Friday, December 28, 2007

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Christmas Carol 4

`Why wasn't he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.'
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears immediately after Scrooge's visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Present; for the first time, there is not even a token return to Scrooge's bedroom. The Spirit's appearance is obviously intended to be reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, and the typical way of understanding this section is to focus on death itself: Scrooge is going to die, this fact is revealed to him over the course of several visions, it is ultimately brought home to him by his seeing his own tombstone, and he falls into a total repentance due to his terror. The only problem with this interpretation is, it's implausible.

Unlike Tiny Tim, who clearly has a disease from which, presumably, he could recover given proper medical care, there has been no hint in the story that Scrooge is ill in any way. Nor is there any explanation for his death given in the visions that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him. Scrooge is elderly, and it appears that he simply dies from natural causes and old age. The point is, a change of heart is not going to prevent this from occurring, and nothing in the story suggests that it will. Scrooge is smart; he knows that he is elderly, and the certainty that he will one day die cannot be new to him. So having that fact pointed out by the Spirit cannot possibly have a significant effect on Scrooge. Nonetheless, the visions shown to Scrooge do have that effect. So the point of the visions must be something other than simply the fact that Scrooge will die.

The Spirit first shows Scrooge some seemingly random conversations among businessmen, discussing the death of someone they knew.

`It's likely to be a very cheap funeral,' said the same speaker; `for upon my life I don't know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?'

`I don't mind going if a lunch is provided,' observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one!'

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,' said the first speaker, `for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I'll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I'm not at all sure that I wasn't his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.'

And from another conversation,
`Well,' said the first. `Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?'

`So I am told,' returned the second. `Cold, isn't it?'
The discussions are not merely about the death of someone: they are disinterested discussions. The general mood is indifference.

The Phantom next leads Scrooge to a rundown shop in a bad section of town, in which three people meet to sell some wares to Old Joe, the proprietor. It soon becomes evident that what they are selling they have stolen from the dead man. The items produced by the first two are simply odds and ends, but the last woman produces bed curtains and blankets from the bed on which the dead man was lying, and the shirt that had been put on him for burial.
`Ha, ha!' laughed the same woman, when old Joe, producing a flannel bag with money in it, told out their several gains upon the ground. `This is the end of it, you see. He frightened every one away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead! Ha, ha, ha!'
And then suddenly the Ghost and Scrooge are in a room alone with a corpse, covered with a sheet.
He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares. They have brought him to a rich end, truly.

He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him.
The Spirit indicates for Scrooge to move the sheet and reveal the face of the dead man, but Scrooge can't. Instead, he begs the Ghost to show him someone who feels emotion at the man's death. The Spirit shows him a conversation between a man and his wife.

`We are quite ruined!'

`No. There is hope yet, Caroline.'

`If he relents,' she said, amazed, `there is. Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened!'

`He is past relenting,' said her husband. `He is dead.'

She was a mild and patient creature if her face spoke truth; but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart.

"The only emotion that the Ghost could show him, caused by the event, was one of pleasure." Scrooge then begs to see "some tenderness connected with a death," and is shown Bob Cratchit's house, in which is being mourned the recent death of Tiny Tim. By contrast to the dark, empty room in which the dead man had lain, the room in which Tiny Tim is lying
was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face.
So Scrooge finds tenderness, but not for the man lying on the bed.

The Spirit finally conveys Scrooge past his place of business and his home, to a churchyard. "It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds." Before even seeing the stone, Scrooge begins to plead with the Ghost. But in all his pleading, Scrooge never once mentions dying, or expresses a wish not to die. What he asks is, "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?"

It is not merely the fear of death that so affects Scrooge: it is the fear of being alone, uncared for, unmourned; that no one will have any emotion other than relief or satisfaction from his death. It is being cut off from all of humanity, and all his wealth having become meaningless. He has finally understood that while he can manipulate and control people through his wealth during his lifetime, only kindness and participation in their lives can gain any reciprocal kindness from them once he dies. He wants, not never to die, but to have been a part of others' lives when he does.

It is worthwhile to look at our own dealings with others. If we hold people at a distance, use them for our own ends, manipulate them to do what we want, ignore them when they're inconvenient, place wealth or personal possessions or accomplishments higher than them, then we have no cause to expect or hope for their kindness to us when we are in need, or past needing anything in this world. Our net worth is not something to be found in bankbooks and ledgers; it is to be found in the place we've made for ourselves in others' hearts. Our accomplishments and accumulations mean nothing if they are not valued by others, and we create value only by investment--investment in the hearts and lives of others.

This insight, by the way, is not merely of temporal value, or related only to people's thoughts and memories of us after we are gone. 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Christmas Carol 3

`Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch?' asked Scrooge.
`There is. My own.'
`Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?' asked Scrooge.
`To any kindly given. To a poor one most.'
`Why to a poor one most?' asked Scrooge.
`Because it needs it most.'
The Ghost of Christmas Present represents the sheer joy of the holiday. What the Ghost does is relatively simple: he merely shows Scrooge other people who are enjoying Christmas with one another. In some ways, this is the most far-ranging portion of the novella; we are given the impression that the Spirit shows Scrooge a multitude of people and celebrations over a large area. The main point is that people are enjoying themselves together, and there is little relationship between their financial situation and the joy they experience--except for the fact that poverty can endanger the actual lives of those in its clutches, and thus cause grief, opposing joy. But wealth in no way ensures joy; in fact, all the people Scrooge sees are less well-off than he is, and full of much more joy.

But the two main places that the Spirit takes Scrooge are the houses of Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew. At Bob Cratchit's house, Scrooge becomes acquainted with his clerk's family. Bob's wife is "dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence"; his oldest son Master Peter Cratchit is proudly wearing his father's shirt, with a "monstrous shirt collar" playing a prominent role in the day's festivities; Martha and Belinda, the older girls; two smaller Cratchits, a boy and a girl; and Tiny Tim, the youngest son, crippled by an unknown illness. Charges that A Christmas Carol is overly sentimental may derive from Dickens's portrayal of poor characters, and Tiny Tim in particular, as impossibly virtuous. But the description of the joy and pleasure of the Cratchit's feast is wonderful, despite the fact that the foods described are those accessible to a poor family.
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.
And about the Christmas pudding, "Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing."

The point to be made upon Scrooge is that the Cratchits are altogether unlike his own discontent self:
They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.
At the house of Scrooge's nephew, Scrooge learns that his own position is not only not shared by others, but can be positively comical to them:

`He said that Christmas was a humbug, as I live!' cried Scrooge's nephew. `He believed it too!' [...] `He's a comical old fellow,' said Scrooge's nephew, `that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'

`I'm sure he is very rich, Fred,' hinted Scrooge's niece. `At least you always tell me so.'
`What of that, my dear?' said Scrooge's nephew. `His wealth is of no use to him! He don't do any good with it. He don't make himself comfortable with it.'
Scrooge enters in to the singing and the merriment of this party which he had steadfastly refused to attend on Christmas Eve afternoon, even though he is the butt of the Yes and No game. Once he has been persuaded to measure things on a basis other than that of money, he finds a great deal of joy in many things he had disdained for many years.

On two occasions, the Spirit has occasion to repeat Scrooge's words from the beginning of the story. The first is when Scrooge asks whether Tiny Tim will die, and is told that he will not last until the next Christmas: "If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
`Man,' said the Ghost, `if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child.'
And then later, when the Spirit shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want:

`Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge.
`Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. `Are there no workhouses?'
I wrote earlier that Scrooge was not merely a miserly, crotchety old man; that he actively enjoyed his own malevolence. Yet even he did not recognize the damning impact of thoughts and attitudes such as his. His cruelty was to dismiss others less fortunate than himself, assuming them to be lazy or otherwise unworthy, and thus suffering justly the consequences of their own decisions. And then he thinks no more of them. But those others have to live out the implications of Scrooge's thoughtlessness. Having been to Bob Cratchit's home, he now cares whether Tiny Tim will live or die; if he had not gone there, Tim would have died without Scrooge having ever known about it. Those are the implications of such thoughtlessness, as Dickens presents it.

I see an attitude growing today: whether the liberal attitude, "You can't tell me what to do with my body," the conservative attitude, "You can't tell me what to do with my money," or the libertarian attitude, which says both. The attitude, at bottom, is this: "I am me, alone; I am not part of anything larger; I owe nothing to anyone apart from myself." This is Scrooge's attitude. And it would be funny, if it weren't so sad.

The gift-giving and get-togethers and festivities at Christmas, hopefully, remind us that we are not merely ourselves, and that we have a responsibility to others. Paul writes in Galatians 2:10, "All they [the Jerusalem apostles] asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." When's the last time you heard an evangelical pastor preach on that verse? We are not alone. If we are salt and light, then we are called to salt and enlighten something other than ourselves. May we enjoy, in our festivities, our connectedness with others, and may we touch lives, as best we can, for their benefit and encouragement.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas Carol 2

"I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were."
--Belle, to her erstwhile fiance Ebenezer Scrooge

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey through various Christmases of his earlier life. The temptation of a 20th or 21st century author would have been to "psychologize" Scrooge, to see what terrible circumstances in his youth had made him into the man he now is. To some degree, this does happen in this section of the novella, but Dickens does more than merely blame Scrooge's demeanor on a bad upbringing. He deals with Scrooge's responses to life experiences.

Scrooge first sees himself as a child, abandoned at a boarding school, unable to return home for Christmas, with only his books for companions. His mother has evidently died, and his father, possibly grieving, refuses to allow him to come home. While young, he populates his time with the imaginary inhabitants of his books; a few years older, he spends his time "walking up and down despairingly." But on the latter occasion, his sister Fan arrives to bring him home, since "Father is so much kinder than he used to be." So although he has had painful experiences, he chooses his response to them, and good things happen as well as bad.

In the next vision, Scrooge sees himself at the warehouse where he had been apprenticed. His boss, Old Fezziwig, puts on a Christmas party for his apprentices, his family, and their servants and neighbors. Dickens describes the party in some detail, and portrays both the younger and older Scrooges entering into the festivities wholeheartedly and praising Fezziwig lavishly. When the Spirit asks why he should be praised so highly for spending only a modest amount, Scrooge responds, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.... The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

The next sequence, however, indicates more than any other the change that makes Scrooge become the man we are introduced to in the beginning of the story. Scrooge is forced to watch as his former fiancee, Belle, breaks off their engagement. Her reasoning is telling:
`Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.'

`What Idol has displaced you?' he rejoined.

`A golden one.'

`This is the even-handed dealing of the world,' he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.'

`You fear the world too much,' she answered, gently. `All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.
Scrooge is afraid of falling back into poverty, so he has focused all his energies into gaining wealth. His "nobler passions" have been displaced by this overriding concern. Belle recognizes that the man he has now become would never have chosen her, "a dowerless girl," to marry. All he cares about is money. He has lost the capacity to value anything else.

The final vision is the only one in which Scrooge's younger self is not present. It functions as an epilogue to the last one. We have already seen where Scrooge's path has taken him; now we see Belle with husband and family. This is the life Scrooge could have had; one which he gave up for what he has now. The time frame is seven years earlier; Marley is lying on his deathbed, and even Belle's husband pities Scrooge, who is "quite alone in the world."

Scrooge gains one major thing in this section of the novella: he relearns the ability to view things from outside his own point of view. He recognizes himself as someone who could be seen as pitiable, not simply as the astute businessman he had regarded himself as before. More importantly, he learns to identify with others. He sees them in the images of his earlier self and in the people who were parts of his life before. His young self alone at the boarding school makes him think of the caroler whom he had frightened away; his sister fan makes him think of his nephew; his regard for Fezziwig makes him think of his own relationship with Bob Cratchit. In each case, he wishes he could have taken a different approach with someone he had met earlier in the day. That ability--to see ourselves in others, and to see ourselves as others see us--could have changed his whole life.

How often do we get stuck in our own heads, seeing only our own point of view? How often do we dismiss others' feelings and concerns, just because they don't fit the template of what we consider important? And in what ways have we changed, slowly, imperceptibly, over time? We focus on something because it seems necessary, because we're afraid of what will happen to us if we don't focus on it. And then it becomes the only way in which we can view life. It's so easy for our "nobler passions" to be replaced. We need consciously, actively, to fight that tendency and keep that from happening.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Christmas Carol 1

Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.
I've read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol many times since I was young, I recently had the pleasure of reading it aloud to my family, and my pastor is doing a sermon series on it. Although it contains few references to The First Christmas, and was never intended by Dickens as a vehicle for the gospel, I believe that there is a great deal of truth in it. It's one of the books that I return to repeatedly throughout life.

I've never really liked any of the film adaptations of the story that I've seen. The George C. Scott version I think perhaps best gets at Scrooge's character, but I've always thought that Jack Nicholson would be the best actor to play the role. Scrooge is not merely a miserly, crotchety old man; he's deliberately mean, nasty, and vicious--in Dickens's words, "Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping,scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." He's not just thoughtless and accidentally or unintentionally cruel; he positively delights in his own malevolence.

In the opening section of the book, Scrooge has four encounters as he winds down the workday on Christmas Eve. First his nephew, who angers Scrooge by inviting him to Christmas dinner (and by being genuinely merry and in love, although poor--things that Scrooge once was, himself, we will discover). Two portly gentlemen, taking up a collection for the poor, are met with Scrooge's heartlessness: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" Then a caroler begins singing outside Scrooge's door, only to flee in terror as Scrooge seizes his ruler as if to go after the singer. Finally, Scrooge confronts his clerk, reproaching him for wanting "the whole day" on Christmas, and to be paid for it.

We see here in Scrooge human nature in its worst form. He's not merely miserable himself; he hates happiness in others, as represented by his nephew. He's not merely miserly himself; he hates generosity, and has "an improved opinion of himself" for his sharp rebuke of the portly gentlemen. He's not merely unwilling to enjoy the music of the season; he must violently banish it from his presence. And as wealthy as he is, and as poor as his clerk is, he still considers it a type of theft--"picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December"--to be obliged to give a paid day off. Above all else, Scrooge is resentful--resentful of anyone or anything who makes any sort of claim on him, and anyone or anything who has anything he does not, including simple good cheer.

All of which would merely be funny, if it didn't ring true. Who among us hasn't felt grouchy and irritated at some stupid-looking happy person? Who hasn't wanted, on occasion, to wipe the smile off the face of someone? There is more Scrooge in us than we'd like to admit.

When Scrooge goes home, he is confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had died seven years earlier. The device that Dickens uses to represent Marley's sufferings is a chain composed of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel." Marley informs Scrooge that the chain he bears was fully as long as Marley's seven years previously, and has grown steadily since then. The sin of Scrooge and Marley was to have nothing but mercenary goals: Scrooge had earlier protested to the portly gentlemen that the welfare of others was not his business--"It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly"; Marley retorts, "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business."

Although not a man of "business" in Scrooge's sense, I am a very private person. Early life experiences of rejection taught me to leave others alone and want to be left alone myself. I am the type to have a few close friends. There's nothing, by itself, wrong with that; not everyone has to be a social butterfly, and one can't have deep friendships with everyone. Nonetheless, if my tendency toward solitude has the effect of isolating me and numbing me from the needs of others, then it's profoundly wrong.

We evangelicals have separated the "social gospel" from the Gospel, and in so doing, have divorced ourselves from a great deal of what Jesus taught, and what the Bible as a whole teaches. Jesus didn't say, "Tell everyone to repeat the Sinner's Prayer"; He did say, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and illustrated that love by the actively helpful actions of the Good Samaritan. He did say, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." He separated the sheep and the goats by the actions they took for the benefit of others. Attending to the Gospel would seem to involve attending to the "social gospel," and historically, it did so. It seems that that has been forgotten in recent decades, though. We identify with the interests of Scrooge--lowering taxes, blaming poverty on laziness--more than the interests of Bob Cratchit.

Perhaps if we emphasized what Jesus did, we'd secure an easier hearing for the Gospel.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

What Do You Want for Christmas?

Isn't that a strange question? "What do you want for Christmas?" Not, "What are you giving someone else for Christmas?" or "What are you most thankful for this Christmas?" Or even, "What do you hope your friends and family receive this Christmas?" No. It's, "What do you want for Christmas?" Because, of course, Christmas is all about getting stuff. And not just any stuff. The stuff you want.

It makes sense, I guess, if you're talking about Secular Christmas. But even then, the focus is, or used to be, on gift giving. We've made it about gift receiving. Of course, we're brought up that way and bring up our children that way. We ask them the Insidious Question, without thinking about its implications. We bring them to the Mall Santa for the expressed purpose of him asking them that question. We simply want to know what they would like; we want to get them what would make them happy.

Which would be okay if we sloughed off that attitude as we grew up. But Americans are now in the habit of never growing up. Throughout life, it's, "What do I want?" We hint, we connive, we read the ads and lust after the new toys or gadgets or fashions that are being displayed to whet our appetites. Christmas is an excuse to Get What I Want. It performs the same function as President's Day or Labor Day, only on a grander scale. It's the granddaddy of all marketing tools.

One sees the attitude in its rawest form in the way gifts are received. The disgusted expressions when a gift received is not What I Wanted. Or maybe it's not the right color or the right style. That's why it's so important to have that gift receipt, to preserve the fiction that the recipient does not know and should not care how much the gift cost, but is able to return the gift and so procure what was Really Wanted. I know, I know, sometimes it's a size issue, or duplicate gift issue. Not all returns are Bad Things. But really, where did we ever get the idea that a gift was anything other than a gift? That we shouldn't be appreciative of a gift just because it was given and because there was no obligation to give anything at all?

But of course, that lack of obligation that marks a True Gift is exactly what we don't want at Christmas. At least in our language we've become honest enough to call gifts what they are: exchanges. We don't give gifts, we exchange them. "I'll get you what you Really Want, if you get me what I Really Want, and then we'll both be happy." Until the bill comes.

So it merely makes sense that we end up just getting gift cards. Why bother shopping if the recipients are merely going to return the item and shop for themselves anyway? Perhaps a shopping spree is, in the end, what they Really Want. Eventually, maybe we'll all just cut out the middlepeople and just buy stuff for ourselves at Christmas. It would save everyone a lot of work.

But if you're celebrating Christian Christmas, I don't see how this whole mindset can enter the picture. Christmas is the day on which we celebrate the greatest gift God ever gave to us humans. "What do I want for Christmas? What do you mean? I've already received it--or rather, Him." It's not what we want, but what we have already been given, that we are celebrating. And it's worth celebrating, joyfully celebrating, and by all means, let's give gifts in the process. But let's give them without expectation of return, and let's receive them as gifts--as something unearned, to be enjoyed freely and thankfully. Let's not worry about what we want for Christmas. Let's give what we can and enjoy what we have received, from the gracious hand of our Father, who loves us and gave His Son for us, so we could have life, and life more abundantly.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007


It seems to me that the basic Christian mindset is, or ought to be, gratitude. What are we Christians, anyway? What defines us? Isn't it the fact that, completely apart from any merit of our own, we trust in Jesus' sacrifice for our sins? In other words, our only standing before God--the only thing that sets us apart and gives us hope for eternal life--is having received a gift. A gift of infinite value to us and inestimable cost to the Giver. A gift that we could not possibly deserve--a gift that was necessary precisely because we did not deserve it.

What possible response should that engender apart from gratitude? Certainly not the religious, moralistic pride that all-too-often we can exhibit. We forget that we are a community of sinners before we become a community of saints, and that anything good in us is a gracious gift of God.

I think every other aspect of the truly Christian mindset springs from gratitude. Joy, for example. Can a person who is unthankful be truly joyful? I know that in my own life, moments of pure joy are those in which I am the most conscious of having been richly blessed, having received what I did not earn. Or love. The more conscious I am of being a recipient of God's love, unmerited, undeserved, the more easily I can share this love with others, without regard for whether I think they deserve it. It doesn't matter: freely, freely, I have received, which helps me to freely, freely give.

And so, amidst the feasting and football, whatever our circumstances or station in life, lets remember, not Pilgrims and Indians, but God's truly rich blessings on us. And may we all have a most blessed day of Thanksgiving.

Earlier Thanksgiving posts: Don't "Happy Turkey Day" Me! and 40 Things to be Thankful For.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Thoughts on Primary Voting

Ben Witherington's Voter's Guide for Thinking Evangelicals is a worthwhile read. A few salient points (these are mine, although they overlap with Dr. Witherington's and his post is my jumping-off point):
  1. Don't be a one-issue voter. It's my conviction that politicians have used certain wedge issues to secure the votes of people whose interests and priorities overall they have no intention of representing. Bluntly put, if Republicans have the votes of Evangelicals in their hip pockets because of the abortion issue, they don't actually have to do anything about abortion. In fact, it's against their own interests to do so--because it would rob them of the issue over which they gained a voting bloc in the first place. It's in their interests to keep the "struggle" going as long as possible, to keep that voting bloc faithful, while at the same time "reaching out" to those who differ on the abortion issue and growing that "big tent." Which is exactly what's been going on for years, perhaps decades, now.

  2. Vote based on issues that the office being run for actually has influence over. Once again, using abortion as a touchstone (and only one of many possible examples), the Presidency has practically no influence over this issue. The most that can be hoped for is that Supreme Court justices are elected who overturn Roe, which, if it happened, would relegate the issue to the states and remove the President and the Federal government from the issue entirely. On the other hand, there are many, many issues over which the Presidency does exert great influence: foreign policy, for example. We should vote based on what the duties of the office entail.

  3. In primaries, vote for the candidate you genuinely would like to see win. It is mind-boggling to me that long before a single primary or caucus vote has been cast, people are already advocating voting based on "electability." "I'm not happy about some of Candidate Y's positions, but he's our best hope of beating Candidate X."[1] What are we doing when we say that? Yes, in the general election, there may be times to hold our noses and vote for the lesser of two evils, but in the primaries, we need to give the candidate whom we can most truly support our support. The worst that can happen is that a party chooses a nominee that will get defeated in the general election, while a more "moderate" candidate could have won (e.g., the Republicans choosing Goldwater in 1964). However, that can be a bellwether for a political shift (e.g., the Republicans choosing Reagan in 1980).
Anyway, those are my thoughts.

[1] "Candidate Y" and "Candidate X" morph over time; two very plausible present contenders would be "Rudy" and "Hillary." Which is why the "Y" and the "X" were interposed. To be chromosomally correct.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Love and the Pro-Con List

Julie has another terrific post, this time about expectations of singles for marriage, especially among Christian singles. Well worth checking out. I'm going to do a bit of fisking here, but in a good way.

Julie writes,
During my first year of college (which was a Bible college), there was a girl named April who firmly believed that she was so special and unique in God's sight -- this had been drummed into her head by well-meaning parents, teachers, and youth pastors trying to protect their young flock -- that her list of qualifications for a guy was incredibly long and incredibly impossible. Nothing but the best for her, she insisted, pointing out that God wanted the best for his daughters. April did not have any comparative list of such actual qualities in herself.
Just so. I've observed before that everyone is always looking for the "right person" for himself or herself; hardly anyone is looking to become the "right person" for someone else. Which, when you think about it, is pure selfishness: I want precisely what I want, at the least possible cost or annoyance to me. What's more, that process of becoming "right" for one another doesn't end with an engagement, or even a wedding. It's a lifelong process of learning, growing, reacting, rebuking, and generally becoming intertwined.

Think about it. People are fluid. You're not the same as you were a decade ago. You won't be the same in another decade. How can you possibly know what future-you will need or value most? How can you know if future-him or future-her will be able to provide it? So how can a list, based on present-day needs and expectations, possibly forecast the future?

At some point, we have to realize that the process of becoming one is a lifelong process, directed by God, sometimes painful to our individual desires, but nonetheless beautiful, wonderful, and eminently worthwhile. I don't know who I would be without Cecile in my life for the past eighteen years; I'm not sure I want to know.

Too often the phrase "God has called me to be single" is a Bible-laced excuse to continue being selfish, fearful, proud, and content with smooth sailing. Many beautiful books and web sites by lovely men and women discuss singlehood as if we were all Paul, mysteriously and unfairly going through life without the healing of our affliction.
Yes. Reread 1 Corinthians 7. Does Paul ever say that singleness was to be pursued for its own sake? That it's a spiritually superior mode of being? No. All his reasons for preferring and advocating singleness are practical. Singleness is practically preferable for a dangerous, itinerant ministry like Paul's (you don't have to worry about how your family will be provided for while you're being thrown in jail, thrown out of town, and shipwrecked) and in times of persecution (you don't have to worry about what will happen to them if you're beheaded). It allows you to focus on service to God, exclusively. So if someone genuinely has that gift and is genuinely called to be single, then they will also be called to some form of ministry that makes apparent why marriage would be significantly detrimental in that situation.

I'm not saying that everyone who is not specifically called to singleness must get married by age x, to the first available candidate. I am saying that avoiding marriage out of fear and selfishness, and calling it a calling, is wrong. Marriage and parenthood are two of the most powerful tools God uses to get our focus off of ourselves and make us part of something larger. They teach us things that are difficult to learn in any other way.
The Evangelical world should stop having singles ministry that encourages singles to stay single and get their weekly relationship fix over pizza or coffee with the rest of the group -- sans any icky side effects from commitment -- and instead tell them to quit waiting for "the right one" and get over themselves and get married to a good and decent one.
Oh yes. What biblical justification is there, anyway, for this concept of "the right one"? That if you don't marry the one person in six billion that God has Specially Chosen Just for You, that life will be toast? As Julie says, we've become "vast herds of terrified, lonely, confused people insisting that good people right beside them simultaneously moving in the same direction are not the right people." If we find someone who is good and decent and loves God and we're genuinely attracted to them and we share interests and like being together, then that should be enough to start on. God will take care of the rest.

Please understand. I'm not saying take the plunge hastily or thoughtlessly. And we are entitled to our own preferences. But somehow, because of fear of making a mistake, we've forgotten that marriage is also a gift. A really, really good gift.

Kudos to Julie. Brave words, coming from someone who is single herself. So far. Check out the entire post; there's a lot more there.
For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Karate and Coasting in North Dakota

Julie wrote a very thought-provoking post, entitled Wear the purple belt. I'm tempted to summarize it, but that would just make prosaic what she expressed much more eloquently. So if you want to know what her title has to do with my title and how that could possibly be thought-provoking, you'll just have to check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pat Robertson Endorses Giuliani

Pat Robertson endorses Giuliani.

And the corruption of the "religious right" is complete. Republican politicians don't even have to pretend to support Christian social issues anymore.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Joe Carter Takes a Stand against Waterboarding

Joe Carter writes a fine article taking a stand against torture, including the kind known as waterboarding. He asks, rhetorically, "How degraded has conservatism become?" I'll ask, non-rhetorically, "How has conservatism become degraded?" Especially the Evangelical Christian kind? The progression, it seems to me, went something like this:
  1. Social changes in the 60s and early 70s made certain things socially acceptable that Christians found abhorrent.
  2. The Democratic party tended to ally itself with these social changes. Evangelical Christians migrated toward the Republicans as an alternative, even though many Republicans had no interest in the social conservatism of Evangelicals.
  3. Evangelical Republicans began to adopt aspects of economic and foreign-policy conservatism that had nothing to do with the social conservative agenda. In some cases, this involved soft-pedaling other aspects of biblical social policy, such as concern for the poor. Identity as a conservative began to supersede identity as a Christian.
  4. Evangelical Republicans became increasingly swayed by such voices as Rush Limbaugh, who seemed to support the social conservative agenda, but who much more strongly supported other aspects of conservatism.
  5. Opposing the Republican party, especially the conservative wing, on any issue, became considered caving in to the liberals.
  6. Evangelical Republicans threw their support strongly behind George W. Bush, partly because he was also an Evangelical.
  7. Bush defined his presidency as war against terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
  8. Conservative Evangelical Christians, to be supportive of Bush and in opposition to liberals, adopted the "oppose terrorists at all costs" mentality.

And here we are.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Rethinking the Reformation

It's a little late to be talking about Hallo Reformation Day, but Michael Spencer's post is really more about how we should view the Reformation itself. A few highlights:
  • I no longer believe Luther ever intended to slay the Catholic Church and establish the wonder of contemporary Protestantism.
  • I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.
  • I’m convinced that it didn’t take long for Protestantism to accumulate enough problems of its own to justify another reformation or two.
  • I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.
  • I no longer believe the theology of the Reformers was the pinnacle of evangelicalism or is the standard by which Biblical truth itself is judged.
No argument here. I wrote about some of this earlier, in The Successes and Failures of the Reformation. It bears repeating, though, if only because of the increasing movement toward judging one's theology, if not one's actual salvation, by the litmus test of the theology of the Reformers.

I purposely left most of Michael's excellent list out. Check it out for yourself.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Redeeming Halloween

Julie passes on a great post by John Fischer. She said there wasn't an individually permalinked article, but I think I got one here. Anyway, he pretty much articulates what I think about Halloween. Let's let kids have fun, and stop being afraid of a defeated foe.

Check it out.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Postmodernism, Truth, Bob Robinson, and John MacArthur

Bob Robinson reviews and critiques John MacArthur's book, The Truth War, in a five-part series on the Vanguard Church blog. To be fair, I haven't read MacArthur's book, and I'm no particular admirer or detractor of MacArthur. But Robinson's review highlights the problems that someone such as myself--a relative newcomer to postmodern thought--has with critiques by the emerging movement of more traditional, or "modernist," if it must be termed that way, views of truth.

In the first post of the series, Robinson focuses on MacArthur's view of truth:
MacArthur defines it in a philosophical manner that reflects his modernist, post-Enlightenment mindset. Truth is objective reality; something we can know through objective scientific observation that can be articulated with words that correspond to that objective reality.
Already there is room for objection: MacArthur certainly does label truth as "objective reality," but in the section quoted, there is nothing about "objective scientific observation," and I doubt that MacArthur says anything about scientific observation at all. So why is such a view attributed to MacArthur? Well, speaking from a postmodernist frame of reference, I might suspect Robinson of using "word games" to manipulate his readers into an a priori rejection of MacArthur's point of view. For Robinson, MacArthur is a modernist, modernists think in terms of scientific observation, therefore MacArthur is thinking in terms of scientific observation. QED.

When Robinson gets around to quoting MacArthur's own definition of truth, in part three of his critique, he finds it agreeable, in his opinion, even to "most of those in the Emerging Church conversation." So why mischaracterize and take issue with MacArthur's view of truth in part one? Don't those in the emerging movement often complain that they are not allowed to define themselves, but rather are wrongly defined by others?

Back in part one, Robinson is arguing that biblical references to "truth" come from a pre-Enlightenment view that is "less tied to propositional statements and more tied to relational witness." I'm not sure how postmoderns know this about premoderns, but the example that Robinson offers is less than compelling. Citing John 8:31-32, Robinson argues that "To MacArthur's modern enlightenment mind, the truth of the teachings is what sets you free," and argues instead that premoderns would have understood rather that "Jesus is the one who sets people free," and concludes that "MacArthur's modernist approach to "truth" disconnects the person of Jesus from his teachings." But has MacArthur ever argued that Jesus' teachings, apart from trusting in Jesus himself, is what sets people free? Is it MacArthur who disconnects the person of Jesus from his teachings, or is it Robinson who does so, attributing the result to MacArthur and his fellow "moderns"?

In part two, Robinson takes MacArthur to task for associating emerging movement figures like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren with the heretics condemned in the book of Jude. Robinson probably has a strong point here; it appears that MacArthur is trying to make an analogy between the situation in Jude and the present-day postmodern controversy, an analogy for which there seems to be little support in the actual text of Jude itself. I am, however, a little dubious of Robinson's citation of a number of passages in which Rob Bell makes reference to "truth," as though that settled the issue, or his horror at the suggestion that false teaching within the church, an issue dealt with all over the New Testament, could be attributed to a contemporary figure or movement.

In part three, Robinson offers the oft-cited objection that postmodernism isn't really about the rejection of objective truth and certainty after all, and so modernist critiques along those lines are misdirected. It seems odd to me that Robinson first and most strongly levels an attack against MacArthur's view of truth, then sidesteps the issue of the problematic postmodern view of truth. Robinson helpfully discusses the postmodern view on its own terms; his points boil down to these:
  • Those who claim absolute truth often use violence to foist that truth upon others;
  • Those who claim absolute truth often change that truth over time;
  • Modernity deified reason, and thus sought to prove faith claims by way of logic, thus making faith subservient to reason.
While there may be validity to these claims, it doesn't address the possibility that postmoderns, especially in less guarded moments, haven't swung too far in the other direction. Which leads to part four, in which Robinson contends that "MacArthur’s presumption is that the Emerging Church is filled with hard postmodernists." Once again, I wonder whether MacArthur ever actually said as much. It seems more likely that he is failing to differentiate between "hard" and "soft" postmodernists, as well as "chastened foundationalists," a failure that is easier to comprehend given that those within the emerging movement seem seldom to make such distinctions except in response to criticisms like MacArthur's. Robinson asks,
Why does MacArthur insist that the Emerging Church is full of hard postmodernists? Is it because if he builds a straw man out of the Emerging Church by labeling them hard postmodernists, he can easily burn them down?
It would seem as reasonable to ask, "Why does Robinson insist that the traditional church is full of hard modernists--i.e., those who think objective reality is to be discovered solely by scientific observation, use violence to foist their vision of truth on others, divorce the teachings from the person of Jesus, and make faith subservient to reason? Perhaps most of us are soft modernists, or even chastened subjectivists. If there is a failure to apply distinctions, it is a failure to which we are all subject.

In the last section of Robinson's series, he attempts to apply MacArthur's reasoning to MacArthur himself, essentially claiming that by MacArthur's standards, he himself would also be a heretic because he adheres to dispensationalism, a relatively new form of biblical interpretation. Robinson later retracted much of what he wrote in this final section, but it is worth commenting that Robinson's critique is quite simply predicated on the assumption that dispensationalism is wrong. Truth may be relational and non-propositional, but falsehood is evidently objective and objectively knowable.

I will repeat what I said at the beginning: I haven't read MacArthur's book, and there may be more to Robinson's critique than appears warranted, based on his quotes of the book. Moreover, as an Arminian Pentecostal, I'm not likely to be especially interested in defending MacArthur. I guess my objective is to show how the emerging critique appears to those outside it, and to show that many of the emerging criticisms can profitably be turned on themselves.

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Friday, October 19, 2007


Intentionality seems to be a buzzword these days in church circles. The idea is that whatever we're doing--worship, preaching, evangelism, decor, cell groups, niche ministries--we should become conscious of why exactly we're doing what we're doing and how we're doing it and what it conveys to people so that we can better tailor what we're doing for maximum effectiveness at whatever it is that is our goal.

This would seem to be wisdom, if it weren't for my having read Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions.

Sowell's book has nothing to do with faith or church or theories of evangelism. What it is, is an attempt to explain why the same people group together around various political issues which apparently have little to do with one another. Sowell's theory is that political positions relate to how a person views human nature--as essentially constrained or unconstrained. The unconstrained vision, roughly identifiable with liberal or socialist politics, views humanity as essentially perfectible, and therefore has a more negative view of history and tradition and a greater willingness to embrace change and social experimentation. The constrained vision, roughly identifiable with conservative politics, views humanity as essentially limited, and therefore is more skeptical of the possibilities inherent in experiments in social change, and has a more positive view of history and tradition.

The unconstrained vision regards humanity as on a journey toward perfection. The present generation is therefore farther along on this journey than past generations have been, so present-day ideals and mores are to be preferred to those of the past or of tradition. Moreover, particular individuals are more advanced than the rest, so their views are to be preferred to those of the hidebound majority. It is, finally, by the conscious foresight and will of these enlightened individuals that humanity advances.

The constrained vision regards humanity as limited and potentially dangerous to itself. The accumulated wisdom of generations past, conveyed in its traditions and rituals, is to be preferred to the vicissitudes of present-day innovators. There may be reasons beyond our understanding for some of these traditions. We should be wary of the law of unintended consequences: what we change may have ramifications beyond what can be predicted.

No one is perfectly constrained or perfectly unconstrained in their views. But the constrained view accords more nearly with the biblical view of humanity. Although created in the image of God, we are only an image; we cannot be God himself. And we are fallen. Even redeemed, there is much in our minds and hearts that has not been perfected. And we are not the agents of our own perfection: God is.

The idea that we should be intentional about what we do as believers, individually and corporately, assumes that we can know what the goal of our actions is, or should be, and that we can adjust our methods better to achieve that goal. But that comes from more of an unconstrained view. Can we truly know all of the reasons God calls on us to worship, or to witness to our faith, or to gather together for mutual edification? Is it possible that we may exaggerate one reason and thereby frustrate others?

It appears to me that we have spent the last 20 years or so becoming increasingly intentional about what we do as Christians; we have tried to become more relevant to the world, more understanding, more accommodating. We try to understand how our services and our worship and our language are viewed by outsiders, and we've tried to adjust. But overall, we are losing ground as a percentage of the population.

Is it possible that we are not supposed to be conscious and intentional about what we do in our Christian life? Is it possible that our quest for intentionality is a quest for control, that we simply are not willing to do and be what God told us to do and be, because we think that if we figure it out, we can do it better? Should we perhaps worship in the way that we feel glorifies God best, without worrying about what impact we think we're making on others? Is it perhaps the best way to serve God to focus on Him, and let Him take care of the results?

Just a thought.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Lieu of a Real Post (Vol. 3)

I took a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test some years ago, and was astonished at how accurately it pegged me. So recently I took a similar online test, with similar (although not identical) results:

Click to view my Personality Profile page

The MBTI portion assessed me as an INFJ; if I recall correctly, the actual MBTI that I took years ago assessed me as an INFP--but on both tests, the final axis, "perceiving" vs. "judging," was relatively balanced. The test assessment says that INFJ is the rarest personality type. That figures.

The right side of the graph you see involves various types of learning styles; mine are heavily weighted toward verbal and musical, and away from visual and spatial. Which is why I'm mechanically declined.

Anyway, you can click on the graphic to see more about, well, me, which I know you're just dying to do. Plus, as you might imagine, it will give you the opportunity to take your own test and examine your own wierdnesses. If you're into that sort of thing. Which I am. Because I'm that type.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Defining Torture Down

While the US Justice Department claimed in December 2004 to have repudiated torture and to have abandoned the most extreme interrogation methods against terrorism suspects, it issued a secret memo early the next year explicitly authorizing those same interrogation methods, claiming that they do not constitute torture, according to this New York Times story.

In July of last year, "President Bush signed a new executive order authorizing the use of what the administration calls 'enhanced' interrogation techniques — the details remain secret — and officials say the C.I.A. again is holding prisoners in 'black sites' overseas." While we do not know specifically what interrogation techniques are being used, past techniques have included "slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions; or the ultimate, waterboarding," in which a prisoner is strapped to an inclined plane with his head lower than his feet and water poured over his face to induce the feeling of drowning. While Congress has attempted to outlaw "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," by statute, the Justice department secretly issued a legal opinion which "declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard."

May I ask, if these methods do not violate that standard, what does?

Those who support these tactics seemingly think that because we are the "good guys," any methods we deem necessary are automatically acceptable. But what would make us the "good guys" except for a willingness to refrain from actions we would normally attribute to "bad guys"? What would be the outcry if these tactics were used on our own service people?

There is also the argument that "If by extreme measures we could prevent another 9/11 and save thousands of people's lives, wouldn't it be worth it?" Of course, this is begging the huge question of whether "extreme measures" actually do produce the required results, and of whether they are necessary to produce the required results--i.e., would other methods have worked equally well or better? But even accepting the premise, what then? First of all, it obliterates the line between torture and non-torture: wherever we draw that line, you could always apply the argument to just the other side of it. And it assumes that the subject actually has the information we're looking for, which can never be known for sure until the information is actually obtained. Finally, in arguments of this sort, the good to be gained is usually maximized and the methods to be used are usually minimized, as in this exchange between Scott Hennen of radio station WDAY and Vice President Cheney:

Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's a no-brainer for me....
The Vice President went on to say that "We don't torture," but again, the Administration is engaged in defining any method it feels justified in using as "not torture." At any rate, notice how waterboarding is minimized as "a dunk in water" and the outcome is maximized as "sav[ing] lives"? The fact that we have to rhetorically downplay our methods and play up our results says a lot.

I remember reading the Spire comic book adaptation of In the Presence of Mine Enemies, the story of Howard Rutledge, who was a prisoner in North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. There was a picture of Howard Rutledge, tied to bamboo poles in a stress position, sweating, trying to outlast his interrogators. I certainly thought that that was torture at the time. Now, come to find out, it wasn't torture after all--and my government uses it too.

I really can't see how Christians can support this sort of thing. Whatever else the person in the interrogation room is, he is a human being, created in the image of God, someone God loves and someone for whom Jesus died. What will our actions do to that person? Will we convince him that our way of life is better after all? Or will we reaffirm in his mind that we are the depraved godless infidels he thought we were? What will we do with him when we are done? Because if we don't execute him or imprison him for life, then we will eventually unleash upon the world one more person aimed at hatred and revenge against the Great Satan that did the unthinkable to him. Perhaps that's what he was before we picked him up. But when we're done with him, will we have caused him to question that idea, or reaffirmed it?

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Friday, September 28, 2007

The Man Who May Have Saved the World

I wonder how many of you know the name Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. If you don't, you need to read this article. Because he may well have saved your life, as well as the world as we currently know it.

I'm not going to recap the whole article, but on September 26, 1983, at a time of extremely high tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, Strategic Rocket Forces Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was on duty, monitoring the Soviet satellite early-warning network. His responsibilities included alerting his supierors of any impending nuclear missile attack. On that night, he received a computer report that indicated a nuclear missile being launched from the United States and headed toward Moscow. Reasoning that the US would not have launched a single missile, he--did nothing. But then the computers indicated more missiles, five altogether. Petrov still chose not to respond. In the end, Petrov turned out to be right. But being right came at a price. He was sent into early retirement with a poverty-level pension, and into a nervous breakdown, for breaking military protocol.

There is debate concerning whether Petrov's actions actually averted all-out nuclear war. The Soviets maintain that Petrov didn't actually have his finger on the proverbial "button," and that the lack of corroborating evidence would have prevented any missile launch on their part. But the decision would have had to be made in a matter of seconds or minutes. Who knows?

I guess this affects me strongly because I wonder how those of us who were supporters of a tough stance during the Cold War would have felt if we had known about this incident. How would we have felt if one of the officers in our bunkers had made the same judgment call? (Who knows but what some of them did?) Did we really take seriously the possibility of an accidental war?

It's easy to take positions based on ideology, or being tough, or sincerely believing that we're in the right. But we need to think through, really think through, the implications and possible consequences of our positions. Because there may be more riding on them than we had thought.

HT: Jollyblogger

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Death of Worship as Evangelism?

Just read a killer article: Sally Morgenthaler's "Worship as Evangelism," in the Next-Wave e-zine. Not all I agree with: the extended quote of an unchurched journalist lampooning a contemporary worship service, and the all-too-familiar accusation that we're all just looking for "an excuse not to do the hard work of real outreach" (evidently only extroverts are real Christians). But there is compelling stuff there:

  • a survey of what has been going on in the last 20 years with the seeker-sensitive/worship-driven model of church growth;
  • the irrefutable stats that show us that "For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance—and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers";
  • the fact that churches that think they're reaching the unchurched are finding that only a tiny percentage of their congregations are actually from an unchurched background.
The seeker-sensitive movement had it right that if someone is going to visit your church, it will likely be on a Sunday morning (although that isn't really all that exclusively true, it seems to me). But that has very little to do with reaching people who never visit a church at all, who don't think that church is relevant to their lives. Frankly, there is nothing in Scripture that remotely suggests that the gatherings of believers is a primary evangelism opportunity, or that we should structure our services in order to be evangelistic. The closest you can get is Paul using the synagogue service to introduce Jewish worshipers to Jesus the Messiah. But he was bringing that in from the outside, and the inevitable result was getting expelled from the synagogue, and worse. So that's not really a model for churches to follow. The gathering of believers together was for an entirely different purpose: to strengthen, unify, build up, teach, and equip believers to live out their faith in the larger world when they were not gathered together.

I'm the last person to pretend to have the answers regarding evangelism and church growth. But it seems to me that real evangelism happens almost exclusively outside the church walls, by people who are especially gifted for that type of ministry, and also by people who are really excited about their own Christian lives, about what God is doing in them. People will naturally share what they're genuinely excited about. It can't be hyped into people, and it can't be guilted into them either. It has to be a God-thing, and we need to be seeking God to restore and rejuvenate that excitement. Because if it's not working for us, why would we invite anyone else to try it?

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Earl Creps on Missional Fatigue

There's an interesting post from Earl Creps regarding people who once attended missional congregations and then left for more traditional church environments. Since Creps has identified largely with the emergent and missional foci, and is about to plant a church on the UC Berkeley campus, it would have been easy for him to dismiss these people as simply unwilling to pursue the real mission of the church. But he doesn't do that. Both the post and the ensuing discussion are worthy of a serious read.

Also, Creps writes about some positive experiences he had in doing some workshops for the Southern Baptist Convention. Since I've got some SBC friends out there through this blog, I thought my AG and SBC friends might enjoy reading this. One good quote here:

Southern Baptists are as confused as we are: comparing notes on our annual meetings, districts, and autonomous churches, I discovered that the AoG and the SBC have some things in common. We are both trying to sort out how to amplify the efforts of thousands of independent churches through concerted action. It's a jungle out there.

I'm writing this blog because those of us within denominations easily fall prey to the idea that our organization is just the worst thing out there. We have so many problems and so many critics that some days negative thinking can become almost an obsession. Talking honestly with anyone from another group is a wonderful antidote to organizational anxiety. We really do share the same challenges.
Good stuff.

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Good News

Out in the painfully bright sunlight
Among the wandering hordes of people--
How does one go about it?

Telling the tale, of what one learned
In the cave and the cathedral,
Of the sky and the ghost

And the death and the life.
Sounds like gibberish to my own ears,
How much more to barbarians!

It's caught in my throat;
I'm no linguist, no interpreter.
Blame the messenger, not the message.

Tony Snow on Cancer's Unexpected Blessings

Tony Snow has a really great article in Christianity Today. Here's a taste:
The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies. Think of Paul, traipsing though the known world and contemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes (Spain), shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but only about the moment.
The whole thing is really good. Check it out.


Friday, September 07, 2007

Trying to Understand Mother Teresa's Spiritual Struggles

I've been trying to get my head around the recently publicized revelations regarding Mother Teresa. People whom I've read seem to be able to assimilate this information into their already-held worldview without much difficulty; I'm having a more difficult time with it. That's not because I can't identify with such feelings of spiritual abandonment. But making sense of it is a more difficult proposition. The options seem to be these:
  1. The Athiestic Option: Teresa didn't feel God's presence because there is no God whose presence could be felt. Christian writers that I've seen have accused athiests of exploiting this situation for propaganda purposes, but really, you have to admit that athiests have Ockham's Razor on this one.

  2. The "She Wasn't Saved" Option: Teresa didn't feel God's presence because she didn't truly know Jesus as her savior. I've read people say that others have come to this conclusion; I haven't read anyone write this themselves. Probably I don't frequent those types of sites. For a reason.

  3. The Bad Theology Option: Teresa didn't feel God's presence because she held to a works-centered theology rather than a faith-centered theology. If only she had come to Luther's epiphany, she would have realized that she didn't have to do all that she did to earn God's favor; He is only pleased with our faith.

    The thing that strikes me about those who would contend #3 (usually in combination with #2) is that many of them tend to ridicule present-day spiritual experience. All that ended when the Apostle John died. We now have The Closed Canon, through which (through only which) we can experience God and hear from Him. If we deny this, we deny Sola Scriptura, which leads to an open-ended New Age how-can-we-be-sure-of-anything yada yada yada. So a lack of spiritual experience proves them right, and Teresa wrong. Uh huh.

  4. The "Great Saints Fight Great Battles" Option: Teresa didn't feel God's presence because God was allowing her to go through a particularly strong trial, for reasons we may speculate on but ultimately are known only to Him. She was identifying with Jesus' passion; she was identifying with the spiritual darkness of those whom she was ministering to; she had to go through this in order to continue with the work she had been given.

  5. The "Teresa's Struggle Is Our Struggle" Option: Teresa was simply inordinately forthright with her confessors about a common spiritual malady. I've seen people write that they are using her book as a devotional, that she is spiritually inspiring. I can understand how realizing that we are not alone in our struggles can be a comfort, and that that comfort may be even more pronounced when the one who shares our struggles is noteworthy; but I find it hard to find any joy in the misery of a fellow human being, especially a fellow believer who has devoted her life to God's service.

    The last two items, it seems, cancel each other out. Either Teresa was unique, or she represented all of us. She can't have been both. Moreover, if she represented all (or a significant number) of us, doesn't that really just support the idea of #1? I'm not saying I agree with #1; I'm just saying Ockham's Razor, blah blah blah. This is particularly difficult for someone in my spiritual tradition--Pentecostal--that emphasizes the present-day experience of God's presence.

  6. The Psychological Option: Teresa didn't experience God's presence because she had some psychological need to compensate for her success. She had to punish herself, or give herself a reason for humility, and so therefore she subconsciously contrived her entire spiritual struggle. But then that lends itself to the theory that perhaps all spiritual experience is at bottom just psychological, which leads....
You see why I'm struggling with this? It's not that I think the athiests are right; I don't. Many of us have felt God's presence, even if we also experience periods when He seems absent. Many of us can attest to objective changes in our lives as a result of God's work in us. The history of Christianity cannot be explained without at least some spiritual objective beginning. But I find it difficult to understand why the God who loves us will withhold His presence from us, especially for prolonged periods of time.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Reverse Pharisaism and the Cult of the Cool

I just read A Gospel Rant on The Gospel-Driven Church blog. It's a reaction to a series of "Mac vs. PC" style YouTube videos pitting "Religious" against "Authentic." I don't have the same visceral reaction to the video, at least the introductory one that I've seen, and I think that an actually reasonable point is being made. But I also think that Jared Wilson's reaction is pretty understandable, and very powerful. A few quotes:
This pitting of "real" against "lame" ones is spiritually bankrupt dreck from the pit of hell. The guy on the right calls himself "authentic," and the people who made these clearly have no clue what "authentic" means. For them, as for most pomo em-church poseurs, it means "cool." Do you see what they're doing here? They are saying the "authentic" Christian is the cool one.

[W]hat they are really doing is mocking fellow believers. We are the cool ones, we are the ones who have it figured out.[...] This has got to stop. This cult of the cool in the church must stop. This fetishizing of hipness must stop. It is idolatry.

This is reverse pharisaism. It really is. "I thank you God that I'm not like that lame, religious retard over there." This is just symptomatic of the consumerist, self-centered, behavioristic, culture-driven lunacy passing for ministry today. It is an anti-gospel, and it is the spirit of the anti-christ at work.
Some of Wilson's rant makes it clear that he's the type of Reformed brother who sees any reference to this-world practical advice in a message from Scripture as "the same ol' works religion. [...] all about principles and steps and tips [...] just the same behavioristic gospel." One wonders what believers of this ilk do with the book of Proverbs. And as some of the commenters on the post have pointed out, what Jared has done is not completely dissimilar to what he is criticizing.

And yet.... there's some real truth there. I think some of us have gotten so critical of our forebears, of what we consider "traditional Christianity," that we've lost the respect we owe to any fellow member of the Body of Christ. We've adopted the hip posture of the media that permeate our lives. It seems obvious to us that true spirituality should be young and skinny. And not too different from the culture at large. At least, not different in any way that would make us look, well, weird. I think Jared is rightly, very rightly, protesting against that attitude.

Check it out.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Scot McKnight on the New Perspective on Paul

I'm a little late getting to it (partially because I was on vacation last week), but Scot McKnight just completed an excellent series introducing the New Perspective on Paul. I haven't had the opportunity to read the comments, but the posts themselves are very good. I've blogged about this before, but as the issue gains currency and controversy, it's worthwhile revisiting.

Essentially, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is a new perspective on Judaism--specifically, the discovery from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other archeological data that first-century Judaism was not the works-righteousness religion that the Reformers, and before them, Augustine, had thought that it was. Augustine read his struggle with the Pelagians into his reading of Paul (especially in Galatians and Romans) and Luther and Calvin similarly read their struggle with the medieval Catholic church into their reading of Paul. When Paul contrasts "works of the Law" with "faith in Christ," Augustine and the Reformers saw the tension as being between "works" and "faith"; that is, earning one's salvation as opposed to trusting that it is received by grace. Scholars operating out of the New Perspective see "works of the Law" as focused on those observances that distinguished Jews from Gentiles, such as the dietary laws, circumcision, and observance of the Sabbaths and holy days. (The first and last, not coincidentally, are the main issues that the Pharisees had with Jesus.) Therefore the "works of the Law" and "faith in Christ" is not so much a dichotomy between "works" and "faith," but between "Christ" and "the Law." The New Covenant inaugurated a time when the people of God would be known not for their adherence to the Jewish Torah, but for their trust in Christ as savior. It is that paradigm shift that such passages as Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 are talking about.

Opposition to the New Perspective comes largely from the perception that it undercuts the theological underpinnings of the Reformation. I.e., the argument is theolgical, not exegetical. Biblical scholars (those who write commentaries, as opposed to theologians, who write systematic theologies) are more or less in agreement that the NPP is correct in its assessment of first-century Judaism, and so a reevaluation of Paul is necessary--if he wasn't arguing against "legalism" in the classical sense of trying to earn one's salvation, then exactly what was he arguing against and what was he offering in its place?

Frankly, if the Bible is our standard, then exegesis must trump theological considerations. We must interpret the Bible as accurately as we are able, and then construct our theology from that, not interpret the Bible to fit our theological preconceptions. A refusal to do so, especially by those who trumpet sola scriptura the loudest, is telling.

More about the NPP can be found on The Paul Page.

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