Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christ's Nativity Foils "Same God" Prof

Do Islam and Christianity revere the same god?

No, they do not.  The most cursory of glances at each world religion answers the question.  Yet sophisticated people bristle at the notion of simpletons like me arriving at concrete answers when so much academic energy has been expended in the pursuit of more nuanced considerations.

Larycia Hawkins
Take, for example, the furor Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins continues to promulgate over her employer's answer to this question.

Officially, at least, Wheaton College affirms that Islam and Christianity worship different gods, and school officials have placed Hawkins on paid leave because she doesn't believe it.  Wheaton can do that; Hawkins signed a statement of faith when she was hired in which she'd promised to (publicly, at least) respect the evangelical school's theology.  Hawkins, however, has publicly stated that she stands "in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book."

"The book" being a euphemism for the Bible.

Which, right off the bat, is a bit incongruous, since Muslims do not use the Bible as their holy book, but the Koran.  Plus, it's the Bible that teaches us Who the God of the universe is.  We learn about His immortality and our mortality.  We learn what His definition of sin is.  We learn about grace, and that God's perfect grace - not ritualistic legalism - saves us from the penalty of our sin.  We learn who Jesus Christ is.  We learn about how the Holy Spirit reveals these truths to God's faithful people.  We learn that the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God the Father all comprise the Trinity, and that any interpretation of our Creator God that excludes any member of the Trinity is heresy.

That's how we know the answer to the question:  do Islam and Christianity venerate the same deity?  And the answer is "No," because Islam worships a legalistic, non-Trinitarian god, whereas Christians worship the God of grace Who saves His people from their sin through faith in His own Son, as revealed by the Holy Spirit.

Some people like to say that this distinction is a complex one; but in actuality, it's only complex for people who cannot abide God's sovereign imperative that His is the only true plan of salvation.  The idea that there's only one door, one path, or one cross seems provincial or ludicrous.

There are far smarter people than me - people like Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, for example - whose intellectual expertise has managed to detect nuances in conventional interpretations of Trinitarian doctrine and theological theory that cast doubts on basic perceptions of yes and no, and right and wrong.

Volf has long argued that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.  Such claims stem not from ideological parameters of respective beliefs, but from a heavily historic view of religions in time and place.  Volf is probably the most prominent contemporary Protestant who advocates this view, but it's an old theory which, until recently, has been an ancillary religious debate waged mostly outside the realm of populist theological consciousness.  Yet as recent expressions of Muslim extremism have urgently brought Islam itself to the forefront of geographical and political awareness, defenders of Muslims have recklessly parroted bad theology - both bad Islamic theology and bad Christian theology - to try and bridge ideological, nationalistic, and emotional divides.

That's basically what Hawkins appears to be doing right now.  At first, she gained some fleeting notoriety for pledging to wear a hijab to show solidarity for Muslim women during the Christmas holiday season.  Hers was a flaky - yet in academia's tolerant way, a theologically-tame - demonstration of "solidarity" (her word), especially in her job as a political science professor.  Even I have been arguing against right-wingers spewing hateful rhetoric against Muslims, and war refugees from Muslim-dominant countries in particular.  But I haven't advocated for treating Muslims humanely out of a conviction that we all worship the God of the universe - or the god of the Koran.  I advocate for treating Muslims humanely because I don't see where a solid interpretation of pertinent Bible passages teaches anything different.

If Hawkins was as interested in worshiping the God of the Bible as she seems intent on keeping her professorship at a college with which she's obviously at odds, why can't she subjugate her academic elitism and remember that the Gospel is not as complex as she wants to make it.  After all, Christ's Nativity occurred before shepherds, who were considered the lowliest of the low; generally uneducated, and deeply unsophisticated.

Indeed, the shepherds' story in the Gospel of the Nativity succinctly answers the question of Who Christians worship.  If you believe Luke 2, you can't believe Muslims do, too:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

...When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

Christ wasn't just a good person, or a great prophet, or a remarkable miracle-worker.  He was, and is, and forever will be God's holy Son, full of grace and truth.

Religions can come to dominate cultures, but it's what each person individually believes that matters.  What do you believe about Who God is?  Is His Son Jesus Christ?  Who convinces you that He is?  Is it your academic prowess, or the Holy Spirit?  Who else could create you, save you, and help you know it, but God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?

The shepherds from Bethlehem's hills rejoiced at the birth of their Savior without fully understanding the concept of the Trinity.  Oddly enough, it was the theologians of Christ's day who waffled between skepticism and outright contempt of Him.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

May a Child lead all of us into a childlike faith in Him, His Father, and Their utter holiness.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Redeeming Christ's Nativity From Xmas

Around this time of year, I can't escape all of the ticky-tacky, splendiferous Christmas hedonism perpetrated within evangelicalism.

I'm not being cynical; I'm merely trying to "redeem" the authentic Christmas.  After all, Christ's Nativity was raw, dirty, non-sterile, smelly, and undignified.  It was God's perfect scenario for introducing His created beings to their holy Savior:  Christ is the complete antithesis of carnal royalty!

Meanwhile, fast-forward to 2015, and we tend to forget that there is a legitimate, almost essential theme of the Nativity that we've squandered away in favor of prettiness, nostalgia, and even mirth.  Hey; joy is different from mirth.  Joy shines through the bleakness that was Christ's actual, Biblical, historic nativity.  And yes - we lose a lot of the genuine history of Christ's birth when we romanticize it.

Back in 2012, I wrote more on this topic, which I've adapted here:

We're thick into the Christmas season now, and churches of all denominations and theological stripes are having their annual Christmas concerts.

These concerts, of course, range from sentimental seasonal affairs to contemporary Christian extravaganzas to high-brow classical concerts.  We have a gargantuan megachurch here in suburban Dallas that puts on a show every year to rival the legendary spectacle at Radio City Music Hall, complete with camels and flying angels.  I've never attended myself, but I hear their production is astonishingly professional and immensely entertaining.

Besides, since Santa Claus himself bows before the manger prop containing the Baby Jesus, it's supposedly good evangelism to boot.

And then we evangelicals wonder why the world around us increasingly views our faith as some sort of fuzzy fable.  We like to blame the world for corrupting Christmas, but aren't we doing our part within the church to mythologize what we say we believe, especially when it comes to the narrative surrounding our Savior's birth?

Christmas is No Myth

Forget all of the commercialization, the partying, the excessive gift-giving, the decorations, and the other busyness of this season.  Plenty of critics have already pointed out how the theological implications of Christ's nativity get lost in the ways we Westerners overdose on what we call "holiday cheer."

Meanwhile, one of the subtlest ways people within the church tend to fritter away the Biblical legitimacy of Christmas involves our complicity in perpetuating its traditionalist fallacies.  We want the nativity to be nostalgic and pretty.  Yet aren't the facts of Christ's incarnation far less cosseted and pristine?  How white should Christmas be, anyway, both in terms of the European spin and snowy dusting with which we Western Caucasian evangelicals fondly depict it?

If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, let me remind you of the real deal:  Mary was a pregnant teenager who'd just finished a grueling trek forced upon her and her fiancĂ© - who wasn't the father of her baby - by their imperious government.  They ended up in a stable, with smelly hay, smelly farm animals, smelly excrement from those smelly farm animals, and no obstetrician, neonatal nurse, or midwife in sight.  Their first visitors after Christ's birth weren't nobility, but a group of illiterate, low-class shepherds.

In addition, this all took place probably in March or April, not the dead of winter, and the magi were just starting out on their journey after seeing the star in the East.  It would take them a couple of years to make it to the place where the young Christ child was.  And by then, it wouldn't have been a stable.

And guess what - it hardly ever snows in temperate Bethlehem.

Actually, if we told the story authentically, wouldn't we see that the reality of Christ's birth is more profound than the frosted fantasy into which our culture has polished it?  Thankfully, some of our songwriters have gotten it right, and attempted to marvel at God's perfect way of introducing Christ to this planet.  But it's hard for merchants to sell Christmas as an arduous, unsanitary, and bizarre event for the disenfranchised.  And unfortunately, the evangelical church has been mostly complicit with the Nativity's commercializers in making the Incarnation a sellable product for once-a-year churchgoers.

Christmas Music Needs Authenticity

Regular readers of my blog essays know that I'm an unabashed advocate for classical hymnody.  I actually believe that what we consider to be traditional corporate worship provides, on the whole, a focus on Christ and God's holiness that comes closer to what our Trinity expects when we gather together to honor Him.  I'm willing to contend that culturally, our genre of classical music has become less a Caucasian, European contrivance as much as it has become a universally-renowned, broadly-appreciated style of stately repertoire uniquely suited to the worship of God, no matter where we're born, or in what society we've been raised.

Yes, that means some expressions of culture are better than others.  It's a politically incorrect thing to say, and, some think, a woefully impertinent thing to believe.  But it's true.  No human culture is perfect, or even ideal.  And many are utterly unBiblical.  Doesn't this mean that, when it comes to how we express our adoration of God to Him, particularly in public, we can't rely on cultural norms to be adequate?  Just because we're under the misapprehension that God values all cultural norms equally?

Don't we need to discriminate between what's good, and what's adequate, or even downright inappropriate?

When it comes to such cultural institutions as Christmas, shouldn't we resist the urge to let culture dictate our worship?  Shouldn't communicating the glory of Christ's birth be done with as much theological and historical integrity as possible?

Poetic License to Mythologize?

Consider, then, one of most revered songs within the Christmas repertoire.  It's called "In the Bleak Midwinter," and the text is by noted poet Christina Rossetti, who lived from 1830 until 1894.  For the most part, these lyrics withstand basic theological scrutiny fairly well.  Yet Rossetti incorporates snowy winter themes in a way that bolsters the fictitious narrative of popular Christmas lore - which does a grave disservice to the historical accuracy of Christ's birth.

1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

4. What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Thematically, the references to a "bleak midwinter" could be argued as being allegorical to the span of quiet time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, when it's widely thought that God's presence had been generally withheld from our planet.  Then too, since centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church had moved the observance of Christmas to coincide with pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, which symbolizes a time of death between the seasons of decay and renewal, a "bleak midwinter" presents a poetic linkage between mortal sin and salvation.

For the artistic among us, appreciating these delicate abstractions may be a permissible way to forgive the historical inaccuracies that help to mythologize Christmas.  Scott Aniol, a professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that on its literary merits alone, the poetry of "In the Bleak Midwinter" makes it a bona-fide carol for evangelicals to use during Advent.

"What Rossetti is portraying in her poem," reasons Aniol, "is not a weather report on the day of Christ’s birth.  Rather, she is using quite conventional metaphorical imagery to paint a picture of the condition of the world when Jesus was born.  This was a harsh world, a world that was cold as ice, dark as midnight, and hard as iron... Sin had built up upon the world like snow piled upon snow upon snow upon snow.  This world was bleak.  And it is into this world that the God of Heaven descended.  Rossetti beautifully contrasts the bleakness of a cold dark world with the warmth and light of the stable.  You can almost see the light and feel the warmth through her words."

That may be, but is artistic license sufficient authorization for reinforcing inaccurate cultural baggage when it comes to the Gospel?  Literary nuance is one thing, but isn't basing it on pagan fables a bit counter-productive?  She may sure write pretty, but Rossetti's imagery does little to convey a universal application of the Christmas story to cultures where references to snow and its allegorical qualities risks tilting the Incarnation towards a Western - and therefore, foreign - aesthetic.

Granted, the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle we Christians can put in the way of Christ's redemptive work, but how loving is it for us to intentionally and unnecessarily complicate parts of the Gospel?

Let's Liberate Christmas from Ethnocentrism!

Maybe you don't mind singing songs that are exclusive to your culture and cohort.  And in terms of everyday socialization, doing so isn't wrong, in and of itself.  But when it comes to the Gospel, shouldn't we be seeking to free God's Good News from the shackles of our own cultural bondage?  The message of God becoming incarnate for us is a global message.  And it's not our message - it's God's!

For a full half of our planet, the midwinter is hardly bleak and snowy.  For them, it's like North America's and Europe's summertime!  If we sang Rossetti's song in Australia or Nigeria, we'd have to throw in the caveat, "well, this was written by a European white woman; you'll have to free it from its cultural baggage."

Maybe there are some Nigerian Christmas songs that talk about how hot and dusty it must have been during the winter when Christ was born.  See how awkward that would be for us?

Therefore, shouldn't Christ's Nativity be equally relevant to all of God's Elect, no matter where we live?  Or what our winters look like?

I'm not interested in preserving Western hymnody simply for nostalgia's sake.  I think the bulk of Western hymnody should be applicable to as many cultures as possible, because it has that much theological and artistic integrity.  It may have originated in Western cultures, but just like the message it declares, it can be universal in its applicability.

Why doesn't the church return those dreams of a white Christmas to Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby!  And why don't we instead sing:

In the bleak midwinter of mans' weary soul, 
    past the prophets' telling, silence from God's shoal;
Earth stood hard as iron, gloom as shrouds of snow, 
    in the bleak midwinter long ago.

- I edited the first verse of Rossetti's poem for a choral performance of this piece in 2007 at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Two Cabbies, a Knife, and Second Avenue

Hey - you know what?  It's been a long time since I've told you one of my "only in New York" stories.

And with all the talk about Muslims in America these days, I had a flashback yesterday to one night in Manhattan, when I was living there in the early 1990's, and an absurd, politically incorrect event that rattled me as much as it rattled the taxi cab in which I was riding.

Yes, the stereotypical jobs for many Muslims in America run the low-wage gamut, from counter clerk at convenience stores and gas stations to cabbies in cities large and small.  These jobs tend to be comparatively risky, and wholly unglamorous.  They're jobs many of us tend to marginalize, and although they're all around us, Muslims working these lowly jobs rarely become anything more to middle class white Americans like me than a means to an end - like paying for a quick snack of junk food, or being shuttled from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.

So it was, then, late one Manhattan evening, and probably after I'd stood around longer than I thought was necessary for a bus, that I hailed a cab for a ride down Second Avenue to my apartment on East 28th Street.  Second Avenue is mostly residential, with no attractions for tourists, and no major office buildings, so after the evening rush, traffic would thin out fairly sparsely - by New York standards, anyway.

And my ride down Second Avenue began normally enough.  The cab clattered and rattled as it bounced over Gotham's ubiquitous potholes, and I hadn't bothered to consider the ethnicity of my driver.  What difference did it make?  By the early 1990's, white cabbies had become extremely rare; most were from the Middle East, Africa, India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.  Many wore turbans, but I'd quickly learned to differentiate between the Muslim style - thicker, fuller and more circular shaped - and the slimmer and sleeker folds of more oval-shaped Sikh turbans.

Nevertheless, it was at an ordinary red light that I learned what appeared to be my cabbie's religion.   How can I remember that?  Because when we stopped at the intersection, my driver - a young, stocky, olive-skinned Middle Eastern man - glanced over at another cabbie who'd pulled up alongside us.  The other driver looked very much like mine.  Suddenly, however, my cabbie began yelling expletives at him (I'm assuming they were expletives) in a language I didn't understand.  Our car windows were rolled down, both men were loudly yelling at each other, and I remember that both of them were wearing the same type of thick, round turban.

Okay, so yes; I reached my conclusions through basic stereotyping.  But hey:  If they weren't Muslim men from the Middle East, they sure weren't convincing as anything else.

Then, the light turned green, and both cabbies were off - tearing down Second Avenue like there was no tomorrow!  And the way they drove, I began to wonder if I literally had no tomorrow.  David Letterman used to joke that riding in a New York taxi was "like watching your life flash before your eyes."  I'd taken plenty of those types of rides; most Manhattan cabbies believe speed limits, lane striping, turn signals, and brake pedals are for sissies.  But this ride had instantly become something far more perilous.

Indeed, I quickly realized theirs wasn't simply some disagreement - and this was back in the days before we had "road rage."  Some major hatred existed between these two cabbies, and since Second Avenue was wide open - about four traffic lanes with hardly any traffic at all - our two cabs surged and dueled across the open blacktop; potholes, uneven manhole covers, and all.

If any pedestrians had been trying to jaywalk, or walk against the light, they'd have been splattered all over Second Avenue.

We were flying.  Well, flying as much as two heavy American-made sedans can fly down a poorly-maintained big-city boulevard.  I'm pretty sure we did get airborne a couple of times though, however briefly.  And as we flew, the cabbies never stopped yelling insults at each other.  At least, I figured they were yelling insults.  I didn't understand a word of it, except that theirs were words of scalding anger and utter contempt for each other.

Before too long, my cabbie reached down and brandished a big knife - a weapon he likely kept under his front seat in case he was ever robbed.  He leaned across the front passenger seat to wave his flashy flesh-slicer at the other cabbie.  The whole episode had crossed from the merely bizarre to full-blown lunacy!  They weaved their cars back and forth across the empty traffic lanes, and even bashed their vehicles into each other!  I kid you not.  I used to wonder how New York's taxi fleet could look so incredibly beat-up and tattered, but if this is what cabbies do when the streets are sparsely-trafficked, now I know.

When 28th Street came up, I had to scream at my cabbie to stop and let me out.  By that time, he seemed to have forgotten that I was still riding in his back seat, having braced myself between the two rear doors, practically anticipating a horrendous collision, but still fascinated enough by such raw drama to maintain my ringside perspective.

He slammed on the brakes, obviously furious over the delay I was causing him, as his nemesis continued full-throttle down the avenue.  I threw a couple of bucks into the front seat - not the full fare, and certainly without any tip - and hurriedly scooted myself out the passenger-side door.  I didn't even get to close it completely before my cabbie was off again - his barely-latched back door rattling ajar as the yellow sedan tore down Second Avenue to continue the fight.

Now, I'm not telling y'all this story to bash Muslims.  I have no idea whether the grievance between these two men wearing Muslim-looking headgear had anything to do with religion, Islam or otherwise.  Maybe they recognized each other at the stoplight as being rivals for the same woman, as unlikely as it may be for two cabbies to meet like that in all of the many intersections that comprise Manhattan's street grid.  Maybe they simply recognized the serial numbers on each other's cabs as meaning they were employees of rival cab companies, between which bad blood brewed.  Since they were both headed in the same direction on a long boulevard, maybe they'd already clipped each other's cars further uptown.

Nevertheless, regardless of the reason for why two men identifying as Muslims (at least by their turbans) would pursue such a reckless and vicious episode of road rage down Second Avenue, that experience remains for me a strangely fascinating example of New York City's freakish character.

And, frankly, I thought I'd better commit this story to narrative form before political correctness silences such vignettes from being retold for fear of insulting anybody.

So, for the record, here is a list of everybody who looks bad in this story:  cab drivers, Middle-Eastern men, men who wear Muslim-looking turbans, as well as the entire workforce in New York City's street maintenance department.

Oh - and me, for not being more patient and merely waiting for a bus.  Or for not simply walking some 40 blocks back to my apartment.

Or those of us in this entire list combined - plus New York City's eight million other residents -  who apparently think putting up with such incidental experiences while living in the Big Apple is worthy of civilization's greatest city.

I have to admit I'm glad I can recount this tale from the relative sanity of bland ol' Arlington, Texas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Has Religious Freedom Lost its Ring?

Has Donald Trump exposed a deep shift in our society?

Religious liberty used to be a cornerstone of the American narrative.  It's what prompted many of the earliest settlers to our shores.  Remember the Pilgrims?  Religious liberty was what prompted the first American Thanksgiving.

Ever since then, religious liberty is what we've used to help justify our participation in world wars.  It's part of what bolstered our opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  It's the basis upon which many immigrants and asylum-seekers have applied for protection and opportunity in our great nation.

Yet as his bluster against Islam continues unabated - and as it continues to be enthusiastically received by his supporters - Trump appears to be exploiting something that many evangelicals can't fathom:  a national decline in the perceived importance of religious freedom.

Indeed, not only does Trump, egged on as he's been by his vociferous partisans, openly decry an entire brand of religious persuasion in sweepingly unAmerican generalizations, but in his calls for barring adherents to one particular religious brand for any length of time, he's calling for a precedent against religion in general.

That precedent is to declare religious freedom as being negotiable when it comes to protecting America's homeland.  And Trump is getting away with it not because he himself is powerful enough to make it happen, but because his followers want him to be.  Which means that a growing number of Americans must genuinely not seriously value religious freedom anymore, since they're more than willing to chuck it if doing so means our nation might be more "secure."

With an emphasis on "might."  Maybe.  But it's not guaranteed.  Still, however, it's worth ditching religious rights to see how secure our country would be without them.

Yeah, let's "make American great again"...

The historic - and former - home of First Baptist Church in Sedgwick, Maine.
Local apathy allowed the congregation to literally die out in 2010,
and the structure has sat unused since then.
Now obviously, during times of war and national emergencies, certain civil liberties are subject to rational limitations.  There is a legitimate concept called "treason," and an American media outlet broadcasting secret American troop movements, for example, could be a form of treason.

Sometimes, freedom of the press - and free speech in general - depends on people not exploiting free speech to say whatever they want.  That's why it's illegal to yell "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

The measure for such restrictions is how many people could be injured - or how much overall could be lost - just because one person wants to exercise their "liberty" at the expense of the broader community.

On the one hand, Trump and his supporters are correct in their claims that Muslim extremists don't care about the "broader community," unless they can destroy it so they can personally claim a greater eternal reward.  Radical Islam, as many call it, is not about religious pluralism or freedom of expression.  So the only way to protect our American way of life against such an oppressive mindset, according to Trump, is to prevent it from taking root on American soil.

Unfortunately for all of us, radical Islam is not a nationality, or a corporate entity, or a political party, or a non-religious organization.  In an "open" society such as ours, there's little Constitutional leeway when it comes to weeding out terrorists from non-terrorists.  It may sound easy to merely lump-in all adherents to a particular ideology, and therefore impose restrictions on followers of that ideology, but in the United States, doing so creates a dangerous precedent.

Remember the "Golden Rule"?  "Do unto others as you'd wish they'd do unto you."  It's a basic principle of Western society and law.  But just because a sub-section of a world religion adamantly refutes the Golden Rule, we can't make exceptions.  Otherwise, the religious freedoms of all Americans are compromised.

For many of Trump's followers, that may not be important.  After all, religion in general and Christianity in particular have fallen from favor as American society grows increasingly secular and carnal.  Sure, a majority of Americans may still consider themselves religious or "Christian," but that doesn't mean that faith is of the utmost importance in their life.  They're willing to bend with the populist currents, marginalize Biblical truth, and accept the idea that morality is relative.  And if it means that curtailing the freedoms of one religion curtails the freedoms of all religions, so what?  After all, isn't national security more important than religion?

How bitterly ironic that after years of "seeker-sensitive" Christianity, and our development of America's vast evangelical industrial complex, the society around us not only continues to exist outside of our insular religious empire, but now seems to consider our very existence expendable!

At least when it comes to exchanging our freedoms for the guise of national security.

What's worse, many evangelicals are willingly parroting Trump's hubris, unwittingly relinquishing the free exercise of their faith for the hope of physical safety.

Or, are they? Perhaps a lot of people who profess faith in Christ actually have more faith in another industrial complex - our military one.  If that's true, then those folks will still have faith, except it won't be in God.  It will be in something other than the God of the Bible.

Which, to make the irony even more bitter, will be a win for radical Islam.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hey Christians: Our Votes Aren't About Us

Hey, all you American evangelicals:  Guess what?!

This upcoming election isn't about us.

Our current presidential contest isn't about Democrats or Republicans, or liberals or conservatives.

It isn't about watching Donald Trump make a mockery of civilized discourse and conventional politics.  It isn't about whether or not Democrats will have the temerity to nominate somebody with as much political baggage as Hillary Clinton.  This election isn't about politics anyway.

It's not about abortion, or gay marriage, or civil rights, or gun control.  We're not voting to secure our way of life, our economy, our childrens' future, or our position in world affairs.  We're not casting ballots based on immigration issues, minimum wage laws, or states rights.

This upcoming election isn't about morality, religion, money, opinions, or media coverage.

It's about God.  It's about what God expects His people to do, and how He expects us to act.  It's about those things that bring Him glory, and those things by which He proves His grace in the hearts and minds of those who claim to be His:


This election isn't about us.  It's not about protecting our Christian faith.  It's not about protecting ourselves from the faith of people who are currently fleeing a war that our national policies have helped to inflame.  This election, like everything else, is about God.

Yes, we need to be grateful that our Lord still lets us contribute each of our votes towards a future we like to imagine we're able to control for our country.  But this election isn't about the United States, either.

This election is about the one, holy, sovereign, unchangeable, apolitical, righteous, and supreme Father God.

May we serve Him with our votes, and no one - and nothing - else.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Guns, Terror, and Which Gospel We Serve

This is NOT the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

"If more good people had concealed-carry permits, we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill us.”

This IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

"Put your sword back into its place.  For all who take the sword will perish by the sword."

American evangelicals seem to be rapidly and enthusiastically squandering one of the broadest and ripest opportunities for ministry that God has presented to us in quite some time.  As refugees from war-torn Muslim countries pour into the West, instead of gearing up to shower them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ here at home, we're freaking out over whether a few of them might kill us, or make Uncle Sam confiscate our guns.

Now, let's be clear:  This is not a debate about whether guns should be illegal.  Whether you're a left-wing radical or a right-wing zealot, guns aren't the issue here.  This is a soul-searching opportunity to realize those things - or people - in which we place our confidence.

As I've said many times on this blog, I'm not a fan of guns, but neither do I believe that more gun control will solve our problems with gun-involved violence in the United States.  In fact, whether you're for or against gun control, wasting time and energy on this debate obfuscates the real issue at hand.  We have a violence problem in our country, not a gun problem.  How can I say that?  Because the vast, overwhelming majority of America's gun owners never murder anybody.

Nevertheless, how much of your confidence is placed in your ability to pack heat?  Sure, conceal-carry is one thing, but is that the primary thing?  Is whether you die today, tomorrow, or 50 years from now dependent upon whether or not you've got a gun?

If you believe in the sovereignty of God, your answer is "no."  Right?

But then the swaggering president of the supposedly "Christian" Liberty University incites his audience of sophomoric college students with what he's packing in his hip pocket, and that he wants everybody on campus to carry one to defend themselves against Muslims.

Can't you see the fallacy?

Meanwhile, I received an e-mail this morning from a missionary friend serving in Quebec.  He and his wife speak French fluently, and a majority of their ministry centers on French-speaking Muslims temporarily living in Canada to attend college.

You see, these friends of mine believe that Christ's Gospel is the best way to combat violence, terrorism, and other forms of hatred.  And they marvel at the ways God is bringing Muslims out of war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East to North America, where - at least for now - some of them can be exposed to what Christ-followers believe to be true about humanity, our world, sin, and salvation from that sin.

In other words, my missionary friends relish the opportunities they're having of meeting and befriending Muslims.  They're not afraid; they're eager.

Wow.  Wouldn't it be nice to be that unafraid?

What about the rest of us who claim to follow Christ?  What's the real issue facing us?

Terrorism?  Gun control?  Muslims?

All of the above, or none of the above?

Whose Gospel do you truly believe?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I Hereby Repudiate Trump's Politics

Donald Trump may speak for a bullying, bigoted chunk of American blow-hards, but he does not respect the United States Constitution, human rights, and basic principles of decency, diplomacy, governance, and logic.

Either he's been paid-off by Bill and Hillary Clinton to throw the election her way, or he's simply become delusional regarding his own importance and influence.  There's hardly any other way to analyze his increasingly ridiculous statements on the campaign trail.

True, on the one hand, it helps to know what Trump personally thinks and believes, especially since those thoughts and beliefs disqualify him as a person of integrity, as well as being in rational contention for the presidency (history has shown those two qualities are not mutually exclusive).  Indeed, just because he has a legal right to say the things he's saying doesn't mean he should say them.  And just because a sizable portion of contemptuous conservative voters like what he says doesn't make the things he says correct.

Trump and his followers brazenly imperil free speech, freedom of religion, and even our already questionable efforts at national defense.  How bizarre it is to witness the same people who profess such allegiance to "the American way of life" making a mockery of it through their enthusiastic support of Trump.  Many of these folks claim that President Obama has brought shame upon our country by the ways they believe he's ingratiated himself to the Arab world.  Yet they can't see how Trump's xenophobic hubris wreaks tangible harm on the United States, especially as we confront the dangers of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

For what it's worth, for the record, as an American, as a white male, as somebody who mostly votes Republican, and especially as an evangelical Christ-follower, I personally repudiate Donald Trump's politics.

May God have mercy on the United States of America as we endure such a misguided, mean-spirited candidacy for the presidency of this, my native country.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Gun Control No Fix for Losing Human Control

Update & Disclaimer 12/4/15: 
Before I had written and posted
yesterday's blog entry,
I had not read this article
in the
NY Times regarding
the troubled family life
of the male suspect in Wednesday's
mass-shooting in San Bernardino.
But it adds credibility to my claim
that there's often more to a big story
behind the scenes -
starting with a
perpetrator's upbringing.
After yesterday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, it seems that fewer people are voicing now-stale rhetoric about more gun control being needed in the United States.

Frankly, even the President's hometown, Chicago, proves that more gun laws don't reduce violence.

With 14 victims dead - not including the two alleged perpetrators - the San Bernardino tragedy is America's worst mass shooting since Connecticut's Sandy Hook tragedy, perpetrated by Adam Lanza.

And as San Bernardino is being compared with Sandy Hook, it quickly becomes obvious that guns play a secondary role within an over-arching story of disaffection and uncivilized behaviors that apparently propelled both Lanza and yesterday's husband-and-wife aggressors.  While we still don't know the motives behind yesterday's attack, it seems pretty clear already that the suspected Muslim couple were radicalized towards some sort of dehumanizing ideology, even as we don't know definitively what that ideology was.

Lanza, of course, had his own deeply personal problems.  And this is where the fallacy of gun control comes into play, because every perpetrator of a mass-shooting is a complex human being with an equally complex rationale they've developed for why they execute their attacks.  It's this complexity that makes gun control a side-show at best in the broader narrative of recognizing warning signs and balancing civil rights with protection.

Perhaps your recollection of Lanza has grown a bit fuzzy, since, after all, it was three years ago.  Back then, I wrote about Lanza and one of the troubling revelations about his childhood years given by his own father.  Not that Lanza's dad is directly responsible for what happened at Sandy Hook, but take a moment to peek into the background of one family's dark prelude to a massacre, and recognize how difficult - and intensely personal - it is to predict the future, and its causes.

Indeed, when a society loses a person to something other than our common good, the best any legislation can do is merely tinker with the aftermath.

Peter Lanza's Regrets Look Like Causes
Originally posted Monday, March 10, 2014

"I wish he'd never been born."

According to writer Andrew Solomon, that's what Adam Lanza's father admitted about his own son.

Granted, Adam Lanza is the troubled young man who killed his mother in their home, and then 26 other people at Sandy Hook elementary school in affluent Newtown, Connecticut, over a year ago.  Not exactly anything for a father to find worthwhile about his son.  But still:  to wish he'd never been born?

I've heard a lot of parents confess to the media that, despite the atrocities their children may have perpetrated against humanity, they still loved them.  It's what parents do, even if they can't sanction the behavior of their children.

Throughout his interview with Solomon for the New Yorker, however, Peter Lanza virtually bristles with contempt that Adam was ever his biological offspring.  To his father, Adam apparently was one big nuisance, a "normal, little, weird kid."

"Let’s keep in mind that you expect Adam to be weird," Adam's father repeats to Solomon, as if it was normal for a father to use such a derogatory term in relation to his child.  Especially a child that wasn't just endearingly odd, or extraordinarily gifted, but downright emotionally disabled.

"You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was," Adam's father rationalizes, but to hear Solomon tell it, the elder Lanza was never particularly fond of even the little boy who didn't speak until he was three years old.

"You can't get any more evil," he says of his son.  "How much do I beat up on myself about the fact that he’s my son?  A lot."

Not that it's ultimately Peter Lanza's fault that his youngest son holds the record for killing the most people in a school.  Obviously, there are reasons for why Adam Lanza did what he did, and various contributing factors, plus certain lifestyle choices that he made for himself, all of which set the stage for Sandy Hook's tragedy.  But it's also obvious that Adam was brought up in a family environment that was crippled to a certain extent by what sounds like misplaced devotion by his father.

In any divorce, there are two sides to the story, and Adam's mother initiated her lucrative divorce from his father because their marriage had "broken down irretrievably and there is no possibility of getting back together."  Yet we know that her husband, an accounting executive for a GE subsidiary, worked 60 to 80 hour weeks, earning a fabulous salary in the process.  Perhaps hindsight is the only way to see where all of those long hours at the office could have been better spent trying to invest in both quality and quantity time with his troubled son.  Nevertheless, since Adam was a patient of several doctors and specialists all during his growing-up years, it shouldn't have taken his slaughter of 27 people to indicate that his needs likely wouldn't have been met by a workaholic father who moved out of the family home... and had a girlfriend shortly after his divorce was final.

Asking for a writer from the New Yorker to interview him for his side of this story, Peter Lanza had his prime opportunity to set the record straight about public misperceptions about his parenting style.  And maybe he tried, with his recollections of assorted weekends with his boys, even if he admits to hardly ever seeing them during those many weeks during their growing-up years.  He was earning all that money for the family, and according to our society, that's not morally questionable.  After all, America has plenty of kids being raised in the homes of harried corporate executives, and how many of those kids turn into mass murderers?

And just as every divorce has at least two sides, every child has two parents.  To blame Adam Lanza's father exclusively is to ignore this basic fact.  And although his father appears fairly gracious to his late ex-wife in the New Yorker, it's difficult to envision her as somewhat clueless regarding the depths of despair to which her son had sunk.  Then again, whereas Adam's father seems to have been intentionally distant, and perpetually playing catch-up regarding updates about his youngest son, Adam's mother may have been so personally involved in his problems that she couldn't see the forest for the trees.  Between the two of them, perhaps it could have been hoped that a satisfactory middle ground could have been achieved for Adam's benefit, but to simplify his case so arbitrarily isn't fair to his parents.  Here again, hindsight shows us what went wrong, but isn't particularly useful otherwise.

While it is possible that Peter Lanza and the mother of his children did everything possible to raise their son to the best of their abilities, it's obvious that something didn't click along the way.  We don't have Adam's mother here to give her side of the story, but we do have an engrossing narrative from his father, expertly crafted for a prestigious magazine, and that narrative is more narcissistic than paternal.  Yet few people seem interested in casting blame on Peter Lanza.  For one thing, it seems cruel, considering all he's gone through.  For another thing, hardly anybody seems to know him.  Then, too, basing allegations on an article despite its pedigree in the New Yorker could be derided as hubris of an exceptional impertinence.

So let's take Peter Lanza at what he says is his purpose for telling his story.  And that purpose is to, in some way, perhaps warn other families who might see similarities between his experience and their own.  The problem with that, however, is that many people in our society today are much like the former Mr. and Mrs. Lanza.  They view long work hours as the price we pay for financial success.  They view whatever family dysfunction that may arise from their dedication to corporate America as something to hide, or something to try and escape from through divorce.  They view divorce as one of the potential drawbacks of workaholism, and wealth as something that should minimize whatever fallout comes from divorce.

Peter Lanza even told Solomon that when he and his wife separated, "the funny part is that the separation didn’t really change things for the kids very much."  Oh?  And how could he judge such a thing?  And how does that square with what Solomon references in his preceding paragraph, when Adam told a psychiatrist that his parents, even before their separation, "were as irritating to each other" as they were to Adam himself?  Even if the Lanza's separation "didn't really change things very much," apparently that was hardly a good stasis.

Sure, we could blame Adam's mother.  We could blame all of the behavioral experts who never forced him into an asylum.  We could blame guns, which is the scapegoat upon which lots of liberals are focusing.  And we could blame his father.

But we Americans have more to do now than simply cast blame.  We need to wake up, and forget the notion that this was simply the Lanza family's failure.  We need to stop blaming guns, even though blaming guns is a whole lot easier because they're not people.  People like Peter Lanza's superiors at that GE subsidiary where he worked, for example.  As he struggled with his wife - and then his ex-wife - to raise Adam, how many of Peter's bosses stepped up to the plate and told him, "take off whatever time you need to work with your son; we can see he's weighing on your heart."

Come to think of it, how many companies dangle enormous salaries out there for their hard-working employees to burn the midnight oil over?  And how many of us assume that enough hard-earned income should buy our way out of these types of problems?

One of my friends evaluated all of the media coverage being devoted to the Sandy Hook tragedy and wondered how intense the reporting would be if a similar incident had happened anyplace other than "Currier and Ives Country," as he put it.  Suburban Connecticut pretends to be rural and quaint, but it's an elegantly cloistered world of supersized paychecks, supersized work loads, and supersized egos.  For somebody like Adam Lanza to actually grow up in such an environment and do what he did anyway likely sends shock waves - and guilt - through a lot of parents there, but they're so focused on what they expect from themselves, and their careers, that they can't see what their children truly need.

Ironic how 20 children and their educators paid for it with their lives.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hate Shouldn't Stoke Pro-Life Debate

America's pro-life battle isn't waged simply between political factions.  Sometimes, it's waged within evangelical Christianity itself.

On one side, ardent pro-life advocates simmer with contempt not only for abortion, but also for those who support it.  On the other side, still within evangelicalism, are those who desire to pursue a more gracious tack in aid of abortion's victims - victims who include those very people who have been deluded into supporting it.

Although we've yet to know for sure, last week's shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic that left three people dead appears to have been perpetrated by a radical pro-life gunman, representing the extremist element of the hard-right religious/political spectrum.  Meanwhile, in the wake of that shooting, an article appeared in Christianity Today calling for "Loving Our Pro-Choice Neighbors in Word and Deed."

And many within evangelicalism are now howling.

The piece was written by an English professor, Karen Swallow Prior, for CT's Her-Meneutics blog, which is geared to women.  "Calling abortion what it is will bring good," writes Prior.  "Doing so without the temperance of love will bring harm."

Which, of course, is true, isn't it?  Yet Prior takes the odd position that "calling legal abortion 'murder' when it isn’t... is to say what isn’t true."

Yes, read it again.  I had to!  Prior is saying abortion isn't murder.

I think I understand what she's trying to say when she writes that abortion isn't "murder."  I suspect that, summoning her credibility as an English professor aghast at the misuse of our language, and charged by her professorship with guarding how we use words, she's probably trying to be a vocabulary purist.  In other words, since abortion is legal, Prior means it's technically not legally murder, since murder is illegal.  See?  She's attempting to expose a linguistic fallacy.

But the fallacy doesn't exist, does it?  Whether murder is legal or not, it's still murder, right?  Why should she harbor a linguistic pet peeve over describing abortion as murder, when it is, even if the law allows it?  After all, we don't need a law telling us that the sky is blue, do we?

Prior's over-arching point appears to be that North America's pro-life narrative has become infused with sinful vitriol, and considering the tone many evangelicals take when addressing anybody who doesn't believe with them, she's correct.  But why does that make it wrong to classify abortion as murder?  Is there another word in the English language I don't know about that means "unilaterally taking somebody else's life from them"?

Not that Prior isn't pro-life herself.  She says she's volunteered at crisis pregnancy centers for 17 years, and has counseled women outside of abortion clinics for ten.  Indeed, she also affirms that "abortion ends a precious human life."  She simply doesn't like calling it murder.

Unfortunately, by taking this unusual stance, Prior only confuses her readership, and ultimately fails to make a convincing argument for loving our enemies.

After all, judging by the feedback being posted on CT's website and in social media, plenty of self-proclaimed pro-lifers are outraged by Prior's article.  Many pro-lifers are appalled that she dares to write such blasphemy, and others contend her article, approved as it was by the editors at CT for their webzine, points to the sinful decay of Billy Graham's once-great periodical.

Part of the problem, obviously, is that reading comprehension by people surfing the Internet has become abysmally low.  Few people today - no matter their political or religious persuasion - invest the amount of time and mental energy necessary to interpret and digest intellectual arguments.  And Prior's take on the "murder" language certainly qualifies as an academic - albeit sloppy - argument that probably would be more at home in an English department's staff lounge than the World Wide Web.

Still, it's also obvious that many evangelicals get far too virulent when they criticize other people.  We're all about grace when it comes to drinking alcohol, or gambling, or overeating, or gossip, but when it comes to our hallowed political causes, we can get downright nasty.

But should we?   

Sure, although pro-choicers advocate for murder, we're still supposed to love our enemies, right?  And pray for them.  God still allows the sun to rise and set on both the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45).  We are to be discerning, but we don't know who or when God might save, even if they advocate for abortion.  Remember, we shouldn't want to see unbelievers destroyed; we should want to see them saved.  And then there's Proverbs 25:21:  If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you.

And then there's this:  Can the world around us - including abortionists - recognize that we're children of God's by the love that we have for those of us already included in Christ's redeemed congregation of believers?  Can abortionists recognize that the love we profess for unborn children represents an extension of the love Christ wants us to have even for them, the people who advocate for pre-birth death?  This is a counter-cultural approach that we often - myself included - forget to embrace when it comes to recognizing the eternal element in our battle against sin and the flesh.

Disagree with Prior if you want - and I do disagree with her.  But I don't hate her.

And by all means, advocate for life in opposition to those who advocate for the cessation of life; but should we hate them because of the lies Satan has told them?

Isn't hate what's causing abortion to exist in the first place?