Thursday, August 27, 2009

In Memoriam...

I've been working on a post that was inspired by an article I read recently. The subject of the article is only indirectly related to the subject of my post, which is the fractured way that our (global) society deals with certain words in different contexts. That post, however, can wait for another day.

Right now, I'd like to express something that I hope is being felt by others.

Senator Edward Kennedy died a couple of days ago. Since then, I've heard nothing but fond remembrances of him, from both political allies and political opponents. One theme that seems almost universal is how great he was at finding consensus, being able to work across the aisle, in bringing together opposing interests in efforts to craft legislation in the Senate.

I wonder if now is a teachable moment. By that I mean that if even staunch political opponents can say good things about a man who was able to work across party lines, why can't we as a nation see benefit in being able to do the same? Why are we so polarized right now, so partisan, when we're in one of the most trying periods we've ever faced as a nation?

I can see how passionate debate can deteriorate into shouting matches, but why must it? I had Civics when I was in high school; I know what our system of government is supposed to be able to do. We seem unable to follow through on that premise now. What we have seems more like fear-mongering at its worst, virtually a call for mob violence to get "the other guy," whoever that "other guy" is. Compromise seems out of the question, and consensus is a trip no one is willing to make.

All or nothing is not the way to govern a country as diverse as ours. Politics has been called the art of compromise. This definition may be old, but I don't think it's out of date. I'd like to see more attention paid to this ideal now that we're remembering one of its greatest practitioners.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More on Expectations...

It's been a couple of days since I posted anything, and I wanted to add a little bit to the last post. I came down pretty hard on the "Health and Wealth" theology that's found in so many places. I still feel that way, even more so now that I've seen a couple of recent infomercials from people preaching this doctrine.

Early yesterday morning I saw a bit of a segment on a cable channel with some preacher talking about how poverty was against God's will for us. He was dissecting the biblical story about the feeding of the five thousand, from John 6, and was using it to explain how if you cast what you have before the Lord, he'll return it to you multiplied many times. I don't know where this guy got his understanding of this passage, but he read a different Bible than I do. Here's what the actual passage says, from the NET Bible:

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

6:1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). 6:2 A large crowd was following him because they were observing the miraculous signs he was performing on the sick. 6:3 So Jesus went on up the mountainside and sat down there with his disciples. 6:4 (Now the Jewish feast of the Passover was near.) 6:5 Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?” 6:6 (Now Jesus said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.) 6:7 Philip replied, “Two hundred silver coins worth of bread would not be enough for them, for each one to get a little.” 6:8 One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 6:9 “Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” (Now there was a lot of grass in that place.) So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed the bread to those who were seated. He then did the same with the fish, as much as they wanted. 6:12 When they were all satisfied, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather up the broken pieces that are left over, so that nothing is wasted.” 6:13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves left over by the people who had eaten.

Nowhere in that whole passage can I see anything about how the boy reaped a harvest of riches from having given his bread and dried fish to Jesus. He may have eaten some of what Jesus provided, but the point of the story (I think) is to show that when you give something to Kingdom work, your efforts can be multiplied and have far more impact than just what you provide. There's no hint that it's going to come back and benefit you alone; if anything, the benefit radiates outward from you. The benefit that you get is knowing that you're part of this work. Notice that Jesus didn't create all the food for the multitude out of thin air--there was a seed, provided by the boy. We're involved, if this story is any indication, in the work of creating the kind of world that we're called to make, but we can rely upon more power than we ourselves can muster.

Anyway, let's just say that the anti-poverty preacher was doing a bit of really adventurous exegesis, and leave it at that. The next thing I saw was this morning, on the same channel, when I caught another infomercial for "miracle prosperity handkerchiefs" available FREE from the preacher who was hawking them. I didn't catch his name, but he was on TV, so that must mean that it's for real. Right? If it's on TV, then it must be true. This is the modern-day equivalent of what I've heard from less than sophisticated folks, that if something's in print, it must be true. I don't really think things work that way, but let's just move along.

Later this morning, same channel once again, there was some guy selling a program of "Financial Breakthroughs" that involves worship and "strategies and techniques" that you could use to tap into God's plan for your financial prosperity.

In something just over 24 hours, without any intention on my part, I came across three instances of some preacher hawking the notion of "Health and Wealth." Why did I find these? Is it because I was meant to? I doubt if that's the reason, frankly. I think I found them because this distortion of the gospel message is something that people want to hear, and there are plenty of people who want to sell it to a willing audience. People respond to anyone telling them that if they just do this or that, they can reap the harvest many times over. This is a popular message. That's true not only in this country, but in countries around the world. I've heard that it's a popular theme for preaching in Africa, for instance. Rich country or poor, this message gets attention and response from people eager for a fast track to riches. This urge to get a quick-rich-fix is probably associated with the popularity of gambling, playing the lottery, all those sorts of things. Heck, I've played PowerBall before--why not? Maybe my number would come up...

The message, whether wrapped in gospel allusions or more secular terms, is still that you can get rich by doing something other than working hard and saving and being thrifty. If you can just master that inside track, that secret knowledge, or put that offering in the envelope to Preacher Bob, you're going to get rich. And be healthy. And probably get better looking in the bargain. Even as people debunk the preaching, explain why the Bible doesn't say what these guys say it does, explain the odds of coming out ahead at the boats, even as we try to be rational about all this, the message still resonates with people hungry for something they feel they don't have. I doubt if that will change anytime soon. ...sigh...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Christian expectations, part two

It's time for another installment of "Christian Expectations." Last time I examined expectations about how Christian believers fare in the educational system, particularly high school and especially college. This time, I'd like to look at expectations about our life situation. In particular, I want to examine expectations about our lives being blessed with riches, good health, healthy relationships, and so forth.

This notion that confessing, believing Christians will have a good, long life here on Earth is generally lumped under the term "Prosperity Theology." Believers in this strain of Christianity may call it "Word-Faith," "Health and Wealth," or "Name It and Claim It," but it's all pretty much the same thing. Preachers who espouse this doctrine include Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Creflow Dollar, Joel Osteen, and many others. Prosperity theology is generally found in charismatic or pentacostal churches, although it's not limited to these communities.

The basic idea is that by living pious, righteous lives, Christians will be blessed with material success in this life, and salvation in the next. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that can be cited to support this view. [I'm drawing these passages from the NET Bible, available here.] For instance, in 2 Chronicles 6:41, King Solomon is praying, "Now ascend, O Lord God, to your resting place, you and the ark of your strength! May your priests, O Lord God, experience your deliverance! May your loyal followers rejoice in the prosperity you give!" In Deuteronomy 30:15-16, Moses warns the Israelites, "Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess." In Proverbs 13:21, we see this: "Calamity pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous." Finally, if we've gone astray but later turn to God, we see in Psalm 68:6, "God settles those who have been deserted in their own homes; he frees prisoners and grants them prosperity. But sinful rebels live in the desert."

There are plenty of other passages in Scripture that would seem to support this belief. What's wrong with these passages? They seem clear enough. Is it really wrong to believe that God will reward us on this world if we follow his commandments?

The main point I want to make here is that it is wrong to believe that health and wealth automatically follow from living according to God's rules. There are a couple of very strong reasons for doubting that prosperity theology is valid.

The first reason is that there are passages in Scripture that debunk the notion. Just as there are proof texts to support it, there are texts that go the other way. Here are a few. For instance, Psalm 73:1-9 (it's actually longer than this, but here's the section that makes my point):
73:1 Certainly God is good to Israel,
and to those whose motives are pure!
73:2 But as for me, my feet almost slipped;
my feet almost slid out from under me.
73:3 For I envied those who are proud,
as I observed the prosperity of the wicked.
73:4 For they suffer no pain;
their bodies are strong and well-fed.
73:5 They are immune to the trouble common to men;
they do not suffer as other men do.
73:6 Arrogance is their necklace,
and violence their clothing.
73:7 Their prosperity causes them to do wrong;
their thoughts are sinful.
73:8 They mock and say evil things;
they proudly threaten violence.
73:9 They speak as if they rule in heaven,
and lay claim to the earth.

Psalm 17:14 says this:
17:14 Lord, use your power to deliver me from these murderers,
from the murderers of this world!
They enjoy prosperity;
you overwhelm them with the riches they desire.
They have many children,
and leave their wealth to their offspring.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-7 reads this way:
6:1 Here is another misfortune that I have seen on earth,
and it weighs heavily on people:
6:2 God gives a man riches, property, and wealth
so that he lacks nothing that his heart desires,
yet God does not enable him to enjoy the fruit of his labor –
instead, someone else enjoys it!
This is fruitless and a grave misfortune.
6:3 Even if a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years –
even if he lives a long, long time,
but cannot enjoy his prosperity –
even if he were to live forever –
I would say, “A stillborn child is better off than he is!”
6:4 Though the stillborn child came into the world for no reason
and departed into darkness,
though its name is shrouded in darkness,
6:5 though it never saw the light of day nor knew anything,
yet it has more rest than that man –
6:6 if he should live a thousand years twice,
yet does not enjoy his prosperity.
For both of them die!
6:7 All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach -
yet his appetite is never satisfied!

And finally, from the mouth of Jesus himself, this (from the Sermon on the Plain) in Luke 6:20-31: "Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject you as evil on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.
'But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already. Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
'But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.'"

The other reason is evident in that last passage cited. Jesus is pretty definitive in saying that the wealthy may have an easy time of it here on the earthly plane, but that such is not their due after death. He talks elsewhere about it being harder than a camel threading the eye of a needle for a wealthy person to get into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19). In other words, instead of wealth being a reward, Jesus pronounces it almost a curse. Why do we have this seeming contradiction between what one set of passages promises, and what another set says?

I think the contradiction is one that we actually manufacture ourselves, to a degree. In the Old Testament, when wealth is promised as the reward for following God's commandments, we need to remember that this was a promise to a particular people at a particular time in a specific place. I think we generalize this promise to include ourselves in the twenty-first century at our peril; I don't think it works that way. I come to this conclusion mainly because of what Jesus says in the New Testament. Remember, the New Testament is the record of the new order that God has established. The old is no more, and the new is upon us. Jesus has come into the world, he's re-envisioned the Passover with the Last Supper, and he's shown what a true messiah can do, that even death can not triumph over him. Even the people of his own age wondered how he could speak with such authority.

Moreover, wealth by itself, in this new order, is here for a purpose, not merely for our enjoyment. Here's what Jesus in Luke 12:48 says: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked." It's evident from reading Scripture that the means to do God's work are not evenly distributed; we have a job to do, with whatever resources we have been given.

So what conclusion can we come to after looking at all this evidence? First, I would say that health and wealth may come to us, or they may not. Much is beyond our control. Second, if we are the recipients of wealth--financial, in health, in our relationships--then we have a charter to use it to further the goals of God's kingdom in this world, in this time. Finally, if we are not blessed with bags of money, we are still expected to take part in the work of creating and spreading that kingdom; it's not an optional pursuit.

There's a niggle in all this, though. I've heard friends of mine, even pastors, say that they put their lives totally in God's hands, that they trusted in him to help them meet their needs. They prayed about it, and things happened. I've tried praying for things like that, and largely the prayers have gone unanswered, or so I've felt. I prayed for healing for my father over ten years ago, and he nonetheless died of complications from Alzheimer's. But in the process of coming to grips with that, I learned sympathy for a man I had once intensely disliked, Ronald Reagan, and his family, even as he lingered year after year in the drive-by reality of Alzheimer's. I have prayed for success for a business my wife set up a few years ago. Even as we were beginning to become profitable, she had health issues that developed that required her to give up the business. But out of that, she's developed into a wonderful writer and a person with an iron will that will not admit to defeat. Even as we've gotten used to living on one paycheck, we've been able to meet our financial obligations and even give away a good portion to causes in the church and out. So, even as my prayers have not been answered in the way I wanted them to be, I've received blessing after blessing in ways that were totally unexpected. God has provided, but he chose what he would bless me with, and didn't just play the role of vending machine.

Ultimately, I think that "health and wealth" theology is too restricted, too selfish, to be real. I think God's agenda is much larger than anything that we short-sighted creatures can imagine. And I think that to try to put the Creator of us and the rest of the universe in that sort of box is frankly a very risky move that limits what he can do in our lives, if we're just ready to live a little more dangerously.

What is my expectation? I believe that there will be a tomorrow. I believe that it will be surprising. I hope that I'm up to being receptive to it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Christian expectations, part one

I've begun to wonder just why we Christians expect certain things to come our way, or for the world to work in a certain way. This has become interesting enough to me that I'm planning on making a couple of posts (at least) on the subject.

Today I'd like to look at the attitude of the educational system toward Christian believers. This musing was spawned by conversations or things I've heard in the past couple of weeks, mainly from friends, about the way that teachers in high school and college treat people who identify themselves as Christians. Briefly, Christian believers are met with skepticism at best, and derision or outright hostility at worst. In fact, there are those in the Christian community who feel that there's an organized conspiracy against them. Why do we Christians feel this way?

I'd like to suggest to my brothers and sisters in the faith that this is really what we should expect. I'd further say that we're being naive if we expect anything else. Let's look at recent events (of the last twenty years, say) to see why this might be so.

In that time, we've had televangelist scandals--think Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and all their ilk. We've had scandals involving very prominent clergymen--think Ted Haggard. We've had very public demonstrations of behavior that most people find repulsive--think Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. We've had self-identified Christian political figures admit to breaking their marriage vows and having affairs or dalliances--think everyone from Mark Sanford to John Edwards to Bill Clinton. We've had the on-going scandal of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic clergy, and the allegations of wide-spread cover-up. We've had religious cults and breakaway groups mandating bizarre practices to follow their own doctrines--think Branch Davidians, as well as Fundamentalist LDS groups and their polygamous marriages. Does anyone reading this think that this is the totality of Christian weirdness? Is it any wonder, after reading a litany of accounts like this, that many people see Christians as fools at the most generous, and as frauds and hypocrites less so?

Why are we surprised by the reception that our beliefs get in academia, after all the seeming whack-jobs that have been paraded across TV screens and newspaper headlines and blogs and web pages and emails and word of mouth? And that only scratches the surface. Many of us deny the validity of the theory of evolution, or a 4.5-billion-year-old planet Earth. Instead, we hold to a belief in young-Earth creationism, or Intelligent Design. All these doctrines are in direct contradiction of the results of scientific inquiry over hundreds of years; why shouldn't professors in college wonder about our sanity?

Let me just interject here my own belief on the whole subject of Intelligent Design. As a Christian, I definitely believe in the existence of a Creator, maker of heavens and Earth. That means that I believe that there is cosmic intelligence that has formed us all. What I reject is canonical "Intelligent Design." It's not a "theory," in any scientific sense I recognize. If anything, it's an interesting philosophical conjecture, and nothing more than that. Bluntly, it's crap science and crap religion. It's crap science because it's not scientific, but instead seeks to re-define "science" to conform to its own non-scientific ideas. It's crap religion because there is no "god," only a "designer," and a pretty vague one at that. One day I may write much more in detail about the shortcomings, in my personal view, of Intelligent Design (as it's currently defined). For now, let's just say that it's not something I subscribe to or am likely to find attractive.

Getting back to the subject at hand, there's a much deeper reason than all the scandal and hypocrisy and failure to live righteous lives, that causes us as Christians to be viewed with suspicion by the rest of the world. We were promised that we would encounter persecution--check out Matthew 24:9, for one citation. The guy we claim is our Lord and Master promised that it would be like this. In other words, things are as they are supposed to be. The world is doing exactly what it's expected to do.

That may be a hard message to hear, if you've been expecting to be welcomed as the bearer of "good news" by those you meet. Academia, the hotbed of restless minds testing new ideas (the role of the student) and experienced minds inculcating skills of critical thinking (the role of the teacher), is where you should expect this treatment to be most stark. As Christians, we need to see this as an opportunity to test our own mettle in the fire of hard intellectual confrontation. We should welcome the encounter, instead of feeling like we're penalized in some way.

There are other expectations on the part of Christians that I think need to be re-evaluated in the light of both reality and what we're told in that book we hold in such high esteem. In my next post, I'll look at another one, a big one, and see if it has any validity.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Time to shift gears a little. I came across a tweet today about an article that appeared in today's New York Times. The article is here. This one article has inspired a firestorm of resentment and anger .

The only question I have for the article's author is this: Do you feel better now that you've gotten that venom out of your system? The tone of snark in the article was balanced by a knowing wink of the eye, somewhat along the lines of a super-sophisticated relative smiling benignly as their yokel cousin tried to figure out how to use a smart phone.

We have a society where men and women are simultaneously told that they should be content with themselves as they are (on the one hand) and told in so many insidious ways that, no, they need to be younger, more muscular, more sculpted, more beautiful. This article plugs right into that schizoid mindset. It's no wonder that we have young women with eating disorders, people having surgery after surgery to sculpt themselves into duplicates of their idols, and even AARP publishing articles that seem to deny the reality that people age and decline. We've got claims of age discrimination, even as we have "town hall meetings" where people shout about "unplugging granny." We've got hundreds of thousands of elderly folks warehoused in nursing homes as these rallies go on. Is it any wonder that people get to feel that maybe they are unnecessary, somehow less than valuable, even worthless?

I'm sure that there are legitimate complaints that can be leveled against any major retailer such as J C Penney, complaints about their mix of clothing sizes, clothing materials, store hours, whatever. I'm pretty sure this article is about more than just reservations about these sorts of things. We all have insecurities. This article seems to display some of the author's.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time to Wrap This Up

I want to bring all these various posts together finally to look at the differences between Christianity as expressed and lived by Jesus himself, and modern American conservatism. The whole point of doing this is to help people reading this understand that choices have to be made if they're going to be consistent and coherent in what they say, do, and believe.

As I concluded in the previous post, the values that I see exemplified in Jesus' life were obedience to God, selflessness, forgiveness of those who wrong him, grace toward those same people, and the strongest possible statement that by one's own efforts, a person can not get right with God. Let's look at each of these individually.

Obedience to God can be a very good thing, or a horrendously bad thing. If God tells you, and you respond, that people in your country are hungry and need to be fed, are homeless and need to be sheltered, are uneducated and need to be taught, and you follow up on this leading, you're living a life consistent with that of Jesus. If you doubt this, read the New Testament Gospel accounts of his life and see what kind of attitude he had toward those in need.

If, on the other hand, God tells you to murder your spouse, or kill someone with whom you passionately disagree, then you've been listening to someone other than God. God himself says, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." It doesn't get much clearer than that. Taking wrath into our own hands is flagrantly counter to what we're told in the Bible. If you believe what the Bible says, this is one more thing for which each of us has to give account one day.

Selflessness, that quality of putting others ahead of yourself, would seem to be clear enough. Jesus said, "What good is it if a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul?" The Ten Commandments say that we shall have no other god but God himself. It's no secret that we can make "gods" of stuff we acquire, that the pursuit of stuff can become a bigger goal than living as God wants us to. In God's kingdom, it's not about me. It's about God first, and then those around me. If I take care of those things, then I'll be taken care of as well. This is not an easy sell in a country that values individuality above almost everything else; it's not part of our national DNA.

Forgiveness ties right into obedience, particularly as it applies to what we're told to do for those who wrong us. We're told to forgive them, not seven times but seventy times seven, and God will forgive us. Forgiveness, like selflessness, is not easy. It's counter to what we want naturally, which is justice or just revenge. It's costly--we have to give up that right of revenge. I've already quoted the Bible on this. It's in black and white, and we can't escape what it says. Jesus was nailed to a cross by non-Jewish men, hung up to die a slow and horrific death. He looked on his executioners, and those who cheered them on, and said, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." Stephen, one of the first martyrs, said essentially the same thing when he was being stoned to death by an angry mob. We can't wiggle around and say that forgiveness is for others; that's not the way things are designed to be.

Grace, the extending of mercy to those who wrong us, may even be harder than forgiveness. It's not just a relinquishment of the right for revenge, but an active movement to get closer to those people who have just been forgiven. Jesus said, "Love those who hate you." Can it be any clearer? Jesus is telling us to work for the well-being, to hope for good things, for those who have injured us. If forgiveness is hard, then this is terribly costly. Desmond Tutu has had to learn how to do this. His leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid shows that he learned the lesson well.

Finally, contrary to what Al Franken's SNL character Stuart Smalley affirmed when he said, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me," we're told that we are none of those things. From God's point of view, we never will be. No amount of good works, no amount of chest thumping about how pure our thoughts are, can bridge the gap between us and our Creator. Jesus said he was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one came to the Father except through him. He said that he came to be a ransom for many. Once again, it's not about us and all that's right with us. Instead, it's about us and all that's wrong with us. The doctor came to make a house call, and those who accepted the prescription are able to get better, but only because the doctor showed up.

These are the values I see lived out by Bible-believing Christians. These are not the values I see in too much of American conservatism, particularly the more demagogic varieties we're seeing lately. That strain of conservatism celebrates an unforgiving, militantly nationalistic, selfish, and materialistic ideology that is in direct conflict with the Christian values I've described. There is no room for forgiveness of those who have different views than oneself. There's no place for the notion that maybe we could learn from other countries. There is no sense in trying to say that perhaps the group should come first, and I should put my own wants on the back burner for a while. And there's no room for considering that as we try to surround ourselves with more and more consumer comforts, we put ourselves farther and farther from the God who made us.

I've gone through all this not for the purpose of judging the people who believe these things to be true. Instead, I'm trying to clarify what it means to be Christian, and what it means to be conservative. We're always confronted with a choice--who are we going to follow. Will we follow God, by way of the lordship of Jesus the Messiah, or will we follow man, generally by way of following our own appetites and desires? We should at least be honest enough to be clear to whom we owe allegiance.

I said in the last post that Christianity is a big tent, one that dwarfs that of American conservatism. Under the Christian canopy, we have Fred Phelps and his "God Hates Fags" congregation. We have Mother Teresa, living among the untouchables in the slums of India. We have Desmond Tutu, and we have Ted Haggard. We have the best and we have the worst. And we affirm that God loves us all. We differ on pre-destination and free will, on women in ministry and out of it, on so many issues. And we affirm that God loves us all. That's a breadth of humanity that modern American conservatism can't even begin to approach.

There are people who call themselves Christian conservatives. What does that really mean? Are they really Christian, or are they really conservative? Are they traditionalists under a different name? Are they hardcore conservatives, using protective coloration? And after all, it's only names. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Maybe we need to look past the labels, and see what the fruit of a person's life really is. I'm not going to judge those with whom I disagree, as tempting as it would be to do so. I've got enough work of my own, trying to obey the King to whom I've sworn allegiance. I pray that we can all do the same, and let God do what he can do in each of our lives.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And What About Christianity?

It's time to return to the subject I was working out before the last couple of posts about the Willow Creek Leadership Summit.

I've already surveyed historical conservatism, and looked at how the modern American variety differs from its ancestor. Of course, what I've been writing is in rather broad terms. There are conservatives who find themselves opposed to some of the extremes demonstrated by conservative talk radio hosts, former Alaskan governors, and others who seem to believe that moderation of any kind is impure and not to be tolerated. Conservatism, then, is a large tent, sheltering a variety of beliefs. Keep that in mind as I look at Christianity. The expanse of its tent makes that of conservatism look like a pup tent by comparison.

One theme that informs the entire story told in the Bible is the need for obedience to God the Father. In Genesis 22, Abraham is told by God to make a blood sacrifice of his son Isaac. At the last moment, the boy is spared because God provides a substitutionary sacrifice. From Genesis 22:18, we read God telling Abraham, "Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants." Incidentally, all Bible passages in this post are from the NET Bible First Edition.

Jesus himself reinforces this value of obedience when he says this in John 15:9-14, "Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you."

The Law was one of the cornerstones of Jewish religious practice in Jesus' day. Some accused him of trying to overturn the Law. He rebuked them thusly, in Matthew 5:17-18, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place."

What does Jesus mean when he talks about everything taking place? One thought is that his work on the cross was that fulfillment and completing of everything. He says, "It is completed!" and dies in John 19:30, under a placard ordered by Pontius Pilate which says "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews," in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. If this Roman governor saw Jesus as a king, even in jest, then we as Christians see him in the same way.

A king is one who represents his people, who leads them, and when necessary tells them what they must do. Once again we're faced with a requirement for obedience. The Decalogue in the Old Testament is not the Ten Suggestions; it's called the Ten Commandments for a very specific reason. These ten sayings are God's directions on how a god-fearing person is to conduct his or her life.

By the time of Jesus, however, it was painfully obvious that the Law in and of itself was not providing an instant dose of righteousness to those who claimed to be its greatest fans. Jesus was all over the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees. These were the folks who sat on the high Jewish council, who made a point of displaying publicly just how righteous they were. Jesus told a story about two men in the Temple, a Pharisee and a tax collector in Luke 18:10-14, "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The point of this story, among other things, is to show that point-by-point obedience to the Law, something in which the Pharisee prided himself, is not sufficient. It was obvious by the time of Jesus that the Pharisees obeyed the letter of the Law, but not its spirit. If these religious leaders, so punctilious about measuring even their spices, failed to meet the demand for obedience that God placed on them, who was to be right with God? The apostle Peter and those around him lamented when confronted with this, “Then who can be saved?” He [Jesus] replied, “What is impossible for mere humans is possible for God.” (from Luke 18:26-28)

By what means can this "impossible" thing be done? The apostle Paul answers this vexing question in Romans 3:19-24, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

Now the picture is getting clearer. It's by grace, the utterly free and utterly selfless gift of a sovereign God that anyone's shortcomings, failure to meet every stroke of every letter in the Law, can be forgiven. Jesus paid the price, he was the blood sacrifice that was necessary to pave the road to reconciliation between mankind and our Creator. The gift must be accepted, though, an invitation must be acknowledged, an open door must be walked through. We have a part to play in this reconciliation, and that's to acknowledge that Jesus paid the price for us.

The instant we accept that gift is when the process of reconciliation begins. The rest of our lives is spent releasing all our pent-up resentment, anger, frustration, and plain old sin to the loving God who sent his son to sacrifice himself, once for all. This new state of affairs doesn't mean we don't backslide, however. The selfishness remains, but now it has to deal with the presence of the absolute breath of God, the Holy Spirit, living within us. The battle within rages for all our days. Paul himself wrestled with this reality and talked about it in Romans 7:21-25, "So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Another way to describe this struggle is that we work out our salvation (during the remainder of our lives) with fear and trembling, as in Philippians 2:12-13, "So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God."

I've gone pretty deeply into the message of the Christian life as expressed and lived by the guy whose name it bears. The salient qualities I've tried to demonstrate are obedience, selflessness, forgiveness, grace, and the insufficiency of our own efforts to get right with God. There's a list of things we're supposed to do--we can't do them. We wrestle with God for control of our lives--even when we've accepted the gift of grace. We say we'll be there for Jesus--and like Peter, we turn our backs and run away. In other words, if it were strictly up to us, we'd be doomed.

I think this is probably more than enough to ponder in one post. In the next post, I'll try to show some of the gaps between what I've expounded on here and that attitude of mind we call modern American conservatism.

Stay tuned.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Leadership Summit, Day 2

We've just finished the second day of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, attending a satellite session at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. We arrived early this morning, in time to get a good parking spot and get our seats before most of the attendees had arrived.

We had ended yesterday with a fiery speech by Harvey Carey, the pastor of a church in Detroit, Michigan. That preaching, powerful and convicting, had set the tone for the Summit as we ended the first day. The beginning of today's sessions continued that powerful vibe without missing a beat. We heard from Dave Gibbons, Andrew Rugasira, and Wess Stafford, all addressing different ways in which we need to "Think Forward," being willing to adapt our attitudes to new realities and new expectations. Old stereotypes, old paradigms, old conversations won't do in this world. As Gary Hamel said yesterday, if you're not in the vanguard, you're in the rear guard, and you are being made more irrelevant each day.

A powerful message of the need for forgiveness, both for those who have wronged us and for ourselves for having screwed up, came out of the combination of those three presentations. Does anyone reading this believe in the healing power of God's spirit? Thousands of people all across the continent, both in Willow Creek in Chicago and in all the satellite campuses, were given an opportunity to subject themselves to this power. Were any of them relieved of a burden of anger at others, or bitterness about their own shortcomings? Are we now able to be more gracious with others, and with ourselves? Time will tell.

David Gergen, commentator and professor at Harvard, followed this powerful opener for the day, being interviewed by Bill Hybels on his book, "Eyewitness to Power." This guy has been in the inner circles of power for both Republican and Democratic Presidents. He looked at their strengths and their flaws, their light sides and their dark sides. It was fascinating hearing from someone who had first-hand experience working in this pressure cooker called the White House.

Chip and Dan Heath, two brothers who have written a book on how ideas become "sticky," followed. They talked about a new book they've written, "Switch," which addresses how to change when change is hard. They had some interesting ideas on this subject. Their book comes out early next year. What kind of change will we have seen between now and then?

The afternoon wound down with first an appearance by Bono, singer with U2, being interviewed by Bill Hybels. This was a follow-up to an appearance he had made several years ago, where he took the church to task for failing to address global poverty and the curse of HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa. He was frankly surprised that the church had responded so powerfully since his last appearance. He castigated governments for failing to raise $25 billion as they have pledged to address these twin evils, and yet in the economic downturn, $700 or $800 billion can be had almost at once. There's an aspect of Old Testament prophet about Bono. He certainly didn't get in the church's face to make himself more popular, but then that's what prophets mainly do.

An interview with Tony Blair, former PM of the United Kingdom, ended the day's sessions. He talked about the irreducible core, sacred values in the heart of every leader, which he or she will not compromis. He said a leader has to be prepared to step away from a leadership role if the price for that leadership role is to violate that irreducible core. Finally, he said that being a leader is a blessing and a privilege, and that it's not supposed to be easy, in so many words.

Even as I work to assimilate all that I've been exposed to over these last two days, I know that I've been challenged, confronted, and convicted by the speakers I heard. You're a leader if others follow you. What do you bring to the table in that situation? What fires your passion? What gets you angry? What are you willing to sacrifice? I've got to find answers to some of these questions for myself in the days and weeks to come.


I plan on resuming my series on conservatism and Christianity with my next post. That's the plan, unless something more fascinating comes up, and I feel the need to write about it first. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

And Now, a Word About My Sponsor...

I wanted to take a break this time from the on-going series on American conservatism and Christianity, and post something a bit more personal. Today I attended the first of two days of the 2009 Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I've been going to these events, on and off, for about ten years. This year's Summit, like those I've attended in the past, is held at a satellite location in the Kansas City metro, one of two in the immediate area. There are several hundred other folks attending at this one venue besides myself, and there are over 140 satellite locations across North America. That's a lot of people coming together for one main purpose.

Understand, at this point in my life, I'm not a church leader. In the last 13 years since becoming a Christian, I've led small groups, ministry teams, programming teams, and been involved in all sorts of church planning and activities. But I'm not a leader this year. No, this year I'm a follower, in the same way that a field must sometimes be left unplanted for a year to allow it to rest. A sabbath year, if you like. I've pulled back from leadership and allowed myself to be led by others. It's been a time of re-assessing what I want to do with the remainder of my life, of examining what I'm passionate about, and finding out more about myself.

I've gone on several contemplative retreats over the past year and a half, all of them over a weekend at a Roman Catholic monastery in the hills of northwestern Missouri, in a rural setting in the midst of twenty-first century wind turbines. I find it magical--very traditional red brick buildings on this monastery and seminary campus, looking out over farmland surmounted by 240 foot tall white masts topped by three 140 foot long turbine blades, turning in the winds that never cease in this area. Late at night, you can see the red beacons at the tops of the towers flash as the blades turn in front of them, accompanied by a "swoosh-swoosh-swoosh" sound faintly audible in the darkness.

What does all this have to do with a bunch of Christians, most of them leaders, getting together for a couple of days at sites all over the country? Simply this--I feel that I have a gift of leadership, some ability to motivate and inspire people to come alongside and work with me for Jesus the Messiah. My own understanding of what that means has grown deeper over the years, and the retreats are reflective of this. I've become much more laid back, and even at the beginning of my seventh decade, much more willing to wait on God's leadings before I dive into something. I've tried to force the issue, assuming a leadership role for which I wasn't really qualified. It did not go well; I had to withdraw when I figured out just how wrong I was for the position. I've come to the Summit this year to see if I can get some sense of what I might be able to lend myself to going forward. If nothing appears, I'm okay with that, too.

We had four different sessions today, and wound up hearing Harvey Carey from Detroit. Now this is one firebrand of a preacher. He did mention he was black, always had been, and that we would not fall asleep during his presentation. To say that is to make a great understatement. He also made sure that we knew he was a black Baptist preacher, and brother, there's another understatement. He's a powerful example of someone living the Gospel--pastor of a multi-racial church in the poorest city in the poorest state of the Union, making sure that everyone in his ZIP code is reached by the message that God loves them. He and his church have shut down eight drug houses, simply by having 100 or more men from the congregation take tents, campstoves, and sleeping bags into the area immediately in front of them, and stay there. As he put it, no one was going to be selling crack while 100 church men were camped in front of the house. He has refused to be limited by economic hard times or lack of resources. He gets things started, and depends on people, the greatest resource of all, to come along and help him do work that's bigger than any of them individually. To put it bluntly, and to give credit where credit is due, he depends on God to provide.

That can be a huge effort of faith, can't it? Do I really believe that, down deep in my heart? He wasn't content to let us get away with nodding our heads and taking notes, oh no. Harvey Carey thumped us in the chest, called us to live like we really believe the stuff we say we do, and go out and do God's work. To fight slum lords. To rid neighborhoods of drug houses. To fight poverty and abuse and neglect and injustice. To be, in the words of a term that I've heard again and again over the years, "the hope of the world."

We've got more sessions tomorrow, and then the Summit ends for this year. There are all sorts of follow-up events over the next months, and I may try to take part in some of them. The challenge has been made, though, by everyone who spoke today, and most forcefully by Harvey Carey. It's time to get out of the huddle, and get into the game. My local church is doing that. I've been fallow just about long enough. I don't know what I will be doing in six months, or a year, or even five years. I do know that I've got some real discontent of the spirit now, and I've got to see what needs to be done to make that meaningful. A nice tension, don't you think? Soul discontent, and a willingness to wait on God. I think maybe some prayer is in order here.

I'll return to my posts looking at the similarities, and more specifically the differences, between conservatism and Christianity once the Summit is over. Until then, however, I'm just left wondering and meditating on what I've been given today.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

American Conservatism Today

It's time now to look at the more modern conservative movement in the United States. As I mentioned previously, modern conservatism differs in many ways from classical conservatism. I'll try to point out the major differences in this post.

I can remember in 1964 when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson for the Presidency. During the campaign, "Fact" magazine published an entire issue called "The Unconscious of a Conservative." It was among the most scurrilous political pieces I can ever remember having seen. The main thesis was that Barry Goldwater was unfit to be President. It was every bit as divisive and fallacious as anything that has been done during our recent Presidential campaigns. Bare-knuckles, bloody political combat isn't limited to one side or the other; this "swift-boating" was done by Democrat partisans.

I bring up Barry Goldwater because he was probably the most well-known conservative of his day. William F. Buckley was also a prominent American conservative contemporary with Goldwater. Like Edmund Burke before him, Buckley would articulate a systematic treatment of conservative thought. As a practicing Roman Catholic of a very traditionalist stripe, he provided a bridge between strictly political conservatives and their religious brethren.

Despite figures like Goldwater and Buckley, however, American conservatism's rise in the sixties was perhaps a bit premature. Goldwater went down to a huge defeat against Johnson, and it wasn't until the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 that American conservatism would really be at the top of the food chain. Some of the excesses that came after Reagan's election probably resulted from a huge sense of hubris as the result of his becoming President.

Classical or historical conservatism, as described by Burke, was essentially free of ideology, at least in the sense of having some sort of blueprint for constructing a more perfect society. Over time, however, with Ronald Reagan's election, hubris and a rising sense of destiny produced the Neo-cons, many of whom would later direct major aspects of George W. Bush's administration, some to disastrous effect.

The ideology that motivated the Neo-cons seems to me to be a sense of America's destiny in the world, a notion that we are to lead the rest of the world toward a utopian future. As they seemed to think, given that we have the most perfect political system, as well as the world's greatest economy, it was only right that we should shoulder that well-deserved burden. We would lead with diplomacy if possible, and with force and "regime change" if necessary. No one could stand in our way, because we were pre-destined to succeed. To put it another way, modern conservatives, at least those who would be proud to wear the label "neo-con," had a definite sense of American triumphalism.

Modern conservatism also seemed more and more to be about not only maintaining the status quo in terms of their political power, but actually reducing and ultimately eliminating any groups that differed from them, or who might threaten their power base. Tom Delay, for instance, was instrumental in attempting to put in place a "permanent Republican majority." There was no place in the minds of these folks for a two-party system. Karl Rove showed how it was done by successfully guiding the campaigns of George W. Bush in 200 and 2004 for the Presidency.

Modern American conservatism also seems to be even more about materialism than earlier variants. American society in the twentieth century was more and more about bigger, faster, longer, larger, in short, things that were more "super" than what went before. American conservatism fell right into this mode of thought. The rich got richer, and the less rich, well, they stayed less rich, for the most part. The gap between the highest wealth Americans, and those on the bottom, only got larger and larger during this time.

As I mentioned in the last post, the tension between those in power and those on the outside who want some of that power is a reality that's been true for hundreds, even thousands, of years. In the 2008 national elections, that tension was once again in evidence, as the conservatives at the top were toppled by those who had gotten fed up with their arrogance, their lack of caring for things that mattered to those out of power, and in many cases, their incompetence to do the things that those in power are supposed to do. As the Republicans look over their defeat in so many elections, they're trying to make sense of what happened. There's a real debate within the party over what needs to be done--should they moderate their message? Was it too extreme and narrowly focused? Do they need to be more vocal about hardcore conservative values? Can they be the loyal opposition, or is it necessary to have a "my way or the highway" mindset? Is it better to be willing to persuade and work toward a consensus with the Democrats, or is it time to work harder to polarize the country even more? Demogogery seems to rule the day--conservative talk radio hosts get the base going, and no liberal target is safe.

This is the fractured landscape of modern American conservatism. In the next post, I'm going to look at the Christian life, as it was lived by the guy who gave it its name, and as it's lived now.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Historical Conservatism

Conservatism has been around, in one form or another, as long as people have had governments or other hierarchical power structures. As traditions develop, as stable practices are formed, some part of the population comes to believe that this is the way things should be. A slight expansion of this notion produces the idea that this is the way things have always been. Another expansion, and the notion arises that this is the way things should always be, now and forever.

Those who benefit the most from any given tradition are likely to become that tradition's most vociferous supporters. Those who benefit less from the tradition, on the other hand, are often more interested in overturning the tradition and doing something different, something that will put them higher on the ladder of power, status, and benefit. This sort of tension between traditionalists and rebels can be seen in historical societies, and it can be seen in societies today.

Conservatism as a school of thought was probably first articulated by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. This historical conservatism was based on the idea that tradition was the product of the wisdom of many generations, and therefore was a better guide to social practice than some overarching ideology. In essence, then, this systematic formulation of conservative thought preferred skepticism about "enlightened" notions and social systems, and viewed them as misguided attempts to create utopian societies that would ultimately falter. Burke also insisted that social change had to be organic, piecemeal, rather than revolutionary. As we can see, this honors tradition and prescribes a slow, steady-state type of social change, if there is to be change at all.

Joseph de Maistre was another writer who influenced the development of western conservative thought. He advocated the restoration of hereditary monarchies, and for the sovereignty of the Pope over the secular governments of individual nations. In these ideas he displays an extremely traditional view of an appropriate hierarchy of power, certainly one at odds with the changes that were taking place in the political sphere at that time.

The role of property and who owns what is very important in conservative thought. Unlike some other things, this thread of thought has been unbroken for hundreds of years, and is still very much in evidence today.

As far as economic notions go, most conservatives tend to favor free-market practices. There is some variation in the view of what part government should play in the free market, but most conservatives believe that less intrusion is better.

This, then, is the historical basis for modern conservatism. As I'll demonstrate in my next post, modern conservatism has changed, in some cases a lot, from what conservatism used to be.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Conservatism--Some Fundamentals

Now that I've begun this series, I think it necessary to make one point very clear.

Conservatism and fundamentalism, something I've posted about in the past, are not different words for the same thing. There are some similarities, to be sure, but they are not identical. Conservatism, on the one hand, is a school of thought that generally finds its fullest voice in the realm of politics. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, generally finds its greatest expression in the arena of religious practice and belief.

Just to be totally clear, I'm going to be looking at the differences between Conservatism, in its broadest political sense, and the living expression of Christianity, which takes place in the real world, and sometimes in a political context. I will look at the underpinnings of these two ways of life, and try to tease out what Conservatism implies for spirituality, both personal and corporate. Christianity starts from a spiritual point, and has implications for personal and political action. We wind up at the spiritual/political interface from different sides of the looking glass, as it were.