Friday, March 29, 2013

Let Christ Speak Louder than Limbaugh

How come I don't feel good saying this?

"I told you so."

Ever since I started this blog, I've been ranting about how evangelicals have been too enamored by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his fellow right-wing media wonks.  I've been perturbed that people who claim to be followers of Christ are following people who don't display any signs of being Christ-followers themselves.

Of course, I didn't really expect to turn the tide from focusing on Rush to focusing on Christ all by myself.  But it never ceased to amaze me how loyal evangelicals insisted on being to these peddlers of rancid Republicanism and fierce free enterprise.

True Colors Shine From Gay Marriage Debate

Not that conservative political values and capitalism are bad things, in and of themselves.  But the rhetoric espoused by Limbaugh and his ilk distinctly lacked the "love thy neighbor" credo with which Christ expects us to conduct ourselves.

Nor am I the only evangelical who's ever noticed the disconnect between Christians and our media's right-wing talkers.  For years, some Christ-followers have suspected that the Republican party simply wants to string us along, throwing us dribs and drabs of policy acknowledgements that delude us into assuming populist economic conservatives are as personally moral as we like to think we are.  It's been a handy two-way street:  Christians get to belittle the poor and love money, and unsaved conservatives get our votes and public support.

Except now, with the whole question of gay marriage, things are beginning to unravel in this tight-knit and dangerously symbiotic relationship.  Several Republican politicians have abandoned tradition and come out in support of gay marriage.  Then on Tuesday, FOX talking head Bill O'Reilly blamed the demise of straight marriage support on the fact that right-wingers haven't "been able to do anything but thump the Bible."

Ouch.

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh very nearly conceded the same thing.  Of course, almost immediately, after liberal media wonks started airing what sounded like every bit of a concession, Limbaugh tried to reel it back in.  But still, saying "This issue is lost" is pretty straightforward, isn't it?

To be fair, Limbaugh went on to clarify that "I don't care what the Supreme Court does, [gay marriage] is now inevitable - and it's inevitable because we lost the language on this. ... [W]e lost the issue when we started allowing the word "marriage" to be bastardized and redefined by simply adding words to it ..."

Which may or may not be true.  I think conservatives lost the gay marriage debate because of a host of other factors, including the divorce rate to which Limbaugh himself has liberally contributed.  And reading the transcripts of his comments on the subject don't really clarify his "language" clarification.  What exactly it is about calling the marriage of gays "gay marriage" that shows conservative losing any language wars?  I oppose gay marriage, but I don't oppose calling the marriage of gays "gay marriage," because that's what it would be.  If Limbaugh is saying that conservatives should have consistently advocated for gay unions instead, doesn't he know there's a difference between the two concepts?

Limbaugh's exasperation - both in his concession of the straight marriage concept and his attempts at denying what he'd said the day before - simply prove he's nobody whose opinions evangelicals should be basing their worldview upon.  At least, to his credit, Limbaugh never directly threw Christianity under the bus like O'Reilly did.  Instead, Limbaugh lumped Judaism and Islam alongside of us, two other world faiths with considerable streaks of social conservatism.  But it was all too little, too late.

He may not have blasphemed the name of Christ, but Limbaugh has proven that he's no moral conservative.  But will evangelicals still give him a pass on that?

Abandon Ship, or Self?

Old habits die hard.  For years, many evangelicals have been drinking the far-right-wing kool aid of "my way or the highway" which, ironically, is totally opposite the cherished liberties we say American stands for. We've also flirted with our culture so much, we've lost our credibility when the rubber hits the road.  Have evangelicals acclimated to Limbaughsian rhetoric to the point where even Limbaugh - and to a lesser degree, O'Reilly - can get away with complaining that morality is a burden on the conservative cause?

Because that's what Limbaugh and O'Reilly are doing.  It's almost like we're the dead weight on the Good Ship GOP that the crew wants to cast overboard during a storm to stay afloat.  Remember Jonah?  He got on a ship heading the opposite direction of where God told him to go, and when a fierce storm slammed the craft, he realized that the crew was throwing overboard everything else except the real peril to their survival:  Jonah himself.  So he told them to throw him overboard, and when they did, the storm ceased.

I'm not saying that as soon as evangelicals wise up and stop parroting conservative media wonks, that America is suddenly going to be transformed into a moral paradise.  That may happen, if God ordains it, but apparently, He's also ordained that in the wake of our failed testimony to our society, things like gay marriage - and even gay unions, which I would cautiously support - are increasingly the "will of the people." 

Although, as we've seen this week, our system of laws poses significant impediments to legalizing these types of social changes, gay marriage at least appears inevitable.  I'm not complaining that Limbaugh and O'Reilly are wrong about that, I'm merely pointing out that, since they obviously don't have a personal faith in Jesus Christ, they don't have access to our Heavenly Father, and the opportunity to petition Him for grace, healing, and a reinvestment in holy matrimony in our country.

Meanwhile, do we concede to the inevitable, or do we fight it with even more severe rhetoric and advocacy bordering on bigotry?  Or, do we die to self, and the misguided belief regarding America's "Godly" heritage we've allowed right-wingers to manipulate to their benefit instead of His?  Whatever happened to serving Christ as salt and light, regardless of the cost?  Might serving as salt and light to our society actually help turn back what we see as the inevitable?

"For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose."  Galatians 2:19–21

As we prepare for Resurrection Sunday, forget Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and what they want you think.  And instead, consider adopting one key aspect of Christ's love:  dying to self.
 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beyond Scandal at the Brooklyn Museum

Here's a flashback for you:

It was 1999, and a museum in New York City was under fire for displaying a painting of the Virgin Mary that featured elephant dung and pornographic images of female genitalia.  Remember?

The museum was the city-sponsored Brooklyn Museum, which at the time, despite its history of nearly 200 years, was little known outside of the borough.  Nevertheless, it boasted a grand edifice, the city's second-largest institutional art collection, and a respectable pedigree in the East Coast art firmament.

Winning its battle for their right to continue showing this particular piece of, um, "art" helped burnish its credentials towards becoming a jewel in the borough's now-prized cultural crown.

The artwork - and, again, I use that term loosely - is called "Holy Virgin Mary," and it was created by the otherwise nominal English painter of Nigerian descent, Chris Ofili, a prodigy of prodigal ambition, if you will.  Indeed, even though he'd won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 1998, if it wasn't for this particular work, his reputation might still be widely unknown in America, his earnestly immodest style otherwise being so underwhelmingly received by art world arbiters in the Colonies.

To hear New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman tell it, change the name of Ofili's notorious painting to something with no religious significance whatsoever, and the elephant dung and dirty picture cutouts lose any significance whatsoever.

Art and the First Amendment: Not Always a Pretty Picture

In fact, it was the Times which today trotted out the memory of "Holy Virgin Mary," apparently hoping to trip up one of the city's increasingly popular Republican candidates vying to replace Michael Bloomberg as mayor.  Joseph Lhota threw his hat into the ring after successfully directing the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority's efforts in restoring flooded subways in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.  Currently, Lhota is the top Republican contender - an amazing statement in itself, considering the fact that before Rudy Giuliani's term, "Republican" and "mayor" were hardly ever used positively in a sentence.

And it was during Giuliani's tenure that Lhota served as deputy mayor, and how it came to be that Lhota led the Giuliani administration's charge against "Holy Virgin Mary," the Brooklyn Museum, and Ofili, who now lives in Trinidad.  Offended by Ofili's painting as a father, a Roman Catholic, and an official with the agency primarily funding the venue in which it was being displayed, Lhota quickly became the public face of the general public's fury at what was considered a travesty of shock art and taxpayer financing of it.

New York's pugnacious art world, however, angrily denounced Lhota's angry denouncement of "Holy Virgin Mary" as a restriction of freedom of expression.  A violation of the First Amendment.  An intolerable position for a municipal administrator to take in one of the world's most powerful art capitals.

That's what the New York Times wants to remind its readers today, as they profile Lhota and his refusal, even to this day, of backing down from his earlier crusade against the painting.  Although he concedes that today, the education he received in the nuances of our First Amendment would restrain him from officially castigating the work, he still thinks the way he guided the Giuliani administration's approach to this artwork nearly 14 years ago was appropriate.

Talk about talking like a politician!  If you still think the way you handled something back then was OK, but you'd try to like the same type of shock art were it to debut somewhere else in the city today, and you think you can sell that disconnect to New York's jaded voters, at least Lhota has the chutzpah necessary to duke it out for the privilege of occupying Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York's mayors.

Back in 1999, I was working for an Internet technology firm, but if blogs were around then, I didn't know what one was.  Believe me, if I had, I'd have written about "Holy Virgin Mary," and I'd have probably praised Lhota to high Heaven for his vigorous stance against city money going to putting it on display.

It's not so much a matter of being open-minded when it comes to shock art and public money.  It's more a matter of public money doing the most public good.  And although Ofili may have claimed to be a Roman Catholic, and therefore qualified to express his artistic frustrations against his faith by portraying a critical personage of his faith in such an appallingly desecratory fashion, it's no responsibility of New York City taxpayers to make sure he gets a venue for showing it off.

This goes for shock art designed to intensely blaspheme the precepts of any world religion, whether it's Taoism or Islam. 

As a Roman Catholic himself, there's no reason for Lhota to try and "enjoy it," as he tells the Times he'd do if presented with this dilemma again.  He's perfectly justified in being offended by such a piece of artwork, since dung and pornography hardly represent appropriate ways of depicting the mother of Christ, or the central figures in any world religion.  And I say that as an evangelical Protestant who ascribes no deity to Mary whatsoever.

Ofili may have been enthralled with the way ancient African cultures used dung to craft their religious icons, but Brooklyn is not ancient Africa.

To the extent that Lhota and Giuliani advocated on behalf of taxpayers regarding what even in a general context could be considered an obscene piece of art - liberal feminists, for example, would otherwise be outraged at the depiction of female anatomy in such a lewd manner - I believe they did the right thing.  But frankly, it was only because the Brooklyn Museum of Art is a public facility.

If "Holy Virgin Mary's" New York debut had been in a private gallery, the First Amendment free speech argument would be much clearer and valid.  Personally, although I find Ofili's sense of art unnecessarily graphic - and even cheesy and juvenile - I agree that he has the right to say whatever it is he thinks he's saying with it.  I don't have to help pay for its exposure, however.  New York City owns the building housing the museum, and the museum leases it from the city.  A private gallery, meanwhile, would not have owed New York taxpayers any deference, and taxpayers would not have had any leverage.

Who's Missing From the Museum?

But what constitutes "offensive" religious art, you ask?  Can't the argument be made, for example, that depictions of an ordinary crucifix in a museum sponsored in part with city funds is offensive to Muslims?

The Brooklyn Museum today
To be practical about it - and I realize art is often impractical - the objects of a particular religion may be intrinsically offensive to another religion.  And that's part of how religions work:  ascribing a hierarchy of symbols.  There is also a certain integrity in beholding something for what it is, despite what importance we may personally convey to that entity.

Ironically, upon none other than the Brooklyn Museum's ornate edifice itself, carved in massive granite mantles above its windows, are names of great historical personages, accompanied by statues depicting them, standing sentry-style around the entablature.  Included in this auspicious collection of world figures are saints from the Old and New Testaments - plus Mohammad - and apparently, nobody has a problem with that.  As well they shouldn't.

Of further interest is the fact that Jesus Christ is excluded from this collection of important people.  Was that out of a desire to avoid creating a graven image, perhaps, or was it simply an elitist snub?

Actually, the original idea was to devote one of the main, grand, interior spaces to prominent artwork honoring Christ, but thanks to the museum's choppy progress in getting built, and then its successive renovations, any traces of obvious homage to the Son of God have long since been obscured.  Which itself could be quite significant, considering the fact that other pieces of "artwork" just as scandalous as "Holy Virgin Mary" have been invited to what is today an unabashedly liberal institution.

Happenstance?  I think not.

Which brings us back to freedom of speech in art.  Couldn't depictions of blatant mockery intended to target a particular religion represent a different type of speech, compared with yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater?  For instance, displaying a vulgar image of Mohammad, as cartoonists around the world have done, is one thing when it's done for a privately-held newspaper or magazine.  And you saw the danger and peril those cartoons provoked.  While the wisdom of a private enterprise to do something like that is debatable, what is the merit of a publicly-funded institution doing so?  Especially if governments are supposed to protect people?

Getting To the Source

Even more important than these First Amendment contingencies regarding "Holy Virgin Mary," however, is the angst Ofili obviously dealt with in his soul regarding Catholicism and the mother of Christ.  I wonder if anybody in the evangelical community reached out to him in any way to help him with his faith-based questions, and offer him hope in the Gospel?  Did Ofili have any friends who are saved, who could have offered him the truth of Christ to replace the rituals of religion?

This is what I'm talking about when I say we evangelicals need to be loving towards people with whom we disagree.  Maybe people like me could never be close friends with somebody like Ofili because of the obviously different worldviews we display, but stranger things have happened.  Opposites do attract.  What's key is being real and genuine with people, and our sincerity has to come not from our personality or our mind, but the heart God has regenerated inside of us.

You likely don't care if Lhota is running to be New York's next mayor.  You maybe were too young to even have been aware of this controversy when it first erupted 14 years ago.  But as followers of Christ, shouldn't it at least make sense that while the things that people like Ofili produce may be offensive to us, we still need to see the person behind those offensive things?

Back in 1999, I doubt I would have put much thought into what motivated Ofili to create what he did.  Fortunately, however, it appears that I've matured somewhat in my faith, because now, I do wonder what motivated him.  What happens in hearts of people who see nothing particularly wrong with - or even take pleasure in - things like "Holy Virgin Mary" and the other dung-splattered artwork Ofili has created over the years?

Maybe those people are trying to tell us something more than what we see.

And maybe we need to listen.  Not so we can change our own minds and agree with them.  But because somewhere in what we find offensive, there's nevertheless a person made in God's image whom God may be calling to Himself.

God, after all, can turn anything - even dung - beautiful.

Talk about freedom of artistic expression!



Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Second Chances Likely for Straight Marriage

It's a March marriage madness marathon, isn't it?

Two days in a row of Supreme Court debates over gay marriage.  And America's media is fomenting the hysteria on both sides of the issue.

On the one side, conservatives are fretting the corruption of our entire universe's history of heterosexual marriage.  On the other side, liberals claim that matrimonial love knows no gender boundaries.

And then there's satirist and perennial Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, who scoffs that "gays have as much right to be miserable in marriage has heterosexuals."

If you believe the media on either side of the partisan divide, our Supreme Court is going to rule on whether gay marriage is Constitutional or not.

But it's not!  Any way you want to look at these two cases before the court, the Supremes almost certainly will not rule on the Constitutionality of gay marriage in either Hollingsworth v. Perry or United States v. Windsor.  The court may even decide not to decide, and sent each case back to the appropriate lower court.  Indeed, if you want to believe that gay marriage is Constitutional, or it isn't, the court likely will not give you much satisfaction.  Even thought the parties in both cases themselves want the court to make that decision as well.

Confused?  You should be, if all you know about these two cases is what you've read in the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, Drudge Report, or any other populist rag out there these days.  It's almost as if these media outlets actually don't want the general public to know what's going on in America's high court.  Instead, they want you to consume their packaging of the news so they can sell advertising space, and the best way to do that is make consumers assume that everything is on the line here regarding gender in marriage.

And so far, it seems the American public has fallen hard for it.

Read the transcripts from yesterday and today, and although yes, both cases deal with gay marriage, you'll note that the justices are grappling with legal technicalities in the way each case has been brought to their bench.  Although there has been discussion before the justices on the merits of allowing or disallowing gays to marry, there's almost as much discussion among the justices on whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over what may be a states-rights issue.

For years, blacks have been complaining that gay rights activists compare gay marriage rights to civil rights, and now, depending on the Supreme Court's decision, perhaps we'll have at least some clarity on whether or not gay marriage is a civil right.  Which, of course, would inevitably lead to another round of lawsuits that could reach the Supreme Court.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  After all, some justices think we already are.  None other than the normally conservative Justice Alito mused yesterday whether it's simply too early to make a legal decision in the matter - certainly not an attitude conducive to a slam-dunk endorsement of hetero-only marriage.

Meanwhile, vitriol on both sides of this debate runs red-hot and unabated.  Read some liberal sources, and you'd think gay marriage opponents are so few and bigoted that their cause is laughable.  Fortunately, a personal friend of mine, J.C. Derrick, was out in front of the Supreme Court all day yesterday, documenting the goings-on for World Magazine, and he learned that New York Democrat Ruben Diaz brought 32 bus loads of heterosexual marriage supporters down from the Empire State to Washington, DC on Tuesday.

Let me repeat that:  a Democratic state senator from the South Bronx in New York City, Ruben Diaz, opposes gay marriage, and he led a caravan of 32 buses full of gay marriage opponents from New York to our nation's capital yesterday to demonstrate on behalf of heterosexual marriage.  Diaz's New York State Senate press release said it would be only 30 buses, but apparently more people joined the effort at the last minute.

Now, maybe all of those New Yorkers are as misinformed as anybody about what's going to take place in the Supreme Court's chambers regarding these two cases, but you likely won't have learned from many mainline news outlets that 32 bus loads of New Yorkers, led by a Democrat, were on-site in front of the Supreme Court yesterday, cheering for straight marriage exclusivity.  Facts like that simply don't fit into the normal way modern media likes to package and sell the news.

Which illustrates the reason why we need to be very careful about the information we consume.  Bias is rampant and endemic in most major national media organizations, corrupting both liberal and conservative resources for news.  If you're not cross-checking your sources for information, you won't realize how distorted your view of the world may be.

Then there's this:  According to Proverbs 16:23, "the heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips." (ESV)

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on either Hollingsworth v. Perry or United States v. Windsor, the debate over gay marriage isn't going away anytime soon.  Yet to what degree have we evangelicals allowed this debate to degenerate as much as it has - and solidify as much opposition against the sanctity of marriage - through our own corrupt hearts?  Or our own injudicious speech?  Our lips have certainly not been persuasive, have they?  How has our failure to live out Proverbs 16:23 contributed to the speed with which gay marriage has acquired such support and affirmation within such broad sectors of our society?

The Supreme Court will likely kick this can further down the road, back to the states.  And most of us will likely greet such kicking with relief.  But that scenario will also give us a second chance to do what we should have been doing all along:  living out a Christ-like faith based on love.  Love not only for people who view sociopolitical policy differently than we do.  Love not only for gays and people who lead lifestyles with which we may not agree.  And love not only for the spouses of the opposite gender that evangelicals have too duplicitous a history of divorcing, marring our claim to marriage's sanctity.

But above all, we need to live out our love for Christ, the only One who can give us hearts for the wise speech and persuasive lips that are necessary to better argue our cause.

Among our family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even Supreme Court justices.




Monday, March 25, 2013

Money, Motive, and First Baptist Dallas

"How many people could that money have helped?"

It's the question Christ's disgruntled disciples asked of Him when a woman anointed His head with expensive perfume three days before His crucifixion.

It's also the question many Dallasites are asking in the wake of First Baptist Church's dedication of its splashy new fountain at their remodeled campus downtown.

Dallas' First Baptist is no stranger to controversy - in fact, sometimes, the congregation courts it.  "There's no such thing as bad publicity" seems as true in Hollywood as it does at the century-old bastion of Baptist evangelism in the heart of Big D.  Lately, its current pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress, has been boldly challenging the media to consider his perspective on a range of volatile political issues, from Mitt Romney's Mormonism to Muslims and Christians worshiping different deities.

Even the NFL is believed to have pressured Jets quarterback Tim Tebow to cancel his scheduled appearance at the inauguration of First Baptist's gleaming, $130 million worship space this coming Easter Sunday.  Jeffress has made a name for himself as an advocate for heterosexual marriage, a viewpoint whose popularity is withering in the face of modern pressures for accommodating same-sex marriage.

Glass, Steel, and Spectacle

So it comes as no surprise that First Baptist Dallas is encountering some stiff criticism of its gaudy new construction project, which has already been toured by our local media.  At the princely sum of $130 million, it's purportedly the most expensive Protestant church building program since flying buttresses were all the rage.  Last night, a lavish, outdoor, multi-jet water fountain featuring a tall cross upon a conical pedestal was turned on, complete with colored lights and geysers.  And taped music.

Quite the show.  Impressive to some, perhaps, if not a bit goofy to others, and maybe even inappropriately graphic, considering how the water tends to spurt immodestly.  The whole "Fountain of life" theme gets diluted quickly by the theatrics and - to those with a corrupted imagination like me - lewdness of it all.

"Defiantly excessive" is the term that comes to mind.  The elegant cross fades from their fountain's focal point, just as theology and doctrine become mere sideshows in the rest of First Baptist's new space.  According to news reports, the church hired a Disney designer to create a fantasyland for their five-story childrens' ministry department, which is named after Andy and Joan Horner, founders of a costume jewelry company.  Jeffress crows that it's "the most spectacular childrens' area of any church in the world."  The congregation's new 3,000-seat sanctuary - twice the size of their historic one, yet touted as "intimate" - features what they boast as being the world's widest video screen.

Instead of being drawn to Christ in wonderment, you're forced to wonder: are they competing for lost souls, or bragging rights?  (Neither of which, by the way, are things for which followers of Christ should compete.)

Casino-as-Church Architecture

Apart from the extraordinarily high bar First Baptist is setting, against which other churches in north Texas may now feel compelled to compete, these stunning features of the congregation's new home seem fairly unnecessary, and even counter-productive, in terms of contributing to the Kingdom of God.  Other Dallas churches that use gimmicks like tricked-out play areas for kids will have to sink even more money into facilities for wooing children - and their parents - already programmed to appreciate sensory overload.  And although First Baptist claims it needs all these bells and whistles to attract the throngs of hipsters moving back into central Dallas, those hipsters aren't the conventional families with kids First Baptist apparently assumes them to be, but gays, cohabitors, and empty-nesters.  In other words, if they're even interested in going to church, they don't have kids.  They're also people for whom style has lost its substance, and they're interested in deeper meaning than spurting fountains and wrap-around video screens.

Or maybe First Baptist is throwing all of its eggs into one expensive basket, trying to compete out of one location with suburban faith empires like Prestonwood Baptist and Fellowship Church, whose satellite congregations are sprouting like weeds all over north Texas' more desirable neighborhoods.  Not only is it sadly funny to note how these suburban congregations never plant churches in black or Hispanic neighborhoods - while First Baptist has soldiered through all of central Dallas' grim years - but church envy is a plague, particularly among Southern Baptists, and it appears First Baptist is relishing this opportunity to set new benchmarks others will have a hard time exceeding.

Indeed, at $130 million, Dallas' First Baptist has a remodeled facility that will likely set the standard for casino-as-church bling for years to come.  However, as questionable as this project's execution has been, it's not like all that money, as many of the congregation's detractors assume, is being spent at the expense of the social welfare programs the unchurched expect from churches.  For years, First Baptist has been a major player in local charities to the homeless, working poor, elderly, handicapped, immigrant, pregnant, and fatherless in Dallas.  They also have a robust international outreach effort, both as a congregation, and in partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention.

So to complain that "all that $130 million should have been spent on the poor" demonstrates ignorance about what the church has been doing behind the scenes.  It's not even like $130 million represents a waste of money for a facility intended for the corporate worship of Jesus Christ.  Shouldn't we be lavish in our worship of God?  Just as the woman who anointed Christ with the lavishly expensive perfume honored His deity by doing so, there technically is no dollar amount or even a financial metric by which believers should be restrained from offering to Christ's glory through extravagance.

Obviously, now, extravagance is a relative concept, and if you haven't got the money, you can't spend it.  That fact applies to anything and everyone in our capitalistic marketplace.  If you can't afford to get a more expensive house or car, you don't.  If your church can't afford a pipe organ, you don't commission one.  If your church can't afford the type of worship space $130 million can buy in Dallas, then you don't build it.

It's one thing to question what you've bought for $130 million.  But it's mostly envy to complain that $130 million was spent at all.

And First Baptist Dallas can obviously afford the $130 million.  Several news accounts have indicated that there will be no debt on any of this new construction when the doors open early Easter morning.  Besides, Biblically, it's not a question of whether that amount of money should be spent, but if Christ is the focus of the property and what takes place inside of it.

So far, based on looks alone, it's hard to see if the congregation's $130 million has purchased anything more than something new and different.  Some of that $130 million went to tear down older, uninspired buildings that somebody deemed obsolete.  What they've replaced those uninspired buildings with, however, looks no more inspired than a dated shopping mall.  Dallas' elegant Meyerson Symphony Center a few blocks away speaks more to spirit, ascendancy, and holiness than the new First Baptist.  Although it was built 25 years ago, it only cost $80 million.  Shucks, even the sprawling Winspear Opera House, whose exterior I personally detest, has more gravitas and awe than the new First Baptist.  It cost $180 million four years ago.

True, the new First Baptist fits better into the glassy corporate aesthetic that defines downtown Dallas, but that's not exactly a compliment when we're talking houses of worship.  Then again, however, Baptists have been notable recently in their aversion to anything that looks like conventional worship, from their worship services, to the architecture of their mega-churches, to even dropping the "Baptist" from their names.

It's Not the Money, It's the Mixed Motives

Back nearly 2,000 years ago, the argument about spending tremendous sums of money to honor Christ was just getting started.  Yet a couple of days later, one of the guys complaining the loudest about all that perfume gone to waste was taking 30 pieces of silver in exchange for handing over our priceless Lord and Savior to be killed.

Sometimes, it seems to me that while we're eager to spend wildly on church building programs in the name of Christ, we're just as willing to sell out our honor of Him by peddling a mockery of the price He paid on Calvary to set us free from sin.

I'm not saying that the quality of corporate worship First Baptist Dallas offers to Christ equates to the 30 pieces of silver.  I am saying, however, that it's hard to see how the pretentious excesses of First Baptist's new home is going to give it much legitimacy as a center for Christian worship.

Perhaps, hundreds of years ago, builders of Europe's great cathedrals received similar flack for their grand edifices.  The difference, of course, is that most of those cathedrals were built as representations of God's grandeur and holiness.  First Baptist's new edifice may appear grand to some people, but it's no Medieval cathedral.  Like the buildings it replaces, it may last only a little longer than the point at which its future congregation tires of it.

Then again, even the timeless architecture of history's glorious cathedrals won't ensure they'll stand forever, either.

Meanwhile, God's likely pleased to see that at least one of His congregations is joyfully lavishing this amount of money on a project like this in His name.  Its aesthetics may be disappointing, but at least First Baptist isn't nickle-and-diming or hoarding the wealth God has given it.

Plus, with our regular summer watering restrictions here in parched Texas, that spurting fountain might not turn into much of a distraction after all.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An Open Letter to My Chinese Readers

I know a number of people who visit my blog live in China.

The analytical software Google provides me tells me so.  The degree of spam activity on my website also suggests to me that many Chinese people see the content of my blog on a daily basis.

So today, I'm writing to you, my Chinese readers, spammers, and surfers.  I'm going to write in an easier form of English, so I hope you can understand what I'm trying to say.  Because this is a personal, heartfelt message for you.

你好  (Hello!)

Do you know that your government says it has killed 336 million unborn children?  This is not what our American government says.  It's what your Chinese government says.

In a report your Health Ministry released on March 14, 2013, and analyzed by the Financial Times of London, England, officials say that in order to enforce China's one-child policy, doctors in your country have performed 336 million abortions since 1971.

That's more than the total number of children experts predict will be born across our entire planet within the next decade.

Many people around the world are shocked, saddened, and angry at what your country has done to literally hundreds of millions of unborn children.  Many of us believe that abortion is a crime against humanity, since it artificially denies the life represented by a fetus the right to continue its physical development as a human being.

Many of us also know that the Chinese people do not like your government's one-child policy, and we know that some rich Chinese parents are wealthy enough to pay whatever taxes, fees, or bribes are necessary for them to have more than one child.  That, too, distresses many of us around the world, since it means that human rights are being awarded simply on the basis of money.

Please know that there are people around the world who have sorrow for your country and your government.  For the sake of the Chinese people, we want this inhumanity to end.  And many of us understand that you and your parents probably want it to stop, too.  You don't want your government to kill unborn children, do you?

We may be an ocean and many cultures apart, geographically and socially, but your country's abortion crisis is ours, too.  We are all human beings with inherent dignity and value.  No government has a right to slaughter its own people.

Especially when they're not even yet born.

Please ask yourself this question:  If you can't trust your government to protect the most vulnerable among you, how can you expect it to protect you?

谢谢  (Thank you)


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cynicism Can Cut Both Ways

Regular readers of my blog likely know my faults all too well.

Maybe even better than I do!

Except for my cynicism.  Believe me:  I know it's a problem of mine.  And I've been trying to correct it.  Although that process may not always be apparent!

As I've been tweaking and updating this website, I've been re-writing the "About" page, where I introduce myself to folks in a few descriptive paragraphs.  And while I normally don't like talking about my personal life, apart from various principles about my faith, I've held particular discomfort about the part where I describe myself as a "recovering cynic."

Yes, honesty is a big part of how I write, and what I write about.  So I might as well acknowledge the obvious.  But it ain't always easy.

I know I'm a recovering cynic.  And actually, I know I'm taking liberties with the "recovering" part, since my cynicism isn't so much in remission, as much as it is in therapy.  The long, drawn-out, therapist-gets to-buy-a-yacht type of therapy.  But so far, I leave the "recovering" part in, if only to remind myself that I'm accountable for surrendering it - along with everything else - to Christ.

I shouldn't just whip it out of my sin portfolio and give it a good airing now and then just because something ticks me off.

Bias, Irony, and Pride

But before I sound too virtuous about Christ sanctifying my cynicism away, we need to clarify something.  What my critics may call cynicism, and what really is cynicism, can be two different things.

Let me explain.

Upon reading an unfavorable review I wrote of her author's novel, a publisher was so upset that she surfed my blog to see what credentials allowed me to blast the inferior quality of what she'd sent to press.  On my "About" page, she found where I confess to being a "recovering cynic," so she complained to my editor something about cynics usually having grudges, which means we're biased.  Oh - and she professed to seeing no evidence of the "recovering" part of my cynicism in the harsh critique I'd written.

Which, at least in terms of the bias part, is true:  I have a bias towards good literature, and her's didn't even come close.  I don't believe Christian authors should be evaluated on a lower standard than secular authors.

If that's what it takes to make me a cynic, I'm guilty as charged.

Indeed, the irony of cynicism is that usually, people like me point out valid faults, but the people who have the opportunity to correct those valid faults automatically forget their part of the equation, and simply complain that our cynicism is un-Christian.  As if pointing out our sin negates their responsibility to fix what we've identified as needing improvement.

And then there are those threatened souls who take every form of criticism as cynicism.  I suspect people who do this - and they're mostly Type-A people who've never learned to differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism - have a predisposition towards either personal superiority or comfort.  The person who can't abide criticism needs to have the person giving it prove they possess superior authority on the subject before the contradictory viewpoint has any possible merit.

Which, of course, is simply pride, isn't it?  Not necessarily pride on the part of the person being accused of cynicism,  but pride on the part of the person who doesn't want to hear it, and can conveniently dismiss the input as being corrupt since it was voiced by an alleged cynic.

A while ago, owners of a company for which I worked were considering the purchase of an old, abandoned building to retrofit into new offices.  Their enthusiasm for this idea was well-known to all of us, but so was the fact that part of the building used to be an automotive maintenance garage.  So, silly me - I asked about the environmental remediation that would be necessary to clean up that old garage, and how costly it would be.

You'd have thought I was evil personified by the way they reacted to my question.  Because I wasn't gushing with affirmation for their overall plan, I was a pariah, and was told that my cynical attitude would not be tolerated.

As it turned out, government officials began asking the same question I did, except the company's owners hadn't acted upon it beyond their castigation of me.  For a variety of reasons, of which environmental remediation proved significant, the project quickly unraveled, but not before spending who knows how much time, effort, and money to prop it up.

Just because any of us ask questions or point out flaws in something doesn't mean we're sinning by doing so.  Yet, within the culture of American innovation, people who are threatened by questions use the cynicism label to ignore what they don't want to hear.  Especially when it's easy to assume people like me are always challenging them to a duel.

Yes, God does indeed look at our hearts when we say anything - including the constructive criticism others want to irresponsibly interpret at cynicism - but He also looks at our hearts when we're reacting to what's being told us.  Especially when we may not like it.

Grace Corrects What Cynicism Can't

Not that I'm excusing destructive criticism.  However, just because something doesn't endorse another person, does that automatically make it cynical?  Isn't it the attitude with which that comment is made, and the objective of the person making it, that renders it cynical or not?  It's what God sees in our hearts, right?

Which makes Dave Burchett's recent essay on Crosswalk.com, entitled "Cynicism is Not a Spiritual Gift?" that much more relevant to me.  Dave is a friend of mine, although not a close one.  He professes his faith in Christ to the wide, wide world of sports, in which he's an award-winning television director.  He also writes books for imperfect Christians like me.

And he's credible enough in my book to be taken seriously when he writes this for Crosswalk:

"That God sees me and looks on me with love is mind boggling.  How can I accept that love and not at least attempt to offer it to others?  Because there is not a (Christian cussing warning) dang thing that I have done to deserve mercy like that.  From a human perspective that person who incites cynicism probably doesn’t 'deserve' grace.  But did you?  Did I?"

Who else but our holy, perfect Christ would have had - literally - every reason in the world to be cynical?  Yet He never was.

Grace is what takes cynicism and molds it into something beneficial, both in the person who'd otherwise be speaking without it, or the person who would otherwise be receiving without it.  It's how God intends for His children to interact, both within our communities of faith, and towards the world around us.

That's why I want to be a recovering cynic.

"Speaking the truth in love" may not create the salacious reading material for which many people look online today.  I need to remember that, and be preaching it to myself.  The goal of whatever ministry we have - and we all have at least one - should be "love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith."

Yes, cynicism can cut both ways.  But praise be to God!  Grace can cut it off at the pass.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Love Bell's Ringing For Gay Marriage?

Meanwhile... disgraced pastor Rob Bell has come out in support of gay marriage.

Bell, you'll recall, is the author of Love Wins, a hotly contested book in which he questions the orthodox, Biblical view of Hell, and preaches a humanistic gospel of love for all.

Once a rising star among some factions of evangelicalism, Bell rapidly lost his credibility among most theologically-conservative Christians in the aftermath of this particular book's publication.  His name became a byword for flirting too deeply with contemporary secular culture.  Bell is Christianity's waxen-winged Icarus (from Greek mythology) who flew too close to the heat of relativism.

So perhaps it's surprising to few evangelicals that this past Sunday, at a bastion of theological liberalism in none other than San Francisco, Grace Cathedral, Bell pronounced his blessing on same-sex marriage.

According to the Huffington Post, this is how he put it:

"I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it's a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs -- I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."

And then he went even further:

"I think we are witnessing the death of a particular subculture that doesn't work. I think there is a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized, Evangelical subculture that was told "we're gonna change the thing" and they haven't. And they actually have turned away lots of people. And i think that when you're in a part of a subculture that is dying, you make a lot more noise because it's very painful. You sort of die or you adapt. And if you adapt, it means you have to come face to face with some of the ways we've talked about God, which don't actually shape people into more loving, compassionate people. And we have supported policies and ways of viewing the world that are actually destructive. And we've done it in the name of God and we need to repent."

Adapt or Perish?  Which Did Christ Do?

Now, technically, Bell is correct in identifying the reality that we evangelicals need to be more loving and compassionate in the ways we minister to other people.  The attitudes and language that many of us use to categorize, describe, and analyze people - both within our faith, and outside of it - has been destructive to our testimony to God's broader Gospel.  We've been narrow-minded, but not in a good way, because we've been too eager to model Christ when He cast out moneychangers from the temple, and less willing to turn the proverbial cheek.

But that's about as much legitimacy as can be Biblically found in Bell's critique of our reaction to the prospect of gay marriage.  Otherwise, if he ever believed the Bible to be utterly true, Bell should know that no one can "adapt" truth to fit new ways of wanting to do things.  For example, we don't "adapt" the theory of gravity to suit our needs, although we can artificially defy it, just like most people do with Biblical truth.

And yes, it's entirely possible that evangelicals may face persecution for adhering to a strict interpretation of God's Gospel.  It's a tough likelihood to accept, especially if you don't believe Christ suffered even worse things on our account.

Yet should we simply resign Bell's moralist liberalism to the rapidly-accumulating pile of public sentiment calling for gay marriage?  At some point, that pile of affirmation towards something we evangelicals believe to be wrong and detrimental to society will likely topple over and suffocate our protestations.  We can't believe the falsehood right-wing political wonks seem bent on sustaining: that we're the silent majority in America.  Bell's probably capitulating on the Gospel because adjusting to political reality is easier than standing up in its face.

That's what we evangelicals are going to have to do.  Stand up in the face of what is wrong.

But we need to stand up to wrong in the right way!  Because, in addition to gay marriage being wrong, hating gays is wrong, too.  Even hating Rob Bell is wrong.  We should sympathize over his misdirection, and use it as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.  Indeed, how sobering to realize how somebody as well-educated theologically as him can soar so high and fall so hard?  And he doesn't even recognize that he's falling!

Marriage Tax?  How About Marriage Franchise?

The issue of gay marriage is going to challenge evangelical Americans on a variety of fronts.  It's even possible that Christians will need to request that our government relinquish the franchise we've lent it for legalizing the union of husband and wife.  After all, marriage isn't a government institution, but God's.  We've just let governments use it over the millennia since it's such a basic form of social management and regeneration.

If the homosexual community now wants to mimic God's ordinance for sexual relationships - what we call marriage - we might not be able to stop them, but we could revoke the term.  While in practice, a "civil union" approximates marriage, using the different term for legal purposes could re-designate what we believe to be God's covenantal claim on the institution of holy marriage.

Of course, we evangelicals would need to re-commit ourselves to the institution of marriage as well.  With rates of divorce and adultery within the church that closely mirror those outside of it, we've done an atrocious job of preserving what "sanctity" we claim homosexuals would violate by sharing the term "marriage."  Sometimes when you abuse something, you lose the privilege of owning it, and that may be what's happening with marriage.  Let's just not bring persecution upon ourselves through our own misdeeds, instead of faithfully modeling the Gospel.

So before we bash Rob Bell for his acquiescence to popular trends regarding same-sex unions, let's remember that we're all accountable to God for how we view marriage - and gays - in our hearts.

And that we're probably more guilty of acting out the bad things in our hearts regarding marriage and gays than those holy things God expects of us.  Not that we should get what we deserve, because even God doesn't give us what we deserve.  But that God expects us to demonstrate His love while we testify to His truths.

It's not what Bell meant with his controversial book, but it's the way love truly wins.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Grumpy Old Patricians?

Old rich white men.

That's what Reince Priebus says is wrong with the Republican Party.  It's the party run for old rich white men by old rich white men.

And grumpy ones at that.

Grumpy old patricians!

Priebus, meanwhile, is the youngish chairman of the Republican National Committee who issued a progressively blunt challenge to his fellow conservatives on the same day presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made news (by not making news).

She confirmed her support for gay marriage, something some liberals said she'd never really done before to their satisfaction, even though her position on the issue has never been a secret.

In reporting Priebus' criticism of his own party, our national media may be hoping the GOP is getting ready to jump on the same bandwagons Clinton and her former boss, President Barak Obama, rode to success this past November.  But even though some conservatives are shedding their right-wing credentials, it's unlikely that the party will look anything like the limousine liberal side of the Democratic spectrum anytime soon.

Sure, Ohio's Rob Portman is breaking with Republican protocol on the issue of gay marriage, but he's simply following the same path former vice president Dick Cheney took after his daughter publicly identified herself as a lesbian.  Cheney's view on the subject hasn't weighed heavily on GOP strategy, and Portman's likely won't either.

However, on this subject, something else may.

Fact is, the tide of American opinion regarding gay marriage is changing so swiftly and decidedly towards gay marriage that it won't be Portman who can claim much credit for Republicans' bailing on the Defense of Marriage Act.  Young Republicans - many of whom come from broken families, and have seen how willingly conservatives ignore their marriage vows - may like the small-government side of politics, and wonder what business a government has in telling people they can't marry simply because of their gender.

You may know the reason why gay marriage is dangerous to any society, and I know the reason, but in terms of how the general populace sees the moral side of things, needing a law to tell people what's important is about as effective as laws prohibiting texting while driving.

Legislating morality doesn't convince people of what's right.

Scrambling for Relevancy?

In terms of making the ethos of conservatism more palatable and less stodgy to voters, however, the points Priebus makes about rebranding the Republican Party have some merit.  Even if some of the things he may want to change aren't the things that the party should be changing.

Priebus and other Republicans want the party to open up on immigration reform, if for no other reason than needing to woo the burgeoning political clout of Hispanics who can vote.  Amnesty is still a raw subject for many conservatives, but hopefully, reaching some sort of consensus on seasonal laborers and workers rights could lay the groundwork for effectively dealing with thornier issues.  Simply enforcing the employment rules we already have should help make workplace equity work across the board.

If you read Priebus' comments carefully, you'll note that he's not calling for a sea change in what the GOP stands for, but in how Republicans craft their message and convey it to voters.  Many right-wingers have come to believe the ends justify the means, so they care little about how people perceive the way they advocate for their views.

For example, in their effort to reign in government spending, Republicans need to quit waging class warfare, and then blaming liberals for the divisions conservatives have exacerbated.  As Cyprus has been reeling today from the European Union's suggested tax on bank depositor accounts, more than one conservative has come out and flatly stated that such an unprecedented penalty on everyday banking customers makes good financial sense.

Oh?

To the degree that taxpayers may need to share in the pain that their government is feeling is one thing; but to penalize customers of a financial institution for merely having deposits in a vault grossly perverts a relationship of trust that surely is a basic component of any modern, capitalistic society.

Even if, in the strictest interpretation of debt collection, a tax on depositor accounts can serve a valid purpose, it's a cold and calloused opinion to publicize, especially this early in all of the confusion surrounding the news.  Having American financial service executives working for conservative organizations belittling the anxiety being felt by bank account customers in Cyprus does nothing but prove Priebus' assessment:  Republicans are out of touch with sociopolitical reality.

Is Blind Obstructionism a Virtue?

We can also be rude.  Last week, when Texas' new, junior senator, Ted Cruz, challenged California's reigning liberal senator, Dianne Feinstein, about using the Constitution as the basis for American law, he displayed a nuanced form of arrogance that has come to define right-wing partisanship in this country.

Few conservatives agree that Feinstein's gun control advocacy stands up to their reading of the Second Amendment, but inferring that she doesn't know the Constitution, as Cruz did, is juvenile.  If Cruz really wanted to make his point in a fair way, he could have simply pointed out that it doesn't seem right for Congress to build loopholes into any Constitutional amendment.

Had he done so without appearing to insult Feinstein, she'd have had less of the platform he gave her and others in the hearing to point out the flaw in his argument.  For example, free speech does have its limits.  Perhaps Cruz, already knowing the flaw in the point he wanted to make, wanted to create a smokescreen around this aspect of his argument, and he knew goading Feinstein would incite her to take his bait.

Okay, so maybe Cruz isn't white, and he isn't old, but he displayed the very rancor that has made the Republican Party the party of condescension in Washington.  The party that seems to pick fights instead of working to solve them.  The party, as Democrats have become so fond of saying, of "no."

Priebus says he wants the GOP to tone down its rhetoric and ramp up its broader appeal.  What good are a bunch of admirable political convictions in a democratic republic if you're too haughty to seek buy-in from outside your own caucus?  It's easy to play to your narrow constituency, but a good politician knows not to make enemies so cavalierly.

If Cruz's grumpy irascibility is any indication, the party appears more interested in making a point than making policy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Honoring Chris Kyle

When he was working for our country, we had no idea who he was.

Now that he's dead, people can't stop admiring him.

Chris Kyle was, by all accounts, the most accurate sniper in American military history, with 160 confirmed kills as a Navy SEAL.  He served his country intensely and honorably, and when he retired in 2009, he wrote a book about his extraordinary career that became a New York Times bestseller.

Then, this past February, he was murdered at a gun range by an acquaintance apparently afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He was 38 years young.

Suddenly, the media began swarming over Kyle's story, from his professional accomplishments that by any standard are bizarre, to his death at the hands of a gunman who likely is deranged from battle fatigue.  Former presidential contender Ron Paul mused that Kyle's death appeared to confirm the Scripture that "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword."  Others wondered how anybody would logically include target practice as effective therapy for a soldier suffering PTSD.  Most people, however, surged onto the bandwagon that was rapidly immortalizing Kyle as a patriotic saint.

In Remembrance

And the canonization of America's most lethal sniper continues unabated today.  Here in Arlington, Texas, a life-sized clay sculpture of the 6'3" Kyle is being bronzed after being paraded into town from Florida on the back of a flatbed truck, escorted by 100 motorcycles on the ground, with a couple of news helicopters chopping overhead, filming it all.   The statue, which will cost about $85,000 to make, is being paid for with private funds, and will be donated to Kyle's family and erected wherever they desire.  Although the clay sculpture, created by Greg Marra, had already been started before Kyle's death as a generic depiction of a soldier, within days of Kyle's murder, it had been turned into a likeness of Kyle, portraying a swiftness in the creative process that reflects an uncanny fascination with the sniper and his legacy.

Kyle lived in the far southern suburbs of Dallas, and was killed in a resort area southwest of Fort Worth, so it makes sense for our local media to be focused on his death, as well as his life.  But Kyle's story has commanded attention from the national media, obviously responding to an outpouring of interest from a populace that doesn't quite know what to make of somebody who expertly assassinated our enemies, one by one, on our behalf.

The clumsy pride with which many Americans are responding can be seen in a new proposal to name one of the most highly-traveled freeways here in Dallas after Kyle.

Dana Morris works as a schoolteacher in Dallas, and she says Central Expressway, an 8-lane concrete canyon which runs from the city's bustling downtown district through some of its priciest and trendiest residential neighborhoods, would be a suitable venue with which to honor the deceased Navy SEAL.  Morris claims renaming the freeway "Chris Kyle Expressway" would remind Dallasites about the now-legendary warrior and his comrades, most of whom serve and die without us ever getting to know their names.

Which is an admirable goal, and likely one that many veterans could embrace.  And Morris likely has an easier job convincing the powers that be of "Chris Kyle Expressway" being a better name change for Central Expressway than another idea floated by a politician earlier this week.

Dan Branch is a Republican state representative from Dallas who has filed a bill in the Texas Legislature to re-name a portion of Central Expressway for our 43rd president, George W. Bush.*  The former president is getting ready to open his posh new library on the campus of Southern Methodist University, which overlooks the western side of Central Expressway near its congested Mockingbird Lane exit.  Branch thinks the Bush library needs to be flanked by the Bush expressway, even though Dallas already has a freeway named after a Bush - 43's father, #41, George H. W. Bush.

Suffice it to say that if Dallas' Central Expressway gets a name change, Kyle's provides a less logistically cumbersome choice.

Controversy Within the Ranks

Even if, just as both Bushes have their detractors, Kyle has his, too.  In his bestselling book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle claims to have decked Jesse Ventura, of Minnesota's governorship fame, after Ventura called US troops in Iraq "murderers."  Kyle's account has generated considerable animosity between supporters of these two men, plus a lawsuit by Minnesota's flamboyant former governor.

Ventura insists the incident never took place, and despite six witness statements to the contrary, only one witness admits to having actually heard what Kyle claims Ventura said.  The case was due to go to court this coming August, but at this point, its status is unclear.  And it's not like Kyle left a lucrative estate behind for Ventura's lawyers to raid - his publisher reports that Kyle donated the proceeds from American Sniper to the families of two of his comrades who died in action in 2006.

All of this attention on one particular soldier may or may not be fitting, since I have no idea how to evaluate the worth of somebody who's personally killed 160 enemies of the United States.  I strongly suspect that our country's morbid fascination with violence is contributing to its fixation on Kyle and the utter irony of his murder, and the fact that there is a genuine difference between what happened to Kyle and what he did to his prey.

Casualties of War

But ever since word spread like wildfire here in north Texas that America's top assassin had been shot dead himself, my mind has been flitting back to an essay I wrote after the SEALs' successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound almost two years ago.  What does it say about us when we're willing to name a freeway after somebody we've corporately - as a country - trained to do our specialized killing for us?

We all know that SEALs aren't ordinary soldiers who kill the enemy in a conventional battlefield scenario.  SEALs practically have their emotions excised from their souls, and their natural reflexes for self-preservation blunted to sustain extreme tolerances.  Sure, the death they inflict upon their victims isn't the sin of murder, since the Bible allows for justice and protection to be achieved through warfare.  Yet even for Kyle to donate the proceeds from his bestselling autobiography to families of soldiers who died fighting alongside of him; was that more some act of coming to terms with what his job description required him to do, or was than an altruistic gesture towards families who couldn't profit as much from the deaths of their loved ones as much as he could of his enemies'?

It distresses me to imagine the kind of psychological burdens men like Kyle have to carry around with themselves, and while I'm not opposed to naming a freeway after him - a freeway near his home in far south Dallas actually is without a name, and poses a far more suitable memorial than any in north Dallas - I hope our country doesn't stop at gestures like renamed freeways and bronze statues when it comes to acknowledging what these men do for us.

Remember, Kyle wasn't just out there as some special operative taking the lives of people who both hated the United States, but were still made in God's own image.  He was acting on our behalf.

Meanwhile, so was the guy who fought for our country and ended up with PTSD.  While he can't claim exoneration from his murder of Kyle on the basis of mental wounds he suffered during a war, the reason Kyle is dead today is because somebody else who served on a battlefield in our stead couldn't handle the ramifications of that devastating experience.

Indeed, Kyle's life may have been something remarkable, but his death is a potent reminder that war's casualties can be far less heroic than we're comfortable acknowledging.

Perhaps even better than renaming roads and building statues, Kyle's tragic passing can be immortalized in the greater respect we have for the unseen injuries with which our warriors are returning home.
_____

*Update 7/6/15:  For the latest on the now-official Bush expressway, click here.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

What Happens in Indianapolis...

A friend of mine is fond of witty quotes.

One of them goes, "once I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken."

Well, it appears that in little over one week's time, I've been at least partially mistaken twice.  I haven't lied, or been flat-out wrong, or personally accused people of things they haven't done.  Instead, I'm having to clarify points I've advanced in previous essays with new information.  While these clarifications aren't exactly proof that what I've written earlier is fraudulent, they do serve to chastise my penchant for drawing conclusions based on premature evidence.

My first clarification came last Tuesday, when one of the women involved in the Menendez imbroglio claimed that the New Jersey senator did not pay her for sex, as had been earlier reported.  The fact that she was, however, willing to lie in a legal deposition, and works as an escort, doesn't exactly give her the most credibility.  But still, considering the lack of definite proof one way or the other, Menendez is entitled to the benefit of the doubt, at least until a court of law rules otherwise.

Today, it appears that my haste in ascribing a new era of inclusion regarding sexual orientation to the National Football League may have been based more on the league's official position, rather than the literal practices of its team franchisees.

News began trickling out in February that some teams, as they scouted new players, were getting pretty personal when inquiring about a candidate's sexual lives.  Nobody's identifying the teams whose recruiters supposedly asked these questions, and the NFL trotted out its standard "non-discrimination" policy as some sort of proof that they know America's increasingly progressive populace wouldn't abide blatant sexism in our country's manliest sport.

Accusations of improper questioning stemmed from the NFL's recruitment combine in Indianapolis this past February, and today, New York State's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, pressed the issue by requesting that the NFL report to his office by next week the results of their internal inquiry into the aberrant questioning back in Indianapolis.  Although Indianapolis is in Indiana, the league's 32 teams play in 24 states - including New York - where inquiring about a prospective employee's sexual orientation is illegal.  Since the NFL itself is headquartered in New York, Schneiderman likely saw that as additional legitimacy for him to publicly press the league on this matter, as well as score some political points in one of the country's most liberal states.

Last Friday, when I blogged about the NFL's apparent disapproval of Tim Tebow's blunt evangelicalism, and their fear of him stoking anti-gay rhetoric among his fans (and, conversely, anti-NFL rhetoric among gay rights activists), I tried to indicate that this new non-sexist face of the NFL's really comes more from headquarters than the individual team offices across the country.  And indeed, judging by Schneiderman's concerns regarding what teams did privately during their league's event, he's not so much requesting clarification of the NFL's policy, but more a vetting of how the league's franchisees are respecting that policy.

So while the NFL may indeed harbor resentment against Tebow and the tenets of his faith, others within the organization may be more bigoted against gays than Tebow has been unfairly accused of being.

Frankly, I don't see what business a player's sexual orientation is of any professional football team's staffers, from its coaches to its players.  A person's sexuality should not be their defining characteristic, and in our sex-infused culture, insinuating that sexuality needs to be an important component of whether an athlete can thrive in their sport only perpetuates the problems we have with sexual immorality in our country.

Nevertheless, I understand it's the NFL's prerogative - and now, it's duty - to enforce certain policies and procedures across all of its teams, whether they want to abide by them or not.

It may just be a political stunt, since Schneiderman should know he won't be able to change the hearts and minds of football's franchisees and fans by making the league's suits extract more hollow promises in the spirit of open-mindedness.

But in terms of Tebow, and the rock and a hard place he's finding himself these days, whatever anti-gay sentiment there may be lingering in the front offices and locker rooms of the NFL - and of which the NFL has not so subtly accused him - likely won't make his life any easier.

And that fact should still make evangelicals reconsider their allegiance to one of their most favored sports.  Not because the NFL wants to defuse bigotry, which is a good idea.  But because there's a fine line between defusing bigotry and censorship.

And in America's current spiteful, rhetoric-filled dialog, which some right-wing evangelicals have helped to create, the NFL may have decided that there's more money to be made with censorship than speaking the truth in love.

If we'd been speaking the truth in love all along, we might not be facing this predicament.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

He Asked Me the "M" Question

Please Note:  This essay contains material that some of you might find discomfiting.


Regular readers of my blog know that one of my best friends is in prison.

He had been a co-worker, and then a friend, and then he did a truly stupid and illegal thing, and now he's starting his third year behind bars, with about six more to go.

He's unsaved, and he's gay.  Yet we'd forged some common bonds over the way we view our society, and humanity in general.  He respectfully disagrees with the basis of my worldview - faith in Christ - and I respectfully disagree with the basis of his worldview, which is atheism.  Some relationships never get past that vast disparity, but for whatever reason, we've been surprised to find areas of common agreement.

You're likely aware that many gays base their worldview on their sexual orientation.  But this is something both my friend and I agree upon:  we consider sexual orientation to be a woefully undependable and irresponsible focus.  Few heterosexuals base their worldview on their sexual orientation, and the ones who do tend to mimic the same problems gay-centric people display: the objectification of people for their sexual attributes, promiscuity that exposes one to physical and psychological illnesses, and general debauchery that mocks love, interpersonal relationships, and personal integrity.

My friend may be gay, but he's not flaming, because his sexual orientation doesn't define him.  His atheism does.  He's also a graphic designer of Italian descent who loves good food.  Being a lover of good food, he's being driven crazy in prison, where the menu is decidedly marginal.  And speaking of going crazy, although being gay doesn't define him, my friend is still a sexual being, and without being too graphic about it, he's expressed to me that he's developing certain frustrations in that area as well.

Believers in Christ like myself have generally not been raised to discuss sexuality out in the open.  Even in home groups, or in private conversations, if any sexually-related topic ever comes up, we usually end up hurriedly finishing each other's sentences so we can avoid being as explicit as we otherwise could be.  It's not that talking about sexuality is wrong in and of itself, but even when the subject matter is one of objective consideration, and not sordid lewdness, most of us hope the least amount of imprecise words suffices as information.

Meanwhile, believers in Christ are also to maintain a witness to the incarcerated, no matter their crime.  But, since sex comprises a significant portion of prison life - and we're not talking conjugal visits here -  the prisoners to whom we minister are not going to have the same inhibitions with certain topics as you or I might have.

Take masturbation, for example.

OK.  There.  I've said it.  I've typed it out.  A word I never thought I'd put into this blog.

But my friend is struggling with it.  He's joined the "Christian" group in his prison, because being part of that group helps explain to other prisoners why he might act differently than guys in the facility's general population.  It's for his own physical protection, pure and simple.  It's a charade, but so far, he thinks he's been able to pull it off.  He's told me that numerous times, chuckling at the irony of a self-professed atheist taking a Bible to chapel services in jail and singing praise songs he's never heard before.

The problem with being an atheist hiding out in a Christian group in prison is that my friend knows nothing about our theology and doctrine.  So when one of his fellow inmates from chapel told him that masturbation is a sin, and that God would kill him for "spilling his seed on the ground," my friend - apparently covering all his bases - wanted to know the truth.

If God does exist, might He kill my friend for masturbating?  After all, considering his situation...

What would you say?

"Um, ah... we don't talk about that."

"Um, not necessarily, but that's all you need to know."

"Um, I think so, but I really don't want to look into it with you."

Frankly, I don't believe God arranged this friendship for me to backpedal on legitimate questions like this from my incarcerated friend.  If I'm confident that the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses every area of life, and it is the solid foundation upon which I can build my worldview, then God has an answer for this question.  And I need to know what it is.

So here - after considerable hesitancy on my part - is what I wrote back to him:

Masturbation?

Of all the topics you could have picked, from Heaven to Hell, the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, or women wearing pants in church… you pick masturbation?

Actually, your friend from chapel is somewhat correct, in that the Bible does say a person who “spent his seed” on the ground was killed by God. The passage is Genesis 38, if you want to look it up.

However, upon reading the passage, it’s easy to see that it’s not talking about masturbation, but the custom at the time of a brother performing husbandly duties on the widow of his deceased brother, so that she will have offspring to care for her in her old age. The only Social Security they had back then was one’s children. God killed this man for refusing to perform what, in the complex ways of the Old Testament, was expected of him. This man would go ahead and have sex with his late brother’s wife, but he didn’t want to sire any children through her, so he intentionally and utterly foiled the procreative process.

Now, regarding your question, of all my years attending church, listening to sermons, reading the Bible for myself, and exploring what a variety of evangelical writers have had to say on the subject of sex and sexuality, I’m not aware of anything in the Bible that explicitly says men and women are not to masturbate.

However, how one masturbates could be sinful.

I know you want to be blunt, and I suppose little of what I say would offend you. So here goes: the reason God did not design the normal penis or vagina to provide unilateral sexual satisfaction for its owner is because these organs function as procreative elements of biology, as well as pleasure centers. They’re supposed to be used solely within the intimacy of a one-man-one-woman marriage to not only produce offspring, but provide a unique bonding experience that only those two people will share their entire lifetime. In other words, you will derive some pleasure from “beating off,” as you say, but not as much pleasure as God intends for conventional sex between a husband and his wife.

This is one reason why many evangelicals not only oppose homosexuality, but think they have the right to be rude and hurtful towards gays. We’ve talked about this before: while I believe that homosexuality is a sin because it goes against God’s design for our sexuality, there are many sexual sins within heterosexuality that are equally bad, dangerous, and offensive to God, yet evangelicals treat those far more lightly.

One of those sins is pornography. Like I said, it’s not clear in the Bible that masturbation itself is wrong. But how you masturbate could be. And pornography, which is the debasement of the human body and God’s purpose for sex, not to mention the objectification of people for their looks rather than their personhood (sexuality is not intended to define people), is a sinful way of achieving arousal.

Arousal, stimulation, ecstasy, and all the other emotions and physical manifestations of sex are not wrong in and of themselves. But God made them to be used and enjoyed within the confines of the Biblical marriage bed. Or countertop, or sofa, or back seat. It’s how one achieves that arousal that could be wrong.

Unfortunately, few of us know how to achieve arousal unilaterally without some form of sexual perversion, like pornography, or lusting after somebody we find attractive, or with whom we desire to have sex but shouldn’t. I suppose a spouse could masturbate in their hotel room if they’re on a trip and fantasizing about their spouse who isn’t physically with them. And I suppose a single, never-married person could masturbate simply by learning how to maneuver their organ in just the right way – but without sinful thoughts as stimulation. But I’m not stupid enough to think these non-sinful ways are how most people achieve satisfaction from masturbation.

Does that answer your question?  I hope so, because thinking through and writing this explanation has really exhausted me! 

Oy vey!