Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What Kind of Valentine's Day are you Celebrating?

Valentines Day is on the horizon, and yes I got a present for Cheryl. I'm ahead of schedule for a change, but this time I knew what she wanted.

Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology compares our celebrations of Valentines Day to Freud's "Stages of Psychosocial Development." He points to the differences between our elementary school and high school celebrations -- with one being the "latency stage" and the other the "genital stage." In the elementary school years valentines don't have sexual content -- they're about friendship and inclusion -- Philia. But by high school it's all about boyfriends, girlfriends, romance and eros! Beck want's to push for a return to the Elementary School definition as Valentines Day has, he believes become too genitalized!

Interesting idea.

Benny Hinn -- Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

I know that I preach tolerance, civility, and forbearance, but I found this Benny Hinn parody video only too funny. So, I share it with my friends, thanks to John over at SoMA Review, which is where I discovered it.

Secularist Rebuffs of Atheist Activists!

Even as Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris carry on their debate at Beliefnet, David Heim of the Christian Century reports that not everyone within the secularist realm are happy with Richard Dawkins and his friends.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, dismisses arguments for God’s existence as “infantile” and “vacuous,” and he regards faith an evolutionary accident–“a misfiring of something useful”—that has caused more harm than good. He thinks atheism is the sign of a healthy mind. His book, which has been on the bestseller list for months, apparently taps into some widespread interest in expunging religion.But Dawkins is severely pummeled for his views in the Atlantic, where novelist Marilynne Robinson skewers him for being stuck in Victorian-era science and for having a naïve confidence in evolutionary progress.

In the New York Review of Books H. Allen Orr, a biologist at the University of Rochester, notes that Dawkins never “squarely faces” Jewish or Christian theology and that his arguments resemble “those of any bright student who has thumbed through Bertrand Russell’s more popular books and who has, horrified, watched videos of holy rollers.” Neither Robinson nor Orr thinks Dawkins knows much about history or is any good at philosophical argument—or even at fair argument. New York Times reviewer Jim Holt isn’t quite as harsh, but he too points out Dawkins’s “scattershot reasoning” and “rhetorical excess.”

I appreciate these links from David Heim, which just go to show you that not just we believers find Dawkins to be out of his element when he discusses theology. As for the Sullivan-Harris debate -- well, I'm rooting for Sullivan and from my reading of things, find him outpointing the new young champion of atheism. For like Dawkins, Harris takes on religion in shotgun manner, pillorying the buffoons and then tying the rest of us to them. Sorry, but I don't buy it, and apparently others don't either.

Best Reads in Contemporary Theology

Patrik Hagman over at God in a Shrinking Universe set up a Best Contemporary Theology Meme and invited submissions and voting. Apparently 50 of us voted and here are the results:

1. John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (1985) 21 votes
2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theodramatik (completed 1983) 17 votes
3. George A Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (1984) 16 votes
4. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory (1990) 13 votes
5. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) 12 votes
6. John Paul II, Theology of the Body (1979-1984) 11 votes
7. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (1983) 10 votes
7. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (1988-93) 10 votes
9. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life. A Universal Affirmation. (1991) 9 votes
10. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is (1992) 8 votes
10. T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (1985) 8 votes
12. Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells (1984) 7 votes
12. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (1997-99) 7 votes
14. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being (Dieu sans l'être) (1982) 6 votes
14. David Tracy, The analogical imagination: Christian theology and the culture of pluralism (1981) 6 votes

As I look at this list, I discover that I'm woefully ignorant, for I've only read Moltmann's The Spirit of Life and Johnson's She Who Is completely through. I must get reading! Of course this list may reflect the predilections of the voters, so maybe I shouldn't feel bad. Of those that made the top 15, the only one I contributed was Moltmann. It was, however, an interesting exercise.

If I can figure out how to do this myself, I'm thinking of doing a best preacher meme!

Taking America for Jesus

I remember back to my teen years, back when I was a bit more conservative, and my pastor often talked about taking Klamath Falls for Jesus. In part that was a call to evangelism, and yet I also remember a political tone to the message as well. This was the mid-70s, bicentennial years, when Campus Crusade was doing its "I Found it" campaign and the popular Christian cantata was "If My People."

Thirty years hence, my attitudes have changed some. I just caught the tail end of Tim Russert's interview with Republican Presidential hopeful -- Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Huckabee had said in the past that Christians need to take America back for Christ. I expect that he meant that in two ways -- evangelistically and politically. He told Russert that he wouldn't say it the same way today, but he affirmed that his faith influences his politics.

Ethics Daily provides an interesting account of Huckabee's views. The former governor, who like a former President, also hails from Hope, Arkansas, is a Southern Baptist minister, supporter of creationism, and takes a hard line on gay rights and abortion. Though he is far back in the polls now, he does have the right credentials to take the Religious Right vote, which would make him a player in primaries. I doubt he could win a general election, but his views seem to be much farther to the right than the current President.

Huckabee's public positions serve as a reminder of the difficulty of bringing faith into the public square. Right now we have several candidates, Romney, Obama, Brownback, and Hillary, who have all spoken of the importance of faith. Each is trying to find the proper mode of expression. It's not easy, and as the voting public we have a right to raise important questions. At the end of the day, though, there are no religious tests for office!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Political-Religious Bilingualism

Living in Southern California, as I do, bilingualism is a big thing (or at least it's a political thing). With a growing Hispanic population, plus significant Asian immigration, knowing more than one language helps -- which makes me a dinosaur.

John Dominic Crossan, best known for his work on Jesus (and membership in the Jesus Seminar) writes cogently in an On Faith piece about the need for religiously inclined politicians to be bilingual in a different way. To privatize religion is not only impossible, but when tried simply makes faith insular. But how do we express and live faith in a way that's appropriate in the public square -- something I'm very interested in -- and his suggestion is this bilingualism.

In order, however, to enter the public square and argue for their political vision in that open venue, they must translate their traditional religious language into communal public discourse. For example, if they were Christian and asking “WWJD?,” their religious reading could be ”What Would Jesus Do?” but their political translation could be “What Would Justice Demand?” And, if they actually know their Christian tradition, they can be bilingual like that with complete and absolute integrity. And so, of course, for any individuals or candidates who come with religious faith and personal integrity to speak in and to the public square.

He concludes with an important warning -- if someone seems to be talking religion just to get your vote -- then drop them cold! That's not talking with integrity.

My News -- Book Manuscript Accepted

I thought I'd share a bit of good news. I submitted to CSS Press a collection of sermons on the Seven Last Words of Christ entitled Cries from the Cross. I've received word they'd like to publish it. So, next Spring the book (it's short) will be available. Don't put your order in yet, but I thought I'd share my good news.

Politics and Climate Change

Today word comes that a survey produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrates that the current administration, which has dragged its feet on climate initiatives, had pressured government scientists to tone down or not talk about climate change/global warming etc.

Jobs, economics, etc. are important considerations, but politics shouldn't steer science. It is for the same reason that religion shouldn't steer science. Scientists need to be free to speak their mind, and the politicians have to decide what to do with the information. We are called to be stewards of resources and always remember that we're not the last generation on earth.

Monday, January 29, 2007

What's Judeo-Christian about America?

We often hear in the rhetoric of the Religious Right an appeal to the Judeo-Christian heritage of our nation. But what does that mean? Since few Jews use the language, but is instead a largely Christian slogan, it's probably not a word of inclusion -- as if Jews and Christians should dominate American political and cultural life. Instead, it's a word that appeals to the alleged biblical foundations of the nation -- that is the nation's roots look to things like the Ten Commandments as a guide to public life, etc. It's a phrase bandied about by such folks as Virgil Goode in his reaction to Keith Ellison and by others who want to "protect" American values.

Randy Balmer has a nice definition of the "Judeo-Christian Tradition" in the appendix of Thy Kingdom Come (p. 194-95). He warns us to check our wallets when we hear the word used because someone's trying to pull something over on us. He notes it's original usage --OED, 1899 -- use in 1930s in response to fascism -- but and here's the kicker:

"Contrary to appearances, however, the primary effect of the term was exclusion rather than inclusion; that is, by enlarging the bounds of religious acceptability beyond Protestantism to include Catholicism and Judaism in the 1930s, this newly coined Judeo-Christian tradition sought to exclude all others -- practitioners of Asian religions, Mormons, pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the like -- from the realm of 'American' religion. More importantly, what was once a progressive term in the 1930s evolved over several decades into a phrase , that in the hands of the Religious Right, has become a synonym with 'Christian nation'."

Balmer notes as well that the use of the term misleadingly gives the impression that Jews are supporting this Religious Right agenda -- but as he says "few American Jews lie awake at night worrying about whether or not the Ten Commandments are posted on the walls of American courtrooms."

Maybe it's time to retire this overused phrase and recognize that American life is much more diverse than this and that's okay, even for someone like me who is a committed Christian.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Saudi Oil and Muslim Extremism

When we in the west think of Islam we have two pictures -- Saudi and Iranian versions. One is Sunni and the other Shiite. But Islam is or at least was diverse in practice. The hijab and the burqa are cultural adaptations. Whereas distance made it possible for distinct Islamic cultures to emerge, especially in places like India, Indonesia, and Africa, Saudi/Persian Gulf oil money has done two things -- it has recruited heavily in both India and in Africa for workers, who when they return often bring home religious ideas along with money. It has also allowed the Saudi's especially to fund the building of mosques and schools that are very much in the Wahabist/Arabist tradition.

This morning's LA Times story -- "Austere Version of Islam Finding a Home in India" -- about the effect of this Saudi/Wahabist influence on Kerala in India is fascinating and eye-opening. India's Muslim face is being transformed, and it is becoming much more uniform. When you think that the Taj Mahal is a Muslim edifice of Indian foundation, you get the idea. In this region of India, Islam, Hinduism, and Christinianity have historically lived together in peace.

Over the centuries, Kerala developed a relaxed mix of cultures and religions. The old mosques where Muslims worshiped were indistinguishable from Hindu temples. Muslims, Hindus and Christians attended one another's ceremonies and festivals. The region's colorful Sufi-influenced Islam includes such customs as visits to jungle shrines and reverence for local saints.

Unfortunately, this is beginning to change -- largely because of increasing contact between the Persian Gulf states and Indian Muslims.

When we talk about Muslim fundamentalism and extremism it's important to remember that much of this is of recent vintage and is fueld by a global economy.

San Joaquin Diocese Contemplates Schism?

Just a month ago, maybe less, we heard about the decision of two prominent Virginia parishes of the Episcopal Church to leave the this communion. Now the San Joaquin, California diocese, led by Bishop John-David Schofield, is considering leaving in mass and align with another episcopal jurisdiction, either in South America or Africa.

An interesting article by Louis Sahagun appears today in the LA Times. It is really distressing news. Although I've not been an Episcopalian since the mid 1970s, when I began my youthful journey in search of my own faith, my mother remains a devoted Episcopalian and my own historical work centers on the Anglican tradition (17th/18th centuries). The diocese is composed of about 47 congregations, not all of similar mind. But at least a majority is of this mindset, and not surprisingly since the current bishop has been there nearly 20 years and likely his predecessor was conservative. The San Joaquin Valley (The Big Valley for those who remember the show) is much more conservative as a whole than the Bay Area or LA. It has long resisted ordination of women (so not surprised about the problem with homosexuality). One of his critics, Fresno area pastor Keith Axberg, suggests that Schofield's biggest achievement is the "destruction of a diocese."

Because property is involved, the Civil Courts will be involved as well, which is a shame, but necessary. The Episcopal Church, which has long been a prominent voice in American life, is being torn asunder and that is disquieting. What is interesting to me is the manner in which a diocese that is so outside the national mainstream is able to sustain itself with clergy. What I discovered on the diocese's website is a school of ministry that partners with the local Mennonite Brethren Seminary and Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Virginia.

Whatever happens in this little diocese is sure to have a ripple effect, dividing congregations and dioceses. We've already seen this happen with the American Baptists in Southern California.

Stem Cell Debate: Life in the Balance

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
Published -- January 28, 2007

Scientific and technological advances over the last century, especially those in the medical and bio-technology fields, have been a blessing. Life expectancy is reaching once unimaginable levels, and diseases that were once killers are now simply nuisances that can usually be prevented or at least controlled with medication. But, sometimes these advancements outstrip our ability to reflect ethically on their ramifications and consequences. As the Nazis proved, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Embryonic stem cell research is one of those issues that's been caught up in these kinds of debates. While the vast majority of Americans support embryonic stem-cell research, a vocal opposition has been raising ethical and moral questions that have stymied efforts to fund research at the federal level. In 2006, when President Bush issued his first presidential veto and turned back a bipartisan bill to fund research, he argued that the destruction of embryos (even frozen ones that would be discarded if not implanted) crossed a moral boundary he was unwilling to support. This occurred despite polls suggesting that about 70 percent of Americans support this research.

With a ban on federal funds in place, many states, including California, have tried to fill the gap with state funding. Research is also being pursued overseas, but at least at the federal level the United States has opted out of the race to find the next “great cure.” That veto has delayed federal funding, but bipartisan efforts to find ways of funding the research continue to be pursued in Congress. The hope there is either a change of heart by the president, or a veto-proof majority. (Click to continue reading)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

SBC Rejects Psychology

In recent weeks I've been writing about the relationship between faith and science, largely in relation to the upcoming observance of Evolution Sunday (February 12). I've been doing this in large part out of concern for the consequences of a rejection or marginalization of science in the Christian community if we embrace either Intelligent Design or Scientific Creationism. Issues like the environment and stem-cell research have been effected, but now it's psychology and pastoral counseling.

In an article by David Winfrey published in the most recent but not yet posted online Christian Century we learn that Southern Baptist Seminary, is revamping its counseling program and replacing psychology and pastoral counseling with "Biblical Counseling." Biblical Counseling, my psychology professor said back years ago is neither biblical nor counseling -- and is the brainchild of Jay Adams. Ironically the field of "pastoral counseling" was born at Southern Baptist Seminary, as Wayne Oates sought to integrate theology and psychology. Now Oates's home base has effectively repudiated him and his important work.

Already in place at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, this simplistic method of counseling, akin to Bill Gothard's "Basic Youth Conflicts" rejects the diagnostic tools of psychology and puts in its place a proof texting method that focuses on rules, regulations, and reminders that one is a sinner. Such rejections of sound science not only promise failure, but can be extremely dangerous. Loren Townsend of neighboring Louisville Presbyterian Seminary offers clear evidence of this with a story of a woman suffering from spousal abuse who was advised by her "biblical" counselor to stick out and submit. She ended up suffering from psychosis.

What is clear from this article is that not only is Fundamentalism taking over the SBC, but this takeover is going back to the dark ages. What is also clear is that not only are they blind to the benefits of science -- including psychology and psychiatry, but they are also blind the their own interpretative schema of Scripture. To say that Scripture is sufficient to treat all of our dysfunctions is to not recognize that God gives us brains to learn and grow and apply all the knowledge possible to benefit our lives. If biblical psychology is sufficient then surely biblical medicine and even biblical forms of transportation (to really get silly) are sufficient. My prayer is that the church members within the SBC will see the light and reject this backwards move. Remember, Jay Adams is no Wayne Oates!

Barack Obama's Early Political Abilities

This morning's LA Times offers an interesting portrait of Barack Obama's entry into political life as President of the Harvard Law Review, of which he was the first African American to hold the position. This article describes an editorial board more riven with political chicanery than the U.S. Congress, and yet Obama was chosen by his peers, both Conservative and Liberal because of his distinct ability to listen to both sides -- even though then like now he was a liberal.

A telling quote comes from David Goldberg, the person whom he finally bested, to take the position:

"He was not a conventional politician," said Goldberg, now a civil rights lawyer in New York. "He was thoughtful, and he listens. People came to appreciate that."

Such a politician -- whether him or not -- is what our nation, riven with polarizing political strife needs at this time.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Check Out the CopperHouse Current

Woodlake Books in Canada has launched an e-mail newsletter that seeks to connect Christians who are on the "emerging Christian way." If you've heard of Brian McLaren and Emergent Christianity, this is similar but different. The best way to describe this viewpoint is to suggest you read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity. This newsletter is called the CopperHouse Current and I think you might find it of interest. Now, I will say that this issue that just came this evening answers a question I had sent in concerning how the Emerging Way connected with the Emergent Christians -- Borg and McLaren. Tim Scorer, editor of the newsletter pointed out that when he had attended a seminar this past summer in Portland that featured Borg and McLaren, Borg said he didn't find anything to disagree with in McLaren's presentation -- so there you have it. Well, and Tim made nice comments about this blog as well

Having received this letter from Bob Cornwall with a link to his blog, I was curious to see what he had to offer. I found a blog called “Ponderings on a Faith Journey: The Thoughts and Opinions of a Disciples of Christ Pastor and Church Historian.” Bob ranges over an immense catalogue of topics, all the way from a reflection on the feast of the Epiphany, through a call for peace in the Middle East, to a theological reflection on the passing of President Gerald Ford. Woven into his easy-going and thoughtful style is a theology highly attuned to the emerging Christian way. Clearly well-read and highly attentive to the affairs of the day, Bob’s writing is accessible and engaging. Well worth a visit!

-- and for that I thank him and in return, let me say -- go check out the newsletter.

If you're stopping by as a result of reading the current Current leave me a note in the comments section below.

Thy Kingdom Come - a Review

Randall Balmer. Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament, How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. New York: Basic Books, 2006. xxx + 242 pp.

What does it mean to be an evangelical today? That is a difficult question to answer, but it is a question with an important political side to it. Where a century ago Fundamentalists and religious conservatives stood on the margins while socially progressive Mainline Protestants took center stage, over the last three decades the conservative religious movement has taken center stage, crowning as president first Ronald Reagan and then George W. Bush. But, has this ascendancy been good for the evangelical movement or the nation as a whole? Randy Balmer, a Columbia University religious history professor and chronicler of the Evangelical movement says absolutely not. His book, Thy Kingdom Come is a pointedly written rejoinder to those who would claim the nation for Jesus through politics.

I must mention that I met Randy many years ago at a Church History annual meeting. I sat behind him in a plenary session that was discussing George Marsden's The Soul of the American University. I remember him strongly disagreeing with Marsden's conclusions that the university in America was disallowing the religious voice from being made known within the academy. At the time I was probably closer to Marsden's position, but in this book he recounts his discomfort with Marsden's ideas, and that disagreement is a major theme in the book. There is a feeling, on Balmer's part, that an evangelicalism that is true to its name will be humble and will try to separate itself from power -- even intellectual power.

This is a book written by one who self-describes as an evangelical, but he is by any measure a liberal one -- and so I identify closely with him as he writes. In part this is a recounting of the merger of interests between the Religious Right, the Republican Party, and evangelicalism. In his account evangelicalism is not political and is not incompatible therefore with a liberal or progressive perspective. His definition of an evangelical is this: An evangelical 1) takes the Bible seriously, 2) believes in the importance of conversion, and 3) "recognizes the imperative to spread the faith , or to evangelize. This is a very broad definition, one which many progressives can affirm. There isn't anything here about eschatology (premillennialism, inerrancy, or political litmus tests) [pp. xviii-xix]. Balmer has a strong evangelical pedigree -- graduate of Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (but remember that Bart Ehrman is a Moody graduate).

The book begins in chapter 1 with an account of how the Religious Right has constructed a political agenda focused on abortion and homosexuality that is rooted in a "selective literalism." In other words, this is a "biblical" theology that is based on narrow proof-texting.

From there he moves on to the politicization of the Baptist tradition, one that has American roots in the separationist views of Roger Williams. Whereas modern Baptists seem intent on imposing a conservative Christian ideology on the nation, in it's origins this was a tradition that sought to keep the church separate so that the church might not be stained by an alliance with the state. Figures like Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland were the heroes, but they have been replaced with Jerry Falwell, Rick Scarborough, Judge Roy Moore, and Tom DeLay. Balmer asks plaintively: "Where have all the Baptists gone?" It is a good question and one that should lead us to a close re-examination of the First Amendment.

Moving further into the controversy, Balmer takes up the "War on Public Education," and here he examines school vouchers, homeschooling, and the challenge of this separatism to the democratizing effect of public education. Though Balmer at times romanticizes the historical effect of this movement, he also recognizes the challenges of the current system. Still, he is on the right track in pointing out that in our pluralistic nation, public education can provide an important opportunity to bring people of differing ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds together.

In his chapter on Creationism -- "Creationism by Design" -- Balmer helpfully clarifies the primary goal of this movement -- the ID movement -- and that is intellectual legitimacy. Though a theistic evolutionist, Balmer has no problem with people learning creationism, he just thinks it belongs in Sunday School and not the biology class. The chapter offers a succinct history of the Creationist and Intelligent Design Movements -- demonstrating that it is more philosophy than science. Especially important is the discussion of Phillip Johnson, whom he calls the "intellectual godfather" of this movement. It is in this context that he discusses Marsden's lament -- which he suggests was used by the Religious Right to do something Marsden probably never intended, and that is to delegitimize the academy. Once again, Balmer warns against the merger of religion and institutional life, whether political or academic.

It is in his chapter on evangelicals and the Environment that Balmer demonstrates the insidious and dangerous liaison between the political conservatives and religious conservatives. Using a "dominionist" theology many Religious Right folk, including Charles Colson and Jim Dobson, have given religious support to the brazen use of the earth's resources -- all in the name of human supremacy. The good news here is that a growing number of evangelicals, especially young ones, are discovering that there is another way to look at Genesis 1, a way that calls for stewardship not rapacious utilization of resources.

In his conclusion he offers a speech at Wheaton College he believes he will never get to delivery. It is a fiery rebuttal to the Religious Right, pointedly naming names and sins and calling for repentance. It is also a call to step back from power and embrace humility and tolerance as the American ideal. It is a warning not just to evangelicals, however, for we progressives who have been in the wilderness may be hungering too much for a return to power.

This is an important book written by a historian who has been traveling for years among the Evangelical subculture. He claims the tradition for himself, but in this book, which is full of anecdotes as well as documented quotes from written materials, the dark side emerges with great clarity. It is a relatively quick read, and a book that deserves to be widely read.

Robert Cornwall, Ph.D.
First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA

I got kicked off the jury

After a maddening 3 day wait, I finally got called to the box to serve as an alternate. But, I didn't last long. I was kicked off by the defense. I think it was more that I was a pastor and this was a DUI case than the fact that I'm friends (though not extremely close friends) with a judge and a public defender. That is, however, the farthest into the court room I've gotten (in any official capacity).

My observations -- this was a misdemeanor DUI case -- is that jury selection is often tedious and time consuming. The attorneys can kick off more people than you think -- 10 each -- and they play something akin to a chess match. You think they're done and then they start knocking people off. The goal of course is to mold a jury that one thinks will help one's own side and that's what they're supposed to do.

I've been in other jury selection processes (2 other time) and both went much faster. Part of this is the result of the manner of the judge. The last time I was in this situation (in the pool) the judge moved rather quickly.

One funny thing today was that just before we were to go into the court room, a somewhat disturbed man was going around engaging prospective jurors telling them apparently "He's innocent." This meant that the judge had to meet with each juror who had had contact with the man to see if the pool had been tainted. But we went on with it after lunch and got things taken care of.

As tedious as the process is, and one might not care for all the parties (some attorneys kind of give you a bad taste), but the process is better than any place else in the world. But there is always room for improvement. Although I would have fulfilled my civic duty appropriately, it's good to be off!

What's an Evangelical? The growing questions

What does it mean to be an evangelical? That's a question that's been on people's minds for really a long time, and the definitions have changed and the borders have expanded and retracted several times (remember the Don Dayton--George Marsden debates a couple decades back). At times evangelical/Evangelical is a party affiliation at others it's a self-chosen descriptor. I've posted before that I have an evangelical pedigree of sorts -- being that I'm a graduate of Fuller Seminary --- but when you use the word evangelical and Fuller in the same breath, you still have to do some defining of terms. Fuller today is much different than it was in the 1950s, when it looked probably a lot more like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, only more conservative. I'm not sure if Fuller wasn't more liberal in the 1980s when I went there than it is today (Jack Rogers was one of my favorite profs back then), but I can't be sure (politically the faculty remains socially progressive on most issues -- the exceptions being possibly abortion and gay rights but these aren't the sole issues for discussion). But Fuller is a long way from Al Mohler's Southern Baptist Seminary or Paige Patterson's Southwestern, which has become increasingly conservative and restrictive (especially on women).

An article in USA Today notes that evangelicals are struggling with the definition and whether it's a term worth saving. Lot's of people self-identify themselves as evangelicals but ---

Although 38% of Americans call themselves evangelical, only 9% actually agree with key evangelical beliefs, says research firm the Barna Group. In a surveys of 4,014 adults nationwide, conducted over four months in 2006, "one out of every four self-identified evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior," says George Barna.

Scot McKnight, professor at North Park University and Jesus Creed blogger, comments on this dilemma noting his own struggles with the label. I thought these concluding paragraphs of his post interesting:

Today the word “evangelical” no longer means what it meant in the 50s and 60s. The question is whether or not the E-word is worth saving for many of us.

A story I was told: not long ago a major “evangelical” publisher had a meeting with some well-known “evangelical” authors and leaders, some of whom are professors at major “evangelical” institutions, and nearly to a person these leaders did not think it was worth the effort to save the E-word (they called themselves “evangelicals”) but had no term to label themselves in the Christian spectrum.

Should you care to know, one thing the word “emerging” seeks to capture is the older sense of evangelical for a new day.

I’m a follower of Jesus — orthodox, catholic, protestant and therefore sometimes (but clearly not always) “evangelical.” Five terms, in that order, so help me God.

Then there is this from Randy Balmer in Thy Kingdom Come:

Some of us have grown increasingly uneasy with the designation evangelical because we feel that it has been bastardized by the Religious Right, distorted so completely that it bears scant resemblance to the gospel -- the "good news" -- of Jesus Christ. (Thy Kingdom Come, p. xii).

Balmer's lament is rooted in his own understanding of evangelical being rooted in the meaning of evangel -- good news. The question I think being raised today is simple: is there any good news emerging from "evangelicalism"? A lot of people are saying no, and some like me have found themselves more at home in the Mainline community of Progressives. I still believe in the good news of Jesus, it's all the peripherals that's a problem!

Barbara Boxer and CAIR

It has been reported that Barbara Boxer and the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations have met and ironed out differences, though the award that was rescinded will not be returned to Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento office, and Boxer says the concerns remain.

In the Washington Post account this statement from CAIR is provided:

"We have addressed the issues related to this unfortunate and unnecessary incident, and have agreed with Senator Boxer that we should all move forward to build a nation in which people of all faiths work together to promote respect and tolerance," CAIR said in a statement.

Though this is ended for now, from the reports I've read there are still issues hanging on. They've basically agreed to move forward. All of this reminds us we have so much father to go to resolve differences and build bridges that overcome distrust.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Blogging Jury Duty

I was going to share my jury pool adventures today, but I must go back one more time tomorrow and jump in the pool. We've been at it a day and a half, but the jury isn't quite finished. I'm not in the box and hopefully they'll settle on things before I have to go up to the "inner sanctum."

But that's why I've been a bit quieter today.

Consider the possibility -- there might be some things even science can't discern!

Andrew Sullivan, Time Magazine columnist and blogger (Daily Dish) is having that ongoing debate with Sam Harris about the rationality of belief. Now, I'm biased because Mr. Sullivan is representing us theists in this debate. But from my following of the debate, I can't help but feel that Sullivan is getting the upper hand. Though he's not a theologian, he shows considerable theological acumen.

In this debate, Sullivan shows that Harris' intolerance of religion is undermined by his own statements about the possibility that there is more to reality than what science can prove. It may be only a sliver, but there's room for the possibility of faith -- of metaphysics.

If he considers the possibility then there is room for other forms of truth seeking besides science ---

My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode. The reason why you are not like some other, glibber atheists is that you recognize this. I might say that God has already been in touch with you on the matter.

And so he concludes by returning the serve on the issue of intolerance. Sullivan concedes that Mr. Harris has a point, but Harris refuses to consider the possibility, while even opening the door, perhaps unwittingly --

And that brings me to the asymmetry of our positions. We both accept that there may well be a higher truth beyond empirical inquiry or proof. I respect your opinions in this matter, and feel informed by them. You regard my opinions as inadmissible in public debate, ludicrous, a form of lying, and irrational. Yes, you are being intolerant. More, actually. The entire point of your book is intolerance. Where I respect your position, you refuse to respect mine.

Or maybe, now that I've unpacked it, you respect my position a little more. Let me know,

And so the conversation continues. I hope what I've placed here has whetted your appetite to check out the whole story!

Muslims on TV -- from Sightings

Since TV forms much of our attitudes and understandings, and helps create and sustain our stereotypes, the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims on TV will prove influential. This week's edition of Sightings, written by Amir Hussain of Loyola Marymount University, published as an e-mail letter from the Martin Marty Center, offers a helpful look at this problem.

Sightings 1/25/07
Muslims on Television-- Amir Hussain

Last November, over 10,000 scholars of religion from across North America and around the world gathered in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. A keynote speaker was to have been European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, but his visa was denied by the U.S. government, as it had been in 2004, when he was appointed as a professor at the University of Notre Dame. The important study of Muslim communities, however, was featured in the Religion and Media workshop, where global representations of Islam were considered for the entire day preceding the meeting. As one of the scholars involved in that workshop, I discussed differences between European and American media coverage of Muslim lives -- as related to the Rushdie affair of fifteen years ago, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe, the Danish cartoon controversy, and media representations of Muslims more generally.

Teaching courses on Islam for more than a decade at universities across North America has allowed me to make some observations concerning the ways in which television shapes perceptions of Muslims. My students typically come to class knowing little about Islam -- and while they have had more information since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, much of it is incorrect. And since their understandings of Islam and Muslim lives derive mostly from television, I begin classes by assigning a book that describes how the news media constructs reality, and invite friends from local network news stations to talk to my classes about their industry. We go on to discuss the presence and portrayal of Muslim figures more broadly in the media.
For example, in the 1960s, Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most famous Muslim in the United States, noted as much for his conversion to Islam and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War as for his boxing skills. These days, while Ali remains among the most famous people in the world, his being a Muslim is downplayed in the media. Another African American Muslim, the entertainer Dave Chappelle, made headlines in 2005 after publicly coming out as a Muslim. Meanwhile, in the world of rap and hip hop, there are numerous Muslim artists, ranging from Everlast and Mos Def to Iron Crescent and Native Deen.

On television, however, it is a different matter. None of the major characters on Chappelle's Show, for example, is portrayed as Muslim. And when asked to think of a Muslim character on television, most of my students name Apu from The Simpsons -- but of course he is Hindu, not Muslim. Some come up with the character of Sayid on Lost. Others mention Imam Kareem Said, the leader of the Black Muslims in the prison drama Oz. Still others mention personalities from professional wrestling, which has a long history of Muslim characters -- for example, Abdullah the Butcher ("the madman from Sudan"), the Iron Sheikh, Sabu (billed as "homicidal, suicidal, and genocidal"), and Muhammad Hassan. These characters are, of course, violent men, with one being a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, another a convict, and the others villainous "heels." Meanwhile, this year there is controversy over the portrayal of Muslims in the new season of 24.Into this mix has come another cast of characters, from Showtime's Sleeper Cell. When, in 2005, I first saw the ads for this show with the tagline "friends, neighbors, husbands, terrorists," I was naturally concerned that this would be yet another stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as violent fanatics. However, the hero of the series, Darwyn Al-Sayeed, is one of the good guys, an undercover American Muslim FBI agent who has infiltrated a terrorist cell. It is with Sleeper Cell, renewed for another season, where one finally finds positive portrayals of American Muslims.

Such portrayals are crucial, for they offer a corrective to stereotypical representations. North American Muslims are better integrated into their societies than are their European counterparts, and these groups need to be presented on American television for what they are -- part of the fabric of American life. They need not be in leading roles -- but how about a shot of someone going to the mosque at lunchtime to pray, or a Muslim woman in a background scene, simply ordering a cup of coffee?A step in this direction has been taken with Canadian Muslim filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz's television series Little Mosque on the Prairie, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Portraying Muslims with humor in everyday situations, this show from a Muslim creator marks an important development -- for Muslims need to be more involved in representing themselves in the various media, lest their stories be left for others to tell.Muslims should share the poetry of their everyday lives with those around them -- and North American media can take the lead in presenting this poetry on television.For further reading:

The New York Times article "'Little Mosque' Defuses Hate with Humor" (January 16, 2007) by Christopher Mason can be accessed at:
A January 19, 2007, AP article on protests over the portrayal of Muslims on the television show 24 can be read at:

Dr. Amir Hussain is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and co-chair of the Religion, Film and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion. His most recent book, Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God, is an introduction to Islam for a North American audience.----------

The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Artaxerxes to Abu Ghraib: On Religion and the Pornography of Imperial Violence" by Bruce Lincoln. To read this article, please visit:
Sightings comes from the
Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Response to Barbara Boxer's Snub of CAIR

Recently Barbara Boxer (D-CA) rescinded an award given to the Sacramento director of the Council of Arab-Islamic Relations. Now an open letter is being circulated by Progressive Christians Uniting that calls for Senator Boxer to return the award and apologize to CAIR.

It is unfortunate that we live at a time when a growing xenophobia is enveloping our nation. That there is a strong extremist element within parts of the Arab and Islamic world is not to be denied, but if we're going to end the violence it will take people of good will, and CAIR has been a good partner, as is demonstrated in the letter of support below:

Please Reject Islamophobia and Restore the Good Name of CAIR(Council on American Islamic Relations)

Dear Sen. Boxer:

As interfaith leaders and concerned citizens, we are alarmed that you hastily rescinded the appropriate recognition your office had given to Basim Elkarra, who represents the Council on American Islamic Relations in Sacramento.

You took this action rashly after the award came under intense attack from Joe Kaufman, Steve Emerson, and others who make it their particular business to discredit and defame Islamic organizations based in the U.S. You did not consult people like ourselves before rescinding the award. We could and would have freely and accurately characterized CAIR as a responsible and highly-esteemed force for reconciliation and sanity, both in international affairs and in deepening interfaith understanding here in the United States.

Our purpose, however, is not to scold but to ask very simply that you not put CAIR at further risk of isolation and defamation. You can do this by stating clearly that you have not found any evidence to the effect that CAIR endorses terrorism or offers support and comfort to groups that engage in terrorism. The FBI will be happy to assist you in this.

We believe that the staff who advised you to rescind the award to Mr. Elkarra did so out of a panic response, recognizing that people like Kaufman and Emerson are capable of doing damage to your own reputation and exposing you to ridicule for allegedly consorting with a questionable organization. We believe that much greater damage to your reputation is being done every single day that your actual and grave mistake�rescinding the award rather than taking time to discover the facts�is allowed to stand. But more than this, we are profoundly disturbed by the immense long-term damage now being done to CAIR�s reputation, to intergroup relations, and to American principles as a result of a tempest precipitated by some extreme right-wing Islamophobes.

We in California have particularly sad memories of what can happen when a minority group is unfairly and unjustly isolated, accused, and convicted in the public�s mind as disloyal and dangerous. The internment camps for Japanese Americans stand as a stark reminder of the danger and tragedy that loom near when entire groups are subjected to character assassination and false charges.

Please show us that you understand the danger, that your principles remain strong, and that you are committed to a truly open society in which a particular faith tradition or ethnic background may never again be automatically equated with disloyalty. State clearly and unambiguously what we all know and attest to be true: that CAIR is a worthy participant in our ongoing democratic discourse and in our interfaith community life.

To sign, please visit

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Problem with Christian Schools

Though my collegiate and graduate education (with exception of 2 quarters of grad study at the U. of Oregon) was in a Christian environment, I'm a believer in public education. Though my wife teaches at a Catholic school, our son has spent his entire educational career in public school and is not the worse for wear because of it. At a time when our public schools in Santa Barbara are dealing with declining enrollment (it costs too much to live here) there comes word of a new Christian high school (supported in part I hear by supermodel Kathy Ireland). In the article from the local paper it was said that one of the benefits was that boys and girls wouldn't be showing any public display of affection and "both sides" of evolution would be taught.

Now if you believe that Christian high schoolers don't show a bit of pda then you've never been a youth minister or been a counselor at a Christian camp. There's a reason why counselors have to beat the bushes at night. Christian boys and girls like to kiss and hug and ... (have you read the Song of Songs lately?). While I laughed at this, I'm more concerned about the way science is taught. Teaching creationism or even Intelligent Design isn't teaching the other side of evolution. Now, as a Christian preacher, I believe in God the Creator, but that isn't science, that's theology. Teaching what evolutionists say and then what the Bible says isn't good science. What they'll hear, I guess, is that this evolutionists say we've evolved from lower animals but the Bible says. Now as good Christians, we know what the truth is! Balderdash!!!!

I'm reading at this moment, and I'll comment later in more depth, Randy Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come (Basic Books, 1976). Balmer takes up both of these issues -- "Christian education" and creationism. He makes the point of the necessity of public education, which broadens our children's experiences and insights. Balmer points out the possible deleterious effects of this movement out of public education on American society:

For nearly two hundred years, public education has provided a laboratory for democracy. Common schools, beginning in the nineteenth century, took as their task the education of the public and the creation of an informed and responsible citizenry. Although public education has never fulfilled every ideal, schools have been a powerful engine for social change. They have provided a venue of common ground for students of different religious,ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, a place where they might learn from their differences, celebrate their similarities, and find a way to live with one another in at least a measure of comity. In short, they learn the rudiments of democracy.

Public school may not be perfect, but my own son has experienced life as it really is and has forged friendships with people from across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum. That is good, in my mind. And, as Christians, we are called to be salt and light, aren't we? Besides, let's let our kids learn real science!

Stale Rhetoric of Abortion Debate

Monday was the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. It is a decision that legalized abortion and launched a three plus decade war of words (and sometimes more). At times the rhetoric is vicious and demeaning, and occasionally it ends up becoming violent. Abortion has become an important political wedge issue that divides churches and partisan politics. But in the end, what has all of this accomplished.

Diana Butler Bass suggests that the church has failed mightily in its attempts to get a handle of the issue. In a God's Politics post she turns to Stanley Hauerwas, who puts a kind of pox on both your houses response to the abortion debate.

To commemorate the day, I decided to re-read some Stanley Hauerwas (Duke Divinity School ethicist) essays on abortion. After spending Monday morning with Stanley, it is difficult to fault the Post for not carrying a story about Roe vs. Wade. As Hauerwas noted in 1981, "Essays of the morality of abortion, whether they be anti or pro, have begun to take on a ritualistic form. Each side knows the arguments and counterarguments well, but they continue to go through the motions. Neither side seems to have much hope of convincing the other."

She goes on to say that little has changed in the quarter century since that was written. So, what does it mean to put this debate and a truly Christian context? She writes:

But, for Christians, abortion remains an important ethical issue, one that is surprisingly difficult because we have given up the theological dimensions of the discussion in favor of those two ritualized (and politicized) positions. I can relate to the words of Presbyterian minister, Rev. Terry Hamilton-Poor: "I believe that it is essential that the church face the issue of abortion in a distinctly Christian manner." She continues, "I believe that the issue, for the church, must be framed not around the banners of 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life,' but around God's call to care for the least among us whom Jesus calls his sisters and brothers."

I think that's a good place to be!

A message from Barack Obama

With last night's Presidential State of the Union address in the books, now it's time to hear the responses. I didn't watch the speech, but caught clips of both it and the Webb response, and from what I can tell President Bush has hardly any support on Iraq, but has some room to work on domestic issues with the Democrats -- especially immigration and energy policy. Barack Obama sends out an email message from his exploratory committee this morning offering some points of clarity and possible bi-partisan action. So, I'm just sharing it with you:

Dear Friend,

If nothing else, the last election proved that politics-by-slogan and poll-tested sound bites aren't going to cut it with the American people anymore, and that's why the real test of leadership is not what the President said to Congress last night, but how he works with Congress in the months to come to find real solutions to America's problems.

The good news is that in the halls of Congress and across the nation, there is widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans on how to meet the major challenges facing America.
Most Americans believe that escalation will not bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end, and that's why I've proposed not just a troop cap, but a phased redeployment that will start bringing our troops home.

Most Americans believe that energy independence will come from using more biofuels like ethanol and making cars that actually use less oil, which is why I proposed a bipartisan plan that would raise fuel economy standards for the first time in decades.
Most Americans believe that the biggest domestic challenge facing the country is the high cost of health care, and that's why incremental plans that do nothing to bring down costs or guarantee coverage are simply no longer sufficient. We must pass universal health care for every American.

The American people are looking for something new. They are hungry for a different kind of politics. In the last week, I've been humbled and inspired to see more than 100,000 of you sign up to join our efforts to change the debate in this country, so that we can begin solving our common problems and pursuing our common dreams.

Last night was an evening for rhetoric and promises. But now is the time for action - now is the time to actually get something done. You deserve leadership that's commensurate to the challenges we face in this country, and I look forward to working with all of you to make this happen in the days and months to come.

U.S. Senator Barack Obama

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Religious Leaders Condemn Obama Smear Campaign

This is an open letter posted today at the National Council of Churches website condemning the recent attempt to smear Barack Obama -- suggesting he was educated at a Wahabist Madrassa in Indonesia, and that therefore he is possibly an Islamist in disguise. CNN has already shown that this is all a fabrication, but it's important that we in the religious community state clearly that such attempts to smear candidates is out of bounds! The issue is not whether Obama is or has been a Muslim (he isn't, nor has he been), but how religion is being used as political dirty trick! So, I add my amen to this letter.

January 23, 2007
An Open Letter to the Religious Community:

Many of you have seen hateful emails, blog postings and reports circulating on the Internet and in the media about Senator Barack Obama and his religious upbringing. These outrageous charges began as reports of his potential candidacy for President emerged and, as has become a shameful custom of modern politics, it has swirled through cyberspace with a vengeance and now has been picked up as fact by Fox News and some partisan commentators.

We are writing to deplore this despicable tactic and set the record straight. We have had enough of the slash and burn politics calculated to divide us as children of God.

We must come together as one nation, and see our stake in each other as Americans. The bitter, destructive politics that have so riven our country in recent years cannot stand. As American leaders of different faiths - Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew - who have worked cooperatively and greatly respect all of the 2008 candidates in both parties, we do not offer this statement as an endorsement of any individual candidate. However, certain moral standards should infuse our national dialogue, and the recent attacks on Sen. Obama violate values at the heart of this dialogue. The false and malicious attacks levied at him are anathema to all of our faith traditions, and we condemn them outright.

The facts below are no mystery. Senator Obama wrote openly about his life in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father. We take Senator Obama's long-cited and uncontested description of his educational and faith journey at face value.

*Senator Obama never attended a radical Madrasa nor was he ever educated in a wahabi school. In the years he lived in Indonesia as a child, from ages 6 to 10, he attended a neighboring Catholic school for two years and then a public school.

*Senator Obama was not raised in a religious household.

*Senator Obama became a Christian long before he entered politics.While working as a young community organizer in the mid-1980s, working with a consortium of churches in a depressed neighborhood of Chicago, he became a Christian and became active in Trinity United Church of Christ.He, his wife and family are still active members of Trinity today.

It is important that we take a stand today against this willful, malicious attempt to mislead and inflame - and against any further attempts to use political attacks to divide the religious community. We ask that you share this letter widely, and help us beat back these hideous tactics, whatever their source. As people of faith, we cannot allow divisive attacks like these to stand.


Rev. Bob Edgar
General Secretary
National Council of Churches

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

Imam Mahdi Bray
Executive Director
Muslim American Society
Freedom Foundation

Rev. Stephen J. Thurston
National Baptist Convention of America

The Rt. Rev. Preston W. Williams
President, Global Council of Bishops
African Methodist Episcopal Church

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
Executive Director

Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
Interfaith Alliance

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Director of Education
Jewish Funds for Justice

Discerning a Theology of Sexuality

I teach a Bible study that carries the title: "Reading the Bible Responsibly." We've been at it for quite a while and we finally made it to Hebrew Poetry. As part of that discussion, we decided to spend two sessions on the Song of Songs/Song of Solomon. Tonight is the second session. If there was a book of the Bible that would get the Bible banned from America's libraries, it would be this one. No other book in the Bible is so overtly sexual, which may be, likely is, the reason why the church has historically allegorized it. Even Protestants, who have been loathe to use allegory, have made grand use of it.

Scholars are not of one mind, which isn't surprising, about what's intended here. But unless we wish to continue using the allegorical method of interpretation, which I don't think is necessary here, then we're faced with the overt sexual content. The text looks quite secular. No mention of God, no mention of religious rituals. On that score it holds some similarity to Esther, but even Esther had some religious rituals involved.

So, here we are facing the question of sexuality, a question that so vexes us as church, whether the topic is heterosexual or homosexual relationships. When we look to the Bible, hoping to find clarity, we find little clear direction. At points it seems to allow polygamy, but generally forbids same-sex relationships, but no clear reason is given as to why. It's just not done.

When it comes to sex, we'd just as soon not talk about it. Oh, there have been Christian/evangelical sex manuals, but these are relatively new, and likely are a response to the publication of secular-leaning manuals.

Dr. Richard Beck recently blogged about a theology of orgasm, which is the ultimate issue. If you read closely the Song of Songs, and peer through the euphemisms, you'll see that orgasm is part of the conversation. Orgasm is the central issue because it's related to pleasure -- The reason it's something Christians worry about is that it feels good, so people want to do it! So the question is: "Does God appear to have an interest in regulating orgasm?" And the answer is yes. But again, why, well because we can become so fixated on it that "we may pursue orgasm selfishly, hurting other people in our quest for sexual satisfaction." So, the question is what is appropriate and inappropriate? That's where the debate gets confusing -- as he demonstrates. In the end he doesn't provide answers, but the post is provocative. It would appear that Christianity allows for pleasure, as long as it is incidental and not the primary purpose-- which rules out casual sex -- just for fun. So the question is, what is it incidental too -- procreation? That's one view. Or, relationship? That's another. Some things like rape are obvious, but what about masturbation (self-pleasuring) and homosexuality -- the answer is likely to be (and the way I'd answer it) a part of the relationship, but there are complicating issues even there. All very interesting, and maybe a reason why we shy away from it. But sexuality is becoming a more overt part of our culture and our ability to avoid it is becoming less possible. That's why we're looking at such a sexually charged book as the Song of Songs!!

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Truth on Barack Obama's Schooling

CNN did some investigative reporting -- something apparently neither Insight Magazine nor Fox News is interested in -- and checked out the school attended by Barack Obama in Indonesia. It was and is what he has claimed it was a public school that was composed primarily of Muslim students, something one would expect from a public school in a predominantly Muslim Country.

I hope people will stop believing these crank stories and understand that the source of them is a cabal of people who don't understand what it means to be American!

A Call to Civility

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in the London Times online a call for a return to civility, noting that the word civil is the root of another important word -- civilization. We have become a most impolite (polite comes from the word polity -- governance), and the fate of civilization is wrapped up in the way we view each other.

Interestingly he points out that historically places like Venice, London, and the Netherlands, back in the 18th century, were places that put an emphasis on business and were also places that emphasized tolerance. Apparently the market is a strong motivation against war.

I too have become greatly concerned about the lack of civility. It is a main cause of polarization in our own political culture. If you speak kindly of the one you disagree with, you're some kind of wimp.

In his closing paragraphs Rabbi Sacks writes:

Why has it happened? Because we have lost a shared moral code. Because we no longer respect authority. Because national identities have eroded. Because we have sacrificed shared responsibilities in favour of individual or group rights. Because the media loves conflict. Because anger gets attention, and rage gets respect. Because the loudest voice wins.

“A soft answer turns away wrath,” says the Book of Proverbs, “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Verbal violence, the Bible suggests, is a prelude to physical violence. Those who cannot sustain a civil conversation will eventually find it impossible to sustain a civilisation. The sooner we recover
civility, the better.

Yes, there is virtue in the soft answer!

Have You Ever Thought About Killing Someone?

Egad, what a thought! But apparently we all do this, we have homicidal fantasies, and the majority of these fantasies are sexually related. That is the proposal made by psychologist/professor of experimental psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas (not Kansas), Dr. Richard Beck. Beck reports that this idea was broached by Dr. David Buss, author of The Murderer Next Door. I find Beck's forthright statements all the more interesting since ACU is a university related to the Churches of Christ.

This connection, which may have, likely has evolutionary connections, raises important questions about who we are as human beings, and the way the church deals with such things.

He makes 4 conclusions:

1. Generally, when we speak of "hate" in the church, we tend think of issues like racism. But the most common forms of hate center on sexual issues. This connection is rarely made in church.

2. This connection of hate and sex needs to be made explicit if spiritual interventions are to be both preventative and effective. I've never heard sexual jealousy or hate of sexual rivals discussed in the church with any degree of frankness. I doubt, therefore, that people are aware of just how vulnerable they are to sexually motivated hate. And this ignorance doesn't allow a person to adequately prepare for temptations. In the end, they are simply hijacked by their feelings.

3. Like with issues of lust, when is a homicidal fantasy a sin? In the moments and days after a hurt these reactions seem natural. To not have ANY reaction would mark you as a robot. The issue is, if the behavior is controlled, how much scope can we give to thoughts? What is natural/normal and what is sinful?

4. Finally, the human animal is way more sexual than we realize. There is some conversation about sex in churches but it is generally about the act of intercourse. What we are missing is how sexualized an animal we truly are, how sex affects our relations with peers (e.g., sexual rivals) and our self-identity. Sex permeates life more than we realize, affecting things like who we hate and who we would like to kill. And I think it would be helpful if the church had more conversations about these dynamics, about those dark places in our minds, a little more often.
Yes, we in the church have much to consider, and it's too our detriment that we continually sweep difficult issues under the rug. For too long I did that - usually in the interest of keeping my job -- but our ability to live together requires that we take the next step. So, take a look at this post from Dr. Beck and see what you think.

What is Religion Good For?

If you listen to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and friends, religion isn't good for much. It's rather dangerous, and they have a point, because historically and currently, religion appears to be playing a pretty negative/divisive role in our nation and around the world. Islamic extremists are easy pickings today -- with Osama Bin Laden and Muqtadr al Sadr in the news, but their not alone. We Christians can't feel too superior!

Brian McLaren, over at the God's Politics Blog, offers I think a very helpful response -- a call to humility and service.

He writes:

Last time I checked, three of the top 10 "religious" books were in praise of atheism and against religion in all its forms. In these times of snarky religious cold wars in some quarters and hot religious violence in others, I'm not surprised. Those of us who see religion in a different light – who see religion as a powerful motivation to care for the widow and orphan, to seek justice and peace, to love our neighbors and our enemies – shouldn't feel superior, but we should keep practicing, and preaching, with humility and focus. It's so easy to get distracted, and a lot is at stake.

I agree -- a lot is at stake!
P.S. poster is found on the God's Politics posting!

Hillary and Barack -- the similarities and the differences

It's now pretty official, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are in the race for the presidency. When Hillary announced, she said she was in this to win. Of course, everyone, even Dennis Kucinich, has to say that, but she has the gravitas to do it.

Obama and Clinton are both epoch making candidates. If elected, Obama would be the first African-American President. If elected, Clinton would be the first woman President. Either would be historic and would shatter those glass ceilings that have kept the presidency in the hands of white males for the entirety of the nation's history. When you think about it, isn't it strange that Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh have had women leaders, but we haven't? But the time is coming, whether this election or the next, but in the coming years this will shatter.

E.J. Dionne writes a great article this morning that compares Hillary and Barack. There are many similarities -- especially in policy and even in religious commitment. What separates them in part is their background and starting point.

Dionne points out that Hillary's background working with her husband, led to a more top-down, institutionalized view of politics. She and Bill were part of the DLC, a think-tank committed to shaping the Democratic Party in ways that would reach out to Southern whites and working class northerners, two groups no longer sure bets.

Obama, on the other hand, got his start as a community organizer in Chicago, and therefore brings a bottom up/grassroots perspective. This maybe why he's seen as a listener, and willing to balance the concerns and needs of varying groups.

Their campaign styles are very different as well: Obama relies on passion, while Clinton relies on organization and discipline. And so, as Dionne writes in conclusion:

Yet if Clinton and Obama present different profiles, they are, in certain respects, very much alike.

Both have displayed an unusually sophisticated and apparently genuine understanding of the role of religious faith in American politics. Both pride themselves on their ability, proven in their home states, to win over political moderates and voters not tethered to ideology.

And the woman who would become the nation's first female president and the man who would become its first African American president know how important the men and women of the white middle class will be to the outcome of the next election. Such voters will probably determine if either of them gets to become a national trailblazer -- and also if any other Democrat can find a way to get in the middle of their fight.

To win the Presidency, both Obama and Clinton, as Mr. Dionne suggests, will have to win over white middle America. We'll see what happens as this political season gets underway and George W. Bush becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Women teaching Men -- heretical idea? Just ask the SBC

Another controversy emerges from within the Southern Baptist Convention, a group that is the largest of Protestant denominations, and which has taken, as most know, a severe rightward turn in the last quarter century. A further example of this is the decision of the President of the seminary to terminate a popular female Hebrew teacher -- ostensibly because she didn't have tenure, which she wasn't given, because the school wants those qualified to be pastors to teach pastors, and as we know the SBC now prohibits women from serving as pastors. So, now this largest of Baptist seminaries will be pure -- it will be a male domain. Aren't we getting progressive over there.

The chair of the board of trustees denies this is an example of gender discrimination. Why, because it's a religious agency, and religious agencies are free to do as they like. Well, legally he may be right, but morally this is still gender discrimination. These are his words as reported in Ethics Daily:

McClain also denied that gender discrimination played a role in Klouda's dismissal: "The second issue involves the desire of (the seminary) to have only men teaching who are qualified to be pastors or who have been pastors in the disciplines of theology, biblical studies, homiletics, and pastoral ministry. This is in keeping, of course, with the statement of faith of the SBC that clearly says the pastorate is reserved for men."

I have some good Baptist friends, some who are women, who must be chagrined by all this. But then again, I'm not "biblical," or so some would say!

Interim Ministry in the News

Having served as an interim pastor -- which turned into a transitional ministry -- anyway, I was interested in an article in today's LA Times about interim ministry.

Interim ministry has become an important part of a congregation's transition from one pastor to the next. In fact, as the article shows, it h as become a very specialized ministry. I didn't have the training, so I don't qualify as the specialist type, but many are and they provide an important benefit to the church, especially churches that have gone through times of trouble.

Good article in an unexpected place!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

What is Emerging Christianity?

When one speaks of Christianity it's important to remember that this isn't a monolithic movement. Besides there being Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, from there there are many further subdivisions and further subdivisions. Just think, there are dozens of varieties of Baptists, alone.

I've posted earlier about my readings of Brian McLaren, one of the central figures in the Emergent movement, but as Scot McKnight of North Park Theological Seminary, a self-described but critically engaged emerging Christian, offers an interesting synopsis of the movement on Christianity Today's blogsite.

I'll just put up the five streams that he believes flow into the Emerging lake:

1. Prophetic
2. Postmodern
3. Praxis oriented (worship, orthopraxy, missional)
4. Post-Evangelical (their not caught up in a specific theology)
5. Political (that is, they tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat, because they feel that the Dems put more emphasis on things like poverty and the environment).

Take a look, if you're interested in understanding this interesting movement that's transforming important sectors of Evangelicalism and has been influencing Mainliners as well. In fact, in many ways it serves as a bridge between the two sectors of Protestantism.

Audacity of Hope -- one columnist's recommendation

Mary Schmich writes in the Chicago Tribune today that reading Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope is worth the effort, even if you're not an Obama groupie. These two short paragraphs state why you might want to read the book:

There are other politicians equally worthy of running for president. There's not, however, another one who has so precisely and readably laid out the workings of his mind and a vision of this country.

Obama has staked his success on the belief that many of us are looking for a different way of talking about politics and policy, about life. He writes the way he believes we'd like to talk.

I'm just beginning to read the book, but I'd agree, it would be worth the read, especially if you have questions about his person and conviction. If we say we want transparent leaders, here's one for you.

Taking Scripture Seriously -- Andrew Sullivan's response to Sam Harris

Andrew Sullivan is having an interesting Beliefnet "debate" focused on religious moderation. It's Harris' view that religious moderates are being disingenuous about their professions of faith, because by not taking the text with strict literalness they don't take it seriously. Sullivan offers a very reasoned and straightforward response that undermines Harris' rationalist positions, and shows them to be in what my mind is a straw man.

As for the charge of not taking the text seriously, Sullivan writes:

Blogger, please. In many ways, the source of much of today's religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express. For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.

Sullivan is exactly right -- it is in taking Scripture as a text with a history and context that Moderates take the Bible with great seriousness. Marcus Borg speaks of taking the Bible seriously but not literally, I think we can modify this a bit so that it reads as one Biblical Scholar suggest, taking it seriously but not necessarily literally. The question is really whether all of Scripture should be taken metaphorically or not. One thing to note of course is that historically the church has tended to read much of the Scriptural text in non-literal ways -- allegory, for instance, was foundational to medieval readings of Scripture. The Reformation pushed a more "literal" reading, but even they knew that not everything could be taken that way. So, I give my points to Mr. Sullivan!

Congress marks religious firsts

Published January 21, 2006
Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record

When Congress reconvened Jan. 4, it witnessed several American religious firsts, including the seating of two Buddhists and a Muslim as congressional representatives. In 1972, 51 senators and 43 percent of the House hailed from three Protestant denominations, but that's changing, especially with the most religiously diverse Congress in history. What this means is that we're witnessing the realization of America's promise as a land of freedom for people of every religious background.

Not everyone, unfortunately, is happy about this change. The election of a Muslim from Minnesota, Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), to Congress made news, which might not be unexpected considering that America is at war in two Muslim countries. Some Americans feel this event in our history bodes ill for the nation. When Ellison announced that he would use the Koran to take his oath of office, the reaction was swift and negative. Now, sacred books aren't used in the official ceremony, but only in a later private and unofficial one. Still, this reaction is an expression of xenophobic tendencies that often emerge in difficult times. It is also rooted in a growing suspicion of Muslims who are seen as somehow not truly American. (to read the rest of the column, click here).

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Obama andClinton Responses to Smear Campaign

Spokespersons for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns have responded to this "story" about Obama's past. David Axelrod of Obama's staff calls it a fabrication and Clinton's staff respond that they had nothing to do with what is an attempt to smear both Obama and Clinton.

And to think we're so early in the political season, just think what might be coming down the pipeline.

It takes either insanity or courage to run for President!

Reminder on Religious Tests

With all the controversy swirling around first Keith Ellison, then Mitt Romney, and now Barack Obama, it's important to remind ourselves, that there is no religious test required for public office. Our Constitution is a secular document that protects religious rights for every person, whether Protestant, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu, Agnostic, spiritual but not religious, and even Atheist. As Mark Toulouse reminds us in God in Public the framers had it in their power to "make the Constitution an explicitly Christian document, or, at least one that barred non-Christians from holding office." But they didn't. Yes, a number of states did just this, and some established churches, but in the end it's the Federal Constitution that sets the direction for the nation. (Mark Toulouse, God in Public, WJK, 2006, p. 7).

The key point in all of this discussion is clause 3 of Article 6 of the Constitution, which states:

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Now it may be that the framers envisioned a nation that would be fairly homogeneous with one religion dominating -- and that being a broadly construed Protestant form of Christianity, but the truth is our nation is no longer homogeneous. It's quite likely that we'll see more Muslims and Buddhists and even atheists elected to office, and you know that's a good thing.

No regarding this most recent flap, let's just make clear it doesn't matter if Obama studied the Koran as a little kid, anymore than it matters if Mitt Romney studied the Book of Mormon, or Hillary Clinton read the Bible! That is not a test of office. What matters is a heart and mind committed to the welfare of the whole people of this nation and for that matter the world!

Fox News Joins the Smear Campaign

Word now comes and video evidence from Think Progress that Fox News is picking up on this Insight Magazine article that seeks to tar Barack Obama with a secret Muslim identity. Not surprising considering the Fox "unfair and unbalanced" perspective, but this really is despicable.

Obama has been quite forthcoming about his background, his time spent in Indonesia, and even in Muslim schools, but that does not make one a Muslim, and besides, he has made clear his conversion to Christianity. As a Christian I find all of this quite baffling. If you believe in conversion why question a conversion? Unless it's politically motivated or you have clear evidence otherwise.

So now we've got a smear going on against Mitt Romney, who supposedly is under the thumb of a sinister Mormon prophet and Obama who is really a secret Muslim.

My, My, how advanced we are as a society

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Complexity of Faith

What is your religious position? Are you Christian or not? If a Christian, what kind of Christian? The founding generation of my denomination asserted that they were simply Christians, no more, no less. They looked to the Bible, and especially the New Testament, for their answers and left it to the person to find the truth.

A nice piece in the Chicago Sun Times shares Barak Obama's attempt to place himself? Is he an evangelical, the interviewer asks -- he answer's I'm not sure. I know how he feels.

Here is his response -- he who is being accused of not being a Christian, but really a Wahabist Muslim instead:

Surrounded by members of the editorial board, editors, our publisher, and a couple of his own aides, this was Obama's answer:

"Gosh, I'm not sure if labels are helpful here because the definition of an evangelical is so loose and subject to so many different interpretations. I came to Christianity through the black church tradition where the line between evangelical and non-evangelical is completely blurred. Nobody knows exactly what it means. "Does it mean that you feel you've got a personal relationship
with Christ the savior? Then that's directly part of the black church experience. Does it mean you're born-again in a classic sense, with all the accoutrements that go along with that, as it's understood by some other tradition? I'm not sure."

He continued his answer: "My faith is complicated by the fact that I didn't grow up in a particular religious tradition. And so what that means is when you come at it as an adult, your brain mediates a lot, and you ask a lot of questions.

"There are aspects of Christian tradition that I'm comfortable with and aspects that I'm not. There are passages of the Bible that make perfect sense to me and others that I go, 'Ya know, I'm not sure about that,'" he said, shrugging and stammering slightly.

The Smear Begins

Melissa Rogers alerts us to a story in the Right Wing online journal Insight, which has ties to the National Review and Washington Times, that seeks to again smear Barak Obama as a Muslim incognito. This article which suggests that the information comes from Hillary Clinton's office, apparently seeks to smear her as well. As some would say, the Swift Boating begins.

Through the use of innuendo, and other means, the charge is that Obama who spent about 4 years of his childhood in Indonesia and attended a predominantly Muslim school, was really educated in a Saudi sponsored Wahabist Madrases. Now I don't know if the Saudi's were sponsoring Madrases back then in Indonesia, but this "wolf in sheep's clothing" is really despicable.

Barak Obama has been an active member of Trinity UCC in Chicago and is quite explicit about his Christian faith, but that being said, even if at one time he was a Muslim or that he harbors fondness for Islam is really beside the point. We live in a nation without religious tests. I find it incredulous that anyone would imply that somehow he's really an agent for extremist Islam. But of course the fear mongers will do what they can to keep our nation locked in the dark ages!