Tag Archives: evangelical

Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?

Base of a human brain, from Vesalius' Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.
Base of a human brain, from Vesalius’ Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.

Human beings are thinking creatures.  To be sure, we are embodied, and our flesh-and-blood living matters, too.  But while our capacity to think is a quality that separates us from the beasts, this too often goes unused.  This is tragic for all people, but especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Christian faith is not about the abandonment of critical thought but about its enlivening, about its highest end.  N.T. Wright argues that the Church – the body of people, alongside Israel, called to be and to bear God’s message to the world – cannot be herself without thinking:

“If the ekklesia of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of of the mind’, to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people, to understand who this God is, who this Messiah jesus is, who this strange powerful spirit is, and what it means to be, and to live as, the renewed people of God, the renewed humanity.  This is a worldview, in other words, which will only function if it is held by humans with transformed minds, and who use those transformed minds constantly to wrestle with the biggest questions of all, those of God and the world.” (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 567)

If you spend too much time in the wrong internet haunts, you quickly get the impression that Christians today have no capacity for or interest in critical thinking.  Oh, to be sure, there are a lot of rhetorical grenades tossed about, many blogs and articles written, read, and shared, but most of this takes place within very defined and uninteresting echo chambers.  The conservatives quote Witherington, Piper, or Al Mohler, and the progressives quote Borg, McLaren, or Rachel Held Evans and likely post 15 articles from HuffPo Religion, AKA theology’s Mos Eisley.  It’s all quite dull, really.

Christianity cannot be sustained absent renewed minds that come about by prayer through the gift of the Spirit.  This is a non-negotiable part of our faith, though many seem to want to make it option  (just look at my previous post’s comment section).

noll scandalI suggest the church needs thought police.  Not, mind you, to police what is thought – but simply that thought occurs at all.  While I don’t count myself a progressive or conservative Christian, I can appreciate such Christians when they engage their own and others’ faith traditions with depth and sincerity.  Unfortunately, too much of our conversation in the church turns on surface-level ranting that makes MSNBC and Fox News look academic.  Two decades ago, Mark Noll charged that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was that there wasn’t much of one.  Unfortunately, rather than rising above that, many progressive evangelicals and other populist Christian voices have continued this trend.

As Wright notes, there is no church without renewed minds marked by Spirit-imbued intellectual effort.  There is much more, of course, to being God’s people.  But when lived out truly, our vocation to the church will always include, treasure, and encourage the life of the mind.

Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem

gal 6

Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos.  In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals.  Here’s why.

It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity.  The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela.  The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle.  There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress.  Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does.  She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that.  On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days)  is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.

Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards  LGBT persons.  In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel.  Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society.  But that is just a preview of what is to come.  Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life.  The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.

The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere.  They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians.  Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.

But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?

Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem.  They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour.  Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.

So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror.  They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.

Where is the Good News? (Or: Please Stop Giving Money to the Caucuses)

emmettkelly
Emmett Kelly, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Good News, a conservative evangelical caucus, is not pleased with how things are going in the UMC.  A statement following a recent board meeting, denouncing our current state of affairs as “untenable,” read in part:

“We see the present situation as untenable. We are aware of conversations taking place among leading pastors and other groups around the country to examine what options are available for those of us who are biblical Christians and who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline.  Those options include sweeping reform of the church or the creation of a different kind of future.  If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two.  If in reality we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one.  Many are discussing the wisdom of churches continuing to fund a denomination that is unwilling to live by its policies and whose chief officers do not enforce its beliefs.  Some have already curtailed their financial support in protest.  Concrete and dramatic actions are likely to come out of those conversations in the next few months.”

Notice the vague language: “We are aware of conversations”; “leading pastors”; “some” and “many,” etc.  This got me thinking about how complaints and controversial matters are handled on church boards.  One of the rules that any healthy church holds among its decision-making bodies is something like “speak for self, use only ‘I’ statements.”  This is because often times people will attempt to manipulate a process of discernment by implying that untold numbers of persons have a problem with thus-and-such.  You’ve probably heard of conversations like this.  “Pastor, a bunch people are really upset about [x].”  Or, “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they are thinking about leaving unless you do something.”  Oftentimes, the unnamed masses are really just one or two ornery troublemakers who are attempting to augment their influence by claiming others as anonymous co-conspirators.

I would hope that Good News, composed as it is of many who serve in various leadership capacities in local churches, would be astute and honest enough to avoid this kind of power play.  These kinds of veiled threats are, on the whole,  unbecoming of the body of Christ.  What is true at the local church level is equally, if not more so, true at the level of denominational advocacy.

A particularly troubling tactic is the threat of withholding funds unless the one gets their way.  An all-too-common ploy, this is often reserved by power brokers in a local church to use when all else has failed.  Again, what is true of the parish is true of a caucus; hostage-taking should be beneath an organization dedicated to the renewal of the church.  It is, pure and simple, a manipulative tool unworthy of Christians in covenant together.  Apportionments are not dues paid when all is well, but the shared burden that makes shared ministry possible.  As I would say to someone in my church, you aren’t withholding from the local church, you are withholding from the God to whom you have promised a portion.

One last request: can we stop resorting to the self-righteous rhetoric that declares some Christians “biblical” and others (by default) “un-biblical?”  Perceiving oneself as following Scripture on a particular ethical question probably doesn’t mean that one follows every jot and tittle of Scripture at all times.  In that sense, none of us are “biblical.”  This is the conservative equivalent of the Christian left accusing anyone who questions their agenda “homophobic.”  Both are often crass and self-serving adjectives that say nothing helpful in furthering a conversation.

Perhaps the time has come for the people called United Methodists to withhold their funds from these caucus groups, which seem to be more and more intent on running headlong toward a cliff.  They don’t seem to be getting us anywhere: they aren’t sharing good news, they aren’t interested in reconciling, they aren’t confessing anything interesting, they only want love to prevail through bullying and intimidation, and rather than “religion and democracy” they are promoting idolatry and ideology.

Mind you, this is just a humble proposal.  I’m not aware of any others expressing a similar desire. So I won’t promise you that incalculable legions have my back on this.

I’m just speaking for myself.

The Cross is Not About You

Pay attention to enough old revival songs, and eventually the individualism of so much “Jesus n’ Me” theology will wear your patience thin.  N.T. Wright is an evangelical Anglican (a rare breed indeed) who gets that the Good News is not just about “my salvation,” and I continue to learn a great deal from him.

As Good Friday approaches, in which we meditate on the cross and consider all that Christ endured to effect our reconciliation with God, I found these words a helpful reminder that the cross is not merely the news about something done for me, but also a vocation that is to impact how we as Christians approach life and ministry and mission each day.  The cross is personal but also political, it is individual and communal.  Like the entirety of the Biblical revelation, it is first about who God is, and only secondarily about me.

I hope this blesses you in some way as it did me, and I would heartily suggest you add this volume to your current reading list.

The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is to be made known…we do not – we dare not – simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job.  The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, but be cross-shaped through and through.”

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 94-95

Songs for Aurora: The Psalms Versus the Cult of Positivity

I’ve been preaching on the Psalms recently, using Walter Brueggemann’s three-fold typology (orientation, disorientation, new orientation) to order my preaching and teaching of the Bible’s great prayer book.  Little did I know that, unfortunately, the Sunday I had planned to preach about the Psalms of disorientation would be all too close to one of the worst mass killings in recent American history.

I do a double cringe every time a horrific act like the shootings in Aurora takes place.  The first is for the evil act itself, for the victims and their loved ones, for the communities shattered, for families torn apart.  The second cringe follows closely, though: the gut feeling in my stomach that all around the country (and the world) Christians are going to start saying stupid things in the face of cruelty and grief.  Case[s] in point here and here.

Too much popular Christianity is so inoculated by the cult of positivity, so intent on existing only in easy victory, on the mountaintop, that such actions literally do not compute with their comfortable, simple worldview.  So they result to familiar yet ultimately grotesque platitudes: God has a plan; every cloud has a silver lining; only the good die young, etc.  The most common refrain in these – often Reformed, whether acknowledged or not – churches is that somehow this (any and every this) fits into God’s purpose and will for the world.  Ugh.

Brueggemann, in his masterpiece The Message of the Psalms, points out the problem with churches that preach and sing nothing but a well-ordered, rational universe:

Life is not like that.  Life is also savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.  In our time – perhaps any time – that needs no argument or documentation.

Certainly, in the face of the Aurora massacre, no one can doubt life’s “incoherence.”  Denial won’t cut it.  The Bible does not deny agony and distress, and we see this most acutely in the Psalms.  Nowhere does the Bible say, as evangelical leader Jerry Newcombe wrote, “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.” (emphasis added)

Some might suggest that going on as if the world is well ordered and sensible in the face of counterfactuals is an act of gospel rebellion, of faith unmixed with doubt, just as Jesus would have us exhibit.  Bruggemann is suspicious:

It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more  frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” (The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg 1984], 51-52.)

The questions that come at times like this are all legitimate.  In the Psalms, everything is on the table: God is asked to show up, to be the God of deliverance, the God of hope; God is accused of silence and abandonment; God’s own holiness and righteousness is invoked against what looks like his insufficiency in the face of evil.  Jesus cries one such Psalm on the cross in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

The legitimacy of the questions does not equate to easy answers, though.  The Bible doesn’t give us those.  Job learned that the hard way.  The Psalms are no better.  “There is no rhetorical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005], 170.)

This is how the Bible deals with the disorientation, the darkness, the madness of life: by addressing it all to God, the good and bad, the gore and the glory:

Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Psalm 74:18-23