, this morning as I checked out my e-mail I came across my link to God's Politics Blog and Diana Butler Bass's comments about Purple Churches. I give my whole-hearted assent to her propositions about purple churches. In the community of Lompoc, a fairly conservative community, our congregation, which is by no means a bastion of liberalism, is one of probably the two most progressive congregations in town and I'm probably among the most liberal pastors in town (and I always say this with a wink, since after all, I'm a proud graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary -- M.Div. and Ph.D.). So, while we're more progressive than most, we are very much a purple church -- and I must say proud of it.

So, I like what Diana has to say. Here's a taste of her posting but go read the whole thing for yourself:

"For Christians, purple is more than a blending of political extremes, a mushy middle. Purple is about power that comes through loving service, laying down one’s life for others, and following Jesus’ path."