Friday, August 30, 2013

Morality of Mortality in Still Life

Photo by David Lassman

This morning was bright and sunny near Syracuse, New York.  The last workday before a long three-day weekend.  And as people logged on to their computers, and surfed over to Syracuse.com, a local news website, they were greeted with this photo at the top of a story about a fatality accident in the area.

A white sheet, covering what's obviously a corpse, on the pavement, near a crumpled motorcycle, and a damaged Jeep.  Skid marks, a lone shoe, and what appear to be bloodstains on the white sheet.  Crime scene tape, two police cars.  With a small group of what likely are police investigators standing about a block away.

You can almost hear and feel the stillness of the scene.

By now, however, if you visit the website, the photo has been cropped to exclude the white sheet covering the motorcyclist's body.  According to purportedly eyewitness accounts from feedback to this story, the deceased was a worker at a nearby office complex.  It is believed that he ran a red light and hit the Jeep.

The reason Syracuse.com decided to crop out the white sheet covering the victim stems from a rush of criticism from dozens of readers posting feedback to this story, objecting to being subjected to such a garish scene in the original version of the photo.

Bad taste, showing what's obviously a lifeless body, even if it is covered by a sheet.  Disrespectful to the victim's family, should they be venturing onto Syracuse.com without knowing their loved one's body is under that sheet.  Needlessly sensationalistic journalism.

Or is it?

This story quickly became one of the most heavily-debated articles on Syracuse.com, as readers went back and forth, posting complaints about the photo, or complaints about the people complaining about the photo.  Hey, at least the corpse itself wasn't visible.  Blood, death, and tragedy are part of life.  Maybe such a graphic depiction of the results of running red lights, as has been assumed was the cause, will convince other people not to take such foolish risks.

On the one hand, it's simply a photo that's generated quite a bit of buzz in an otherwise sleepy corner of New York State.  We've seen far more disturbing images out of Syria lately, and Iraq.  Does it make a difference when the bloody sheet is covering an American?  Or a local guy that somebody might actually have known?

When I lived in New York City, I particularly remember seeing on the local evening news some coverage of a Mafia hit in either Brooklyn or Queens.  A mob operative had been assassinated while sitting in his car underneath an overpass.  It was a burgundy Lincoln, and the driver's side window had shattered from the close-range gunshots.  The news camera angled right in for a close-up of the victim's blood-splattered face, a middle-aged man with greying hair.  And the whole thing was broadcast unfiltered to New York City, as a reporter droned on in the background about plausible motives.  As I recall, there was no "some of the scenes you are about to see are disturbing" disclaimer.  It was simply ordinary news footage of yet another casualty of the city's time-worn mob wars.  Film at 11.

Granted, I have no idea how much angry feedback the station received after airing that footage, but chances are, it wasn't much.  It's not like mob hits are exceedingly rare in New York City.  What might be rarer are mob hits where news camera crews arrive on-site before police detectives have started covering up the crime scene.  Even in the Syracuse.com photo, it seems a bit odd that the body was left on the street for so long.  The accident happened at 7:54 in the morning, the photos were posted at 8:49, and even past 9:00, according to the story, the body was still there, eventually covered by a yellow tarp.  How long does it take for the coroner to show up at fatality accidents in Central New York?

Maybe it's no big deal.  Maybe it is a bit opportunistic of Syracuse.com to run an attention-grabbing photo like this, knowing that if they really have to crop out its most objectionable component, they can do it and still have a photo that tells a story.  We all know that motorcycles aren't the safest mode of transportation anyway.  And people die in motor vehicle accidents every day.  Plus, it's not like Syracuse.com is in the same league as the New York Times or even FOX News.  Millions of people around the world aren't going to see this story and be horrified at the disturbing depiction of a dead person lying on the pavement with a bloodied sheet covering it.

But looking at this photo, it truly is the finality that it captures that makes it disturbing.  Maybe even horrifying.  A lone shoe, thrown from the foot of its owner by the impact of the collision.  A motorcycle, wrecked, never to be ridden again, at least not by the guy who, mere minutes before this photo was taken, was riding it to work.  A relatively new Jeep, looking like a 2013 model, by the narrow shape of its broken headlight - still so new, it doesn't yet have a permanent license plate on its front bumper, assuming it's registered in New York State.  What about it's driver?  How are they coping with the reality that this wreck involved a fatality?

This story never was headline news on CNN or Drudge Report, and by now, it isn't a headline story on Syracuse.com, either.  It's hardly distinctive enough to be nominated for a Pulitzer.  The road is back open, the vehicles are gone, and the victim's body is in a morgue or funeral parlor somewhere near Syracuse.

All we've got left, those of us who never knew anybody involved in this accident, is this photo.  And the story, however ordinary, that it's telling.  A story about finality.  Endings.  Sudden impacts.  And, frankly, how ordinary they are.

That's why people who found it upsetting were, well, upset.  We don't like being reminded about how common mortality is.

One of those cops in the background of this photo appears to be leaning back casually against a squad car, in a pose suggesting far more ease with this type of situation than many of us have when looking at the photo.  And for the most part, that's to be expected.  Cops deal with this sort of thing all the time.  They need to maintain a certain level of detachment for their own sanity.

For the rest of us, however, I think it does us good to be challenged by photos like these every now and then.  They remind us of our humanity.

Even if it is far more fragile than we're comfortable admitting.



Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gospel Truth Despite Doubt

What is truth?

That's the basic question of life, isn't it?  In what can we believe?  To what can we affix our hope?

It's the question Pontius Pilot asked Jesus.  It's the question all of us ask - however subconsciously - as we develop our worldview and make our way through our lives.

It's the question that born-again evangelicals say we've answered by putting our faith in Christ.  And while for some, that sounds like a trite answer, perhaps its triteness comes the consistency of its trueness.  Even if, at least for Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, it's an answer that's been given more in theory than in practice.

For generations, regardless of how strongly anybody believed in Jesus, as Americans living in our Christianized society, acknowledging the historicity of the Bible has sufficed in providing at least a benchmark for religiosity.  One didn't have to be "born-again" to acknowledge that the Bible is more than just another work of literature.  For people who took the Bible seriously, their claims that God's Word is true were met, on the whole, with at least a begrudging acquiescence by the general population.  Public dissent against Christianity and its teachings was extremely rare, and its doctrines seldom challenged in the public square.  And when they were, dissenters were portrayed as outside the mainstream.  .

When we talk about America entering a "post-Christian" phase, we're talking about all of that cultural context flipping backside-to.  Whereas Christians had become accustomed to commanding America's moral dialog, nowadays, we're finding ourselves on the defensive more than ever.  Over the past few decades, our culture become more pluralistic, and suddenly, it seems, more and more people have become comfortable with - and even driven to - openly challenging longstanding assumptions about Christianity.

"How do you know that God exists?  Or that the God of the Bible is the only god?"

"How do you know the Bible is completely true?  What makes it so special?  Plenty of cultures throughout history, around the globe, have created their own analogies, myths, and superstitions about how and why the world works the way it does."

"Isn't it awfully convenient for you to say we shouldn't do something, even when we want to, just because a book of Jewish mythology says so?"

Actually, it's not like any of these are new questions.  Nobody's asking anything today that hasn't been asked since Satan tempted Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden.  What's different about today's questions, however, is that cultural tradition doesn't suffice as an answer anymore.  In the minds and souls of many Americans today, the Christianity that has been part-and-parcel of Americana since Pilgrims set foot in New England no longer is sufficient proof for the Bible's validity.

That's not to say that the Gospel has become irrelevant.  Or that Christ isn't as powerful as He used to be.  Or that God really can be Whomever we want to imagine Him as being.  The orthodox truth of God that has existed and been believed by angels since before the world was created is the same truth in which I believe today.

Evangelicals like me simply can't expect anybody else to take that at face value anymore.

Not that I haven't entertained doubts in my own mind.  After all, I'm not unaware of how bizarre much of the Bible sounds to people who don't believe it.  Six days to create the universe?  A flood that covered every inch of the globe?  Shouting until a city's fortifications were obliterated by some unseen force?  An immaculate conception?  Feeding thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish?  Resurrection from the dead?

Come on!

How do I know that I'm not making some massive, foolish mistake by living my life according to some ancient proverbs instead of my own intuition and emotions?  Didn't God make me as a person capable of independent thought?  A lot of those proverbs are found in the literature of other cultures, by the way.  What makes them so special just because they're in the Bible?

And don't tell me that I won't understand about the Bible unless some event like being "saved" through a "working" of some invisible being called the "Holy Spirit" takes place in my soul.  We are an enlightened, educated, and scientific society.  We need proofs, validations, and empirical evidence.  Otherwise, your word is as good as anybody else's.  Merely an opinion.  Which means you're entitled to your opinion, just as I'm entitled to mine.  Everything's relative, and the only absolute is the individual; the self.  Which means I shouldn't have to change my lifestyle to accommodate your beliefs.

Sound like a lot of the push-back evangelicals are receiving by society at large today?

Frankly, to a certain degree, it's all a fair argument.  Little of Christianity makes sense if you take its theology's linchpin out of the picture.  And that Linchpin is Christ.  And even with Jesus, plenty of secular scholars, along with other world religions, acknowledge that He existed, and walked on this planet, and did good stuff for humanity.  It's His divine nature as the Son of God that skeptics can't embrace.  There is no literal, physical proof that Christ is a member of the Trinity.  Even the "Trinity," as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a concept whose very name is never mentioned in the Bible.

So, how do I know the Bible is true?  That God is Truth?  And that Christ is Truth incarnate?  How do I know that believers through the past two millennia who've been killed for their faith haven't been gravely mistaken?  How do I know that God hears my prayers, and that He answers them?  How do I know that Heaven is where my soul will go when I die?

Again, these are just some of the doubts, questions, fears, and aspersions that have bedeviled almost everybody who has ever heard the Gospel of Christ.  They represent just a smattering of the questions for which society wants concrete proofs, so that when evangelicals advocate for heterosexual marriage, or life in the womb, or even morality in the media, we people of faith have what society at large can accept as a legitimate reason for why it should listen to us anymore.

I could provide a listing of Bible verses to try and explain why I believe that eternal truth resides in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But none of it will mean anything to anybody who doesn't want to accept them as facts.

So I'll just say this.  Truth is that which honors God.  Don't believe it?  Well, even unbelief can honor God, because His Word teaches that without the Holy Spirit revealing His truth to us, none of us will truly believe it.  We might acculturate to it, like generations of Americans did before us, but that's not the same as accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior.  And maybe one of the unconventional truths about the Bible is that it teaches that the Gospel isn't for everybody.  Nobody can be forced into it, nobody can be chided into it, or guilted into it.  God has created belief and truth to exist whether you want it or not.

Not everybody will be saved.  Not everybody will believe in Christ.  Not everybody will tolerate the Gospel.  In fact, the Bible teaches that most people will not want to hear that heterosexual marriage is the only type of marriage that honors God.  Most people won't really care about protecting life in the womb, either, or whether a young female singer gyrates on a TV show watched by youngsters.  People will intentionally fly planes into office buildings.  People will kill other people simply because of the color of their skin.  People will hate, castigate, and fornicate with apparent impunity.  And some of them will claim the name of Christ.

But the Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  The Fruit isn't literally edible, but it is a lifestyle given by the Holy Spirit to everybody who accepts Christ as the Lord of their life.  And to the degree that these Fruit - they're a set - can be seen in my life, and in the lives of everybody else who professes faith in Christ, then you will know that we are His disciples.

You still may not want to believe that what we believe is the truth.

And you'd be in good company.  After all, the powerful Roman prefect, Pilate, didn't, either.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Single Males Parent Newest Surrogacy Market

This isn’t Sleepless in Seattle.

Or Finding Nemo.

Or even Adam Sandler’s forgettable rent-a-kid schtick in Big Daddy.

Did you know that single males searching for paternity has become the newest trend?  Yup.  A growing number of single men today are actively and intentionally pursuing fatherhood without a wife.  They’re paying surrogacy clinics upwards of $165,000 to have a child for themselves.

Granted, the number of men who can afford such prices is small, and the number of single men so determined to be a single dad smaller still.  Last year, the total number of single male clients served by California’s most prominent for-profit surrogacy center was 25.  But that number is trending upwards.

To a certain degree, isn’t it hard to understand why anybody would pursue single parenthood?  Many single parents who have been placed in the situation through divorce or the death of a spouse would welcome another opportunity to restore their parental partnership; not only for the sake of their children, but also for their own sanity!  Perhaps it’s been easier adjusting to the phenomenon of single women, in their rush to beat their biological clocks, taking the plunge into single parenting, even if it still strikes us as a bit unnatural.  But single men?

Okay, in answer to the likely question-in-answer-to-a-question:  Yes, according to the Associated Press, many single men who arrange for having children out of wedlock are gay, with no intention of marrying the mother of their children.  They’re paying gestational surrogates to have children for them, which they then raise with the help of nannies, au pairs, and extended family members.

Make Room For SoloDaddy?

By now, for us evangelicals, a number of red flags are popping up all over the place.  Single?  Gay?  Men?  Deeply desiring offspring?  With surrogates?  For $100,00 or more?  Plus professional childcare givers?

If you’re going to spend that kind of money, regardless of your sexual orientation, what about adoption?  And, yeah, about that sexual orientation:  Aside from the moral considerations, even if you found a partner with whom you could share parental duties, that partner is going to be the same gender as you.  What about having parents of two different genders?  A “dad” and a “mom?”  Single women becoming mothers at least has the element of anatomical biology going for it.  But now, men?

Yes, fatherhood can be a wonderful thing, but at what point has parenting become just another hobby for some people?   Just another pursuit, or trophy, or asset?  Or just another way to try and fill a void in your life?

"I was in an adoption pool for a year and half, didn't get any calls and got bummed about the whole experience," a single male executive in Seattle explained, regarding his decision to create his own child via a surrogate.  "I just wanted to be a dad.  Time was not on my side, and I didn't have the luxury of waiting for an ideal mate."

So now he has twin girls whom he’s raising with the help of a full-time nanny.

We can point to many examples of how the traditional, Biblical model of the family has been changing here in North America.   Divorce, of course, is a big one.  Then there’s cohabitation, and a widespread acceptance of pre-marital sex, both of which are merely alternative forms of adultery.  Increasingly, homosexuality is demanding more attention in our national dialog.  Its prevalence makes it appear to play a greater role in the changing dynamics of the family than perhaps it deserves, since it’s still a relatively small number of people who claim same-sex attraction.  And while over 1,000 babies a year are now born in America via surrogacy, the percentage being born for gay men and women, statistically speaking, represents a tiny fraction.

For now.

As trends go, this one shows no sign of going away, especially as medical technology continues to advance, and North America’s broad social stigmas of single parenting in general and gay parenting in particular continue to recede.  As evangelicals, it might seem easiest to simply ignore the reality of it all.  But how can we do that, especially since the kids created by and raised in such families will soon be matriculating into our voting booths?

Daddy Dearest

It’s not just a question of wealthy homosexuals being able to afford the procedure, and agencies being founded across the country to cater to demand.  And it’s not a question of being able to wallow in a stealthy form of bigotry, where we smile on the outside, and rip apart their living arrangements with our gossip.  Yes, it’s beginning to feel like the sturdiest pillars of society are beginning to crumble all around us, but even in all of this, we're still to model the Fruit of the Spirit.  It may not seem natural to us, but God's wisdom and plans are not ours.

Meanwhile, for many evangelical singles who’ve never been a parent, the joy of holding one's newborn child, or even the weariness of sleepless nights, may seem somewhat abstract.  But wanting children is a human trait.  It is more than biological, or even emotional, or sexual.  Should we really be surprised that homosexuals still want to be parents?  It’s also a bit ironic, considering the likelihood that, as politically liberal as many gays are, they will tolerate abortion, although it denies so many people what a small but growing number of gays so deeply want.

And there’s another thing, for single Christ-followers who so deeply want to be a parent:  We look at the contrivances people like gay men are making for their parenthood, and part of us undoubtedly thinks, “sometimes, we can't get everything we want.”  Yet we can all be selfish. Impatient.  We can rationalize away stuff we really want and our methods for obtaining them.

If you are agonizing over the reality that you are single, that time appears to be running out, and that you may not ever become a real, genuine parent, perhaps even here, you who are in Christ can find some comfort. After all, can’t the same Fruit of the Spirit we’ll need to address the phenomenon of single gay parenting in our society be the same Fruit to provide you with what you need to endure a delay – or even denial – of something you so dearly want that could be so right?

As good a thing as parenthood is, following God is even better.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gay Debate's Hate Needn't Be Returned

Homosexuality.

Ironically, until my family moved to the Bible Belt, I'd never heard of it.  Granted, we moved down to Texas from New York the summer before I entered junior high school, which can be a pretty tumultuous time for most kids, so I'd have learned about it sooner or later, regardless of where I lived.

I was wimpy, non-athletic, sexually naive, somewhat effeminate, and quite quiet.  Actually, with the exception of that last one, I'm the same way today.  Only today, I realize what a liability not being macho can be, especially here in Texas.  Back then, however, I had no idea that kids in my seventh grade class were sleeping around and having sex parties.  Hadn't a clue.  I only learned about it after college, when a former classmate of mine joined the church I attended after he'd dedicated his life to Christ.

He'd been one of the aloof, cool kids who never had time to taunt me.  Years later, when he introduced himself to me, I was stunned he knew who I was.  After we became friends, he asked if I knew why our classmates treated me so horribly.  And they did - they were brutal towards me.  They called me a gay faggot incessantly, taunting their perception of my inferior sexuality on a daily basis.  Having never heard of homosexuality before, or that being "gay" didn't just mean being happy, I didn't understand why they picked on me so.  I was from New York State, and everybody here seemed to hate Yankees, but the "Yankee, go home" ribbing we transplants received from the locals never carried the vitriol those gay faggot barbs did.

So when this newfound friend and former classmate asked me about those painful, awful days, I asked him to tell me.  My parents had told me it was mostly just part of the middle school angst many kids have to endure.  But apparently, in our school, at least, sex was the big pastime.  Not drugs, or smoking, or alcohol, but sex.  And since I was never at any of their sex parties, and since none of the girls were talking about my sexual prowess, everybody assumed that I was gay.  It apparently never dawned on anybody that I wasn't at their sex parties because I didn't know about them, or that my parents had instilled such a strong morality in me that I wouldn't have participated even if I did.

Perhaps that explains why I've never been repulsed by the gay label, like so many other people are.  Having been slandered by malcontents with such bigotry when I was young helps me understand today what gay people in our society have to endure.  One person's sin doesn't justify somebody else's.

I started working in retail during high school, after the gay taunting had stopped, and my oppressors were more anxious about getting into the right college.  I was struck again by the hate gays experience in our society when, one day, a gay window dresser at our company didn't show up with the rest of the crew.  He'd been beaten almost to death near his apartment in Dallas, attacked because he was walking along a street in the city's gay district, Oak Lawn.  I was horrified - I had no idea that the hatred and mockery to which I was subjected in junior high could manifest itself in such physical brutality in the "real" world.

During graduate school, when I was interviewed for a summer internship with the City of New York, the man who would be my boss for those three months asked me point-blank if I was gay.  Of course, that is an illegal question for an employer to ask an employee, but he asked me anyway, because I think he thought I was.  When I told him I wasn't, he told me that he'd asked the question because he was, as were many men in the department, and he wanted to see if I'd recoil at the prospect of working with them.  I think the fact that I wasn't flustered by the question or his explanation for asking it helped get me the internship.

And sure enough, there were some real flamers there - and yes, I can use the term.  And you know what?  They were some of the funniest, smartest, and warmest people I met that summer.  They were also hard to peg sociopolitically.  For example, my boss was helping to organize an anti-Catholic, pro-choice demonstration one weekend, and canvassed for volunteers after a staff meeting.  He asked one of the managers to participate, but the guy balked.

"I can't protest that," he exclaimed.  "I'm pro-life!"

My boss was genuinely shocked.  "You can't be pro-life," he shot back, dumbfounded.  "You're gay!"

"Yes, I'm gay," the manager retorted, "but I'm also Catholic, and I believe abortion is murder."

I sat at my desk and smirked.

When I started this blog, I had no intention of spending much time discussing sexuality of any kind.  I'm not particularly comfortable discussing the topic in any of its forms.  I have my own beliefs regarding sexuality that are founded in the Gospel of Christ, and I have a good understanding of what's sin and what isn't in this department.  Plus, I think our society already talks, writes, jokes, argues, and fantasizes too much about sex and sexuality.  We've perverted it into something God never intended it to be, but then again, perhaps we're just public about our perversions, instead of more publicly modest societies in ancient times.

I may have intended to stay above the fray, and discuss more pertinent issues.  Yet mine seems to have been too unrealistic an assumption, because suddenly, it seems as though a homosexual agenda is crashing through American society, demanding changes to the ways we address non-traditional sexual lifestyles.  Both gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws have exploded onto the political stage like an early summer thunderstorm in Texas, and just like a Lone Star downpour, things are moving swiftly and ominously.

Within the past several months, I've found myself writing more and more about the homosexual issues that command more and more attention in our national discourse.  I have friends who are gay, and I try to write in a way that wouldn't offend them, but still conveys the truths about sexuality that I believe God intended when He created sexuality to begin with.  I'm also led, more often than I like, back to those black, crushing days in junior high school when I was bullied with aspersions on my sexuality, or my lack of it.  For years, I would not permit myself to relive those memories.  Not necessarily because those kids thought I was gay, or called me by ugly, sexualized terms.  If I had been fat then, I'd likely have been ridiculed for that instead.  No, I've realized, with the benefit of hindsight, that those kids simply loved to hate people who were different than they were.

Many of us evangelicals seem to love to hate people who are different from us.  Or at least, we find some sort of affirmation for our own viewpoints by holding people who don't share them in contempt.  We assume there's some sort of dispensation in the Scriptures somewhere that gives us permission to be cruel towards people who base their lifestyle on a sin.  And a sexual one at that.  Yet how often do you and I lust after a beautiful person in our mind?  Do you think it comes close to the number of times gay people sin sexually?  We've allowed Hollywood and pop culture to acclimate ourselves to the notion that heterosexual adultery is normal, and we think novels like The Scarlet Letter reflect a more primitive, legalistic time.  It's pretty much only same-sex sex that incites our contempt these days.

Not that some gay-rights advocates are treating us evangelicals these days any better than I was treated in junior high school.  We get accused of bigotry and intolerance by people who apparently never look in the mirror.  Except that sometimes, they're right.  And when they are, we believers in Christ need to remember that with grace, mercy, and truth on our side, we have an obligation to model the Fruit of the Spirit, instead of matching vitriol for vitriol.

This battle, after all, is still the Lord's.  And it doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.  Let us find comfort and encouragement in the reality that we are the Lord's too.

And in so doing, perhaps we'll discover some of our opponents becoming His as well.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Adopting Embryos a Fix for IVF Waste?

Stretch marks.

They're what women have after they give birth.

But today, they're like what I feel creasing across my brain.  At least it's all still pregnancy-related.  Last week, I found an Associated Press article about the trend of gay men becoming single fathers through surrogacy, and then I read an article on World magazine today about a Minnesota couple who've adopted two children.  And they were embryos.

Currently, one of the adopted embryos - a girl - is growing inside Dr. Susan Lim, age 41, while the other one, unfortunately, has been lost.  They expect their new daughter to be born around Christmastime.

Some gift, right?

Now, obviously, the story about single gay men hiring surrogacy agencies to provide them with children adds complexity to the moral conundrum of gay couples parenting children.  Goodness - in how many ways does such a scenario compromise God's Biblical standards for families?  At least, when gay couples adopt, it could be argued that taking a child out of foster care may have some merit.  When gay couples use a surrogate to create children, it could be argued that at least having two parents may be better than one.  But when a single gay guy intentionally, deliberately pays upwards of a whopping $160,000 for a child born of a surrogate?  I simply have a hard time seeing any benefit whatsoever to such an arrangement.

Except to the surrogacy agency, of course, which makes out like a bandit.

It's politically unpopular to say, but children are best born and raised in a family comprised of a mommy and a daddy who are married to each other.

Paul and Susan Lim
Which brings me to the happily married heterosexual couple in Minnesota who've adopted two embryos.  Adopted!  Embryos!  Two of them!  Talk about your "frozen chosen."

I'm sorry - but am I the world's most ignorant single male Christian?  Because, initially, I found the concept wholly bizarre.

Perhaps, being a single male, I've never been compelled to contemplate parenthood beyond the realization that having four nephews and one niece is far less work than having four sons and one daughter.  I've never personally experienced what I'm told can be an excruciating longing to be a parent.  That would explain why in vitro fertilization has been a relatively foreign concept to me.  Having said that, however, I will also say that the whole idea of medically implanting eggs, sperm, or eggs and sperm into a uterus strikes me as being a biological contrivance.  Isn't it a form of "playing God?"  If God doesn't provide fertility, isn't that some sort of sovereign message from Him?  It's no sin or crime if a husband and wife cannot conceive.  And there are more than biological reasons for why gays cannot conceive.

Nevertheless, I've had Christian friends pay thousands and thousands of dollars for the in vitro fertilization process, and when their embryos died, they counted them as children who've gone on to Heaven.  They rationalized their pursuit as the benefit of God's providential gifting of the world's medical community and its ability to devise artificial pregnancy solutions.  It's like cancer treatments, or curing blood disorders, or artificial limbs:  medical advances are expressions of God's mercy and grace, they say.  And normally, I agree.

Except when it comes to creating life.  Something about it sounds like trying to override God's sovereign authority over that "secret place" in which we're all made, and only He can see.

Maybe God doesn't want you to achieve a family by conventional conception, but there's usually adoption available, representing not only the ability to become a parent, but also Christ's choosing of His sanctified children.  If adoption isn't something an infertile couple wants to pursue, might it be because biological parenthood has become an idol to them?  People earnestly desire plenty of lesser things than offspring they can call their own.  And considering how much money is involved with in vitro fertilization, how much more expensive can adoption be these days?

But even my embrace of adoption as a highly worthy alternative to procreation couldn't blunt my reaction to the World story.  Adopting embryos?  Really?

Either I've gotta get out more, or this truly represents an overlooked niche in the pro-life agenda.  The way World has framed its story, I feel like like I'm the only person who's never heard of embryo adoption.

According to some quick research, over 1.7 million embryos created for in vitro fertilization, known in the fertility trade as "IVF," have already been thrown away in Britain since the science became widespread there in 1991.  About 800,000 are in storage, like those miniature test tube babies sitting on sterile racks somewhere in some science fiction flick, waiting for incubation like moths in a cocoon.

In the United States, over 400,000 embryos are in storage, about half the number than in more socially-liberal Britain.

That just sounds gross, and borderline pathological.  Illegal, even.  But it is legal, and increasingly, fraught with ethical dilemmas.  Even the normally-liberal Mother Jones magazine has explored the moral anguish of parents with embryonic offspring "sitting on ice" - sometimes, they don't know where.  At least, here in the United States, the estimates are that only two percent of the 400,000 embryos in storage are ever simply thrown out in any given year.

But what comfort is that?  If any embryo is a tiny life, whether it's inside the womb, or in a test tube in a freezer, hasn't our sphere of lives requiring protection just been multiplied?  How many of these "test tube babies" could we call orphans?  One article I read stated that some fertility clinics don't keep accurate databases of their donor parents.  Who's responsible for what some people seem to be treating as procreative collateral damage?  The byproduct of overzealous paternalism - both literally, and figuratively?

And why aren't we spending on embryo advocacy in amounts even remotely similar to the amount of energy, money, prayer, and counseling we expend on crisis pregnancies?  Is it because IVF is so widely accepted in our evangelical community?

In the Lims' case, both Mr. and Mrs. are medical doctors, which gives them both a professional insight on the IVF phenomena, as well as the financial resources to pursue such an unconventional adoption.  For the rest of us, however, who have neither, what is there to do?

Simply wait, like all of those frozen embryos, until there's some sort of thaw in our ability to comprehend the very real reality that, even though science may allow us to do some things, common sense may still tell us they're unwise?

If life is as precious as we pro-lifers claim it to be, might protecting it include recognizing its basic,
God-given limits?

See what I mean by stretch marks?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Absurd Gripes or Valid Beliefs?

They're the "Five Most Absurd, Self-Pitying Gripes Of the Christian Right."

At least, according to Salon.com and Alternet.org, two liberal webzines that take consistent delight in mocking evangelical Americans.  The list represents yet another intentionally confrontational diatribe by left-wing writer Amanda Marcotte.  In fact, such predictability almost makes Marcotte's list insignificant.  Ho-hum.

Except... sometimes, we as a cohort don't advance the most Biblical or factual narratives in the public square, and lists like these can actually be useful to help us get back on-track with being legitimate salt and light in our culture.  At other times, however, the frustration that differently-faithed people direct at evangelicals exists purely because we believe different things that are diametrically opposed to each other.  And yes, everybody has faith in something, whether it's faith in themselves, or in government, or karma, the "greater good," or any deity other than God.

Sometimes, we will need to agree to disagree, despite our differences.  We live in a democratic republic, ostensibly, where we all have the right to voice our opinions.  In this case, determining where we truly differ will depend on how absurd this list of supposed absurdities is.

And what are these "most absurd, self-pitying gripes?"

  1. First on the list is the liberal claim that it's absurd for evangelicals to think gay-conversion therapy works, absurd for us to allow it to be conducted upon minors, and absurd that we should be upset that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has banned it in his state.
  2. Second, liberals say it's absurd for evangelicals to oppose governmental mandates for insurance coverage of objectionable contraceptive procedures.
  3. Third, they say it's absurd for evangelicals to dislike using "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
  4. Fourth, they say it's absurd for evangelicals to pout over the Supreme Court's ban on student-led or teacher-led prayer.
  5. And fifth, they say it's absurd for evangelicals to oppose gay marriage.

Which, actually, puts Salon and Alternet in a weird position themselves, for, in effect, equating issues as serious as gay marriage and gay-conversion therapy with something as relatively trivial as whether or not people say "Happy Holidays."  The odd bedfellows in this list cast a serious question regarding its overall legitimacy.  The "absurdity" really swings so far between "Merry Christmas" and gender identity within the span of five bullet points?  Perhaps a better way of looking at this list is that it reveals the true motive in producing such a list in the first place:  yet another way to promote sexual relativism.

It's the same message from the liberal media that we've been getting for years, only with marginally different packaging.

Besides, Christie's ban of gay-conversion therapy by licensed clinicians may be an indictment against Christianity, but it's also anti-Muslim.  How's that for irony?  The big deal about this law, and California's before it, involves what appears to be state encroachment on federally-protected religious rights.  Having said that, however, considering the weak evidence of gay-conversion therapy's success rate, Christie's ban is probably no great loss - or gain - in the debate over nature v. nurture when it comes to homosexuality, or a person's personal desire to be freed from, well, the desire.  The recent disbanding of Exodus International, the former ex-gay ministry, because of the way homosexuality has been improperly addressed in the evangelical community kinda pulled the rug out from under Christie's ban anyway.

If liberals bothered to look beyond the press releases of a few ossified lobbying groups and listened to the conversations Bible-believing Christians are having with how we can better apply Christ's truth to the homosexual debate, they'd see that it's only the people who don't care what we believe who want us to care about what they believe.

Right?

Second, to belittle any American's religious convictions about something as important as procreation - or the prevention of it - betrays a flimsy understanding of the Bill of Rights.  If you own a business, shouldn't you have the right to choose what benefits you're paying to provide your employees, particularly if the purpose of the proposed "benefit" offends your faith?  Cheap shots do not a well-founded argument make, and there are people on both sides of the political aisle, by the way, who oppose abortion - what various forms of contraception can mimic - in any form.

On the third complaint, meanwhile, liberals may have a point.  We Christians need to concede that Christmas isn't the only holiday that falls on or near the end of December.  There's New Year's, for one; both the eve, and the day.  And there's Hanukkah.  Sometimes even Ramadan, although not every year, since the dates for Ramadan shift in accordance with the Islamic calendar, which has fewer days than ours does.  For government offices and retailers, it's easier and cheaper to just throw everybody into the same holiday pot, and what self-respecting right-winger doesn't like saving money?  Plus, it's not like America's cultural Christians really celebrate the true meaning of Christmas anymore, anyway.

So, chalk one up for the liberals.  Just don't get mad when I wish you knew how to have a "Merry Christmas."

The whole thing about prayer in schools is another area where evangelicals probably need to keep their knickers from getting in a twist.  What Christ-follower would want their children exposed to prayers to Mary, or Mohammad, or Allah, or any pope, saint, or religious figure other than the God of the Bible?  Freedom works more than one way - and frankly, I want the freedom to not have to hear a prayer to a deity in which I don't believe.  Besides, most schools don't forbid kids from praying silently before a test, or for a Bible club to meet as an extracurricular group.  Considering how pluralistic post-Christian America is, we evangelicals should tone down the squawking over public prayer in schools.  We might not like it if we get it. 

Mocking the conservative position on gay marriage, however, since the concept represents such a significant cultural shift, virtually betrays an ignorance by liberals about the role of religious faith in a person's life.  Suffice it to say that marriage isn't even a political or governmental institution; it is an institution created by God for His people.  The fact that heathens are even allowed to co-opt it for themselves comes from the grace God's people have displayed in allowing governments to use marriage as the convenient regulator for societies that God knew it would be.  If we evangelicals could pragmatically revoke any government's unwritten franchise on marriage, we should.  But we can't, so we argue for its integrity instead.

Oh - and heterosexual marriage isn't championed just by Republicans and evangelicals.  Catholic Democrats tend to support it, too.

So, two out of five.  And that last one, gay marriage, really doesn't belong with the rest, so take it out, and you've got two out of four.  Fifty percent.

Half of your complaints are valid, left-wingers.  See?  We're not as absurd or self-pitying as you want to think we are.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Learning from Manning's Gender Plea

You know what they say:

"Life is a lifelong learning experience."

Well, of all the things I'm learning - or not, as the case may be, I'm learning why some secular humanists so easily peg us evangelicals as bigots.  I'm realizing it's not just because some secular humanists may have predispositions towards bigotry themselves, which makes them hostile to people who don't share their views.  They could also be pegging us evangelicals as bigots because we may not be very willing to allow the Fruit of the Spirit to glorify God in our lives.  You know:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Instead, isn't it a lot easier for us to just blast sinners with a pronouncement of their guilt, and go about our day?

Some evangelicals think we should live our lives the way Christ lived a couple of hours of His - throwing the merchants out of the temple.  Or when He rebuked the Pharisees with those cool one-liners like "you brood of vipers."  We gloss over the fact that when Christ did both of those things, He was primarily addressing the people we'd consider to be the religious professionals of His day - the guys selling animals for templegoers to use as sacrificial offerings, or the keepers of the Jewish law.

When Christ interacted with people he didn't expect should know any better, He mostly felt sorry for them.

That's not to say that we should not speak the truth, but we're to speak it in love.  It's not to say that we should never get angry, either.  But in our anger, we should not sin.

Yet how many of us this morning, when news was breaking about Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning and his desire to change genders, initially rolled our eyes and muttered something about his being some sort of weirdo freak?  I know I did.

Not only has he just been found guilty and sentenced to Leavenworth for providing confidential military material to an unauthorized agent, but now his lawyer is on NBC's Today show reading a letter from Manning in which he claims, "I am Chelsea Manning.  I am female."

Can this case get any more bizarre?

The More Things Change

The BBC has already gone over transcripts from Manning's trial and deduced that he likely suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.  Just look at his upper lip, they say - it's all smooth, just like a fetal alcohol baby's.  Manning himself professed to having suffered doubts about his masculinity throughout his life, and has said that he went into the military so it would make a man out of him.  After all, "be all that you can be" used to be the Army's marketing slogan.

If I was any more of a bigoted Christian than some left-wingers will inevitably peg me as being, I could continue making quite a funny joke out of it all.  But it wouldn't really be funny, would it?

It's all mostly sad.

Sad, because we're learning just how miserable life was in the Manning household.  Sad, because Manning squandered what could have been a promising military career with retirement benefits on a frustrated campaign for relevance.  Sad, because regardless of what he thinks, he's going to be Target Number One behind bars.  Does he think his future fellow prisoners don't watch the news?

And when he gets out, which legal experts say could be in seven years, what kind of life is he going to have?  Granted, the way our society's mores and tolerances are rapidly expanding, in seven years, his desired gender makeover may be hardly worth a raised eyebrow.  But seven years can be a long time.  And no matter what may take place between now and then, we know that at least one thing isn't going to change.

And that's God.

If you don't believe that the Bible is God's holy and inspired Word, then your eyes are fixin' to glaze over.  But I believe that, according to Jeremiah 1:5, God knew us before we were created in the womb.  According to Psalm 139, God had a set design for each of us, and it stands to reason that gender identity represents an integral part of that design.  It's in our DNA.

Of course, some people are born with differences that we consider to be anomalies.  We call them "birth defects," and they range from things like cystic fibrosis to sickle cell anemia to fetal alcohol syndrome.  To explain - and justify - their unusual sexual feelings, people who believe they are transgendered generally rely upon this reality that not everybody is born the same.

Vocabulary Lesson

It is at this point where many of us who doubt the legitimacy of transgenderism draw a line and say, "you're just trying to deny biology."  But it's not that simple.  There's actually a legitimate medical condition called "Mixed Gonadal Dysgenesis" (MGD) in which an infant is born with two different gonads, meaning their sexual differentiation is ambiguous.  We commonly call it "hermaphroditism."  Surgery can remove the biological ambiguity, but the infant's parents need to decide, based on medical expediency, whether that surgery will identify their child as a male or female.  It is rare, but it does happen.  And experts say it can play a role in sexual confusion later in life, particularly for patients who've been differentiated as males.

Of course, mine is a flagrant oversimplification of the condition, but I'm not a doctor, and you're probably not a medical student.  Suffice it to say that in some cases, transgenderism may in fact have a basis in biological factors about which we may not be aware.  That alone should be enough caution for us to treat with care those people so exasperated with their sexuality that they're willing to publicly announce their transgender condition.  Undoubtedly, Manning's letter was not penned in a casual, flippant manner.  So, even though he may not want our pity, we can feel sorry for him, but we shouldn't make fun of him.

Having said that, part of me wonders if the whole transgender phenomenon doesn't actually belittle those people who suffered MGD as an infant.  Many of us are working hard to be so politically correct all the time, but might people claiming a transgendered state be encroaching on what may be intrinsic to another person's biological heritage?  In other words, for transgendered people who are making their changes based more on emotion than a surgery, might they be expressing a form of disrespect to those people who needed a medical procure to dictate their sex?

Might it be that various factors other than mis-assigned sex organs are convincing transgendered people of their need to change?  Emotions, perhaps, or a backlash against increasingly dysfunctional family units?  It's Biblically incorrect to say that God "made" you that way, since we all have our sins with which we struggle.  It's politically incorrect to suggest that sexual roles and expectations are anything more than cultural contrivances.  It's who's inside that counts, right?  However, finding who's inside is leaving a lot open to interpretation.  Indeed, being transgendered is itself a contentious condition in the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender community, with all sorts of variant nomenclatures, such as pansexual, polysexual, and intersexual.  There's a whole new vocabulary being invented to accommodate a perceived spectrum of gender identities.

Meanwhile, the Bible explicitly states that God created "male" and "female."  Period.  It's so blunt, it's hard to ignore.  Or, for many, to accept.

Convenient Truths

Again, if you do not believe the Bible teaches God's truth, then you're going to say that the Bible is wrong.  You're going to assert that since God allows babies to be born with MGD, and that since I believe God forms babies in their mother's womb, that I'm mistaken in believing God does everything perfectly.  According to your view, God does make mistakes.  Which would mean that only we humans can fix mistakes, or that it's up to us to do what we want with the reality we discover.

Yours would be the classic narcissistic worldview, and it would fit conveniently into modern culture's narrative of there being no absolutes.  There aren't just men and women.  There are more than two categories.  Which would mean that people like me who obstinately maintain that God made male and female only, that He doesn't make mistakes, and that somehow, a child being born with MGD fits into God's sovereign plan for His glory, are the stupid ones.  Bigoted, even, since we refuse to bow in the face of your humanistic logic.

This is why we believers in Christ need to live in and with the Fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Isn't it usually true that people who are not convinced of their beliefs generally lash out at people who challenge them on their beliefs?  Doesn't it take something a bit extra - miraculous, even - to restrain yourself when people claim your worldview is ridiculous?  God gives people like me the Holy Spirit to help us model its Fruit - and they come as a set, not piecemeal.  That's why, when Bradley Manning asked us to now call him "Chelsea" this morning, I had to repent of my spontaneous, unkind reaction.

Yes, I believe that God is perfect, right, and just.  I believe that there is some good - a good that we may not see - when He allows somebody to be born with MGD, or any other birth defect.  I believe the Bible teaches that His glory should be our paramount desire, not our own comfort, or our own ability to understand everything that happens to us.  I also believe that all of us are sinners, and that daily, we all sin.  But I believe that there is only one sin that will eternally separate us from God, and that sin is denying what the Holy Spirit teaches us about Jesus:  that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him, we have eternal life in His name.

For those of us who trust in Christ, He gives us grace to encourage us in His truth, and comfort us when others don't.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Here in Texas, I have an unsaved, non-religious friend who recently announced that he has a new name and a new gender.  He has started a hormonal treatment and hopes to one day undergo surgery to turn one set of sexual organs into another.

I know this person.  I've had dinner with him many times.  I've been in his home, ridden in cars with him, talked with him about his job and his family, and helped encourage him when his father underwent a sudden heart surgery.  He's clever, warm, witty, caring, industrious, intelligent, and ambitious.  And I'm struggling with changing my referencing pronoun for him from masculine to feminine, like he'd like all of us to do.

I've already told him that while I don't believe God makes mistakes, I also don't believe God puts people in my life for me to simply crush under my heel when they make decisions with which I can't agree.  So, if we can continue to maintain a friendship despite our disagreements, I'm willing to try.

It's not easy, and it's not something many evangelicals would probably do, or with which they'd agree.  Mock him, some would retort, perhaps doing it themselves.  Cut him loose; don't bother trying to be friends with such a sinner.

That's another thing I'm learning about life:  the Fruit of the Spirit can be exercised both when you and your acquaintances are in agreement, and when you aren't.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Delayed Marriage Born of Porn?

I'm not often at a loss for words.

A couple of months ago, our friend at World magazine, J.C. Derrick, asked me if I had any thoughts about a topic they were exploring for possible publication.  The topic is whether the use of pornography by young men is contributing to the trend of delayed marriage among today's twentysomethings, and if so, to what extent?

And you know what, I'd never thought about it before.  I told him I'd have to get back with him.  Last week, he mentioned it again, so I've been mulling over the hypothesis in my mind, aware that it's entirely possible - and even probable - that pornography is indeed a factor in young men not rushing to the altar.  But how can you tell?  And who would be unashamed enough to admit it?

Actually, a while back, I'd discussed a similar question with another friend of mine who is a born-again psychiatrist, with not only his own private practice, but a well-respected ministry in both American theological circles as well as international missions.  He gave me some resources from other professional contacts of his, but none of them explicitly addressed the issue of pornography and delayed marriage.  They mostly had to do with the damage pornography can do within a marriage relationship.

Which is probably sufficient proof that, since pornography can damage the marriage covenant, it's not going to help the institution before a man and woman commit to each other before God, either.  But it still doesn't answer J.C.'s question.

Part of the reason this is a tricky subject involves all the many subjective levels inherent in this discussion.  We know that fewer Americans today are married than at any time in the past fifty years, but how do we define "delayed" marriage?  And how do we know that young people are delaying marriage for the wrong reasons?  After all, although some studies indicate people who marry later in life divorce sooner than those who don't, do people who marry while they're "too young" or "immature" have healthy marriages?  What's wrong with waiting until you've found a decent job or built up some savings?  Today's job market is terrible, and many young people are graduating college with heavy tuition debts.  How many Christian fathers desire for their daughters to marry men who will bring into matrimony a lot of pre-existing financial burdens?

If young men are delaying marriage for a less logical reason than money, to what degree may it stem from the fact that they're emotionally immature?  After all, pop culture does nothing to edify and strengthen a person.  Video games are already suspected as being a major culprit in America's distinct lack of robust initiative for young men to deploy traditionally-expected behaviors like productivity, responsibility, and decision-making after they graduate high school.  Movies, non-pornographic Internet trivialities, and ESPN may also play significant roles in the perpetual adolescence young men increasingly model.

Is pornography the reason men think they can delay whatever sexual gratification they might otherwise hope to find in marriage?  Or is pornography the result of young men not being able to find the type of sexy women our society may have predisposed them to desire?  Is porn a delaying tactic, or a perverted coping mechanism, or some sort of combination?  Let's face it:  porn isn't the only thing helping to create unrealistic desires and expectations among immature men - and women.

And, speaking of immaturity, is porn a result of a lack of marriage commitment, or a cause of it, or something in between?  Most young men don't discover porn after college, or after graduating high school.  It's not even porn exclusively that helps create the mindset that views women as sexual objects.  And it's not just men who view women as sexual objects.  By the way they themselves dress, many women enjoy flaunting assets that enhance their physical desirability.  Porn may be part of the sexual promiscuity package, but when men can readily find women in bars, fraternity parties, and sporting events who want sex without marriage, why bother with theory when participation is just as accessible?

We should also consider the socioeconomic factors, such as America's increasing population size, but the concurrent decline in our conventional, white, middle-class population.  Poorer people are marrying less than wealthier ones, and America's welfare system provides benefits in ways that discourage marriage and promote single-mother families.  It's widely known that black men are murdered and incarcerated at higher rates than white men, which may be removing them from the marriage pool in greater percentages.  Hispanics are defying expectations by actually having fewer kids, but is that because marriage rates are declining in their overwhelmingly family-centric culture, or because more women have to work outside the home to make ends meet?

Most Asians are not what we'd consider poor, but they live in urban areas, where their family sizes are historically small, and higher education is particularly prized and strenuously pursued.  Some Asian cultures arrange marriages for their young people, but the more educated they are, or the more education they want, the longer even betrothed couples may be waiting.

And then, after you've factored in all of these variables, how do you run a scientific study looking at porn as a significant inhibitor to marriage?  How does one even define porn?  After all, the way some women dress for church on Sundays is borderline pornographic.  Many advertisements on most websites feature depictions of women in various stages of undress.  Used to be, you needed to purchase a magazine to access porn.  Then there were videos.  Then there were the websites that required a fee to access their images.  But today, nobody needs to pay for porn.  In fact, free Internet porn is wreaking havoc on the business model of the smut industry.  Some websites, such as Gothamist.com, will even feature full-frontal nudity in some of its articles.  Is that pornographic?

My working definition of pornography is "any representation of sexuality that intentionally invites its audience to prioritize an unBiblical thought, action, or emotion above God's pure designs for sex and the sexes."  Isn't that a fairly comprehensive assessment of mankind's perversion of one of our Lord's most exquisite gifts to humanity?  After all, not every depiction of the human body is sexual, or sensual, or perverse.

Nevertheless, the undeniable ubiquity of borderline and definitive porn has created an unhealthy environment in North America for marriage and the sexual relationship that was designed to exist solely within matrimony.  Perhaps the young men who struggle with it the most won't win either way - by delaying marriage, or getting married when society thinks they should.  Porn is going to affect their marriage to a certain degree, whether it's consumed before or after their vows are consummated.

Why?  Because the overarching reality regarding pornography is that it is a problem!  Pornography is a sin by denying God's holy purposes for sex, objectifying women, and depersonalizing them.  It also creates false expectations and ties them to psychosomatic dysfunctions which can cripple the marriage relationship.  Pornography is for the lazy, immature, impatient, idolatrous, lustful, impudent, and imprudent.  Not the type of characteristics any father would welcome in somebody asking for his daughter's hand in marriage.

Personally, I would guess that young men who are delaying marriage are not doing so primarily because pornography is so readily available on the Internet.  I have never had sex, but I'm told it's an experience that is far more spectacular with another person than vicariously.  And while pornography is free and accessible, I'm told that plenty of non-virtuous women are, too.  I would guess that if young men are delaying marriage for non-economic reasons, it is because our society at large is so wholly sold-out to extra-marital sex in all of its sinful forms, of which pornography plays a part.

Small comfort, perhaps.  But then, any adultery ends up being small comfort, too.

Talk about being at a loss!
_____

PS - On a lighter note... a cousin of mine asked me what I'm doing writing about porn, when I should be concentrating on delayed marriage - after all, that's more my area of expertise!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Letting X Mark Us Gen-X'ers

We're not slackers.

Are we?

My generation, Generation X, was born roughly between 1961 and 1981, depending on who's doing the categorizing.  There are roughly 80 million of us here in the United States, and as Sara Scribner wrote for Salon last week, the oldest of our cohort have hit a milestone, with the rest of us soon to follow, and hardly anybody's noticed.

We've entered what's traditionally considered to be middle age, where we've supposedly given up our younger ambitions and overcome the naivete that told us only our ambitions could contain us.  The Boomers before us cried out in agony when they entered middle age, but I guess we Gen-X'ers have been too busy trying to keep our heads above water to throw ourselves a pity party.

We're the most educated generation the United States has ever produced, but we're earning less than our parents did.  We mask it with our two-income families, and for us whites, our smaller family sizes.  We've been hit with the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987, the technology bust around the turn of the millennium, the mortgage meltdown, offshoring, downsizing, and the lingering effects of our Great Recession.

The divorce rate skyrocketed when we were kids, and in return, many of us have become helicopter parents, afraid to let our own kids out of what we think is our protective oversight.  Those of us with cable in our homes witnessed the invention of music videos.  Heavy metal, punk rock, grunge, rap, and hip-hop were all invented while we were growing up.

AIDS?  Yup - we were kids when what we were told was a gay disease exploded onto the scene.  You hardly hear anything about it today, but I remember when people like Rock Hudson died of it, and Elizabeth Taylor set up a foundation to fight it.  Kids today don't even know who those two iconic people were.

In her article, Scribner says that we've been called "slackers" because we haven't been able to build upon the socioeconomic legacy of the celebrated Boomers.  We're also sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennnials, those new twentysomethings who've been raised on the Internet and cell phones, creating the illusion that they're sophisticated enough to be the new trendsetters for our brave new wireless world.  Why haven't we been out there, creating our own mark on the world?  After all, almost everything that's happened during our time on this planet has basically happened to us, not because of us.

Does Gen-X stand for "generation reflex?"

"Downward mobility is a hallmark of this generation," writer and fellow Gen-X'er Neal Pollack tells Scribner.  "I just feel like we’re not going to pull ourselves out of the hole.  But what can you do?  We don’t have that security – the illusion of knowing that everything was going to be all right.  But Gen X always had that feeling that everything wasn’t going to be all right.”

Well, we might have had it, years ago, when we were very young.  When our parents and schoolteachers were telling us that we could do or be anything we wanted.  I often still hear parents and teachers spouting that nonsense - and yes, it is nonsense.  We Gen-X'ers are living proof.  Not everybody is going to be President of the United States.  And hardly anybody with common sense even wants to be.  Not everybody is going to be a glamorous lawyer like we saw on LA Law.  True love only comes true for everybody when you're all sailing on the Love Boat.  Racial harmony is only easy on Diff'rent Strokes.  The cannibalizing of jobs by globalization can only be reversed in the last few minutes of Mr. Mom.  Even flying on a commercial jetliner is only entertaining these days on Airplane!

Reality isn't a sitcom, or the reality shows on which Millennials have had the misfortune of growing up.  But things aren't all bad.  Many conservatives don't like President Obama's politics, and his presidency hardly signals an end to racism in our country, but nobody can deny the breakthrough in race relations we achieved by voting a black man into the Oval Office twice.

Medical technology has advanced significantly since the early 60's, as has automobile safety, and even the state of our ecology here in the United States.

I remember when environmentalism was first championed in our public schools in the early 1970's, and the long gas lines my parents had to sit through in the mid-70's.  Granted, much of my home state, New York, is a Superfund site today, thanks to generations of industrial pollution that contaminated fields and waterways, before our country's manufacturing output shifted to Majority World countries, where people even more desperate for jobs than we are have no position to complain about how their local ecosystems are being ruined for our benefit.

Indeed, our world is much smaller today, with international travel an affordable luxury in which many people around our planet can participate, even if safety concerns have made flying a miserable chore.  9-11 made us Americans more aware of our position in the world, even if it also distorted our own preoccupation on security.  Having Millennials Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, not to mention Gen-X'er Julian Assange, exposing the ways America's government is apparently using our security fears against us helps show that global mobility, just like everything else, has its risks and rewards.

Television journalist Tom Brokaw famously categorized the parents of Boomers as the "Greatest Generation," since they'd survived two catastrophic world wars and turned around to build the most rapid expansion of our economy in America's history.  Of course, the Greatest Generation created some major problems with which we Gen-X'ers are having to grapple today, such as a rapidly-deployed suburban infrastructure that seems to be aging much more poorly than its urban forebears, an unwieldy and costly military industrial complex, an increasingly unaffordable civil service pension system, and a Social Security Administration that has been woefully under-funded since at least 1982.

Are we Gen-X'ers "slackers" for not aggressively solving all of these problems that we've inherited?  Might it be that we're the first generation that is getting stuck with the task of paying the bills of preceding generations whose lifestyles and expectations were not as affordable as they thought they were?  How long have some of these socioeconomic cans been kicked down the road by white flight, the ubiquity of divorce, unrestrained welfare programming, unresolved issues from the first Gulf War, an unwillingness to recognize the negative impacts of new media and pop culture's evolution, and even the Jesus Movement, which led to trends within almost all American churches that split congregations and further splintered the Body of Christ?

Maybe we won't earn as much as our parents did.  Maybe there will be no such thing as Social Security when we get to retirement age - sometime in our late 70's, at the earliest.  Maybe marriage and family and employment and military service and our transportation network - and everything else - will look completely different - and not even as good as they do today - as our generation transitions off of this mortal coil.

But hey - even if we are now entering middle-age, at least it's middle age, and not old age!  As long as we have today, we're to encourage each other.  "We have come to share in Christ," says the author of Hebrews, "if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."

After all, despite everything else, God is the same today, and at this precise moment, as He was when you were born, when your parents were born, when our country was founded, and when He created the world.  And the more things may change, the more He'll remain the same.

In Greek, the letter Chi is the first letter of Χριστός, which is translated in English as "Christ," Whose symbol is the letter "X."  We can hardly be slackers if He would be the "X" for which our generation's "X" stands.



Monday, August 19, 2013

Copts Role in Egypt's Turmoil

No more doubt.

Violence that has rocked most of Egypt for weeks now reportedly escalated to include attacks on the country's Christian minority several days ago.  But reports were sketchy, anecdotal, and substantiated mostly by social media, which isn't the most authoritative source for anything.

However, now that the press has ventured into neighborhoods and communities where churches have been burned and Christians murdered, the unconfirmed reports are being confirmed.  And they're painting an ugly picture of Islam's extremists.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, at least 47 churches and monasteries have been set afire, looted, or otherwise attacked by Muslims since August 14.  Granted, although by evangelical standards, the Christian Science religion is itself generally considered to be a cult, its media arm, the Christian Science Monitor, boasts a robust journalistic pedigree, particularly for international news.  It tends to be less sensationalistic than some of its tabloid media brethren, so as long as it's not a theological debate, its reporting can be considered reliable.

If not downright sobering.

It's also worth noting that the term "Christian" can be both general and specific when defining Egyptians who are not Muslim.  Egypt's cultural Christians are called "Copts," as in Coptic Christians.  They make up only ten percent of the population, and are understandably proud of their legacy of endurance through centuries of Islamic dominance.  Some Copts appear to be little more than Roman Catholics who, thanks to Christianity's long presence in Egypt, bristle at an association with the comparatively younger, European papacy in Italy.  These Copts even have their own pope.  Other Copts are more Protestant in their theology, even if many of them appear beholden to a more traditional, ritualistic, and "Eastern Orthodox" aesthetic than we American evangelicals would tolerate in our flavor of Christianity.  A few American denominations have a presence in Egypt, such as the Assemblies of God, but they likely total no more than 30,000 adherents combined.

Nevertheless, regardless of Coptic doctrinal stances on things like redemption, salvation, the lordship of Christ, and even icons and praying to saints, the imminent fact remains that freedom of religion is under fire in Egypt, and that is what should sober us all.

So far, the death toll stands at seven Egyptian Christians who've been killed directly because of their faith.  Homes and businesses owned by Copts were marked with paint during the overthrow of Muslim-Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi, making them easier to identify when the rioting Muslims obviously expected to erupt erupted.  Reporters viewing the destruction can still see the red or black graffiti under the soot in some towns.

In at least one town, the community's local mosque broadcast racist propaganda against Christians and Jews from its loudspeakers to incite Muslims into a rage.  Copts told reporters how unreal it was to watch their (former) neighbors, business associates, and friends turn and torch their homes and businesses.

Sounds like a repeat from Nazi Germany, doesn't it?

Conservative webzine The Blaze has compiled a list of Christian buildings that have been burned, along with photos purportedly of the identified sites, that mirrors a listing that is being updated by the Maspero Youth Union on its Facebook page.  The more liberal-leaning NPR is reporting that the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group, has documented even more attacks than the Christian Science Monitor:  44 churches, eight Christian schools, two Christian charities, and at least one Christian orphanage.  Britain's Daily Mail claims six Franciscan nuns were captured and paraded like prisoners of war after their school was pillaged in suburban Cairo.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the major mainline media outlets have either remained mum about the attacks on Egypt's Coptic minority, or have only referenced the persecution in passing.  It is eerily reminiscent of the mainstream media's self-imposed blackout of the Kermit Gosnell story, the abortionist in Philadelphia on trial for, among other things, murdering infants born alive after botched abortions.  It took a grass-roots uprising within the pro-life community for outlets like the Washington Post to finally admit they were intentionally trying to ignore the story.

However, considering that of the nearly 900 people who've been killed in Egypt's recent violence, only seven so far have been determined to be Copts, it's easy to see why most of the media has been concentrating on the Muslim-on-Muslim bloodshed.  Saturday's siege by the military on al-Fath Mosque, a prominent structure near downtown Cairo's Ramses Square, where fighters from the Muslim Brotherhood had holed up behind a barricade of chairs, provides an example.  The drama unfolded at an architecturally-significant landmark in the center of Cairo, instead of a more modest structure in a hard-to-reach area.  Hey - some stories are easier to sell than others!

And, as pundits who follow the Middle East are beginning to suggest, the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadis may actually be goading the military into killing or wounding more of them for the sheer publicity of it all.  The more they can lead the Western media into presenting the violence as an attack on true Muslims, the more sympathy they hope to engender among Westerners who are baffled by it all, and need simplistic scorecards to keep track of the upheaval.  Killing Copts and destroying their churches and private property has just been a bonus for the extremists.

Of course, it's no small thing for dozens of facilities owned by a minority religious group to be burned, looted, and otherwise vandalized.  It's no small thing for seven members of a minority religious group to be killed for their faith.  The fact that in both of these cases, the victims are Coptic Christians may help the Muslim Brotherhood build their swagger, and cultivate a greater degree of interest in Egypt's travails among America's church-going public.  Usually, when it's another minority faith suffering some sort of persecution, especially in the West, we evangelicals don't take so much notice of what's happening.  And considering how bent on blood and destruction Egypt's anarchists appear to be, perhaps we should be glad the brutality towards Copts hasn't been worse.  All things considered, it's hard to criticize the media for its lopsided reporting regarding Egypt's religious minority in favor of the violence apparently being staged by - and curiously, both against and for - the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's also worth noting that in several news accounts of the atrocities against Copts, Christians gratefully acknowledged that it was more moderate Muslims who helped pull them from burning buildings and shelter them from the vicious mobs.  Indeed, the fact that Egypt's political and religious tensions come not from Christianity but warring factions within the same faith - Islam - helps explain the very reason for all of this turmoil in such an ancient country.  It also helps portray the complexities that appear to be inbred in this conflict.

All of it is likely too much for our White House and State Department to effectively address, regardless of who would be in the Oval Office.  It does seem curious that after the billions of dollars we've been dumping into Egypt for all these years, we're now effectively barred from exercising any voice in their contentious sovereignty.

Which all points to the One Who has all of this in the proverbial palm of His hand, doesn't it?  How thankful we should be that none of this confuses Him, or gives Him anxiety.

Let us not doubt that He knows His people, among both the Copts, and even, providentially, perhaps among their current enemies.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Even on the Margins, Faith Can Be Radical

Ambitious?  Consider these two quotes from two popular evangelical writers.

"Sometimes faith isn’t radical; sometimes it’s just holding on.  It’s not intellectual in the slightest and neither is it particularly well-argued.  It doesn’t seek to change the world or do anything dynamic.  It is not on any mission and it’s not a unique use of gifts.  It is just holding on tight because that’s all it can do at the time."

Pretty honest, realistic, and accurate... right?

Okay, so how about this one:

"Tim Keller's hugely popular Redeemer Church [is] the kind of evangelical church that nobody thought could flourish in the Big Apple.  It's attended by many of the city's movers and shakers; and then there’s Socrates in the City, a forum for busy professionals to help them examine life’s big questions."

Quite gushing, enthusiastic, and almost fawning... right?

The first quote is by Barnabas Piper, who wrote on his eponymous blog this week about faith oftentimes being that thing just barely sustaining us in the everyday challenges of life.  In his view, faith isn't always ground-breaking, precedent-setting, or monumental.  Some preachers and Christian authors want their audiences to pursue big, bold, and "radical" things for God, but in the real world, faith "is all the radical we can manage."

How true was that for Christ's disciples?  For the Israelites?  How true is it for you?

The second quote is by Eric Metaxas, writing for BreakPoint's website a glowing tribute about various evangelical ventures with which he's affiliated in New York City.  Metaxas may have those kinds of days of which Piper writes, where faith is all the radical he can manage.  But don't you get the impression from Metaxas that those days are few and far between?  After all, the guy sounds as though he's on the cusp of evangelical Protestantism's entry into New York's orbit, along with Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and King's College, the main subject of his exuberant article.

Getting Manhattan's Church History Right

Except Metaxas, Keller, Redeemer, and King's are only the latest players on a stage that never was lacking an evangelical urban witness.  I get frustrated every time I read a piece by one of Keller's devotees who labors under the false impression that before Redeemer, Gotham was one Godless hellhole.  They anoint Keller as the one guy radical enough to take on the Big Apple and establish a ministry for Christ on the frontier of America's urban experience.

Which, in reality, isn't true.  Yes, white flight and the city's legendary embrace of hedonism had rendered the city short on its count of evangelical churches, at least in proportion to its population.  However, for New Yorkers being transformed by the Holy Spirit into followers of Christ, the island of Manhattan housed a few churches that were pretty solid long before Keller moved there from Virginia.

There was - and still is - Calvary Baptist, the granddaddy of them all, smack in the middle of 57th Street; Manhattan Bible Church, smack in the middle of Harlem; Trinity Baptist Church, which Gordon MacDonald once pastored; Times Square Church, the famous outreach to the Theater District started by Cross and the Switchblade author David Wilkerson; and newer, more ethnic churches like New Horizon Church in Harlem, founded by Michel Faulkner, a former pastor at Calvary Baptist and a former Republican candidate for the House of Representatives.  There were also a couple of mainline Episcopal and Presbyterian churches that, at the time of Redeemer's launch, were still fairly orthodox in their theology.

Suffice it to say that much of Keller's and Redeemer's success has come not from the establishment of something that had not existed in Manhattan before, but from the timing of their arrival onto the island.  Crime rates were dropping, and new urbanism was taking hold among newer generations of kids who had grown up in - and tired of - suburbia.  They wanted something new, bold, and titillating - and if you were big-city-bound, what better place than a church that didn't frown on your penchants for drinking and dancing?

After all, good churches they were - and are - but Calvary and Trinity Baptists were not known for embracing traditional vices like alcohol consumption, and dancing may have been tolerated at Times Square Church, but only if it was in the sanctuary aisles - and done "in the spirit."  Young adults flocking to the Big City after college may have never before heard of the PCA, Redeemer's denomination, but when they learned the church threw birthday parties for its pastors where wine was the only suggested gift, it didn't take long to figure out which church scored biggest on the popularity scale.  When I lived in New York City, not long after Redeemer's launch, it was already widely known among us Christians that Keller's church featured great preaching and an ever greater singles scene.

"Did I Say That Out Loud?"

Of course, Metaxas and others fairly credit Keller's brainy sermons and cosmopolitan vibe for endearing the bald, bespeckled minister to Gotham's booming population of Gen-X'ers and Millennials.  And doing so far more effectively than the comparatively stodgy, conventional pastors at these other churches.  But then, too, these other churches are heavily populated by genuine New Yorkers, people of varying skin tones from all walks of life - not just the silk-stocking-district walks - who are not the "power brokers" Redeemer's celebrants crow over.  God is using Keller and Redeemer in significant ways amongst the city's career-focused class, consisting mostly of whites and Asians with advanced degrees and fashionable resumes, and that's a good thing.  Strivers need the Gospel as much as anybody.  But it's easy to take the heady pulse Metaxas describes as the type of radical ambition the rest of America's evangelicals would do well to emulate.

"We need to learn how to change culture from the CENTER of culture - not just from the margins," Metaxas writes.  "And where do we find the center of culture?  Places like Hollywood and New York City, where I live."

Oh?  And what about the rest of us, on the "margins?"

Metaxas says he isn't insulting us - honest!  "Many Christian schools are, instead, tucked away in small towns away from centers of influence - that’s not a criticism, just an observation."

I see.  Like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and any number of "lesser" universities, I suppose?  Only one Ivy League school is in the "center of culture," defined by Metaxas as Los Angeles and New York, and that's New York's Columbia University.

How You Make It

I've lived in New York City, and I understand how easy it is for people like Metaxas to view the fenestrated confection of concrete, glass, steel, and pavement between New Jersey and Long Island as the center of the universe.  And yes, it is the Western Hemisphere's media capital and financial hub.  It is exciting, demanding, invigorating, and for some, extremely rewarding.

Basically, then, it's everything people like Metaxas view the margins of the United States as NOT being.  You know - the places where most of us Americans live, between our country's two biggest cities.  Fly-over country.  Middle America.  Even suburban New York City, which now reaches into Pennsylvania, and sprawling Southern California, of which LA is only a gilded corner.

These are places where "radical" faith can seem the most, well, unrewarding.  At least, compared to the important work people like Metaxas are doing for God's Kingdom in New York City!

Thankfully, for all the rest of us on the margins, Piper provides some refreshingly encouraging words.  "Sometimes all the radical I can manage is that death grip on faith as I’m tossed to and fro," he readily admits.  "No, it’s not society-reforming, world-altering, life-changing mission.  It’s just how I make it; without it I wouldn’t have a life at all."

Everyday New Yorkers, who don't live in chic apartments or trendy neighborhoods, and whose kids have to attend whatever school is down the block.  You and me, here in fly-over country.  And even those Redeemerites who are willing to admit how depressed, anxious, and weary their city's incessant excitement makes them.

Wherever we live, and however important we consider ourselves to be, it's God's faith that's radical.  Not us.

Peace out.
_____

FYI:  By way of clarification, Barnabas Piper is the son of esteemed Minnesota pastor and author John Piper.