Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Does More Money to Fewer People Work?

Even America's capitalists seem bemused.

In articles appearing on both and the Wall Street Journal's website, some One Percenters are complaining about how their quality of life is suffering during the Great Recession.

Even though their salaries average between $350,000 and half a million, one guy in Manhattan can only afford to garage one of his two Audis at $500 a space per month.

Another guy is contemplating pulling his daughter out of venerable $32,000-per-year Poly Prep academy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Still another poor soul in posh Brownstone Brooklyn, where the streets are lined with multi-million-dollar row houses, has resorted to scouring coupons in the Sunday paper for bargain salmon.

However, perhaps the most bizarre quote from Bloomberg's article is this narcissistic tale of delusional tragedy:

“'People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress,' said Alan Dlugash, a partner at accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP in New York who specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. 'Could you imagine what it’s like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?'”

As if the public schools in the New York City and Westchester County neighborhoods where these people live are only for the riff-raff.  Or that drugs, teen sex, and bad parents never afflict private schools.

Granted, metropolitan New York's cost of living has been atrocious for a long time.  Nobody who wants to live in - or close to - Manhattan should expect anything different.  Even most of Brooklyn had gotten priced out of reach for the middle class long before the city's post-9/11 renaissance.  Even its bad neighborhoods, where grunge, graffiti, and gangstas are now part of the chic urban aesthetic.

Still, obviously, living within one's means in metropolitan New York should not be as difficult as these One Percenters make it seem.  Especially not with their incomes.  Maybe what's really happening here isn't that $350,000 doesn't go as far as it used to, as much as it is people who earn that kind of money thinking they should be getting so much more from it.

Yet here's a funny quirk of capitalism:  the more you earn, the more your earning power becomes, and the free market will rise to absorb as much of that earning power you're willing to flex.  It can be a vicious cycle, with more money needing even more money to stay abreast of rising expectations.  At some point, the wise high-income-earner will learn to curtail their expectations, and their expenses.  Perhaps it says something that most of the people interviewed for these stories were employed in the financial industry, where the love of money is a requirement for their jobs.

What these One Percenters have missed in their exasperation is that they're still far better off than many people who earn a fraction - not even a tenth - of these Wall Street salaries.  If people earning $350,000 a year need to downsize, something tells me they still won't be moving to a three-bedroom split-level in Staten Island, among the proletariat.  What they're really mad about involves the irrefutable fact that the same materialism that has driven them to outspending their generous incomes is the materialism that everyone else in their cohort has let propel them to the same financial excesses.  In other words, enough rich people have outspent themselves as each one of them drove up prices against each other.

You'd think that since these people are in the finance industry, they'd know how such market forces work.

There is one area where it's hard to not sympathize with these high-income earners, however.  One of them reports that almost half of his income is consumed by city, state, and federal taxes.  You have to be pretty jaded to not consider that an excessive tax rate.  When Republicans start complaining that liberal Democrats want to penalize the wealthy with more high-end taxes, this is the problem they're protesting.

It would be easy to use the scenario poised by these disgruntled One Percenters as proof that money can never satisfy.  And no, money can never satisfy most people.  But it's not their salaries with which these people are dissatisfied; instead, it's the way market forces have erased all the perks they thought their salaries would purchase.

The reason market forces have done that probably lies in the fact that even richer people are spending even more lavishly on the same trappings of success.  Raising the bar even higher for everyone hoping to get some slice of the economic pie.

And that, my friends, is the reason why America's widening gap between the high-income-earners and low-income-earners is so problematic.  When people on the lower rungs of the One Percenter club start feeling the economic pinch, how bad must things be at the base of that ladder, where the rest of us live?

More money to fewer people doesn't seem to be the answer after all, does it?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tribe Landing No Sovereign Title

National sovereignty.

It plays a key role in how the United States interacts within the international community.

But according to Native American tribes, our government has been woefully derelict in honoring the sovereignty of nations within our borders.  Native American nations, to be specific.  Today, one such tribe, New York State's Onondaga Nation, held a press conference at Washington DC's National Press Club to seek public support in their quest for appealing their long-running Lands Rights Action.  All in the hopes of getting some respect for their status as a sovereign nation.

Technically, the Onondagas are part of central New York's Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Confederacy, which had been formed years before the Revolutionary War.  George Washington himself, grateful for the assistance his troops received from the Onondagas during the war, honored them with a wampum belt to commemorate the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, in which Washington pledged tribespeople "the free use and enjoyment" of their ancestral land.

Who Got "Free Use?"

Of course, what Washington likely meant by "free use and enjoyment" hasn't turned into what we find today, where among 7,000 acres south of Syracuse, a scattering of aging homes and meager farms constitute what's left of the once-sprawling Onondaga territory.  In terms of sovereignty, their national economy, such as it is, consists of a tax-free cigarette shop and a lacrosse arena.  They also run their own water system, fire department, and spiritual healing center.

Not only has the Colonial America which swallowed up huge chunks of Native American land itself been transformed in terms of land ownership, however, but the footprint of non-Native civilization has been contaminated by pollution.  Particularly in New York State, which for decades was a mighty manufacturing zone.  Staggering amounts of chemical byproducts from all that manufacturing turned what had once been pristine hunting grounds for non-mechanical tribes into vast Super Fund sites.

Only now is Central New York beginning to recover ecologically from the pollution dumped into its streams and lakes, and allowed to leach into fields and forests.  The major lake near Syracuse, Onondaga Lake, remains one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.  Allied-Signal, Inc., the predecessor to today's Honeywell, Inc., was the most significant polluter on the lake for almost a century, and after years of lawsuits, is in the middle of a $451 million remediation program designed to mitigate the worst of their contamination legacy.

The pollution of Onondaga Lake not only represents the story of why industrialization has been forced out of the United States, since the lessons of Onondaga Lake helped create our country's strong environmental laws.  The lake's pollution also represents a key element in the Onondaga Nation's persistence in pursuing their claims to and rights of sovereignty in the courts.  Over the years, in treaties and other assurances from state and federal authorities, the Onondagas were told that the lake, which comprises much of their folklore and spirituality, would be fully restored so they could fish and perform sacred rituals in it. 

Although some species of fish have started to flourish again in the lake, it's hardly the pure body of water it was when George Washington was alive.  Neither is Central New York's air as pure, or its land as organically fertile.  But as they work their way through the courts, the Onondagas know they'll never get all of their land back.  At least, they say they know that.  They say they simply want to win a case to prove that the American and New York State governments need to work much harder at protecting the environment.  For example, they say that to completely clean up Onondaga Lake to their satisfaction would cost at least $2.16 billion.  A cost nobody wants to pay, but a cost that may be due if the Onondagas win in court.

And for the record, not only would taxpayers be on the hook for that $2.16 billion, but Honeywell, as Allied-Signals' successor, would be as well.

Deconstructing Sovereignty

Veiling their intentions behind the cloak of environmentalism has won the Onondagas many friends in high places among the liberal echelons of New York State, Washington DC, and advocates for indigenous groups worldwide.  Even more sympathy has been garnered by people who hold disjointed assumptions about American history, land title law, and the concept of national sovereignty.  Indeed, being able to make their case from a podium at the National Press Club, with other support from the World Court and the United Nations, has impressed the Onondagas with the hope of one day winning the respect of ordinary Americans.  And asserting at least some of the authority they used to hold in Central New York.

Yet that authority they used to hold, back even before the Revolutionary War:  how was that authority secured?  How was the sovereignty they claim to have held hundreds of years ago obtained?  Surely, as people groups made their way across the land bridge from eastern Asia to North America, they didn't just agreeably parcel out chunks of land amongst themselves.  They had their own wars, didn't they?  Which means power was secured through dominance.

Did the Onondagas ever take the land of another tribe without the procedural protocol of title transfers?

Of course not!  "Title," such as it was, was ceded by a weaker power to a more authoritative power.  Hundreds of years ago, that authority was wielded by the bow and arrow.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, authority was wielded by the governments of New York State and the United States of America.

Conquest is never an easy concept for the vanquished.  And nobody can say that European settlers arriving on America's eastern shores treated the "natives" they found here well.  By almost all accounts, human rights abuses were rampant when it came to the people we today call "Native Americans."  Does that negate the human rights abuses those Native Americans perpetrated amongst themselves before our national ancestors arrived?  Of course not, but it does prove that conquest is a part of history - both theirs and ours, and a part of the transfer of property.

Doctrine of Discovery

Actually, the whole "theirs" and "ours" narrative is what's really fueling the national sovereignty debate for the Onondagas.  Whereas they've been able to benefit from the same undeniable benefits which come from living in the United States, such as the world's most robust economy, and one of the world's most admired judicial systems, they pay no taxes towards those benefits.  Our military protects them, our roadways transport them, and our schools educate them.  If they really want Americans to take their claims of sovereignty seriously, they'd erect border crossings, mint their own currency, and draft their own currency.

At this point, liberals who advocate for indigenous sovereignty rights start to roll their eyes, claiming that such protestations represent a juvenile position which belittles the history of tribes like the Onondagas.  They'd point to the Supreme Court's widely-derided Doctrine of Discovery, which in 1823 basically asserted that when a superior people group discover an inferior people group, the superior folks get to set the rules going forward.

And in terms of the logic behind the Doctrine of Discovery, it's true that a ridiculous amount of ethnocentrism helped guide its creation.  Its basis lies in decrees issued by the Roman Catholic Church during its blatant empire-building of the 15th Century, in which only "heathen" countries, not countries already ruled by Catholics, could be plundered.

Now, it takes a strange person indeed to argue that indigenous people groups invaded by Westerners would have been better-off in the long run without the scientific, medical, and economic advances ultimately extended to these cultures.  Criticize the greed of people like Christopher Columbus all you like, but you can't deny that the Americas are worse off today than they were in 1491.  Especially if the notoriously ruthless invaders from ancient Asia had beat Columbus to the west coast of the Western Hemisphere.

In essence, the Doctrine of Discovery has evolved to mean that "what's done is done."  You can't go back and re-write history.  And when it comes to Native Americans and how they were treated by their new European neighbors, that can seem a particularly bitter fact.

Reparations is a word fraught with consternation.  Reparations after World War II, as Jews, even to this day, fight to both recover items their families lost to the Nazis and receive financial compensation for their ordeal, have proven to be tough cases to prove, even with their history being as relatively recent as it is.  American blacks of pre-Civil-War ancestry have been agitating for years for reparations, but two of the critical questions nobody can answer are how much, and to whom?

At the end of the day, perhaps the Onondaga's fight isn't so much to prove their sovereignty - since, as even their advocates must at least secretly acknowledge, they have no sovereignty in the strict sense of the word.  No, their fight is about reparations, even though they've insisted they don't want their land back.

Unfortunately for the Onondagas, reparations will be just as elusive for them as sovereignty has been.

That's not a happy answer.  That's not a healing answer.  That's probably not a productive answer.

But it's the truth.  And at the end of the day, isn't truth what we all really want?

Today, one of the Onondaga Nation's leaders, evoking the memory of our country's first president and his affection for the Onondagas, pleaded, "if... you can’t keep George Washington’s words, whose words can you keep?”

To turn the phrase of another president we couldn't trust, "it depends on what your definition of 'free' is."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Is Loving Liberals a Solution?

To most evangelicals, it's an incontrovertible fact:

America is going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in a hurry.

And the corollary to that assessment is that liberals are the reason.  They're America's enemy.

Of course, the truth is a bit more complicated than that.  Yes, America is facing some serious challenges to our global dominance and enviable quality of life.  Standards of morality in the United States continue to be falling ever lower.  And, at least according to conservative media personalities who claim to be experts on these things, recovering our country's future has been stymied by liberals in the Democratic party and their entitlement-enabling policies.

But even at least one recent Republican administration wasn't innocent when it came to inflamed partisan politics and inflating the size and role of government.  That's why the truth about America's problems isn't as easy as many conservatives assume it is.

I'm wondering, too, if we evangelicals aren't at least party to blame for even more of our problems.

Consider this inconvenient little passage from Matthew 5:43-48:

43 "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The inconvenience of this passage comes in its portrayal of a mindset that runs contrary to how most American evangelicals interpret our country's condition these days.  Even though we're supposed to, we don't love our enemies, do we? Especially not our political enemies. Particularly since the days of Bill Clinton's presidency, evangelicals have felt entitled to ruthlessly defame politicians who don't fit the narrow right-wing leadership mold.

Let's assume, at least for the sake of argument, that the Bill Clinton's, Nancy Pelosi's, and Barak Obama's of the Democratic party are genuine enemies to Christ's church.  How often do you and I pray for them?  If we really think they're persecuting us, then we're to be praying for them. 

Not only that, but we're supposed to love them.

Love?!  If there's one thing of which Rush Limbaugh, his peers, and many of their admirers in evangelical Christianity can never be accused, it's loving Democrats.  You know:  the people who are supposed to be our enemies.

You can't love with the level of vitriol and spite which gets slung about the national media each day by right wingers and evangelicals alike.  You can't love by basing voting records on party affiliation rather than individual policy merits.  You can't love by inciting your followers with partisan rhetoric.

Granted, we evangelicals benefit from living in a nation which affords us the ability to participate in how it's run.  However, as long as we're basing policy opinions on Biblical principles, we shouldn't be surprised - or even angry - when we encounter resistance from others who don't share our faith.  People who are, by definition, enemies of Christ, and therefore, our enemies, too.

To what extent might America's problems be due to the fact that God's people prefer getting snarky and belligerent towards our "enemies" than loving towards them?  Remember, life isn't about politics and comforts; it's about being perfect children of our Father in heaven.

And that word "perfect?"  That's not mine; that's Christ's.  And if you don't like this little passage from Matthew, then you're certainly not going to like the passage which immediately precedes it:

38 "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Doesn't that sound completely unreasonable?  But then, look at how well the partisan bickering with which we evangelicals have colluded has worked.

What might God be able to do through us for our country if and when we decide that Rush Limbaugh has it all wrong?  It's not just the liberal policies of our "enemy" that are harming the United States.  It's also the lack of love you and I show those with whom we disagree.

Through the apostle Paul, in Romans 12, God reinforces His Son's teachings in Matthew regarding how we're supposed to behave even to our political opponents:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
.. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil... 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Two million years from now, when you and I are just beginning our eternity in Heaven, which will be more important:  the fact that we gleefully belittled politicians with which we disagreed in 2012, or the fact that we earnestly sought to honor God by loving the politicians with which we had strong disagreements in 2012?

Yes, there's a lot that's wrong with America today.

And part of what's wrong is the way we're dealing with what's wrong.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Truth or Popularity

What's the price of popularity?

That can vary, of course, according to how popular something is.  But even if something is extremely popular, that doesn't always mean the popularity is justified, does it?

After all, my blog is proof that popularity is not the ultimate arbiter of truth!

Not that I'm never inaccurate or that my opinions are always sound.  One time on FaceBook, I was participating in a lively exchange on some topic (which was so important I can't remember it now) and the FB friend whose post started it all commented on my "opinion."  I immediately shot back that my contribution to the debate wasn't an "opinion." 

But nobody else found that very humorous.

Christ:  Just the Facts

The only person who ever walked the Earth who never had an opinion was Jesus Christ.  Everything He thought and spoke was - and is - ultimate truth.  Unadulterated, uncompromised, unchangeable truth.  In fact, since He created all truth, He couldn't have an opinion, because since He knew everything, nothing was open to interpretation.

Even though He had no opinions, Christ wasn't very popular, was He?  Even though He spoke utter truth, that's not what most people wanted to hear.  Even Pilate, who asked Christ rhetorically what truth is, didn't really want to know Christ's answer.  Which provides us a reliable metric regarding truth and what's popular:  they're not necessarily the same thing.

Democracy, for example, is a virtue many Americans vehemently endorse.  Some evangelicals even go so far as to say that democracy is the political system God most strongly advocates, since political freedom seems so similar to spiritual freedom.  The problem with assuming such a correlation, however, comes when you confuse the mortal fallibilities of human decision-making with God's divine right to save His people from their sin.

Throughout history, most of Christ's followers have not benefited from our American version of democracy, yet the Gospel is still with us today because it is true.  It has not been eradicated, despite plenty of sociopolitical attempts to do so.  Isn't that amazing?  Obviously, democracy is preferable to atheistic totalitarianism, but it's not necessary for the truth of the Gospel to prevail.

Democracy Doesn't Always Support Truth

That fact should give us hope, but it doesn't, does it?  I suspect that's because we still want our faith and all of the great stuff we enjoy as Americans.  But ironically, just as we benefit from democracy, which is based entirely on popularity, the very foundations of that democracy may be falling apart as Americans vote on popular issues without considering the ultimate truth behind them.

Democracy could end up killing itself.

Unfortunately, democracy isn't so much the ability of a majority of people to make good decisions as it is simply preferable to risking leaving all the decisions up to one person or a small group of unaccountable people.  This means that even though more people support a specific political agenda than those who oppose it, that agenda may not be what's best for the population.

Truth matters, even if it's not popular truth.

If we evangelicals dwelled less on partisan bickering and championed truths we can't deny - whether we think they help or hurt our standard of living - then at least we'll know that if popularity drags America off of a cliff, Christ's truth will still be here for us.

Christ's truth:  our salvation - as if we thought there was any other.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Can Rap be Reformed Enough?

I had no idea rap music had gone Reformed.

Apparently, however, it's the latest craze in North America's Piper/Challies Reformation crowd.  Preacher John Piper and blogger Tim Challies, that is.

As I read Challies' February 20th blog entry on Christian rap music, I couldn't help but be amazed at how, even as many evangelicals are reaching back for a centuries-old dose of Calvinist predestination, so many of us seem to be co-opting the newest music offerings from the urban ghetto.

And when it comes to rap, I use the term "music" loosely.

Admittedly, I've never liked rap.  At least not the "music" aspect of it.  Some of rap's lyrics can be quite poetic and clever, but the aural sounds that generally accompany even good rap lyrics are nothing more than clangings, whumps, scratches, and various other distorted noises.  Most rap noise basically sounds like bits and pieces of a soundtrack recorded when people were moving furniture around a warehouse.

Not exactly uplifting, edifying, joyful, or anything close to beautiful.

Rappers themselves also tend to recite their poetry - even when it's good poetry - in tuneless yells, electronic stutterings, jaded diatribes, and other noises that, in any other context, even rap enthusiasts themselves would consider unpleasant.

For his part, Challies gushes that some of the new Christian rap makes for good music.  Which must mean he uses the term "music" loosely, too.  Unless there's a good way of harmonizing the sound of moving furniture around a warehouse I don't know about.

Perhaps this sudden interest in rap music folks like Piper and Challies are encouraging among Reformed evangelicals is a veiled attempt at de-coloring Christianity.  After all, to be evangelical in North America generally means to be white, and to be a Reformed evangelical almost certainly means to be white.  If America's leaders in our new Reformation have found some black rappers who are Reformed believers, maybe they figure this is a good way to introduce multiculturalism in our congregations.

And although I'm not an ends-justify-the-means guy, multicultural congregations in North America sure would be a good thing.

But, dudes - using rap?

Sorry, I ain't gettin' jiggy wit it.

What's troublesome about the Piper/Challies enthusiasm for rap runs deeper than whether people like me enjoy this form of "music," or even the lyrics to these, um, "songs."  Sometimes, there's no accounting for taste.  No, what's troublesome is the very fact that evangelical Christians still need to validate evangelical Christianity with the trappings of pop culture.  A pop culture that hasn't exactly been known for its enduring quality.

One of the people who commented on Challies' blog post, identifying themself as "J. Tucker," describes this passion for cultural relevance as "cultural gluttony," and that's a good term for it.  Rather than letting the Gospel define its own relevance, too many evangelicals seek out relics from our hedonistic culture to dress up and trot onto our seeker-friendly runways as redeemed worship formats.

Maybe that works for some unchurched people who have nothing better with which to relate.  Particularly if they're people who, if they fit the stereotype of rap fans, have been alienated from America's conventional, suburban, "white" church.  Such a scenario fits with the Lord's promise regarding the distribution of His Gospel:  that His Word, even if it's not preached well, will still not return void.

Not exactly a resounding endorsement for bad evangelism methods, but not a blanket condemnation of them, either.

Yet, speaking of stereotypes, bashing them seems to be more what juices Piper and Challies than focusing on the worship of God.  Supposedly having middle-aged white preachers getting hooked on rap music is a good thing because it makes them cool.  Kinda edgy and counter-cultural.  And since only prudes like me question such a trend, this new cred of theirs gets even more firmly validated.

I don't suppose that Christian rap given to God in worship is any more or less pleasing to Him than a Bach oratorio, since God looks at the heart of the worshipper more than the medium of worship.  But does God care if the worship is popular here in His creation?  Does He care if our music, such as it is, isn't also running a sideline intentionality of making the Gospel more appealing to the world?

Shouldn't we be more judicious in the ways we worship our holy, high God?

Authentic rap, like rock music, comes from carnal and hedonistic origins designed for narcissistic pleasures.  Rap has been heralded as a balm for the blight of the urban soul, with all of its gritty vicissitudes.  But what of that balm is eternally significant, since it still relies on the graffiti-esque interpretation of darkness and materialistic sensuality for its self-determination?  In this regard, both rap and rock have far more strikes against them than classical music does when it comes to appropriateness for worship.

I'm fully aware this is not an idea many Christ-followers accept.  Virtually all of evangelical Christianity has already shunned earlier warnings of rock music's questionable attractiveness, a precursor for marginalizing the gangsta credo of rap's roots.  But just because such warnings are unpopular, are they invalid?  Should we be trying to fit into the world around us if, as Christ has already warned us, His Word is offensive to the world?

I'm not saying that new trends are inherently wrong.  For example, Challies has made a name for himself as a popular Christian blogger by being an early-adopter of Internet technology.  Actually, on most topics unrelated to music, Challies can be pretty discerning when it comes to ways in which Christians try to squeeze as much carnality into modern Christ-likeness.

But, like me, he's not always right.

If, as Challies suggests, I'm supposed to adjust my musical tastes to accommodate Christian rap, maybe people who enjoy Christian rap should consider adjusting their assessment of this supposed art form as a valid expression of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.

The Fruit of the Spirit:  the original balm for spiritual blight.  From the Original Counter-Culturalist.

Who didn't care if other people considered Him trendy or not.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Burning the Golden Rule in Kabul

A S H   W E D N E S D A Y

I've never been to Afghanistan.

Neither have I ever been in a war.

Well, not a military war, anyway.

So maybe I'm not entirely qualified to render an opinion on the way soldiers should be acting in that war-torn country.

However, the brother of a friend of mine recently returned to the United States after serving several tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and what few stories he's told about those harrowing days have been mind-bending.  He can't forget about how blood-thirsty the insurgents are in both of those countries.  About how all westerners are sitting ducks, even with our armor-plated First World weaponry.  About how, since most of the citizenry in these oppressed Islamic countries are so schooled in the devices of hatred, each day a westerner survives over there is a miraculous day.

Nevertheless, isn't there any room left for common decency?

American military forces have been on the ground in Afghanistan for over ten years now.  In addition to being humbled by how resilient their scrappy, relentless improvisations for brutality can be, we've learned how illiterate and uneducated the vast majority of Afghans are.  We've seen how masses of disenfranchised Muslims willingly live and die by the demagogic teachings - and teachers - of their faith.  We understand how decades of warfare and centuries of brutal enslavement to the extremist dictates of Sharia Law have created a populace barely recognizable as a civilization.  There's no civility in Afghanistan as much as there is depravity.

Knowing all that we know, then, about the mindset of Afghans and their allegiance to their sacred Koran, and knowing all that is at stake in that country, how could anybody - ANYBODY - with an ounce of logic in their brain possibly fathom the possibility that burning any Islamic material - in the Afghans' own country, no less - could ever make sense?

It boggles the mind to try and construct the scenario in which any personnel associated with any Western military organization would attempt to destroy - let alone burn - sacred Islamic texts.  In Afghanistan.  On a NATO base.  In full view of indigenous contract laborers.  Who are undoubtedly Muslim.

As a born-again Christ-follower who believes the Koran is simply a false religious book with no eternal merit, I still know better than to desecrate any other religion's holy writings with anything other than my own personal beliefs regarding their sanctity.  After all, even by merely believing that the Bible is superior to the Koran probably offends some Muslims.  But I wouldn't consider burning the Koran, or the Mormon bible, or any other non-Christian text.

It's been a couple of days since the incident took place, and no clear explanation for why the Islamic books were being burned has emerged.  Perhaps this lack of information is by design; NATO officials, upon learning further details of the incident themselves, may be hoping tensions ease with vague apologies instead of hard facts.

Still, what we do know is troubling enough.  Two westerners - it hasn't been confirmed they were Americans - drove a truck of some sort up to an incineration station and proceeded to toss sacks containing at least ten to 15 Korans into a fire.  When local Afghans, working nearby, saw what was being burned, they rushed over and managed to salvage most of the holy books.  Yet the westerners who had tossed them onto the fire appeared nonplussed over the incident.

Does it matter if these westerners, whether they were NATO "peacekeepers" or military contractors, had simply been following orders?  Officials have said the reason they wanted the holy books destroyed involved the ability of prisoners to communicate secretly with them.  Even if that was the case, why didn't just removing the material solve the problem?

And if the Korans were accidentally placed along with other material to be burned, is the level of competence among our NATO "peacekeepers" that negligible that somebody didn't think twice about how Afghans already rioted after Florida preacher Terry Jones threatened to burn just one?  Shouldn't NATO be hyper-sensitive to anything that could further destabilize the incredibly fragile tinderbox that is modern-day Afghanistan?  When the westerners were made aware of their "mistake," why didn't they vigorously engage in rescuing the books from the flames?

If not for the books themselves, then at least what their burning would represent?

We're supposedly over there fighting for freedom and human rights.  Religious freedom ranks right up there when we're talking about democracy.  We fiercely guard our own religious freedoms here in the United States.  Or at least, we did before the current administration decided to ignore conscientious objections by religious employers.

I take my religious freedom so seriously that I've actually become quite skeptical about the purported "peacefulness" that some experts say the Islamic faith advances.  I see very little proof of that peace as I look around the Arab world.  I hear very little about that peace from imams whenever the world finds itself reeling from yet another terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslims.  We're told those terrorists are the extremists, but if that is indeed the case, why don't we see legions of peace-loving Muslims out there actively admonishing and punishing the peace violators in their midst?

No, I'm not at all convinced most Muslims want religious freedom as much as they simply want Islamic totalitarianism.

Yet, even with my increasing wariness of Muslims, I find this week's attempted burning of Korans not only profoundly illogical, but utterly indefensible.  Why?  Because I know how angry I'd feel if they were doing that to Bibles.  "Do unto others," remember?

Granted, although I believe the holy Bible to be the inspired Word of God, the actual book isn't sacred; it's what's inside that's sacred.  But I wouldn't want people to burn it.  Would I want to kill the people whom I saw burning Bibles?  No, because I'd know that I've got God in my heart, in the form of Jesus Christ.  They can burn all the Bibles in the world, and all believers in Christ will still have His truth in their hearts.

Muslims, on the other hand, and particularly woefully impoverished Muslims, have nothing in their faith except the Koran.  They don't have their savior living inside of them.  So why should we be surprised when they riot at the news of westerners desecrating their holy books?

They may not want my pity, but they've got it just the same.

Even while I share a bit of their indignation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Coming to Terms with Franklin Graham



And a bit embarrassing.

Not the media's skewering of Franklin Graham yesterday on MSNBC's Morning Joe program.  But Franklin Graham's own sloppy performance during the show.

You can't blame it on inexperience.  The most famous son of the widely-admired evangelist is no stranger to television, the news media, and controversy, but he almost completely flubbed Monday's interview.  Today, the liberal wing of America's media elite is gleefully picking apart Graham's disappointing responses to some, frankly, easy questions.

Easy questions that were also quite uneducated on the part of the assembled journalists:  Willie Geist, John Heilemann, Alex Wagner, Michael Steele and Mike Barnicle.  MSNBC's panel obviously didn't have a good grasp on what evangelicals mean when they use the term "Christian."

But then again, it appears Franklin himself doesn't, either.

It's a tortuous, grimace-inducing spectacle, watching Graham butcher the relevance of orthodox Christianity at the hands of eager accomplices, his cable TV interrogators.  President Obama isn't saved because Graham doesn't like how he coddles Muslims, but two Catholics are?  It just doesn't make much sense.

Instead, here's how Graham should have answered the following questions:

Q:  Do you believe President Obama is a Christian?

A:  To answer that question, we first need to define our terms.  If you're asking if I think President Obama is a Christian as opposed to being Muslim, or Buddhist, then yes, I'd say that religiously, he in the Christian category.  Now, if you're asking me if President Obama is an evangelical Christ-follower, then I would say no, he's not.  He has not made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as his savior.  He has said that he became a "Christian" when he started attending a Christian church.  But that does not mean that he's born-again - another term that can be substituted for "evangelical."

Q:  So you don't take him at his word when he says he's a Christian?

A:  When President Obama says he's a "Christian," I won't argue that he doesn't attend Christian religious services in a Christian religious building.  But does he believe and testify that Jesus is lord of his life?  Until he does that, then why should anybody believe that he's a born-again, inerrant-Bible-believing, evangelical Christian?  It will be provable by both what he says and how he acts.  Why should anybody believe me when I say I'm a born-again believer in Christ if I don't say it with my mouth and live it with my life?  The Bible says we will know believers by their fruit - which means the Fruit of the Spirit.  Those are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control.  Now, to a certain extent, the President does exhibit many of these things in his public life, but until he confesses Christ with his mouth, then there's no correlation between his actions and his claim to be an evangelical Christian.  I know this sounds terribly haughty of me to say, but I'm a strict-interpretationist of the Bible, and God Himself says His Word can sound offensive to people who don't believe it.

Q:  So therefore, by your definition, he's not a Christian?

A:  Not a born-again Christ-follower, no.

Q:  Do you believe he's a Muslim?

A:  No.  He has not made a personal testimony to that effect.  He's claimed to be, and demonstrated by church attendance his preference as, a Christian.  At least in terms of religious category.

Q:  Were Egypt - and the world - a better place with Hosni Mubarak in power?

A:   Better?  No.  But neither was Egypt a worse place with Mubarak in power than it is today.  We are witnessing a tragic escalation of human rights abuses now that Mubarak is out of power.  Religious freedom is practically non-existent, and Egypt's diplomatic ties with Israel are much worse.  Those two facts cannot be good for Egypt, or the world.

(At this point, Alex Wagner, clearly subjective in an unprofessionally journalistic fashion, comes in with a robust defense of President Obama and how he's dealing with the crisis in the Sudan.  Graham, perhaps surprisingly, considering his relatively lame answers up until now, immediately responds in a manner which establishes his superior credibility - and her naivete - on this particular topic.

But then Graham misinterprets another question regarding politics and religion.  Although he rightfully points out that the Obama administration is overstepping its bounds regarding the contraception issue and conscientious objection, that wasn't the question posed to him.  The question was how he'd respond to people who say that politicians shouldn't be shoving their religion down the country's throat?)

A:  First of all, I'd say that whether you were a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian, I'd have more respect for you if your personal faith affected your worldview, than the other way around.  We shouldn't be surprised that people of faith - no matter what faith it is - don't act out that faith in every aspect of life.  It's not aways done perfectly, but if your faith really doesn't mean much to you, then it's not worth much, is it?  Second, I'd say that the reason evaluating the faith of a political candidate has importance comes when you consider how you'd anticipate their responses to various issues.  If their faith isn't important, you have a sort of answer, too.  Third, to the extent that a politician's faith is expressed in their policies, I'd personally understand where people who don't believe the same way I do would be threatened by how my faith influences my decision-making.  I'd say that's one of the ways our Constitution comes into play, because it protects all of us from other people foisting their viewpoints upon us without our consent.

Q:  Do you believe Rick Santorum is a Christian?

A:  Here again, Santorum is a Christian in the sense that Roman Catholicism is religiously Christian.  Does he have a personal faith in Jesus Christ as his lord and savior?  Is he a Biblical-inerrancy, evangelical Christian like I am?  Not if he believes Jesus Christ isn't the only way to God the Father.  Most Catholics don't have a Biblical understanding of Who Christ is.  Yet I believe you can be a nominal, non-papist Catholic and be born-again.  I don't know if Santorum is a nominal, non-papist Catholic, but if he is, that bumps him up a little higher in my estimation of his candidacy!

(Of, course, Graham doesn't answer this way, and he immediately falls into a quagmire of his own making.  The double-standard Graham draws between saying a Catholic is a Christian because of his good morals, while the Protestant Obama probably isn't a Christian because... his morals don't jive with Graham's?  That is not a logical answer.  That is not a Biblical answer.  Let's look once again at what the Bible says is our standard for deducing the quality of faith a person has:  the Fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control.  President Obama probably shares all of those to the same degree, if not similarly, as Santorum does.

But that complicates the political picture for evangelicals like Graham who find it much easier to label Obama non-Christian than fellow political conservatives like Santorum, Gingrich, and even Romney.

If Graham had earlier laid out the distinctions between religious Christians and evangelical, born-again Christians, then this question probably wouldn't have come up.  And the reason why Obama is so unpopular among evangelical right-wingers would seem less irrational.  But even if it had, about the only issue most evangelicals consistently hold against the President is his pro-choice stand on abortion.  Which, I agree, is relatively damning, unless you take the longer view that hatred of others is Biblically akin to murder, so at what point on the murder spectrum should evangelicals decide to quit while we're still innocent?  Many of us evangelicals have somebody in life whom we hate, and we don't work very hard at abolishing that hate, so who's committing the worse sin?

Not that I'm pro-choice.  Personally, I think that's taking the abortion debate a bit too far beyond its essential boundaries.  Suffice it to say that there are born-again evangelicals who support President Obama, and we can't say they're sinning by doing so without pointing the finger back to ourselves.)

Anyway, back to the interview:

Q:  Is Mitt Romney a Christian?

A:  No, he's a Mormon.  Mormons like to classify themselves as Christians, but they're neither religious Christians or born-again Christians.  Mormonism is a cult, plain and simple.  So, Romney is not any type of Christian.

Q:  Is Newt Gingrich a Christian?

A:  Gingrich is a Roman Catholic.  The same parameters apply to Gingrich as to Santorum, who's also Roman Catholic.  They are religious Christians.  But since I've not heard either of them profess that Christ is the only way to God our Father, then no, neither one are saved, evangelical Christians.

Aaannnd... we're clear.  The interview is over!
But the fallout has just begun.

Perhaps what's even worse than his insufficient answers, Graham falls into the deceptive trap, already set up by the equally-erroneous Santorum this past weekend, of classifying people by religion rather than faith.  Instead of drawing distinctives between people who go by the label Christian, Jew, Mormon, or Muslim, Graham should have stuck with the Biblically-reliable distinctive between people who believe that Christ is the Son of God and the savior of sinners, and people who don't.

But here again, doing so isn't exactly politically expedient.

Graham's father, the iconic Billy Graham, wisely kept out of partisan politics in general, although he struck up close relationships with several world leaders of various political stripes.  Also, by not focusing on the Christianity question, he could introduce the Savior of souls to everyone, regardless of their religion.

Even if their religion was Christianity!

His son, however, hasn't learned the art of mastering the media to suit your needs, something the respected Billy did wonderfully.  And still does.  Franklin Graham's interrogators practically genuflected in their attitudes as they asked after his father's well-being, almost hushed and reverential in their tone.

I think I know what Franklin was trying to say on MSNBC yesterday.  I just wish he'd have actually said it!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Driscoll's Big Schtick is Making Some Walk

It's almost too easy.

Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll has enjoyed building a reputation of raunchy Calvinism at his Mars Hill Church.  And make no mistake about it - it is HIS church.

Just ask the guys who've been kicked out of it.  One of them, admittedly, committed sexual sin and decided that the way Driscoll's handlers wanted to discipline him was too oppressive.  Another was a staff member who balked after Driscoll re-wrote the church bylaws one too many times in favor of consolidating his power even further.

On January 23, the sexual sinner's story went public.  Then on January 29, Bent Meyer went public with his version of why he was fired from his job at Mars Hill Church.  Ever since then, unbeknownst to me, the Christian blogosphere has been humming with fallout from these revelations.  I say it was unbeknownst to me because I spend very little time in the Christian blogosphere.  Seriously.  I have a blog because I have things to say, but I don't particularly enjoy arguing with people, which is what often happens on these blogs.  Neither do I think many of the discussions I've seen in the Christian blogosphere have any more impact on society and culture than sports fans who pontificate on sports sites.

But today, this frenzy over Driscoll and his heavy-handed church discipline finally caught up with me in a story I found on mulling whether Driscoll truly knows what repentance means.  And that story led me to which provides even more details on the goings-on at Mars Hill Church.

It would have been too easy for me to pick up right where I'd left off, back during this past Advent, when I was criticizing Driscoll over his salacious sermonizing about sex.  It's as if Driscoll uses his own hyperbole and arrogance as an invitation for others to tear him down.

The Discipline of Church Discipline

But this is a little different.  Church discipline, perhaps unlike Biblical sermons on sex, really is an under-respected component of Christian church life.  Many congregations have been corrupted by the lack of Biblically-structured church discipline.  So I think we need to be careful when it comes to people who complain about instances where church discipline is actually used.  Maybe, as a number of his detractors are claiming, Driscoll is running his church like a cult.  But maybe it just seems that way because our society doesn't know what true discipline looks like anymore.

In Matthew 18:15-17, we have a simple flowchart with instructions for how healthy church discipline is to be meted out:

15 "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

First, you deal with it individually.  This is probably the toughest step, because it requires that somebody take a personal risk and approach the offender who might be a friend or even somebody in authority over them.

If that doesn't resolve the problem, then you're to take it up a notch, and get a couple of other people to join with you in urging the offender to repent.  If that is unsuccessful, then you take the issue to the full congregation so that everyone knows the situation.  This also involves "excommunicating" the offender from the fellowship, something that will probably be unpleasant for everyone involved.

But it's what Christ teaches, is it not?

I've only ever seen church discipline on this level once.  Our female organist, a wife and mother of several kids, was having an affair with a medical doctor, who was also an elder in our church.  The organist's husband was an airline pilot who helped run the church's sports program on weekends.  So this sin affected two popular families involved in highly-visible ministries.  I didn't hear anything about it until one Sunday morning, the worship service ended early, and the elder board gathered at the pulpit and announced that after repeatedly advising the couple to return to their respective spouses, both of whom were open to reconciliation, they had asked the doctor to step down as elder, and they'd fired the organist.

We were instructed not to contact the man or the woman, nor were we to engage with them socially.  The elders had instructed the man and woman not to set foot on our church campus until they were ready to repent.

Which never happened.  They both promptly divorced their current spouses, got married, joined another church in town, and apparently led a happy life together until she passed away last year.  I saw her obituary in the paper, a write-up that didn't sound like the woman I'd known at all.

Driscoll's Swagger Has Repercussions

Obviously, I don't know much about the circumstances at Mars Hill Church that have brought about the charges of Driscoll's oppressive discipline.  But frankly, discipline isn't easy when you're a kid and your mamma has the wooden spoon in her hand, and it's probably even harder when you're a grown adult in a culture where everybody seems to get away with everything.

From what I've read, it sure sounds like the short-statured Driscoll may have a Napoleon complex.  I haven't heard anybody say he's not a tyrant at Mars Hill Church.  He excuses his extraordinarily blunt mannerisms and coarse language as culturally acceptable, if not conventionally Christian.  Combine his churlish demeanor with the dictates of discipline, and should anybody be surprised it all gets misinterpreted?

Still, couldn't part of that misinterpretation come from the fact that Matthew 18:15-17 is so counter-cultural?  It's no secret that many people in the North American church have an impure estimation of marriage and sex, and of all his faults, Driscoll does not seem to be anxious for such ambivalence towards infidelity to take root in his church.  And as far as Driscoll's aggressive leadership controls are concerned, that's simply one of the many pitfalls of a non-denominational church founded by an extroverted type-A person.  Sure, his pastoral style may have severe faults, but why should his own parishioners be surprised by that?

On the other hand, of course, is the fact that we really don't know how the Matthew 18 scenario was applied in these cases.  Were the men whom Driscoll and his staff deemed offenders truly approached in loving and caring ways by people who wanted God to be honored in these situations?  How much time was given to the prayerful interaction between the concerned parties?  Were any resources offered to help guide the "offenders" towards how Driscoll wanted them to respond?  Or was it all pretty much "my way or the highway," without what I would call an attitude of grace, as would appear to be Driscoll's preferred style?

Ahh, grace!  I'm not talking about grace that lets people off the hook.  But I do think there are times when grace can put a little extra effort in working overtime to make sure God's standards are respected, and at the same time, offenders know God still loves them.  Church discipline isn't an opportunity for leaders to lord their authority over wayward members, but an opportunity to extend God's merciful forgiveness.  I know it may sound a little uncharacteristic of me, but sometimes the Holy Spirit works in a timeframe we may not consider expeditious.  For an example of how true grace can work wonders in a delicate church situation, read my blog essay from yesterday.

Meanwhile, if Driscoll really has run roughshod over these men, then he's only getting a taste of his own medicine as they tell their stories to the outside world.  The lewd way Driscoll preaches about sex, it's no wonder people in his church get confused about what's right and wrong when it comes to the sanctity of marriage. And if he's intransigent when it comes to his authoritarianism within his church's governance, then maybe Driscoll needs to be reminded Whose that church really is.

Before, perhaps, we learn that it isn't.

Christianity Today has an update on this controversy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Church Proves Grace Still Works

Notice 8/17/14:  I am aware from following the Google Analytics data for this blog that there are people online searching for information regarding the self-confessed relapse of Dr. Skip Ryan.  Since Dr. Ryan himself has published a personal letter to Redeemer Seminary, from which he has resigned, I'm providing a link to that letter here so you can hear this from him.


You probably haven't heard, but today is an historic day for Park Cities Presbyterian Church.

Park Cities is my church, part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and located in Dallas, Texas.

Granted, today's not an earth-shattering day.  Presbyterianism as we know it will not be upended by this day.  Some people may even scoff, and say it's all petty church politics.

But today, the first pastor Dallas' largest PCA church ever had has officially been welcomed back on staff.  And no matter where you live, or what church you attend, this news should be a source of encouragement.

The announcement was made via a letter to Park Cities Presbyterian's 5,000 members and a posting on the church's website.  Upon an invitation by our current senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Davis, and a unanimous vote of our elder board (called a "Session" by Presbyterians), the Rev. Dr. Skip Ryan is returning to our church's pastoral staff.

Dr. Ryan resigned from his post as senior pastor several years ago in the wake of a scandal involving his addiction to prescription painkillers.  But I don't want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary on Dr. Ryan's troubles.  This story isn't about those, but about his God, and His church that has supported him regardless of them. 

Park Cities Presbyterian's story, however, is quite remarkable.  It began when a group of 1,500 members from an older, larger, mainline Presbyterian congregation split to form a new church back in 1991.  Within a span of roughly 14 years, church membership quadrupled, its budget ballooned to $14 million annually, two daughter churches were birthed, and a robust program of inner-city ministries began transforming the ghettos of west Dallas.

It stunned everyone when he resigned in disgrace after being caught lying about his dependence on prescription medications.  Although several lapses in ethical standards took place, we've been told no crimes were committed.  Since then, contributing factors which led to the addiction have been addressed on multiple levels, and a series of punishments and censures were imposed by our denomination upon Dr. Ryan, all of which he obediently served and by which he abided. 

Eventually, he was successfully restored to full fellowship in the PCA, and re-vested with our denomination's permission for administering the sacraments.  He'd even been installed as Chancellor at Dallas's new Redeemer Seminary, which had begun as an offshoot of Philadelphia's Westminster Seminary.

But remember:  this story isn't about addiction, loss, or even penance and restoration.

It's about grace.

It was grace, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that prompted a group of Christ followers to rally around Dr. Ryan, help him take responsibility for his actions, encourage his family during this painful process, and bring him back into ministry.  In many churches, I suspect, the fact that a senior pastor was caught in one of the major pitfalls of our time would be enough to start vicious gossip cycles spinning.  Instead of giving him time to resign, people would have been demanding his head on a platter.  His family could have been hounded out of town, and his name reduced to a laughingstock, or at least maligned enough so that he wouldn't be able to seek employment in a faith-based organization ever again.

Instead, Dr. Ryan and his family were embraced by our church, and they never even left our congregation.  From the beginning, several elders privately guided Dr. Ryan and his family through the revelation, fallout, and recovery from his actions.  It helped that Dr. Ryan was contrite enough to seek a resolution without being forced by our Session to do so.  While he went away for detox, rehab, and therapy, his family - his wife, with her own ministry to women in the church and pastors' wives across our denomination; a son and daughter in college; and a severely handicapped younger daughter - were well cared for by many members of our congregation.

At a special weeknight service arranged for the newly-sober Dr. Ryan to address our congregation, in a forum intentionally labeled a "testimony" since he was not yet allowed to preach, he bluntly confessed and repented to a standing-room-only sanctuary.  Yet I did not get any impression that those of us in attendance were looking for salacious details, or to feast on a bit of schadenfreude.  No - I think the reason just about all of us listened to his testimony with bated breath was because we were waiting for him to announce when the Session would allow him back into our pulpit!

As it happened, Dr. Ryan himself said he would not be seeking reinstatement in any capacity at Park Cities Presbyterian.  And indeed, despite this announcement today, Dr. Ryan's new position is not something for which he was looking.  His successor, Rev. Davis, had the idea last year, and he, along with our Session, had been praying about it since then.  Dr. Ryan will keep his full-time position at Redeemer Seminary, but will re-join the staff at our church as a part-time assistant pastor.

In a way, it may appear to be more a matter of semantics, since Dr. Ryan will continue to do what he's already been doing ever since being restored to full fellowship in our denomination:  ministering to and counseling people recovering from and repenting of sins that bear strong stigmas in our society.  In God's eyes, what Dr. Ryan did isn't any worse than the rest of the sins you and I commit on a daily basis; what's provocative about chemical dependency of any kind are the ramifications our society sees in such behavior.  Ramifications that have their place, yes, since it was the very stigma that helped convince Dr. Ryan he needed professional help in dealing with this destructive behavior.  But other ramifications that, for better or worse, have implications that our society may not be entirely justified in perpetuating.

For his part, ever since he was elected to replace Dr. Ryan, Rev. Davis has had to endure several years of grumbling among some members that he's not nearly the preacher Dr. Ryan is.  And no, he's not.  I suspect even Rev. Davis would readily admit to that.  You might be surprised to learn that I have actively resisted the urge to compare the two men.  Rev. Davis, raised in suburban Oklahoma, doesn't have the scholarly - some might say sophisticated - approach of the Harvard-educated, Connecticut-bred Dr. Ryan.  But some people didn't resist dwelling on those differences, and with the welcoming of Dr. Ryan back onto Park Cities Presbyterian's staff, they might skeptically question whether this is an easy way for Rev. Davis to build some good will among disgruntled congregants.  Or even flaunt the fact that Dr. Ryan is satisfied enough with Rev. Davis that he's willing to serve on staff under him.

Despite all the cynicism I sometimes - okay, oftentimes! - profess on various subjects, I can't be cynical about this news.  Instead, it really, honestly, makes me happy to see the restoration process continue and flourish.  True, in his position as senior pastor of a large, wealthy, influential church, Dr. Ryan benefited from being surrounded by many people just like him who wanted to help him even as he represented a cautionary tale for themselves.  Most of us don't have that strong or extensive a support network to count on.  Still, this is Dallas, Texas, after all - the buckle of the Bible Belt.  Plenty of hypocrisy takes place in the religious palaces scattered across many affluent subdivisions in this part of the Lone Star State.  Plenty of back-stabbing, satisfaction at others' misfortune (the definition of schadenfreude, by the way!), and jockeying for new positions as vacuums are created when a leader falls.

That's why today is an historic day at my church.  And frankly, for evangelicalism in general.

Grace has been proven to work.  Not grace that mortals themselves have managed to manufacture.  But grace given by God and applied by people who believe in that grace.

Maybe the fact that such notable examples of grace are so rare is what's more disappointing than the fall Dr. Ryan experienced.  But as today's news proves, grace does work.

Grace that is greater than all our sins!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Making the Bible Convenient?

If you saw this advertisement on, what would be your first impression?

  - "Cool!  Something to help me cram in a little Gospel while I'm busy with real life."
  - "'Friendly?'  Yes, I've always found the Bible too intimidating."
  - "Here we go again - yet another book that trivializes the importance of God's holy Word."

You can probably imagine what my first reaction was when I saw this ad today.  Instantly, I reacted with indignation.  Even our evangelical society refuses to acknowledge the fallacy in the notion that God's Word should "fit" into life.  Shouldn't it saturate life instead?  The Bible isn't a how-to guide for making life tick as much as it is a source of life from the Creator of it.

Yes, that's probably too severe a knee-jerk reaction to a book that, upon review on its publisher's website, seems geared more to the unsaved than the saved anyway.  People who likely have yet to become convinced through the power of the Holy Spirit of the Bible's primacy and authority.  Here is Bethany House's summary of this book by Dr. Daryl Aaron, entitled Understsanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day:

  The Bible can feel overwhelming at times. What parts should you read first? How can you understand it? What does it mean for your life? Meanwhile, most books about the Bible are time- consuming, leaving you without much time to read the Bible itself.  In Understanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day, Bible professor and former pastor Daryl Aaron answers your most important questions about the bestselling book in history. Broken into topical readings, you can read systematically from the beginning, or pick and choose topics of interest. Each reading is brief, engaging, and easy to understand.

So, OK:  it's not heresy.  In fact, it's not even a bad idea to provide people unfamiliar with the Bible a primer of sorts for how it was put together, why the prose can seem a bit stilted, how it's all inter-related, and other basics.  After all, we're entering a new age in America where more people are unchurched than churched.  The things that generations of kids learned in Sunday Schools across the country are now going unlearned by most kids, since they don't go to church.  They're growing up and entering college without even a fundamental understanding of what the Bible truly is.

If this book can help counter that trend, then great!

However, although this book may serve a useful purpose, Bethany House's advertising for it betrays a marketing ploy that's all too often assumed with our faith walks:  that a token amount of time a day is sufficient for life proficiency.

From pastors who plead with their congregations to spend just 10 to 15 minutes a day in personal devotions or quiet time, to churchgoers who fastidiously watch the clock during services to make sure they get out on time, the urge to compartmentalize and streamline the Gospel permeates modern evangelicalism.

Which can make for some jaded Christians when things don't seem to be going their way, even with their "God box" checked off every day.  Perhaps taking 15-minute chunks for learning factoids about the Bible is a good thing, but who among us can really count on such budgeting to be sufficient?  It's not even the question of 15 minutes, or five, or half an hour.  It's the very idea that God's Gospel is packageable that bothers me.  That it can be parsed out like, well, an instruction manual.  Check off these lists as you complete your read-through.

Rare is the evangelical who will admit that this is how they view the Bible.  But how many of us practice it all the same by the way we live our lives?  Getting done what we want to get done, or what we think needs to get done, and checking in with God's Word every now and then for a shot of faith like we do power drinks.

If God's Word is the essence of life, then will five minutes a day be enough to absorb it for the benefit of our soul?

Hey - it's not like I'm any example of spending hours in the Word either.  I'm preaching as much to myself as anybody here.  Most weekdays, I probably spend ten to 15 minutes in my devotions, so I'm no saint when it comes to "living" in the scriptures.  I'm doing better at reminding myself at different times during the day of Bible passages I've memorized over the years.  But I'm purposefully trying to spend more time with God in His Word because, frankly, I'm realizing how much I need to.  That's why, when I see advertisements like this one that suggest God wants to fit into our schedules, I blow a fuse.

God doesn't want to fit into our schedules.  He wants us to fit into HIS schedule.  In fact, He wants to BE our schedule.

I have a hard enough time applying this truth to my own life without being encouraged to slack up on it by a Christian publisher.

As long as the focus remains on us, genuinely understanding your Bible in 15 minutes a day will never happen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Can Romance Theory Corrupt its Practice?

Back in the mists of time, when I was in high school, I attended my church's summer camp in Colorado.

Speaking at the youth rallies during that week was a famous evangelical personality whose name, were I to mention it, would almost certainly be familiar to you.

For whatever reason, I distinctly remember him telling us early in the week that his wife was addicted to romance novels.  This well-known evangelical expressed a mix of amusement and consternation at the fact that here he was, traveling the world to preach the Gospel, and his wife was back home, plowing through as many vapid Harlequin paperbacks as she could.

And I distinctly remember drawing - with no prodding from anybody - the correlation between his extensive ministry schedule, the physical loneliness his wife must be feeling, and the obvious frustrations she hoped to quench at least partially, vicariously, through romance novels.  For the rest of the week, I sat there in those meetings thinking to myself (yes, I was a cynic, even then) about how credible his evangelistic ministry could be if he didn't even value his ministry as husband and father.  After all, wasn't being a husband and father more important than his career, even if that career was being a professional Christian?

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when my editor at Crosswalk asked me if I'd be willing to review Christian romance novels for the website.

At first, I didn't think I'd heard her correctly:  who'd care about the opinions of a guy when it comes to a decidedly feminine literary genre?  And I use the term "literary" here loosely.

My editor had already considered that aspect, and shrugged her shoulders.  "Maybe having a guy reviewing romance novels could bring a fresh perspective," she mused, "and since you're single, it wouldn't be as weird as if a married guy was reviewing them."

So... it might still be weird, but since I'm single, not so much?  Still, I needed the work, and I thought, "how bad can Christian romance novels be?"

Like many of the women who read them, I was naive.

Would St. Valentine Approve?

Technically, apparently, they're not called "Christian romance" novels, but "inspirational romance" novels.  I'm not sure the genre even existed back when our Christian celebrity confessed his wife's addiction to their secular cousins back in the 1980's.  But they've become a powerful financial force in today's Christian publishing world.  It seems that as life gets more stressful, it's getting easier for women of faith to get themselves lost in stories that never have unhappy endings.

And if the story of the inspirational romance was that simple, then it probably wouldn't be much worse a waste of time than a bad movie, a soap opera, or really vacuous pop music.

But the thing I discovered with my very first inspirational novel - having just finished it last night - is that as page after page goes by, the unrealistic scenarios depicted in prose can disarmingly prejudice the reader against everyday life and warp their perspective towards reality.

Some readers might consider such a book a success.  But does God?

In the book I just completed, which I suspect is typical of the genre - since it's published by a major Christian publisher as part of a series - the protagonists are gorgeous and sexy by almost anybody's standards.  But in the real world, how many of us are?  And it's not just that the author threw in a perfunctory sentence describing her main characters as being physically attractive; rather, she spends much of her novel describing how they ache for the physical pleasures of the other, by benefit of the other's gorgeous body.  I don't know; maybe I'm just jealous.  After the first few pages, however, it becomes obvious to any reader with any sense:  this attraction isn't about love!

It's about lust!

I'm not going to lower myself to quoting the immature desires this author describes between her main characters.  Granted, the author doesn't get explicit in a lewd or lurid way - in fact, she does a great job of wordsmithing her protagonists' affections without coming close to crossing any moral lines - but it's all based on the same unreliable, stilted, and physical drives with which any teenager struggles.

Let's face it:  lead characters in any pop-culture romance are never overweight, are they?  Heroines are never frumpy or really short, and heroes are never scrawny or bald.  They may be poor, unpopular, depressed, underemployed, or criminals, but they're never ordinary-looking.  Or ugly.  That's the whole point of a romance novel:  not that two unexceptionally-featured people can love each other, but that two gorgeous people can lick a few fictitious problems to live happily ever after in a model American kind of way.

By their very nature, then, such "Christian" romance novels affirm the populist notion that love is more valuable when it's lathered in physical beauty.  Not attraction for attraction's sake; after all, plenty of non-gorgeous people fall in love with other people who are not gorgeous, yet there's usually some sort of attraction.  Being attracted to somebody is not a sin.  But should Christian romance be so dependant on prized physical attributes?  As a man, I felt quite inferior reading this novel.  The lead female character wouldn't have ever given me the time of day, and I already know plenty of women like that!

Put It In Writing

So, how is any of this different than romance at the movies, you might ask?  Well, for one thing, how can any romance portrayed in an unBiblical light be edifying for a child of God?  And isn't romance which emphasizes physical over spiritual unBiblical?  Sure, we look at outward appearances in all sorts of situations, but God doesn't say that as a compliment.

Secondly, in a novel, you'll likely get a more vivid narrative of the protagonist's thoughts and feelings that may or may not translate well to their screen adaptation.  If you have a woman admiring her man's thick legs and yearning to feel his masculine hands, a visual representation may look merely sexual, but having the imagery reinforced by words on a page leaves no doubt as to the woman's less substantial justifications for loving somebody - physical attributes - than their personality or character.  With books, authors have the unique opportunity to more effectively explore the intangible reasons for why people love each other, and even when authors don't take that opportunity, doesn't that speak volumes about the true nature of the attraction?

More importantly, however, is the subtle claim by both authors and publishers of Christian romance novels that they're a purer form of romance, since they incorporate churchy themes.  Meanwhile, however, the very traits God expects lovers to look for in each other get left at the altar.  Romance advocates point to the Song of Solomon as justification for their genre, but if you'll read the Song of Solomon carefully, you'll note that the writer doesn't evaluate relative physical features as much as he admires basic anatomy.  In other words, Solomon doesn't specify or compare the waist size, bosom size, or other proportions of the body as much as he exalts body parts for their own sake.  He leaves it up to his readers' imaginations about how the things he writes apply to their lover.  That way, every man can see his wife, and every woman can see her husband... and nobody else!

That's part of what makes the Song of Solomon so powerful.

In the traits of a Godly woman listed in Proverbs 31, we find a host of benchmarks which define the prototypical Christian woman, such as being noble in character, industrious, diligent, gracious, hospitable, wise, and prudent.  Nothing about looks or sexuality, although it's said that "beauty is fleeting."

Physical beauty, anyway.

Beholding Beauty

As for Christ, after Whom males would do well to model their lives, He was no Adonis.  People didn't follow Him because He was handsome and charming; they followed Him because the Holy Spirit compelled them to.

Not that there's anything wrong with being attractive and well-built.  It's not a sin to be beautiful.  But beauty is more often than not in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it - especially the inner beauty that should count more than the external kind?  So why should Christians - particularly Christian women, since they're the target audience for inspirational romance - beware of what our ostensibly righteous Christian publishers are selling them?

Because Christian romance portrays a false world. This false world, particularly in the minds of vulnerable women who are desperate for male companionship, can plant false expectations and nurture false hopes.  It wouldn't matter so much if you were talking about a beautiful horse or a productive garden or anything else that people prize, yet manage to maintain a realistic appraisal of their chances of owning.  But a marriage relationship, at least as I've been told, is hard enough without false expectations and false hopes tossed into the mix.  How fair is it for men when their wives read books laden with standards they physically can't match?  And wives, how many of you fit the standards set by our world's definition of a beautiful woman anyway?  That's not intended to be a low blow as much as a challenge to relinquish any double-standards.

Christ's church across our world is under attack from Nigeria to Indonesia.  And I mean literal attack, in the form of believers being beaten and imprisoned for their faith, and houses of worship being burned to the ground.  And we've got women in North America, apparently bereft of opportunities to study God's Word or minister His Gospel to others, who manage to find time to wallow in trivial, unfulfilling, and potentially destructive Christian romance novels?

(How can anyone consider Christian romance novels fulfilling?  Why else do you think many of them are published in a series?)

The evangelical leader whose wife devoured Harlequins almost certainly did so because her husband wasn't home enough to move romance from theory to practice.  And guess what - that was his fault!  To the extent that men don't fulfill their end of the marriage bargain, then maybe the proliferation of Christian romance novels serves as a wake-up call to spousal relationships on the rocks across North America.  After all, sex is a God-given desire and need, and chances are, at this stage, your spouse isn't really as particular about what you look like as much as they are interested in a level of intimacy which transcends physical attraction.

And if single women get hooked on Christian romance novels, might that be the kiss of death to their marriage prospects?  What kind of maturity level do you expect to find in a man who is attracted to somebody who pines for such a severe level of fantasy?

Most of us would love to find the perfect relationship to the perfect soul-mate.  But hey - Christ, as the church's bridegroom, ain't gettin' no perfect mate here on Earth, so what makes you think you will?

Since I'm single, I know I'm not the most qualified person to offer this advice.  But judging from my saved, married friends who've enjoyed success in their marriages, it's true that the lust of the flesh only goes so far.

After that, you need good old-fashioned, short, big-nosed, pudgy, balding, thin-necked love.

Happy Valentines' Day, y'all!